Where finance and media intersect with reality

That time I met Klaus Schwab in my gym kit

A moderate defence of Davos and a title that is clearly designed to shamelessly generate clicks.
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As the rescheduled “summer” Davos gets going this week, what everybody outside of the financial commentariat space wants to know is: is the World Economic Forum (WEF) really an elitist conspiracy trying to take over the world or more like an out-of-touch modern-day Versailles with delusions of grandeur?

And does Davos even matter anymore? Or should we ignore it?

To answer those questions, I thought I would recount a few personal stories that possibly offer some insight into how “the Forum” (as they prefer to be called) operates.

Because the truth, I think, is that both sides of the Davos perception spectrum — from elite conspiracy to unquestionable force for good — are equally worthy of critique and defence.

The truth is out there, as they say. But as is often the case, it is nuanced.

The biggest part of that truth I suspect is that both the gathering and the respective backlash are something of a naturally occurring phenomena — a force of nature that if piqued would always re-generate in some other form elsewhere.

This is down to the way the Davos system has evolved over time, and the way it has generated FOMO on the part of non-attendees, especially within the media.

For me the best Davos would be the one where Klaus Schwab interviewed Joe Rogan for three hours. I’d pay to watch that. Wouldn’t you?

The media context

I first encountered the world of Davos while working at CNBC Europe as a producer in the years before the global financial crisis.

The annual meeting was, as might be expected, a scheduling highlight for the broadcaster, with the TV crew routinely given prime position in the meeting’s media enclave. (And they continue to do so to this day.) The broadcasting formula was also a reliable win win. Bag a prominent statesman, CEO or pundit, put him in front of a beautiful snowy backdrop with Maria Bartiromo or Geoff Cutmore, and watch the magic happen.

What was there not to like?

The weirdness at the heart of the set-up occurred behind the scenes and not necessarily even in Davos.

Being chosen by your media organisation to participate as part of the Davos crew became an incredibly important form of internal career recognition. It implied you were at the top of your game. A bit like being picked to be class captain or prom queen — a clear signal to all your other peers that you were being anointed for success.

What this resulted in, I think, was an unconscious rivalry within most media organisations (though I can only speak for two of them) between those who got to go to Davos and those who didn’t. And no matter how much those who went insisted it was all exhausting and not glamorous at all, the act of saying this only drove everyone else quietly even more insane.

For me, in the early days, I just got sick of hearing about the entire thing.

Was it jealousy? Maybe. I prefer to think that it was the Game of Thrones aspect to it all that bothered me most. Especially with respect to the propagation of silly titles like Young Global Leader, which seemed mostly a function of who was best at politicking in their own respective organisations.

Being a contrarian non-conformist, skewering some of the entrenched pomposity with a comedy Twitter account seemed like a fun thing to do.

This is how @Davosdeville, the parody account, was born.

Though I have to confess, the gags were 90 per cent outsourced to those with actual comic timing.

As Bryce Elder observed in FT Alphaville on Monday, the Forum continued in this fashion for years, eventually turning into a sort of Globalisation Groundhog Day.

With that, the jokes began to tire (after all, there’s only so much laughing you can do at the rich and powerful being ironically out of touch and behind the curve, even in the richest of Davos years). And the temptation, increasingly, was to put the whole thing on ice.

The Great Reset

But then something strange happened circa 2020. A new lease of life was injected into the whole affair, including its potential for parody, because the Forum had gone viral in an entirely new way.

Despite going since at least the 1970s — WEF suddenly caught the attention of conspiracy theory circles. And in the most amazing way.

Such voices started to claim that Klaus Schwab’s books, “The Great Reset” and “The Fourth Industrial Revolution“, were part of a grand clandestine conspiracy to force global communism – or possibly Nazism (depending on the political leanings of the conspiracy theorists) – upon the world. And, of course, that Covid was being used as a smoke screen to achieve this.

For me this about-turn proved fascinating to watch.

The irony, in my opinion, was that despite Schwab’s books being literally given out for free in Forum goodie bags, I had met few of the “global elite” who had actually ever read them.

Yes the key tenets of Schwab’s multistakeholder corporatist philosophy and fourth industrial revolution narrative were impossible to escape at Davos. And there is a fair argument that corporatism is a type of fascism.

