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International Affairs

The sunny optimism of Davos is similar to that trumpeted at the height of the economic cycle

The well-justified furore about the Presidents’ Club function in the Dorchester Hotel in London, a fundraiser which turned out to be an annual, highly organised, secretive, sleazy grope-fest for the wealthy and their hangers-on, coming as it did in the same week as Davos, naturally provokes the witty to draw parallels between the two events.

Each is ostensibly well-intentioned – even philanthropic; each is highly selective in its invitation list. Or so one might be led to believe. But both have one thing in common – you don’t get invited unless you are rich or powerful, or both rich and powerful.

Davos this year has invited Donald Trump to attend for the first time. Heretofore he was regarded as not worthy of invitation by reason of the slightly dodgy state of his wealth and his unpleasant personality - the suspicion being that he might have been seen as more suited for a louche night at the Presidents’ Club in the Dorchester than for rubbing shoulders with the more serious minded po-faced plutocrats who flock together at the Alpine roost.

But having achieved high office, he could no longer be denied. And so, we have been given an opportunity for Trump and Theresa May to pose for a forced-smile photo on neutral ground rather than have Trump come to London on a state visit from which the Queen had opted out, the Speaker of House of Commons had barred its doors, and the only likely public interest would take the form of a violent mass demonstration in the streets of Westminster. Far from making Mrs May look statesmanlike, the cancelled visit only had the potential to damage her politically.

If truth be told, most European leaders would run a mile from hosting Trump in the same way as Macron did in Paris on the last Bastille day. He simply isn’t welcome in Europe.

Trump arrived still smarting from the extraordinary rebuff of the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York. Ridiculously he had asked them for a loan of one of the museum’s prize possessions, Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 “Landscape in Winter” so that he and Melania could hang it in the White House to impress their guests. Not content with a polite refusal, the Board of the Guggenheim suggested that they would send him another very precious piece by the artist Maurizio Cattelan from their collection.

This piece, named “America” was a solid 18 carat gold, full-sized functioning toilet. Its creator claimed that it is “one per cent art for the ninety nine percent” but he leaves it to the viewer to interpret it. Like Marcel Du Champ’s famous urinal which dates from the early 20th century, “America” is both striking and controversial. I will leave it to others to decide whether that alone qualifies it as art.

Cattelan’s piece has one thing over Du Champ’s urinal – its creation is rumoured to have consumed more than $1 million dollars in gold bullion. Unlike the gold-plate bling of Mar a Lago and Trump Tower in New York (and indeed many of the posher suites in Davos), “America” – the toilet is solid gold. For many it connotes the plutocracy or kleptocracy that modern mega- capitalism has become.

And so the Guggenheim Museum Board has achieved with one simple piece of correspondence what 500,000 Londoners brandishing placards might not do as effectively had the state visit gone ahead – truth has been spoken to power.

Those attending Davos gather in an economic Berchtesgaden – the elected politicians seeking to allay their sense of insecurity and the un-elected magnates seeking recognition and importance – actually achieve nothing. Token financial support for green climate related projects designed to off-set the carbon footprint of shipping the 2,500 attendance cannot hide the fundamental futility of the glitzy winter wonderland.

The real problem is that the rich are getting far richer, and the gap between the haves and the have- nots in many western societies is widening so much  that the ordinary citizenry are increasingly fearful that the coming generation will be less well-off and more economically excluded than the present. The American Dream is fading for the coping classes in the US. The same applies across western Europe where the young have seen a massive wealth transfer to the older generation.

Trump’s immigration policies play upon these fears. Somehow he created the notion that saving the American Dream entailed deporting the Dreamers. The Democrats have forced Trump to abandon that ridiculous notion. By forcing a one day budgetary shutdown, they forced Trump to offer  the Dreamers a path to citizenship instead of a ticket to poverty on a deportation flight.

But I have the sneaking feeling that the “good news” being trumpeted from Davos – that simultaneous economic growth has become a world-wide phenomenon – is only the same  sunny optimism that we have often seen at the height of the economic cycle.

We live in a world which is more dangerous and unpredictable than it has been for decades. The prospect of war closer to home is not fanciful. From the Baltic states to Ukraine though the Caucasus to the Gulf, there seems to be a series of geopolitical fault-lines and flash points with a potential for volcanic eruptions. There is talk about increased military spending and re-armament. The economic cycle is perhaps at or approaching its highpoint. We should be alert.

The very fact that Turkey, a NATO member is now seeking to annihilate the Kurdish forces in northern Syria which were armed and supported by the Americans, and who did the Pentagon’s bidding is smashing Daesh, shows how dangerous and volatile the Middle East is becoming.

And we should never forget that it was the NATO powers that decided to bring down Assad’s secularist state by allowing the Saudis and Qataris to pump billions into an Islamist rebellion in Syria. Not since the British and the French betrayed Lawrence and the Arabs at Damascus in 1918 have the Western powers acted as duplicitously as their recent behaviour in Syria. What is a young Kurdish fighter to make of NATO countries now? The word perfidious comes to mind. These events could be the tinder boxes for a very nasty war – with all its international economic consequences.

Economic circumspection, prudence and caution is needed in Ireland’s case. We are told by the Central Bank that we are approaching full employment. How then are we to sustain massive home-building, hospital-building, transport infrastructural construction? With migrant labour? We have been here before.

We badly need an economic, political and social model which brings about social cohesion between the younger generation and those who have grown asset wealthy. If the good times really are returning, everyone must have a sustainable stake in the economic and social life of the state.

Davos is fake; Dublin is real. A real republic, I think, is the servant of all and the master of none.




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