Jonah Bennett, A Trip Behind The Spectacle At Davos, Palladium, Feb. 9, 2019.
There’s a great NowThis video that’s been circulating around from the Forum of first-time attendee and historian Rutger Bregman explicitly calling out the use of ‘saving the planet’ rhetoric, even as elites attend Davos in private jets, and noting how philanthropy is just masking the real problem, namely that elites aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. Oxfam called for more taxes, too.
The Davos audience loudly applauded. This is actually quite typical and unsurprising. One characteristic of Davos attendees is that they love being called out in a safe and defanged manner, and they love safe and defanged activism. It’s a comfortable dialectic. [...]
As another example of this dynamic, sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg camped out in -18 °C weather, rather than staying in a hotel. She spoke on a panel alongside Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Bono, Jane Goodall, and will.i.am, where she called out members of the audience as being directly responsible for contributing to climate change.
Here, too, the reaction was not of genuine fear regarding a substantial threat to existing power structures. Instead, the response was, “Oh, how sweet and lovely that she cares. Yes, of course we must remember to save the Earth.”
This is what activism looks like when it’s highly normalized, defanged, and incorporated into the power structure’s mode of being. It is not a direct challenge to power from a wholly oppositional force, but rather an acceleration of shared pieties. A couple of CEOs complained about proposals for high marginal tax rates, and elsewhere a separate audience laughed at the idea of rates as high as 70%, but these seemed to be disagreements about means, not ends. The dangers of rising inequality have become clear to nearly all involved. Besides, self-preservation is one of the primary activities of power.
Whether those participating are conscious of it or not, this praise is a key part of recuperation: the process of co-opting potentially threatening radical movements and discourses. This has been long-standing practice throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In our walks through Davos, panels and exhibits on everything from women’s issues to ecological crisis to cryptocurrency testified to the successful pacification of groups and causes once thought irreconcilable with elite power. Political energy directed against the ruling class weakens as some proportion of the radical movement defects in exchange for personal and ideological advancement.
This is rather a bit like what Marcuse called this expressive desublimation.
The bottom line, as it were:
The bottom line, as it were:
The great thing about Davos is that it has more prestige than a Washington, D.C. trade show. After that, attendance is what you make of it. Most of the panels lack insight, but walk into the right party and it’s possible to encounter real talent.