July seems to be a good time for explosions, and not just in Fourth of July fireworks displays in the US. Already this month, a bomb blew up a controversial monument in rural Georgia, while on the other side of the world in Sri Lanka an angry mob stormed the presidential palace and drove the president into exile. These two events have more in common than a first glance might suggest. A dull book in a dull blue cover sitting on the endtable next to my sofa will help explain the link between them.
The book is Covid-19: The Great Reset by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret. It was published in 2020 by the house press of Schwab’s pet organization, the World Economic Forum (WEF), and got the usual praise from the usual pundits in the allegedly serious end of the corporate media. Somewhat less usually, it also attracted a great deal of attention from conspiracy theorists around the world, who made the same kind of hay out of it that their equivalents did two decades ago from George Bush’s offhand remark about a “new world order.” Mention the Great Reset in a good many circles these days and you can count on the sort of reaction you’d expect from talking about the Ku Klux Klan in your local African-American neighborhood.
There are valid reasons for that reaction, though they’re not among the points your common or garden variety conspiracy theorist is likely to mention first in conversation. Those reasons also benefit from a little explanation. To understand why so bland and inconsequential a volume as Covid-19: The Great Reset has gotten the reputation of a latter-day Mein Kampf, it’s helpful to start from a different point: the simple fact that the book is stunningly unoriginal.
You probably had to be around in the 1970s to get a sense of just how unswervingly Schwab and Malleret are trudging along a deeply worn rut. Books by respectable thinkers claiming to offer a template on which a new and better society could be built crammed the bookshelves in those days, and college courses on the subject were all the rage. One example from my collection will give you the flavor: its title is Reordering the Planet: Constructing Alternative World Futures—no false modesty there!—and its authors were Louis René Beres and Harry R. Targ. It was published in 1974 by Allyn and Bacon, one of the big textbook publishers of the day. A college bookstore sold it for $4.95 when it was new (and that was a fair amount of money for a book back then); I got it for fifty cents in a used book shop four decades later, which may suggest just how well its conclusions held up.
Whole forests were clearcut to stock bookstore shelves with volumes like this. One of the major contributors to the glut was the famous Club of Rome, an organization of business executives founded by Italian auto magnate Aurelio Peccei to solve all the world’s problems. Most people these days remember the Club of Rome purely because of their first significant publication, The Limits to Growth. This was a capable study that showed that industrial growth could not be sustained indefinitely on a finite planet, because the costs of growth eventually rise faster than the benefits, eventually forcing growth to give way to decline. (Yes, that’s what it showed. It’s a continual source of wry amusement to me that so few of the people who yelled, or are still yelling, about The Limits to Growth have the least idea what it actually said.)
What most people apparently don’t remember these days is that The Limits to Growth was the first of a whole series of books issued by the Club of Rome: Mankind at the Turning Point in 1975, Reshaping the International Order in 1976, Goals for Mankind in 1977, and so on. These weren’t serious studies along the lines of The Limits to Growth—they had nothing original to say, and offered neither models nor evidence in the process of saying it—and most of them quietly ignored the harsh logic central to that earlier study. All of them nonetheless fielded the usual praise from the usual pundits in the allegedly serious end of the corporate media, and all of them proceeded to vanish without a trace. The Club of Rome is still at it today; their website is currently announcing a new volume titled Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity.
If you take the time to read any of these volumes, and then pick up Covid-19: The Great Reset, you’ll recognize instantly the identity of style and substance. The entire literature of planetary pontificating we’re discussing uses the same very limited set of arguments and makes the same utterly predictable case. All of them start out by arguing that the world is in deep trouble for one reason or another, and humanity stands at a turning point. (That last metaphor is as pervasive in the literature as ants at a summer picnic; year after year, for that matter, with epic inevitability, the turning point is always just about to arrive.) If the right things aren’t done soon enough, some dire fate or other is sure to smite the world, and the only way to prevent this is to hand a great deal of unearned power to committees of properly trained and certified academic experts, who will surely solve all our problems and lead us to an exciting new future.
These books are as predictable as telephone directories and considerably less entertaining to read. They are one and all written in the bland indigestible prose style of the professional intellectual class, and they lurch through their prearranged routines in the graceless manner usual among that class, for all the world like a rhinoceros attempting ballet. Though they claim to address a galaxy of different problems, their proposed solutions are all pretty much the same: more technology, more bureaucracy, more centralized control, and above all, more salaries for more experts. That, in turn, is why their proposals have been so reliably ignored in the United States on the one hand, and the rest of the non-European world on the other.
