Davos was back with a bang this week for the first full-scale winter conference since the pandemic. And yet, the occasion marked something more significant than just a week of power breakfasts and champagne receptions. ‘Davos Man’ is back in charge of the global economy – and for better or worse everyone better get used to it.
The Davos consensus is typically smug, self-satisfied and complacent as its many critics never tire of pointing out
Sir Keir Starmer flew in to pitch his pro-business plans for the government everyone expects him to lead in a couple of years. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was there to explain how his country was finally helping Ukraine, the president of the EU Ursula von der Leyen showed up to criticise the US and the Chinese vice-premier Liu He pitched up to signal a rapprochement with the West. The leaders of the International Monetary Fund were all there, and so were the bosses of the major central banks, just about every CEO and banker of any consequence, along with a sprinkling of celebrities to say something platitudinous about climate change and inequality.
The term ‘Davos Man’ was coined by the political scientist Samuel Huntingdon to describe a certain kind of international global elite who, as he put it, ‘have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations’. Its power hit its peak in the early part of the century, when the phrase was coined. It was a time when globalisation, and the rise of multinational corporations made borders and boundaries seem as outmoded as typewriters and land-lines.
The last few years, however, have been rough for the men and women of the World Economic Forum, as it is officially known. The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 was hardly a great advert for the freedom of capital, and, in the years since then, the rise of populist politicians meant its special brand of international rules-based governance was under constant threat. Even worse, the UK’s decision to leave the EU was a challenge to it. A technocratic confederation of nations run by a permanent civil service made up of people who go to Davos without too much need to pay any more than cursory attention to the views of the voters has always been the summit of the EU’s ambitions, and Brexit appeared to undermine that.
But this year the Davos men are back in charge. Brexit has largely stopped bothering anyone; the crisis-prone UK is hardly a great advert for it. The Biden administration is championing its favourite policies, from climate change to diversity, while state-led crony capitalism is in vogue everywhere.
The EU is strengthening its powers, and China is returning to the fold of connected, globalised nations, while the world’s biggest corporations and banks are as powerful as ever, if not more so. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. The Davos consensus is typically smug, self-satisfied and complacent as its many critics never tire of pointing out. But in truth, the alternative was not a whole lot better. From the snowy Swiss slopes, it was clear this week that the Davos crowd is back at the helm of the global economy – and for now we will have to get used to it.