January 19, 2023 - 10:32am

Major news is coming out of Davos this week. The ritual January circus that is the World Economic Forum appears, for the first time in its 52-year history, to be in serious trouble.

For years the world’s foremost power players have delighted in gathering at the Swiss ski resort to chat business, politics and culture in a face-to-face setting. But no more. Most G7 leaders have opted out of the forum this year, fearful perhaps of the optics of being associated with a high-flying event during a year in which tens of millions are suffering through a cost-of-living crisis.

Those who have shown up, such as Germany’s Olaf Scholz, have done so in the context of a defeatist mood and a conscious retreat from the globalist messages that have defined the conference over past years.

But if Davos really is dying, it’s worth asking what killed it and why. 

Important clues lie with the motives and agenda of the man who founded the whole thing: Klaus Schwab. Conspiracies about Schwab abound, but the irony is that, unlike today’s cancellation mob, he has always strived to give a platform to anyone he considers an influential stakeholder in the system. That’s regardless of whether their influence stems from elected, corporate or cultural power or whether the status quo agrees with them or not. 

This attitude has led in recent years to WEF hosting everyone from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro and Justin Trudeau. The idea being that a globalised order needs to account for the views of all stakeholders, with Schwab operating as a mere go-between.

But power corrupts even the best-intentioned and most neutral folk by making them blind to their own hypocrisies. We saw it happen to those who ran Twitter. We are now also seeing it happen to Schwab. His control and influence is further waning as the question of his succession hangs over the future of the spectacle — a problem for an event so intimately tied to the personality of just one man.

To succeed, who or what follows will have to atone for WEF’s biggest missteps. The biggest is a failure to understand that in the internet age the nature of power and influence, and thus who qualifies for stakeholder status, has changed.

Those who carry disproportionate influence online or in digital fiefdoms — especially in the realm of what the elite like to disparage as disinformation or conspiracy theory — cannot be snubbed, suppressed or disinvited from what is supposed to be an inclusive party. 

This is a lesson not yet learned. A WEF panel on the ‘danger’ of disinformation this week was fronted by a man conspiracy theorists despise, former CNN anchor Brian Stelter, and featured a predictable array of established media names, including New York Times chairman A.G. Sulzberger.

The old, still-in-touch Schwab would have made an effort to include the other perspective. At a minimum he might have even invited a highly influential go-between like Joe Rogan. 

Elon Musk was not wrong when he tweeted earlier this week that the world will continue to need a neutral ground for dialogue between influential stakeholders. But WEF, just like Twitter before it, is now at the point where it has too much baggage to operate as a neutral Rick’s Cafe or Cantina. 

The future includes the communities of the internet, including the Left, the Right, the centre and beyond. Davos’s failure to grasp how the fiefdoms of the online age work will now set the tone for its replacement. The new Klaus Schwab might just be Joe Rogan.

Izabella Kaminska is the former editor of FT Alphaville and founder of The Blind Spot.