Davos: a far cry from responsive & responsible leadership

Posted on January 22, 2017


(First published by fin24 & South Africa’s City Press)

The world’s most expensive and probably most successful public relations exercise concluded in Switzerland this week: the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos. Contrary to still widely held popular belief, encouraged by media coverage, this lavish talk shop is no United Nations affiliate; it has no democratic credentials whatsoever. It is a private club whose members are 1 000 of the world’s richest and most powerful chief executives.

The WEF annual meeting is the lavishly prepared master’s table at which wannabe tycoons and various trade union and other supplicants gather in the hope of either being anointed as honoured servants or being given the promise of a few more crumbs from the table. But it is primarily the venue at which heads of state and government ministers are bribed, bullied and flattered to pursue policies that favour big business.

It also provides a platform at which leading members of the NGO business, along with occasional pop and movie stars, can parade the hearts on their sleeves while sampling a caviar lifestyle in the Alpine air. Media praise singers and journalists, some sponsored by investment companies, add to the mix.

Radio, television and print media reports, the glitz and the glamour, ensure that the WEF is promoted as a crucially important global event concerned with the wellbeing of the world. In 2008, when the ongoing global economic crisis really struck home, the theme of the WEF meeting was “Improving the state of the world” and President Jacob Zuma described the event as “fabulous”.

Yet even then, the international trade union movement and human rights organisations, some in attendance at Davos 2008, laid the blame for the crisis on the very people who were their hosts. Nothing has changed, and the themes for successive meetings have continued to reflect optimism among the world’s economic elite.

In 2009, for example, the theme was “Shaping the post-crisis world”. A year later, with the crisis deepening, came “Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild”, followed by “Shared norms for a new reality”, “The great transformation”, and “Resilient dynamism”. Now. amid growing concerns about still increasing inequality and instability, comes “Responsive and responsible leadership”.

Even as late as 2013, WEF founder, the Swiss billionaire, Klaus Schwab, was expressing “cautious optimism”. He noted: “In some quarters, the world appears to be on the road to recovery despite the structural challenges of widening income disparities and fiscal deficits.”

Now, however, there is evident concern that the system has failed to correct itself; that something radical most be done. This was summed up in a Davos speech by International Monetary Fund (IMF) head, Christine Lagarde. She called on the meeting to consider “more redistribution [of wealth] than we have at the moment” in order to fix what she termed “the middle class crisis”.

Given this background, it is easy to sneer at Davos and its pretensions to be working for the good of humanity. Those who see it as such could legitimately be categorised, in words attributed to the British economist, John Maynard Keynes as possessing the “extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of us all”.

But, Davos is a reflection of current reality: it is where the real power in the globalised world still lies. But that power is under threat from what Lagarde and others at Davos referred to as “populism” and the growth of nationalism.

Yet the very system they — and Davos — represent, is responsible for the conditions that have opened the way for demagogues and dictators of various hues to capitalise on ethnic, religious, linguistic and other differences that are causing the social fabric everywhere to start to fray and tear. It is a system clearly incapable of reform. In the words of American economist Professor Richard Wolff, “capitalism has hit the fan”.

German economic sociologist and director of the prestigious Max Planck Institute, Wolfgang Streeck, has also noted that there is no alternative on the horizon. As a result, he maintains, in his latest book, How will capitalism end? that the capitalist system will not lose out to serious opposition; it will instead consume and destroy its own foundations.

He writes that the volatile and uncertain world that the system has created “offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords, while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others…” He sees this as “being in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE ad is now called the Dark Age”.

He may be overly pessimistic, but he, Wolff and a growing number of other serious analysts have clearly underlined the reality that Christine Lagarde responded to this week. Unfortunately, even the proposal for an effective universal income grant, floated at Davos, seems like just another grasp at a straw of optimism. It is a far cry from the truly responsive and responsible leadership the world needs and which the WEF is incapable of providing.

Posted in: Commentary