For those who haven’t heard, a major offensive is being planned in the ongoing war between the classes. While the poor, and what remains of the middle and the working classes, suffer defeat after defeat, the wealthy are hammering out yet another “free trade agreement.” Memorably described by Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach as “NAFTA on steroids,” the Trans-Pacific Partnership – or TPP – is the largest such agreement to come along since the creation of the WTO in 1995.
Negotiated in secret between the US and 11 other Pacific nation-states (including Chile, Peru, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan), the deal is regarded as central to Obama’s economic agenda (as well as ancillary to his “pivot to Asia”). And yet, despite its list of horrors (which include the predictable assaults on labor, and the further desecration of the global environment, along with the virtual enclosure and privatization of the public domain via patent and copyright protections), the further aggrandizement of corporate power, and the further privatization of the commons, doesn’t seem too novel; perhaps because corporations already pretty much run the political-economic show.
After all, though those objecting to the TPP warn that its passage will weaken governments’ ability to regulate corporations and constrain corporate abuses, as it presently stands the corporate interests behind the TPP are already powerful enough to keep the agreement’s contents (aside from a few leaks) virtually secret. The few politicians privy to the deal’s contents are effectively banned from discussing its substance with their constituencies. And, as we’ve time and again witnessed, widespread public dissent is simply ignored. In other words, so-called “national sovereignty” (which many TPP protesters fear is being undermined) in many respects does not risk taking a backseat to corporate interests – for the very reason that they aren’t indistinct to begin with.
Let’s not forget, although many of us have had it hammered into our heads that we live in a democracy, the fact of the matter is that we live in a “representative democracy” – one that represents the wealthy – in which money is equated with political speech – i.e. a plutocracy.
In addition to the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are corporate parties through and through (who represent the interests of the rich nearly exclusively), those decrying the loss of national sovereignty sound particularly absurd considering the fact that they echo throughout a political context characterized by extreme abuses of sovereign power – abuses such as Obama’s “disposition matrix” (which, for those who haven’t been paying attention, allows the Executive to assassinate anyone s/he likes, without any meaningful due process of law). In light of this, perhaps, we should take a moment to briefly examine the concept of sovereignty.
As Carl Schmitt, the notorious Nazi jurist – whose thoughts on sovereignty are among the most influential of the past century – pithily put it: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” That is, the sovereign is the person able to decide what the law is by deciding what and where the law’s exceptions reside, and has the capacity to declare a “state of exception,” suspending the law entirely.
The sovereign is s/he “who decides on the exception.” Given this, it is highly revealing that, in discussing his official function, George W. Bush described himself as “the decider” – the one who decides. And when Obama assumed Bush’s office, this baton of sovereignty – this power to decide – passed on to him. Now Obama decides. He decides, for instance, that certain practices (targeting people for assassination without due process of law, or indefinitely detaining people without charging them with a crime, or killing people with drones throughout the world) are exceptions to the law. As such, demands for the protection of sovereignty (of “the ultimate power to command”) sound confused at best.
Rather than lamenting the loss or diminution of national sovereignty to corporate hegemony, then, we should instead consider the thoughts of the late Zapatista Comandante Ramona who maintained that, instead of seizing power, emancipatory political movements ought to break power into little pieces so that all can exercise some degree of (noncoercive) power – and that none will be subject to (coercive) power. That is, corporate sovereignty ought to be rejected, but not in favor of national sovereignty. National sovereignty ought to be rejected too.
In light of the above, some of those protesting the TPP to some degree (to me, at least) resemble the subculture of people obsessed with so-called “chemtrails.” This, of course, should not be construed to mean that TPP protesters are conspiracy theorists. What’s commensurable is just the utter superfluousness of their respective concerns.
Chemtrail enthusiasts, let us recall, who are disturbed by lingering condensation trails left in the sky by passing jets, believe that a government plot to control the weather is poisoning the world with various pollutants. Yet, while chemtrail theorists excite themselves over what may not even exist, mountains of firmly established factual reports point to the prevalence of actual pollutants in the environment causing epidemic rates of cancer, not to mention global warming, and the acidification and death of the ocean, among other actual, factual problems. Why don’t chemtrail obsessives concern themselves with these firmly documented harms?
