Every January, economic and governmental elites gather in their hundreds at Davos, the exclusive ski resort in Switzerland, where the World Economic Forum holds its annual high-level meeting. This year, because of the pandemic, the in-person meeting had to be rescheduled. But the controversies surrounding the meeting’s theme – The Great Reset – were not postponed.
“The Great Reset”, the proposal to recalibrate the global economy, formulated by the World Economic Forum (WEF), has already been the subject of ample public debate. Criticism over the initiative covers a large spectrum, from the allegedly utopian character of the proposal to the allegedly occult intention of a cabal of world leaders working to establish a global dictatorship. Perhaps less known are the criticisms by analysts specialized in public policies, digitalization and the global economy. What can we really know about the origin and ramifications of The Great Reset? A systematic analysis is necessary to sort through all the contradictory opinions.
The architects of The Great Reset are professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and Thierry Malleret, founder and managing partner of the Monthly Barometer—a predictive analysis addressed to investors, directors of transnational companies, and other decision-makers.
Klaus Schwab plays a key role in this project. The 82-year-old has had a prodigious career: at 27 years old he already had five degrees in mechanical engineering and economics. Born in Germany, Schwab studied at the Fribourg University, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. At 31 years old, he became Switzerland’s youngest university teacher, and by the time he was 33 (in 1971) he set up the basis for a foundation which he named the European Management Forum.
At that time, Klaus Schwab was a Swiss-German corporate policy professor at the Centre d’Etudes Industrielles (CEI) in Geneva—one of the four executive business schools that played a part in the management revolution following the Marshall Plan in Europe, a competence watershed in management, with global ramifications.
This curriculum vitae was enough for Schwab to be able to invite a few hundred top managers, members of the European Commission, and other economists, to the small, exclusive ski resort in Davos to celebrate CEI’s 25th anniversary. Interestingly, Schwab came to fully control the event: together with one of his associates, Duri Capaul, he set up a company called International Education Services and presented the CEI director with a contract to organize the event.
Schwab came to fully control the event through a legal artifice.
The terms of that contract stipulated a reversal of the organizational roles, in the sense that the CEI was no longer responsible for the event, but Schwab’s company who “owns all rights concerning the realization of the European Management Symposium…has full rights to use CEI’s name, and unlimited use of its know-how [for the organization of the symposium]”, “making Klaus Schwab fully responsible for the project of EMS…. All decisions at the CEI regarding the symposium will be delegated to KS [Klaus Schwab]”.
The first meeting in Davos, in 1971, lasted 14 days, and sought to get the key economic players in Europe acquainted with modern, American economic methods. As a result, this lead to new corporate strategies being adopted by European companies. The meeting was a success, and so it has been repeated every year since.
After the symposium, Schwab founded a trust fund called the European Management Forum that, starting in 1987, became what we know today as the World Economic Forum. Set up as a non-profit organization, this continued the tradition of high level meetings in Davos, which became a platform for global elites.
At the meeting in January 2012, a record number of participants—2,600 leaders from the business and governmental world, as well as civil society, among them approximately 40 heads of state—talked about The Great Transformation. This was a proposed solution to many global challenges, with finding the answer to the European economic crisis and jobs for the 200 million unemployed people in Europe a priority.
From fiscal imbalances, to poor water, food, and energy supply management, and from social instability to the unequal subsidization of state needs, mankind’s most pressing problems were all part of an interconnected scheme which made up the Global Risks Report 2012. The Great Transformation was publicly launched as global leaders’ strategic answer to these problems.
At least a year prior to the annual meeting, the members of the Forum had been invited to contribute to the drafting of the Global Agenda by coming up with innovative solutions to global problems. The most interesting, from the Forum’s perspective, was discussed during the annual meeting and then mentioned in the report. This report did not amount to an interstate agreement, in the same way the Great Reset does not, but rather represented a summary of the talks.
Essentially, The Great Transformation involved the creation of new models of economic growth and use of labour force, developing new leadership and innovation models, new models for sustainable resource management, as well as new models to answer the social and technological challenges the future would bring. “The Great Transformation” was not a spontaneous revelation, but a crafting of previous proposals like “Rethink, redesign, rebuild” in 2010 or “Shaping the Post Crisis World” in 2009.
The Great Reset, proposed eight years after The Great Transformation, comes with the same appeal to global restoration, this time as a response to the crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In other words, behind the initiative of The Great Reset lies an entire history of plans that have been started and implemented up to different points. In an editorial published in The Guardian, Quinn Slobodian took inventory of the key expressions that have been used in the last decade by authors or politicians to describe transformations like the ones proposed by The Great Reset: “great financialization”, the “great regression”, the “great reversal”, the “great acceleration”, the “great unravelling” and the “great uncoupling”.
The Hungarian-American economist Karl Polanyi had already proposed a rethinking of the economy. He called it “The Great Transformation”.
