Where are the protesters?

Isabelle Mayault

In a world where the 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 per cent, you might have expected to see massive protests outside the Kongresszentrum in Davos this week. Over the past ten years, however, the once thriving mobilisation against the World Economic Forum has lost steam. ‘We’ve witnessed a slump,’ Mélinda Tschanz told me. She belongs to the Swiss chapter of ATTAC, an ‘alter-globalisation’ organisation founded in 1998. ‘“What happened?” is a question we’ve been asking ourselves a lot lately.’

In 2000, a few months after the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, a crowd of demonstrators converged on Davos from all over Europe. Shop windows were broken despite the large police presence (Davos summits cost Swiss taxpayers $6 million a year). ‘The gueux’ – 'beggars' or 'peasants', with connotations of revolt – 'have reached the drawbridge and now they’re walking towards the castle,’ José Bové said. (The French farmer and alter-globalisation activist is now a twice-elected MEP.)

Twenty years down the line, where are the gueux? Except for last year’s revival on the occasion of Trump’s first state visit to Switzerland, which triggered a large demonstration in Bern, there hasn’t been a major anti-Davos protest since 2009. (The same year, at an anti-WTO gathering in Geneva, cars were set on fire and the police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.)

One explanation for the absence of demonstrators at the WEF could be tougher policing. But security at Davos has always been tight, and the police have a long history of making up excuses to keep protests out of the city. Last year they said there was too much snow, which would jeopardise demonstrators’ safety.

A more likely reason is the shift in protesters’ focus from a global to a local or national level, where they may have a better chance of effecting change. In the Netherlands in 2015, a grassroots mobilisation led to a landmark court ruling that the Dutch government must reduce the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 25 per cent by 2020. Similar movements have grown in Belgium, India, Norway, Colombia, the US and France.

The Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler said in 2013 that the anti-Davos protest movement was ‘dead’, but for a good reason: ‘With the economic crisis and financial scandals, the masks are truly off.’ Ziegler revisited his analysis this week, enthusiastic at the prospect of new forms of mobilisation. ‘Essentially, the scandal is twofold,’ he told me: ‘growing inequalities and the destruction of the environment.’ He sees the Gilets Jaunes movement as leading the way along a potential transnational path for action.

Most important, perhaps, the failure of the WEF to crystallise the anger of protesters may be a sign of the erosion of its credibility. There was a time when peace accords could be negotiated on the sidelines of the summit (Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres shook hands in Davos in 1994); in 2019, several major political players are absent – Trump, Macron and May all busy at home with the government shutdown, the Gilets Jaunes and Brexit. Protesters aren’t the only ones turning away from globalisation.

Perhaps the most striking anti-Davos gesture this year took place not on the streets of Bern, where a few hundred people marched last Saturday, but inside the Kongresszentrum. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, addressed a panel of diplomats, tycoons and pop singers:

Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people.

One gueux, it seemed, had made it inside the castle. But the recuperation was almost immediate. It took only a second or two for the crowd Thunberg had criticised to break into applause.


  • 26 January 2019 at 3:21pm
    Rod Miller says:
    Gosh, Isabelle Mayault seems to find violent protest really effective. I was a member of ATTAC Switzerland for years, but left owing to its lame inefficacy, not to mention its violent-sounding name, all suggestions of change of which were laughed off. And the two go together: if you get into a fight with the cops, you're signing your own propaganda death warrant. You're just another "casseur".

    Jean Ziegler may be right (he often is), but you'll notice that his many decades of activism have changed Nothing. The scandal he speaks of is worse than ever: inequality is growing And the environment is now doomed.
    The Gilets Jaunes are French, part of that long tradition of French street protest, which is the only way to get anything changed when you have a strong presidency and weak parliament. Don't hold your breath about it happening in other countries.

    Seattle was a long time ago. People didn't catch on to the implications of globalism and instead robotically obeyed the Command: Shop till you Drop. Now when they finally do catch on, they express it by voting for President Donald, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, whatever.

    That is why Davos now goes off with a giant Yawn.

  • 28 January 2019 at 1:07pm
    freshborn says:
    Was there not some significant protests in Hamburg around a year and a half ago, I think for a G7 meeting? Of course, globalised protests aren't likely to halt globalisation.

    The neoliberals have conflated anti-globalisation with jingoism, and reactionary "left-wingers" are cluelessly reinforcing this. Tragically, disgustingly, these supposed leftists are now resolute defenders of free trade agreements and transnational financial behemoths.

    • 28 January 2019 at 1:25pm
      freshborn says: @ freshborn
      Note these recent HSBC adverts that lionise the consumption of foreign goods as being indicative of open-minded cosmopolitanism. As though our infantilising, deracinated consumer-culture represented some sort of progressive right-on utopia, rather than the source of overwhelming alienation.

    • 29 January 2019 at 8:54pm
      Rod Miller says: @ freshborn
      "(...) rather than the source of overwhelming alienation."

      Not to mention the headlong plunge into the extinction of our species and apparently millions of others.

    • 7 February 2019 at 6:13pm
      Jeff says: @ freshborn
      If you're so opposed to "our infantilizing, deracinated consumer culture," I assume you refuse to purchase these consumer goods yourself? You have that option and can do what people did before consumer culture brought food and goods from all over the world -- struggle with backbreaking work to get a few mouthfuls out of the ground, and starve in years the weather wiped out that backbreaking work in a minute.

    • 7 February 2019 at 10:17pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Jeff
      There's a happy medium somewhere between mediaeval serfdom and bling-worshipping, overpopulated, climate-busting, mass-extinction-summoning overindulgence. No need for strawmen in this discussion.

  • 5 February 2019 at 3:49pm
    Jeff says:
    Come on, Mayault, the real reason is inequality is an abstract, academic concept that only appeals to academics. Moreover, too many people know that past attempts to eliminate economic inequality were catastrophes -- remember the kulaks? As well, eliminating inequality is not even desirable -- if doctors were not compensated with higher incomes for spending nine or more years training, fewer or less competent people would take that route. And if I lived in France, I would not care that its legal restrictions on Amazon have made Jeff Bezos slightly less wealthy. I would be annoyed that the government was protecting bookstores from new technology that benefits me as a consumer.

    • 7 February 2019 at 10:27pm
      Rod Miller says: @ Jeff
      "Past attempts to eliminate economic inequality were catastrophes — remember the kulaks?"

      Yes, I also remember REAL attempts to eliminate gross economic inequality (you can never Totally eliminate it), such as FDR's New Deal: rural electrification and other programmes far too numerous to mention.

      This then is another Strawman: no alter-globalist or Gilet Jaune is a neo-Maoist hardcore collectivist. So this talk of kulaks is neither here nor there.

      We aren't merely Consumers. There is such a thing as Quality of Life. Thank goodness France still has that in heaps, and is willing to hit the bricks to protect it.

  • 5 February 2019 at 10:44pm
    trishjw says:
    All the hotsey-tottsey billionaires have been to Davos, so now the ex-CEO of Starbuck Coffee shops has decided the world is to look and call those of his ilk "People of Means." Hasn't that phrase been one for most middle classers--at least until 2008 when there was no more middle class--to speak of? But then there you would need to check with Johnson, Farage and Cameron. Is Corbyn a "Person of Means"? or a Marxist politician. Here Trump may be a person of means but he's no politician, just an expensive old-fashioned demagogue!!!

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