A Trip Behind The Spectacle At Davos

Benedikt von Loebell/World Economic Forum - Closing Performance at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum

Davos in winter, like most other Swiss villages in the Alps, is a white cereal bowl with frosted gingerbread houses in the middle. Unlike other winter retreats, it is also the site of the annual World Economic Forum, a socializing and business retreat for the world economic and political elite. I wanted to study the Davos change-makers in their natural habitat, so I obtained a pass through some well-connected friends, and visited for a week.

The theme this year was “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” It was preceded by a more forthright than expected piece from WEF founder and German economist Klaus Schwab in Foreign Affairs, which both recognizes the populist surge across the world and concedes that it may have some legitimate points. Only one in five people believe that the system is working for them. Clearly something is happening. Compared to last year, where only 5 percent of CEOs believed that growth would slow down, this year the number surged to 30 percent. With dulled optimism and the noted absence of major world leaders, the atmosphere at Davos was somewhat depressed and disoriented. Xi, Trudeau, Macron, May, and Trump were all too consumed with domestic politics to bother. What this meant in practice for this year’s Forum was fewer traffic delays.

Davos has at least two tiers. There’s the inner party of world leaders, top CEOs, and other global VIPs, which is the WEF itself, and then there’s the outer party of everyone else. The white badges, and the hotel badges. It’s like TED vs. TEDx. One is the prestige generator; the other gains by association. Some overlap of white badges and hotel badges exists at the individual level, but there’s no substantial cross-over at the group level. The white badges keep themselves segregated from the hotel badges, who are all-too-aware of their separate group identity.

Following an uneventful flight into Zurich on Sunday, I promptly took a three hour train to my hotel at one of the comfortable 400-person villages in the vicinity of Davos—which itself has a much larger population of about 11,000, and where the architecture projects a more modern atmosphere. This makes sense. The seasonal population swells of the WEF means that there is a huge demand for building space—so much so that most businesses on the main Davos promenade vacate the premises entirely and lease out their venues at exorbitant rates. For the most prominent companies, the expense doesn’t amount to much at all, but it does amount to a significant portion of local business revenue for the entire year.

Jonah Bennett/Davos – Evening outside Russia House

When the WEF is not in swing, Davos is largely like any other quiet Alpine ski town.

But immaculate Swiss urban planning is not the first thing you notice upon arrival at the WEF. After spilling out of the train and onto the Davos promenade, you encounter Swiss police officers carrying MP5 submachine guns, and snipers in snow camouflage dotting the rooftops. The police are everywhere, and they want you to know it. On the street. At the entrances to the hotels. In blue uniforms. In plain clothes. In a variety of police vehicles. Walking in packs. But they were exceedingly polite. Even when pulling your driver over, holding you for about 15 minutes, checking all your documents, re-checking all your documents, and sending you on your way. The only time I ever heard a Swiss police officer raise his voice was when an older woman flagged a completely see-through van full of uniformed police with the word POLICE emblazoned on the side in white to ask, “Is this the shuttle?”

“NO, THIS IS THE POLICE.”

“Ah, furchtbar.”

Most of the main events in hotels are fully secured with cordoned off access, metal detectors, baggage scanners, and ID checks to keep out the badgeless peasantry who essentially have access to a few open houses and not much else (at least half of the people on the Davos Platz promenade are badgeless). Every time you enter the main hotels, you have to go through the airport experience all over again. But security were immaculately professional. They wore well-fitting suits and were polite. Only once during the week was I pulled to the side and asked to remove what they thought was a nail from my bag. It was a pen.

The promenade, a long strip winding through Davos, is where many of the main hotels, events, and corporate spaces are located, with a strong showing from consulting firms and tech companies: Palantir, Facebook, Cloudflare, etc., but also government houses (Ukraine House, Russia House, Caspian Week, etc.) and social causes like the Female Quotient (FQ) lounge, where most of the talks about diversity and equality took place. Blockchain companies also had a presence in various spaces like the Ethereal Lounge and BlockBase. The latter describes itself as “a central nexus and collaborative space for global change-makers to engage in advancing a holistic understanding of blockchain’s global impact in culture & society,” which is about as vaporware as the tech itself. To the credit of the blockchain space, one panelist actually admitted that most of those projects are a “technology looking for a market.” AI featured strongly alongside blockchain, as did the occasional cannabis event and accompanying sleazy marketer trying to bribe attendance through free samples.

If I could ask Schwab a single question, it would be this: if you knew in 1971 that the WEF would eventually be occupied by hordes of low-rent blockchain grifters, would you just fold up the whole thing? The blockchain community, though it contains a few interesting projects, is dominated by obvious scams, and so received an appropriate amount of contempt from traditional finance at Davos, whose scams are much more subtle and institutionalized.

