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'Neoliberal capitalism is already global,' writes Buell. 'Resistance to it must itself be global and democratic.'

Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Is Latest Threat to Our Democracy

John Buell

Conservatives warn us that deficit spending will turn the U.S. into a fiscal basket case, like Greece. No longer truly independent, Greece is ruled by the IMF, the ECB, and the European Commission. What conservatives seldom point out is that membership in the Eurozone cost Greece control of its own currency, and thus the ability to combat recessions bound to occur in most capitalist economies. It thus becomes a prey to any corporatist experiment the troika implements.

Here in the U.S., continual harping on deficits is really a smokescreen to privatize Social Security and fatally wound the already inadequate U.S. welfare state. Now in the midst of a partial recovery that has reduced the deficit, corporations are trying to foist on the U.S. another of its dangerous international agreements. The unstated goal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is to undermine efforts to reduce economic inequality or compensate victims of environmental damage.

This agenda represents a radical departure even from classical market theory. Adam Smith believed that markets were natural and would evolve spontaneously. Today’s corporate conservatives, the so- called neoliberals, take a less naïve view. Ardent supporters of markets, they believe strong governments are needed to foster and sustain these. Though often employing the rhetoric of the spontaneous, unregulated “magic of the market,” they incarcerate populations displaced by the market, expand military presence, spy on dissidents, subsidize or bail out monopolies or oligopolies it has encouraged or enabled.

TPP illustrates the neoliberal agenda. Sold as “free trade” it is defended with the classical liberal arguments of comparative advantage, whereby each nation specializes in what it does best and trade between them benefits both. Paul Krugman rejects this argument, pointing out that “trade among these players is already fairly free, so the T.P.P. wouldn’t make that much difference.”

He then, however, goes on to add: “Meanwhile, opponents portray the T.P.P. as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown.”

Though Krugman deserves praise for abandoning his long-standing support for corporate trade treaties, he trivializes opposition to the agreement. Hardly some fly by night “plot,” at least since the 1930s key players in the corporate economy have established think tanks, university professorships, support for selective candidates and media strategies. They have expressed and helped craft a class interest that goes far beyond some backroom plot. They engaged in full spectrum ideological warfare against any attempt by national sovereigns to limit the reach of the market and corporate oligarchies. In Europe and the U.S. unions have been subverted, and financial speculation has run amuck. Privatization of state facilities and public education continually expands while municipal pensions are undermined.

Why should we not expect more of the same in these so-called trade deals? The secrecy of the negotiating process blunts political mobilization. Requiring an up or down vote, no amendments allowed, neuters the democratic process. The central content is pro-corporate. If this deal is no big deal, why is there so much secrecy surrounding it? Joe Firestone, blogging in Naked Capitalism, points out that corporate-oriented dispute resolution panels, which allow corporations to sue governments over regulatory standards, represent what is wrong with this agreement:

“Nothing in these agreements…places any constraints on the ISDS [Investor State Dispute Settlement] tribunals…. ISDS tribunals have already shown in relation to NAFTA that they will impose financial obligations on governments for new types of ‘violations’ that have no explicit warrant in that agreement.”

Grass roots movements to strengthen government’s welfare and regulatory initiatives are one of the few counters to corporate globalization’s imperial ambitions. They scored a major victory last Wednesday when a procedural motion to open up debate of the fast track legislation lost by a 52-45 vote, short of the 60 votes needed. But it was only a temporary victory as the Senate voted 63-33 the next day on the same motion. Activists need to press our representatives to reject fast track authority. Compensating workers for some of the damage corporate trade deals inflict is important but will not stall continual decimation of democracy.

In the long run even strong national regulation will not protect our health and safety. Environmental problems cross borders. All modern nations, albeit to different degrees, are instruments of corporate capital. The neoliberal agenda must be challenged not only domestically but also via cross-border coalitions of minority, working-class, and environmental activists. Neoliberal capitalism is already global. Resistance to it must itself be global and democratic.


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John Buell

John Buell

John Buell has a PhD in political science, taught for 10 years at College of the Atlantic, and was an Associate Editor of The Progressive for ten years. He lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His most recent book, published by Palgrave in August 2011, is "Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age." 

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