How the World Economic Forum Shapes Market Agendas
Emerging Frontiers in the Global Economy
Published by: Stanford University Press
240 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503606043
- Published: July 2018
In Discreet Power, Christina Garsten and Adrienne Sörbom undertake an ethnographic study of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Accessing one of the primary agenda-setting organizations of our day, they draw on interviews and participant observation to examine how the WEF wields its influence. They situate the WEF within an emerging system of "discretionary governance," in which actors craft ideas and entice formal authorities and top leaders in order to garner significant sway. Yet in spite of its image as a powerful, exclusive brain trust, the WEF has no formal mandate to implement its positions. It must convince others to advance chosen causes and enact suggestions, rendering its position quite fragile.
Garsten and Sörbom argue that the WEF must be viewed relationally as a brokering organization that lives between the market and political spheres and that extends its reach through associated individuals and groups.They place the WEF in the context of a broader shift, arguing that while this type of governance opens up novel ways of dealing with urgent global problems, it challenges core democratic values.
Garsten and Sörbom provide a view of the WEF as an ethnographic field and describe their experimental methodological design. The authors emphasize the close intertwining of methodology and theory; they show how they learned about the politics of discretion in practice by negotiating for access, being denied, rejected, and sometimes also welcomed as they worked to study the WEF. The interplay of secrecy and transparency that the Forum draws on for its mobilization is indicative of the WEF as a discretionary space, asserting community by shielding itself from the public eye. Providing open platforms for dialogue and creating safe spaces for deliberation are mechanisms for networking, information sharing, and advocacy, but they are also instruments of discretionary governance. They serve to extend the mechanisms of indirect and discreet political power into other public spheres and organizations, and may have an unaccountable influence on ideological, political, and financial forms of power.
Chapter 2 looks at the liquid mandate on which the WEF bases its activities. The authors describe how it is possible for WEF, which lacks a state-based mandate, to position itself as a legitimate actor at the global level. This brings to the fore the seductive strategies in which the Forum is so proficient. With the "right" people attending, legitimacy rubs off onto the organization. The network of contacts that the WEF organizes, characterized by opacity and a high degree of global sway, is a consequence of the corporate-based mandate they enjoy. Garsten and Sörbom discuss "discretionary governance" as the specific form of governance by which the Forum operates. In light of the relative lack of democratic characteristics such as representation and accountability, they argue that this type of governance entails a withdrawal of the elites into secluded and exclusive communities.
Garsten and Sörbom describe the authoritative capabilities of the WEF in terms of communicative power. Based on their ethnographic observations and descriptions, the chapter reveals how the activities of the WEF are consequential precisely through its communication. Communication, the authors suggest, is the means by which organizations are designed, created, and sustained and is the base of power and authority. At WEF, communication entails working on setting precedence in issues related to global policy and markets, to frame and articulate issues, problems, and solutions. These processes may on the surface appear not to involve conflict; however, the lack of open conflict does not necessarily mean lack of conflict. Conflict, and the cultivation of harmony discourse, are recurrent around the Forum,
Chapter 4 takes a closer look at how the status machinery of the WEF works. The Forum provides an exclusive and closed arena on which a level of hype, urgency, and topicality is produced. The processes by which individuals are selected to participate in discussing, debating, and advocating solutions to urgent global problems are meticulously prepared. The Forum draws into its orbit carefully chosen individuals who are organized into communities of expertise, a "brain trust," that highlights and celebrates particular individuals, ideas, and actions. Garsten and Sörbom reflect on these processes and how they work to distance the WEF and its selected crowd from the public. By this process, the Forum creates and enhances status distinction and contributes to the formation of a new transnational elite, or what the authors call an aspiring class.
WEF activities distinctly formatted around the future— mobilizing the young and presenting future scenarios—are discussed in this chapter. The future is a signature theme at the Forum, one that serves to articulate and postulate future perspectives, agendas, risk, and generations. The emphasis is on preparing for the future as it unfolds. In this chapter, the authors show how risk scenarios and the communities specifically oriented towards the future are ingredients in the WEF's aspirations of shaping the world in a specific direction. They articulate a particular form of "anticipatory knowledge," geared to contribute to the shaping of political priorities and agendas, reflecting WEF's central values and priorities.
Chapter 6 unfolds the sometimes conflicting political underpinnings of the Forum. The Forum advocates a specific form of neoliberal thought combined with third way social democracy. This approach also promotes a set of ideas regarding the role of business in politics by which economic and social values are seen to be seamlessly aligned. Together these ideas underpin a "postpolitical paradox," in which conflict is seemingly turned into consensus. At the same time, the all-inclusive multistakeholder model conflicts with general understandings of politics since it based on discretionary and non-transparent decisions of participation. These conflicts are nontopics within the Forum but are clearly played out in most of its practices.
The conclusion focuses on the exclusivity of the Forum, its liquid mandate, and its seductive strategies. Garsten and Sörbom reflect on the workings of discreet power and discretionary governance and the question of how, and if, global politics is possible and what the role of the Forum is at the level of global politics. The WEF is a response to the fragmented global predicament, calling for more transnational cooperation. As a model for future governance, there are democratic challenges, but also opportunities for markets, policymaking, and diplomatic relations. Garsten and Sörbom contend that these novel forms of governance are developed under the radar, away from the insight of the general public and elected politicians, and far removed from the deliberations of citizen groups. As a model for future globalization and governance, there are central democratic issues to be resolved.
"Between raw forces of the global economy and disordered world politics lie organizations that are neither political nor economic. The World Economic Forum is central among these structures. Garsten and Sörbom give a most impressive depiction and analysis of its role—responsible but undemocratic—in what is now called global governance." ~John W. Meyer, Stanford University
"This is an outstanding exemplar of a very difficult genre in the craft of ethnography: working within the highest reaches of elite organization. The challenge lies less in limited access than in not reinforcing our deep-seated stereotypes of what goes on in such groups. This work is distinguished by its observational quality and derived expression of the stakes and issues at hand." ~George Marcus, University of California, Irvine