In 1971, German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum (WEF). The Forum is funded primarily by its corporate members—typically global corporations—with some public subsidies, and guided by a board of directors, of which Schwab is chairman. Its flagship event is its annual meeting in January in Davos, Switzerland. Indeed, Davos has become synonymous with the WEF.
Initially only corporate CEOs were invited to Davos with political leaders added to the elite club in 1974. When I first heard of this annual get-together of top corporate and political leaders my social democratic antennae started to quiver. Our political leaders sequestering with the world’s most powerful capitalists couldn’t be a good thing for us ordinary folk could it? What mischief would they get up to at our expense?
But over the years the WEF has changed, expanding to include a range of interests. The board of directors now includes outstanding leaders not only from business and politics, but also from academia and civil society.
Davos too has expanded, bringing together in addition to its CEOs, investors, politicians, academics, NGOs, religious leaders, celebrities and the media. The topics include a range of global issues. A random sampling of this year’s agenda includes the following: “Why indigenous knowledge is critical to credible action on nature,” “Keep faith in ESG investing,” “Women’s health is wealth,” “Why digital public infrastructure can be a gamechanger for children,” and “7 essentials to create a resilient global healthcare supply chain.” Pretty progressive stuff.
While I remain a degree of caution about a capitalist outfit, and deplore the excessive influence corporations have on our political life, when I witness such progressive discussion, I am inclined to see Davos as useful.
After all, capitalists are going to confer. What better than to have them doing it in public and being challenged by folks who hold a variety of diverse interests and views? The exchange of ideas among different segments of society is healthy. And, lets face it, global CEOs are very bright guys. Why not apply their fine minds to something other than maximizing shareholder value?
But while these progressive sessions may ease my concerns about Davos, many conservatives have a very different reaction. They are inclined to believe that capitalists should stick to making money. Being good corporate citizens is not, in their view, good capitalism.
The Davos Manifesto 2020 stated that a company “is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal aspirations as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance (ESG) objectives.” Some conservative American politicians are so irate about such misguided goals they suggest companies that pursue them should be punished.
Right-wing conspiracy theorists have gone hysterical over a WEF initiative called “the Great Reset.” This initiative saw the disruption caused by the pandemic as an opportunity to draw from the “vision and vast expertise of the leaders engaged across the Forum’s communities … to build a new social contract that honours the dignity of every human being.”
America’s champion conspiracy theorist, Infowars host Alex Jones of Sandy Hook fame, has accused the Great Reset of being a part of “the global elite’s international conspiracy to enslave humanity and all life on the planet.”
Needless to say, there are believers in this country as well, including two of our newest and youngest political leaders, Pierre Poilievre and Daniel Smith.
Poilievre has said should he become prime minister he would ban his ministers from attending Davos. He would, of course, do no such thing. No conservative PM would prevent his ministers from exploiting the world’s best opportunity to converse with the world’s top businessmen. But Poilievre is known for pandering to the lowest common denominator, and this serves as red meat for his base until the next election.
Danielle Smith, on the other hand, may actually believe the conspiracy rubbish. She recently cancelled a health consulting agreement involving the WEF. The deal would have seen the province share ideas with health researchers at Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic. She claims to be in lockstep with Poilievre.
So here we are. This social democrat looks upon the world’s major capitalist conclave with cautious approval while certain conservatives, normally capitalism’s staunchest defenders, shrink back with conspiratorial disapproval. Strange times.