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Klaus Schwab’s WEF exit marks the end of Davos Man

The illusion of demand creates yet more demand. Credit: Getty

May 21, 2024 - 7:45pm

Klaus Schwab has decided it’s time to go. The 86-year-old Swiss-born entrepreneur is stepping down as the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the elite social networking group he founded in 1971.

For over 50 years, Schwab has overseen the rise of a formidable business empire, worth £345 million in 2022/23, the most recent year for which we have annual accounts. The group includes the convention itself, which takes over Davos every January, and sister organisations such as Global Shapers, Young Global Leaders and Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs, the latter boasting “over 500 city based hubs”.  As well as a networking event, WEF is both a think tank and a sprawling network of ersatz NGOs.

But it’s the eponymous forum in Schwab’s native Switzerland that defines his public image. In 2004, Samuel Huntingdon coined the term “Davos Man” in his essay Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite. Huntingdon was referring to a group that was “sophisticated, urbane and universalistic in their perspective and ethical commitments” — a synecdoche for the corporate leader in an era of globalisation. And no one has been better attuned to exploiting the vanities and insecurities of this modern corporate executive than Schwab.

Like every good nightclub proprietor, Schwab realised that the illusion of demand creates yet more demand, so he artificially created scarcity: capping the number of businesses who could attend. No wonder the CEOs are thrilled to be there. “Their mere presence in Davos at the Forum signals their empathy and sensitivity,” writes Peter Goodman, New York Times economic correspondent and author of the book Davos Man.

For the Left, like Goodman, Davos Man is a neoliberal bogeyman, whose greed has opened the door for populists like Trump. For conservatives, Schwab’s “stakeholder capitalism” subverts both the market and a functioning democracy. And with the rise of social media, WEF has fed the appetite for conspiracy theories.

But in recent years, and particularly since the 2008 financial crash, Schwab’s creation has been beset by something worse: its own contradictions.

Stakeholder capitalism is no longer a case of hard up and impoverished NGOs pressing their noses against the glass, hoping to be included at the board room table. The tail now wags the dog. Billionaire donors like Michael Bloomberg and Chris Hohn provide an inexhaustible supply of funds. Meanwhile CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) blossomed into formal ESG (Environmental Social and Governance) requirements, where the behaviour of a corporation is ranked and rated. The opinion of advocates such as Blackrock’s Larry Fink, which controls $10.5 trillion of assets, matters a great deal, and CEOs continue to live in fear of the capricious ESG judgements.

Meanwhile WEF’s network of think tanks busy themselves with initiatives and technocratic solutions: toolkits and dashboards proliferate. While these no doubt meet the approval of Schwab, a trained economist and engineer, they gain almost no traction in the wider world.

WEF’s greatest goal has been responding to the rise of social media with its own viral clickbait content intended to stimulate discussion, but which resembles a shock-jock desperate for attention. The “Great Reset” is the most notorious example. But when was the last time you heard anyone even mention “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”? In a sign that being the focus of conspiracy theories might be detrimental to its corporate reputation, WEF’s most recent paper on “alternative proteins” doesn’t once mention insects. The annual themes have reflected an increasing self-awareness. Last year’s was “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”, and 2024’s  was “Rebuilding Trust”.

This year, 40% of the world votes in elections, and many voters are likely to choose conservative or Right-wing candidates, to Schwab’s horror. With Davos Man receding, it’s the perfect time for the original Davos Man to return to the shadows too.

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Phil Day
Phil Day
1 month ago

I wouldn’t shed any tears if he went the same way as Raisi. In fact, they would be good company for each other

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Phil Day

Maybe they can share a flat in the Afterlife.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Hard to wish this guy happiness ( unless its of the kind of spiritual transcendence that may ( or may not acrue )to the masses once they have been relieved of their property

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago

I can’t think of a more obnoxious set of self-important hypocrites like those of Davos. They became a parody of themselves when they deplored global warming whilst their private jets were kept running so as to keep the air conditioned at a comfortable setting for the long flight home.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
1 month ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Contrast that with the ARC conference… A better story, a vision of human flourishing, actual intellectuals and real people struggling to make things better.

