January 19, 2024 - 6:15pm

Once widely considered the gathering of the elite of a future world government, the World Economic Forum is leaving a legacy of increasing irrelevance. To be sure, the snow was good; the AI art installation and occasional forays into witchcraft may have stirred some; but the whole thing has devolved into a cocktail party for the self-important, with diminishing bearing on world politics.

The interconnected world envisioned by the WEF is disintegrating. Indeed, it has fallen victim to the resurgence of history and the rise of powers determined to return us to the glories of the Middle Ages. Davos existed in a world that believed in Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, but ended up looking a lot more like Samuel Huntington’s bleak vision in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington was the first to describe “Davos man”, and appears to be accurate in having predicted his demise. 

The growing irrelevance of what Adrian Wooldridge has labelled “the progressive aristocracy” can even be seen in the less than enthusiastic press coverage. Politico describes the contemporary Davos crowd as a “smart set” which “sounds dumb.” In the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead, pronounces “the humiliation of Davos man”. Even the establishmentarian Financial Times has to admit that “the hubris among the Davos set is palpable.”

The Forum maintains some cheerleaders for policies which have weakened liberal democracies around the world while serving the interests of the rising illiberal powers. The grandees don’t have to travel far to see the results of their “reset” as nearby Germany’s industrial machine collapses, with even its last solar panel plant about to go belly-up.

Green jobs increasingly seem to be reduced to the low-wage service type. The forced march towards renewables has only rewarded China, even as the country embarks on a coal-plant building spree and emits more greenhouse gases than all developed countries put together. The much-ballyhooed “energy transition” has favoured a China that already produces more than four times as many batteries as second-placed United States, and which controls critical raw materials including large concentrations of rare earths, lithium, copper and cobalt. China can thank the gnomes of Davos when it reaches its stated aim of becoming the leading global superpower by 2050.    

Other “Great Reset” notions, like the arrogant assumption that large corporations and investment banks could mandate a better world, lie in ruins. The whole ESG movement, which sought to reward “right-thinking” executives, is falling apart, in large part because it makes no economic sense. Even millennials and Gen Z  have adopted negative attitudes towards such elaborate virtue-signalling. An estimated $5 trillion in ESG assets has dissolved in just two years. What’s more, enlightened capitalist funds around the world are in free fall, notably renewable energy stocks, while traditional energy firms enjoy record profits

From the beginning, the idea that corporate elites’ primary responsibility involved imposing positive values on their own societies was fatally flawed, in large part because economic powers such as China and Russia have no such scruples. More important still, the oligarchs are finding out that the peasants are becoming increasingly sceptical about an agenda — including the notion of climate reparations — that promises to further bring down their standard of living. 

Today it’s not globalist smoothies like Emmanuel Macron but rough and ready anti-globalists who are elbowing their way to prominence. The rebellion that started with the French gilets jaunes in 2018 has metastasised and spread to other countries. In the US even educated voters, as well as minorities, are discovering a greater affinity for Donald Trump, who for all his significant flaws is broadly attuned to the popular mood.

Trump’s followers are not stupid. They realise that Davos man preaches austerity for the masses, all while investment banks achieve higher profits and use private jets. Opposing oppressive elites is exactly what democracy is about. The eclipse of the top-down dream at Davos marks a return to the norms of political life, where the opinions and interests of citizens take preference over the preening of the powerful.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)