Friday 21 October 2016

Are pampered elites at Davos secretly trying to provoke a peasants' revolt?

It's hard to defend the sight of the richest people in the world living it up in the Swiss Alps

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30

Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and George Osborne at the World Economic Forum in Davos Photo:AP
Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and George Osborne at the World Economic Forum in Davos Photo:AP

It's that time of year again when Oxfam publishes a report saying that a handful of the world's richest people have more money than half the global population combined, and those who make it their life's work to be outraged at the excesses of capitalism have paroxysms of delicious indignation in response.

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Naturally, it never seems to bother any of these doughty warriors against inequality that the figures have repeatedly been debunked by anyone who actually bothers to do the maths, rather than automatically treating partisan press releases as if they were pieces of objective scholarship.

Basically, its critics claim, Oxfam comes to these alarming figures by calculating people's net worth. In other words, their total assets minus any debts.

As a result, billions of people are included among the world's poorest who are not really poor in the way we normally understand it - they have jobs, houses, cars, take foreign holidays, eat and drink to their heart's content - but who can conveniently be claimed as such as part of an ideologically-driven campaign for a massive redistribution of wealth which, even if it happened, probably wouldn't work in the expected way anyway.

That's the thing about spending other people's money. It never stretches as far as you might think. Even if you took every cent off the world's richest people and divided it evenly between billions of the world's poorest, it would only work out as a small perk for each of them. Which would be nice, but wouldn't solve the underlying problems of over population, under development, corruption and environmental inequality. We'll still be living in stable places, and they won't. The disparity in our lifestyles would soon reassert itself.

As the saying goes, it's complicated, but Oxfam isn't interested in complexities, only slogans.

Though perhaps that is to miss the point. The actual numbers might be dodgier than an Olympic athlete's blood sample, but it would be foolish to deny that there is a huge discrepancy between the world's richest and poorest, that this gap is widening, and that the contrast between them even in relatively prosperous countries such as ours causes legitimate disquiet.

What you do about it is another matter, but you don't have to be a raving communist to find it obscene that bankers get million-euro bonuses for playing dice with the economy, while a single mother struggles to make ends meet on a zero-hours contract. What's more, countering that perception isn't exactly helped by revelries such as this week's 46th annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

Conspiracy theorists like to see such gatherings of the elites as evidence of a new world order, a suspicion that stretches across the political divide. Left-wingers think attendees are plotting to seize more of the world's wealth for themselves. Right-wingers think they're organising another assault on freedom, and generally respond by buying more guns and shutting themselves away in compounds in the woods in Idaho.

Both are equally insane theories, but paranoia isn't an entirely illogical response when watching how the targets of this suspicion behave. At meetings of the arcane Bilderberg Group, no record is taken of what's discussed behind closed doors, and even elected politicians are expected to obey a vow of silence. That's an affront to democratic accountability, however you look at it.

Davos doesn't have the same cryptic vibe as other gatherings of the super rich and mega powerful. It's more like Glastonbury for millionaires, only there's no living in a tent or using blocked-up Portaloos for these golden ticket holders. Instead it's five-star hotel suites and private jets all round.

A feast of ostentatious consumption on this scale may be unavoidable. The world's most successful business, political and cultural figures (Bono and Leonardo di Caprio, anyone?) can't be expected to fly half-way around the world in order to bed down in a backpackers' hostel and eat breakfast rolls from the local garage just so that it creates a more egalitarian impression.

But it doesn't make it easier to stomach when these scenes are juxtaposed with pictures of workers in the Swiss Alps, no doubt on a minimum wage or a temporary contract, polishing bottles of champagne they couldn't themselves afford to drink, no matter how many hours they worked.

Observing Davos from the outside each January, it's hard not to wonder: do the people who organise these events secretly want an end to capitalism? It certainly has the decadent, perfumed air of pre-revolutionary France, making it ever harder for those who still believe in free market capitalism to defend a system which seems to exist solely to cosset these pampered peacocks from real life.

Because if showing themselves off in the worst possible light is the plan, they're definitely going the right way about it. Socialists shoot themselves in the foot all the time too; you can almost see that self-destructive urge tripping through their heads: "How can we put people off voting for us? I know, let's say something nice about terrorists." But at least they do it on a budget. Davos plays the same game with opulent abandon.

Couldn't they try to make it slightly less obvious that they don't want plebs like us around?

In the past, that didn't matter so much. What went on in Davos stayed in Davos. Now, as information is increasingly democratised, we all get to peek in through the window, each our own little matchstick girl, standing out in the cold whilst the fortunate few snuggle by the fireside inside.

It's an illusion of access, because we don't really believe that anything important is being said at those tedious press conferences with the French PM or panel discussions on "the Fourth Industrial Revolution". The real action is going on elsewhere, out of sight.

It's the overriding stench of self-congratulatory privilege emanating from those private rooms that makes the task of justifying capitalism all the harder.

It's still one of those moments when you're forced to bite the bullet and concede that we need these people, however repellent they sometimes seem. The economic system is crocked, unfair; but expecting socialists to fix what's wrong with capitalism is like calling in a plumber to fix what's wrong with your electrics. But sheesh, fellas, make it a bit easier to defend you, would you?

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