Tessa B
Tessa B
1 month ago
Reply to  Nathan Sapio

I don’t think it is so black and white. I have written about Michael Shellenberger and Paul Marshall in other comments.
https://informedheart.substack.com/p/arc-legatum-and-fake-freedom-funds
“Although ARC may sell itself on being a new libertarian, anti-woke, free-speech advocate, we only need to scratch beneath the surface to reveal the same behemoth entities that are controlling the narrative.”
It’s complicated and we are not all going to agree. Differing opinion in the above substack.
https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/legatum-who-are-brexiteers-favourite-think-tank-and-who-is-behind-them/
“Legatum has received funding from British Brexit backers including major City figures. In 2015, prominent pro-Brexit hedge fund manager Sir Paul Marshall bankrolled a 12-month research programme entitled ‘A Vision for Capitalism’…”
ARC members.
https://www.arcforum.com/advisory-board
Test and re-test.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago

Hah hah hah, this is only the beginning for Scwhab! In the time being he will retreat into his volcano and stroke his white cat.
And plot.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago

You know when I was a little kid I always thought the Saturday morning cartoon villains were over the top ridiculous. After all, no one in the real world would ever dress or talk like that. Then Herr Schwab disabused me of that notion.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

My favourite was always the Penguin, from the camp 1960s Batman.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Davos Man is in retreat? He might have changed his costume, but I suspect he’s as busy as ever.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The WEF backroom came to the conclusion that Schwab was not a cartoonish enough supervillain. Contenders for his replacement include:
1) Dr Evil from Austin Powers
2) Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars
and my personal pick:
3) Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget

denz
denz
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Don’t you think that he looked so comfortable, when appearing as Ming the Merciless?

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I think he is actually Commander Tamalak of the Romulan Empire, and he forgot to remove his military uniform when shape-shifted into human.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I’ll get you next time gadget. NEXT TIME!!!!
MROWWWRRRRR!!!

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I am swinging in behind Hugo A-Go-Go from Batfink.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

As long as there are universities there will be people who know best, I’m afraid.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

Oh no! Who will run the world now?

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 month ago

I wonder who they will roll out to fill his place. Christia Freeland (Canada’s Deputy PM) will be looking for work overseas soon. She is already on their Board of Trustees. As the granddaughter of a Ukrainian quisling who ran a newspaper for the Nazis during WW2 she would fit right in.

Jasmine Birtles
Jasmine Birtles
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

There’s also the nightmare scenario of Tony Blair stepping into his shoes. Anything is possible now.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

One of the 20th centuries biggest conundrums, is how did Tony Blair manage to pass himself of as a socialist.

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Because he was slightly more socialist than Margaret Thatcher.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago

Schwab is not Swiss-born, he’s German-born, in 1938, and he still has a very marked German accent, not a Swiss accent. So far as I know, he is also still a German national, not a Swiss national. His father was a wealthy industrialist in Ravensburg.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

What, no mention of the “in 2030, you will own nothing, and you will be happy” video?

Martin M
Martin M
1 month ago

I like the song on YouTube, to the tune of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. “You can’t even buy shit in ze store, cause of your low Social Credit score….”

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 month ago

Thanks for the new word, synecdoche (I had to look up the meaning though).

Christopher B.
Christopher B.
1 month ago

Schwab may be clearing the way for successors, but
– despite some of Edelman’s grade-AAA PR cleanups to public messaging –
there’s no reason to believe that Schwabism is going away.
Did Soros end when the son took over?
Is Kissinger’s worldview now dépassée in Washington and New York?

LindaMB
LindaMB
1 month ago
Reply to  Christopher B.

Soros & Schwab; two cheeks of the same buttock that wants to crush the people below it