Davos Man is back, after a brief self-imposed hiatus. Two years ago the World Economic Forum, the annual pilgrimage for the world’s rich and powerful, convened in person for the last time, with the lofty goal of giving concrete meaning to “stakeholder capitalism”. It also launched a new 'Davos Manifesto' with the objective of building a more sustainable, inclusive world. Within days, the worst health crisis to hit the world in a century was upon us. And it was clear that the group of rich and powerful which had been assembling at the beginning of each year for the last nearly half a century, wasn’t quite the “most creative force for engaging the world's top leaders in collaborative activities to shape the global, regional and industry”, that it touted itself to be.
That the elite met again in May this year, was a tribute to their ability to absorb criticism and also accept that globalization, the forum's cause célèbre, faces its most determined retreat since the term went fashionable.
The Davos elite avoided the traditional January slot over safety concerns about the coronavirus but by spring, they were vaccinated and boosted enough to congregate once more in person. The only people who would have cheered their return are local residents, for whom it's a chance for some badly needed business. The rich spend lavishly, even when they are on a mission to rid the world of poverty.
This year's theme was, as always, pompous and ironic: "History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies." History was at a turning point two years ago when the world reeled from the pandemic, but the bulk of the Davos elite were too busy profiting from it, to come to the aid of poor nations left out in the cold for want of vaccines that were available aplenty to the richer nations. As for government policies and business strategy, the two developments which have plunged the world into its current mess, clearly no one checked with the Sri Lankans and a certain Elon Musk.
McKinsey, which until its recent fall from grace, was the intellectual source spring of the Davos Man, and has forever mapped the developments at the ski resort, asked its partners to share the themes that were most discussed at this year’s meeting. Resilience amid disruption topped the list. That's not surprising. Davos Man certainly knows a thing or two about being resilient. Not even the most trenchant criticism, including a 412-page book by Peter Goodman, global economics correspondent for the New York Times, with the damning title Davos Man: How the billionaires devoured the world, has been able to dim the elite's determination to save the world from them.
But don't be fooled by the lofty theme and the mighty messages. Largely, it is about cornering a bit more of the world's wealth and resources. In a video interview McKinsey's partners talk about their takeaway being how to create more competitive distance in the middle of this crisis. No bullshit there: profits are the final goal and the worse a crisis, the more determined their pursuit. Proof of that is readily available in an Oxfam report which found that 573 new billionaires were minted during the coronavirus pandemic. On the flip side, 263 million additional people will fall into extreme poverty this year.
But then doublespeak has always been a Davos virtue. Look at the three celebrities who graced that 50th edition in 2020 - Donald Trump, the musician will.i.am and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam. Trump has since lost his presidency amidst conduct that can only be described as shameful. will.i.am, the Black Eyed Peas singer, denounced Covid-19 as a hoax, till he lost his family members to it. As for Lam, the highlight of her controversial tenure as CEO was the erosion of most of the territory's civil freedoms. Those are the role models that the rich flocked to shake hands with or simply gawk at two years ago.The very next year when the conference was held virtually, the marquee guest who played the role of a defender of international trade and openness to the wider world was Chinese President Xi Jinping!