Last week, the World Economic Forum held its 2024 Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. It is the top, the very pinnacle of worldwide leaders in politics and economics. What the WEF likes to refer to as the Global “Stakeholders.” Stakeholders is a relatively obscure term that Klaus Schwab rescued from the dustbin of investment language to describe those who are invested in and manage their countries.
This year, 2,700 leaders from 130 countries, including 52 heads of state, were present. Among the dignitaries were former Chicago lawyer, now head of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, German Chancellor Olaf Schotz, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization. As you can tell, it was an opportunity for these leaders of international non-governmental organizations to rub elbows.
One of the biggest surprises of the Conference was China’s attendance. For those who did not book the hotel reservations, there was doubt whether China would attend. But they did, and what’s more, they had the largest delegation of any of the 130 countries. Scuttlebutt has it that the Americans did not react well to this diplomatic tour de force. John Kerry, the former environmental czar and now a full-time campaigner for President Biden, was reportedly particularly annoyed. Ah so!
Presiding over the event, as he has for every year since its founding, was the bald pate and lugubrious voice of Klaus Schwab. Schwab has gained an international stature that is second to none — extolled by some as a visionary who will guide us into a new economic era. Others also condemn him as the leader of a global plot to take over the world. While there may be more people who see Schwab in a negative light, there can be little doubt that the power and money of this world follow his every word.
As we’ve come to expect from these international business and political leaders, everyone stayed on script. Ever the stock broker, David Solomon, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, warned that the market may be “getting ahead of itself.” International Energy Agency head Fatih Birol told us that “clean energy” will see unstoppable growth. What did you expect him to say? Jamie Diamon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, repeated Lindsey Graham’s (Senator, South Carolina) line that fighting in Ukraine was good for America, protecting “democracy.” And besides, it’s only Ukraine boys who are dying.
But behind the smiling faces was an unease that can be seen in some of the “outlier” speeches and certainly in this year’s theme. It’s the sense that the “natives are getting restless.” Many of the tried and true themes that the WEF has used in the past no longer resonate with the average citizen. This year’s Davos Conference theme reflects “Cooperation in a Fragmented World.” Fragmented is code many now reject Schwab’s and the WEF’s vision for the future.
Two blockbuster speeches reflected this dissent. Both warned that while the WEF may be leading, there’s no one following. The parade Schwab began 53 years ago is likely to lose its cache. If it’s not careful, the WEF may decline into irrelevance.
The first to speak was the new President of Argentina, Javier Milei. For twenty years, Milei was a Professor of Economics at several Argentine Universities and, most recently, has proven to have across-the-board appeal with the Argentinian people. (A “populist-economist,” I didn’t think there was such a person!)
Milei comes from one of the most troubled economies in the world. Along with Turkey, Argentina consistently has one of the worst inflation rates globally. So, he thoroughly understands the problems created by a centrally planned economy. And that’s his criticism of the World Economic Forum. From my perspective, he used a poor choice of words when he decided to address the WEF as drifting too close to “Socialism.”
While “Socialism” may have a particular meaning in Argentina, it likely has a much more benign meaning in this worldwide audience than he intended. Put bluntly, Milei is saying that the idea of an elite gathering of decision-makers who will decide the future course of humanity is the essence of the problem. From Milie’s perspective, central planning does not work economically, no matter how attractively wrapped.
The second speaker to sound a note of reform was Kevin D. Roberts, President of the Heritage Foundation. Universally acclaimed as “that conservative think-tank,” Heritage is one of the few Washington-based research organizations to feature the economic ramifications of their work regularly.
A PhD in History, Roberts sees the sweep of the age moving against the WEF. He projects a complete replacement of the current power elites, especially in the United States. A robust Donald Trump supporter, Roberts believes he will win the next election and, with that, a new administration.
“I will be candid,” Roberts began, “the agenda that every single person member of the [future Republican] administration needs to have is to compile a list of everything that’s ever been proposed at the [WEF] and object all of them wholesale.”
He further urged that “anyone not prepared to do that, and take away this power of the unelected bureaucrats and give it back to the American people, is unprepared to be a part of the next conservative administration.”
It remains to be seen if Mr. Roberts will be invited back for the 2025 confab!
No matter what you think of the politics of either of these two gentlemen, the fact remains that their critique of the WEF is very close to the mark. It all comes from this single meme. It’s a phrase that cuts the WEF a little deeper each time it’s repeated. Just what is this mantra? Why it’s:
“You will own nothing and be happy?”
Next, we’ll explore just where it came from.
Page 2: “You’ll Own Nothing And Be Happy.”
On November 11, 2016, a Progressive Politician named Ida Auken wrote an article entitled: “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better.” It may sound like a critique of modern culture, but Ms. Auken meant it to awaken the world to a bright new future.
In Ms. Auken’s world, this is life as it should be. She opens her article with this paragraph:
“Welcome to the year 2030. Welcome to my city — or should I say, “our city.” I don’t own anything. I don’t own a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t own any appliances or any clothes. It might seem odd to you, but it makes perfect sense for us in this city.”
In Ms. Auken’s vision, private property is eliminated, and all the necessities of life are free! In her words, everything we think of as “property” is now a service: transportation, accommodation, food, everything is now free. It’s an all-new way to organize society.
What’s more, this new kind of world has the additional benefits of reducing:
“lifestyle diseases, climate change, the refugee crisis, environmental degradation, completely congested cities, water pollution, air pollution, social unrest and unemployment.”
It’s a utopian vision of the first order, and in fairness to Ms. Auken, it is not meant as a thorough representation of how such a society might actually operate. It was told to get people thinking. And on that score, it was incredibly successful. Critics quickly jumped on her premise as a world where “We will own nothing and be happy.”
