The exclusive World Economic Forum (WEF) of old has morphed into a meeting on relevant topics for all. Davos is losing some of its political lustre but hopefully gaining in relevance by going back to its roots.
Not that the just-concluded high level gathering in Davos of the top end in politics and business suddenly lost all names and glamour this year. But by choosing Joe Biden to open the WEF, founder Klaus Schwab — maestro of elite networkers who turned an annual event into a permanent global gathering machine — set the stage for a new type of realism.
The US Vice-President didn’t disappoint. His five demands to politics and business read like a European social-democratic manifesto to save the middle class:
- More affordable education and job training
- More protection for workers
- More investment into public infrastructure
- More capital for companies
- New progressive tax rates
The ‘raising economic inequality’ box thus checked, this year’s WEF then continued to tackle digital era developments with practical relevance to all under the heading ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The impact of driverless cars and the potential replacement of cash by virtual currencies were discussed, and an expanded platform for small, unknown start-up entrepreneurs was unveiled.
Now, turning to practical points rather than pretending to save the world under lofty titles is one thing for Davos man. But what about the rising political gap between him, representing the very top of the roughly 10% of ‘informed people’ and the rest of the population? I'm referring to the big majority of voters from where angry citizens (Wutbürger, in the perfectly coined German expression) are flocking to the likes of ‘TrumPalin/Cruz’ in the US, and the nationalist right in Europe.
If the development of Davos over the last 10 years is any indication, the political answer to this gap will have to encompass more inclusive political decision making. In the past, the elaborate security around the WEF site dictated against those who demanded change of the existing system and questioned the legitimacy of Davos man to lead. Some of them, and many of their demands, have been brought into the hallowed circle, and are at least discussed now in Davos.
Yet security this year was as strict as ever in the Swiss alpine resort, though it was directed against the terror attacks which have become a sad reality everywhere rather than the traditional anti-WEF protester. Hearing a Swiss Army colonel discuss on TV why it was impossible for a suicide bomber to breach the forum’s security perimeter was a clear indication that Davos is no longer a rarefied Alpine getaway from today's pressing problems for a tiny elite.
Issues such as the different but closely related problems of Islamic terrorism and emigration, as well as the rise of extremist parties, are of an essentially political and social nature which the WEF has neither the democratic legitimacy nor the right composition to tackle. Consequently, many of the big names of politics were not among this year’s Davos men. Not Merkel or Hollande, and not Putin or Xi Jinping, all of whom were too busy attending to towering problems at home and in crisis regions. Cameron was there, but focused on his narrow agenda to get more wiggle room for Albion’s perennial ‘not in, but not out either’ European balancing act.
Davos might be on its way back to its roots: a meeting where business executives and investors hear from politicians about what happens in the real world and where new political kids on the block present their policies to the former. Trudeau of Canada and Macri of Argentina seized the occasion this year, though not Malcolm Turnbull.
Such a development is for the better. Breaking down divisions between the public and the private sectors, shattering their respective mental silos on a global scale, is what Davos always did best.