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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 16, 2023

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WEF Conspiracies Are An IQ Test

This man is named Klaus Schwab. Mr Schwab is an elderly German economist of little renown, who taught for many years at the University of Geneva, which has a relatively middling business school for Switzerland that is distant in rankings behind those in St Gallen and Lausanne. Mr Schwab possesses no institutional power. He is, however, a somewhat successful conference organizer, having used some of his family's moderate wealth and some institutional backing from the University of Geneva to found a European corporate governance conference in the Swiss town of Davos in the early 1970s.

For largely dull reasons (including its place on the international events calendar, Switzerland's centrality in Europe, the draw of combining work with the ski season for corporate executives, and the relative safety of Switzerland for wealthy people, which was a big deal in the 1970s and 1980s with movements like the Red Army Faction in Germany, various other leftist and PLO terrorists elsewhere in Europe etc), the conference became more important over time and was eventually attended by many European and later world leaders, often for many of the same reasons noted above. Davos' position as a mountain town near to airfields easily accessible by private jet and with the many better hotels typical of high-end Swiss resort towns made it still more attractive for that purpose.

Schwab's ideology remained resolutely typical of Swiss and German business elites. He welcomed globalization, which served Switzerland very well, and welcomed almost any world leader or business executive who wished to attend his conference in Davos. Schwab enriched himself to some extent, paying himself a salary of about a million dollars a year by the mid-2000s (much remarked upon in the Swiss press), but did not appear to have any major agenda. Instead, relatively mid-level Mittel-European economists who he met professionally and liked, plus some famous academics who wanted a platform, would gather each year (increasingly supplanted by a small staff he hired himself with an ever-rising ticket income) to pick some arbitrary topic that PR would push as the "theme" of the conference. In one year, it might be the risks of sea level rises from global warming, in another it might be the risk of automation taking human jobs, and in another it might be the global financial crisis or some buzzword like "resilient dynamism" (2013).

Schwab also wrote a book, titled 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution', a poorly written text that says little and which argues for what is effectively globalized neoliberal "stakeholder capitalism". It is important to note that Schwab had little to do with the actual emergence of the modern global economic consensus; he was not a core member of Reagan or Thatcher's governments, didn't have anything to do with big shifts in economic policy in any developed country in the 1980s and 1990s, and has had no ideological or practical impact upon the economic policy of any major country in his fifty-year career, not even that of Switzerland. Nobody has ever attended his conference to hear what Klaus Schwab has to say.

In the mid-2010s, a bizarre conspiracy theory emerged in which Klaus was a central figure in a cabal of illuminati-esque global elites who got together to plan their annual strategy at the World Economic Forum, as the conference came to be known, each year. Klaus Schwab did, after all, advocate a pretty firm continuation of the status quo, more globalization, more trade, more detente between the West and China and Russia, more deregulation, more "neoliberal" economics - and so did most participants at the WEF, given that this was for many years the dominant ideology among many world and business leaders. But in a surprise twist, it turned out that the critics of the WEF weren't disaffected socialists of the kind who riot at G8 or WTO gatherings against "neoliberal hypercapitalism" or whatever. They were on the right, and they accused Schwab of being behind a cabal of progressive elites who wanted to force trans advocacy, socialism, bug-eating, pod houses and various other indignities upon an unwitting population of blue-collar citizens of western countries.

They were bolstered by standard rightoid image macro memes that presented quotes largely out of context. In the most famous case, Schwab was alleged to have told the public that, in the future "You'll own nothing and you'll be happy", apparently in some kind of sinister announcement to delegates that the cabal was planning on limiting private property rights, coming for people's wealth or whatever. In reality, however, Schwab said nothing of the sort. Instead, the WEF posted a video on its Facebook page that summarized "8 Predictions for the World in 2030" made by 8 politicians and thinkers the WEF had hired to write predictions about the future for their website. The quote actually came from the relatively kooky Danish socialist politician Ida Auken, who used it in predicting a kind of utopian-dystopian society, in which people in wealthy communities were prosperous and able to rent whatever they needed (houses, cars, vacation homes) cheaply, with goods delivered by drone, while a great population of poor people would live 'outside the city', struggling to survive. This prediction, a dull mainstay of science fiction from the 1950s onwards, was misinterpreted by some social media manager for the WEF as a purely optimistic forecast, and then inserted into the Facebook video.

Other examples are myriad, but include in many cases phrases about 'eating bugs' and 'living in pods'. The former stems from a 2017 twitter post by the leftist magazine 'Mother Jones' (which, by the way, made fun of the idea of eating bugs) and some human interest stories by food blogs about eating bugs, which is common in some countries and so hardly particularly modern or degenerate or whatever, that noted their farming emitted less methane than cattle farming. If you like lobster, you already eat "bugs". The WEF has posted some stories about the business opportunity in vegan meat substitutes, much as it posts articles about every other kind of possible business innovation. The latter phrase stems from a 2019 WEF report on housing options in densely overcrowded cities that notes possibilities in 'tiny homes' or shipping container apartments to create more 'affordable housing'. That these housing options might be much better than what the average proletarian in Chennai or Chengdu currently has was the point, rather than to force affluent American picket fence suburbanities into modern banlieues. The report itself contains the word "pod" only twice, once in the name of a British company providing prefabricated homes built on parking lots that look dull but hardly dystopian (especially if you're familiar with British housing), and the other is in discussing temporary shelters for homeless people in American cities. Other examples include the 'Great Reset' (a WEF paper that primarily advocates an agreement on a global minimum corporation tax, hardly revolutionary dystopian policy here) and so on.

