KLEIN: Pro-Globalization Forces Get Taste of Own Medicine

No fair! That's what they are screaming from the mountaintop in Davos this week.

Every year since 1971, executives of the richest multinational corporations have met with the most powerful heads of state in an alpine village in Switzerland. Davos is where Bill Clinton and Bill Gates put their differences aside, where flaky Internet gurus and name-brand Harvard economists get together to agree that the world would be an infinitely better place with freer markets.

But what they really do at Davos, which begins tomorrow, is pray. They pray not to a god, but to an idea: competitiveness. The bible of Davos is the "Global Competitiveness Report," measuring the success of nations based a "Growth Competitiveness Index." At an altitude of 1,560 meters, there seems to be no problem that more competition cannot fix.

So what has these high priests of competition crying foul? A tax hike? A wave of government regulation? Hardly. Their enemy is a not a foe but a friend: competition. This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum in Davos has some serious competition.

It's called the World Social Forum -- colloquially, "the Anti-Davos." It will take place on precisely the same days as the Davos summit (January 25 through January 30), in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And the force that broke up Davos' intellectual monopoly was yet another traitorous pal: supply and demand.

At protests around the world, loud questions are being asking about the effects of increased competition, sometimes called "turbo capitalism": what has it done to workers? To the environment? To democracy? More to the point: if the widening economic disparity of the past two decades has been the result of "unprecedented prosperity," what can we look forward to in a downturn?

To borrow the language of Davos, there is a demand for something else. Bringing together over 1,000 organizations, the World Social Forum is a critical stage in moving from protests against the free market's assaults on the public sphere to an articulation of concrete alternatives. The forum slogan -- as optimistic as anything heard at Davos during the dot-com craze -- is, "Another World is Possible."

The significance of this competitive threat hasn't been lost on the organizers of the World Economic Forum. Last year, the WEF summoned a handful of its critics to the mountain, holding special sessions on the "backlash against globalization." And the conference was "carbon neutral:" the planetary debt incurred by ferrying oil executives by helicopter was wiped clean, apparently, by planting some trees in Mexico. Or so the organizers declared, to much fanfare.

This year, economic euphoria isn't even on the agenda at Davos. The somber theme is "Sustainable Growth and Bridging the Divides." The captains of industry are, they say, ready to listen.

Only wait a minute: where is everybody?

Gone South. Davos Director Claude Smadja complained to reporters that the opposition has been poaching his "civil society" delegates. And Klaus Schwab, founder of the WEF, insists that "the best place for dialogue is inside the Congress Centre." Not in the messy, unwieldy, outside world.

And that is the heart of the dispute between these battling global gatherings. The World Economic Summit, by its own admission, assembles the world's "leadership team" -- superheroes of the global stage who "are fully engaged in the process of defining and advancing the global agenda." Unconcealed elitism is the governing structure of Davos: attendance is by invitation only and even journalists are hand-selected. This exclusivity is protected at all costs -- even when the cost is inviting a few pesky critics to be part of the "leadership team."

The World Social Forum, on the other hand, won't be gathering a competing league of experts to draft an equally dogmatic set of global prescriptions. Yes, Nobel laureates such as East Timor's Jose Ramos Horta will be in attendance, as will civil society leaders such as Canada's Maude Barlow and activists such as Jose Bove, France's McDonald's-batting cheese farmer.

But the real goal of Porto Alegre is to transform globalization from a site of experts-only oligarchy into an arena of genuine democracy. The forum's founding premise is that decision-making that affects us all should be open to everyone who wants to participate.

That's why the gathering is organized on the principle of participatory democracy: whoever wants to get involved can do so. Originally, estimates were that 2,500 people would attend. Now that number is up to 10,000, with some predicting twice that. At last count there were over 400 self-organized workshops scheduled and a giant campground has been set up to catch the hotel overflow.

Compared to Davos, the World Social Forum promises to be sprawling, chaotic, even frustrating. I'm going anyway because, well, I'm invited. So is everyone else.

And when it comes to global democracy, that gives Porto Alegre a distinct competitive advantage


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