Davos redux

Felix Salmon responds to my defense of Davos the other day.

I agree with almost everything Felix writes. I suspect we generally share a world view, and I’m certainly suspicious of people who are convinced of their own righteousness (I never thought invading Iraq was a good idea, by the way). Where I disagree is the notion that there is some kind of singular Davos crowd or mindset (exemplified in Sam Huntington‘s phrase “Davos man”). Felix writes:

My point isn’t that Davos is influential or powerful in itself, just that it inculcates a mindset in its delegates where they’re convinced that they’re doing good (the oath is a prime example of this), and never stop to modestly wonder whether they’re wrong. And that kind of mindset can be very destructive: if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Davos is the road crew keeping it smooth and fast.

First, I’m never going to support the idiotic oath that is an innovation in the Forum’s Young Global Leaders project. Felix is right to ridicule it.

What I was trying to point out in my post the other day is that there is a strong group of Davos participants who spend a lot of time questioning premises, intentions and outcomes. They may not make the headlines, particularly of the US and British press, which understandably concentrates on homegrown stars. I think the Davos crowd that Felix decries don’t need help with the paving of the road to hell — they arrive in the Graubunden utterly convinced of their superiority and rightness. There are others who are far more questioning and skeptical. They bridle at the Washington Consensus and other signs of the dominance of an American flavor of capitalism.

My contrast of Percy Barnevik and Jack Welch wasn’t to point out that one of them was nice to my wife. It’s that Welch — and there are other corporate grandees of the same ilk — flew into Davos, said his rehearsed piece, and flew out. The likes of Barnevik seemed more willing to be discomfited and challenged.

Of course Davos is a highly protected environment. It’s highly elitist, while at the same time scurrying for a comfortable middle ground on too many issues (particularly in the kinds of cultural figures it tends to celebrate).

For all that, my view remains that good intentions are rare in that kind of environment — slapped down by Felix as asserting that good intentions are rare in the world, which is a very different statement. It’s a huge flaw that there are too many assumptions there that go unquestioned. It’s very disturbing to read reports that the Google/China dispute was a forbidden topic this year. In my day I never encountered such taboos, and we genuinely tried to foster real debate.

I’ve tried hard on occasions in the last few years to summon up the kind of Davos contempt that Felix is good at. It would be easy to paint Davos in the style of George Grosz or Otto Dix, all decadence and grotesque capitalist bloodsuckers. But even when it might have been commercially valuable to me (there’s a market for tales that the emperor has no clothes), I thought it wasn’t true to the reality of the event I knew. Perhaps I’m too naive or compromised by years of association. Perhaps it’s the difference between a harsh Manhattan outlook and a sunny California one.

3 thoughts on “Davos redux

  1. Pingback: Spirit of Davos « The Toynbee convector

  2. J Richard Finlay

    When it comes right down to it, there are few thoughts the big players mount at Davos that could not be distilled into a simple Tweet. Their use of technology and methods of transportation have changed, but in most other ways they are little different than the princes and grand dukes who trotted themselves out every so often to remind the people that they still existed, confusing – as receding fragments of supremacy so often do – vanity with relevance.

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