The Terrifying Vacuity of Klaus Schwab

Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret, COVID-19: The Great Reset (Forum Press: Cologny/Geneva, 2020). 280 pp.

Like many bad books, The Great Reset lapses into occasional inadvertent autobiography. In the final pages especially, where Klaus Schwab writes of his hopes for a “Personal Reset” through state repression, we catch a glimpse of the man during the first-wave lockdown at his house in Cologny. At first he enjoyed the break with routine and the opportunity to commune with nature, but before long he began to feel a nagging unease. He’d spent most of his years prior to 2020 flogging “stakeholder capitalism”, his umbrella term for various schemes to disarm criticism of the globalist corporate borg and co-opt leftist opposition. Schwab succeeded in parlaying his simplistic ideas into an international conference circuit, known today as the World Economic Forum, where he could hobnob with corporate and political celebrities and burnish his Bond-villain reputation among political dissidents. But the pandemic had thrown Schwab off balance. For once his reprocessed nostrums about environmental, social and corporate governance issues were no longer in demand; virologists and epidemiologists and exponential growth curves filled the news instead. His powerful celebrity clients were suddenly listening to other people. Obscurity loomed.

Thus Schwab enlisted his sidekick research-assistant Thierry Malleret, booted up his laptop, and spent a few months decanting the cloud of buzzwords, talking points and half-remembered powerpoint presentations plaguing his brain into a meandering and thoroughly pointless document. When he had finished, he sent the whole thing to Malleret’s wife for a proof-read, and then he ordered his own Forum Press to print off a few thousand copies. Thus did yet another lamentable exercise in self-publishing come to pass.

The Great Reset is not a book that begins with a fully-formed argument, which it seeks to articulate through successive proofs. Nor is it a book that finds its purpose along the way. It is of that still more miserable variety, that is always on the verge of discovering what it means to say, but can never quite get there. I have a vision of Schwab in his study, typing furiously with extended index fingers like a bicephalic chicken, marshalling all his meagre powers to reconstruct the very unexpected pandemic in which he found himself, such that it might better resemble the kind of global ESG stakeholder capitalism woo crisis that Schwab would really prefer to pronounce upon. “We must get back to my pet themes” is what Schwab is trying to tell us in The Great Reset. It is above all a childish book.

Schwab’s core idea is that the pandemic will either remake or reset our world, and thus political and corporate leaders have before them a unique opportunity to Build Back Better and make everything more ESG-complaint. At the same time, he seems strangely undecided on the nature of this reset and the role of the virus in bringing it about.

In the introduction, for example, we find this string of absurdities:

Many of us are pondering when things will return to normal. The short response is: never. Nothing will ever return to the “broken” sense of normalcy that prevailed prior to the crisis because the coronavirus pandemic marks a fundamental inflection point in our global trajectory …. Radical changes of such consequence are coming that some pundits have referred to a “before coronavirus” (BC) and “after coronavirus” (AC) era. … (p. 12)

But then further down on the very same page Schwab’s confidence seems to flag, and he concedes suddenly that “by itself, the pandemic may not completely transform the world,” but might merely “accelerate many of the changes that were already taking place before it erupted.” Six pages later he reemphasises that “At the very least … the pandemic will accelerate systemic changes that were already apparent prior to the crisis,” but in the very next breath he’s talking of a clean rupture again, rhapsodising about “the possibilities for change and the resulting new order” which “are now unlimited and only bound by our imagination” (p. 18). Then in his conclusion, Schwab bizarrely decides that the virus isn’t even that dangerous; “the corona crisis is (so far) one of the least deadly pandemics the world has experience[d]” and “unless the pandemic evolves in an unforeseen way, the consequences … in terms of health and mortality will be mild” (p. 264f.) in comparison. The real source of reset is actually “today’s interdependent world” where “risks conflate with each other” (p. 247).

The problem is that Schwab can’t decide whether to hide in the motte or seize the bailey. Sometimes, he wants the pandemic to be a fundamentally new moment; other times, he’d rather make Corona contingent upon all the evil social inequities and climate imbalances and carbon unsustainabilities that are more his métier. The former position is more internally consistent and defensible, but it risks ceding too much space to a concept beyond Schwab’s concerns; the latter is deeply irrational but allows Schwab to make his favourite themes the explanation for everything.

It’s above all this fundamental indiscipline of thought that makes The Great Reset such an obnoxious reading experience. Schwab is always trying to have it both ways, he’s always forgetting what he just said a few paragraphs ago, he’s always wasting your time with irrelevant lists and details and descriptions that go nowhere. All too often, he loses all contact with concrete ideas and vanishes into a cloud of meaningless abstract terminology.

Why, for example, did these sentences have to be written?

A pandemic is a complex adaptive system comprising many different components or pieces of information (as diverse as biology or psychology), whose behaviour is influenced by such variables as the role of companies, economic policies, government intervention, healthcare politics or national governance … The management … of a complex adaptive system requires continuous real-time but ever-changing collaboration between a vast array of disciplines and between different fields within these disciplines. (p. 32f.)

Or this one?

Governments … have tools at their disposal to make the shift towards more inclusive and sustainable prosperity, combining public sector direction-setting and incentives with commercial innovation capacity through a fundamental rethinking of markets and their role in our economy and society. (p. 62)

These moments of exceptional pointlessness are everywhere in The Great Reset, and I have a small but growing collections of what I propose to call Schwabisms. These are brief statements that are so tautological, banal or bizarre that they ought to embarrass any author. Statements like “Everything now runs on fast-forward” (p. 7); or: “Complexity can be defined as what we don’t understand or find difficult to understand” (p.31); or: “If an observer can only make sense of ‘reality’ through different idiosyncratic lenses, this forces us to rethink our notion of objectivity” (p. 121); or: “Predicting is a guessing game for fools” (p. 126); or: “Many states that exhibit characteristics of fragility risk failing” (p. 127); or: “Dystopian scenarios are not a fatality” (p. 170); or: “In times of adversity, innovation often thrives – necessity has long been recognized as the mother of invention” (p. 232).

You have the feeling not only of a sad, small man, struggling to play the part of global governance guru, but of his equally pathetic audience of Hillary Clintons and Olaf Scholzes and Emmanuel Macrons, who hear this garbage and somehow manage to find it insightful and wish to be associated with it. What clouded intellectual lives all these people must lead.

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