The invitation-only gathering is basically a who’s who of the global elite: business heads, current and past world leaders, well-connected celebrities and academics. They make business deals in hallway meetings and at parties and hobnob in program sessions that seek to tackle global problems such as poverty, climate change and refugee crises.
In many ways, the Davos crowd and its interests are the epitome of what Donald Trump’s populist base reviles. Although the Davos neophyte is wealthy and powerful like many of the other attendees, Trump with his coarse manners and protectionist policies may find an unsympathetic audience.
Davos, already an inherent contradiction of elites purporting to change the world from which they have profited, will become even more of a paradox with Trump’s attendance. As such, the American president could surely use a primer on the gathering to prepare him for the clashes sure to come.
Sanatorium for the elite
Before the mountainside village of Davos became synonymous with the most powerful networking meeting in the world, it was more well-known as a destination for respite from ailments acquired in the world below.
Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain,” in which a German travels to a sanatorium in Davos intending to visit a cousin for a few weeks but ends up staying seven years, provides an apt metaphor for the World Economic Forum.
Just as the man is convinced that only the rarefied air of the Alps – far from the cares and concerns of his regular life – can cure his apparent ailments, the forum operates in a similar way, with the elites gathering in former sanatoriums turned luxury hotels to dissect and diagnose the problems of the world below.
Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab convened the first gathering of what was then known as the European Management Forum in 1971, drawing around 500 business leaders and academics to Davos to free them from the distractions of the day-to-day world. This year, more than 3,000 participants are expected to show up.
Mann’s literary masterpiece should remind Trump that the confines of exclusive settings like Davos, the White House and his beloved Mar-a-Lago both literally and figuratively isolate decison-makers from the very people whose problems they are ostensibly trying to solve.
Capitalism and power
While the forum’s original goal was to introduce U.S. management practices to European executives, it quickly began to promote a theory of business sharply at odds with the American focus on maximizing stockholder wealth.
This 20th-century form of capitalism perhaps can be best summed up by four books deemed by some, including at least one panel of Davos participants, as “classics of business literature”: Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”
This survival-of-the-fittest vision of business evokes Trump’s own economic thesis and policies, such as when he said, “hoping for a housing collapse is just smart business sense.” In this view, capitalism is about predator and prey, powerful and the powerless.
In contrast, “Professor Schwab” – as he is deferentially called – was an early proponent of what is known as stakeholder capitalism. This theory considers businesses corporate citizens that earn their license to operate by serving social prosperity and working with government, and by 1973 had become the “Davos manifesto.”
A novel that could help Trump begin to see the purpose of capitalism and power in a new light would be “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid. Set around 9/11, it’s a suspenseful depiction of a meeting between an unidentified American and a Pakistani man who has become disaffected with the U.S. The novel raises uncomfortable questions about how capitalist predators who abuse their power risk becoming the prey of social upheaval and terrorism.
The broad stakeholder focus of Davos shows that at its heart, it aims to promote an inclusive brand of economics and politics. So how can it stay true to this mission when everything else about the event – its admission criteria, its hospitality and even its remote location – is about as exclusive as you can get?
That irony is made plainly visible by the Forum’s complex badging system. The badges that attendees wear reinforce a strict social hierarchy that smacks of the very castes that the gathering’s agitation against inequality and other economic ills seems intended to diminish.
Davos is a social science laboratory of who’s “in.” You are your badge, the colors of which enable other delegates to judge whether or not you are worth talking to. In a world of elites, white-with-blue badges are a nose above the rest.
The badges on participants’ bellies function like the stars in Dr. Seuss’ “The Sneetches.” In the children’s book, some of the bird-like creatures who inhabit the world have green stars while others do not. Those with stars discriminate against the ones without until the latter get tattoos that make them all equal. Miffed at their loss in status, the ones born with the stars have them removed to regain their elitism.
The picture book conveys in a compelling way the absurdity of status symbols, something the president tends to care about a lot. “The Sneetches” shows how these superficial and arbitrary caste systems may do more to reinforce the problems of existing hierarchies than to change and fix them.
‘America first’ and the powerless
Such rhetoric – and the inward-looking nativist policies that have resulted – is diametrically opposed to Davos’ theme this year, “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World,” which criticizes “divisive narratives” and a disregard for “shared obligations.”
In the spirit of sharing, if I could choose one more book for Trump to read on the trip, it might be Imbolo Mbue’s 2016 novel, “Behold the Dreamers.” The story is about a Cameroonian immigrant who becomes a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers banker shortly before the bank’s – and the financial system’s – collapse.
It reinforces the three key ethical lessons that the other items on the reading list introduce while offering a fourth: that America is as dependent upon the work of new immigrants as it is on the old money of Wall Street bankers. By reading “Behold the Dreamers,” Trump may learn that immigration should be a negotiation among equally worthy and human parties, not the powerful wielding authority over the vulnerable.
If only Trump could get over his distaste for books and read them.