Spare a thought for the great and the not-so-good who have gathered for the annual party of the rich and the powerful at the luxury resort of Davos in the Swiss mountains for the World Economic Forum (WEF). The 2,500 or so attendees, including 41 heads of state, have been obliged to scale down from the most expensive champagnes like Dom Perignon to “normal champagne”, according to reports. Some benighted delegates are even downgrading from champagne to white wine, according to a local hotelier.
But the real difficulty they face is that the “Davos consensus”, which has hitherto prevailed at these and similar gatherings – that free-market, globalised capitalism would create a better world – is in now tatters. WEF founder, economist Klaus Schwab, even believes that the present downturn has led to an outbreak of schizophrenia at Davos.
In his view, the present economic downturn is in reality an accumulation of “an imbalance in the global system, a credit crisis: above all a confidence crisis and a systems crisis”. In addition, he points to other emergencies – global warming and water shortage, which have to be addressed as well. Schwab’s remedy is a new approach to global confidence and the creation of “an ethical value base and a better, more enhanced, co-ordinated and regulated global system”.
But the dream of a new consensus is just that. The agreement made at the first G20 summit of developing nations, held last year in Washington, broke down in just a few days, after Russia and India imposed tariffs. Many in Davos will now be watching Wen Jiabao and Vladimir Putin, the Chinese and Russian prime ministers, as well as the leading Indian and US representatives, for further signs of economic nationalism.
These multiple and interconnected economic, political and ecological crises demonstrate the dialectic at work. The very dynamics of globalised capital that powered decades of growth and expansion over the last four decades have turned into their own opposite. Instead of growth, there is contraction – an unprecedented fall in wealth. As one commentator points out, “the globalisation of the economy appears to have done the opposite [of leading to steadily rising prosperity] – spreading a dangerous economic virus around the world and creating the threat of another global depression”.
The latest US National Intelligence Council report says that “the international system – as constructed following the Second World War - will be unrecognisable” while former US deputy treasury secretary Roger C Altman notes that “the financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the US and Europe”. These are serious observations, to put it mildly.
The severity and depth of the global crisis is forcing a new sobriety and concentrating minds at Davos. The triumphalism of the 1990s has disappeared, almost in an instant. The chastened advocates of capital will muse and drink and ski in their mountain retreat. They will fawn over brutal dictators like Putin and Jiabao. They will ponder “solutions” to force those who create value into unemployment, homelessness and poverty.
But for ordinary people who are the victims of their system, the threatening catastrophe presents a great challenge. It’s clear that any “new systems of governance” will focus on an attempt to survive the crisis by preserving the rule of rich political and economic elites at the expense of the many – those who in fact create the values and wealth we all depend on for our survival. In the People’s Charter for Democracy, A World to Win outlines concrete solutions to the crisis which preserve and maintain the positive sides of globalisation while replacing the destructive, profit-motivated system of private ownership. The disarray at Davos should spur our efforts to build an irresistible momentum for revolutionary change along these lines.