If Atlas shrugged…

by Terence MacNamee

All week in Davos, just up the road from here, the usual suspects were holding forth on the state of the world under the aegis of Prof. Klaus Schwab, who is a sort of funfair barker to the world’s corporate and political élite.

I wouldn’t like to live in Davos, because for a week every January or February it becomes a high-security zone, and it seems to be getting worse. This time they were watching out for attack drones that might creep up the ski slopes, or suicide bombers that might want to hobnob with the glittering guests. Nothing happened. The only security breach was some young Swiss soldiers getting busted for doing dope on duty. I guess they were bored at the lack of action. Could you blame them?

Meanwhile, this year’s greatest hot-air balloonist was newly-elected Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. He gave a speech that contained every well-worn cliché in the book. But he was “upbeat”. This was said to be in marked contrast with all the headshaking that was going on about the state of the world among the glittering throng. They just loved Justin. Prof. Schwab loved him. In the enthusiasm of the moment, he cast Justin as embodying the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the latest buzz phrase Prof. Schwab is barking. Oh yes, that was supposed to be the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum. What was the conclusion? Who knows? Every year it gets harder for the media to figure out what the latest WEF contributed or even what it was about.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a character subversively asks a hard-working industrialist: if you met Atlas, the giant who bears the world on his shoulders, what would you advise him to do? The best advice to Atlas would be to shrug and see what happened. The implication was that if Atlas shrugged the world off his shoulders, there would at least be a big crash and Atlas would get a lot of attention.

Ayn Rand’s idea in her novel was that a small number of productive, creative and dynamic folks bear the rest of the world on their shoulders, and if they stopped doing so – if they went on strike – the world would grind to a halt and the man in the street would have to acknowledge that we need the gallant few to keep things going.

I have a corollary of my own about this. Never mind the creative and dynamic people, for a moment. The actual élite – the people who go to WEF every year – should be encouraged to shrug their shoulders. My prediction is that nothing would happen. But there would be a few good results: the said élite would free themselves from their Atlas complex, the world would be spared all the hot air, and a lot of Swiss soldiers could stay at home.

I always feel tempted to suggest to Prof. Schwab: you and your guests are so concerned about saving the world from its many sins – how about going on strike? Just shrug. Stop bearing the weight of the world on your shoulders. Just shut up and walk away. What would happen? Nothing. The self-appointed élite of the world with all their hot air have no more idea of what to do than the rest of us. If they stopped making speeches to each other nothing would happen. The world would muddle through – or not.

So (I would tell Prof. Schwab), just let your arms fall helplessly to your sides this time next year and see what happens. To the heroic gesture of the weary giant, the only response – in the eternal silence of the universe – would be the Homeric laughter of the gods.