The Rise and Fall of the ‘Davos Man’


The distinguished Harvard academic Samuel Huntington coined the phrase “Davos Man”, as far back as 2004, to refer to what he saw as globalised economic, social and cultural elites – a sort of unique species of politicians, bureaucrats, diplomats and international businesspeople defined by common values, and even common purpose. Huntington argues that these elites have in effect been “denationalised” from their native lands, in favour of allegiance to this brave new world of liberal cosmopolitanism, named after the annual rendezvous of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

These self-appointed Philosopher-Kings, so goes the argument, spawned in the last few decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the establishment of a so-called “New World Order”, a period intense economic globalisation, the empowerment of international financial institutions (e.g IMF, WTO) and a myriad of “humanitarian interventions” in supposedly backward pre-Davosian societies. For the ‘Davos man’, progress constitutes the paving away of bygone and arbitrary national borders, moral fidelity determined by Strasbourg and economic feasibility decreed from Silicon Valley. In other words, they defined themselves by a sort of internationalist polity – that of modernity, cosmopolitanism and metropolitanism, above and beyond historic conceptions of national identity.  

Last week the World Economic Forum once again assembled below the Alpine mountains – and they spoke as if little had changed. Those who did recognise the political challenge in the form of anti-globalist populism, exemplified by the election of one Donald J Trump to the U.S. Presidency, the rejection of European integration in Britain, and the promise of Marine Le Pen occupying the Élysée, misconstrued its causes. Billionaire Investor Jack Ma described the problem as a consequence of a “wasted wealth” and the failure of Western Governments to invest in infrastructure and support “blue-collar workers” rather than fund the War on Terror. Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister and CEO of the International Monetary Fund, ironically the very epitome of the ‘Davos man’, describes the “feedback from voters” as a consequence of increasing economic inequality within states, calling instead for supposedly “inclusive globalisation”. But this sort of ultra-rationalistic homo economicus type narrative ignores the core values of the populations it seeks to serve – it suggests that the backlash against socio-economic elites is simply a matter of pennies to the pound rather than as a retaliation to constant attempts to undermine traditional national identities. Thus, the ‘Davos man’ fails in his (and it is usually a “he”) analysis and therefore inevitably his prognosis – he is rightly condemned his fellow travellers, the old champions of the liberal international order.

While in some senses it might be enjoyable to mercilessly mock Michelin star-dining and self-aggrandizing quangocrats, at some point it constitutes flogging a dead horse.  The fundamental tenets of the World Economic Forum, that of intergovernmental cooperation and free trade, form the basis of any peaceful and prosperous global system. These elites have failed in their mission of late precisely in their disregard of traditional value systems like territorial borders and merely national legal systems – in response, they’ve been justifiably punished by domestic electorates. As George Orwell once wrote, true then as it is now – “one cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it.”

The beneficiaries of such a global system, including the Trumpians and the Brexiteers of the world, do not seek, as the blue-sky thinking Davosians would have us believe, simply in terms of material gain – they seek self-recognition, membership of a demos (the unit with which we identify when we use the word “we”) or what Plato describes in The Republic as the thymos of the soul. Attempts by universalised cultural, social and economic elites to impose an internationalist set of values even in the aftermath of rapid globalisation are doomed to fail, they would ultimately merely achieve the return of insular, protectionist nation states not seen since the 1930s. The immeasurable gains of globalisation in the spread of technology, the dwarfing of extreme poverty rates and the huge gains in economic productivity through the liberation of trade barriers, the removal of tariffs and regulatory burdens, the spread of the free flow of capital are all at risk of being overturned by a wave of populist and demagogic forces. To protect the material gains of the last few decades, the ‘Davos Man’ must focus his efforts on understanding, and then eventually accepting, the immaterial. Only then can the Davosians recover from the bruising Battle of 2016, lick their wounds, stiffen the sinews, return to their raison d’être of cooperation and trade, and win the wider war for the twenty-first century.


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