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   The WEF: Capital's First International?
   by James Goodman

   In September 2000 the World Economic Forum (WEF) is holding its
'Asia-Pacific Summit' in Melbourne. Alexander Downer, who attended the 1998 Summit, describes
the Summit as the world's 'Business Olympics'. The Summit co-organisers, the
Business Council of Australia, is Australia's leading advocate of corporate globalisation,
and represents major TNCs operating in Australia, such as BHP, Boral, Coca-Cola,
McDonald's, North Ltd, Rio Tinto, Shell and Westpac. The WEF and the BCA will bring
800-1,000 Chief Executives of the world's transnational corporations to the summit, which,
   appropriately enough, will be held at the Melbourne Casino. There they
will 'share their analysis of the new Asia and to identify together, through intensive
networking, the opportunities for business and economic cooperation'. Having networked
in Melbourne they will proceed to Sydney to occupy their executive suites at the Olympic
   sponsorship jamboree.

   The WEF was born in 1971 as a yearly 'European Management Forum' of
   Euro-corporates, held in Davos, Switzerland. It was funded by the European
   Commission until 1987, when it became the WEF and started to claim
global reach. Its membership reflects its class orientation, and includes the most prominent
   transnational corporations, 1000 of which make up the WEF 'Foundation
Members'. In addition there is a club of 'Global Growth Companies'; 300 'Industry
Governors'; 300 Global Leaders of Tomorrow'; 'World Economic Leaders' from both politics
and business; 'World Media Leaders' from 100 media groups; 100 'World Cultural
Leaders'; and 'Forum Fellows' from academia and the heads of national economic research

   The WEF aspires to be an agenda-setting Forum. It is, in its own modest
opinion, 'the foremost global partnership of business, political, intellectual and
other leaders of society committed to improving the state of the world'. With the
diffusion of neo-liberalism, and consequent advances in corporate globalisation from
the 1980s, the WEF has taken on an unprecedented role as a rallying point for global
elites, and as a vehicle for class power. Clearly the WEF can't set the agenda and
certainly can't determine the outcomes - it is not a conspiratorial cabal standing over
society. Rather, it is a class grouping fully embedded in social relations, that
self-consciously takes on the role of planning for collective class interests. It seeks to
influence the political agendas and respond to the prevailing challenges - and in this respect,
as Kees van der Pijl argues, it is the first 'true International of capital'.

   The Forum has been remarkably successful - since 1971 the 'state of the
world' has dramatically improved for many of the participating corporations. WEF
strategising drove the neo-liberal agenda in the 1980's, bringing together
politicians from the 'pretender' states of the newly industrialising world, as well as from
the OECD states, to map out an agenda with transnational business executives. It offered
a proactive forum, removed from the public gaze, and played a central role in diffusing
   neo-liberalism. The model was presented as the solution to crises of
accumulation experienced in the 1970s and early 1980s, and was highly effective in
extending the reign of the market.

   This success has come at the price of built-in uncertainty and
unstability. Globalised neo-liberalism had led to a dramatic redrawing of the boundaries of
capitalism. Temporal boundaries have melted away with the speeding up of
circulation; spatial boundaries have been superceded with the growing transnational reach of
   corporations; even socio-psychological boundaries have lifted, with the
increased commodification of life. A newly-empowered transnational capitalist
class has emerged triumphant, presiding over the new landscapes of accumulation. But class
hegemony is by no means assured - uncharted territory imposes incalculable risk.
Speeding circulation compresses business cycles, confidence rests on ephemera,
ideological symbols embody so-called 'fundamentals', speculation rules. Corporate
transnationalism exhausts social and physical environments, and the fall-out becomes
uncontainable as corporations are pincered by investor and consumer volativities. Deeper
   commodification disassembles social solidarity and generates powerful
imperatives for cultural survival, often carried through the new modes of social

   As a result, since at least the mid 1990s, neo-liberal prescriptions
been widely discredited. Exponential rises in executive salaries, and in corporate
accumulation, along with a dramatic concentration of economic power across all
sectors, offer clear evidence of the success of neo-liberalism as a class strategy. But
neo-liberal globalisation has also brought unprecedented levels of global
inequality, and undreamed-of degrees of financial instability, environmental exhaustion
and social dislocation. The neo-liberal triumph has created new sources of
opposition, the impacts and responses have been unremitting, and advocates have being
forced onto the defensive. The high water mark was 1995, when the OECD declared it
was marking out a 'global vision for the year 2020, a New Global Age'. But already a
political revival, inspired by social democratic ideas, and expressed in a new form of
social liberalism sometimes described as the 'Third Way', was sweeping the OECD.

   As neo-liberal prescriptions have unraveled, there has been an urgent
revision of the WEF's neo-liberal project. The WEF has left behind its market
fundamentalism, and now is charting a new agenda for corporate globalism, one that embraces
rather than rejects 'the social'. The massed ranks of analysts, consultants and
advisers, from credit-ratings agencies, management consultancies, inter-governmental
institutions and non-government organisations, have entered the fray, battling to
define the new accumulation paradigm. There are continuing efforts to enhance 'market
discipline', to suppress the advancing crises, to institutionalise transnational class
power, and render neo-liberal globalism irreversible. Yet there is also deepening dissent
amongst policy-making groups. There is a rethinking of neo-liberalism even
amongst the most elite institutions: as Hans-Peter Martin and Herald Schuman demonstrate,
many of the most powerful players in global capitalism are questioning the
'dictatorship of the market'. Primary advocates and beneficiaries of neo-liberal globalism,
such as George Soros and Ted Turner, both of whom had embarked on paternalist
interventions - the imaginatively branded 'Soros Foundation' and 'Turner Foundation' - began
expressing sincere regrets at the social costs of neo-liberalism. Other elements,
as van der Pijl highlights, went further and increasingly have embarked on a rethinking
explicitly 'mobilised against yesterday's prescriptions'. These have much wider
ramifications, potentially enabling 'a deepening of democracy, a reappropriation of the
public sphere by the population, and eventually a more fundamental transformation away
from class society'.

