U.S. governments have always put big business first. Despite Donald Trump’s unique presidential style, including his shouting about trade wars and protectionist tariffs, the current trajectory of the politics of business has not significantly changed. Profit remains the key motivation and wholesale privatization is one of the consequences. But the means of getting there remain controversial among U.S. elites. Some favor a “liberal” world order, in which neat political arrangements that privilege their national businesses, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the European Union, dominate the global scene. Others prefer “conservative” bilateralism and more blatant forms of nationalism, like one-on-one “trade deals” and so-called sovereignty movements, such as Brexit. Trump has recently renegotiated one such “neat” arrangement, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It is now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). And there are rumors that Trump wants to tear up (or “reform”) the World Trade Organization (WTO). Real or not, the rumors signal that a faction of the American ruling class is unhappy with the current international model.
The U.S. periodically alters the so-called trade and investment landscape as circumstances dictate. After World War Two, and with no global competitors, U.S. planners sought to create a manageable, low-tariff trade and investment system to work in its interests, namely the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Within a few decades, bilateral trade and investment treaties were being tested on weak economies. By the 1990s, as the more profitable elements of the U.S. economy shifted from banking and manufacturing to finance and hi-technology, U.S. strategists persuaded the political class to effectively replace GATT with the World Trade Organization (WTO), with more focus on intellectual property, patent protection and so on. More recently, economic powers, including China and Russia, attempt to follow an independent course in global affairs.
In response, the U.S. is seeking to rewrite the rules of global trade and investment once again by promoting bilateral “free trade.” These seismic global shifts are merely a reflection of what U.S. power has done historically, since at least the end of World War Two — namely that when the existing system makes other nations appear powerful by boosting their share of global GDP, thereby threatening elite US interests (the “globalization paradox”), U.S. strategists rewrite the rules of global trade and investment in order to continue privileging U.S. businesses.
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But, be it “liberal” global integration or “conservative” nationalistic bilateralism, working people lose out. For example, Mexico signed on to NAFTA in the early 1990s and U.S. jobs relocated there. In addition to these U.S. factory closures, however, Mexican farmers failed to compete with U.S. agribusiness. To give another example, when China joined the WTO in 2001, more U.S. workers saw their factories move to China; but Mexican workers lost out to the Chinese competition, too. Today, software and automation are putting jobs at risk in China, Mexico, the U.S. and across the world, whether that software and automation are used by corporations stationed abroad or by those in U.S.-based tax havens.
The solution is offered neither by an adherence to a neat global order like the TPP nor by Trump’s brand of fanatical nationalism. Nor is it offered Britons by the choice between a neoliberal European Union or an ultra-neoliberal Brexit. A U.S.-U.K. “free trade” deal will bring all of the worst elements of the (apparently) now-dead Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the TPP’s European cousin) to British workers and consumers, but without the mild protections of a political union. There needs to be a third way beyond “liberal” internationalism and “conservative” nationalism that puts human needs first and brings an end to the relentless privatization of our planet.
“Free trade” deals are, in reality, a means of pushing for the further privatization of public resources. Be they “free trade” deals worked out in neat political unions or in one-to-one partnerships, working people bear the costs. Since the deregulation of the financial sector in the 1970s in particular, the costs have included periodic economic shocks, stagnating and/or declining wages, the offshoring of production and the lowering of environmental standards. As some jobs return home, domestic workers no longer find themselves competing exclusively with foreign workers, but also with robots, both physical and software-based.
If we are interested in helping workers and in reversing mass privatization, a third way is required, namely a people’s globalization (or “alter-globalization”), in which human beings can travel freely and integrate into other cultures while empowering themselves through unions and via responsive political representatives.
But how do we achieve the people’s globalization that is necessary to survive the calamity of global neoliberalism? TTIP was killed — so far, at least — by a combination of grassroots pressure from the progressive Left (as with the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Germany) and the coincidence that the “trade deal” was not pro-“American” enough for big business (e.g., with Ford Motors raising objections). We must now be vigilant and apply the same kind of pressures to U.S. elites in relation to TTIP-like bilateral deals, such as the prospective U.S.-U.K. “free trade” agreement being negotiated in secret. This can be done in a number of ways, all of which overlap:
• Support organizations campaigning for social justice.
• Back left-wing governments. The U.S. Democratic Party has some socialistic political representatives, like Bernie Sanders, operating within it. Sanders was as much opposed to the TPP and TTIP as Trump, but for different reasons: while Trump said that those deals weren’t pro-business enough, Sanders said they weren’t sufficiently pro-human rights. Popular pressure on a Sanders-led Democratic Party, for example, could make the Party even more progressive.
• Vote tactically. Even if the most popular opposition party or representative in your area does not represent your political views, it is important to get the most reactionary party and leader out of government.
• Unionize. At work, college or even in rented accommodation, unions can be joined and/or formed to build grassroots platforms for progressive, grassroots, internationalist agendas. Unions in both North America and Europe issued strong statements against the proposed TTIP and, in doing so, further cemented their common goals and concerns.
These factors will combine to put pressure on existing governments and, if not defeat them, at least push them in a more humane direction. It is unlikely that an ultra-neoliberal political and economic order — the one in which we now find ourselves — can survive. Such an order attempts not only to brainwash citizens but to trap them in a selfish, competitive environment owned and run by virtual monopolies; in other words, an environment in which it is impossible to win, unless you get lucky or come from a wealthy background. A finite social structure with limited resources cannot support a system of institutionalized greed. The cracks in the system have already become gaping chasms filled by demagogues like Trump. But ordinary people can and must overcome — and indeed are overcoming — the crude propaganda that seeks to alienate them from their own interests by demonizing progressive movements. With the twin catastrophes of climate change and nuclear war/accident hanging over us, we have few alternatives to serious political engagement.