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Can the decadent Davos elites really solve the world’s problems at their sin-filled gathering? — RT Business News

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For many, the gathering represents everything that is wrong with the world and has become the object of all manner of disaffection

By Henry Johnston, an RT editor. He worked for over a decade in finance and is a FINRA Series 7 and Series 24 license holder.

In Thomas Mann’s seminal novel ‘The Magic Mountain’, a tuberculosis sanatorium nestled high in the Swiss Alps comes to represent Europe’s bourgeois society on the eve of the violent upheavals of World War I. This week, in the very same town of Davos that inspired Mann’s epic work, the annual World Economic Forum is taking place.

I am not the first to make the connection. In fact, the decision by founder Klaus Schwab to host the event in Davos was made with an awareness of the symbolic connection to Mann’s novel that the venue would provide. A 1981 article by Time magazine titled ‘Magic Meeting Place’ trumpeted the location’s ability to get business and political leaders to relax and speak candidly. By all appearances, Schwab was after just such liberating effects for the substantive and lively discussions he envisioned.

These days, a reference to the novel is as appropriate as ever, but hardly in the glowing terms of the 1981 Time article. If Mann’s novel offers a snapshot of Europe as it careens toward a disastrous war, what Davos now represents is a similarly allegorical portrait of a moribund society.

Every bit as cloistered as Mann’s Berghof Sanatorium and exhibiting more than a touch of fin-de-siecle excess – not to mention an insufferable messianic flair – the contemporary Davos gathering is where an out-of-touch global elite doubles down on the exact same set of behaviors and policies that have given rise among the masses to the pejorative term Davos Man. 

The hypocrisy of the world’s movers and shakers arriving in Davos by private jet to opine about the need to reduce emissions has elicited plenty of sardonic wit. So have the fully booked escort services and cocaine-infused ‘bunga bunga’ parties. For many, Davos represents everything that is wrong with the world and it has become something of a punching bag for all manner of angst.

But what Davos signifies runs much deeper.

The historian Arnold Toynbee, a giant in the field of the philosophy of history in the 20th century, developed as one of his central theses the idea that what kills a civilization is a split between its leadership – encompassing not just the rulers but the entire elite class – and everybody else. In a rising civilization, the leaders form what he calls a “creative minority” (referring to a small cohort, not a racial minority) that earns the respect of the people it leads by responding to problems and implementing solutions that actually work.

However, trouble comes when a civilization’s vital energies are exhausted as this class of people ceases to innovate and no longer offers creative responses to real problems. Instead, they turn into a despotic minority, merely insisting over and over and ever more stridently that their preferred solutions be applied even as it becomes increasingly apparent that they aren’t working.

A creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority which attempts to retain by force a position which it has ceased to merit,” Toynbee wrote.

One must be careful about applying such a broad generalization of history too literally and, of course, Toynbee was surveying a horizon much larger than the evolution of the WEF. However, there is no question that, in observing the contemporary Western elite – especially in its most concentrated form at Davos – Toynbee’s analysis strikes a chord.

The evolution of the WEF does seem to almost mimic Toynbee’s sweeping portrayal of cultural decline. Initially held under the decidedly unpretentious title ‘European Management Symposium’ in 1971, the gathering began as a serious and sober affair that sought to bring together actual business leaders to search for creative solutions to various issues. It eventually outgrew its first format and in 1987 was renamed the World Economic Forum. But the revamped forum actually enjoyed a string of early substantive successes: diplomatic talks between Türkiye and Greece in 1988 and a meeting between South African Apartheid-era leader F.W. de Klerk and activist Nelson Mandela in 1992.

Nowadays, however, nuanced and creative solutions are really not heard at Davos anymore. Real diplomacy is non-existent. Rather, what emanates is a predictable drumbeat of cliche talking points that cover roughly the same ground each year: some combination of economic integration, decarbonization, gender equality, fighting poverty, and technological development. If recent years have featured something of a counterweight in the form of an emphasis on “rebuilding trust,” it is only because the discontent of the masses has, however faintly, penetrated the glittering cocktail bars of Davos.

As Vanity Fair pointed out in a trenchant article last year, Schwab “has developed the Forum from an earnest meeting of policy wonks into a glittering assembly of the world’s richest people.” 

The article continues, noting that “the core activities of the Forum – the sober speeches and panel discussions – have long been eclipsed by the extracurricular events that dominate Davos outside its official auspices: cocktail parties and banquets hosted by global banks and technology companies.”

Participants at the event “boast about having attended zero panels and never setting foot inside the main assembly hall – a cynical mark of sophistication – while celebrating their invites to notorious soirees full of privileged debauchery.” 

The gradual transformation of the forum into a see-and-be-seen event has coincided quite closely with a deepening lack of trust in the global elite, and the burgeoning view that this very same elite is making a mess of running the affairs of the world.

‘The Magic Mountain’ concludes as World War I is just starting. When the novel’s protagonist finally returns to the world below after seven years at Berghof, he is thrust right into the war – and thus into a world he had been avoiding during his long sojourn. It is a haunting image.

If there is a new Thomas Mann in our midst, future generations may be treated to a cutting portrait of a sclerotic and out-of-touch ruling elite breathing the same rarified air and gazing out upon the same imposing Alps as the German novelist described 100 years ago before descending to the chaos below that they themselves had such a hand in creating.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT’s business section

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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