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Deaths at Davos by Thierry Malleret

Courtesy: Thierry Malleret
Courtesy: Thierry Malleret

Review of Deaths at Davos. Thierry Malleret. March 24, 2024. 113 pages.

Perhaps the global elites worst nightmare is that those who resent them gain the means to disrupt their coveted Annual Meeting in Davos. Imagine a group of jihadists, or QAnon adherents, or KGB members opening fire and killing powerful officials in the Swiss Alps. Though many would like to see this happen, the yearly conclave is heavily protected by the most sophisticated security forces on earth, so thankfully it probably never will. But it would make for a good movie! If you are a Hollywood producer, or just looking for an exhilarating read, “Deaths in Davos” is for you. 

Professor Malleret is critiquing Davos from within. He served as head of the Global Risks Network at the World Economic Forum (WEF), which publishes the annual Global Risks Report, a few decades back. He has co-authored multiple books, such as Ten Good Reasons to Go for a Walk (2017), The Great Reset (2020), and The Great Narrative (2022), with the WEF’s founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab. Having attended, presented & been in charge of curating the agenda for the Annual Meeting many times, Malleret is the ultimate international political economist, serving as a trusted advisor to leaders in government, business & civil society.  

Malleret is far from the first to criticize the “Spirit of Davos.” Geoffrey Pigman contrasts the “existential” vs. “instrumental” or “Shar-pei” vs. “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” critics. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington famously characterized attendees as “Davos Man,” with no allegiance to any nation or institution, just power & profit. New York Times journalist Peter Goodman used this as the title of his 2022 book Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World. Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy added the more gender neutral moniker of  “Davos Women.” Presumably the book is about “Deaths” instead of “Death” because a book entitled Death in Davos, in which the main character argues, “When it comes to class warfare, as far as I’m concerned, there’s far too much class and not enough warfare,” has already been written. An entire annual conference, the World Social Forum (WSF), was created in opposition to the WEF. Yet Malleret’s voice is distinct.

Much of his critique is made through a character named Karl Manhof, a trust fund billionaire involved in green investing. He branded his fund as “sustainable investing,” “impact investing,” “responsible investing,” “ESG,” “sustainable circularity,” or “building COPitalism,” and other common nomenclature meant to mask his true intentions. Mr. Manhof usually flew his private jet and fleet of helicopters to Davos, but this time he took public transit, of course with a PR ensemble broadcasting his every move. Manhof claims he wants to invest in Olena Kostarenko’s, the book’s main character, Reconstruct Ukraine Fund, because he cares about “democracy” or some other abstract idea. But his intentions are much more nefarious. 

Malleret does an excellent job at developing his characters. He writes with a distinct voice that likely did not come from ChatGPT. The French economist uses satire, parody & irony to disguise his serious point: talk is cheap. 

Malleret starts the book by writing: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual or past events and individuals is purely coincidental.” This is clearly meant in jest, as Malleret refers to “Trump,” “MAGA,” “Putin,” “Zelenskyy,” (the leader of Ukraine), “deoligarchization,” (a program by said leader), “The Don,” (Klaus Schwab), “a French academic known for his work on inequalities,” (Thomas Piketty), “white badges (an all-access pass at the Annual Meeting),” and the “Magic Mountain,” a reference to Thomas Mann’s 1903 novel which takes place in Davos, but has nothing to do with the Annual Meeting because it was written 68 years before the WEF’s birth. Death is a common theme in that book, too.

The book is enigmatic, like a Matryoshka doll with multiple layers of meaning, each discernable depending on who you are and what you know. For example, the head of security for the “Circle,” is named Markus. Is this a reference to the former long-time head of security in Davos, Markus Reinhardt, who committed suicide (conspiracy theories abound, just like with Jeffrey Epstein’s death) the night before the 2010 Annual Meeting began? Only the author knows.

Courtesy: National Geographic

The “Circle,” and the “inner circle of the Circle,” is presumably something those “in the know” would understand. This is a place where attendees, “came to talk about things instead of doing them.” Those who wish to join the Circle are part of the “The Circle of Aspiring Leaders,” a thinly-veiled allusion to the WEF’s Young Global Leaders. Malleret’s sarcasm is evident when he writes: “Throughout its history, the Circle has taken positive notions like ‘inclusion,’ ‘collaboration’, ‘partnership, ‘equal justice’, or ‘equality’ and turned them into empty words. It always says the right things, but what about acting on them?” Imagine a panel of various leaders talking about how to solve homelessness, and then walking past a beggar on the street without noticing.  

Careful readers will notice that the “mutiny amongst staff” is based off real-life concerns about Schwab’s control of the organization. Hired hands worry once he resigns, “Everybody would be at everybody else’s throat,” due to the 85-year old economists lack of a succession plan. My vote is for Malleret. 

My endorsement is far from decisive, but I am backing Thierry, whom I have never met, because he seems to have perspective. This is critical in a world that has gone mad. With our addiction to smartphones, and endless focus on social media and spreadsheets, we are losing the ability to “zoom out.” 

If you are unconvinced, take a look at the job postings at organizations like the WEF or OpenAI or Google, to name a few.  At the former, which is focused on the whole world and even space, they are hiring for an “Innovation Ecosystem Specialist: Longevity Economy,” a “Digital Success Specialist: Asia,” and an “Action Lead: Skills Initiative.” OpenAI is seeking a “Full Stack Software Engineer: Safety.” These are important jobs filled by people far more qualified than me, to be sure, but with a narrow focus. A young Herbert Simon or Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger would be overlooked for somebody who can move between dozens of apps and Zoom calls at lightning pace with a slender expertise. Perhaps I am projecting my own frustrations onto the current job market, as opportunities to look at the big picture are scarce.

Many listings….but do you have the neccessary qualifications? Cited from: Nick Bostrom, Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World

This is surprising, for Malleret & Schwab write in The Great Narrative: “we all tend to operate in our silos and often fail to connect the indispensable dots between disparate fields.” As David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute, told the authors: “The current world is one of complex causality.”

Dr. Kissinger noted in the context of strategy: 

“Reading books requires you to form concepts, to train your mind to relationships….A book is a large intellectual construction; you can’t hold it all in mind easily or at once. You have to struggle mentally to internalize it. Now there is no need to internalize because each fact can instantly be called up again on the computer. There is no context, no motive. Information is not knowledge. People are not readers but researchers, they float on the surface….This new thinking erases context. It disaggregates everything. All this makes strategic thinking about world order nearly impossible to achieve.”

I fear Dr. Kissinger would be unemployable if he were coming up today. As my friend and a former speechwriter for Colin Powell & Condoleeza Rice, Adam Garfinkle, recounts in his National Affairs column “The Erosion of Deep Literacy,” 

“So could it be that the failures of the American political class to fashion useful solutions to public- and foreign-policy challenges turn not just on polarization and hyper-partisanship, but also on the strong possibility that many of these non-deep readers are no longer able to think below the surface tension of a tweet?”

Yes. Dr. Garfinkle notes: “In science fiction, the typical worry is that machines will become human-like; the more pressing problem now is that, through the thinning out of our interactions, humans are becoming machine-like.” Most youngsters are not even conscious that these machines are making them small minded & self-centered, hindering our ability to listen or empathize. I told Adam he is lucky he is retired. (He continues to write, however, on Substack.)

Malleret uses fiction and humor to tell a story. Humans are story telling animals, after all. Much of history is driven by our belief in fiction, whether it be the Bible, the Torah, the Quran or the national anthem. These narratives give a comforting and simple explanation to a complex system, which Herbet Simon defined as, “one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a non simple way.” 

The French economic historian’s narrative climaxes with the assassination of a few prominent attendees. This sends Davos into a state of heavily securitized war, with everyone stuck in town: “Who on earth had the authority to order them to stay? To lock them down like common criminals? Surely there’d be an exception for them! But no, there were no exceptions.” This is the height of irony, for the same elites that locked humanity down during COVID are now getting a taste of their own medicine. Pampered by their privilege, they cannot believe it. A protestor holds a sign: “The Circle: Improving the State of YOUR World, not OURS. Signed: The REST.”

If there is any fault in the book, it is perhaps that the author seems to project his own political leanings onto current affairs. His characters worry that if Trump gets elected, this will mean victory for Putin in Ukraine and the end of NATO. This begs the question: why didn’t Putin invade Ukraine while Trump was president? Mr. Trump’s ask of NATO members to up their defense spending seems to only fortify the alliance. The history of American foreign relations is largely one of continuity between administrations, whether Democrat or Republicans. Malleret is surely aware of this, as he writes: “divide and rule!” Those in power have become skilled at dividing their opposition, as when speculating on who could have committed these terrorist attacks, “It could also have been the nefarious work of the far-right, or (not and) the far-left.”

Yet Malleret served as Chief Economist and Strategist of a major Russian investment bank, so on the question of Putin, what do I know? 

If you are like me, and are interested in figuring out how the world works, analyzing power structures, and looking at international political economy through a systemic lens, you will enjoy this book. Criticism is the highest form of flattery, as the opposite of love is not hate, but rather indifference. Malleret seems to echo comic Mort Sahl: “If I criticize somebody, it’s because I have higher hopes for the world, something good to replace the bad. I’m not saying what the Beat Generation says: ‘Go away because I’m not involved.’ I’m here and I’m involved.”

Such a critique is needed, for if it does not come from within, it will come from without, perhaps violently. Thus, we can preempt such criticism by making it inside the halls of power. Through this, as well as AI-powered predictive policing & guardian angels, we can keep Deaths at Davos where it belongs: fiction.

About the Author
Dan is a historian and human rights advocate
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