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Davos is a ski resort village nestled in the fold of a narrow valley in Switzerland, about 15 miles south of the Austrian border. The mountains are striped up and down with tall, skinny pine trees that look like they've been individually frosted by hand. People navigate the many hills in Davos on wooden sleds, which aggregate along the main street, untethered, because no Swiss person would dare steal another Swiss person's teensy-weensy sled.
This is where the World Economic Forum has held a global business conference every January since 1971. In 2000, over 1400 anti-globalization protesters came to Davos. For the 2001 conference, Davos declared a local ban on protests. The approximately 200 protesters who made it through were hosed by Swiss police. The solution? The World Economic Forum is bringing its alpine gabfest to New York this year. Who are these people and why are they bringing their albatross here?
In their words, "The Forum serves its members and society by creating partnerships between and among business, political, intellectual, and other leaders of society to define, discuss, and advance key issues on the global agenda." A thousand corporations provide the baseline funding for the forum, and their minimum joining fee is approximately $15,950. In the late '90s, WEF founder Klaus Schwab started wrangling bigger alpha dogs for the Davos meeting. Bills Clinton and Gates were recent guests, and Quincy Jones has been known to stop by. Arrayed around this core of headliners are business magnates, writers, musicians, e-zillionaires, social activists, and gadflies.
Accompanying my wife (invited by the WEF to attend because of her work to level the playing field for women in corporate America), I attended Davos in January of 2001. For a week, the approximately 2000 assembled players participated in panel discussions and schmoozed over mango mousse. Attendees were issued "smart" name tags and wireless iPaq computers. African nationals often outnumbered Americans in the conference hall lobby, English was not the default language for small talk, and people were unfailingly warm.
The point of being there, if you average out the participant testimonials and official press releases, is to be Somebody With a Good Idea for the World, Somebody With Money, or both. Connections between these people will organically improve the world, or at least perpetuate the making of money in the world to potentially fund the making better of the world at some point.
Some of the sessions left the impression attendees were simply buying cred and eating their vegetables, sometimes literally. At one blue-ribbon dinner, Vandana Shiva stood and recounted her passage from teenage physics whiz studying in the U.S. to warrior against imperious agribusiness back home in India. I don't think I breathed once through her whole speech, but my table of e-babies kept chatting ceaselessly.
Over the course of the week, we got private recitals from the Medici Quartet and heard Quincy Jones talk about the day Snoop Dogg surprised his butler. I got to draw pictures on a big sheet of paper with eBay's Pierre Omidyar and watch Youssou N'Dour struggle with dry-erase markers during a dopey, corporate-style "team building" session. The whole thing was a pleasurable suspension of time, a mini-society where outside reality was put on hold so everyone could talk about outside reality. (The WEF itself calls it "the club atmosphere," but "college" would also suffice.)
But the outside always comes inside. Protesters ascended to Davos in January of 2000, breaking shop windows and vandalizing a McDonald's. The BBC cited protesters' grievances: "They say world trade is undemocratic and driven only by a desire to maximize profits, at the expense of environmental and other concerns. There are also worries about the effects of globalization on developing countries." But unlike the WTO, IMF, and The World Bank, the World Economic Forum is a nongovernmental organization that issues no policy or legislation. In an interview with Australian TV, WEF's Michael Roux surmised that many protesters have mistaken the WEF for the WTO.
Participant Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends, a leading opponent of gene patents, says the protesters know the difference. "They realize that these are the guys who tell the WTO what to do. They know it's informal. They want to go where the action is. You've got 1000 people running the world at parties like this."
In 2001, blue-uniformed Swiss police with tear-gas guns herded protesters away from the conference center. The day before, peaceful protesters had been dispatched with a water cannon. Swiss police pulled people off trains and deported them for looking "suspicious." Watching folks get yanked off trains by people barking in German and wearing unicolor jumpsuits: not Europe's hottest family memory.
"The reason they're at the Waldorf is not to show solidarity," Rifkin says. "It's basically because Davos didn't want them. Davos was designed to be a fun weekend, not an armed fortress."
Whether an armed fortress, social progress, and a "club atmosphere" can coexist in a city still reeling from the biggest drain ever put on its public servants will become clear when the forum begins. This year's theme is "Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future" The list of invited participants includes, but is not limited to, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Kofi Annan, Alec Baldwin, Benjamin Barber, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Jeff Bezos, Naomi Campbell, Shimon Peres, George Soros, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Senator Christopher Dodd, Bill Gates, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Desmond Tutu, and the president of Macedonia.
Scheduled events include "The Paradigm for the Future" (the Huntington vs. Fukuyama cage match); "Rethinking the IMF and the World Bank: More Reform or Complete Redesign?"; "The Role of Islam in the Modern State"; "Bioterrorism: Too Small To Beat?"; and a nightcap about robots and wizards with Paulo Coelho and Bruce Sterling. But the sessions are only half the point, good or bad. Access is the commodity here, with the advantage going to the many smaller players.
"To their credit, Schwab and the WEF have moved considerably from where they started," Rifkin opines. "I think their intentions maybe are to do the right thing but they are too frightened of losing the support of the business leaders by going too far, because then [the annual meeting] would have turned into something that wasn't just cocktail conversation."
Rifkin's foundation is throwing its support behind the second annual meeting of the World Social Forum, which meets in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at exactly the same time as the WEF meeting.
Protests in NYC this week may represent the democratic act of public disagreement, a social "No!" that rejects the accumulation of power and capital represented by the WEF. Both that "No!" and a more substantive dialogue among civil society, business, and government are more necessary than ever. But memories of the water cannons in Davos and the specter of New York held hostage by moneyed elites makes the World Economic Forum look like a dinosaur from a bubbly time recently, but quite permanently, ended.