‘Davos Man’ is on that magic mountain again

Here’s the full version of the Jan17 This Week, Those Books. Sign up for free at https://thisweekthosebooks.com/ and get the post the day it drops

Rashmee Roshan Lall

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Image: Evangeline Shaw, Unsplash

Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.

The few minutes it takes to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster. If you’d rather listen, click on the audio button above for a human, not AI, voiceover by my close collaborator Michael. These book suggestions come with a summary and a visceral response rating. Even if you don’t read the actual book, you’ll be able to discuss it. I never recommend a book I don’t like and I look through a number every week to find the few I share with you. Please spread the word. And find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or YouTube.

Yours,

The Big Story:

It’s Davos time. The Swiss village hosts the global business and political elite every January at a schmooze fest formally called the World Economic Forum (WEF).

  • The Alpine hothouse has long served as a celebration of globalisation. But in 2024, self-interested nationalism, anti-democratic factionalism and hot wars threaten to undo the march toward a liberal, borderless world economy.
  • Even so, the roll call of this year’s Davos attendees is high-powered. It includes more than 60 heads of state and government; scores of foreign and finance ministers; some 1,600 business bigwigs such as the bosses of JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Pfizer and Open AI; global economy leaders such as the heads of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as the chiefs of Nato, the UN and the WHO.
  • #WEF24 will ponder geopolitical issues not least the Middle East crisis and disruption of global supply chains, climate change and the economic potential — and threat — of generative artificial intelligence.
  • The official theme of Davos 2024 is Rebuilding Trust but in who or how is not entirely clear.

The Backstory:

  • The WEF, a non-profit, was founded in 1971 by economist Klaus Schwab to promote global cooperation on political, social and economic issues.
  • In the years since, Davos has become shorthand for an uber-privileged talking shop of the world’s 1 per cent. Famously, the only thing Bono, Donald Trump, Nelson Mandela and Greta Thunberg have in common is they’ve all been to Davos.
  • In 2004, political scientist Samuel Huntington identified a faithless, self-seeking species he called “Davos Man”. Routinely derided as rich and out of touch, some academics argue Davos Man has become more inclusive.
  • In an earlier, more innocent time, Davos was known for little more than its rarefied mountain air and tuberculosis sanatorium and became the setting for German author Thomas Mann’s 1924 classic The Magic Mountain. The novel, which looks at pre-World War I Europe and its discontents, feels uncomfortably relevant today.

This Week, Those Books:

  • An excoriating take on the dross beneath the gold-plated Davos game.
  • An uplifting template for a kinder, gentler capitalism.
  • Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World
  • By: Peter S. Goodman
  • Publisher: Custom House
  • Year: 2022

Peter Goodman, global economics correspondent of The New York Times, is a Davos regular and knows the ins and outs of what he describes as an annual “schmooze fest underwritten by financial behemoths”. He uses this knowledge to devastating effect.

Goodman attacks the hypocritical nature of the annual Davos gathering, which claims a “high-minded mission…improving the state of the world” but basically serves as a “staging ground for business deals and strategic networking”. He fulminates on the masters of the universe including the bosses of Amazon, BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and Salesforce. He notes Davos Man’s “evolutionary forebears — the Robber Barons in the United States, and Italian magnates who pioneered outlandish forms of tax evasion”. And he castigates the “cunning innovation” crafted by Davos Man to successfully cast himself as “a concerned global citizen” while taking the lion share of the “gains of globalisation”.

  • Goodman mentions a few of the more gross displays of indifference, entitlement and piggish consumption he’s witnessed at Davos. And he scorns contemporary capitalism for its price gouging, lobbying and international tax avoidance, even as wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few and inequality grows.

Choice quote:

“We are living in a world designed by Davos Man to direct ever-greater fortune toward Davos Man”.

  • Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There
  • By: Rutger Bregman
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year: 2017

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman became famous because of Davos 2019, the last before the Covid pandemic changed the way the world viewed the great and the good on the magic mountain. Bregman had been invited to Davos to speak about this book, which argues for a universal basic income, a shorter working week and higher taxation of capital rather than labour. Instead, he found himself slamming Davos attendees. “I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right?” Bregman said. “And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” (The video is here.)

Footage of Bregman’s fiery intervention went viral and his book became a footnote to that story. A pity because Bregman is a fine writer who makes a hopeful case for moving to a new stage of capitalism, one that goes past the deregulated neoliberal economic model and invests in real human progress.

In a subsequent book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Bregman continued the theme of sunlit uplands.

Originally published at https://thisweekthosebooks.substack.com.

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university in London