Dunking on Davos is an annual pastime, and this year is no exception. Reams of tweets and hot takes have taken aim at the hapless elites roaming around the World Economic Forum. They fly private planes to a climate panel. They step out of their five-star hotels to visit an exhibition on the refugee crisis. They applaud autocrats who promise to lower taxes, and they scoff at representatives who suggest that we raise them.
All of it feels absurd, and commentators are rolling their eyes accordingly.
But Davos is much more than an occasion to mingle in the Swiss Alps. Instead, it serves a crucial function as a mechanism for coordinating and consolidating the global elite.
Each year, the forum sets out the major crises confronting the world – inequality, climate change, and the great migration that will follow from it – and trains the imagination of the super-rich on how to address them.
We may scoff at the notion that the people who made this great mess consider themselves capable of cleaning it up. But their gathering at Davos should remind us that oligarchs are very good at working across borders to develop new ideas and deploy them in service of their political project.
Progressives, for our part, cannot say the same. In countries like the UK and the US, new political movements are successfully taking on local, state, and national races. But when it comes to international coordination – building a shared, global vision and working together to implement it – we are hopeless.
The so-called neoliberals have long excelled here. In April 1947, at another conference in the Swiss Alps, Friedrich von Hayek gathered a group of economists to form the Mont Pelerin Society, dedicated to the diffusion of the free market. The impact of this meeting cannot be overstated: Mont Pelerin spawned scores of think tanks in the US (American Enterprise Institute), the UK (Institute of Economic Affairs), and Europe, spreading their doctrine and persuading policymakers to adopt it.
Davos carries forward this storied tradition. Klaus Schwab initially established the forum as a meeting ground for European CEOs. But following the collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971 – and the subsequent oil crisis that rocked the global economy – Schwab saw an opportunity for the forum to do more than discuss business strategy. It would become a platform for politicians and business leaders to build a new world order.
The forum has largely lived up to this ambition. Several times over the course of the last two decades, Davos has been the site of historic diplomatic decisions. In 1988, Greece and Turkey signed the “Davos Declaration”, diffusing years of violent tension. In 1992, Nelson Mandela met with FW de Klerk and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to solidify peace in South Africa. And in 1990, Mexican President Carlos Salinas first developed the blueprint for NAFTA – the policy that would ignite a furious race to the bottom in North American labour standards – on his annual trip to the Swiss mountains.
The left has been much less agile in its attempts at coordination. This failure is, in large part, programmatic. Different strains of left politics have always bristled against each other: one faction is too electoralist, another is not electorally focused enough; one faction calls to seize the state, another to destroy it. The long and depressing history of consecutive Internationals tells as much.
Another factor emerged more recently. Since the early 1990s, international organisations – often headed by Davos men – have pushed an agenda of liberalisation, privatisation, and deregulation under the guise of “globalisation”. Economic integration, they claimed, was inevitable: the only role of government was to recognise this inevitably and adapt accordingly.
Against this logic of inevitability, many progressives are dedicated to reclaiming the nation state and reviving its role in protecting and advancing worker rights. They are allergic to big international thinking precisely because it reeks of Davos men and their reckless, neo-colonial ambition to take over the world.
But the irony is that, by doing so, they have ceded even more ground to a narrow group of elites to determine the direction of international affairs. And the route they have chosen has never looked more perilous.
The solution is not to set up a new “Davos of the left”. The forum’s exclusive format is anti-democratic by definition, and the proposals that flow from it are unlikely to reflect the needs and preferences of the communities they target – no matter how pure Bill Gates’s philanthropic intentions might be. We already have far too many left-wing forums that fly progressive elites halfway around the world to chat, scheme, and flirt.
Instead, we need a Progressive International movement that can call on communities around the world to contribute to a blueprint for a new world order – something that can match the ambition of Mont Pelerin, but build from the grassroots.
Last month, we issued an open call to all progressive forces to join us in building that movement. And now – with the global oligarchy gathered at Davos – it is time to take it forward.
Over the coming weeks, we will be opening a global consultation process that will call on workers, activists, artists, and social movements to help build an international Green New Deal, a policy programme behind which progressives in all countries can mobilise to reclaim the realm of “global governance” from the technocrats who currently control it.
Only this international movement – coordinating and consolidating our local and national campaigns – can move us from mocking the Davos man to destroying him. And doesn’t that sound good.
David Adler is the coordinator of the Progressive International movement. He is also a member of DiEM25's coordinating collective
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