Alain Kessi on Sat, 5 Feb 2000 18:08:33 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Davos, WEF and NGOs

[This article was written for the German political weekly Jungle World
<> 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

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

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

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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