There is a spectre haunting the world—the spectre of anti-globalism. Ordinary people are increasingly anguished by the way in which, whether by the EU or the World Health Organisation (WHO), democratic sovereignty is wrested from them and gifted to an unaccountable international elite. At this time of year, when so many of these mandarins descend on Davos for the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting, the developing backlash against Klaus Scwhab’s Great Reset only gathers additional steam.
In fairness to Schwab, the notorious Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, he is remarkably open about his agenda. He has co-authored a book about how the COVID-19 pandemic presents a world-historical opportunity for a new global order to emerge, “the contours of which are for us to both imagine and to draw.” Be in no doubt that by “us,” he means him and his high IQ friends. “The future is not just happening. The future is built by us,” Schwab asserted again at last week’s 2022 Davos summit, addressing a high-status audience of world leaders and global businessmen.
In COVID-19: The Great Reset, Schwab expressly rules out any idea of a calm return to normality: “the world as we knew it in the early months of 2020 is no more, dissolved in the context of the pandemic.” Like the French Revolutionaries, who reset history itself by proclaiming ‘Year I’ of the French Republic in 1792, Schwab even flirts with the idea of rearranging the calendar, using language of “a ‘before coronavirus’ (BC) and ‘after coronavirus’ (AC) era.” Again in the manner of the French Revolutionaries, these Davos globalists nurture an inflated sense of their own wisdom. They believe that it is within their power, if only such power were granted to them, to bring the accidents of history and the disordered complexity of the economic system into a harmonious, rational alignment that serves the globe. There is the same French revolutionary conceit that societies, and the individual human beings within them, can, like computers, be re-engineered from on-high. ‘Inconvenient’ forms of human behaviour, from carbon overuse to vaccine hesitancy, may simply be purged from the system, as if they are no more than glitches in a software code.
But in terms of the power dynamics, this new class of globalist innovators more closely resembles the Bourbon royalty against which Mirabeau and Robespierre rebelled than the French Revolutionaries themselves. Leaving the political substance and the moral question aside, what is Davos if not a globalised version of the Palace of Versailles? What is Klaus Schwab if not an aspiring absolute king who markets himself as a benevolent technocrat? Finally, who are the rebels against this new globalist power grab if not some semi-reincarnation of the underdogs who triumphed in 1789?
Before pushing the analogy too far, it is worth listing some key distinctions between the Bourbons and the globalists. First, the WEF is enthusiastically alert to global crises (all the better for capitalising on their chaotic fallout), while the court of King Louis XVI was blindsided by the constitutional upheaval that hit France in the 1780s. Second, as we have already observed, the new Davos Bourbons are at the forefront of an explicitly ideological project, the main objective of which is the fundamental remaking of the human world.
The Ancien Régime was nothing like this. In the late 18th century, the occupants of Versailles regarded themselves as custodians of an existing hierarchical order. It was not an idealised vision, but a customary fact—and it was believed that, with proper care at least, this world could be made to last forever. Finally, there is a profound difference in the allegiance of intellectuals. The best educated Frenchmen in the late 18th century were overwhelmingly supportive of the Revolution. Across Europe generally, the situation was the same. William Wordsworth, Charles James Fox, and the young Hegel and Schelling were all ecstatic about events in Paris. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” proclaimed Wordsworth. Today, meanwhile, members of the global intelligentsia—including the likes of Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari—are queuing up to become courtiers at the new Versailles in the Davos Alps.
True, the World Economic Forum is, despite its power, intent on enacting its own sort of revolution. From it there will emerge, as Sebastian Morello writes, “a new kind of digital universal society, with a digital economy, catering for digital personalities.” The crucial difference is that, unlike the French Revolutionaries, these new radical globalists find themselves not pushed to the margins of literary salons or disused convents, but within the corridors of power. Meanwhile, supporters of the old order—that is, the ancien régime that existed prior to 2020—find themselves squarely outside the palace walls. The ideological battlelines are strikingly similar, but the power differentials have switched. Will there be a repeat of 1789, only with the roles reversed? Are we on the verge of an anti-globalist revolt against the new Versailles?
As it happens, the grievances felt against the Davos royalty will seem very familiar to any student of the French Revolution. It is common, for example, to hear people such as Klaus Schwab being accused of an elitist insularity and a callous disregard for the livelihoods of ordinary people. Similar complaints were levelled at the Bourbons by the French middle-classes. They felt excluded from the power given unduly to insular courtiers and moralistic clergymen and therefore led the rebellion of 1789. It was on behalf of such people that Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote his pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate? Representing the majority of French people, the Third Estate was celebrated by Sieyès, who was a Roman Catholic abbé himself (many clergymen supported the Revolution in its early phase), as the true voice of France: “What is the Third Estate? Everything,” answered Sieyès. “What has it been up till now in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something.” The divine right of absolute monarchy, it was thought, stood in the way of this longing for recognition and sovereignty.
