I once had a friend who worked as a lobbyist. Our meetings gave me a sense that I was before the representative of a strange, migratory tribe. This tribe clusters around centres of power (Washington, Brussels, London), dresses a certain way, talks a certain way, uses a language drawn from newspapers that write a certain way and is honed at universities that function a certain way.
My tribesman-lobbyist friend equally seemed to have no appreciation that what he belonged to was just “a tribe”, among others. He spoke of “the world”, as though it were this self-evidently flat, standardised and minutely controlled space to which he seemed to hold some special key.
To me, as a political sociologist with an interest in grassroots movements, what he said made little actual sense. I did not agree on there being a “global” that was somehow more relevant than – or superior to – a “local”. Or that markets were a natural and irresistible force of history. Or, indeed, that profit is a reliable indicator of anything except perhaps the rate at which the non-monetary economy is being eroded.
The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is a yearly ritual where the nomadic tribe to which my friend belonged gathers together. In this sense, in its value as ritual, the Davos forum is largely irrelevant to most people who do not wish to belong to that tribe.
However, it is hugely relevant to anyone that wishes otherwise. Like any ritual that demarcates an in-group from an out-group, Davos is not just a gathering of a pre-existing group of insiders, or elites. Davos is the creation of that elite. It is no surprise that when we naïvely think of elites, our mind rushes precisely to places like Davos or the G8. These are the gatherings through which the tribe of “global leaders” is actively forged, and the word “elite” acquires meaning in the first place.
Despite being irrelevant – as a ritual – to anyone that does not aspire to be part of that elite, a gathering such as Davos still wields tremendous cultural power. What happens at the summit is widely reported, thereby contributing to the sense that it is somehow important.
Participants in the World Economic Forum get to have access to each other, and each other’s connections, in a way that you or I cannot. They have to justify their presence there by virtue of contributing to an ongoing conversation, where terms like the “global” or the role of supposed “leaders” are accepted starting points. This is how settled expectations about framing “the world” arise, and a distinctive language is accepted and nurtured.
The problem with all of this is that what is ultimately the language and worldview of just one tribe encroaches in various ways on the livelihoods of millions around the world. As it becomes accepted and enshrined in more and more objects and artefacts (from policy documents to laws, newspaper articles, corporate charters and strategies, university syllabuses and international agreements), it increasingly becomes the only language in which it becomes possible to be heard.
In this sense, Davos is part of a modern imperial hierarchy. The imposition of rules from one group of people onto others with no say on them is no longer justified with belonging to this or that nation state, instead, this power is built through participation in rituals such as the World Economic Forum, through which shared customs and connections are consolidated. It follows, then, that the problem with the suggestion by Klaus Schwab, the Chairman of the World Economic Forum, that “leaders will need to rise above the endless maelstrom of short-term crises” has less to do with the crises they discuss, and more with the sense of entitlement that the crises are theirs to solve.
So what are we to make of Davos? My suggestion is to start treating it with indifference. An indifference that can help shift cultural power away from it – the power to have its views and ways receive widespread acceptance, as though they were self-evident – by refusing to sit and watch a dramatic performance that is only valid if it has an audience.