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The dizzy life of Davos man

Every year, on a magic Alpine mountain, the monarchs of capitalism assemble their courtiers and meet to plot all our futures. Is the world safe in their hands? Richard Sennett thinks not
For the last few years I've gone to a winter meeting of business and political leaders in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. You reach the village by a narrow road through the Alps; Davos itself is laid out along one main street lined with hotels, shops and ski chalets. Thomas Mann set The Magic Mountain here in a grand hotel which once served as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. For the one week of the World Economic Forum, Davos is home to power rather than health.

Along the main street a snake of limousines writhes in front of the conference hall, where there are guards, police dogs, and metal detectors. Each of the 2,000 people who descend on the village need an electronic security badge to enter the hall, but the badge does more than keep out riff-raff. It has an electronic code which allows the bearer to read and send messages on an elaborate computer system, and so to arrange meetings and to cut deals - in the coffee lounges, on the ski slopes, or at the exquisite dinners whose seating plans are frequently disrupted by the press of business.

Davos is devoted to global economic warming, the conference centre filled with ex-communists extolling the virtues of free trade and conspicuous consumption. The lingua franca is English, signalling America's dominant role in the new capitalism, and most people here speak English extremely well. The World Economic Forum runs more like a court than a conference. Its monarchs are heads of big banks or international corporations, good at listening. The courtiers speak fluently and in a low key, pitching for loans or to make a sale. Davos costs businessmen (they are mostly men) a great deal of money, and only top people come. But the courtly atmosphere is infected with a certain fear, the fear of being "left out of the loop", even in this snowy Versailles.

A kind of familial bitterness has kept me coming back to Davos as an observer. My family were mostly American left-wing organisers. My father and uncle fought in the Spanish Civil War; originally they fought against the fascists in Spain, but by the end of the war they fought the communists as well. Disillusion following combat has been the story of the American left more largely. My own generation had to let go of the hopes which enthralled us in 1968, when revolution seemed just around the corner; most of us have come to rest uneasily in that nebulous zone just left of centre, where high-flown words count for more than deeds.

And here on the ski slopes in Switzerland, dressed as if for sport, are the victors. I have learned one thing from my past: it would be fatal to treat them as merely perfidious. Whereas my kind has become adept at dwelling in a kind of passive suspicion of existing reality, the court of Davos is filled with energy. It speaks for great changes which have marked our time: new technologies, the attack on rigid bureaucracies, and trans-national economics. Few of the people I've met at Davos began life as rich or powerful as they have become. This is a kingdom of achievers, and many of their achievements they owe to the practice of flexibility.

Davos Man is most publicly embodied in Bill Gates, the ubiquitous chairman of the Microsoft Corporation. He appeared recently, as do all main speakers at the gathering, both in person and blown up on a huge television screen. Mutterings were heard from some techies in the hall as the giant head spoke; they find the quality of Microsoft products mediocre. But to most of the executives, he is a heroic figure, and not just because he built a huge business from scratch. He is the very epitome of a flexible magnate, as shown most recently when he discovered that he had not foreseen the possibilities of the internet. Gates turned his immense operations around on a dime, reorganising his business focus in pursuit of the new market opportunity.

When I was a child, I had a set of books called the Little Lenin Library which set out in graphic detail the character of self-made capitalists. A particularly grisly picture showed the elder John D. Rockefeller as an elephant crushing hapless workers beneath his huge feet, his trunk grasping train engines and oil derricks. Ruthless and greedy Davos Man may be, but those animal qualities alone are not enough to account for the character traits of the technology moguls, venture capitalists, and experts in company re-engineering assembled here.

Gates, for instance, seems free of the obsession to hold on to things. His products are furious in coming forth and as rapid in disappearing, whereas Rockefeller wanted to own oil rigs, buildings, machinery, or railroads for the long term. Lack of long-term attachment seems to mark Gates's attitude toward work: he spoke about positioning oneself in a network of possibilities rather than paralysing oneself in one particular job. By all accounts he is a ruthless competitor, and the evidence of his greed is a matter of public record; he has devoted only a minuscule slice of his billions to charity or to the public good. But the disposition to bend is evinced by his willingness to destroy what he has made, given the demands of the immediate moment - he has the ability to let go, if not to give.

