Davos 2023 Showed Us A Ruling Class Incapable of Resolving Global Crises

William I. Robinson

World Economic Forum — masters of the globe, but not in control.

THE TRANSNATIONAL CORPORATE and political elite were back in Davos, Switzerland, from January 16-20 for their annual conclave amid the most severe crisis of global capitalism since the founding of the World Economic Forum half a century ago. In earlier years, participants in the exclusive gathering jet-setted into the Swiss resort town exuding confidence in the hegemony of global capitalism. But this time around, uncertainty over their ability to manage the crisis, maintain control, restabilize global capitalism and rebuild fractured consensus in their ranks was on full display.

The World Economic Forum served as a premier clearinghouse and planning body of the transnational capitalist class and its political allies during the heyday of capitalist globalization. But now the ruling groups appear to be in permanent crisis management. The Davos elite are acutely aware that global capitalism faces a series of interlinked crises — what the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report for 2023 termed a “polycrisis.” The world is facing “inflation, cost-of-living crises, trade wars, capital outflows from emerging markets, widespread social unrest, geopolitical confrontation and the spectre of nuclear war,” warned the report. These risks are “amplified by comparatively new developments in the global risks landscape, including unsustainable levels of debt, a new era of low growth, low global investment and deglobalization, a decline in human development after decades of progress, rapid and unconstrained development of dual-use (civilian and military) technologies, and the growing pressure of climate change impacts.” Together, “these are converging to shape a unique, uncertain and turbulent decade to come,” it concluded.

The World Economic Forum, established in 1971 on the eve of capitalist globalization, brings together the inner circle of the transnational capitalist class and its political representatives in states and international organizations. Each year the cream of the transnational corporate and political elite meet in Davos to size up the state of global capitalism, debate the problems and challenges they face as the global ruling class, and strategize over programs and policies to address these challenges to their class rule. Davos, in a nutshell, is where the lords of transnational capital and their agents gather to hammer out annually how they are to rule.

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At the core of the World Economic Forum membership are the CEOs of the top 1,000 transnational corporations (known as “Foundation Members”), who are joined by representatives from 100 of the most influential media groups worldwide, key policymakers from national governments around the world and from international organizations, select academics and experts from political, economic, scientific, social and technological fields. This is an ultra-exclusive club that bars general membership: “Leaders” and “Fellows” are by invitation or appointment only. The Davos crowd is a true International of Capital.

Attendance at the annual summit is by invitation only and costs $19,000 per attendee. Among the 2,700 people who attended this year’s meeting were more than 600 transnational corporate CEOs along with 51 heads of state, 56 finance ministers, 19 central bank governors, 30 trade ministers, 35 foreign ministers, and the directors of the leading international financial and political organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the European Union Central Bank, the United Nations and the NATO General Secretary.

The Threat From Below

Under the aegis of the World Economic Forum, the IMF, other international financial institutions and key Western governments led by the United States, the transnational capitalist class has pushed a brutal capitalist globalization since the 1980s, in the process destabilizing and throwing into insecurity countless communities, whole countries and regions. This globalization has resulted in an unprecedented concentration and centralization of capital on a global scale in the hands of the transnational capitalist class. In 2018, just 17 global financial conglomerates collectively managed $41.1 trillion, more than half the GDP of the entire planet.

At the same time, globalization has unleashed unprecedented inequalities and triggered social and political conflict around the world. Rising inequality, impoverishment and insecurity for working and popular classes after decades of social decay wrought by neoliberalism are throwing states into crises of legitimacy, destabilizing national political systems and jeopardizing elite control.

Just days before the Davos meeting opened, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace updated its Global Protest Tracker, reporting that over 400 major anti-government protests have erupted worldwide since 2017, a quarter of them sustained three months or more, many of them involving hundreds of thousands and even millions of protesters, and no less than 32 of them still ongoing as the conclave got underway.

As if to symbolize the spreading global revolt, on day three of the meeting, more than a million people took to the streets in nearby Paris to protest attacks on pensions and other neoliberal policies, while just across the English Channel, U.K. workers pushed forward with a wave of strikes not seen in decades. Not surprisingly, both French President Emmanuel Macron and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak skipped Davos this year in order to tend to crises at home.

