Earlier this year some 2,000 of the world’s most prominent business and political leaders—among them Bill Gates and the President of Brazil, also George Soros and the Chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank—made their way to Davos, Switzerland, for the 27th annual meeting of The World Economic Forum. They brought with them a wealth of good intentions as well as what the correspondent for London’s Financial Times estimated at “roughly 70% of the world’s daily output of self-congratulation.”
This year the quorum of journalists included the incongruous presence of Lewis Lapham, a writer known for his not always flattering portraits of America’s ruling and possessing classes. The larger cast of an international plutocracy assembled in the shadow of an alp made famous by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, presented Lapham with a broader canvas on which to exercise his considerable talent for keen observation and sardonic wit.
Diligently attentive to the program of scheduled events, Lapham goes to briefings on the outlook for Thailand and the subtleties of corporate espionage, carries forward the discussions over lunch or dinner at picturesque resort hotels, listens to speeches by eminencies as grave and diverse as Newt Gingrich, John Sweeney, the Chairman of Toyota, and the Vice Premier of China. He encounters finance ministers and professors of economics who gaze into the glass of the future and see little else except their own reflections. After five days in Davos he understands that the masters of markets and captains of commercial empire know as little about the likely movements of the global economy as the waiters supplying them with plum brandy and cheese fondue.
“Although in many ways bountiful and in some ways benign, the colossal mechanism that generates the wealth of nations lacks the capacity for human speech or conscious thought, a failing the troubles those of its upper servants who wish to believe that it is they who control the machine and not the machine that controls them. Their armour proper forbids them from picturing themselves as mere stokers heaving computer printouts and Montblanc pens into a blind, remorseless furnace. They seek a more gracious portraiture, and so, every year in late January, they make their optimistic way from the low-flying places of the earth to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where, high up on the same alp that provided Thomas Mann with the setting for The Magic Fountain, they brood upon the mysteries of capitalist creation.
Given the chance last winter to make the annual ascent, I didn’t see how I could refuse ... ”