For this reason, one of the earliest demands of the French Revolutionaries was for the royal court to relocate from the remote luxury of Versailles to the national heart of Paris. At this point, it was still mainstream belief in France that, steered by the Comte de Mirabeau, the Revolution could be made compatible with monarchy, so long as the king’s powers were limited. One of the problems with the modern Bourbons at the court of Davos is that their globalist outlook precludes the very possibility of a centre, a Paris, in which national sovereignty is anchored. They are a mobile, international, homeless elite. According to their fantasy of global citizenship, merely to be somewhere in the world is to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Even assuming his role was an elected one, where could Klaus Schwab relocate to be closer to the concerns of voters?
The WEF’s oligarchic character produces a lofty indifference to the way in which their top-down commands impact the lives of less powerful citizens. In his lively survey of pre-1789 France, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Alexis de Tocqueville holds that remoteness and unaccountability were the chief defects of the Bourbon elite. The “most hateful” of all aristocratic privileges, claims de Tocqueville, was the regressive tax system: “When only 1,200,000 livres of tax were raised under Charles VII, [aristocratic] exemption was a minor privilege; when 80 millions were raised under Louis XVI, it meant a very great deal.” In the same way, the trendy Davos fixation on a green agenda redounds to the benefit of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) corporatists at the expense of the poorest families who must endure rising energy bills. A similar phenomenon was visible throughout the entire COVID-19 saga. Overwhelmingly, vulnerable workers, the poor, and the young suffered the collateral damage of pointless, draconian lockdowns. Meanwhile, the affluent ‘laptop class’ described by Jay Bhattacharya revelled in the luxury of working from home—almost as much as they enjoyed praising themselves for making such a compassionate, ‘life-saving’ sacrifice.
Nor have they learned any lesson from the spectacular failure of lockdowns to protect the vulnerable. Already, as part of the great reset, there is an open attempt by the World Health Organisation to transform these panicked, experimental lockdowns into an institutionalised weapon of government policy.
The next phase of the growing revolt against the new Davos Versailles should be to pressure democratic leaders into rejecting the latest WHO treaty. If accepted, it would grant the global health body sweeping powers to interfere in the internal affairs of nation states during a future pandemic. But how easily can such a campaign be mounted against this power grab, when our media culture is increasingly controlled by Big Tech courtiers at the Davos Versailles?
This brings us to another modern-day phenomenon that bears a striking resemblance to the world of the 18th century: “the structural transformation of the public sphere.” Coined by Jürgen Habermas in Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, this concept seeks to describe the process whereby shifts in social practice can impact the flow of information and thereby transform the zeitgeist of a political community.
Conveniently enough, to illustrate what he means, Habermas in fact refers to the dynamic, communicative culture that grew to prominence throughout Europe in the 18th century. Prior to this new age of coffee houses and literary salons, he contends, the public sphere was inextricably tied to established authority. The grandeur of Versailles was the representative symbol of the top-down political culture that defined the heyday of the old regime. But the spontaneous activities of the French urban bourgeoisie, as they began to experiment with new social forms, created a culture of pamphlets, societies, and Paris discussion salons. According to Habermas, this led to the birth of a more authentic public sphere based on reason, debate, and a sense of shared citizenship. He then concludes by claiming that this flourishing civil society, having been such a distinctive feature of the Enlightenment era that produced the French Revolution, subsequently declined after the European states reasserted themselves in 1815.
Recalling us back to the 21st century, the historian Niall Ferguson’s main argument in The Square and the Tower is that the internet, like the printing press of the 15th century or the literary salons of the Enlightenment, has powered a second structural transformation of the public sphere. It is no accident that Elon Musk, in his bid to enshrine free speech at Twitter, has described the social media platform that he is trying to acquire as “the de facto town square.” For most of human history, says Ferguson, societies have been run by hierarchical structures, leaving the spontaneous activity of distributed networks in the shadow of their authority. But technological breakthroughs, from Gutenberg’s movable type to Facebook’s BitTorrent-based release system, can serve to empower these networks and catch the hierarchies off-guard. It is no wonder that the new Bourbons at Davos, like their quasi-predecessors at Versailles, are alarmed by the free exchange of information and ideas at the much rowdier digital salons that define our own age: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter.
