Gentiana is a small restaurant that would scarcely warrant a second glance in any other village in Europe. It is rather traditional, only slightly more charming than the bland shops and modest hotels around it. One nearby storefront offers a remarkable array of Swiss Army knives, another boxes of chocolates, another fur hats and mountain gear. The restaurant has a cozy, neighborhood feel to it. Beside the door there is a blackboard highlighting a few specials, and on the ground floor there may be seating for twenty if they are both thin enough and friendly enough. Upstairs there are a few small rooms for private parties, the biggest of which seats ten people squeezed in on either side of a long narrow table. Most of its character comes from a feel of woody intimacy, the dark wood façade, dark wood floors, dark wood tables. In fact, for all its charm, it is definitely not a place for claustrophobes—or people with an extreme fear of splinters.
The reason to go to Gentiana is the fondue, especially the cheese fondue, which is offered in robust portions that recall an era before cardiologists. My wife, Adrean, has a special weakness for fondue, and every year that we have gone to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos we have gone to Gentiana for her birthday. We make reservations long in advance because during the week of the January meetings, which are attended each year by more than 2,000 business and government leaders from around the world, getting a table at Gentiana is not much easier than getting one at renowned eateries like Aragawa in Tokyo, Gordon Ramsay in London, or Le Bernardin in New York. Perhaps more surprisingly, for that one week the clientele at this humble Swiss bistro looks pretty much the same as what you might find at those world-class restaurants.
Of course, even during that week, there are still a few tables at Gentiana occupied by locals. One regular is a particularly garrulous drunk who loves to hobnob with the CEOs, heads of state, and rock stars who are wedged in, elbow to elbow, spinning hunks of bread on long forks in the pots of bubbling Gruyère. The local speaks only Swiss-German to the polyglot crowds around him, and few understand him, although judging by his demeanor the casual observer is not sure whether that has to do with the language he speaks or the local beer that he favors. No matter. He smiles and they smile, and the general effect is cheerful and relaxed.
One afternoon during a recent Davos, my wife and I were hurrying along the sidewalk on our way to Gentiana. This can be dangerous, as the locals do not shovel away the snow and ice lurks just about everywhere. In fact, attendees at Davos can see with some regularity central bank governors and senior executives of the IMF and other distinguished middle-aged men and women swaddled in cashmere, calfskin, and politically incorrect pelts of many origins launched skyward, only to land on their broader, softer regions. We walked gingerly, therefore, but with purpose, knowing we were meeting our friends in just a few minutes.
The weather was typical. A light snow was falling. It was very cold. But the Alpine air was crisp and dry and invigorating. We chatted about the meetings, who we had seen and who we hoped to run into. As we walked, we reflexively did what most of the visitors to this small mountain town do: We glanced at the people passing us in the street, trying to determine who they were. (Given the nature of Davos, they were likely to have been somebody.) It’s a ritual made easier by the fact that everyone at the meeting has to wear a badge around his or her neck at all times. The badge is used to get through the many security checkpoints—there are at least two Swiss soldiers and policemen in Davos for every delegate who attends the meetings—to register for sessions, and to let everyone know who you are. Your name is on the badge, along with the organization you represent. So too is your picture. People tend to walk with their badges dangling in plain sight so they don’t have to fumble with them getting in and out of buildings or past police. That’s how it was for everyone except for the universally recognizable—people like Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Bono, or Angelina Jolie. The badge-scanning move is so ubiquitous you might call it the Davos dip: Bend the knee slightly, cast a subtle glance downward, assess and move on.
Leaving the Congress Centre and walking along Davos’s main street, the Promenade, we passed Thierry Desmarest, the CEO of Total; a small cluster of Harvard professors; a senior executive of Saudi Aramco; and a woman pulling her two small children on a sled. (She was local and the sled seemed to hint at the reason they don’t shovel the sidewalks.) We stopped briefly to chat with Tom Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who happens to be my wife’s boss, then paused a few steps later to chat with an Indian-born U.S. venture capitalist with whom I had some business. It was a typical sample. Five minutes along the Davos Promenade in January offered a cavalcade of freeze-dried economic leaders from three continents.
About two blocks from Gentiana, I was grousing about how one of the conversations that I had most wanted to have had resulted in a frustrating series of near misses. The objective was a long-delayed chat with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist. Coelho has sold more than one hundred million copies of his books worldwide and is, after the Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, the second-best-selling author on the planet. He is also one of the few cultural regulars at Davos, one of a handful of people who might offer a different perspective on the Davos zeitgeist. We had intended to meet almost a year earlier but, due to a series of scheduling mishaps, had repeatedly failed to do so. Finally, we aimed for Davos, but I had yet to lay eyes on him. What did I expect from a man who lived on the other side of the world and was constantly in motion—a Brazilian who lived much of the time in Europe and sold many of his books in Russia? There was a little bit of hubris in thinking we might ever be able to end up in the same place at the same time. And then: “Oh, my God,” said a voice I did not recognize, “it’s you.”
A smallish man in a fur hat was staring at my name badge. He had a graying goatee, and he greeted me like a long-lost cousin. It was Coelho, appearing almost miraculously out of the Alpine mist as if conjured by our conversation.
Passing along the sidewalk from the Congress Centre where we had just heard an address by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and comments from the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, through the stream of big name boulevardiers, and then walking directly into this icon of the global literary scene—it was made clear again that Davos was truly the incarnation of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. It was like small-town Planet Earth, or the once-a-year Brigadoon of globalization: a community connected to everywhere and, in one way or another, to everyone. Indeed, during the course of this meeting, top trade ministers would caucus to try unsuccessfully to rescue global trade talks, Africa activists would meet with corporate chiefs and political leaders to seek funding for medical aid programs, global warming would “go mainstream” as mostly American skeptics were persuaded by session after session of expert views, and proponents of different solutions for dealing with everything from anxiety about immigrants to anxiety about terrorism would present their views directly to those in a position to implement them. If, as Hillary Clinton has asserted, it takes a village to raise a child, this seemed to be the village it took to run the world.
