A man is seen in silhouette in the Congress center on the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos on January 15, 2024
WEF: the get-together’s glory days were in the early to mid-noughties © Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

I did Davos once. I schmoozed with billionaire bankers and businessmen. I spent hours in queues below sniper-strewn roofs waiting for now-King Charles and then-President Donald Trump to pass. I got an incredibly tight squeeze from Cherie Blair after moderating a panel convened about 15 minutes before it started when the Ghanaian president couldn’t make it for our “fireside chat”. I listened to many men wax lyrical on the limitless potential of blockchain technology (before telling them, as politely as I could, why they were wrong).

That was four years ago, just before Covid-19 shut much of the world down, when the official theme for the conference was “stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world” — a theme so perfectly generic and management-speak-ish that it sounds as if it were produced by some early version of ChatGPT. With this year’s “rebuilding trust” as the World Economic Forum’s theme, generic management-speak could indeed be thought of as the lingua franca at Davos. Last year, one of the “key takeaways” from the conference was apparently the importance of “cultivating mattering” which, according to a WEF report, is “truly a meta-skill for modern management in a fragmented world”.

It has become something of a cliché to call out the hypocrisy — and the detachment from reality — of the elites who descend on the Swiss Alpine village each year. But the hubris among the Davos set is palpable.

“It’s pretty extraordinary that we, a select group of human beings because of whatever touched us at some point in our lives, are able to sit in a room and come together and actually talk about saving the planet . . . it’s so, almost extraterrestrial, to think about,” former US secretary of state John Kerry, a Davos regular, told the conference last year.

This year, Bloomberg, in its spiel about the “Bloomberg House” set up for this year’s conference, tells us that “meaningful change happens when the right people come together in the right place”.

All of this would probably have seemed good and proper in the conference’s glory days in the early to mid-noughties, when the idea that globalisation was an unalloyed good was not just the consensus at Davos but across the world. This was the time of “hyperglobalisation”, when global trade was growing significantly faster than gross domestic product — an era that ended with the global financial crisis of 2008.

The whole idea has gone out of fashion — even becoming a dirty word in some (predictable) quarters: Trump recently used it to insult his GOP rival Nikki Haley, telling a crowd “she’s a globalist; she likes the globe”. And no forum is more associated with globalisation than Davos. According to a Google tracker of frequency with which words and phrases are used in English-language books, the term peaked around 2007, falling sharply since. The use of the word “Davos”, meanwhile, follows a remarkably similar path and peaked in 2008.

It is 20 years since the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington used the term “Davos man” to describe the kind of “gold-collar workers”, or “cosmocrats”, who “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”. 

But the idea that the Davos global elite would rather be schmoozing with each other than dealing with the messy business of national politics persists, and for understandable reasons. Last year, UK Labour party leader and likely next prime minister Keir Starmer told The News Agents podcast he would choose Davos over Westminster “because Westminster is too constrained”.

The archetypal Davos Man is indeed still a man, too. This year, 28 per cent of the conference’s attendees will be women — a “significant milestone”, the WEF tells me. That’s up from 15 per cent ten years ago — a slight improvement, certainly, but the fact that only just over quarter of attendees are women in 2024 hardly seems something to shout about.

The truth is that Davos is losing its relevance and increasingly seems out of touch with the spirit of the times. Once a place, perhaps, where people with starkly different perspectives could talk on neutral ground, it has become so associated with one particular pro-capitalism, pro-globalisation worldview that many of the world’s most powerful people — including the world’s richest man, Elon Musk — would now rather poke fun at it online than attend.

Now in its 54th year, Davos is declining. Its chair, Klaus Schwab, is apparently in good health, but he is in his 86th year. Will Davos survive him? I’m not altogether convinced.

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