For more than two decades, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the Swiss town of Davos has been the essential pilgrimage for votaries of the ideological consensus that governs the world. Throughout its seminars, the business and political elite repeatedly underscore the importance of unfettered movement of goods and capital across the world and view national borders as parochial.
This year’s gathering did not disappoint.
At the four-day event that ended on January 26, French President Emmanuel Macron showed off his reforms in France to placate the investor elite; German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her policy to admit an unprecedented number of refugees and immigrants in Europe over the past few years; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed the globalist consensus – on climate change, worldly cosmopolitanism and free trade – much to the applause of the international media.
Globalisation, supranational organisations and multiculturalism were to be the end of history, as men and women across the world let go of the irrationality of local sentiment and ethnicity and devote themselves to the pursuit of their economic good.
But forces driving the world today are quite the opposite – increasing religious extremism, rising nationalism and growing protectionism.
So, what happened?
Cosmopolitans versus populares
The Davos elite are largely transnational, much like the corporations and international organisations they are associated with. This globe-trotting class of senior corporate managers, technology executives, academics and political leaders feel as much at home at the Four Seasons in New York as they do at the Four Seasons in Tokyo or Mumbai.
What this worldly wisdom betrays is a lack of attachment to a geography or locale whose peculiarities may compel one to call it home and may inspire feelings of loyalty or bias. Thus, Raghuram Rajan, a regular at Davos, sees no inconsistencies in chairing the Reserve Bank of India while teaching at the University of Chicago, being a member of the American Academy of Arts, and holding an American green card.
Like the aristocratic elite in the Late Roman Empire, the unity of the Davos Set lies not in their ethnic or national background but in their devotion to a set of ideas. In the case of Rome, the rich landlords in places as far apart as Gaul and Tripoli could be expected to be imbued in Greco-Roman literary canon – and make it the locus of their shared heritage. In our times, the multinational elite are united in a set of assumptions rooted in a marriage of the Left’s moral universalism and the Right’s devotion to the market and free trade.
Illegal immigrants have become “undocumented” immigrants, diversity is considered unquestionably for the best and any rejection of free trade invites allegations of xenophobia.
What this has meant is widespread elite support for policies and institutions that promote open borders and global integration of trade and capital flows. This is evident in the relentless growth in power of international organisations – such as the European Union and World Trade Organisation – that are bent on eroding national sovereignty over borders, regulation and trade.
But has this globalisation succeeded? Countries like Britain, which have had high net immigration for more than a decade now, face acute issues in assimilating the new groups into their core culture. Developing countries like India, despite repeatedly liberalising foreign investment laws and regulation, have been unable to shake off the spectre of jobless growth.
And China – the country that has benefited the most from this international integration of trade and capital – has, in practice, disregarded every recommendation of the Davos elite. It has preferred mercantilism to free trade, put severe qualifications on immigration, and vigorously promoted the interests of its companies throughout the world.
The glaring divide between the goals and realities of policies propounded by the Davos Set is evident in the global pushback by those who have been the losers of the massive blending of people, goods and capital that has occurred over the past two decades.
Nationalist-populist parties have been elected in Hungary, Austria and India – and are wholly committed to not admitting immigrants or refugees. Britain voted for Brexit largely out of concern for immigration, and the United States elected a president whose central campaign promise was to build a wall along its 3,100-km border with Mexico and slap tariffs on any company shipping jobs overseas.
As billionaire philanthropist George Soros complained in Davos this year, “today… the motivating force is nationalism”.
The ideals upheld by the Davos elite, therefore, face extended wreckage. Free trade is overwhelmingly out of vogue, and the idea of open borders is less and less appealing with the advent of cultural anxiety that is seeping in across the world from Britain in Europe to Assam in India.
For Davos’s disjointed elite, a better way to start the next conversation in 2019 would be a keen admission that current ideas guiding policymakers and the editorial pages of the biggest newspapers across the world are fundamentally inadequate.
In short, there are three facts they must accept: free movement of goods and capital is inherently destabilising and not necessarily a road to prosperity; primordial identities of culture, religion and nation are intrinsic to the mass of mankind; and popular sovereignty also means the right to reject what the elite think is liberal.
It has become fashionable for the Davos elite to bemoan the rise of “Right-wing populism”, fascism and “dangerous protectionism”. Merkel devoted an entire speech last week to warn against this phenomenon. But they need only look in the mirror to find the culprit.
Akshat Khandelwal is a writer and entrepreneur based out of Delhi. His Twitter handle is @akshat_khan.