This lack of temporal attachment is connected to a second character trait of flexibility, the tolerance for fragmentation. When Gates lectured last year, he offered a particular piece of advice. He counselled us in the hall that the growth of technology businesses is a messy affair, marked by many experiments, wrong turns, and contradictions.

Other American techies made the same point to their Rhine-European colleagues, who seemingly stuck in old formalistic ways, want to devise a coherent "technology policy" for their companies or their countries. Growth, the Americans said, doesn't happen in that neat, planned way.

It may be no more than economic necessity which today drives the capitalist to pursue many possibilities at the same time. Such practical realities require, however, a particular strength of character - that of someone who has the confidence to dwell in disorder, someone who flourishes in the midst of dislocation. The true victors do not suffer from fragmentation. Instead, they are stimulated by working on many different fronts at the same time; it is part of the energy of irreversible change.

The capacity to let go of one's past, the confidence to accept fragmentation: these are two traits of character which appear at Davos among people truly at home in the new capitalism. They are traits which encourage spontaneity, but here on the mountain such spontaneity is at best ethically neutral. These same traits of character begetting spontaneity become more self- destructive for those who work lower down in the flexible regime. The three elements of the system of flexible power corrode the characters of more ordinary employees who try to play by these rules. Or at least this is what I found in descending from the magic mountain and returning to Boston.

"WHO NEEDS me?" is a question of character which suffers a radical challenge in modern capitalism. The system radiates indifference. It does so in terms of the outcomes of human striving, as in winner-take-all markets, where there is little connection between risk and reward. It radiates indifference in the organisation of absence of trust, where there is no reason to be needed. And it does so through re-engineering of institutions in which people are treated as disposable. Such practices obviously and brutally diminish the sense of mattering as a person, of being necessary to others.

It could be said that capitalism was always thus. But not in the same way. The indifference of the old class-bound capitalism was starkly material; the indifference which radiates out of flexible capitalism is more personal because the system itself is less starkly etched, less legible in form. The old habit of Marxism was to treat confusion as a kind of false consciousness; in our circumstances it is an accurate reflection of reality. Thus the confusion today about the question "Who in society needs me?"

Lack of responsiveness is a logical reaction to the feeling one is not needed. This is as true of flexible work communities as it is of labour markets downsizing middle-aged workers. Networks and teams weaken character - character as Horace first described it, character as a connection to the world, as being necessary for others. Or again, in communal conflicts it is difficult to engage if your antagonist declares: "We are all victims of time and place." The Other is missing, and so you are disconnected. Real connections made to others by acknowledging mutual incomprehension are further diminished by communitarianism and moral protectionism - by those clear affirmations of shared values, by the teamwork "we" of shallow community.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer declares that "the self we are does not possess itself; one could say that [the self] 'happens' " subject to the accidents of time and the fragments of history. This is the problem of character in modern capitalism. There is history, but no shared narrative of difficulty, and so no shared fate. Under these conditions, character corrodes; the question "Who needs me?" has no immediate answer.

Yet I had an epiphany of sorts in Davos, listening to the rulers of the flexible realm. "We" is also a dangerous pronoun to them. They dwell comfortably in entrepreneurial disorder, but fear organised confrontation. They of course fear the resurgence of unions, but become acutely and personally uncomfortable, fidgeting or breaking eye contact or retreating into taking notes, if forced to discuss the people who, in their jargon, are "left behind." They know that the great majority of those who toil in the flexible regime are left behind, and of course they regret it. But the flexibility they celebrate does not give, it cannot give, any guidance for the conduct of an ordinary life. The new masters have rejected careers in the old English sense of the word, as pathways along which people can travel; durable and sustained paths of action are foreign territories.

It therefore seemed to me, as I wandered in and out of the conference halls, weaved through the tangle of limousines and police on the mountainous village streets, that this regime might at least lose its current hold over the imaginations and sentiments of those down below. I have learned from my family's bitter radical past; if change occurs it happens on the ground, between persons speaking out of inner need, rather than through mass uprisings. What political programmes follow from those inner needs, I simply don't know. But I do know a regime which provides human beings no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.

Richard Sennett is Professor of Humanities at New York University and the author of works of social criticism such as The Hidden Injuries of Class, Authority, The Fall of Public Man and the novel Palais-Royal (all published by Norton).

This edited extract is from The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett, Norton, pounds 14.95.