Indeed, the Bourbon monarchy made use of lettres de cachet in the pre-Revolutionary era. These were legal documents which, when sealed by the king, gave active force to arbitrary judgements, including imprisonment, which could not be appealed. They were often used against critics of the regime, such as Voltaire, in order to crack down on the more troublemaking voices of France’s newly empowered network culture. While such arbitrary devices are not yet available to the Davos elite, the American conservative pundit Jack Posobiec was harassed by Swiss police wearing WEF badges while trying to report on Schwab’s annual summit.
Typically, however, the globalist Bourbons are more subtle. They pressure their allies in the Big Tech companies to police ‘misinformation’ on their behalf—as if truth belongs to an enlightened political elite, rather than being a treasure that we pursue collectively through debate and free inquiry. Such covert censorship is more insidious and far-reaching than the very weak, ultimately unsuccessful attempts by the Ancien Régime to protect itself from criticism and collapse.
But does a 1789-style violent upheaval await us? Can we expect a Storming of the Alps? Perhaps a March on Davos? It appears improbable and, in any event, it should not be encouraged. The violence that became endemic to the French Revolution is a repugnant, fearsome prospect in itself. It is also not necessary in our advanced societies where, however imperfectly, we have more democratic means at our disposal than existed during the 18th century. A grass-roots revolt against Davos would be a very fine thing, but it should be launched not in the streets, but within parliaments, the media, and all the other venues of civilised democratic life that Schwab is so keen to bypass. Elon Musk’s deus ex machina acquisition of Twitter is a real coup in this respect, despite the obstacles that Musk’s “free speech absolutism” will likely face in Britain and the European Union.
That said, it must be conceded that there are individuals among the anti-globalists, some of them high-profile, who at times winks at the more radical, sans-culottes language of direct action. Posobiec, for example, is an admirable brawler against the establishment in many respects, but in response to his apparent detainment by Swiss police, he tweeted that Klaus Schwab should be “arrested.” He was unspecific about why this course of action would be justified. What law is Schwab meant to have broken? And under what jurisdiction does his politically contemptible behaviour rise to the threshold of a criminal offence? Of course, Posobiec may be privy to information denied to the rest of us, but if so he has not made it publicly available. On display in Posobiec’s call to arrest Schwab, then, is not justice, but revolutionary vengeance. And although it is only incipient in Posobiec’s case, it was this fanatical mentality, combined with the febrile atmosphere engendered by war against the legitimist powers, that transformed the Place de la Révolution into a bloodbath during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.
Francis Fukuyama’s core argument in The End of History and the Last Man was that the combination of democratic government, economic prosperity, and a mutual recognition of freedom and equality under the law, especially amid the collapse of the Soviet system, had proved superior to any and all rival visions of human flourishing. As such, while historical events would still occur, history in its philosophical, unidirectional sense bent towards liberalism. The long-term stability of the liberal order, argued Fukuyama, appeared to be guaranteed by its capacity to satisfy basic human needs, desires, and, most importantly, our spiritual hunger, or thymos, for recognition.
But Fukuyama left the question much more open than his harshest critics—more attracted to caricature than close reading—tend to appreciate. Might there not arise a particular class of people whose sense of self-worth is not properly fulfilled by life in a liberal democracy? Fukuyama mentions several destabilising instincts that people may continue to nurse within liberal society, but the most relevant of these urges with respect to the Davos elitists is megalothymia: the feeling that one is superior to the herd and the need to have that sense recognized by the political order. This is the spiritual drive behind globalism and it partly explains why intellectuals are so drawn in by the special recognition it bestows upon their talents.
The anti-globalist backlash, meanwhile, takes its cues from a strong belief in the precise opposite of megalothymia—that is, what Fukuyama refers to as isothymia: the spiritual contentment to be recognized, at least within the political realm, as simply one individual among equals and nothing more.
These are the spiritual battlelines that explain the growing revolt against the new Davos Versailles. In this sense at least, the national democratic backlash against globalism is no different from the French Revolutionary war against the Ancien Régime, as the likes of Robespierre sought the triumph of egalité (or isothymia) over the monarchical belief in aristocratic privilege (or megalothymia).
The crucial difference is political. This time, it is not the elites who support a pre-existing political order, as was the case with the Bourbon monarchy as it scrambled to maintain its privileges, but free and ordinary citizens of advanced democracies. True, the French Revolutionaries rose up to demolish the Ancien Régime, but they had their hearts set on something abstract, imaginary, and ultimately unattainable on earth. Politics filled the space that should have been occupied by religion.
But for our struggle against the globalist power grab, none of this is necessary. We already have democratic institutions, a strong understanding of nationhood, and basic freedoms inscribed into law. There can be no need for revolutionary violence or breaches of the peace when we are free to achieve our ends without them.