The presence of bosses at the World Economic Forum’s side shows suggests a willingness to engage with the real world
By yesterday morning in Davos, workmen were already up ladders in the freezing mountain air, dismantling the hoardings that had transformed the resort town’s cafes into slickly branded hangouts for super-rich business leaders. By tonight, the thousands of sleek plutocrats who have thronged its streets and bars will have jetted out, turning it back into a sleepy Alpine ski town.
It’s easy to mock the World Economic Forum. After the session on global development on Thursday evening, delegates emerged from hearing about the plight of the world’s hungry to see a lavish Chinese buffet laid out just outside the conference hall. As they tucked in, a band struck up with Abba’s Money, Money, Money.
This year’s theme was “resilient dynamism”, one of those vacuous pieces of managementese that could just as easily mean oiling the wheels of the capitalist machine, as anything pertaining to the WEF’s motto of “improving the state of the world”. A lone, polite protester, quietly handing out flyers urging attendees to spare “a moment’s silence for the victims of greed”, was almost the only sign of the tumultuous world outside.
Yet even here, at the ultimate corporate schmooze-fest, there were signs of disquiet among the captains of capitalism. JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon reacted furiously to the suggestion that global banks are too big to be safe, insisting they had been “ports in the storm”; and the prevalence of big bosses at events covering everything from tackling youth unemployment to “de-risking Africa” was a clear demonstration that they feel they have to offer the public a more compelling raison d’etre than profit maximisation alone.
In the years when the Washington consensus really was just that, the kind of deregulated capitalism that created the plutocrats of Davos was unapologetic. Its champions are quieter now. But if there is a fairer alternative out there, its proponents will need to shout a lot more loudly to get themselves heard up there in the mountains.