Alain Kessi on Sat, 5 Feb 2000 15:04:53 +0100


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Syndicate: Davos, WEF and NGOs


[This article was written for the German political weekly Jungle World
<http://www.jungle-world.com> and published there in the 3 February 2000
issue in slightly abridged form.]

Massive demonstration against the World Economic Forum

A think tank for saving the world order on new discursive paths

By Alain Kessi

Since it was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab - who at the time just
started as a professor of economics in Geneva -, from a simple
management seminar the World Economic Forum (WEF) has developed into one
of the most visible fora for imposing the hegemonic market capitalist
discourse and sketching solutions to problems of capitalism at the
highest level. Every year the elite of the most innovative and
profitable sectors of the economy, the corresponding stars from the
political and media sphere and, for the first time this year, also from
the world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) meet in Davos, a
winter resort in the eastern Swiss Alps.

The purpose of this meeting? To coordinate - as far as their relation as
competitors allows this - their discourse and strategies of ensuring
access to resources, and to maintain personal contacts to other 'global
leaders' in the relaxed atmosphere of the winter resort.

In 1994 already there was a first demonstration against the WEF in
Davos. This demonstration was directed against the signing of NAFTA (the
North-American Free Trade Agreement) and expressed its solidarity with
the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. That time was not very open
to a radical critique of capitalism, and so the first demonstration did
not yet receive much public attention.

The past two years, however, have witnessed the rise of a globally
networked movement of grassroots political groups. This network has so
far manifested itself in the worldwide protests against the second WTO
ministerial conference in May 1998 in Geneva, against the G8 summit in
June 1999 in Cologne and against the third WTO ministerial meeting in
November 1999 in Seattle.

This dynamic has given the demonstration in Davos this year - and to a
certain extent already last year - a completely new visibility.

After the strict ban on the demonstration last year and the
corresponding criminalizing of the protest the anti-WTO coordination
Switzerland had managed to get the authorities reprimanded by the
administrative court in Chur and to receive 2000 Swiss francs (about
1300 US dollars) of damage payments for itself. According to the court,
a general ban on demonstrations during events like the WEF is in
contradiction with the freedom of assembly and the right to free
expression of one's views. Soon after this, the county of Davos for the
first time enacted a law on demonstrations, which states that "in
general" no demonstrations will be permitted during large events.

Nonetheless on 9 December 1999 the anti-WTO coordination Switzerland
filed a request for a permission to demonstrate on Saturday, 29 January
2000 and began to mobilize internationally for this demonstration. Until
12 January this request was not treated. At which moment once again the
county of Davos banned the demonstration. In order to avoid a renewed
reprimand, the authorities gave a permission for a demonstration on
Sunday, 30 January - at first arguing that on Saturday the
demonstration, and even the rally without a march that was proposed as a
compromise, would disturb the traffic to and from the resort. Later,
after an appeal by the organizers and after it had become clear that US
president William Clinton would honor the WEF with a quick visit
precisely on 29 January, they argued with security concerns. Mr. Clinton
as the savior and patron of the silencing of criticism in Davos. Even
the military has been mobilized, even if hesitatingly, for the
protection of a few buildings - one more step towards militarizing
society.

But the demonstration took place. Quite a demonstration, in fact! Around
three o'clock, the time the demonstration was announced for, a small
group started the rally in front of the Davos train station, surrounded
by skeptical police officers. The rally was opened with a speech on
patriarchal structures of exploitation being perpetuated and perfected
by the Homo Oeconomicus Davosiensis within the Forum, and also being at
work in the Forum and in the tourism sector more generally.

At that moment a second march of demonstrators became apparent through
the wire mesh of the police barricade vehicles, about 500 people who had
arrived in 12 buses from France, Italy and all regions of Switzerland.
After a brief moment of gathering it became clear that the police was in
no way prepared to face either the number or the determination of the
demonstrators. When the march passed the barricade, hundreds of people
who had previously been waiting as spectators to see how things would
develop, joined in.

The nervous wait turned into a forceful movement. Some one hundred
meters and one easily bypassed police barricade further, at the Arabella
Sheraton Hotel Seehof where many of the "Davos people" were staying, it
was already some 1300 demonstrators who marched by the stupefied WEF
participants. At a third police barricade 500 meters up the valley the
demonstrators decided to renounce fighting their way to the actual
congress center. On the way back a McDonald's restaurant was destroyed,
and its huge advertising banner ("Think Global, Eat Local") was burned,
filling the above-mentioned elite hotel with smoke and fumes in the
process. At around five o'clock, in front of the hotel, the
demonstration was declared dissolved by the organizers, energy and
determination filling the air till that last moment.

The anti-WTO coordination has maintained a clearly confrontational
stance towards the WEF. Last year already it had made it clear that it
is not interested in a dialog with Klaus Schwab or other self-described
'global leaders' - a dialog in the language and under the conditions of
an elitist hegemony can only contribute to stabilizing such hegemony.

A different approach is followed by the Berne Declaration, an NGO with
contacts to grassroots movements and NGOs in the South and years of
experience with international institutions, which has organized a forum
critical of the WEF. In a series of events and publications under the
slogan 'the public eye on davos', it demands that the WEF be more
transparent and more democratic in its practice.

At such an event on 27 January in Zurich Elmar Altvater, professor of
economics at the Freie Universität in Berlin, explained that after the
decline of the ability of nation-states to regulate the world economy
(known as the crisis of 'governability'), the time had come for 'global
governance', for which international decision-making structures which
include civil society (in other words: NGO elites) need to be set up.

His statement correctly points out a deep crisis of capitalist
regulation. The solution he points out however has nothing to do with a
critique of the WEF but fits seamlessly into the renewed control
strategies of the 'global leaders'. It is precisely this elitist
civil-society scheme developed by such renewers of capitalism as Anthony
Giddens and Ulrich Beck (court philosophers and sociologists of Tony
Blair and Gerhard Schröder, respectively) that makes the participation
of NGOs in such events as the WEF highly problematic.

'We want to be a good citizen!' - This pompous statement does not stem
from a representative of the invited NGOs, of the so-called 'civil
society' at the WEF, but from Göran Lindahl, president and CEO
(corporate executive officer) of the ABB group, a Swedish-Swiss
multinational.

At first, at the beginning of the seventies, says Lindahl, they noticed
that they had to take into account the interests of their employees;
later they were confronted with the wishes of the consumers. At the end
of the eighties the interests of the shareholders came into view. And
now, with the overheated globalization and its consequences, ABB needs
to learn to see itself as a 'good citizen' and take responsibility for
the community (when 'Davos People' speak of 'everyone', or 'the
community', they usually mean a limited class of 'important' people - a
bit like the French revolution spoke of 'all citizens' and excluded
women without much awareness that this might be problematic).

Thus in Davos the 'global leaders' experiment to identify the correct
mix of 'good and global governance', the 'integrated view', as Klaus
Schwab likes to call it, this view that brings together all sectors and
interests. It is only a question of an open (!) dialog and sharing of
experience the way they are practiced in Davos. Lindahl continues: "We
know since a long time from poverty, that is nothing new." He concludes
that the only news is that with the revolution in communication and
information technologies and with globalization we now have a way of
getting a complete picture of poverty and misery. But, says Lindahl, now
we also have the possibility analyze the underlying reasons on a global
scale and then to mobilize efforts to target them precisely -
technocracy in its pure state. The people are not asked how they want to
live. Their problems are just being solved for them. And the elites
remain a closed circle.

Since Seattle, if not before, the globalizers have started to feel under
pressure. Their renewed strategies of legitimization run on several
levels. Besides the strategy of inventing and including the so-called
civil society, a number of threads have become apparent in the
interviews that abounded in the world media before and around the WEF.
The most primitive defense entirely denies the fatal consequences of
capitalism in its globalization phase for the life and environment of
people (assuring that it is all a great misunderstanding, and 'we' only
need to better explain the facts of life to the people). A more careful
approach emphasizes that the 'global leaders' will from now on
increasingly take into account the interests of 'the poor'.
Counter-attacking, the 'global leaders' (themselves presumably
legitimized by being white, male, heterosexual and powerful, or some
adequate combination of the above) demand that grassroots organizations
and non-conforming NGOs need to be more transparent in their work and
prove that they are democratically legitimized. In order to make any
discussion superfluous, the very people who have put massive efforts
into constructing globalization as an attack on people's struggles in
order to solve the crisis of capital accumulation, claim that
globalization is inevitable (Schwab in an interview with the German
weekly Die Zeit, No. 5/2000: "TINA - there is no alternative").

And here's the best news, as the technocrats of the world have always
known: New technologies will help solve the existing problems, and
globalization (what else?) is the best bet for ensuring the development
of such technologies.
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