Coelho and I had never met, but thanks to the wonders of the information age we had enough e-mail history that our conversation was familiar and fairly ebullient. He offered to have lunch, but we gestured toward Gentiana, explaining that we had a prior engagement. I eagerly made an appointment to sit down with him later that afternoon at the Kongress Hotel.
Over the three and a half decades of its existence, this mountaintop gathering clearly had done more than merely transform Davos from sleepy ski town to cosmopolitan hub. More than a meeting place for international business, government, media, and cultural leaders, it now was a symbol for the knitting together of the world, literally and figuratively a summit of summits. The concept of what the political scientist Samuel Huntington called “Davos man”—the global citizen, the leader for whom borders were increasingly irrelevant—described a new leadership class for our era.
When founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, the organization that would become known as the World Economic Forum had a narrower mission. It was focused on convening European business leaders for a discussion of that continent’s rather uncertain economic fortunes.
To put the moment in context, it is worth recalling that in 1971, Europe was still living in the aftermath of World War II and was on the front line of the cold war, still more the self-anointed seat of civilization than the “modern” Europe of more modest, less imperial, more multilateralist inclinations. In fact, it was not until three years later that the first of Europe’s great colonial powers, Portugal, granted independence to Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark did not join the European Union until 1973. Though the Treaty of Rome had initiated the creation of Europe’s Common Market in 1957, it would be more than two decades before the Maastricht Treaty institutionalized the idea of a true single market among the nations of the continent. Europe was clearly in transition at the moment of the forum’s birth.
I was in high school at the time, and in college when the World Economic Forum was really gaining its sea legs in the late 1970s. I’ll admit, international conferences didn’t really capture my imagination when I was a teenager, but my education was absolutely colored with the Western worldview of those times, with classical education built on the presumed superiority of European ideas and the history and cultural contributions of other regions seen as exotic and secondary. At Columbia University, we were required to take the “core curriculum,” which was built around two major courses. One, Humanities, was a survey course of the defining works in literature. The second, Contemporary Civilization, was a survey of the great works in political philosophy and related disciplines, beginning with the Greeks and continuing through the modern era. The two courses, in retrospect, were undoubtedly the highlight of my education and have benefited me probably every day of my life since I took them. (Of course, I did not recognize this at the time.) In Contemporary Civilization, we read—at the pace of one significant, sometimes mind-blowing, occasionally mind-numbing book a week—the writings of everyone (male and white) from Plato to Descartes to Darwin. Somewhere around Max Weber and other analysts and critics of modernity, the curriculum got more varied, with different professors assigning different texts, as it was harder to agree on what qualified as essential reading. One of the more popular assignments at that point in the course was The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, a 1956 book that explored the national power structure in the United States.
Mills, a former Columbia professor of sociology, wrote the book as a study of how America really worked. His central claim was that at the top tier of the business, government, and military communities, there was a remarkably small and overlapping echelon of “deciders.” This national “power elite” was
composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences . . . They are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.
Mills asserted that these elites took similar paths to positions of privilege, ensuring that many among their homogeneous numbers knew one another. In addition, they often crossed sectors: from top roles in government to top roles in business, from the the White House cabinet to the boardroom, from military commands to politics, from one position of great responsibility to another. Thus, Mills claimed, they created a kind of interlocking directorate for the United States of America.
Mills’s book was as much a critique as it was a description of this group and America’s midcentury leadership. It explored, in meticulous detail, the concentration of power among a comparatively few corporations and individuals, and the manifold links of American leaders to key institutions. The book then veered into polemic, lamenting the disproportionate influence of this group. One of the men who no doubt inspired many of Mills’s points, President Eisenhower, also best illustrated them. A former supreme allied commander in Europe as well as a former president of Columbia University, Eisenhower captured much of Mills’s spirit in his farewell address as president in 1961:
[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
One little-remembered aspect of Eisenhower’s speech is that it contained not one but two central warnings. While the first, concerning the military-industrial complex, is more often cited, he also expressed equivalent concerns about the emergence of what he called the “scientific-technological elite.” His concerns, like Mills’s, reflect the zeitgeist of the 1950s, in which the predominant historical memory was of World War II and the subjugation of all U.S. political, financial, and industrial efforts to the goal of military victory. The predominant fear of the moment was of technology run amok as manifested in the growing threat of global thermonuclear war.
Since Eisenhower spoke in 1961, technological innovation has not only fueled America’s unprecedented growth but it has empowered people in new ways; it perhaps even helped to bring down the United States’ cold war adversary, as the rise of the information age made it impossible for a closed society to compete. Yet, despite the resilient strength of America’s military-industrial establishment, defense spending and manpower have receded from their highs during World War II and the cold war years. In his speech, Eisenhower speaks of a 3.5-million-person military; today the U.S. military is only 1.5 million men and women strong (with nearly 1 million more in the reserves). He also notes that at the time of his speech the U.S. military budget exceeded the total net income of all U.S. companies. Today, while the defense budget exceeds $425 billion, the earnings of only the fifty most profitable U.S. companies top that number and, indeed, the combined revenues of just the top two, ExxonMobil and Wal-Mart, dwarf it, beating it by more than 50 percent. Without a doubt, corporate economic clout has grown dramatically.
Mills’s book is still read and is now considered a classic critique of America’s power structure, but it is also clear that the world has changed profoundly in the fifty years since its publication.
Excerpted from Superclass by David Rothkopf. Copyright © 2008 by David Rothkopf. Published in March 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.