Jonah Bennett/Davos – Female Quotient lounge

There’s a temptation to assume that there is some sort of intrinsic relationship between all these pavilions, corporations, or various equality causes—that the collection of talks and events somehow represents a coherent global agenda, but it seems much more anarchic than that.

The Davos community consists of groups and causes that have muscled their way, through connections, power, money, or other means, into getting themselves invited to the Forum. In that sense, the Forum seems to be a microcosm of agenda-making itself. The agenda set at Davos seems to be comprised of many distinct issues, which are ultimately on the list because they came out on top in the blood-sport of global politics. Why is intersectionality on the list, while asteroid defense is not? Simple: the intersectionalists won.

Outside observers too often write off Davos attendees as starry-eyed, naïve dupes who merely exist to put a bow on global capital and growing inequality. There are a few of those. But there are other reasons for wanting to attend Davos, and these reasons come into play far more often:

  1. It’s a good time to catch up with friends. Most of the attendees have full schedules. They’re at the top of their game, whether in the corporate, non-profit, or government worlds. Most of their close friends tend to share the same high-intensity, obsessive personality traits, partly because like attracts like and partly because these traits are prerequisites to climbing up the power ladder and thus moving in the same social circles. So, trying to coordinate schedules to spend personal time with friends is difficult, if not impossible. Davos is the coordinating point. At Davos, I ran into one of my best friends from Vancouver, who I haven’t seen in years—among others.
  2. It’s close to the Peak Event for young professional grinders who want that extra line on their resume and accompanying status boost. Rise and grind, kings. Many are ambivalent about the whole compassion and help the world thing, but will mouth the words if they feel it will increase their chances at belonging in elite social circles. Imagine 20-something consultants from Deloitte, etc. bragging about flying business class and competing over who can get away with expensing the most purchases. That group was well-represented at Davos.
  3. Companies and individuals have the chance to broadcast their new products and vision to influencers and also quickly rack up dozens of meetings over the course of a few days that would otherwise take years to coordinate. That’s mostly what Davos is. A business forum.
  4. Governments are able to interface with other governments in person. Always valuable.

On one of the days, I sat in for at least four back-to-back talks and panels at the Female Quotient lounge—the designated space for many of the intersectionality events. “The Power of Heart Intelligence” featured a middle-aged Asian woman who referred to herself as “Mother Ocean” and was tearfully introduced by one of her acolytes as a real spiritual force. Mother Ocean proceeded to adopt a particular vocal tonality and rhythm commonly associated with hypnosis practice. Her PowerPoint presentation consisted of various self-defined attributes around the concept ‘love.’ For Mother Ocean, it’s important to “flush away all cynicism for love to fill you,” since “love is not partial, it is total.” I interpreted her use of love as the control concept which she uses in her spiritual practice to extract compliance. This is a common technique among charismatic leaders.

As is the case with many successful spiritual leaders, the tendency is to foresee which rival belief systems could come into conflict with the spiritual framework. The leader then tries to reconcile or build common ground with these systems, thereby providing a space for belief without angst. Usually, the most important element to grapple with and/or integrate is science, which is why many spiritual leaders will both attempt some integration of scientific concepts, while also dethroning the epistemological import of science in the spiritual domain. Sure enough, Mother Ocean did both. Although she briefly made gestures at scientific concepts, she relied on the following word-for-word instruction to do the heavy lifting: “Please don’t listen to this with your intellect because your intellect vibrates too slowly for this exquisite material.”

After the talk concluded and Beyonce’s Beautiful Liar started blaring from the speakers, Mother Ocean invited everyone upstairs to participate in crystal ball readings. While I was excited to learn more, my schedule unfortunately prevented me from attending.

Jonah Bennett/Davos – Mother Ocean at the Female Quotient Lounge

That this talk was met with heartfelt nods says something important about the quality of Davos attendees. Davos is not the place where original thought is developed. Nor is it a place of rigorous analysis. Rather, it is an ideological synchronization environment for individuals, corporations, and governments to keep on the same page and to advance whatever agenda most loudly makes itself apparent. Much of this agenda revolves around U.N. Sustainable Development Goals; other projects are relevant insofar as they fit within that framework.

There were two other panels that caught my attention as possible signals of upcoming policy directions across the world.

The first featured a representative from the UN Global Pulse, a project that has the stated goal of responsibly harnessing big data for good. From what I gathered, the UN seems very interested in partnering with corporations who have large stores of consumer data that might be useful in achieving objectives other than generating profit. For example, the insurance industry has a wealth of data on medical conditions in American households. Might that data be useful for firefighters in determining which houses should be evacuated first?

