(CN) – François hauled his heavy, expensive camera via train from Lucerne in the French part of Switzerland to shoot B-roll video for a large European insurance company that had an outsize presence on the main street outside of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“This thing is all bullshit,” he said, waving toward the Congress Center, where most of the main events of the 50th Annual World Economic Forum take place. “They’ll talk about solving global problems and climate change, but really it’s just a bunch of rich people figuring out ways to stay rich.”
François’ last name is omitted to protect his identity and his freelance business.
He speaks for many who have come to see the week-long event at Davos as a symbol for greed, inequality, environmental destruction and an economic system that is designed by the elite to keep money flowing one direction – into the hands of a few.
François is shooting video on the Promenade, the main street through Davos.
Most weeks shop owners sell wine, ski gear, haircuts, alcohol or whatever else is desired by the outdoor enthusiasts who flock to Davos to try their mettle on the steep Alpine slopes.
But come the third week in January, these small businessmen rent out their storefronts to the most powerful corporations in the world. Salesforce, Tradeshift, Facebook and IBM all had a major presence along the Promenade leading to the Congress Center.
The closer to the heavily guarded entrance gate, the higher the status of the corporation.
This almost ceremonial homage to capitalism and its biggest players has made Davos so important for corporate CEOs, politicians, nonprofit leaders and activists, but has also created a populist hostility to the event not lost on its founder.
“When we look around the world, we can’t deny that there is a general loss of trust and confidence,” said Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. “It is coupled with a profound pessimism and cynicism.”
More than 500 people marched 26 miles from Klosters to Davos, at times blocking traffic and chanting about the abolition of billionaires, but at all times expressing the anger and despair the global working class harbors for the elite.
“There is an age of despair out there and that’s driving what you’re seeing in every continent with people pouring into the streets,” said Sharan Burrow, a labor leader from Australia, who spoke inside the forum seemingly on behalf of the throngs who did not get an invitation.
Internationalism and its limits
Schwab and other Davosites have long carried water for the dream of a multilateral world where international cooperation and global economic integration brings more peace and prosperity to more corners of the world.
They say this notion epitomizes the “Spirit of Davos”
“Sustainable progress and sustainable peace are impossible to reach without a common nation among nations,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, during the opening night ceremonies.
While few would take issue with the expressed sentiment, many say it is a palatable veneer meant to disguise the darker forces of economic globalism, entailing supply chain disruption, the insatiable quest for cheap labor and the marginalization of working-class people the world over.
“Multilateralism is in crisis,” Burrow said.
She and her supporters point to Brexit, to convulsions of protests throughout the world, whether in Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong or Germany.
The election of Donald Trump can also be viewed through this prism.
Trump’s America First agenda and hostility to the type of internationalism that Davos is typically keen to peddle made his appearance as a keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum this week particularly tense.
“A nation’s highest duty is to its own citizens,” Trump said, giving no ground to an audience ostensibly keen to hear a different message. “Honoring this truth is the only way to build faith and confidence in the market system. Only when governments put their own people first will people be fully invested in their national futures.”
His nationalist message diverged completely from other leaders who at least paid lip service to the central tenets of the Spirit of Davos – free trade, economic and social liberalism, multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization and with an abhorrence for things like tariffs and other trade restraints, and nationalism.
But Trump trashed free trade during his remarks, saying past trade deals victimized blue-collar workers and encouraged companies to make things in other countries and then sell them back. He harped on the now-defunct North American Free Trade Agreement as just one example.
“The NAFTA agreement exemplified the decades-long failures of the international system,” Trump said. “The agreement shifted wealth to the hands of a few, promoted massive outsourcing, drove down wages, shut down plants and factories by the thousands.”
Many remained critical of Trump’s pitch, noting that problems like climate change require more global cooperation, not less. If one country reduces emissions, it matters little if all the rest fail to curtail their own contributions, said several speakers during the event. Care of the oceans and other matters requires cooperation too, according to old guard Davosites like Angela Merkel, who has addressed the World Economic Forum 12 times during her long tenure as Germany’s chancellor.
“We have seen environmental problems come to the fore,” said Merkel during her speech on Thursday. “So in regard to sustainability we will see the world converging more and more.”
Merkel, though, has also come under increasing pressure back home as the backlash against globalism has touched Germany and many other prominent members of the European Union.
The Spirit of Davos
Perhaps the most full-throated endorsement of Davos tenets came from Han Zheng, vice premier of China, which may be looking to usurp America’s former place as the tip of the globalist spear.
“Back in 2017, President Xi delivered a historic speech here, expressing firm support for economic globalization – a message that resonated far and wide,” Zheng said. “Acting as stakeholders in a cohesive and sustainable world is very relevant today, and the essence of multilateral cooperation defines the Spirit of Davos.”
Klaus Schwab, the Davos forum’s founder, couldn’t have said it better.
But there remains deep unease with China’s rise, judging by the discussions both on and offstage at Davos.
“China has to find a way to make people trust them,” said Charles Li, CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearings.
Given the choice between America’s unilateralism and its newfound penchant for tariffs, and China’s espousal of the Davos ethos, most of those queried while in Switzerland would still choose America.
The question then becomes whether the backlash is temporary. Is Trumpism in America and the rise of nationalism on all continents throughout the globe a passing fever?
“There is a real risk we will see deglobalization going forward,” said Michael Froman, who served as the U.S. Trade Representative under Barack Obama.
But it’s too soon to completely write off the Spirit of Davos.
“We are in such a global mutual dependency that all of this is semantics,” said Li. He added that the rise in nationalism across the globe could be ascribed to the fact that “politicians have to satisfy their own domestic political needs.”
Many in attendance besides Li believe climate change will galvanize the global community to work closer together. Some see the interconnectedness of technology making the approximately 190 nations of the world inextricable.
But Trump, Burrow and the legion of protesters have at the very least ensured that the devoted Davosites who recently projected themselves as the ones with all the answers leave the 50th iteration of the global economic forum with some questions.