Notes From the Margins…

Davos: the sound of one hand clapping

  • January 26, 2016
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For those who like to follow the example of Brian and his disciples and always look on the bright side of life, it can safely be said that 2016 hasn’t gotten off to the most cracking start.  The year began with the mass sexual assaults at Cologne, which have now become a cause celebre for anti-immigrationists, racists and Islamophobes across the continent,  who have painted Europe’s refugees as a collective rape gang.

While Europe increasingly seethes with fear and hatred, the European Union is poised to undo one of its most cherished achievements, the Schengen Area of free movement, because its members cannot agree on how to deal with a refugee crisis that barely amounts to two percent of its population.

Meanwhile refugees drown in the Aegean almost on a daily basis, or make their way across the Balkans in sub-zero temperatures, to be clubbed and teargassed by police.  In Norway they are being forced back into Russia on bicycles.  In Denmark, the Danish parliament is debating whether or not to confiscate any personal valuables from refugees who are already without homes or jobs in order to offset their cost to the state.

There is still no end in sight to many of the wars that have caused this startling rise in the global refugee population.  Two weeks ago Daesh slaughtered hundreds of Syrians in Deir-al Zour.  In Jakarta, Istanbul and Ougadagou, jihadist groups claiming to be ‘inspired’ by Daesh have killed ‘soft targets’ without mercy or restraint, and there is every possibility that there will be repeats of Paris in Europe, as a weakened and crumbling Islamic State seeks to generate more recruits by whipping up hatred towards Europe’s increasingly beleaguered Muslims.

Meanwhile, despite all the vast sums of money that were handed out in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis that ‘saved the world’, as Gordon Brown once put it, it appears that the world has not been saved after all.  Hardly had the year begun, when RBS told its shareholders to ‘sell everything’ and even George Osborne warned that the global economy was headed for the buffers, not that we really needed him to tell us that.

For many people, the economy has been in trouble for some time.  Such as the mother who delivered a moving account to one  of Bernie Sanders’s campaign meetings in Iowa on what it was like to support her family doing up to five different jobs at the same time for less than $12,000 dollars a year.  Or 53-year-old Frances McCormack, who hanged herself last week in her home near Rotherham in the same room where her son had committed suicide,  because she was threatened with eviction and couldn’t pay the Bedroom Tax that was imposed upon her as a result of her son’s death.

Or the impoverished residents of  Flint, Michigan, who are still being charged for the polluted water that has poisoned them, while their elected officials ignored what was happening until it was too late.

Few of the economists, politicians and analysts who lauded the great bandaid operation of 2007/8 ever paid much attention to people like this.  And now the experts are issuing the kinds of apocalyptic warnings that ought to get you pushing barrows back from the supermarkets with stockpiled goods.

So it’s not good, you might even say it’s all looking a little dystopian.  But fortunately, when all hope seems lost, when you really think that it’s time to give up, there is Davos.   Here, at this annual gathering of the richest – if not necessarily the best –  minds of the planet, there is hope and even wisdom.

Some of the attendees were among the 62 people who,  according to Oxfam,  own as much wealth between them as the poorest 3 billion on the planet.  They included Bill and Melinda Gates, whose Gates Foundation was recently accused by the Global Justice Now campaign group of exacerbating global inequality through its ‘philanthrocapitalist’ model of corporate development aid..

There is Christine Lagarde, taking a little contemplative time out between helping the Troika trash Greece and preparing for her forthcoming corruption trial, to  tell a session on ‘the Global Economic Outlook ‘ We’ve heard a lot of about the Internet of Things – I think we need an Internet of Women.’

Now don’t tell me that isn’t deep.  Lagarde also took part in a debate on ‘Where is the Chinese Economy Heading? ‘ in which she answered the question by concluding that ‘ A degree of volatility is OK.  The market sorts things out, eventually.’

Forgive me if I sound like a complete idiot here, I probably am one.  But didn’t ‘ the market’ need a certain amount of help from the state to  ‘sort itself out’ after the last crisis, and doesn’t the crisis that’s currently looming suggest that in fact it didn’t really sort itself out at all?  Or maybe Lagarde is playing a long game with that ‘eventually’ that we mortals down here on the lower slopes just can’t see.

