The World Economic Forum (WEF) is an odd event, but also the perfect insight into the problems of political activism in today’s world. Every year a select(ed) group of a few thousand people travel to the remote Swiss town of Davos, many in their own or their corporate private planes, to discuss the global economic, political and social issues of the day, including climate change. Economic leaders rub shoulders with political leaders, and prominent social activists provide a flavor of social responsibility.
For years now the media have been writing that the WEF takes place as “capitalism is in crisis”, but while this might be true in general, the vast majority of the WEF participants continue to do well. They have learned to adapt to criticism, be it from the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s or from the far right today. Include the most malleable, shower them with praise, write a communique that you have understood their message, make some cosmetic changes and continue with what you have been doing from the beginning.
The WEF 2020 meeting was yet another example of this routine. It touted its “young change-makers”, who entertained the old(er) change-frustraters with passionate speeches about issues like climate change, gun violence, pollution and racism. Obviously, “Greta” (who no longer needs a last name) was there, holding the grownups to account, playing on their parental guilt, and giving the international media the quotes they came for: “Our house is still on fire.”
Trump has long been domesticated and (the people who drive) the markets love him
There are also some “old change-makers”, less touted but more respected, most notably impeached president Donald Trump. He had dominated the 2017 WEF in absence, surprised his audience as a “pragmatist” in 2018, and skipped Davos again in 2019. This year he returned to boast about “his” economic accomplishments, using it both as a distraction from the impeachment trials and as part of the permanent re-election campaign. While his speech was full of distortions and lies, as usual, it raised few concerns among the Davos crowd. Trump has long been domesticated and (the people who drive) the markets love him.
In an op-ed in the Guardian last week, which was much debated and mocked on social media, self-proclaimed co-founder of Occupy Wall Street Micah White explained why he was “headed to Davos”. Allegedly, there is a “hidden Davos”, and White was going on a great discovery expedition to find it. “In the hidden Davos,” according to White, “opposing social forces, activists and elites, can put their egos and personas aside to speak freely and find common cause for joint action on the global crises that impact us all – from income inequality to climate change.”
I don’t know whether he found it, but based on the first 50 years of the World Economic Forum, this “hidden Davos” has proven to be fairly irrelevant. Sure, Davos has helped elevate the public profile of important activists and voices for change, including “Greta” and my fellow Dutchman Rutger Bregman, last year. But neither has changed the agenda of the World Economic Forum, let alone the priorities of the economic and political elites.
In essence, the World Economic Forum is the high priest of plutocracy, ie rule by the ultra-wealthy. It is a good example of the enduring ideological legacy of neoliberalism, an often-ignored aspect of neoliberal hegemony. While states have held on to significant control over national economies, national politicians have largely renounced their power over the economy and politics. Believing that “the market” is the best mechanism to solve every issue, from employment to healthcare, economists and entrepreneurs are now seen as the best problem solvers for our political problems.
Whether through “stakeholder capitalism” – the official theme of WEF 2020, which sounds meaningful, but is so vague that it is meaningless – or through the philanthropy by billionaires like Bill Gates and George Soros, the plutocrats set the priorities of social change and activists like “Greta” and celebrities like “Bono” can at best tinker at the margins.
As the US writer Anand Giridharadas does not tire of emphasizing, the “plutocrats’ phony religion” of philanthropy is no substitute for the state. And neither is “stakeholder capitalism” or whatever expensive rebranding the Davos crowd come up with to sell their old wine in new bottles. They are not fundamentally changing the exploitative nature of capitalism, of both nature and people, and will not stand up to authoritarian leaders – in fact, they often embrace them.
So, rather than fawning over billionaires who donate tiny percentages of their massive wealth to issues of their choosing or providing entertainment and normative cover for exploitative big business, activists for social change should call for stricter regulation and fairer taxes by their individual states. Only then will they have a true opportunity to regain control over the political agenda and will they, rather than the plutocrats, be able to decide which issues to focus on and how to support them.
Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia