Davos is the absence of class consciousness in public life.
“Davos.” The name is pleasant and luxurious, like its cozy Swiss surroundings. The rhetoric surrounding this annual meeting of the global elite can be extreme on all sides. It is easy to grow unduly impressed or enraged by the shiny lineup of attendees—billionaires, corporate titans, politicians, leaders of global institutions, and the media remoras who accompany them a little too obsequiously. Davos is notable mostly for the sheer net worth that would be wiped out if it were ever successfully bombed.
But Davos is just the most prominent of an entire, year-long circuit of these sorts of conferences, all populated by the same sorts of people. If you can’t go to Switzerland to hear Steven Schwarzman opine on the global economy, you can do so in Manhattan at The Atlantic Ideas Festival. If you don’t want to go overseas to hear the world’s richest investors talk multinational politics, you can do so in Vegas at the SALT Conference. If you’d rather not take an airplane ride in order to watch Andrew Ross Sorkin toss softballs to the CEOs of investment banks, you can do so right at the New York Times headquarters. Davos is but one event in a carefully curated ecosystem of artificial environments in which the most powerful people on earth are granted a friendly stage upon which to become not just self-interested rich people, but thought leaders, framing the world’s discourse in the way they deem to be most suitable.
As an institution, this web of exclusive forums is powerful people’s solution to the problem of free speech. It’s fine to own media outlets and media companies, but there is still the issue of guiding the content of the world’s press in a direction that is soothing rather than inflammatory to the public mood. A simple way to accomplish this is to tightly control the flow of information from the world’s most newsworthy people. And that is the role of Davos and all of its kin. Their cleverest quality is that they are all purportedly about doing good. They are about ending poverty, and reducing inequality, and empowering women, and building an economy that works for everyone, lest the dreaded cancer of populism spread. The premise of Davos—and its greatest lie—is not that the rich and powerful are here to dictate the direction the world will take, in their own interests; it is that the rich and powerful are here to solve all of our problems. Together.
The media’s role at these events is to give credence to this lie. You may hear talk of troubling issues and concerned questions about What Can Be Done, but you will rarely if ever hear the only thing that you should hear from the journalistic interlocutors, given the setting: Antagonism. For the rich and powerful political and economic figures in these rooms gravely discussing how to solve our world’s inequality problem are in fact the ones causing our world’s inequality problem. The fact that the interviews at Davos do not quickly degenerate into screamed accusations of bad faith is testament to the embarrassing lack of class consciousness among the people whose job it is to ask the questions. If the media both grasped the absurdity of all of this and had the spine to speak about it honestly, none of these events would be able to serve their purpose of creating a plausible narrative of our times that does not lead inevitably to a desire to forcefully separating the attendees from the vast majority of their wealth.
It’s easy to see why the CEOs and the presidents go to Davos. They need to set the public agenda, so that it doesn’t fly out of control. Another class—the charity executives, full-time do-gooders, and nonprofit industrial complex—must go in order to genuflect before the only people who have the means to support their work. It is less understandable why anyone else goes. The only legitimate reason for a reporter to go is to mock and denigrate the proceedings by being honest. And the only legitimate reason for regular people to go would be... well. That’s why Davos is surrounded by guns.