The World Economic Forum in Davos will not be what it was in the past. The lukewarm protests of the anti-globalization movement against this think tank of hegemonic thought are also not the same as before.
Until the week before the start of the meeting, neither the Swiss nor the international press paid any particular attention to this event. This is all the more significant given that, since 1971, the World Economic Forum has been a major event for the world's leading businessmen and managers. More than a thousand participants paid thousands of dollars in registration fees for this 54th edition, which takes place from 15th to 19th January in the town of Davos, some 270 kilometres from the Swiss capital Berne. Government representatives from around 100 countries have also confirmed their attendance. According to the organisers, around 2,500 participants, including journalists, officials of international organisations and representatives of other organisations, will meet in Davos, in the Alpine canton of Graubünden. A third of the participants - mainly bankers, executives of multinationals and government representatives - will arrive and depart on private flights.
Among the heads of government, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will certainly be present. As he had planned in December, during his trip to Argentina and Uruguay, Zelensky is coming to Davos with his "peace formula" (the original version of which dates from the end of 2022) to discuss it with the security advisers of some 80 countries who have visited the Swiss city for this purpose.
The question of Ukraine would be a "media lifeline" for the Davos meeting, which for several years has been losing its political relevance and international impact, due to its lack of response to the latest major economic and political crises, as well as its insistence on a model of global society that favours a minority.
On 10th January, the front page of the free Swiss daily 20 Minuten announced the confirmation that "Milei Chainsaw" (as it described him) was coming to Davos. According to the Forum's official information, on the Latin American side, at the presidential level, only the Argentine president and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro have confirmed their attendance. On the European Union side, Pedro Sánchez, head of the Spanish government, French President Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, will be present. The high-level Chinese delegation will be led by Premier Li Qiang. Despite possible last-minute surprises, the 2024 edition will be judged by the big absentees, i.e. the global political figures who have ruled out a trip to Davos this year.
Slogan in the wind
"Rebuilding trust" is the central theme of the World Economic Forum which, as its promoters indicate, seeks to provide a crucial space to strengthen the fundamental principles of transparency, coherence and accountability. It therefore wants to embody a spirit of "back to basics", of open and constructive dialogue between leaders of government, business and civil society.
With the specific aim of "contributing to an increasingly complex environment and offering a vision of the future by presenting the latest developments in the fields of science, industry and society", the Forum 2024 offers four areas of debate and reflection through hundreds of conferences and discussions: "Security and Cooperation in a Fractured World", "Growth and Jobs for a New Era", "Artificial Intelligence as a Driver of Economy and Society" and "A Long-Term Strategy for Climate, Nature and Energy".
The question of the crisis continues to preoccupy the organizers of the Economic Forum. They recall that, last year in Davos, "the word polycrisis was on everyone's lips", so many crises followed one another, which were deeply interconnected at that time. According to them, even if new crises appear, the old ones persist anyway. As they acknowledge in their invitation to this event, "geopolitical divides, the generalized cost-of-living crisis, the fragility of energy and food security and, of course, the intensifying climate emergency, remain at the centre of attention." They add: "Devastating conflicts, while relatively isolated, continue to wreak havoc and financial turbulence remains a concern, even as the global economy avoids recession ».All of this brings them to the essential question facing the Forum: will next year be a period of permacrisis (a prolonged period of instability and insecurity due to catastrophic events) or will 2024 be a period of resolution and recovery?
Militarization of Davos
Since January 9, more than 5,000 soldiers have been deployed in the Graubünden region. According to official sources, they will be mobilized until January 25th. The Federal Department of Defence has announced that part of these forces will be deployed directly in the Landwasser river valley , where Davos is located. Another part of this contingent will protect “important infrastructure and provide services, in particular to maintain air sovereignty, ensure logistics or contribute to the conduct of operations”.
In short, more than two weeks during which a significant part of Swiss territory will be heavily militarized to secure the Forum. For the Swiss taxpayer, this represents a bill of no less than nine million francs.
If the Economic Forum seems to have lost its relevance, the critical potential of its opponents has also diminished in recent years.
At the end of January 2001, while the Economic Forum met in Davos, the World Social Forum (WSF) was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Because of this simultaneity, which was not a coincidence, it is not surprising that the Social Forum called itself the “anti-Davos of the South”.
Under the banner of participatory budgets and as an intermediary of growing protests against neoliberal globalization in different parts of the world, the WSF developed in less than two decades, through around fifteen global forums and numerous thematic, regional or continental events.
Internal tensions, a certain exhaustion of social movements and the Covid-19 pandemic have taken their toll. This explains why its last face-to-face meeting, with a certain relevance and a certain unifying power, was held in May 2018, in the Brazilian city of Salvador de Bahia. Since then, fully digital or hybrid editions - such as that of 2023 in Mexico - have not been able to repeat the historically significant participation that took place until 2018. Over the past five years, the WSF crisis has worsened. However, the WSF does not accept its own disappearance and will meet again in Kathmandu, Nepal, from February 15 to 19. This is where we can once again assess our true state of health.
In Switzerland itself, the protests against Davos, starting in the 1990s, were also significant. Anti-globalization groups, unions, community movements, and development, environmental, and religious NGOs have encouraged critical mobilization against the World Economic Forum for years. Here too, a certain participatory attrition of these alter-globalization actors, as well as the constant and increasing repression against the anti-Davos movement, have weakened the protest.
However, these critical voices refused to disappear. On January 13th and 14th, the Davos Strike brought together several hundred people who participated in an alpine winter march of several kilometres over two days, in freezing temperatures, to the site of the Economic Forum. Municipal authorities and the region's police forces did not allow them to take the main cantonal access road, so the march - which describes itself as "non-violent, peaceful and civil, for climate and social justice" - decided to take mountain trails. The participants symbolically made their voices heard, even if their numbers are not comparable to the thousands of demonstrators who went to Davos during the mobilizations twenty years ago.
According to the "Strike Against Davos" website, the Economic Forum is made up of an "elite who make decisions that affect our lives. Although they claim to be forward-looking, sustainable development and social, all their decisions put one thing first: their own interests." The movement points out that the interests of a few super-rich and elected politicians are not those of the majority. What is the World Economic Forum, the movement asks. Their answer: "It's a circle that operates far from the needs of the people."
The Tour de la Lorraine (a walk through the working-class district of Lorraine in Berne) was also born a few years ago as an expression of alternative anti-Davos movements and organisations in the Swiss capital. From 15th to 28th January, under the slogan "City of solidarity, we are all Berne!", it offers a vast political and cultural programme, although less focused on the anti-globalisation debate of yesteryear. However, the organizers wish to create spaces for reflection in which solidarity with movements and peoples in struggle is not excluded.
The Other Davos, a space for reflection on the theme "The Crisis of Capitalism and Our Responses", will be held in Zurich on 19th and 20th January. The organizers emphasize anti-colonial, feminist, ecological and abolitionist resistances in order to offer a solidary alternative to the system. The first edition was held in 1999 as a counter-event to the World Economic Forum. Since then, it has survived as an alternative space for reflection linked to the political forces of the Swiss extra-parliamentary left.
Davos with its supporters, advocates and opponents. This dynamic is not new and is being repeated this year with less powerful players on both sides of the ideological divide. But they nevertheless continue to mark a mirror space where the Davos Economic Forum and the anti-Davos protests – i.e. the power and the counter-power – continue to look at each other out of the corner of their eyes with suspicion.