An Occupy Wall Street protester in New York City, 2012 Image: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
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- The Annual Meeting has a history of engagement between activists and elites.
- It provides a forum in which truth can be spoken to power.
- An uneasy alliance is necessary to confront our existential challenges.
When I received the invitation to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, my first reaction was embarrassment at the thought that my activist peers would find out.
For me, attending Davos will most likely be reputational suicide: a sign that I have done something wrong, sold out or been compromised.
And yet, the same activist impulse - do what you’re afraid to do - that inspired me to co-create Occupy Wall Street is what also compels me to go to Davos.
After I accepted the invitation, I sought to understand how I should navigate this gathering.
The few activists I spoke with privately about the situation inevitably asked the same question - what did I hope to achieve by going to Davos? Behind the query was a deep skepticism that anything good can come from a gathering of elites and that, perhaps, even less good could come from activists attending.
And yet, as I researched the World Economic Forum and the philosophy of its founder, Klaus Schwab, I uncovered a long history of uneasy engagement between activists and elites at Davos.
At the heart of the World Economic Forum is the conviction that decisions are best made when the interests of all stakeholders are served. Explaining this concept in 1971, Schwab wrote: “The company is like an organism, which depends on several arteries. These must all be nurtured, so they are always ‘healthy’. This is the only way that a company can survive and grow.”
One of those key ‘arteries’ was state and society. Businesses had an obligation to benefit the wider society and its government.
Moreover, from the perspective of stakeholder capitalism, a corporation’s prosperity depends on contributing to the “improvement of public wellbeing” by creating jobs, paying taxes and performing the other socially positive roles expected by people outside, or potentially hostile to, the corporation.
From the beginning, the Annual Meeting has served as a platform for critics of the status quo to speak directly to the world’s most powerful and wealthy, individuals - and many notable examples have done so, beginning in 1974 with Dom Hélder Câmara, a radical liberation theologist and advocate for the poor. Speaking truth to power is thus the first tactic that activists have used at Davos.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
The relationship between activists and elites in Davos was transformed by Hillary Clinton’s 1998 speech at Davos that pushed for civil society to be acknowledged as a key stakeholder on par with governments and the economy.
A year later, the anti-globalization movement emerged following the Carnival Against Capital in London and the Battle in Seattle. This movement took explicit aim at the World Economic Forum, along with other elite gatherings. Activist culture adopted a new tactic: shunning Davos in favour of establishing an alternate gathering, the World Social Forum. This mirrored a shift within movements away from charismatic leaders and toward consensus-oriented, ostensibly leaderless assemblies.
Davos has been a public platform for activists to speak truth to power and a private space for activists to meet the forces that oppose them. But since the anti-globalization movement it has become a space that was unable to communicate with the new wave of social movements while, at the same time, these movements - most significantly, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street - established themselves as a new kind of stakeholder.
This inability to speak to each other became obvious at the Annual Meeting in 2012 when Occupy Davos set up a protest camp. In response, the World Economic Forum organized a public forum that was open to the public and included a member of Occupy along with a participant at Davos. The event was a debacle. Later, Schwab would voice his frustration:
“The problem is sometimes if you look at ‘Occupy Davos’ or ‘Occupy Wall Street’ or whatever it is, it’s a movement but who are really the significant representatives?”
The search for a significant representative was bound to fail at the time because what made these social movements special is that they mobilized significant portions of the global population to action with memes, not leaders. Most activists participating in Occupy had no idea where the meme for the protest originated, nor were they experts on income inequality, beyond being impacted by it. And, unlike civil society leaders, the originators of the movement were not able to control its direction after the outbreak of the protest.
Today the nature of power is changing as the problems facing humanity shift from the political to the existential. It now seems activists and elites are being pushed into a difficult alliance in order to confront global challenges.
In the face of an impending climate emergency, elites and activists need the same thing: a global social movement that unleashes the creative energy of humanity by mobilizing countless people toward monumental action - such as planting 1 trillion trees or decreasing carbon emissions by 7.6% per year for a decade. That kind of collaboration is easier said than done.
Ultimately, what brings the World Economic Forum and social movements together is a passion for change. Moments of revolutionary upheaval play a social evolutionary function, enabling societies to make great progress quickly. At the same time, elites at Davos are a force that wishes to adapt to the changing reality.
In our post-political world the key distinction is not rich vs poor, as Aristotle believed. It is accelerating change vs resisting change.
The theme for this year’s meeting is ‘Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World’ - and I see my invitation as an opportunity to bring recognition to uncivil society, the leaderless social protests that are emerging with greater size and frequency, as a key stakeholder in creating a sustainable world. Uncivil society is the fourth leg of the chair, to adapt Clinton’s metaphor.
Collaboration between elites and social movements will be messy and can only be fostered through the concrete actions of governments and businesses - such as a global moratorium on suppressing climate protest movements, a universal basic income for climate activists or a legal prohibition on climate change denial. Activists, too, must develop a new tactic that is appropriate to this historical moment - and that is what I will be searching for at Davos this year.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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