But the messaging was always intended to be a type of forced feedback system to power elites who were too absorbed in their own circles to notice the big trends. It was a mechanism to flag the things that Klaus himself was worrying about to prevent them from destabilising the world.

By giving the entirely crowd-sourced books more attention than they would otherwise receive, the conspiracy world inadvertently generated a Davos Streisand effect, helping Klaus achieve his objective. Even more ironically, their reaction gave rise to exactly the type of unintended market “reflexivity” that George Soros, another famous Forum regular, had always warned about — only giving the tenets of the Forum more credibility not less.

It was all too absurd and comical.

My take on Davos, to the contrary, had always been that despite desperately trying to be relevant and ahead of the curve, the power elite usually proved via the WEF phenomenon that they were the exact opposite. That’s because the feedback always came too late.

Try as they might, they could never get the masses to fit in with their technocratic agendas because the world was too complex, and too capable of stubbornly resisting them. Which is why even an arsenal of YGLs wasn’t strong enough to prevent Brexit, Trump or Putin etc.

They had no real vision of anything better. Everything was too responsive.

The whole rationale for panning Davos was thus that time and time again WEF participants missed the big trends, were too optimistic with their outlooks, forecasted the wrong things or gave platforms to those who would embarrass them later.

A good indicator of this was Vladimir Putin’s absence at the Forum from 2009 onwards, when he could still perhaps have been influenced to become a stakeholder. Then there’s the fact that when he finally did attend in January 2021 — albeit virtually — he was given the sort of one-sided platform that would court mass recriminations for someone like Joe Rogan. Strangely it did not for Klaus.

This made me conclude that if you wanted to know what the real story was in any given year, a good place to start was in reviewing what was not being discussed at Davos.

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member

We are now in a situation where a growing number of everyday people have become convinced that the ill-thought-out guff that ends up on the Forum website, rather than being evidence of an acutely naive feedback system, is actually evidence of a global conspiracy focused on forcing the Fourth R̶e̶i̶c̶h̶ Industrial agenda upon everyone.

Among this “evidence”, they claim, is a 2016 WEF which asserts “You will own nothing and you will be happy”.

The link (since deleted) directs readers to eight predictions for the world in 2030 — the sort of stuff you would more commonly find in a McKinsey report. It includes a link to this piece by Ida Auken, a Danish MP, with the title “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better”, which has also since been deleted too.

Taken at face value, there’s no doubt the Tweet that promoted it came across as tone deaf as did the headline of the associated piece.

But it’s unlikely this was the product of a grandiose conspiracy to confiscate everyone’s property. Far more likely it was the perfect example of what happens when journalism and content creation is subsumed by bureaucratic committee (in the context of acute pressure to appear agenda-setting, clicky and provocative).

One reason you can trust me on this is because before Ceri Parker, the WEF blog commissioning editor of the now viral piece, was operating in that role, I myself had been offered that job a few years earlier.

This was in January 2012 while I was working for FT Alphaville in Geneva, Switzerland. I turned it down, however, because I knew it would be a backwards step from real journalism and, well, because Paul Murphy, the then editor of the FT Alphaville, talked me out of it. Thank you Paul!

And so it was that I told those hiring me that the decision to decline the offer came down to loyalty (to the FT at the time), independence and professional integrity as a journalist.

The issue for me wasn’t that I thought Klaus Schwab would be whispering directives in my ear. It was that I got the impression that absolutely everything at the organisation was done through an extremely bureaucratic (some might say multistakeholdery) process. (A process that I daresay has gripped many media outlets now too.)

This meant that regardless of any assurances I received from those trying to hire me that they wanted to create a highly readable and insightful blog, there was a high probability the content would end up banal and unmemorable.

How wrong I was! It could have been me seemingly responsible for the most provocative piece of prose the world has ever seen.

The likely reality, of course, is that the piece wasn’t the product of any singular editorial vision or agenda but a function of too much consensus formation. (I did reach out to Ceri on Linkedin to check if this was true, but haven’t heard back.)

Why WEF is the living incarnation of a blockchain

This inclination to seek continuous cross-approval for even the smallest things epitomizes the problem with WEF for me.

Outside of an occasional intervention from Klaus, absolutely every decision at the organisation seems to be taken via an arduous “consensus building” committee systems, which is forced to pander to everyone’s ego and sensibilities, and account for the worst of the worst as well as the best of the best.

