Where are the protesters?
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.