January 25th, 2012
03:22 PM GMT
Davos, Switzerland (CNN) - The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos is “the great transformation: shaping new models”. But this morning, at a WPP-organized breakfast about the world’s political outlook, it is the absence of a great transformation that is most clouding the world’s political outlook in 2012.
The breakfast, hosted with characteristic wit by WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, featured the political predictions of the American pollster Mark Penn and the British Labour Party impresario Peter Mandelson. But, in spite of the profound challenges to the global system, neither Penn nor Mandelson were able to conjure any great transformation in a world desperate for radical political reinvention.
The biggest party in America is “the no party,” Penn explained. The American electorate, he went on, is “fed up,” “angry” and “deeply pessimistic” about the future of the country. And yet, in spite of all this dissatisfaction, Penn sees the Republican primary race as a “circus,” is not optimistic about a third party candidate (unless Newt Gingrich unexpectedly wins the nomination,) sees little hope for a solution to the American budget crisis and expects Obama to be reelected in 2012.
Nothing will essentially change, Penn predicted. Except that the American electorate will become increasingly angry with a self-evidently dysfunctional system.
Mandelson echoed Penn’s pessimism. The world, he argued, is sick of “the homogenous managerialism” of most career European politicians. And yet Mandelson, like Penn, is predicting little radical political change in Europe. Although he thinks that the unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy will concede this year’s French presidential election to Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, Mandelson argued nothing would change because any attempt by Hollande to shift France leftwards would be stymied by the ongoing European financial crisis. Meanwhile, in his native Britain, Mandelson believes that the current coalition government will last “till they can bear each other no longer” – a scenario he expects last at least a further four years.
So where could the great political transformation come from? Herein lies the greatest irony of today’s global political environment. While Penn and Mandelson agree that capitalism is now on trial, both suggested that the winds of change will emerge from the right rather than the left. Reminding us that two thirds of Americans voters no longer want to have anything to do with the global system, Penn hinted that the future of radical American politics may lie with an America-First style movement. In noting the strong possibility that the popular Marine Le Pen may knock Sarkozy out of the French presidential election, Mandelson also hinted at the growing popularity of radical anti-globalization parties like Le Pen’s Front National.
At its trial, therefore, global capitalism may be found guilty by an electorate that no longer sees the benefits of the international free market.
The odd thing about today’s political environment, both Mandelson and Penn agreed, is that the more the electorate yearn for a politician who is courageous, bold and stands out from the crowd, the more conservative and unimaginative most politicians become.
Meanwhile, the few conventional politicians who do stand out from the crowd – like Gingrich – are profoundly flawed. As Mandelson impishly noted this morning: “Gingrich is a great candidate only in the sense that the Titanic was a great ship.”
But the political crisis in the West might be even deeper than either Penn or Mandelson understand. That’s because they themselves, cocooned with their fellow elites in Davos, are part of the problem. Research by Penn and his fellow pollsters has made politicians pathetically cautious and eager to tell the electorate what it wants to hear. Meanwhile, Mandelson and his tribe of political spin-doctors have commoditized political brands, making the public excessively suspicious of any slick politician promising yet another great transformation.
“Spontaneity,” Mandelson said today, revealing the darker side of his political identity, “has to be carefully planned.” But real political spontaneity, which of course can never be planned, will emerge from totally unexpected places. From the East, from Russia perhaps where, Mandelson noted today, the “worm has turned” and we will eventually see the emergence of genuinely multi-party system. Or maybe from the internet, that place of magical thinking, where great transformations seem to occur every day.
So the political news from snowy Davos this morning isn’t very encouraging. Our politics may not be the Titanic, heading for catastrophe. Perhaps they are more akin to the inert Costa Concordia cruise-liner, wrecked on shallow ground, incapable of moving backwards or forwards. Unable, it seems, of even the smallest transformation.
Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and professional skeptic. He is the author of "The Cult of the Amateur," and the upcoming (June 2012) "Digital Vertigo." This is the latest in a series of commentaries for CNN looking at how internet trends are influencing social culture.
About Business 360
CNN International's business anchors and correspondents get to grips with the issues affecting world business, and they want your questions and feedback.