Global Policy Forum

Speaking Truth to Davos



Lee Sustar

January 29, 2010

AS WORLD leaders and CEOs gather for their annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the ultra-exclusive Swiss ski resort of Davos, the left is planning an alternative gathering of its own.

The Other Davos will bring together activists from around the world to critique--and organize against--a system still discredited by the deep world recession. While the WEF has allowed some liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to have space in Davos for a "Public Eye" event that gives out "awards" to socially responsible companies, the Other Davos conference, to be held in the city of Basel, will take a more critical, active and militant approach.

"The center of gravity of the Other Davos is in the fight--how you begin to answer the question of how to achieve change, and, with that, to articulate an alternative system," said Charles-André Udry, a veteran Swiss socialist and one of the key organizers of the Other Davos. "We don't believe in the marketplace of ideas. We want reflection and analysis--and a synergy of the different fights and social struggles to create a new subjectivity, a new class consciousness."

Davos--traditionally the scene of triumphalist speeches on the wonders of free market, neoliberal capitalism and globalization--has become a much less comfortable stage for politicians and corporate bosses lately.

At last year's gathering, the global elite was struggling to keep its white-knuckled grip on a financial system that was spinning out of control. This year, they're under pressure to talk about reform, if only to shore up support from domestic political audiences that are suffering from prolonged mass unemployment and declining living standards. As Gillian Tett of the Financial Times put it:

Indeed, with the Soviet bloc having collapsed, "Davos man"--as members of this global elite are sometimes dubbed--tended to assume that this intellectual trinity of globalization, free-market economics and innovation was self-evidently a good thing. And nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than among the banking elite on Wall Street and in the City of London, who were riding the wave of a great credit bubble.

However, two years of financial crisis have turned these assumptions upside down. As the banking system plunged into its biggest crisis for 70 years, it became clear that unfettered innovation and free-market competition had not delivered the financial nirvana that bankers and some policymakers had proclaimed.

On the contrary, huge weaknesses in the global financial system were exposed, and public distrust of free-market capitalism and wild innovation exploded as the world tipped into what was arguably its first synchronized global recession.

As a result, even someone like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his eye on low public approval ratings, now calls for reforming the capitalist system. "[W]e can only save capitalism and a market economy by re-engineering it, by giving a conscience to it," he said in a major speech at Davos, adding, "if we decide to stand still, our system will be swept away."

However, Sarkozy's proposed solutions--a revival of the old Bretton Woods system of fixed relationship between currencies--amount to mild tinkering with the system. And Barack Obama's proposed restrictions on big banks' ability to make trades on their own account would be easily evaded by Wall Street. Like Sarkozy, Obama wants to appear tough on banks to voters who are outraged by the huge U.S. bailout of financial institutions at taxpayers' expense.

"Because there's a crisis, they have to discuss how to reform the system," said Udry, a leading member of Switzerland's Movement for Socialism (MPS). "But in two years or so, when there's a more favorable conjuncture, they'll go back to talking about how to liberalize the system."

AT THE Other Davos, by contrast, speakers from Europe, Latin America and the U.S. are expected to concentrate their fire on the capitalist system itself.

Much of the conference will focus on the struggles of immigrants and women workers. "I want to draw attention to the self-organization and self-education of women in the most important social struggle movement in Brazil today--the Landless Workers Movement (MST, according to its initials in Portuguese)," said Claudia Nogueira, an activist and professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.

"I also want to focus on the double burden on women imposed by the patriarchal family and the way women's work has been made more precarious" through the expansion of part-time and temporary labor in industries such as telemarketing, she said.

Speakers at the conference will include Gilbert Achcar, the author and activist, and a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London; Silvia Lazarte, former president of Bolivia's Constituent Assembly; Patricio Paris, an activist in the New Anticapitalist Party in France; Christa Wichterich, a German feminist and author; Christina Fernandez, an organizer for the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles; Dirceu Travesso, general secretary of the Conlutas trade union network in Brazil; and N.A. Batchu Siddique, president of Dhuumcatu, the organization of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani immigrant workers in Italy.

Another Brazilian, Ricardo Antunes, a Marxist sociologist and professor at the State University of Campinas, said he views the Other Davos as an opportunity to deepen the debate on the left about the changes in the world economy and society, from the growth of casual labor to the gathering pace of environmental destruction. "Social movements, political parties and anti-capitalists have to discuss the alternative in the 21st century--and not repeat the defeats of the 20th century," he said.

At the same time, Antunes said, the activists at the Other Davos must challenge the myth that the class struggle has vanished from the world stage:

Over the last 20 to 30 years, many people have reached the conclusion that the class struggle has disappeared, and that the working class is no longer the agency of social change. In fact, more people in the world make their living from work than at any time in history. What's needed is a new analysis of the working class today. It's more fragmented, more heterogeneous and more complex than it was in the last century. The question is: How do we construct a consciousness of this heterogeneous working class?

Such a task, of course, is beyond what the Other Davos can achieve. But by bringing together a range of international writers, activists and militants, the conference promises to be a lively center of discussion--not only in analyzing the current crisis, but in debating the long-term project of building the left's challenge to the system.

"That's why we didn't call ourselves the anti-Davos, but the Other Davos," said Charles-André Udry. "We have to talk about alternatives."


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