The Dizzy Life of Davos Man Every Year, on a Magic Alpine Mountain, the Monarchs of Capitalism Assemble Their Courtiers and Meet to Plot All Our Futures. Is the World Safe in Their Hands? Richard Sennett Thinks Not

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For the last few years I've gone to a winter meeting of business and political leaders in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos. You reach the village by a narrow road through the Alps; Davos itself is laid out along one main street lined with hotels, shops and ski chalets. Thomas Mann set The Magic Mountain here in a grand hotel which once served as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. For the one week of the World Economic Forum, Davos is home to power rather than health.

Along the main street a snake of limousines writhes in front of the conference hall, where there are guards, police dogs, and metal detectors. Each of the 2,000 people who descend on the village need an electronic security badge to enter the hall, but the badge does more than keep out riff-raff. It has an electronic code which allows the bearer to read and send messages on an elaborate computer system, and so to arrange meetings and to cut deals - in the coffee lounges, on the ski slopes, or at the exquisite dinners whose seating plans are frequently disrupted by the press of business.

Davos is devoted to global economic warming, the conference centre filled with ex-communists extolling the virtues of free trade and conspicuous consumption. The lingua franca is English, signalling America's dominant role in the new capitalism, and most people here speak English extremely well. The World Economic Forum runs more like a court than a conference. Its monarchs are heads of big banks or international corporations, good at listening. The courtiers speak fluently and in a low key, pitching for loans or to make a sale. Davos costs businessmen (they are mostly men) a great deal of money, and only top people come. But the courtly atmosphere is infected with a certain fear, the fear of being "left out of the loop", even in this snowy Versailles. A kind of familial bitterness has kept me coming back to Davos as an observer. My family were mostly American left-wing organisers. My father and uncle fought in the Spanish Civil War; originally they fought against the fascists in Spain, but by the end of the war they fought the communists as well. Disillusion following combat has been the story of the American left more largely. My own generation had to let go of the hopes which enthralled us in 1968, when revolution seemed just around the corner; most of us have come to rest uneasily in that nebulous zone just left of centre, where high-flown words count for more than deeds. And here on the ski slopes in Switzerland, dressed as if for sport, are the victors. I have learned one thing from my past: it would be fatal to treat them as merely perfidious. Whereas my kind has become adept at dwelling in a kind of passive suspicion of existing reality, the court of Davos is filled with energy. It speaks for great changes which have marked our time: new technologies, the attack on rigid bureaucracies, and trans-national economics. Few of the people I've met at Davos began life as rich or powerful as they have become. This is a kingdom of achievers, and many of their achievements they owe to the practice of flexibility. Davos Man is most publicly embodied in Bill Gates, the ubiquitous chairman of the Microsoft Corporation. He appeared recently, as do all main speakers at the gathering, both in person and blown up on a huge television screen. Mutterings were heard from some techies in the hall as the giant head spoke; they find the quality of Microsoft products mediocre. But to most of the executives, he is a heroic figure, and not just because he built a huge business from scratch. He is the very epitome of a flexible magnate, as shown most recently when he discovered that he had not foreseen the possibilities of the internet. Gates turned his immense operations around on a dime, reorganising his business focus in pursuit of the new market opportunity. When I was a child, I had a set of books called the Little Lenin Library which set out in graphic detail the character of self-made capitalists. …