January 20, 2022

It’s that special time of year when the global elites gather together at Davos. Or rather it would be, if it weren’t for Covid. Thanks to the Omicron wave, the World Economic Forum 2022 has been postponed.

But don’t despair. Instead of the annual jamboree that you probably couldn’t afford and wouldn’t be invited to, there’s an online event called The Davos Agenda. This opened on Monday with a “special address” by Xi Jinping.

What could be more Davos than China’s communist dictator telling a bunch of virtual capitalists that we should “remove barriers, not erect walls”? Inspirational stuff — and I’m sure a great comfort to the people of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet.

For Davos-sceptics, however, this will only confirm suspicions that something has gone very wrong with global capitalism — with the World Economic Forum at the centre of it all. The fact that we’ve exported so much of our productive capacity to China and other countries is one concern. But the bigger worry is about what we’re getting back from the globalised economy. 

For Westerners, capitalism is first and foremost a consumer experience. In the 20th century, the system triumphed over its socialist rival because it delivered the goods. After the long, dark centuries of scarcity, we suddenly found ourselves in a time of plenty. We were grateful — but not, let it be noted, pathetically grateful. Indeed, the real clincher for consumer capitalism is that it made us feel strong. 

Motorised transport — above all the car — gave us the ability to go where we wanted, when we wanted. Combined with modern construction methods, our newfound mobility also massively expanded the supply of new housing. Space and privacy, previously reserved for the rich became available to the masses.

Then there was the food. Today, we romanticise the kitchen table as the heart of traditional family life. But in most homes it was also a traditional — and very necessary — instrument of rationing. Consumer capitalism transformed the situation. Above all, there was the miracle of meat every day, not just on special occasions; the modern world is defined as much by beef and pork as it is by steel and silicon. 

Of course, abundance comes at a cost. There are the obvious downsides of excess; but also our growing distance from the old ways: the rhythms of nature, the bonds of community, the dignity of craftsmanship. Yet we didn’t sacrifice these deep connections in return for mere comfort. Rather, we were offered an alternative form of vitality: the freedom of the road; the mastery of owning one’s home; the visceral satisfaction of unrestricted carnivory. It might seem strange to describe these things as cultural goods, but within a certain set of consumerist values, that’s exactly what they are.  

Beyond its merely material comforts, the consumer society — especially the American version — offered an empowered, independent and, dare I say it, manly way of life. Whether or not one approves, the fact is that it gave birth to a distinctive culture — one to which most of us remain attached.

Nonetheless, it’s now under threat. While the global economy produces more than ever, there’s a growing anxiety that the associated sense of empowerment — what could be called the red meat of capitalism — is about to be snatched away from us. 

That’s literally the case when it comes to food. One only has to look at the effort being made to promote meat-substitutes. Most distastefully, there’s the argument that we should feed the world on insect protein. A quick search of the World Economic Forum website reveals an obsession with the idea. Here’s a small selection of articles from the last few years: “Worms for dinner? Europe backs insect based food”; “Good grub: why we might be eating insects soon”; and “Fancy a bug burger?”

The house journals of global capitalism, the Financial Times and The Economist, take a similar line. Both publications advocate for entomophagy beneath perky headlines such as “Eating bugs: a culinary idea with legs” and “Why eating insects makes sense”.

Yet a backlash is underway. “I will not eat the bugs!” has become a rallying cry on the alt — and not-so-alt — Right. The golden age of capitalism gave us affordable meat, and there’s a slice of public opinion that’s in no mood to accept substitutes.

We’re not just talking food here, but a whole way of life. Consider the second part of the anti-Davos mantra: “I will not live in the pod!” This refers to the proposition that we should radically rethink how we allocate living space in crowded, unaffordable cities. And by “rethink”, I mean “reduce” — both in terms of floor area and privacy. In place of apartments and houses, a WEF report invites us to consider “tiny homes” (i.e. boxes) and experiments in “shared living” (i.e. dormitories).  

Then there is mobility. Never mind the “war on the motorist”, vehicle automation threatens to abolish the motorist. In the golden age of capitalism, people drove cars; but Davos looks forward to a future in which cars drive people.  

It’s not difficult to see all this as a process of disempowerment — indeed of emasculation. I’m not surprised to see Right-wingers, especially in the US, leading the backlash. It’s as if some alien force has taken control of capitalism, pulling it in a new and unAmerican direction. I’m also not surprised to see the WEF — with its rhetoric around “The Great Reset” — become a symbol of this apparent change of course. 

Yet, as much as I hate to admit it, Davos isn’t to blame. All of the trends that the Right-wingers see as threatening their kind of capitalism are in fact a consequence of it. 

It’s a paradox of productivity. The greater the abundance of goods and services we produce, the greater the number of people who get to enjoy them. Unfortunately, it also means we use up more of the enabling resources that can’t be as easily multiplied. The most obvious example is the car, or rather the space required for cars. There was a time when the freedom of the road really meant something. But as roads fill up, there’s no choice but to impose speed limits, one-way systems, road charging and other measures required to save lives and keep cities moving. Self-driving cars, if and when we get them, are just the next step — a means of reducing driver error and thus making the most of limited road capacity. After all, that’s what free markets are supposed to do: maximise resource efficiency.

The same applies to living space. That too is limited, especially in city centres — and, therefore, we can expect the laws of supply and demand to have their inevitable impact. You may not want to live in a pod, but if that’s all you can afford, then you have a choice: either take the deal or move somewhere less expensive. 

Eating the bugs is a yet another response to market forces. Meat is delicious, which is why demand for it is going up as more of the world’s people get rich enough to afford it. Supply responds to demand, but also pushes harder against natural limits — like the availability of land for feed crops. There are ethical concerns too — and so producers and consumers look for alternatives. If you see supermarkets filling their shelves with an ever wider range of meatless meat products, it’s not because someone at Davos told them to. 

What the malcontents see as a conspiracy is just the market doing its thing. And Davos, when it comes down to it, is just a fancy trade fair for a global economy selling whatever it can at a competitive price. 

Of course, that still leaves a lot of good reasons for rejecting the “Davos agenda” — but if you do, then you’re going to have to contemplate a rather more radical break with consumer capitalism. I don’t expect many takers. If the choice is between eating the bugs or eating only carrots, then most people will eat the bugs.