I’m an activist going to Davos for the World Economic Forum. Here’s what I hope to accomplish.
When I received the invitation to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, my first reaction was embarrassment at the thought that my activist peers would find out. For practically every profession, from corporate CEO to philanthropist and artist to world leader, attending Davos is a coveted proof of success in their field. Not so for contemporary activists like myself who have spent their lives organizing unruly protests against powerful elites. For me, attending Davos will most likely be reputational suicide: a sign taken by a movement consumed by cancel culture that I’ve done something wrong, sold out or been compromised.
And yet, the same activist impulse — do what you’re afraid to do — that inspired me to co-create Occupy Wall Street, also compels me to go to Davos.
After I accepted the invitation, I sought to understand how I ought to navigate this gathering.
The few activists that I spoke with privately about the situation inevitably asked the same question — what did I hope to achieve by going to Davos? Behind the query was a deep skepticism that anything good can come from a gathering of elites and that, perhaps, even less good could come from activists attending.
And yet, as I researched the World Economic Forum and the philosophy of its founder Prof Klaus Schwab, I uncovered a long history of uneasy engagement between activists and elites at Davos.
At the heart of the World Economic Forum is the conviction that decisions are best made when the interests of all stakeholders are served. This was the core thesis of Prof Schwab’s 1971 book Modern Company Management in Mechanical Engineering. Explaining the stakeholder concept, Prof Schwab wrote at the time:
“The company is like an organism, which depends on several arteries. These must all be nurtured, so they are always ‘healthy’. This is the only way that a company can survive and grow.”
One of those key “arteries” was state and society. Businesses had an obligation to benefit the wider society and its government. The Code of Ethics, commonly known as the Davos Manifesto, adopted in 1973 made the corporation’s subservience to society explicit: “The management has to serve society. It must assume the role of a trustee of the material universe for future generations.”
Moreover, from the perspective of stakeholder capitalism, a corporation’s prosperity depends on contributing to the “improvement of public well-being” by creating jobs, paying taxes and performing the other socially positive roles expected by people outside, or potentially hostile to, the corporation.
To understand those expectations and to be cajoled into action, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting has served from the very beginning as a platform for critics of the status quo to speak directly to the world’s most powerful, and wealthy, individuals. Parrhesia, speaking truth to power, is thus the first tactic that activists have used at Davos.
This trend began in 1972 at the second annual meeting when Aurelio Peccei, co-founder of the Club of Rome, presented a summary of The Limits of Growth, a key text in the sustainable development and environmentalist movements. The 1974 meeting featured Dom Hélder Câmara, a radical liberation theologist and advocate for the poor. That same year Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau attended and denounced the failure of governments to protect the environment, long before Greta Thunberg made her plea for climate action in 2019. Ralph Nader, a consumer rights activist, went in 1976, followed by Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent Soviet political dissent, the next year. As Schwab put it in an interview with Newsweek: “There is no well-known environmentalist who has not been eager to come to Davos, very often to shake up the participants.”
After the Red Army Faction kidnapped and murdered Hanns-Martin Schleyer, a powerful rightwing buisness leader who had agreed to chair the World Economic Forum’s 1978 meeting, security was greatly increased at Davos. Perhaps ironically, the enhanced security may have contributed to the emergence of a second tactic pursued by revolutionary political activists.
Davos in the 1990s established itself as an ultra-safe space for diametrically opposed forces to meet and transform their relationship. Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres shook hands for the first time at Davos, first in 1994 and again in 2001. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the last white supremacist President of South Africa, did the same in 1992.
Since its first articulation, the stakeholder concept evolved to include a broader range of social forces. The defining moment for activists was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1998 speech at Davos that pushed for “civil society” to be acknowledged as a key stakeholder on par with governments and the economy:
“It behooves all of us, no matter what our perspective or experience, to think hard about how we create conditions in which the economy, governments and the civil society all flourish. Think of it, if you will, as a three-legged stool. We are not stable if we are only on one leg, no matter how strong the economy might be, no matter how strong a government might be.”
