Woke, or Broke?

The corporate chieftains attending Davos are talking up ‘woke capitalism’. Remain skeptical.

Stowe Boyd
Jan 24, 2020 · 3 min read
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In The Revolution Comes to Davos, Tim Wu wonders about the dichotomy between ‘woke’ capitalist rhetoric and the future corporate behavior of the business leaders attending Davos:

In an official nod to the revolutionary spirit, the World Economic Forum itself, which runs the show, released a new “Davos Manifesto,” for the “fourth industrial revolution.”

That Davos Manifesto is, I hasten to say, good stuff (as is the forum’s new “ESG” metric, designed to complement profit as a measure of corporate success.) Companies, the manifesto says, must pay their fair share of taxes; treat suppliers and workers well; accept fair competition; and have “zero tolerance for corruption.”

Unfortunately, there’s no particular requirement that Davos attendees actually sign or adhere to it. Donald Trump appears to have personally violated nearly every one of its dictates, yet he was a warmly welcomed opening speaker. Nor have the corporate attendees consistently endeavored, as the Davos Manifesto demands, to pay their “fair share” of taxes, continuously improve the “well-being” of employees, or treat “executive remuneration” responsibly.

It is true that good intentions are better than their opposite. Yet if Davos truly wants to redirect the ship of global capitalism, it should find some way to better reward actual do-gooders, as distinguished from the posers. It is just too easy to free ride at Davos: to talk the talk, adopt a few cute pet projects, and let that be it.

So why not make future attendance at Davos limited to those companies who pledge agreement to the Davos Manifesto, and lean harder on miscreants? Why not, for a start, suspend all members convicted of bribery or other serious ethical offenses? The major cigarette companies were quietly disinvited from speaking at Davos: Should the American sellers of opioids really be showcased at an event committed to “improving the state of the world?”

Any true revolution intended to upend the world’s capitalist order won’t be led by banks, industrialists, or rentier billionaires.

ESG stands for ‘environmental, social, and governance’, a term coined in 2019 by the World Economic Forum, the group behind Davos:

At its summer 2019 meeting, under the chairmanship of Brian Moynihan, Chairman and CEO, Bank of America, members of the IBC had a robust discussion on the significance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of business performance and risk. In particular, they discussed the challenge that corporations face in demonstrating long‑term value creation for all stakeholders on an internationally consistent basis across industries.

I share with Wu the sense that this is a lot of ‘virtue signaling’, and that as soon as the Davos conclave comes to an end the world-beaters will return to their lofty perches atop giant corporations and continue with business as usual. Consider the observation made by Greenpeace that the banks attending Davos have invested more than a trillion dollars in fossil fuel just since the Paris Accord on Climate.

I maintain we won’t see real change arising from Davos cocktail parties. It will have to be bottom-up, impelled by we the people. Any true revolution intended to upend the world’s capitalist order won’t be led by banks, industrialists, or rentier billionaires. So even if we start hearing more about ESG, don’t buy the hype or the Davos sugar high.

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