In defense of top-down leadership

Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, believes that our 20th century global institutions are out-of-sync with today’s 21st century political and economic challenges. He says that organizations like the United Nations, Bretton Woods and the G8 weren’t up to recognizing and heading off the global financial meltdown and thus need to replaced by genuinely global social-networks of experts working both on and offline to solve the world’s problems. In a Newsweek column ironically entitled “No More Top-Down Leadership”, Klaus argues:

“What we need now is an entirely new global-cooperation system that capitalizes on technology, diversity and trust.”

This is a top-down Davos solution for a world increasingly dominated by men like Schwab, the founder of the exclusive top-down Davos global leadership conference. He calls for the creation of 50 Global Agenda Councils for 50 different global challenges, each council made up of 20 experts selected by peer review. These councils, Schwab believes, will “depoliticize” the global problems by enabling the world’s leading scientists, economists, artists, academics and business leaders to solve the world’s problems.

Schwab’s digital technocracy brings us closer to Huxley’s dystopian vision of world government in Brave New World. This supposed “depoliticized” Davos solution disintermediates not only national governments but also ordinary people who don’t seem to have any role whatsoever in the selection or oversight of these experts. While Klaus does call for the creation of a “talent commons” of demographic and geographic diversity, his vision nonetheless represents the vision of a world government of unelected experts. Schwab’s vision isn’t new. The rule of experts – from Plato’s philosophers to Comte’s positivists – has always been a great seduction for idealists who believe that self-interest can somehow be depoliticized. The problem, however, is that today’s national and international political institutions have become so weak and disreputable that there now exists a dangerous global void into which Schwab’s agenda councils can step. Indeed, his Davos conference is becoming a de-facto world government, an unaccountable and unelected rival to the United Nations or the G8, where global elites go each year to conduct their business outside the gaze of any public scrutiny.

That Schwab should publish his vision in a mass market magazine under the title “No More Top-Down Leadership” reveals the way in which the zeitgeist of democratization coexists in a peculiar symbiosis with an increasingly stratified world dominated by a tiny Davos technocratic elite. Schwab, the father of Davos man, describes his vision as a “virtual, Web 2.0-based global community” – but the truth, of course, is it is anything but open, anything but democratic, anything but accountable or transparent. Schwab is absolutely right to call for global institutions that can respond faster and more responsibly to the world’s problems.  But he is entirely wrong to believe that these economic or environmental problems can ever be depoliticized through impartial scientific knowledge or the global cooperation of unelected elites. Thus the new global institutions of the 21st century need to structured around proven models of representative democracy rather than the paternalistic rule of the expert. The politics of self-interest may be too ugly for globalizing idealists like Schwab, but his world government of the disinterested expert will quickly degenerate into something far uglier than the horse-trading of representative democracy.