Global capitalism faces a structural crisis of overaccumulation and chronic stagnation. The transnational capitalist class has accumulated obscene amounts of wealth, well beyond what it can reinvest. But the ruling groups also face a political crisis of state legitimacy, capitalist hegemony and widespread social disintegration; an international crisis of geopolitical confrontations; and an ecological crisis of epochal proportions. The planetary ecosystem on which human civilization is based is breaking down under the impact of unrestrained global capital accumulation.

As background context, a 2021 U.S. government intelligence report warned that the world “will face more intense and cascading global challenges” in the coming years, including “climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions” that “are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country” and that “produce widespread strains on states and societies as well as shocks that could be catastrophic.” The report went on to note that “the scale of transnational challenges, and the emerging implications of fragmentation, are exceeding the capacity of existing systems and structures.”

The Davos attendees this year discussed these varied dimensions of this “polycrisis” at length, but appeared to come up empty-handed on how to restabilize global capitalism and beat back the threat of both mass revolt from below and of right-wing populist, nationalist and neo-fascist challenges to capitalist globalization. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the battle against climate change was being lost, while the managing director of the IMF was forced to admit that the world economy is facing “perhaps its biggest test since the second world war.” Meanwhile, the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the West’s radical political, military and economic response to it, along with the New Cold War between Washington and Beijing, are accelerating the violent crackup of the post-WWII international system. This year, the Russian, Chinese and U.S. heads of state stayed away.

Wither the “Great Reset?”

The COVID-19 pandemic was supposed to have paved the way for “resetting and reshaping” the world in what the World Economic Forum termed the “Great Reset.” This was a euphemism for an effort to restabilize and expand global capitalism through more neoliberal deregulation, the application of new digital technologies, a more regimented and authoritarian control over the global population, surveillance and technocratic “global governance.”

But things have not gone as anticipated. Instead, the pandemic accelerated all the contradictions and crisis tendencies of global capitalism, especially the tendency toward an ever-greater concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the transnational capitalist class, which has further fueled mass protest and political instability around the world.

Each year, the international development agency Oxfam times the release of its annual report on global inequalities to coincide with the Davos meeting. According to this year’s report, “Survival of the Richest,” billionaire fortunes are increasing by $2.7 billion a day even as 1.7 billion or more workers now live in countries where inflation is outpacing wages, and the richest 1 percent of humanity grabbed for itself nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020.

In the midst of a global food and energy crisis, the top 95 food and energy corporations more than doubled their profits in 2022, according to the report, making $306 billion in windfall profits and paying out $257 billion of that to rich shareholders, at the same time as nearly 1 billion people went hungry. Meanwhile, the Oxfam report warned that three-quarters of the world’s governments are planning austerity-driven public sector spending cuts, including health care and education, by a whopping $7.8 trillion over the next five years.

Geopolitical fragmentation and confrontation are reaching a breaking point in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the New Cold War. The United States is losing its dominant position in the international system, but no new nation-state power has the political authority necessary to take leadership of the now inextricably integrated global economy. The crisis of hegemony in the international system takes place within this single, integrated global economy. The end of US-European domination of world capitalism is upon us as the center of gravity of the global economy shifts to China. But China will not become a new hegemon. Rather, the world is moving toward political multipolarity at a time of acute crisis in global capitalism, prolonged economic turbulence and political decay.

We are facing nothing short of the decay of capitalist civilization. The Davos elite are aware of the severity of the global crisis — that the system is cracking up, that their grip on power is more and more tenuous and dependent on a global police state, and that the global working and popular classes are on the move. But the World Economic Forum’s commitment to defend and expand at all costs the endless accumulation of capital on a world scale — this is its raison d’etre — makes it impossible for the global ruling class to offer viable solutions to the epochal crisis. Addressing this crisis involves a far-reaching redistribution of wealth and power downward, the regulation of global markets, reining in transnational capital, the demilitarization of global society, and radical environmental measures. Such solutions will only come from mass struggle from below against the Davos ruling class.

Truthout, January 24, 2023

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