Davos Man has no time for the demos

The world’s rich and powerful meet this week in the Swiss town of Davos, as they do every year, under the banner of the World Economic Forum. World leaders, NGO bigwigs, business leaders and celebrity activists will discuss the pressing issues of our time.

The bland homogeneity of thought among the elite attendees is often mocked. Samuel Huntington famously coined the term ‘Davos Man’ to describe these disconnected global elitists.

Most of the panels are full of people uttering the same platitudes about ‘global challenges’ and ‘connectivity’ over and over. One panellist will point out that, while great strides have been made in one area or another, more must be done about this or that. A fellow panellist will concur, and another will sagely point out that whatever is being discussed creates both ‘challenges and opportunities’.

The political upsets of 2016, however, have forced the Davos attendees to realise that their view of the world may be slightly out of kilter with that of the public. Well, sort of. The headline theme of this year’s conference is ‘responsive and responsible leadership’.

It’s an odd phrase: responsive and responsible leadership. It sounds like a bad business book, on par with Business Secrets of the Pharaohs. This anodyne term suggests the real, radical impact of 2016 still hasn’t been reckoned with by the global elites, even if they seem to recognise that the aloof, technocratic politics they stand for is currently on the back foot.

Creating responsive and responsible leadership, according to a WEF blurb, entails answering the question: ‘How can leaders be responsive to the genuine frustration of people left behind by globalised market capitalism, in a responsible way that offers workable, fair and sustainable solutions?’ At the very least, this seems to recognise that leaders should be responsive to what people want – in other words, that people should have some control over the societies in which they live. (How gracious.) And it acknowledges that there is a ‘genuine frustration’ with the status quo.

Unfortunately, the WEF goes on to say that any attempt to address people’s frustrations must be ‘responsible’. In other words, leaders should understand that people are annoyed with the way the world is run, yet they must resist acting on these ‘frustrations’ in any real way. The WEF has no time for the type of world these ‘frustrated’ people want. In its eyes, their ideas are arcane and outdated.

‘At this tipping point, traditional concepts of society, meaningful employment and the nation state are challenged’, says WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, in typically wooden language. Schwab seems to think that public frustration stems from the (presumably inevitable) loss or weakening of these ‘traditional’ concepts and institutions. It makes people, in his words, ‘feel insecure or even threatened’. And this, he seems to think, is why people are rebelling at the ballot box.

This sums up the contempt those at WEF have for the demos. People voted for Trump or Brexit, they say, not because they actually believe in what they were voting for, but because of some sense of insecurity. They’re clinging on to things like the nation state, or national sovereignty, out of a fear of change.

This is what ‘responsive and responsible leadership’ really means here. Leaders shouldn’t act on the little people’s frustrations. That wouldn’t be responsible. Just ‘understanding’ that they are frustrated is enough. It’s a sort of faux-sympathy, or therapy. ‘They’ve lashed out, let’s try to understand why and hope they never act up again’, is the sentiment. No real lessons have been learned.

Tom Bailey is a writer based in London.

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