People in the United States ignore such proposals because we tried that experiment and found out just how badly it worked. In 1961, the new presidential administration of John F. Kennedy set out to improve US foreign policy by staffing the State Department with “the best and the brightest,” which meant in the context of the time a bevy of intellectuals fresh out of Ivy League universities, full of the latest fashionable ideas in international relations. Those experts promptly led America straight into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, while loading the military with a flurry of contradictory demands that made victory impossible and withdrawal unacceptable.
Looking back a decade later in his brilliant volume The Best and the Brightest, journalist David Halberstam pointed out with a fine sense of irony that the American debacle in Vietnam happened not in spite of, but because of the intellectual excellence and academic credentials of JFK’s “whiz kids.” Just as a theoretical physicist is not the right person to repair your drains—you want a plumber for that—a university graduate with a head crammed full of abstractions is not the right person to deal with the gritty realities of foreign relations. As the saying goes, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there certainly is.
That realization—that expertise becomes its own nemesis—was the insight that most of the countercultural thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s never quite managed to reach, and its absence played a large role in dooming their movement to irrelevance. I’m thinking here especially of two of the writers who influenced me most strongly during my teens and twenties, Theodore Roszak and William Irwin Thompson. Both came on the scene with a pair of books that challenged the intellectual foundations of the age—Thompson with At the Edge of History and Passages About Earth, Roszak with The Making of a Counter Culture and the magisterial Where The Wasteland Ends—and both faltered thereafter, unable to get past their own self-assigned status as the smart guys in the room. Both failed to apply in practice, though they both grasped in theory, the central insight of Greek tragedy: the identity of arete and hamartia, the supreme excellence and the fatal flaw. Neither of them could envision a future in which industrial civilization and its countercultural opponents would be dragged down together, not in spite of their strengths, but because of them.
Most of the world achieved this insight in a different way over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. During those decades, a steady stream of university-trained experts burbled their way from Europe and America to most of the world’s nonindustrial nations, equipped with ornate plans that were intended to raise standards of living and spread Western values. Those plans that didn’t fail outright—and a great many of them did just this—turned out to funnel profits to multinational corporations headquartered in Europe or the United States, burdening their host countries with sky-high debt and very often with other costs as well.
Most governments around the world thus learned sooner or later that when earnest young Ph.D.s from Harvard or Oxford came calling, the best strategy was to smile and nod, and then make sure your government did everything possible to throw sand in the gears, knowing that eventually the earnest young Ph.D.s would give up and go home. Since the Ph.D.s typically had the backing of an industrial nation with whom it was necessary to maintain good relations, throwing them out of the country or, say, shooting them in the back and blaming the killing on poachers was rarely a viable strategy, but the costs of letting them have their way generally ranged from economic and political crisis straight up the scale to full-on national collapse.
Europe is the one corner of the world that really hasn’t had to deal with the worst aspects of the downside of expertise. It’s probably for this reason that Europe remains the happy hunting ground of the current iteration of “the best and the brightest.” The Club of Rome would likely have been mocked out of existence long ago had it been, say, the Club of Memphis, Mumbai, or Montevideo, and Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is also very careful to keep its home base safely in Europe. Its annual parties in Davos draw a sizable American clientele, to be sure, but then the American rich have had an embarrassing inferiority complex toward their European equivalents since colonial times and they’re probably just giddy about being let into the clubhouse with the cool kids.
So European intellectuals like Klaus Schwab keep on rehashing the same dreary rhetoric and churning out the same shopworn plans for reordering the planet. Meanwhile European politicians tolerate the metastatic growth of the European Union, which is the sort of ever-expanding bureaucratic sprawl, answerable to nobody, which populates the wet dreams of would-be world-reformers. It’s not surprising that the overprivileged classes here in the United States gaze longingly across the Atlantic, hoping that someday they, too, can establish a bureacratic oligarchy that can ignore democratic institutions and rule by edict the way the EU does—and it’s also not surprising that people who find this prospect less than appealing have turned Klaus Schwab and his Great Reset into a convenient focus for their wrath.
Admittedly Schwab is an easy target. He’s a professor with degrees in economics, engineering management, and public administration, and thus a classic example of the intellectual hopelessly lost in a maze of abstract daydreams. He’s also the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and the inventor and promoter of “Stakeholder Capitalism.” What, you may ask, is “Stakeholder Capitalism”? It’s a system in which business enterprises are forced to make their activities conform to a set of ideological principles imposed from without, which may not be questioned and which take precedence over such minor issues as making enough of a profit to stay in business. (In Germany in the 1930s the same notion was called gleichschaltung, “coordination,” though the ideology in question was a little different.) At this point Schwab’s gimmick has large overlaps with the ESG (environmental, social, and governance) fad, which ranks corporations by their conformity to the same ideology and tries to lure investment money to businesses with a high ESG rating irrespective of whether they can turn a profit.
The consequences of this sort of thinking are not good, and this is where we reach Sri Lanka, where the government is sending soldiers into the streets just now in a frantic attempt to restore public order. That was not supposed to happen. In 2018, in fact, Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe published an essay on the World Economic Forum website announcing that his country was going to become rich by 2025. His strategy for getting there involved following a bevy of WEF diktats, and he did it with such enthusiasm that Sri Lanka had a near-perfect 98 ESG rating, higher even than Sweden’s.
As it turned out, though, the saying “get woke, go broke” doesn’t just apply to corporations; it also applies to countries. Those highly touted WEF programs proceeded to trash the Sri Lankan economy, wreck its agricultural sector, plunge half a million people into extreme poverty, and send furious mobs crashing through the doors of the presidential mansion. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have both resigned and Rajapaksa has fled the country. That ebullient essay by former prime minister Wickremesinghe, by the way, has abruptly vanished from the WEF website in the last few days.
(Those same WEF programs, by the way, are currently being applied to agriculture in the Netherlands, and the government of Canada is moving to put them in place too. Perhaps Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau can call ahead and have Rajapaksa make reservations for them once the inevitable happens.)
That is to say, handing the future of your country to a coterie of self-proclaimed experts who are convinced that their mastery of abstractions makes them infallible is a bad idea. Handing your own future or that of your family to the same experts is no better. For what it’s worth, Covid-19: The Great Reset gives fair warning of that fact, as it makes several sweeping and confident predictions that have already been disproved by events. Schwab and Malleret insisted in 2020 that inflation wouldn’t be a problem in the wake of Covid-19. (Admittedly, so did everyone else in authority, proving that utter economic cluelessness is no bar to high status.) They also insisted that real estate prices could be counted on to drop once Covid was out of the way, and that people would be so traumatized by the pandemic that they would insist on masks, social distancing, and the rest of the officially approved cootie theater into the far future. Two years later, inflation is out of control, housing costs are soaring, and aside from a minority of drama addicts, most people across the industrial world want nothing more than to put Covid behind them and go back to living their lives in a normal way. This doesn’t exactly give one confidence in the other claims Schwab and Malleret have to offer.
The things that got left out of Covid-19: The Great Reset are in many ways even more revealing than what got put into it. Schwab and Malleret cluck sadly, for instance, about the way that Covid-19 restrictions imposed by governments harmed small businesses, and admit freely that this is a problem because small businesses produce far more jobs than big corporations do. Somehow, although they’re lavish with their suggestions on other topics, they never got around to offering any suggestions for helping small businesses deal with the impact. For that matter, though Schwab and Malleret are loud in their praise of the service workers whose labor kept the privileged classes comfortable in their cozy work-from-home arrangements, that’s very nearly the only attention the laboring classes get in the book. That the laboring classes might have needs and wants and ideas of their own, which are distinct from the ones chosen for them by their soi-disant betters—that never, but never, gets through the pea-soup fog of abstraction.
Perhaps the zenith of this sort of willed blindness to the obvious comes in the book’s discussion of depression as a modern epidemic. Schwab and Malleret are quick to talk about the need to make sure that mental health services are available to the hundreds of millions of depressed people in the post-Covid world—a sentiment that will no doubt endear them to their friends and fellow stockholders in the pharmaceutical industry. Absent from the discussion in the book, of course, is any sense that the epidemic of depression might have a deeper cause than temporary vagaries caused by the pandemic, much less that the cause might reasonably be addressed.
Anyone who’s stepped outside of the oxygen-deprived social bubbles in which the privileged spend their time knows that there is indeed a reason why so many people are so depressed nowadays. When government policies enthusiastically backed by intellectuals such as Schwab and Malleret drive whole populations into poverty and misery by eliminating and offshoring jobs, driving down wages and benefits, and squeezing out small businesses through bureaucratic overregulation, why, yes, there will be a great many depressed people—and for good reason. Insisting that they should all be put on antidepressants to make them stop feeling an honest reaction to what’s been done to them is right up there with handing out bandaids to people who’ve suffered amputations.
Like the American soldiers in Vietnam, in other words, most of the people in today’s world are being expected to slog through a nightmare of misery and enforced failure. Those expectations have been laid on them because so-called experts with too many university degrees and too little contact with the real world insisted, like Robby Mook in Hillary Clinton’s foredoomed presidential campaign, that the officially approved models disproved the lived experience of those who actually get to see the consequences up close. That didn’t end too well for Mook or his employer; it isn’t ending well for Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa; and all things considered, it may not end well for Klaus Schwab, whose Great Rehash simply serves up the same repeatedly failed programs under a new label.
That, in turn, brings us to the Georgia Guidestones—but that discussion will have to wait for an upcoming post.