In the same editorial, Slobodian discussed the “The Great Transformation”, an evaluation made during the last century by Hungarian-American economist Karl Polanyi who passed away in 1966. He proposed a rethinking of the economy in 1944, calling it “The Great Transformation”. Polanyi explained that there was a need to understand the market economy and the nation-state not as two distinct elements, but as a whole which he called “the market society”. He wrote that global economic mentalities had changed and that, under the pressure of competition, industrialization, and the growth of states’ influence, economic relations, once based on mutuality and redistribution, had been altered and replaced with a market which is no longer self-regulating. Today, Polanyi’s vision is contested by researchers who say that the economist’s evaluation is truncated and confusing.
The Great Reset: a micro-review
Today, in the middle of the pro-reset campaign—rich in articles, videos, webinars and podcasts—lies the book The Great Reset published in June 2020 by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret. The volume details the reasons why a new global strategy is required, the impact they expect it to have, and the challenges it might face. The book is, however, far from being a program for revolution. Written “at the border between academic research and an essay” as Schwab says in the introduction, The Great Reset does not contain any plan, but is a summary of the main global tendencies in economics, environment and technology, which, according to the authors, were interpreted during the keynote address of the World Economic Forum (which we will discuss in the following section).
The books starts by noting how, instead of levelling societies, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened most of the problems societies were already facing. Out of the milieu of economic, geopolitical, societal, environmental, and technological effects of the pandemic emerged a crisis of such scale that it is best compared to what the world experienced at the end of the First World War, the authors say. This comparison is doubly appropriate as, firstly, it reminds readers that after the First World War mankind went through a paradigm shift of multiple strata (political, cultural, economic, and social). Secondly, it implies that the change that was possible then is possible today.
In each chapter that analyses possible scenarios for fields such as global economy, national social policies, the direction of globalization, the environment’s evolution, or digitalization, the authors propose governmental and corporate measures which they believe will lead to a rethinking of capitalism according to the principles of sustainability.
The book concerns complex, systemic objectives like: “the valorisation of the fourth industrial revolution”, “supporting regional development”, “revitalization of global cooperation”, “developing new sustainable business models”, “restoring environmental health”, “rethinking social contracts, abilities and work places”, as well as “modelling economic recovery”. For instance, when they talk about a stronger cooperation between governments, companies, and civil society, oriented towards economic, social and environmental development, the authors mean that governments who stepped forward during the pandemic (accelerating the economic measures and implementing rules for the management of emergencies) are bound to become more powerful and core efficient.
Companies should take measures in keeping with their responsibility to favour equitable, non-discriminatory and environmentally-conscious development, in the long run, even if in the short term this might be detrimental to turning a profit. In the book, civil society is encouraged to guarantee public policies that ensure citizens’ protection and the elevation of victims of discrimination.
After the public launch of this strategy, political leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, American president Joe Biden and Prince Charles greeted the initiative and declared themselves in favour of “building back better”. Some have observed that both in Pope Francis’s encyclical “Fratelli tutti” and his book Let Us Dream, there is a notable convergence with the ideals mentioned by The Great Reset, although the encyclical or the book do not make any explicit reference to the Forum’s initiative. Both the World Economic Forum and Catholic media channels have signalled this convergence, though each of them emphasise the originality of the initiative of the party they represent.
At the beginning of November 2020, after a video of Justin Trudeau’s speech at a meeting of the United Nations went viral, tens of thousands of social media users accused global leaders of using the pandemic to introduce socialistic polices and harmful environmental policies. It all culminated in an online petition against the WEF strategy, which managed to gather over 80 000 signatures in less than 72 hours. Voices of conservative politicians like the leader of the Canadian opposition, Erin O’Toole, criticized the idea of a reset and claimed that Justin Trudeau is using the pandemic to implement a massive and risky experiment.
The rumours developed into a veritable conspiracy theory implicating “the global financial elites” who wish to establish a Marxist totalitarian regime which would suspend the right to private property, militarize cities, impose compulsory vaccination and create isolation camps for those who oppose the establishment of the “New World Order”.
Factors of interest: abolishing property and surveillance
Although the book The Great Reset does not make any reference to cancelling private property, some have falsely ascribed the objective of abolishing private property by 2030 to the World Economic Forum. The confusion came from an editorial in 2016, signed by Ida Auken, a social-liberal member of the Danish Parliament, in which Auken imagined an extreme of the future which present-day technology already facilitates. Today we see a migration from ownership to renting in fields like software licensing or access to subscription-based car options.
It is true that the World Economic Forum published a list of desirable scenarios for 2030. However, although the list alludes to discouraging vehicle purchase by prohibiting access to private cars in cities and encouraging car-sharing instead, the complete abolition of all property ownership does not appear among the desirable scenarios imagined by the Forum.
However, the authors believe that voluntary enrolment in apps for tracking the number of COVID-19 contacts to the purpose of being able to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is recommendable. They offer the experience of Singapore as an example, as an illustration of state surveillance which ostensibly respects the privacy of the majority of those placed under surveillance. The book does not go further than this, but suggests that questions regarding the degree to which surveillance should be part of future social contracts are important to the debate.