The UN official was quick to add that privacy is, of course, an important concern, but what if the firefighters weren’t told any specifics? All they would know is that some households would be color-coded—maybe red for urgent evacuation. “I think we need to disrupt the whole conversation on privacy,” the official added. Given the importance of the firefighter example, he continued, it makes sense to believe that people have a right for us to use their data. The official recounted that he had once used the firefighter example in a meeting with industry executives, who were apparently flabbergasted that the firefighters weren’t already using this kind of data.

Mass surveillance in the service of philanthropic state objectives is certainly an interesting framing, as is the use of rights language. I never had the chance to ask the official whether people would be able to opt-out of making use of this new right.

The second panel was on the use of data in the context of improving health outcomes, and came with plenty of examples of what data can tell us about health outcomes. First, two-thirds of Golden Retrievers die from cancer, usually lymphoma. Second, according to the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic London, “The best predictor of diabetes is how often you buy fried chicken.” To that, a Chinese man in the finance industry at my table mumbled, “Well, it’s important to think of the causality here.”

The questions at this panel largely revolved around the consequences of what happens when insurance providers make decisions about premiums based on genomic data. The consensus seemed to be that no one should be penalized for their genome. Rather, they should be penalized for their behavior. In other words, you might have a genetic predisposition to obesity, but you should only be penalized if you actually stuff your face and expand your waistline. You can’t control your genome, but you can control your behavior, so the argument goes. Of course, this opens up debates about how agency itself might be predicted from genetic data—while this was not discussed at the panel, it’s a safe bet that it will be an important question.

Jonah Bennett/Davos, Hotel Belvédère – Panel event

The other panels I attended are not worth mentioning. They were unremarkable. But that’s true of panels, generally. Panels are largely useless. I’ve almost never learned anything interesting from a panel. The champagne was good, though. And of course, the best use of these panels is actually the networking after they’ve concluded, which is where you theoretically have the opportunity to meet interesting people.

But when talking to many attendees, I had the distinct impression that I was talking to overgrown student government representatives, who make an appearance at every model UN in an effort to résumé stack. “How about those Sustainable Development Goals, huh?”

Whatever the reality of this networking, the fact remains that Davos is increasingly seen around the world as the annual retreat of a detached global elite. As populism has risen, and particularly after the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, the conference has devoted more and more intellectual space to attempting a response to these electoral upheavals.

This trend was strongly felt at the 2019 conference, especially as democratic socialism has become substantially more prominent in the Western world. There is a tendency to lambaste Davos attendees as being utterly detached from rising global inequality in a diamond-encrusted cocoon. While it’s true that many are detached, they react in a much more sanguine manner to radical aims than some commentators might think. There’s a great NowThis video that’s been circulating around from the Forum of first-time attendee and historian Rutger Bregman explicitly calling out the use of ‘saving the planet’ rhetoric, even as elites attend Davos in private jets, and noting how philanthropy is just masking the real problem, namely that elites aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. Oxfam called for more taxes, too.

The Davos audience loudly applauded. This is actually quite typical and unsurprising. One characteristic of Davos attendees is that they love being called out in a safe and defanged manner, and they love safe and defanged activism. It’s a comfortable dialectic. I could only imagine myself in Bregman’s shoes, experiencing deep existential horror at the realization that his attempt at controversy was in fact loudly celebrated by attendees and blared from top media outlets under the ‘profiles in courage’ section.

As another example of this dynamic, sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg camped out in -18 °C weather, rather than staying in a hotel. She spoke on a panel alongside Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Bono, Jane Goodall, and will.i.am, where she called out members of the audience as being directly responsible for contributing to climate change.

Here, too, the reaction was not of genuine fear regarding a substantial threat to existing power structures. Instead, the response was, “Oh, how sweet and lovely that she cares. Yes, of course we must remember to save the Earth.”

This is what activism looks like when it’s highly normalized, defanged, and incorporated into the power structure’s mode of being. It is not a direct challenge to power from a wholly oppositional force, but rather an acceleration of shared pieties. A couple of CEOs complained about proposals for high marginal tax rates, and elsewhere a separate audience laughed at the idea of rates as high as 70%, but these seemed to be disagreements about means, not ends. The dangers of rising inequality have become clear to nearly all involved. Besides, self-preservation is one of the primary activities of power.

