In a few days the world’s elite, CEOs and world leaders will descend on Davos for the World Economic Forum – and I’ll be there too, encountering the class I’ve been protesting against for most of my life.
My journey to Davos is an unlikely story: I’m a lifelong social activist who was nearly arrested during an anarchist anti-globalization protest against the World Economic Forum in 2002. Several years later, I co-created Occupy Wall Street, a social movement against income inequality and the influence of money on democracy that spread to 82 countries and nearly 1,000 cities. Now I’m going to Davos, not to protest but to participate.
The question I’m most often asked is: what do you hope to achieve by participating in the World Economic Forum?
Behind this question is a deep cynicism that anything good can come out of this gathering of the top 1% of the 1%.
For many activists, the total rejection of the World Economic Forum goes back to the anti-globalization movement and the founding of the World Social Forum as an alternative summit. The belief that the World Economic Forum is an irredeemable space is one of the implicit prejudices of contemporary activist culture.
Among the 99%, the cynicism toward Davos often takes the form of a conviction that the CEOs will neither listen nor change.
Of course, there is good reason to be skeptical of the World Economic Forum and the willingness of elites to make concrete changes that benefit the rest of us.
In the nine years since the Occupy movement forced income inequality into the mainstream discourse, there has been little to no progress on the issue despite its being ardently discussed by elites at Davos. In fact, the 99% is arguably in a worse position politically and economically today than we were when our encampments occupied the financial districts in 2011. Moreover, regulatory advances have been reversed and another financial crisis seems just around the corner.
And yet, rejecting Davos is easy when one has not been invited to attend. After all, invitations to the Forum are extremely rare, and much coveted by elites who pay exorbitant fees to attend. Only a handful of civil society representatives, and far fewer activists, have ever been offered the opportunity to go.
To turn down the World Economic Forum would mean believing that I can know in advance what will could come from going. On the contrary, my experience as an activist has taught me it is often the emergent and unexpected outcomes that end up being the most significant. I had to go to see what would happen if I went.
To understand what I could achieve at Davos, I first had to understand Davos.
In the hidden Davos opposing social forces, activists and elites, can put their egos and personas aside to speak freely
So I read every critical and positive perspective on the gathering, written by participants, that I could find. I watched the recently released documentary The Forum talked to civil society members who’d gone, and met with World Economic Forum staff in New York City.
What I discovered is that Davos is not one thing. There are many Davoses at Davos. And it is possible to reject one or more sides of the gathering while still finding revolutionary potential in another aspect of it.
There is the official Davos comprised of outward-facing sessions organized by the World Economic Forum. These events are intellectual performances, livestreamed to the public and open to reporters. This is the carefully staged forum that outsiders see and which activists traditionally use as a platform to speak truth to power and denounce elites. (Remember Greta Thunberg’s “act like your house is on fire” or Rutger Bregman’s “taxes, taxes, taxes” rant that went viral?) But denunciations don’t instigate behavior change, even if they play well on social media, and activists are right to be skeptical of this performative Davos.
There is also the unofficial Davos of decadent corporate-hosted dinners and nightcaps attended by celebrities who fly in on private jets to party and are not invited to the Forum. These unofficial parties where the champagne flows freely are known to irk the founder of the World Economic Forum. They’ve come to be a fixture of Davos nonetheless. The 99% is rightly wary of this decadent Davos: it is everything Occupy detested, elites reveling in luxury.
And then there is the hidden Davos: the private, off-the-record events organized by the World Economic Forum. These secretive invite-only meetings are held under the Chatham House rule, a strict guideline that protects the anonymity of participants in order to facilitate frank discussion. These, along with the equally confidential bilateral meetings held between participants in corridors and hotel lobbies, is the Davos with the potential to usher in great social changes.
In the hidden Davos 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. It is here that the argument can be made that elites must stop suppressing protest and instead harness the creative energy of social movements to achieve great changes. The Forum is perhaps the only place on earth where these opportunities for fraternization are possible.
I’m going to the World Economic Forum to find the hidden Davos. And the only way I know to get there is to keep following the unlikely activist path that has led me to the most powerful gathering in the world.
Micah White is the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution and founder of Activist Graduate School, an online school for activists