Status: 01/16/2023 06:46 am
Klaus Schwab is the founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which invites high-ranking politicians and business representatives to a meeting in Davos every year. To conspiracy ideologues, he is a hated figure – mostly because of a book.
By Pascal Siggelkow, ARD Fact Finder Editors
“According to the WEF, soon we will only be able to walk or share a car at most, while the elites continue to fly in their private jets and make dark plans”, says a Telegram group. We are talking about the World Economic Forum (WEF), the world economic forum, which annually invites to a multi-day conference in the small Swiss municipality of Davos.
NDR Logo Pascal Siggelkow
Among the more than 2,500 participants are political leaders, business representatives and non-governmental organizations. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have announced their presence this year.
But where so many influential people gather, conspiracy myths are not far off. There are countless articles and videos on the Internet about how the WEF is pulling the strings in the background – there is always talk of “The Great Reboot”. What it is?
Fertile ground for conspiracy ideologies
The World Economic Forum was founded in 1971 by the German economist Klaus Schwab – at the time still under the name of European Management Conference. It is funded by membership fees and public grants. According to the World Economic Forum, the aim is to “improve the state of the world”.
Conspiracy ideologues see this completely differently. According to them, Schwab wants to install a “new world order” with the WEF – in favor of the “elite” and to the detriment of the “simple” population. “The reason that there is some form of elite operating in secret is a key motif in almost every conspiracy story,” says Katharina Kleinen-von Königslöw, a professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication Studies at the University of Hamburg. “So it changes who this elite is. Sometimes it’s the Jews, sometimes the Catholic Church, then it’s George Soros or now Klaus Schwab.”
Jan Rathje, Senior Research Fellow at CeMAS (Centre for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy), is not surprised that the World Economic Forum provides a breeding ground for conspiracy ideologues. “Large gatherings of people who have powerful resources are particularly suitable as targets for conspiracy narratives because important political processes are negotiated there.” However, the content of these meetings is much less explosive. “It’s not that people meet there to hatch a global conspiracy, but to discuss how the future can be shaped.”
The idea that the various participants in these meetings have a common interest in a global conspiracy is far too simplistic. Furthermore, there are too many people involved to keep such a large conspiracy a secret, says Kleinen-von Königslöw. “If that many people knew about it, it would have to become public at some point.” Furthermore, the list of participating state representatives is publicly available, and the meeting is not as secretive as conspiracy ideologues often claim.
The idea of the “Great Reset”
While meetings like the World Economic Forum have long been the focus of conspiracy narratives, Klaus Schwab has only recently become a target – since June 2020 to be precise, when he went public with the WEF initiative “The Great Reset”. Shortly afterwards, his book with almost the same name, which he wrote together with the economist Thierry Malleret, was also published.
The idea behind the “Great Revolt”, as the book is called in the German market: the Corona pandemic should be used as an opportunity to make societies and the global economy more just, socially and ecologically sustainable. “Schwab’s conclusion is that there are big changes both at the economic and social level, for example due to the climate crisis or the digital surveillance options of governments”, says Matthias Diermeier, head of the cooperation cluster Democracy, Society and Market Economy at the German Economic Institute (IW).
From this, Schwab derives what he sees as a necessary devotion to so-called stakeholder capitalism. “Basically, it’s a move away from pure profit maximization for companies and also a move away from a purely economic maximization of gross domestic product towards a broader view of business,” says Diermeier. “So it’s no longer just about making as much money as possible as a person, company or state, but doing justice to these different stakeholder groups as much as possible.”
“Not a groundbreaking idea”
The theory of stakeholder capitalism is nothing new in business management. The approach of, for example, avoiding environmental damage or paying employees fairly to tame unregulated capitalism is similar to the concept of a social market economy, says political economist Diermeier.
The initiative by Klaus Schwab and the WEF is therefore significantly less progressive for Germany than for countries with a weaker welfare state such as the US. According to Schwab, there is a danger that the de-industrialization of entire regions, accelerated by globalization, will lead to mass unemployment and a lack of prospects. “And according to Schwab, it could jeopardize democracy if anti-democratic forces try to exploit this dissatisfaction,” says Diermeier.
However, by installing social security systems and at the same time combating potential risks like the climate crisis, Schwab believes the danger could be averted. “In essence, what Schwab is demanding is not a breakthrough idea,” says Diermeier. Universities and colleges have long taught that the focus should not just be on maximizing profits when doing business. In the professional world, the book was therefore also less strongly received.
Sentences taken out of context
According to communication scientist Kleinen-von Königslöw, the fact that the WEF initiative and the book still received so much attention, especially in ideological conspiracy circles, is also due to the timing of publication. “The idea has long existed in circles that the ‘elite’ are working to usher in a ‘new world order’. The corona pandemic and the ‘Great Reset’ could very well be integrated into this conspiracy narrative.” For example, the WEF and Schwab are accused of merely inventing the pandemic to establish the “new world order”.
As the book only contains very vague ideas overall, there is a lot of room for interpretation for conspiracy ideologues, says Kleinen-von Königslöw. “Then individual sentences are taken out of context and serve as supposed evidence for their own narrative.” Among other things, Schwab is accused of wanting to ban directing. In fact, he is concerned with promoting car-sharing to save resources. Also, the WEF cannot ban anything, after all it is just one organization. The WEF has also been wrongly associated with the demand to kill pets for climate protection.
“In a way, these stories also show that the whole process is seen from behind,” says political scientist Rathje. “Since conspiracy ideologues already believe that there is a single line of conflict between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’, they interpret everything exactly on that scale. However, this policy is much more complex than simply bringing together a group of powerful people people, who then all want the same thing, is completely ignored.” This is exactly what is typical of conspiracy ideologues, who greatly reduce and simplify the complexity of political, social and historical processes.
Myths differ by country
The conspiracy myths surrounding Klaus Schwab and the WEF are spread through different mediums, says Rathje – from opponents of the conspiracy ideology of globalization to right-wing extremists. Also world-renowned actors of the New Right or the “lateral thinker” movement, such as the Austrian Martin Sellner of the “Identity Movement” and the head of the AUF1, Stephan Magnet, are among them, as well as the Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin and the former former US President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Myths about the “Great Reset” differ depending on which country they’re spread in, says IW’s Diermeier. “In Germany and Europe, the charge against Schwab is that we are now entering an era where neoliberalism is taking over. Where we will finally be controlled by corporations and will have to give up our freedom.” In the United States, on the other hand, Schwab would be accused of initiating socialism by demanding the expropriation of corporations.
“Conspiracy stories often relate to narratives that already exist anyway — dissatisfaction that can be activated and emotionalized,” says Diermeier. “And here in Europe, this conspiracy narrative of elites in the form of neoliberal capitalism is relatively strong. In the US, on the other hand, it’s the fear that socialism might get the upper hand.”
Almost a quarter believe in the influence of secret organizations
A 2021 IW Cologne poll also shows just how relatable conspiracy stories about supposedly secret intrigues of the “elite” are. on the political decisions to be taken. The fact that the media and politics are in cahoots was met with an approval rating of 26%.
One can certainly criticize the processes of globalization and the problems that arise as a result, says Rathje of CeMAS. The government must even be allowed to be criticized in an open, liberal and democratic society. “The problem is only when the whole thing happens on an ideological basis.” In conspiracy stories, everything bad in the world is projected onto individuals like Klaus Schwab. Furthermore, all conspiracy ideologies would draw an apocalyptic worldview.
It can become dangerous if, as in the “Great Reset”, the “elites” are accused of wanting to use violence against the “people”. “These extreme victim narratives can lead people to feel compelled to resort to violence to get rid of harm.”