The World Economic Forum in Davos is a capitalist holy site (or hell hole, depending on your perspective) where political and economic elites pay their respects (but not taxes) to the Market, Free Enterprise, and Private Property.
Each year, some of the richest and most powerful people spend days grappling over which legitimation narrative will allow them to justify the historic inequality caused by their Smaugian hoards of wealth, or the resulting social problems as “capitalism [being] not immoral but amoral, or the looming climate apocalypse that many elites have plotted to profit from for decades.
This year, ahead of Davos 2020, came a “manifesto” entitled “The Universal Purpose of a Company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
"The purpose of a company is to engage all its stakeholders in shared and sustained value creation," opens the document. "In creating such value, a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders—employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and society at large."
The Davos Manifesto goes on to extoll the virtues of paying taxes, opposing corruption, upholding human rights, encouraging "fair competition," responsibly using data, environmental stewardship, and innovation. But also, a responsible return on investment. That all of this can be proposed as a solution should indicate how low the bar is—to fix capitalism, Davos would have you believe that corporations simply need to be more responsible and prioritize things other than profits. The only problem is that profit-seeking and the exploitation that comes with it are central to how capitalism operates and the resulting political, social, and economic problems we suffer for it.
The document is more of a PR move than anything else—an empty, if not guilty, gesture meant to take the place of a real critical examination of our current crisis, but also re-legitimize the present system by insisting that only these small “fair” fixes need to be implemented.
Take, for example, the core concept this manifesto relies on: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Since 2016, Davos and its participants have been announcing this new epoch and promising new changes. But what exactly is it? Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (who's been pitching his own "new capitalism") said the Fourth Industrial Revolution is "uncharted territory." Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, characterizes it as a series of "possibilities" that have the "potential" to combine technology, biology, and information to remake the world.
All this sounds like technobabble, and the descriptions of it still leave us with one burning question: what exactly is it?
Whatever the Fourth Industrial Revolution is (other futurists are still pitching the necessity of a still nebulous third industrial revolution), it’s certainly not real. In 2016, Elizabeth Garbee wrote a comprehensive takedown of the meaningless phrase, which has been continuously invoked for 75 years as a new phase that is just around the corner. Much of what’s being promised sounds nightmarish, anyway.
That the Davos Manifesto seeks to save capitalism by building on such empty phrases and ideas should not be a surprise. It’s a function of the elite guilt that saturates our politics, meant to stave off the guillotine and hasten a return to the status quo.