After reading the book, one may rightfully conclude that the position of the World Economic Forum regarding surveillance is positive only when it comes to cases of programs which prevent the transmission of COVID-19. For other instances, the Forum seems to recommend prudence—especially when it quotes controversial historian Yuval Harari imagining a dystopia in which North Korea incrementally increases its political control using surveillance algorithms. Here is where we need to expand our framework.
Through its members, the World Economic Forum has already made an appeal for a change of focus when it comes to technology—from threats to opportunities. For instance, it considers it desirable that people all over the world can use their smartphones to self-monitor their mental health by filling in information about their emotional wellbeing, with nothing to guarantee the protection of that data. This shift from threat to opportunity is beneficial for Big Tech companies and for governments, the Forum argues. However, the opportunity cost for society overall is far from clear, and the evidence which would suspend the need for prudence is rather scant.
This split between the economic/governmental interests and social interests is probably the most vulnerable point of the ideological strategy of the Forum. This is the front on which conspiracy theorists fight their battle, but it is also where critics from the academic field should have their say.
A question of efficiency or legitimacy?
The theory about the power of transnational elite clubs (like the World Economic Forum) as a “strategic element within globalizing capitalism” is no stranger to conspiracy theorists. But these private international relations councils “are not shadow governments of plutocrats manipulating international relations”, says Stephan Gill, professor of Political Sciences at the York University in Toronto. “Rather, they are consciousness-raising forums where individuals representing elements of the state and civil society in affiliated countries can come to know and influence each other…. Private councils are part of a much wider international process of elite familiarisation and fraternisation, mutual education and, broadly speaking, networking.”
What is the power of these leaders, convinced of one solution or another presented in the Forum? Jean-Christophe Graz, Swiss professor of international relations and political studies, believes that, because of the de facto power the participants have, the private environments of elite clubs are endowed with the capacity to generate change in society.
However, if elite clubs do not represent the will of social forces propelling political leaders to management positions, their efficiency is limited to launching initiatives, creating working groups, councils, and task forces. To be able to bring about change in society, one needs formal processes of political institutionalization—in other words, the state. “‘Great collective passion…can accelerate the realization of the new society, provided that it was preceded by a patient and systematic engagement with existing institutions”, says Graz in a study financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Although they can access huge resources, clubs cannot exercise real power without the mediation of public institutions, and social mobilization. If they try, the result is the reverse mobilization of the social forces that have been excluded from the elite group, Graz concludes.
To sum up, criticism of the World Economic Forum can be divided into two branches, as shown in a briefing drafted in 2019 by the European Parliamentary Research Service. The document focused on the influence of, and controversies related to, the World Economic Forum. Critics who claim that the Forum does not materialize its intentions according to its capacity or mission constitute the instrumental branch of criticism. Critics focusing on instrumental aspects agree with the ideas promoted by the Forum, but are dissatisfied with the management style and the organization’s lack of efficiency.
If elite clubs do not represent the will of social forces propelling political leaders in management positions, their efficiency is limited to launching initiatives, creating working groups, councils and task forces. To able to bring about change in society, one needs formal processes of political institutionalization—in other words, the state.
Those who question the Forum’s legitimacy, its mission, members and operating methods, belong to the existential branch of criticism. They see the Forum as a lobby instrument for a neoliberal agenda, which favours the members of the Forum from the corporate sector, to the disadvantage or even at the expense of the rest of society. The main reproach of these critics, says Geoffrey Allen Pigman, American political sciences researcher, is that, besides its public debates and projects, the Forum organizes meetings behind closed doors which enable economic leaders to have discreet access to political decision makers, thus helping them to get certain deals which are useful for their business.
The paradox is that this elitist separation from the rest of society, along with the lack of power transfer to formal structures (official, state-owned), causes the Forum’s influence to be inversely proportional to its legitimacy. This is why the explosion of conspiracies revolving around the “Great Reset” is not surprising. As professor Graz said, exclusivism cultivates the development of opposing forces. In the case of the Forum, these forces question the very legitimacy of its functioning.
“The Great Reset”, says Canadian author Naomi Klein, “is not a serious effort to actually solve the crises it describes.” On the contrary, Klein believes that the initiative is an effort to create the plausible but false impression that the big winners in this system “are on the verge of voluntarily setting greed aside to get serious about solving the raging crises that are radically destabilizing our world.” In Klein’s opinion, shared by financier Andrew Stuttaford, a conspiracy would almost be preferable to the realization of the reality in which “elites try to harness deep disasters to push through policies that further enrich the already wealthy and restrict democratic liberties.”
The paradox is that elitist separation from the rest of society, along with the lack of a transfer of power to formal structures (official, state-owned), causes the Forum’s influence to be inversely proportional to its legitimacy.
Beyond the often blamed Davos-talk used by transnational companies paying obscene amounts of money to participate in Davos in a strategic effort to network and clear up their public image, what remains are the real problems of society. Unfortunately, these do not change, especially not when the public’s attention is focused on the mountain of false conspiracies around the meetings in Davos. Conspiracy theories, at best, can protest against the Forum’s legitimacy. However, if they do it based on fanciful arguments, the real problems of legitimacy remain outside the debate, as do society’s real problems.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.