And there’s so much more drivel where this came from, so much blue sky thinking you can paraglide in it and never come down to earth. .’Every country needs a Minister of the Future’, says Marc R. Benioff, Chairman and CEO, Salesforce, in a session on ‘ The Future of Growth: Technology-Driven, Human-Centred.’.

Too right.   And Amira Yahyaoui, Founder and Chair, Al Bawsala, has declared that ‘ The Fourth Industrial Revolution should be a revolution of values. ‘  Yep, can’t wait for that, can you? But you better not  wait too long, because, as Meg Whitman, President and CEO at Hewlett Packard told a session on ‘The Digital Transformation of Industries, ‘ You can always go faster than you think you can.”

Isn’t so totally true?  After all,  as Marc R. Benioff told the same session, ‘ Speed is the new currency of business’, which is actually something I’ve believed for a long time, or I would have, if I had the slightest idea what it actually meant.

Even Lord Snooty showed up at Davos, promising to ‘hardwire competitiveness into the European Union’ – for which we can only wait with bated breath.  And there was also none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, in a ‘special conversaion’ in which he opined – swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom as always, that ‘ The key to tackling extremism is despair.  Rob them of the hope that their wild fantasies will win the day.’

OK, I’m probably not winning you over here, am I?  But that’s because you aren’t listening to the voice of  ‘, musician and philantrophist’, who told a session on ‘The 21st-Century Dream’, ‘ Let’s put our optimism goggles on.’

And he’s right.  If you want to feel better about the world, you have to think differently about it.  You need to remember, as Melinda Gates reminded a discussion on something called ‘Progress towards Parity’ that ‘ Goals are only wishes unless you have a plan.’

Goals are only wishes unless you have a plan.   All of you out there working for less than $12,000, pin that sentence up on your mirror when you brush your teeth in the morning, and contemplate its profundity and you too might end up running a billion-dollar charitable foundation.  Because, as John F. Kerry told Davos ‘ We are not the prisoners of a predetermined future.’

Which is welcome news for all of us.   and certainly for me.  Because I was beginning to think we were going to continue swimming round and round in this dystopian rip-tide forever.  But now, thanks to this gathering of the creme de la creme of the one percent, I feel liberated and energized and ready to look 2016 in the face.

In fact I’m positively brimming over with new-found wisdom.  And so I’m changing my name to Mat.the.w, philosopher and prophet of the unknown, and I’m putting my optimism goggles  on.  Because after all,  the  future is only the shape of things yet to come and  the past is just an earlier version of the present, and every journey begins with a departure and ends with an arrival.

You see?  It’s not hard. You too can learn to speak Davos.   And if you can’t,  just hang on till next January, when the circus will come back again, to answer those big questions that you haven’t even thought of yet.


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  1. Mike

    26th Jan 2016 - 9:14 pm

    Dear Matt, Or as Bill Clinton once suggested: “what is here? but there without the t.” Just be thankful that you don’t have a vote in the forthcoming elections in the US of A where you can choose between Hilary (bomber) Clinton who knows all there is to know about foreign relations and Don O’Trumpet who knows a menstruating Mexican or a murderous Muslim when he sees one and is ready to keep them all away from the paradise on earth that is the land of the free! Just build those fences and walls, boys, as fast as you can! Mike. PS You know that things have really gone way off track when the Saudi government reps. at the human rights council in Geneva protest to the Danish government about the treatment of refugees. How far can we fall?

    • Matt

      27th Jan 2016 - 8:41 am

      Classic quote from Clinton! Well you could fall further, the cash ceiling for refugees in Denmark is £1,000. In some German states it’s less than half that. Not much consolation though…

  2. Nigel Hunt

    27th Jan 2016 - 9:24 am

    I assume that is pronounced pronounced Matt the Dubya? So you have been persuaded by the Denizens of Davos and named yourself after that fine US president who had a similar philosophy…

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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