They were initially the "international men of mystery," to paraphrase Austin Powers. Smart, privileged, and impeccably connected, they formed the world's great elite, the trendsetters capable of shaping globalization to their will. Collectively they constituted the "Davos Man," named after the location in Switzerland where the World Economic Forum is held each winter.
Launched in the early 1970s as a collaboration between public and private interests, the leaders, primarily men in those early days and still mostly men today, were catching the tide of the powerful force of globalization that was about to change most of what was known about the international order. The term itself, "Davos Man," was loosely attributed to author Samuel Huntington who mentioned the term in his book The Clash of Civilizations.
Over the decades anyone who's a mover or shaker, along with those wishing to be, appear in Davos in a fascinating attempt at reading the global tea leaves. We know who they are and their ranks have grown to include celebrities -- actors, singers, authors -- who mix with the traditional grouping of financiers, politicians, and non-profit leaders.
For over a decade the Davos Man has overseen an economic system that creates phenomenal amounts of wealth only for those who can take advantage of it.
Underlying it all is the assumption that these people know what's happening. Not only that, they're shaping what's about to take place primarily for their own interests. But the 2016 version of the summit cast some doubt on that assumption, as it has become increasingly clear that economies are remarkably frustrating things and that, following decades of such leadership, our greatest challenges as a civilization -- refugees, climate change, poverty, inequality, unemployment, terrorism -- far from improving, are heading in the other direction.
Things got ever more complicated when Oxfam reported at the elite gathering that 62 of their peers have accumulated as much wealth ($1.76 trillion) as half of the world's population. Repeatedly during the proceedings it was highlighted that financial inequality had become great enough to threaten the very future of humanity itself. For over a decade the Davos Man has overseen an economic system that creates phenomenal amounts of wealth only for those who can take advantage of it.
Surely none of this is occurring by accident. The rash of trade deals in the last three decades, and the disassociation between capital and the welfare of human beings, have coincided with the growth of poverty in affluent nations, the lowering of labour standards, a threatening toll on the environment, and a burgeoning disillusionment with government and democracy. It's clear that, surely, these activities are related and that most of those who gather in Davos, while offering concern, won't change the current economic order in order to effectively address our greatest challenges.
Clearly, attendees at the World Economic Forum aren't just the rich, but those attempting to advocate on behalf of those left out of all the generated wealth. Seated among the crowds were UN officials, famous entertainers, charity and non-profit leaders, attempting to persuade the financial elite to reconsider their present practices. But at the end of it all, nothing really happens despite all that interaction.
All of the Davos meetings had been going on not just under the gathering economic clouds, but in a week that celebrated the remarkable life of Martin Luther King Jr. His name was even mentioned at one of the gatherings. But what is the use of showing honour when you can't bring about the kind of change the famous civil rights preacher called for? If King had been one of the speakers, does anyone doubt where he would have stood? He would call out, just has he did a short time before his death in 1967:
"When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people among our decision makers, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
Few could have sat comfortably hearing such words in Davos. King would wonder why the world's elite leaders, supposedly the best and the brightest, would continue signing deals and moving capital and resources in a fashion that moves humanity collectively down a perilous road. They have sown the winds of an inequitable future and we are all inheriting the whirlwind. Far from being effective change-makers, many of the leaders in Davos are fashioned more like the Pied Piper leading us into dark days ahead.
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