DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — I ran into a global icon outside Davos yesterday. I recognized him by his trademark orange mop of hair and yellow jumpsuit. He stood not too far from blond men with skis slung on their shoulders heading toward a train station decorated with graffiti reading “Eat the Rich.” Other men and women surrounded him in varying degrees of greasepaint. Perhaps sensing a change in the political climate, he turned against his own people.
“My name is Ronald McDonald,” said the man. “I was working for McDonald’s, but because of all the greenwashing I quit my job and joined the clown army, the best army in the world.”
McDonald wouldn’t give me another name, but I guessed by his accent he was Swiss. He and 500 or so of his closest friends were gathered in Klosters for the 13-kilometer march to Davos. (Because of his floppy shoes, McDonald would take the train). The ragtag gang of merry protesters were marching on Davos not just to mock the plutocratic Burning Man, but also to argue that it is not carbon neutral, a net force of evil in the world.
“Davos is not absurd, it’s dangerous,” said Lilo Luxembourg, a bearded German man trying to stay warm before the march. “All these rich people, they act like they’re trying to make a better world, but it’s mainly a better world for them and their profits.”
It was hard to nail down a specific ideology among the protesters, but a recurring theme was that the World Economic Forum was sucking up influence from more democratic international institutions like the European Parliament and the United Nations.
“The people here think they are the new global governors,” said Harris Gleckman, a Bernie Sanders doppelgänger who recently authored a book on the subject with the mouthful of a title, “Multistakeholder Governance and Democracy: A Global Challenge.” Gleckman is an academic and a former United Nations staffer who sees transnational corporations filling the vacuum left behind by a Trump-damaged United Nations and a Brexit-wounded EU.
“Their thought is, ‘We need to step aside from having governments elected by people making decisions, and let us take care of things,'” said Gleckman. “We need to turn that around and make them participants rather than governors.” He argues that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has entered agreements with international corporations at the expense of actual people.
“The U.N. is under a lot of pressure,” Gleckman told me. “Trump wants to deconstruct the entire U.N. system. Others are not willing to finance what needs to be done to address climate change and other urgent needs. So what did the secretary-general do?” Gleckman waved his arm at the contingent of protesters. “Rather than turning to everyone around here who had been long-term supporters of the United Nations, he turned to cooperate with Davos.”
The protesters, traveling under the banners of the Strike WEF Collective and Young Socialists, had begun their march 50 kilometers away, in Landquart. Except for the stray wall marked with “Smash WEF,” the group was peaceful. Still, the Davos security apparatus saw them as some kind of threat, cutting off roads for marching and limiting the number of protesters who could gather at the Rathausplatz in Davos to 300, or roughly equal the number of Davos participants with a net worth of more than $500 million. Even when they mildly disrupted activities, they did it with a polite tweet: strike-wef @strike_wef.
BREAKING: Activists are blocking the road to #Davos2020. This is legitimate, since the WEF members have been blocking the well-being and livelihoods of people and the planet for 50 years. “The #WorldEconomicFailure has to end now. Let’s open the roads for climate justice!”
The protesters could have just followed the endless arrival of helicopters if they got lost on the hiking trails they took to avoid the cops. They began arriving in Davos late Tuesday afternoon. In the gloaming, Ronald McDonald directed traffic — a.k.a. stopping traffic — with the assistance of a fellow clown packing an inflatable semiautomatic rifle. The Swiss security force looked on benevolently. McDonald got a little boisterous and stepped on some slushy snow, doing a header down a muddy hilly that left his yellow clothing stained with ice crud and dirt. He popped up smiling.
A few blocks away, Trump gadfly/fake celebrity and Big Brother houseguest Anthony Scaramucci was planning his annual Davos wine-tasting partying while an adjacent storefront set up for an evening performance of provocatively dressed women musicians playing behind a red-roped line. Back in the square, there were speakers and then, inevitably, a folk singer. He started singing “Cops of the World,” a Phil Ochs protest classic from the 1960s:
Here’s a kick in the ass, boys
Here’s a kick in the ass
We’ll smash down your doors, we don’t bother to knock
We’ve done it before, so why all the shock?
We’re the biggest and toughest kids on the block
‘Cause we’re the cops of the world, boys
We’re the cops of the world
Ronald McDonald didn’t seem to know the words, but he locked arms with his fellow travelers and swayed to the music. His face was just one big clown smile.