Barbed wire and safety fences are dismantled, the police and army are withdrawn and freedom of movement is restored. The 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ended last month with negligible protests against the ‘global leaders’.
Every year in late January, the Swiss mountain town Davos is temporarily turned into a fortress. On the streets, policemen, soldiers and bodyguards outnumber unarmed citizens by far.
More than 2,500 ‘global leaders’ met in Davos this year “to improve the state of the world.” as the WEF claims. It’s difficult to make much sense of this year’s motto ‘Resilient Dynamism’. Nevertheless, a lot was discussed, much optimism spread but no decisions taken; at least in front of the cameras.
Even though temperatures were frosty, sunshine reigned at this year’s annual meeting. At least from the business perspective, the global economic crisis is receding. “The worst is behind us. The optimism for recovery is there,” Axel Weber, chairman of the board of directors of the scandal-ridden bank UBS proclaimed.
Meanwhile Davos mayor Tarzisius Caviezel couldn’t stop raving about the WEF’s economic importance for Europe’s highest city: “The pictures broadcast throughout the world are invaluable advertising for Davos.”
Indeed, visual publicity was much worse a decade ago – trashed fast food restaurants, broken windows, a martial police presence, clouds of tear gas, peaceful protesters beaten and showered by water cannons.
This year, barbed wire was cleverly covered by large white canvas. The security personnel’s only challenge was to guide the countless SUVs and limousines through the town’s narrow streets.
A decade ago, thousands of protesters challenged the ‘global leaders’, threatening to shut down the World Economic Forum. It wasn’t just about expressing alternative opinions in Davos, but about chasing the rich and powerful out of town. “Wipe out WEF” was their slogan.
In past years the police did everything possible to keep protesters away from Davos, and put up with riots in other Swiss cities. Whoever tried to travel to Davos was stopped; trains and coaches were blocked in the lowlands.
About 50 people joined a rally in Davos. Rolf Marugg, secretary of the local Green Party was pleased, though he had expected more. “It’s important that we as locals protest against the meeting, the order of the globalised economy and the often dirty doings of the WEF participants,” Marugg said.
Pointing at the WEF’s rather vague motto, the Green politician said that the world doesn’t need dynamism and resilience but a slowdown and change. “The current crisis proves that those self-appointed global leaders’ only ability is to drive economy, society and the environment against the wall. ‘Resilient Dynamism’ therefore only means to keep up the current crisis system by any means possible.”
Over the last few years, small demonstrations are tolerated in Davos; they no longer constitute a threat. The rally went almost unnoticed. Additionally, Greenpeace temporarily shut down a Shell gas station, criticising the company for planning to drill for oil in the Arctic. In another token protest, three activists approached the congress centre with smoke flares to protest against the exploitation of women in the global economy.
A decade ago going up to Davos in late January was on every left-wing activist’s agenda. David Böhner, now in his forties, was a leading figure in Switzerland’s anti-globalisation movement. “Our protest was fundamentally anti-capitalist and directed against the increasingly powerful multinational corporations,” he said.
“Any social movement needs some kind of point of reference. In our case, the World Economic Forum provided a suitable projection screen.” At that time, no meeting of the G8, the European Union or the WTO was safe from resistance protests.
Böhner didn’t travel to Davos this year. “The demonstrations against the WEF don’t interest me any more.” The political capacity to ignite has long gone, he said, and a ritualised form of protest carries little potential.
It was in the early 2000s that opposition was loudest and most radical. Even though the authorities were quick to deflect from political content by nurturing a debate on violence at the protests, it was then when the activists’ arguments were most heard.
“Another major reason for the decline of the anti-WEF movement surely was the police repression,” David Böhner added. The turning point was in 2004, when 1,082 demonstrators were held in the freezing cold in the town Landquart, 40 kilometres from Davos, after violently being pulled out of a train by the police.
The authorities succeeded, because disputes flared up within the movement. Mobilising for demonstrations in Davos became senseless, unwise and unattractive. In the following years, increasingly smaller rallies were held in other Swiss cities.
Meanwhile, the WEF facilitated media access and invited ‘civil society leaders’ to their debates to counter critique. The Open Forum to run parallel to the WEF was invented.
But despite its polished image, the World Economic Forum remains a dubious platform for politicians and business leaders to consult behind closed doors, far from any accountability. The official programme is just one side of the coin.
On behalf of the World Economic Forum, Nicholas Davis argues that if every meeting was made public, nothing would get decided. “Some conversations – over delicate or sensitive issues – frankly have to be held behind closed doors. Our aim is to be as open as possible without jeopardising our mission to improve the state of the world.”