Davos kicks off again this week, with its head Klaus Schwab saying he wants to help shape the new rules for global finance, with the World Economic Forum (WEF) playing a similar role to the Bretton Woods meetings at the end of World War II. Given that his organisation praised and promoted the very actors whose greed and pride combined to ruin so many people’s lives, some might ask “does he have no shame?” Before the Forum can play a useful role in convening dialogue to generate any useful insights into what we need to do internationally in face of the crisis, its management could benefit from some ancient truths about how we understand our world.
“We see things as we are, not as they are” it says in The Talmud. If I am someone who wants to benefit from society’s resources and respect, and therefore associate with the people, organisations and ideas ‘in power’, how will I see “things”? Will I see them in a way that accepts, even praises, the status quo, and scoff at ideas which seem to challenge power? Most likely.
Since the beginning of recorded history there have always been people willing to sell their intellectual prowess to those in power. “The exceptions seem so rare that they are talked about for centuries afterwards. The most famous being Socrates. More typical are those who come up with reasons that the status quo is the appropriate organization of society and that those in power are the perfect persons to be running things” explains Robert Feinmann.(1) Until the 18th Century religious leaders played a key role in providing justifications for power, such as the “divine right of kings”. Their influence waned with the Age of Enlightenment and modern science. “What is needed is a “scientific” rationale for the organization of society” says Feinmann. “This role has now been taken over by economists. Using statistics and mathematical theories they have been able to produce whatever justification was desired by those employing them. Proof of their intellectual dishonesty is easily found. For every economist who can “prove” the effectiveness of, say, trickle down economics there is another who can demonstrate that such policies are a complete failure,” he notes.
In the field of academia called “business studies” this approach is often taken to the extreme, as an academic’s concept finds its validity in being adopted by a famous CEO. As a result business academics have often been seen as the intellectual rentboys of corporate elites. The alternative should not be a retreat to the libraries, but to be clear about the type of business and business person a business school seeks to inform. For the difference between a management guru and a management geek is not only the style of communication and the reach of their ideas, but also how they see a wider context and serve a higher purpose.
Organisers of the World Economic Forum like to think it is the leading intellectual forum on the world of business. It is the leading forum in terms of size and power, but intellectually? As the financial system has unraveled, their minor mea culpas mixed with “told you so” (due to passing mentions of house price bubbles in their reports) have been particularly revealing. In interviews with Bloomberg, leading staff at the WEF said “chief executive officers who gathered in Davos, Switzerland, over the last five years didn’t listen to warnings from their peers. Davos organizers also say they failed to play tough with the financial-industry bosses, opting to accept their funding and let them turn Davos into a rave-up for Wall Street excesses.” (2). Leaders of the Forum have been putting their failure down to excess, rather than principle. “We let it get out of control, and attention was taken away from the speed and complexity of how the world’s challenges built up,” said Schwab. If not so much money had been taken from Wall Street speakers at Davos, would the WEF really have been much smarter? Hardly. The lesson for us must be that an institution that pays its bills by convening the world’s largest companies to entertain them at high-powered meetings will be beset by systemic sycophancy.
Some Forum staff complained that delegates did not seriously listen to helpful sessions on emerging bubbles. But what do they expect when you are in the Alps and Angelina Jolie might be at the bar? The hubris of some involved in the Forum is that they are an emerging power in global governance as significant as the UN. Yet, despite any good intentions, would it not be a fascist planet if the world’s largest corporations would be able to set the agenda for policies across the world?
A Davos delegate for seven years warned finance bosses “about global risk and the abusive nature of their actions, but they had no incentive to change.” The World Bank Director of Governance and Anti-Corruption, Daniel Kaufmann continued “why should they have listened to us? I see it with my 10- year-old daughter, who scolds me because I don’t put the garbage in the correct bin. Let’s not delude ourselves. It’s impossible to teach old dogs and investment bankers new tricks unless you change the incentive structure.” (2)
This story implies that if one is truly committed to improving the state of the world then one must reach out beyond the old dogs and fat cats. More than that you must seek to be accountable to others. Perhaps if the WEF had listened to the protesters outside the luxury hotels, rather than only their handpicked NGO leaders, might they have developed a better sense of the state of the world? Mamy WEF staff mistakenly thought such protests were about specific social and environmental concerns, which they could then effectively incorporate into the agenda with some new initiatives. A bit of glam philanthropy to warm hearts in the Alps. Other staff realised that the criticisms were of an economic kind, particularly as the counter World Social Forum developed. However, their disagreement is not merely on economic theories of how to encourage social development, but on the legitimacy of WEF delegates to decide for others.
The ambitions of this year’s Forum suggests that message has not sunk in. To seek to shape the future of global finance, and thus the global economy, and hence the lives of all peoples on Earth, in their current elitist and unaccountable form, will cause concern from across civil society. The World Economic Forum might soon find that not only were they some of the highest praisers of the Emperor’s new clothes: they were those clothes. If the Forum wishes to become more than an insubstantial adornment to power, and play a positive role in the future of the world, the organisers must recognise the role of power and pride in shaping what we are able to truly “know” and embrace greater accountability and diversity. Otherwise, if the delegates remain intellectually naked in Davos, our world may catch their cold.
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(2) Copetas. A. Craig, `Out of Control’ CEOs Spurned Davos Warnings on Risk, Oct. 24, Bloomberg.