Saturday, 26 January 2013

Davos: the failures' club

Davos used to be the winners' club. Throughout the boom years of the 90s and noughties company chief executives would gather every winter high up in the Swiss Alps to discuss in a lordly fashion the world economy and how it could be revised to suit their objectives and views: more globalised, more marketised. But in the five years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers (whose boss Dick Fuld was a Davos regular), the World Economic Forum has taken on a necessarily less triumphalist tone. It might now be called the failures' club. Not the losers' club, you understand: even amid the slump, the wealthy continue to do rather well – as evidenced by Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez's finding that the top 1% of Americans saw their incomes grow by 11.6% in 2010, even while incomes for the bottom 99% rose only 0.2%. But the economic model pined after by the Davos set is now bust; any lasting fixes or reforms will have to come from very different places and perspectives.

No doubt Klaus Schwab and his WEF guests are at least partly aware of that. True, the Davos gatherings may bear the same foot-dragging titles as ever (This year's being "Resilient Dynamism", whatever that means) rather than the more appropriate "We Got It Wrong". But the usual mix of businessmen (four out of five delegates are male) and financiers and government ministers is now spiced up with trade unionists, anti-poverty campaigners and dissident economists. Sure, this must be an attempt to borrow credibility, but it is also a stab at greater plurality. Yet clubs – which is what the WEF is, formally – are inherently unplural things, especially Davos, which charges £45,000 for basic membership and one-time entrance and £98,500 for access to its private sessions. It is all very well for Mr Schwab to inveigh against inequality; it would be more meaningful if he pushed the bosses at Davos to sign a joint promise to limit pay gaps in their own companies. Fat chance of that.

And yet the agenda of extending markets and stripping workers of pay and conditions pushed at Davos (and by countless other organisations, such as the IMF and the eurozone) is finished. Five years on from the Wall Street crash, the world economy is still palsied. The GDP report released in the UK this Friday will underline the mess made by the austerity-pushers, just as much as the economic wreckage on show in Greece, Spain and Portugal. And the latest indicators of slowing expansion in China should put paid to any vain hopes that other cylinders in the world economy would kick in. The only way out of the doldrums will be for the west to accept that this is a crisis of demand, rather than supply – one that can only be countered by big spending on jobs and raising wages. Again, there is little chance of such solutions emerging from the Davos set, or of serious proposals for real industrial policies.

But there is a more fundamental problem, too. The programme of corporate-led globalisation pushed by multinationals is surely also exhausted. The term "Davos man" was coined by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. According to him, the members of this global elite 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". Yet in the crash, it was governments that had to step in and bail out their national banking systems – and then try to reflate their domestic economies.

And as this era becomes more clearly revealed as one where economic growth is scarce, we can expect countries to try to export more and more to other nations. This is what lies behind the talk of "currency wars" and "trade wars" – and it is only just getting going. There will surely be much more naked mercantilism on display in the next few years. The Davos set will oppose much of this. But by pushing a phoney, inequitable globalisation, they have created the conditions for the backlash against their own ideology.

The Guardian



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