What passes for a global elite has just invested in the two-hour drive in the snow from Zurich to Davos in Switzerland for the 2011 World Economic Forum (WEF) – ostensibly to discuss the state of the world under the overarching theme “Shared Norms for the New Reality”. One of these norms is “collective sacrifice” – which in the context of the rich and powerful may sound as the ultimate paradox. The mood in Davos is expected to be “somber”.
Meanwhile, there’s the mirror image of Davos, the gathering by the World Social Forum (WSF) in Dakar, Senegal – ostensibly to discuss in detail the multi-dimensional structural crisis of capitalist globalization. And all this while the BRIC group of emerging powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China) annexes a new member and gets ever more ambitious.
So what does this flurry of activity tells us about the actual state of the world?
I network, therefore I am
As even The Economist admits – without a hint of irony – “the world is a complicated place”. Yet don’t expect the aristocratic former vice president of the European Commission (EC), Etienne Davignon, dishing out on Davos in the British magazine’s 14-page cover story special on “The Rich and the Rest”.
A case can be built that Davos offers significant sectors of the so-called “globocrats” the opportunity to buy intellectual seriousness. Essentially these globocrats are politicians, chief executive officers, bankers, hedge fund managers, diplomats and academics, plus U2’s Bono, not all of them meritocracy darlings.
Davos though offers an added bonus. A stint does not entail listening to “the rest”, that annoying, amorphous entity also known as “the people” – as in drought-afflicted subsistence farmers, desperate refugees from failed or failing states, flesh-and-blood victims of “structural unemployment”, and those millions of foreclosed-upon, riches-to-rags middle classes and lower middle classes barely surviving in the developed North. They are unlikely to crash the Davos talkfest anyway.
The WEF is a prestige brand (some would say “scam”) – promoted with ruthless efficiency. As it duly congregates mostly the super-wealthy (some would say plutocracy) of what Zygmunt Bauman has defined liquid modernity, it costs a ton of money; from basic membership at about US$52,000 (plus an entrance ticket at $19,000) to an annual “strategic partner” membership at a whopping $527,000 (plus five allowed invitations at $19,000 each).
WEF is not accepting any more “strategic partners” for 2011 unless it’s a Chinese or Indian company placed among the 250 largest in the world. Probably eyeing them as well, and not leaving anything to chance, Google with throw a $250,000-plus party at Davos on Friday night.
Virtually nothing is solved in practice at Davos by the sound of these so-called “great minds” schmoozing – be it in “public” sessions or in some secret rendezvous at a private suite. Like in Hollywood parties, the point of Davos is just to show up, network and work the room. The financial elite, government bureaucrats, billionaire charity moguls and think tankers are always networking anyway.
So-called “problem solving” sessions at Davos are usually nonsense – or a bad joke, like Microsoft’s Bill Gates discussing development strategies with former US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz (this actually happened). No one in Davos saw the 2008 financial crisis coming. And once the proceedings are over, few would not blink to pack the Moet and jet-safari from Davos to Darfur to pose for a Louis Vuitton-style ad, complete with Sudanese refugees as extras in full regalia.
After the ruling classes schmooze in Davos, “the rest” will be left with the World Social Forum – born 10 years ago in southern Brazil, which in 2011 will be held in Dakar, Senegal.
The WSF vows to dissect the four dimensions – political, cultural, environmental and ideological – of the current crisis of capitalism. There could hardly be a better place to discuss it than Africa – impoverished and exploited by colonialism and then, during a still incomplete de-colonization process, by neo-colonial practices.
The WSF promises to debate the multiple links between migrations and diasporas, and the role of social and communitarian movements (no Facebook, please). Previous meetings may have been marred by torrents of empty rhetoric. But now plenty of analyses coming from the so-called alter-globalization movement are being recognized as pertinent – and essential for understanding the crisis of neo-liberalism. For instance, monitoring of the casino economy and elimination of fiscal paradises are now being discussed at the summits of the Group of 20 (G-20).
The fight against inequality is paramount (Davos itself has recognized it as one of the key parameters of the “new reality’). But in the rush towards its self-described “another word is possible” agenda, the WSF is even more concerned with the advent of new modes of production and consumption, and a new geopolitical equation.