A year later, the anti-globalization movement emerged following the Carnival Against Capital in London and the Battle in Seattle. The anti-globalization movement took explicit aim at the World Economic Forum along with other elite gatherings. Activist culture shifted toward horizontalism and largely adopted a third tactic of shunning Davos in favor of establishing an alternate gathering, namely the World Social Forum. This mirrored a shift within movements away from charismatic leaders, such as Yassar Arafat and Nelson Mandela, toward consensus-oriented, ostensibly leaderless assemblies.
Davos has been a public platform for activists to speak truth to power and a private space for activists to meet the forces that oppose them. But since the anti-globalization movement it became a space that was unable to communicate with the new wave of social movements while, at the same time, these social movements — most significantly, the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street in 2010–2012 — established themselves as a new kind of stakeholder, an uncivil society that was distinct from the civil society of NGOs.
This inability to speak to each other became obvious in 2012 when Occupy Davos set up a protest encampment. In response, the World Economic Forum organized a public forum that was open to the public and included a member of Occupy along with a participant at Davos. The event was a debacle. And later Schwab would voice his frustration:
“We are looking for such people who can make an interesting contribution. The problem is sometimes if you look at ‘Occupy Davos’ or ‘Occupy Wall Street’ or whatever it is, it’s a movement but who are really the significant representatives?”
The search for a significant representative was bound to fail at the time because what made these social movements special is that they mobilized significant portions of the global population toward action with memes, not leaders. Most activists participating in Occupy had no idea where the meme for the protest originated nor were they experts on income inequality. And, unlike civil society leaders, the originators of the movement were not able to control its direction after the outbreak of the protest.
Today, nearly a decade since the Arab Spring and Occupy, the nature of power is changing as the problems facing humanity shift from being political to existential. As I’ve written elsewhere, while it may have been of utmost strategic importance to protest the World Economic Forum in 2002, it now seems activists and elites are being pushed toward a difficult alliance in order to confront grave global challenges.
In the face of an impending climate emergency, elites and activists need the same thing: a global social movement that unleashes the creative energy of humanity, mobilizing countless people toward monumental action — such as planting 1 trillion trees or decreasing carbon emissions by 7.6% per year for a decade. That kind of collaboration is easier said than done.
Ultimately, what brings the World Economic Forum and social movements together is a passion for change. Social movements are a manifestation of the will for change. Moments of revolutionary upheaval play a social evolutionary function, enabling societies to make great progress quickly. At the same time, elites at Davos are a force that wishes to adapt to the changing reality. In fact, Schwab argues that a productive relationship to change is the essential division in humanity:
“What today I think is dividing society is the gap between those who embrace change, who look forward, who have a constructive approach to life, who know that we have to adapt our institutions, and those who want to retreat to a ‘good old world,’ which in practice doesn’t anymore exist,”
He could be just as easily describing activists as elites. In our post-political world, the key distinction is not rich vs poor as Aristotle believed. It is accelerating change vs resisting change. The embrace of change has been a core tenet of Schwab’s thought since, at least, 1971. “For management, the following principle applies: do not live with the changes, but live from the changes,” he wrote at the time.
The theme for this year’s meeting is “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World.” I take my invitation as an opportunity to bring recognition to uncivil society, the uncontrollable leaderless social protests that are emerging with greater size and frequency, as a key stakeholder in creating a sustainable world. Civil society is the fourth leg in the chair, to adapt Clinton’s metaphor.
Our new reality demands the broadening of the stakeholder concept to include uncivil society. Collaboration between elites and social movements will be messy and can only be fostered through the concrete actions of government and business stakeholders to do things only they are capable of. Such as, a global moratorium on suppressing climate protest movements, a universal basic income for climate activists or a legal prohibition on climate change denial. Activists, too, must develop a fourth tactic — going beyond cajoling elites, bringing oppositional leaders together or shunning the summit — that is appropriate to Davos at this historical moment. That fourth tactic is what I will be searching for at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.