In a typical organization, this is the type of off-the-cuff screed that people would run away from. The institutions I’m familiar with would quickly disavow any random fancies as mere water cooler musings — something not to be taken seriously.
But not the World Economic Forum. For Klaus Schwab and the rest, Auken had struck a note. Her’s is the same vision that they share. Within three years, Schwab would write his vision for the future in a book titled COVID-19: The Great Reset. He outlines how to achieve a society that resembles Ms. Auken’s vision.
And so the meme stuck. “You will own nothing and be happy” has become the sine qua non of the World Economic Forum.
Page 3: Stakeholder Capitalism, The West Virginia Experience
One’s view of Utopia depends upon which side of the table you sit on. Ida Auken paints a picture of a harmonious existence in which your every need and desire is met. What could be better than having free food, medicine, living quarters, and transportation?
Indeed, from the perspective of those gathered in Davos, Switzerland, last week, that is the world they are building for humanity. It is an idyllic 15-minute city where everyone is truly happy and content. And what’s more, a 15-minute city that meets all the sustainability goals, it’s productive and pollution-free.
The world view of today’s World Economic Forum is perfectly in sync with those of Coal Mine owners a century ago in West Virginia. From their perspective from their cloistered halls in New York, Boston, and Baltimore, they had created the perfect environment for their workers. You see, the rich coal veins that run through this part of the Appalachian mountains were highly remote. No one had ever tamed this region; no towns, cities, or roads existed. There is no way for people to get from place to place, much less live there.
The Stakeholders solved all of that. They built the railroads that would eventually take the coal to the East Coast markets. They even created the houses and towns where the miners would live: the town hall, the local Church, and the Company Store. They constructed everything. They even hired the sheriff, the mayor, and the Pastor for the Church!
Everything that the Stakeholders could think of they provided for their miners. They even supplied the money for their miners. It was “script.” The same script that they paid the miners and that could only be spent at the company store.
It was, in short, a complete economic system where everything was provided for the company’s workers (at least everything that the Stakeholders believed they needed.) It was the realization of the vision of the World Economic Forum, a century before Klaus Schwab.
From the mines’ founding until 1920, everything functioned as it should for three extraordinary decades. That is, at least from the stakeholders’ perspective. Cigars and brandy for everyone, profits were up, coal production was more than expected, and this venture into Stakeholder Capitalism exceeded everyone’s expectations.
But in 1920, a troublemaker came on the scene. His name was John Lewis, and he was a hero to the miners of West Virginia. He was the first national figure to recognize that far from living in a Stakeholder Utopia, the miners were suffering. Many homes were substandard; the families froze in the wintertime and sweltered in the summer. The Company Store often charged exorbitant prices, as it was the only place the miners could spend their paychecks, in company script.
From the miner’s perspective, the game was rigged, the deck was stacked, and before John Lewis, no one noticed. For thirty years, the United Mine Workers Union tried to organize the West Virginia miners, but it was to no effect. The Mine Owners (Stakeholders) effectively blocked the Union and would fire any worker who joined.
Suddenly, there came a bushy-haired Welshman, John Lewis. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, just up the river from West Virginia. And although Cleveland began as a “company town,” it had grown beyond its early beginning by now. So Lewis was very familiar with the oppression that can come from one-owner, monopolistic “company town.”
Word that Lewis wanted to organize the West Virginia mines electrified the miners. One by one, they began to join Lewis’s United Mine Workers.
The UMW was a genuine threat to the Stakeholder’s corporate system. So, they acted predictable; they brought in a group of Union-busting thugs. The mine owners hired the Felt brothers (owners of the Baldwin-Felt Detective Agency) to take care of matters.
The Felts began their reign of terror down at the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The company had just fired a worker with the audacity to join the UMW. Remember, when you worked for Stone Mountain or any of the Coal companies, your house was part of your employment package. Get fired, and you lose your home.
So, in the middle of the day, when they knew the husband would be at work in the mine, Albert and Lee Felts, along with 11 other thugs, proceeded to throw a woman and her children out of their home. All of their belongings, along with the kids, hit the street. What made their plight worse was a cold, light rain falling.
As you can imagine, this infuriated the miners. A group of outsider vigilantes had come into their town and created havoc. This barbarism became the “casus belli” that would ignite a war between the Mine Owners and the Miners and the most significant battles in the country since the Civil War.
The Stakeholder Utopia had clearly gone wrong.
The history of the mine worker’s struggles in West Virginia is fascinating. Ultimately, it aligned the American elites against the everyday citizens. The historical record is replete with the excesses of the more powerful. As you read the accounts, you can’t help but notice the crimes against humanity. The Felts were allowed to act with impunity, eventually shooting down a local Sheriff on the Court House Steps and suffering no consequences. At the same time, the mine owners hired private pilots to bomb the miners with explosives and poison gas canisters from the air.
When President Harding ordered the National Guard, under the command of the US Army, to confront the miners, it became a stand-off of veterans against veterans. World War I Army Veterans stood on both sides. In one of the most telling chapters of this story, the everyday American citizens, the miners, stood down, unwilling to confront their former comrades from the “Great War.”
For the everyday mine worker in West Virginia, the Company Town, and all it entails, is a story of oppression and degradation, tragically ending in broken lives and spilled blood.
Any careful analysis of the events of 100 years ago realizes that the plan of the Company Town was flawed from the beginning. The way to prosperity and harmony is more readily achieved through economic (and political) freedom. Take away all of that, and you condemn a people to a future of poverty and want.
Today, a century after the Stakeholders discovered some of the most productive coal veins in the world, that wealth has yet to filter down to the West Virginia miners. Today, the mountain state remains one of the poorest sections of this country.
The more you know about the West Virginia Company town, the less you’ll think of the 15-minute city and the World Economic Forum’s vision for the future.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.