In 1937, the head of IBM Thomas Watson received the Order of the German Eagle from Adolf Hitler. The occasion was the annual congress of the International Chamber of Commerce, hosted in Berlin. Watson had done good business with the Nazis. Like other global businesspeople during the years between the seizure of power and the invasion of Poland, Watson felt that Hitler was a nationalist – but one that could be worked with.
A dark parallel with these events emerged on social media last week, when a photo of Watson in Berlin was paired with a picture taken at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, showing recently elected Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro seated between Apple CEO Tim Cook and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Another shot showed Bolsonaro posing with Tony Blair.
What game are these tech leaders, politicians and ex-statemen playing? Who is playing who? If any sign of fiery contention between authoritarian leaders and defenders of the liberal centre can be extinguished over a few high-altitude cocktails, could it be that we are being played? For a Davos intent on countering populism, the convergence of authoritarian nationalist Bolsonaro with tech entrepreneurs and Tony Blair was incongruent.
But this wasn’t just hypocrisy or diplomatic glad-handing. These photos signaled the morphing of a struggle that has taken place over the last two years: the fight for or against global order has become a fight for control of the global order. While right-wing politicians like Donald Trump have railed against “globalists”, they aren’t rejecting globalisation outright. Instead, such leaders are embracing their own, alternative globalisation – one that allows the free circulation of goods and money, but not of people.
Until now, though, it has seemed unlikely that the right would be able to co-opt the existing institutions of the global order and bend them towards these ends. Does this year’s World Economic Forum signal a change?
Perhaps. Over the past two years, the founder of the World Economic Forum has extended his hand to the right-wing advocates of alternative globalisation. The 80-year-old engineer and economist Klaus Schwab last year defended Trump and this year warmly introduced Bolsonaro for his Davos debut. Schwab has absorbed the talking points of right-wing critics into his own lexicon. He dropped a statement into a 2018 interview with the Wall Street Journal that echoed the Leave campaign, arguing that “people want to have control back. And they want not to be dictated to by Brussels in everything that they are doing.” Some have accused Schwab of faking populism. Yet there’s reason to believe he’s for real.
Joining Bolsonaro this year at the World Economic Forum was the 32-year-old Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, fresh from a six-month stint as president of the European Council. Though he is regularly labeled a “right-wing populist” in the Anglosphere, Kurz’s rhetoric was not so different from his Davos peers. He spoke about slashing taxes and regulations in order to make Austria more competitive to foreign investors. Multilateralism was still on the table; Kurz argued for a “strong and confident Europe”, sticking to the strict rules on state spending written into the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty.
In a move grafted from the alt-globalisation playbook, Kurz preached “greater freedom” for individuals and entrepreneurs but less freedom for migrants. He explained that North African countries need to instigate more rescue operations in the Mediterranean – a departure from the current practice of European rescue operations, which effectively give migrants “a ticket to Central Europe”, Kurz said.
Kurz has succeeded in seizing, rather than jamming, the European levers of power. He’s not alone. As historian Alexander Clarkson notes, Matteo Salvini, Italian interior minister of the Northern League, has cannily pushed Brussels into conceding on his demands – proving that one can both loudly denounce Europe while also using Europe to one’s own ends.
A similar story is unfolding in North America. The initial impression that Trump and his trade team wanted a strongman programme to crush multilateralism has since faded to something more banal: Trump’s team just wants a deal that grants American products greater access to overseas markets. New NAFTA looks a lot like old NAFTA, and as Trump signals an easing of the current trade war with China, suggesting that existing trade treaties will be tweaked rather than trashed, it appears that his anti-globalisation stance is giving way to an alt-globalisation project.
As Schwab put it in 2017, “we need a new narrative for globalisation”. Two years ago, in the wake of Trump and Brexit, the mood at Davos was grim. The assumption was that the so-called populists wanted to burn the global architecture down. We can now see the dawning of another possibility—a future in which this cadre of right-wing leaders, who were until recently treated as renegades, become its new tenants.
The European elections in May will be the next test of whether the insurgent cry to take back control also involves right-wing leaders seizing the levels of supranational governance. For now, one can imagine the thought bubbles that floated above Davos attendees last week, with the question: “what would a useful populist look like?”
Quinn Slobodian is an associate professor of history at Wellesley College, and the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He was previously a visiting fellow at Harvard University.