Likewise, TPP protesters (like Ralph Nader, and other liberals) ought to recognize that though the harms expected to accompany the TPP are projected to exceed those that accompanied NAFTA, the TPP is itself just a symptom, a product, of the capitalist system subtending it. For even if the TPP is defeated, capitalism will just produce more trade agreements like it. That’s just what capitalism does. In addition to producing high-tech gadgetry – not to mention wars, ecocide, and widespread poverty, along with extreme concentrations of wealth – capitalism produces these inequitable trade agreements. So why not just go to the root of the problem – the radix (from which the word radical – as well as the word rational – derives)?
Some, of course, may object to this characterization of capitalism as an economic system that (re)produces poverty. But capitalism is hardly the efficient system its profiteers, and their minions, insist that it is. Just consider the relation capitalism has to the most basic economic product there is: food.
Most would probably agree that an economy’s purpose is the production of basic services and goods. Within capitalism, however, this is not exactly the case. The primary purpose within capitalism is the extraction of profits. Goods, or commodities, are produced for exchange (exchange-value) rather than for use (use-value). And since goods are produced not for their own sake, but as a means to acquire money, one encounters a fundamental conflict of interest in the capitalist production process. For instance, farmers who produce enough crops to feed their communities ultimately find themselves forced out of business in a capitalist system. Though successful in the sense that they produce a large amount of food, and provide sustenance, in a capitalist system this very productiveness renders them failures. For, within the upside-down logic of capitalism, a too-productive farmer, by lowering demand (by satisfying a need) leads the price of his or her product to drop. And the more the farmer produces, the less valuable the food becomes. This valuation/devaluation ultimately renders the farmer both unable to pay her debts and forced out of business. This is why millions of tons of perfectly good food are intentionally destroyed each year – not only is food sacrificed to profit, in a commodity economy food items become instruments of a low-burning civil war. (Of course, by decommodifying food – by treating it as a commons – this problem could be corrected. Yet, decommodification is anathema to capitalism. Capitalism runs in the opposite direction, attempting to privatize and commodify – and thereby profit from – everything).
Rather than meeting human needs directly, then, capitalism meets (some of) these needs incidentally – actively undermining human well being in the process, by artificially maintaining scarcity. This is why Henry Ford, faced with the problem of having new models of cars to sell to a public unwilling to trade in their perfectly functioning Model-Ts, contributed to the development of what has come to be known as planned obsolescence. That is, he developed cars that would break down and need to be replaced after awhile. Commodities (like computers) that aren’t rendered obsolete by technological advances are designed to break in a capitalist society. To be sure, manufactured scarcity, as well as planned obsolescence, and other strategies designed to create demand and profit, are integral to capitalism; these do little, however, to provide goods and services.
Capitalism’s general tendency to deprive (some degree) of goods and services from all but the wealthy is illustrated by another example. Due to the rising price of real property, the owner of a senior residence home in Brooklyn – which provides housing for vulnerable members of the community – is evicting this population, rendering them homeless. Why? In order to transform this necessary housing into luxury condominiums, of course. In other words, necessary housing for a vulnerable population of elderly people is valued less than, and subordinated to, luxury housing (which by definition is unnecessary). It is this upside-down system of values (which is anti-democratic – subordinating basic housing for the many to luxury housing for the few, for instance) that needs to be corrected.
While it may be counter to the reigning ideology, it is nevertheless the case that, rather than being a democratic political-economy (animated by a concern for the well being of all) capitalism is actually a highly aristocratic economic form, concerned with what is best for those it considers the aristos, the best (which, within a system that values things according to their monetary worth, turns out to be the rich). This is precisely the aristocratic logic undergirding “trickle down” theories. What is in the interest of the best, the theory holds, is in the interest of the many as well – as it will “trickle down” to the rest.
Unlike (aristocratic) capitalism, however, a society aspiring to actually democratic social relations ought to concern itself not with what is in the interest of the “best,” or even with the “majority,” but with the flourishing of all people. As long as an economy functions according to the demands of exchange-value, instead of use-value, though, we will wind up not only subordinating the well-being of all to the luxury of some, we will continue to produce avoidable harms such as global warming, famine, and poverty, along with trade agreements like the TPP. Rather than narrowly focusing on the TPP, then, we ought to direct our attention to developing an actually egalitarian, critical democracy.Unlike the capitalistic system, which regards everything as alienable (i.e., for sale), such a project would not only recognize, for instance, that political rights must be inalienable (not for sale); it would recognize that the preconditions for these rights (such as food, and housing, among other conditions necessary for human flourishing) must be decommodified and inalienable as well. Humankind may yet have time to recognize this.
Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org