Around 100 demonstrators, gathered by the youth wing of the Swiss social democratic party, protested in Davos on Thursday against the inequalities and environmental damage they claim are exacerbated by the global elite.
In January 2018 their request to demonstrate was turned down by local authorities: “too much snow”. Exactly a year later, however, the youth social democrats of Switzerland (JUSO)external link did make it onto the streets of Davos, staging a peaceful protest on Thursday afternoon to voice their opposition to the capitalist programme of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Under banners and chants calling for ‘system change not climate change’ or ‘degrowth rather than collapse’, the 100-odd demonstrators gathered on the main square of Davos to highlight three major gripes: persistent (sometimes burgeoning) economic inequality; looming environmental catastrophe; and a resurgence of extreme-right politics.
Much anger was also directed towards newly-inaugurated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose skepticism towards environmental concerns and right-wing policies led to banners such as ‘Bolsonaro says “Amen” to fascism’.
Yet unlike last weekend’s “No WEF” demonstration in Bern – an unauthorised flare-filled gathering organised by several autonomous far-left groups – the marchers were not blanketly anti-Davos, JUSO vice-president Bertil Munk told swissinfo.ch.
“We don’t forbid people to come together on a mountain and talk, that would be a form of totalitarianism,” he said. However, as WEF becomes more powerful and institutionalised, it plays a bigger and bigger role within the democratic system; dissenting voices and protests are thus legitimate.
Race to the bottom
Indeed, Munk is concerned that the rise in importance of WEF over the past decades (it was founded in 1971) has coincided with a decline in the scope of traditional governments to work with, and tax, big businesses to benefit society at large.
“Each state wants to attract as much international investment as possible, which leads to all of them flirting with big companies in their own fashion; in the end, we have a race to the bottom, and companies that are all-powerful,” he said.
As a result, tackling issues like climate change and inequality becomes even more difficult, also multilaterally. “WEF, as an international institution with power, actually weakens official bodies like the UN, who could regulate at a global level,” he said.
And what of the WEF’s self-proclaimed desire to “improve the state of the world”? After all, the Geneva-based body has published report after report lamenting the rise of income inequality around the world, while the top three threats in its recently-released risk report are all environmental.
“The WEF produces these reports because it gives them some breathing space and allows them to show that they are progressive,” Munk said. “On the other hand, it is one of the major tools used by the global elite to advance their financial power. It’s greenwashing.”
Whether or not the protest will have an impact beyond some media reports remains to be seen. However, WEF has a history of taking on board – superficially or otherwise – public discontent that could boil against its favour. It’s hard to imagine the level of civil society presence in Davos being as high as it is today without the widespread (and violent) anti-globalisation demonstrations of the early 2000s.
What is sure is that young people in Switzerland are not asleep; the JUSO march comes just a few days after a nationwide strike by secondary-school students to mark the lack of political action against climate change, a strike that mirrored that of 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg – who, of course, is this week in Davos.