The fact that some people on the right unironically fall for this is embarassing. It reflects not only a lack of baseline critical thinking ability, but a complete inability to figure out where political and economic power actually lie (and with whom they sit). Making Klaus Schwab into a sinister figure is like making the chef at an Italian restaurant where mobsters like to hang out because the pasta is good and the location is convenient out to be the central Don, head of the five families and crime lord of the city (or, indeed, the world). It's a reasoning test.

A few notes:

Do you have examples of right-wing anti-WEF conspiracy theories before the pandemic? Since before the pandemic the only anti-WEF criticism I can remember came from the left, and it didn't concentrate on Schwab or even the organization WEF itself but mainly the Davos conference. Like the term "WEF" would probably not have rung that many bells within the antiglobalization/anti-neoliberal set but the term "Davos" certainly would have. Or at least that's my experience.

If you look at images like this, Schwab looks like he's leaning into his newfound rep as an evil genius. Then again, I'd imagine it would be quite a rush to be a fairly minor (in the grand scheme of things) middle-manager type for the global jetset and suddenly find yourself the head of the global Illuminati in the conspiracy-theorist central casting. Examples abound of similar leaning into "cool dark" image, from teenage goths to the "Dark Enlightenment" (remember that?)

One of the things that WEF is into is trying to make predictions and scenarios of the future - the whole exercise that the "You will own nothing..." things is a part of is a part of that. Schwab's boring books also have a similar affect. We know that trying to predict the future is fun and exciting, considering how popular various superforecasting contests are and how much this topic features in, for example, Scott's blogging.

If you fancy yourself a noblesse-oblige type wealthy benefactor of humanity (surely how these types see themselves, even if it's probably not how others would describe them), and if you have the sort of networks and amounts of non-public data that you might get from private conversations in global elite meetings like this, you'd probably try to use them to heighten your predicting ability. After all, you know stuff that others don't, and that's a rush in itself. (I wonder how many people, after reading enough stuff about conspiracies, just resolve that they just must know more about this and that they must attempt to join the conspiracy itself to do this?) And, of course, various governments and businesses will draw up scenarios for the future as a part of their normal functioning.

However, if your predictions are too good, it will cause problems - since many people will just decide that nobody can predict things this specifically, they must have made them happen. Thus, you have the various pandemic scenarios used by conspiracy theorists to argue that they're correct enough about specific things that they show that the people making these predictions (global think tanks etc.) must have made the pandemic happen and announced this beforehand for... uhm, reasons. I wonder if this will eventually lead to such predicting diminishing, or becoming less and less specific.

The infamous "You will own nothing..." scenario is fairly creepily expressed, and I don't think it's just that Auken is presenting it as both utopian and dystopian. Auken has actually had a varied career in the Danish parliament, representing three different Danish parties - while she started in the Socialist People's Party, a party somewhat analoguous to Greens in many other countries, she has also been a Social Liberal and now a Social Democrat. Her thinking doesn't seem to represent as much any sort of doctrinaire socialism as a sort of a green, urbanist liberalism.

Then again, that sort of stuff, combined with a kind of a political autism, can lead to politicians making weird statements - I distinctly remember one Finnish Green, in an election panel for out city election, exclaiming that his ideal city would be have everyone living in a dense city with "wolves running outside the city wall". In my experience this kind of experience is often less a proof that you're a part of a global conspiracy and more a result of being the precocious kid in some rural village experiencing moving to a bigger city as a life-changing revelation showing the superiority of all urban life to ruralism, combined with playing too much SimCity.

Anyway, what strikes me about the "You will own nothing..." video is that whatever utopian aspects there are are basically putting a hippy-dippy sheen on a process that's basically predicated on pure capitalism - ie the expansion of the "rent, don't own" model, already popular when it comes to Netflix, the "sharing economy" etc. to all other facets of life as well. Generally, though, this is not done to help humanity or to abolish private property (it's just concentrated in fewer and fewer private entities) but to make piles of cash and profits for stockholders. And "putting a hippy-dippy sheen on processes designed to make money" describes quite a bit of what WEF does, really.

When it comes to the whole "eat the bugs" thing, the bug-eating trend attempts have come and gone for years now, and they fail every time - bug-eating just plain isn't a part of the Western culture. However, I've never got the impression that the bug-eating promoters are trying to make the proles eat the bugs - rather, it's almost like an progressive middle-class version of kids trying to dare each other to eat worms. An enlightement status game among hipsters, with no-one, in the end, being truly willing to commit to this bit, mainly because, as said, bug-eating just isn't a part of the Western culture, and the ones who are willing to commit to avoiding meat for environmental reasons can just go vegan.

Finally, one of the participants in the current Davos conference is, of course, the Finnish PM Sanna Marin, and the Finnish media has duly featured her trip there, where she has used her newfound publicity to make statements like this, a basic and pedestrian statement in Finnish politics but apparently manna from heaven to many foreigners looking for firmness and resolve regarding the Ukraine war.

The fact that she's participating openly in this "conspiracy" seems to make conspiracy theorists, both foreign and domestic, almost confused - why is she so open about being a WEF puppet? - and this confusion in turn leads to more confusion among more traditional political types. Yes, she's participating in an event featuring global political and business actors and trying to ingratiate herself to them, that's a major part of her job! When you're a leader of a small country and participating in abroad events like this, you are inevitably also operating as the brand ambassador of Business Finland, trying to convince foreign corporations that Finland is worth investing in, hopefully leading to jobs and wealth.

If she was to declare that she will never participate in events like this - which is something she might have done in her younger and more leftist years - presumably she could then well be attacked for failing to do her job and making Finland poorer and less integrated to the global economy. And, of course, that's how the global elite networks keep operating - even if you wouldn't want to attend, there's always something that might mean you basically have to.