I’ve been to Davos once — long before the ‘World Economic Forum’ turned it into a synonynm for nonstop ego-massaging and billionaire-worship. It was in the late 1970s and I was walking in the Alps. I stumbled on the town more or less by mistake on a day that was too foggy to walk. I remember a drab place in which I bought — of all things — a Swiss Army knife and a walking stick that I still possess.
The event itself is nauseating enough. But what is even worse is the creepy sycophancy of the journalists who manage to cadge an invitation to the event. These are creatures who have apparently lost sight of the ancient investigative principle that behind every fortune lies a crime. One expects little better from the old-media print and broadcast crowd, of course. But what’s been increasingly depressing in the last two years is that they have been joined by a tribe of bloggers and twitterers who also seem to have lost their capacity for detachment. At any rate, their schoolgirlish excitement at being allowed into the hallowed precinct seems to have lobotomised their detachment.
So it was nice to open the Guardian this morning and find Julian Glover’s lovely dispatch from the benighted Swiss resort.
Perhaps it was the party at the end of the universe. Just as a neutron bomb destroys life while leaving structures intact, so Davos goes on, while the culture that supports it is dead. As collective belief was what propelled this global elite, one person’s self-importance feeding another’s, the mood has been broken as badly as the banks.
Alarm is not the same as contrition, and few people here will admit to have done anything personally wrong. The boss of JP Morgan Chase, James Dimon, is an exception: “I take full blame, yes. God knows some very stupid things were done.”
There is no real sense of collective guilt, or serious consideration of what to do next, other than rebuild the world that has just been lost. Davos has the air of a crash inquiry into an airline that intends to keep on flying. One hero, alone among thousands, suggested that the bankers should simply be jailed until they give the money back.
The problem with that is that most of them have no money to return. The ocean on which the global boom floated has evaporated.
The shock is real, the grief has hardly begun, but no one in Davos seems to think that means they should be less important or less rich. Yet for many the modesty is a temporary veil, to be worn until the good times return.
It is hard to tell who has really suffered, and who is only pretending. In a dark corridor at the centre of the concrete congress building billionaire surnames still flash past on white badges. This is a town where the men have the telltale signs of the seriously rich. Their hair has been blow-dried into implausible waves and layers; coiffures disciplined, even if the markets are not.