Davos, American Style 

The state of global protest

Wednesday, Jan 30 2002

Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.

Why not?

Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor . . .

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--Langston Hughes, ”Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria“

When the hijacked jets struck Manhattan and Washington, D.C., one of the indirect victims was the struggle against runaway globalization. The war cry had been sounded in Seattle in 1999, grown louder in Quebec City and Genoa, and was building toward a massive demonstration against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in our nation‘s capital last autumn. All that changed when the most famous voice of anti-globalization was suddenly a bearded Islamic sociopath with a fondness for helter-skelter. The U.S. entered the days of ”America Rising“ -- anthrax scares, war in Afghanistan and the Trumanizing of George W. Bush. We were all urged to be good team players.

Lately, that’s begun to change -- politics is back with a vengeance. The Bush team struts around Washington as if it just won World War II, posing for Vanity Fair (which hasn‘t lost its knack for backing front-runners), demanding a $48 billion increase in the military budget, and still dreaming of a ”stimulus package“ that would stimulate the rich to write the Republican Party checks for the fall elections. Meanwhile, the Democrats appear to be discovering a vestigial spine. Milking the PR possibilities of Enron’s disgraceful bankruptcy, Tom Daschle and others have begun fighting (well, sorta) Bush‘s right-wing domestic agenda.

Politics is also back in the streets. This week, thousands of protesters have poured into New York City to greet, deride and challenge this week’s World Economic Forum at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Despite its pretense of welcoming the protesters, the Forum‘s not exactly what you’d call a populist event: It normally meets in the tiny resort town of Davos, Switzerland, and costs about 25 grand a head to attend.

Unlike the World Trade Organization, whose closed-door meetings set the rules and agreements that shape the international economy, the World Economic Forum is akin to those dweeby Renaissance Weekends that Bill Clinton used to attend -- it‘s all about networking and high living. It brings together the stars of the world’s financial, governmental and cultural elite: Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Peter Gabriel, Esther Dyson and Hamid Karzai, interim leader of Afghanistan. While one is tempted to write the whole thing off as a Woodstock for folks in $2,000 power suits -- The New York Times actually previewed the forum in its Sunday Styles section -- the truth is less comical. These are the people who rule the globalized economy, and it‘s here, over lavish dinners at Le Cirque and Jean-Georges, that they make the social connections that bind them together. It’s here that they elaborate the conventional free-market ”wisdom“ that has recently given the world the Enron bankruptcy and the economic collapse of Argentina.a

Next to such an august assembly (Colin Powell! Michael Kinsley! Bono!), the demonstrators must surely resemble a ragtag band of outsiders -- students, Greens, labor organizers, peaceniks, human-rights advocates, Anti-Capitalist Convergers, Black Bloc anarchists, animal-rights activists (some dressed as lovable critters), and academics toting around dog-eared copies of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri‘s trendy tome, Empire. The great drama of the weekend is how their demonstrations (and street warfare?) will play on TV screens everywhere. For in New York, as in Seattle and Genoa, this particular fight over globalization will largely be a battle of images.

A battle not without risks. In the early winter of 2002, taking to Manhattan streets is a tricky business. America’s still shaking off its September 11 hangover, and no one knows if the country still feels so fragile that the majority will feel threatened and enraged by public dissent; I suspect that the NYPD will have very little patience with anyone who smashes a Starbucks window, however laudable their motivations. The protest‘s organizers are well-aware that they’re flirting with catastrophe and insist they‘ve planned nothing that will disrespect the wounded streets of Manhattan.

Such assurances haven’t stopped the city‘s demented tabloids from revving up public anger. Long before the demonstrators ever arrived in New York, the Post’s mad-dingo columnist Steve Dunleavy was warning readers to expect ”a potentially scary scene, promised by little nasty twits.“ And the Daily News was shaking its fist: ”You have a right to free speech, but try to disrupt this town, and you‘ll get your anti-globalization butts kicked. Capish?“ For all its professed love of order, the right would relish a chance to demonize the protesters, and should a riot break out, no matter who caused it, America’s anti-globalization movement could be set back for years -- in the public mind, it will be associated with terror and anarchy.

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