While Davos seems to reflect a hazy concern of global elites at the plight of “the rest”, the WSF seems to point to a strategic debate and the possible articulation of an on the go, coordinated global resistance.
The WSF identifies three possible answers to the current mega-crisis; neo-conservatism; a profound capitalist reconstruction proposed by Green New Deal activists; and a radical social and environmental alternative. The efforts seem to converge to the second possibility.
Davos could be helpful to many if it examined in depth, like the WSF proposes, how the North/South relationship is dramatically changing, also considering the existence of a hefty North in the South (think Singapore) and a South in the North (think Detroit).
That’s where the WSF dovetails into the success story of more than 30 markets emerging worldwide. In real life – not talk shows – what this spells is the increasing power of the extended BRIC group inside the G-20.
Meet the new BRICS
France’s mini-Napoleonic ruler, President Nicolas Sarkozy, will preside the G-20 in 2011. He’s already started with a bang – calling for a summit in China next March to discuss the dangers of a currency war.
Sarkozy, populist instincts and all, is trying hard to pose as a visionary, yearning for a world drenched in more “responsibility” and “solidarity” where market laws are not the Bible.
But it remains to be seen how he is going to convince emerging markets not to shore up their reserves in exchange of some vague promise of help if they run into trouble; how he is going to convince the BRICs to give more power to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) while the much-spun IMF democratization still is a mirage; and how he is going to convince the US government to impose a tax over financial transactions – something the Group of Eight has been debating for years now.
As for the BRIC group, they are now formally BRICS: South Africa formally joined last month. This means a geographical span including Asia, Latin America, Europe and Africa. Crucially, the next BRIC meeting will be in April in Beijing, only one month after the Sarkozy currency war bash.
To state that many in Washington’s political circles are not one bit ecstatic about this new development is the understatement of the year. BRICS does not demonize Iran; does not endorse American wars in Iraq and AfPak; supports Palestine; and favors replacing the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency with a basket of currencies. On top of it in 2011 BRICS will have five seats at the 15-seat United Nations Security Council; Brazil until the end of 2011, India and South Africa until the end of 2012, plus the two permanent members China and Russia.
BRICS are now joined by yet another catchy acronym – MIST, conceived by none other than Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs stalwart who coined the original BRIC in 2001. MIST are Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.
A solid case can be made that any of these countries would be more suitable to be part of BRIC – especially Turkey (this was discussed at a BRIC summit in Brasilia last year). South Africa ranks only 31st in global gross domestic product terms, behind the whole MIST. But China is South Africa’s number one trading partner, and India wants to “conquer” Africa as much as China. Anyway, none of this precludes an actual, strong alliance of BRIC and MIST towards that Washington-dreaded new world order – multipolarity.
For Washington, since mid-2008 the name of the game is a “multi-partner” world – coined by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Implicit is the concept of the US as a senior partner in a so-called “coalition of the willing”. Compare it with the Brazilian Foreign Ministry saluting the new BRICS as willing to “reform the financial system and increase democratization of global governance”. The rattling of teeth in Washington could be heard time zones away.
And we’re not even talking about China – where the Communist Party is pulling all stops to conform an advanced, educated, 70% urban society with 1.4 billion people by 2030, politically stable and with a non-interventionist foreign policy. As much as Washington may see it as BRICS + MIST = less US, for China the name of the game is multipolarity, period.
And even with multipolarity, the outlook ahead is bleak: peak oil; energy wars (first Iraq, next Iran?); the ramp-up of greenhouse gas emissions; climate change; water wars; and rampant poverty while the richest 1% of the population controls 43% of the world’s assets.
Bottles of Moet can be bet that the global elites at Davos won’t be giving much thought to what the world really needs – a new political culture, horizontal and diverse, promoting the convergence between citizen networks and social movements.
At the moment one possibility ahead points to an all-out privatization of life – and even of artificial life. The other possibility is the development of a new paradigm – a real, global New Deal that certainly won’t come down as a gift from any institutional Above. This will only happen via the mobilization of social groups and civil societies all around the world. Enough talking; it’s time to act.