As January turned into February, the most important people in the world gathered themselves together in midtown Manhattan for the annual World Economic Forum. Normally held in Davos–the Swiss ski resort previously famous for being the site of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain–the meeting was shifted to New York this year as an act of solidarity with a city wounded on September 11.
Healing, though, wasn’t much in evidence. To protect the 3,000 delegates–businesspeople, academics, journalists and random celebrities–the area around the Waldorf-Astoria was sealed off with metal fences, dump trucks filled with sand and 4,000 members of the NYPD. Of course, the intention was to keep out the thousands of activists who’d come to protest them, not to mention terrorists who might dream of taking out a good chunk of the global elite in one deadly action.
Thankfully, no mad bombers showed up. And though the protesters were kept well away from what was dubbed the Walled-Off-Astoria, their influence was nonetheless clearly felt. One attendee, Bill Gates, the richest person on earth, actually welcomed them, saying: “It’s a healthy thing there are demonstrators in the streets. We need a discussion about whether the rich world is giving back what it should in the developing world. I think there is a legitimate question whether we are.”
That Gates said something like that–leaving aside for a moment just what it means–is one sign of how the political environment has changed over the past few years. Another is the evolution of the WEF itself. The forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a Swiss professor of business, policy entrepreneur and social climber. At first it was a quiet and mostly European affair, with executives and a few intellectuals discussing the challenges of what was not yet called “globalization.” But it grew over time, gaining visitors from North America and Asia, and by the 1990s had emerged as a de rigueur gathering of a global elite. In fact, it’s been one of the ways by which that elite has constituted itself, learning to think, feel and act in common.
Corporate and financial bigwigs–who pay some $25,000 to come–dominate the guest list, but they also invite people who think for them, entertain them and publicize them, for whom the entrance fee is waived. Star academic economists were also on the list of invitees (bizarrely marked “confidential,” so I had to swipe a copy), alongside some unexpected names: cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, columnist Arianna Huffington and model Naomi Campbell. And lots of religious figures, NGO officials and union leaders–who, to judge from their press conferences, didn’t feel very well listened to. It seems not much communication goes on across the vocational lines; Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, a first-timer, theorized that “one reason that the princes of the corporate and political worlds are where they are is that they are very good at staying quiet when baited by intellectuals.”