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OPINION | The Davos bunfight has no answers

Jan 19 2016 11:02
Terry Bell

Cape Town - The Davos bunfight gets under way again on Tuesday as thousands of the political elite, the world’s wealthiest corporate heads and a clutch of glitterati gather in this Swiss Alpine resort town. In a world of bloody conflicts awash with surpluses, debts and mass unemployment there is probably an air of desperation among the billionaire tycoons assembled for this latest annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting.

However, if history is anything to go by, many of the politicians, trade unionists and community decision makers who are the guests will be in awe of everything on offer as they are bribed, subtly bullied, and otherwise persuaded to help shore up the crumbling edifice of a system their hosts epitomise.

The theme this year is “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, a belated recognition that the world of work is on the cusp of what was referred to, more than 60 years ago, as “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty”.

This dystopian assessment of the world of the future was made in 1949 by mathematician Norbert Wiener, who foresaw automation making most of humanity redundant. His assessment was based - as is that of the WEF members, a private club comprising the heads of 1 000 of the planet’s richest corporates - on the assumption that the system controlled by this elite would remain unchanged.

However, the WEF does not share the negative assessment advanced by Wiener and, subsequently others. This club of billionaires refers instead to how “humankind can benefit from this revolution”, but without changing the system they effectively manage. Yet it is this very system that is the problem, not the technological advances that have created a situation of over capacity and over production and made so much labour redundant.

A statement attributed to an earlier, would-be reformer of the crisis-prone capitalist system, the economist John Maynard Keynes, sums up the attitude of those who look to the WEF for answers. This is that there exists the “extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of us all”.  

Trapped in gilded cages

Not that the heads of the world’s richest corporates of necessarily nasty people; they are merely in charge of a system that causes often horrendous consequences. They are trapped in their gilded cages, a situation summed up in the release on Monday by human rights organisation Oxfam of that group’s latest assessment concerning the apparently growing wealth of 1% of the population at the expense of the vast majority.

READ: Wealth of 62 richest same as 3.6bn people combined

While the statistics used by Oxfam may be debated, there is no denying that that wage and welfare gap, internationally, has grown vastly. And the very beneficiaries of this system are the hosts at Davos where they will woo a variety of acolytes who, between them, will spend millions of dollars to spend a week in the Swiss resort.

Over this week, the WEF elite will argue that capitalism has a tendency towards equilibrium; that all will be well if “we all pull together”. However, outside Davos there are increasingly debates about real alternatives and, ultimately, these may be much more meaningful than anything that emerges this week from that gathering in Switzerland.

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.

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wef  |  davos  |  world economy  |  labour

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