   Recent developments have only strengthened the leverage of this
dissenting segment. Institutional crises of legitimacy have accumulated, with the OECD
shelving its 'Multilateral Agreement on Investment' in 1998, the temporary ditching
of the World Trade Organisation's 'Millenium Round' in 1999, and the advancing crisis
in the International Monetary Fund's global regime of 'structural adjustment'.
Add into the equation the continuing crisis in 'transitional' post-communist
societies, especially Russia, and the severe jolt delivered to the 'Newly Industrialising
countries' of East Asia by financial 'contagion' in 1997-8, and the impending bursting of the
infotainment bubble, then the challenges to neo-liberalism begin to seem
irresistable. Expressing this, there have been the dramatic public explosions against neo-liberal
globalism: Geneva 1996, Cologne 1998, Seattle 1999, Washington 2000.

   For the first time in many years, 'anti-capitalist' protest has returned
to the capitalist heartland, and to the global stage. These protests open up the
ideological space for the articulation of alternative guiding principles, putting on the
agenda the possibility of transformation away from the current malaise. As the promotion of
capitalist discipline is questioned, protest targeted at the agents of neo-liberal
globalism gains remarkable political leverage. In this political climate WEF meetings
start to take on a special significance. Since 1996 the WEF has attracted increasingly
militant opposition, and it has responded by attempting to re-chart the neo-liberal project.
The WEF response is to deliberately avoid the appearance of backroom
strategising, and instead to seek a higher public profile, attempting to reground its legitimacy
by being seen to engage with prominent advocates of the emerging alternatives. The WEF is
thus placing itself at the centre of debates about the revision of
neo-liberalism, asserting that Davos can play 'important role in forging the new geometry'.

   Reflecting this, the WEF has reached out to those 'excluded' by
neo-liberal globalism - notably non-OECD governments, such as Mexico and South Africa, and critical Non-Government Organisations, such as the International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). At Davos in 1998 Hillary Clinton argued the role of NGOs
and other representatives of 'civil society' had to be enhanced, while John
Sweeney, from the AFL-CIO, focused on issues of distribution, arguing markets had to 'work
for the majority and not simply for the few'. In 1999 Vice-President Al Gore
appeared with Kofi Annan, who appealed for a 'global compact' between business and the UN
founded on 'core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, and
environmental practices'. In 2000 President Clinton shared the Millennial limelight -
somewhat blurred by Seattle - with Tony Blair. Davos policy debates are now couched in
terms of 'institutional accommodation', 'corporate responsibility' and 'global
dialogue', with sessions in 2000 on 'responsible globality', 'inclusive prosperity' and
'sustainable development'. Perhaps most cynically, the WEF's 'World Competitiveness
Scorecard' - a yearly league-table of 'how national environments are conducive or
detrimental to the domestic and global competitiveness of enterprises' - was supplemented by an
   'Environmental Sustainability Index' at Davos 2000. At the same time, as
Jane Kelsey highlights, a new 'World Economic Community' internet link-up between
10,000 key economic decision-makers - an internet 'hotline' for concertising
corporate responses - is being constructed.

   The contest is on to establish a revised normative and institutional
framework for the global economy. The WEF is claiming a central role in shaping the
agenda, and some, such as the ICFTU, are participants in the process, taking heart in the
WEF's apparent willingness to become an advocate of 'globalisation with a human face'.
But the key question is whether the WEF should be permitted to drive this agenda.
Should a Forum that is dominated by corporate interests be encouraged to take on the
role of mapping out future frameworks for global governance? Should it be granted
recognition and legitimacy in this agenda-setting process? Or, rather, should its role
be challenged, and alternative sources of legitimacy be asserted?

   There was a telling moment at Davos 2000 when the assembled executives
refused to vacate the conference chamber to enable a security check before
Clinton's speech. The US President's Security Service was forced to back down after a
corporate 'sit-in'. Clinton's speech went ahead: even the President of the US has to respect
the wishes of the corporate club. Perhaps he should have joined the 1000 protestors
outside the conference venue, and joined the democratic movement against corporate

   There will be similar protests outside Melbourne regional summit of the
WEF in September. In 1999 the summit lobbied for regional governments to back
the coming WTO 'Millennium Round', arguing that trade liberalisation was inevitable
and needed to be extended into 'free and fair competition, protecting intellectual
property and foreign investment'. In 2000 we can expect much rhetoric about inclusiveness and
   sustainability. Just as the Melbourne Casino poses itself as a 'family
entertainment' centre, so the Melbourne WEF meeting will be spinning the rhetoric of
corporate responsibility. There will be plenty of ironic moments and opportunities
to politicise globalised neo-liberalism. Perhaps this is what lies behind the comment,
from Melbourne's Lord Mayor, that the Forum will be a 'huge opportunity for
the city'.

   Information on the anti-WEF protest is available at

   1. Kelsey, Jane, 2000, Reclaiming the Future, Bridget Williams Books,
   2. Martin, Hans-Peter and Schumann, Harald, 1997, The Global Trap,
Pluto, Sydney; Kees van der Pijl, 1998, Transnational classes and international
relations, Routledge, London.

   Biographical:  James Goodman is an active member of Aid/Watch and the
Australian Fair Trade and  Investment Network. He teaches at the University of
Technology, Sydney.

   Contact information:
   James Goodman, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of
Technology Sydney (UTS), PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia,
   Tel: 9514 2714, Fax: 9514 2332, Email: