Another day, another initiative comes out of International Geneva, another proposal to fix the world… In 1941, the architect of the UK’s modern welfare state, William Beveridge, recognized the time of reconstruction that would follow the Second World War for what it was. He said, “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” In 2020, stepping into the breach, the World Economic Forum. Their proposal: ‘The Great Reset: A Unique Twin Summit to Begin 2021.’ No patching to see here, thank you very much. Geneva is ever a place of jarring contrasts. In the same week as a poll conducted by Geneva’s International Welcome Centre (CAGI) found that almost 80% of NGOs in Geneva are having to reduce their activities due to Covid-19, and 44% report that its impact is severe, and international organizations here face renewed criticism and funding problems. Across the lake, the self-styled "international organization of public-private cooperation" announced their response to the pandemic in typical fashion—there is something typically ‘Davos’ in having the heir to a throne (in this case, the UK’s Prince Charles) front and centre of your call for a fairer social contract. António Guterres, silent so far over the protests and marches happening all around the UN’s New York headquarters (perhaps another example of his brand of ‘quiet diplomacy’ we mentioned in our profile of him), appeared via video link to say “the Great Reset is a welcome recognition that this human tragedy must be a wake-up call.”
The revolution will not be UpLinked The WEF’s contribution? Their annual meeting this year will “reflect the spirit of the Great Reset” by bringing together “the key global government and business leaders in Davos.” So far, so Davos ...? Ah, but this time, it will be “framed within a global multistakeholder summit driven by the younger generation.” In unfortunately dystopian-sounding language, the WEF “will draw on thousands of young people in more than 400 cities around the world.” This ‘Global Shapers Community’ (... Cool.) will be able to virtually interact with “the leaders in Davos”, who will no doubt also be able to switch off anything they don’t like faster than a WHO official being asked a question about Taiwan. It is true that the WEF is an easy target. And despite their many flaws, they do great analysis and data work. The annual meeting in Davos can in fact be extremely productive for the political class. For Switzerland, it is also undeniably a major strategic asset.
The WEF absolutely has a role to play. But is it a credible venue for finding alternatives to a status quo that serves their partners so well? According to them, they’ve “developed a reputation as a trusted platform for informed collaboration and cooperation between all stakeholders—reinforced by a track record of success over five decades.” Now, how this “track record of success over five decades” squares with the “longstanding ruptures in our economies and societies” they acknowledge have been laid bare by the Covid crisis, or by their dramatic conclusion that we need a “reset,” is one matter. Another is their diagnoses. According to the WEF, the global health crisis has “created a social crisis that urgently requires decent, meaningful jobs.” It also requires repairing and strengthening social protection systems around the world to ensure people can effectively access health care while they are out of work or facing income insecurity, as the ILO keeps saying. The WEF, and their annual Davos meeting, have lately been places where private enterprises successfully co-opt a language of social solidarity while (unwittingly or not) undermining that solidarity. The gig economy’s destruction of social safety nets was and still is, after all, heralded by the language of freedom. Multistakeholder approaches can undermine democratic accountability by placing—and legitimising—rich individuals at the table with political leaders (and sometimes affected populations... maybe). They also tend to overlook law, the (albeit imperfect) tool of democratic governance, as an effective way of raising and protecting populations’ standards of living. Perhaps if all you bring to the table are private sector solutions, everything starts to look like a private sector problem?
A time for revolution and not for patching this undoubtedly is. But it’s difficult to see what the Prince of Wales, or the CEOs of Mastercard and BP will get out of a revolution. Indeed, that may be why they're calling it a reset, a word with an already storied history of success in Geneva. The WEF’s glossy video proclaims, “Our world has changed. Our challenges are greater. Our fragilities are exposed. Our system needs a reset.” Then a finger extends to press the “reset” key on a keyboard. If you are at a computer, look down. That key doesn’t exist. No matter, no matter… Cut to pleasing images of nature (aerial shots of big waterfalls, of shoals of fish, of big trees) and some astronauts hugging in space over a score written by an algorithm with the keywords "vaguely inspirational."