Whether those participating are conscious of it or not, this praise is a key part of recuperation: the process of co-opting potentially threatening radical movements and discourses. This has been long-standing practice throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In our walks through Davos, panels and exhibits on everything from women’s issues to ecological crisis to cryptocurrency testified to the successful pacification of groups and causes once thought irreconcilable with elite power. Political energy directed against the ruling class weakens as some proportion of the radical movement defects in exchange for personal and ideological advancement.

It’s not irrational from the movement’s perspective, either: after all, it’s a realistic shot at achieving at least part of whatever the goal is, plus you get access to a much higher quality network of people than alienated street activists. The defection ultimately helps to renew the legitimacy of the political governing class as a whole. It takes real revolutionary discipline to stop this kind of defection if the goal is larger systemic change.

On the other hand, Swiss police clashed with masked protesters 170 miles west of Davos in Bern, who “threw firecrackers and missiles.” No real damage resulted. About 100 protesters were charged for their efforts. It’s clear that this protest accomplished precisely nothing, except perhaps for generating internal status in the protest social scene, which is well-connected in Switzerland and also more broadly in Europe. Even though this protest was obviously ineffectual, at least it was slightly less kept. I can’t quite picture Benioff making an appearance, patting these cute kids on the head, and sending them back to bed with a glass of water—like with Thunberg.

The average age at Davos is 54 for men and 49 for women. Nowhere was this better reflected than at Hotel Europe’s Piano Bar on the closing night of the Forum. At around midnight, the second-floor bar filled up well beyond fire regulation capacity, and the effects of the open bar made themselves felt—as they had the previous night when two men were having sex in the bathroom, and security had to bring out the pepper spray for another incident. Other venues were in constant fear of fines due to being over-capacity, but as far as I could tell, Piano Bar was left unmolested. Had there actually been a fire, the resulting stampede would’ve rivaled the quadrennial Hajj stampede, if not for the Swiss authorities’ competence compared to the Saudis.

At around 3 a.m., the Baby Boomers were sloshed, spilling booze on each other and the floor, putting cigarettes out in the carpet, and painfully singing in call and response to Billy Joel-esque music from the live band. When waiters or waitresses would pass by with trays of wine glasses, people would refuse to move out of the way, jostling the serving staff instead.

“Yeah, fuck you,” one of the waitresses screamed after she was knocked around, causing close to a dozen wine glasses to smash on the ground.

A few minutes passed and hotel staff appeared.

“Who did this?” one of them asked.

“I did,” I said. Why not?

“My man,” the manager congratulated.

Party on, my dudes.

Jonah Bennett/Davos, Hotel Europe – Shattered glasses

Security would periodically drag someone out of the hotel to vain screams of “don’t touch me, don’t touch me.” Apparently, not letting everyone into private parties is deeply undemocratic, or something. I took several pictures of this process for posterity, before security noticed and stood directly in front of my camera.

The night continued until about 5 a.m., when I dragged myself across the unsalted, icy sidewalks of Davos in -16 °C weather and crashed with a group of hospitable Russians.

There are a lot of journalists who are unreasonably menaced by Davos and so channel sour grapes. It’s hardly boring. The private parties are very good, but journalists are kept out partly because they’re often one-timers, partly because they’re not all that socially skilled, and partly because not many people want spies roaming around their parties looking for lurid details.

So, what ties it all together? Not much. The hotel badge scene suffers from a lack of group consciousness. There is no community, but rather a bunch of individuals and tribes drinking from the prestige fountain and trying to promote their particular cause to the forefront of the global agenda. If there’s any real community, it forms around ethnicity. The Chinese stick with the Chinese, the Africans with the Africans, and the Russians with the Russians. The Ukrainians just want everyone to like them.

Jonah Bennett/Davos, Hotel Europe – Security cracks down

The hotel badge scene is emphatically not where the real action happens. It’s a simulacrum of the white badge scene. The real action happens in the Congress Center, in meetings, at private parties, and when friends connect. But for those outside Switzerland, Davos is Davos; attendance in any capacity is about the same level of prestige, so what does it matter? What happens in the hotel badge scene is largely irrelevant, so it doesn’t need to be tightly controlled. This is why the scene is dominated (though not exclusively) by model UN striver types, who excel at grinding away in consulting, finance, PR, NGOs, etc., but otherwise have little interesting to say. Play your cards right, and you might find yourself among the white badges some day in the future.

The great thing about Davos is that it has more prestige than a Washington, D.C. trade show. After that, attendance is what you make of it. Most of the panels lack insight, but walk into the right party and it’s possible to encounter real talent.

I had a great time and would attend again.

Jonah Bennett/Davos

Jonah Bennett is the editor-in-chief of Palladium Magazine.