Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Almost since it began in 1971, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has attracted scepticism, irony, ire and anger. The critics are back in force in 2017.

The arguments against the institution and the event (which begins on Tuesday) have varied, but typically include a common thread: elitism. In its own perception, the meeting of 2,500 business leaders, international political leaders, selected intellectuals and journalists is self-consciously well-meaning and benign; it is simply an attempt to bring together the world’s most influential people to discuss the world’s most pressing problems. What could be more sensible than that?

The basic logistics belie that intention. It’s massively expensive; it takes place in one of the most exclusive places on Earth, the Swiss Alps; getting invited is no cinch; and the whole atmosphere is profoundly exclusive. No surprise then that Harvard social scientist Samuel Huntington castigated not only the event but the type of person involved as "Davos Man".

Davos Man had "little need for national loyalty, view[s] national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see[s] national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations", he wrote. Huntington died a decade ago, but his view has come back to haunt the organisation. Huntington’s fear was that policy had diverged so much from public preference that it had created "an unrepresentative democracy", with attendant costs for the public’s faith in the political system.

The election of populist US leader Donald Trump as president and the British rejection of the EU not only demonstrate Huntington’s fear, but demonstrate it precisely.

Or do they? One of the problems with seeing things from the perspective of the Anglophonic "West" is that the most obvious trends in Europe and the US tend to get unthinkingly extrapolated to the rest of the world. In Asia, the debate about "elitism", to the extent that it exists, is fundamentally different. China’s desire is not to be critical of the global elite but to be recognised as part of it.

It is no accident that Communist Party of China general secretary Xi Jinping will be attending Davos in 2017, the first Chinese premier to do so. Likewise, it’s no accident that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in elections this year facing a sceptical electorate, will not.

It seems odd to assert it now, but there is a deeper reason why critics of Davos "elitism" are bound over the longer term to be confounded; the economics of globalisation are so compelling and so powerful that while shifts may occur, over the longer term, they still seem likely to win.

For example, one of the reasons Xi is attending is to promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Chinese-led rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, now dead following Trump’s election. But it’s not just a matter of irony that communist-run China is the most powerful entity now promoting free trade. The economics of free trade are not a zero-sum game — something that seems to have slipped past Trump’s intellectual prowess.

The last time the critics predicted the death of the "Davos consensus" was after the 2008 global financial crisis. As it happens, a record number of global leaders will be attending in 2017, more than 50 in all. Stock markets around the world have rebounded, and the benchmark MSCI World index is close to record highs.

The criticism, however, has had its effect, not only on the event but on global consensus. Two of the six themes are uncompromisingly constructed — "fixing market capitalism" and "responsive and responsible leadership".

The broad aim of globalisation remains, but clearly something fundamental has shifted.

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