And since Klaus himself is obsessed with multi-stakeholder capitalism and norm generation, even his interventions favour more consensus building not less. This, I think, is a structure that leaves no room for originality or accountability. It is the ultimate manifestation of the hive mind at work.

As more of a free radical I knew I would never fit in.

Calling WEF out as an ineffective technocracy is hardly original commentary, of course.

This is why it’s better to describe it as the living incarnation of a blockchain. Klaus – the WEF’s founder Satoshi – is merely the most powerful node in the continuous validation process that it oversees.

That the gathering claims to generate value for the world even as it releases more hot air into the atmosphere than almost any other gathering, only adds to the metaphor all the more.

And this, of course, is what the conspiracy theorists get right: that the Forum “process” has the makings of a communistic nightmare, complete with mass unintended externalities. What they miss, however, is that it is the blockchain aspect of the Forum, not a conspiracy, that makes it so.

The virtues of Schwab

I myself have only ever met chief node Klaus Schwab once, so everything I say about him and the Forum should be caveated by this fact.

Nonetheless, the meeting proved to be one of the more informal and spontaneous I’ve ever experienced. So informal, in fact, that I didn’t even know I was being interviewed for a job at the time.

(Hang on a minute…)

When I arrived at WEF’s foreboding office on Lac Léman, in the posh Cologny district of Geneva, I was actually dressed for tennis and under the impression I was going for an impromptu coffee with someone else entirely. I had warned those inviting me I was hardly dressed for business at the time. They told me it didn’t matter.

And that’s how I ended up being ushered into Klaus Schwab’s office dressed in my gym kit.

But Klaus didn’t seem to care. He himself was wearing a baseball cap.

In the end I walked away from that encounter with the distinct impression that Klaus was a thoughtful man and a good listener.

This supports what I’ve heard other people say about him: that Schwab’s greatest virtue is that he sees himself as the ultimate mediator.

And in many respects this aspect of Schwab makes WEF extremely anti-woke.

Unlike the cancel mob, Klaus is clearly committed to hearing from all sorts of other perspectives when the opportunity arises. From Trump, Xi to Putin, everyone is welcome at the Forum, since Klaus believes quite passionately (and in the style of a blockchain) that you need engagement from absolutely everyone to make the system work best.

The global leaders who do not attend rarely do so because they have been snubbed or “cancelled” by the Forum.

Most of the time, they are the ones snubbing it, not the other way around.

So what’s the takeaway from this weird story?

Mainly, I think, that since it could have been me writing those blog posts, I doubt very much they’re indicative of any sinister conspiracy.

For the opposite to be true, even the organisation’s own employees would have to be unaware of the role they were playing in the upcoming global communist/Nazi takeover. That would take some serious Jedi mind tricks.

The other big insight I gleaned from the affair is that the folks at WEF are quite self-aware of the “hive mind” challenge they face. This is why, I think, they are so open minded about entertaining “free radicals” and wooing the kookier elements of the global community to their environs.

Like blue bloods starved of genetic diversity, the WEF amoeba knows it must constantly import diversity of thought into its organisation to prevent it becoming irrelevant.

It’s worth noting that even after I declined the offer, relations stayed amiable. In 2016 I was even invited to attend the Forum directly with a prestigious white pass (the only time I ever attended).

These “wild card” passes, by the way, tend to be given out by the Forum to media names who would otherwise be overlooked by their own organisations, perhaps because they carry more external currency than internal.

In this way the giveaways are indicative of the Forum’s open minded nature and desire to mix things up, and to be introduced to new people.

Sadly, as noble as these intentions may be, even this mechanism tends to backfire.

Once the fresh blood is exposed to the conference system, it too — more often than not — gets absorbed and assimilated into the amoeba. Mainly because the impulse to conform with the elite norms you are exposed to at Davos is so extremely powerful.

This de facto neutralisation of rogue entities in the system applies even to the Felix Salmons of this world, who pride themselves on being in the system but not of it.

Conspiracy voices, of course, would say that is precisely the point of the exercise. To co-opt even the critics. But who really can tell. The urge to influence is in all of us. And Klaus Schwab is just another influencer, albeit one with his own platform.

For more on how Davos actually operates do check out Marcus Vetter’s documentary “The Forum”.

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