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In Other News Behind the Extravaganza…


“Colored lights can hypnotize,” the Guess Who’s rock anti-anthem “American Woman” (1970) proclaimed, “sparkle someone else’s eyes.” Beneath the hypnotic glow of the endless fake-democratic presidential election pageant, the eco-cidal deep state of capitalist rule grinds on. Let’s look behind the Wizard of Oz curtains a bit to confront two critical stories that have gotten unduly meager consideration from the reigning U.S. candidate- and election-obsessed media-politics culture.

Global Investor Right Protection in the Guise of Free Trade

On February 4th, three days after the headline-holding Iowa Caucus (“Cruz Trumps Trump,” “Sanders Fights Hillary to Virtual Tie”) and five days before the New Hampshire primaries (“Trump and Sanders Win Big”), trade ministers from 12 nations including the United States met in Auckland, New Zealand to sign the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The signing took place under impressive police-state protection, with riot-ready gendarmes occupying key intersections to block large demonstrations against the regressive, authoritarian, and arch-corporatist measure.

The popular anger in New Zealand (and elsewhere) is quite understandable. Contrary to the neoliberal rhetoric of “free trade” and “improved standards” in which it is wrapped, the U.S.-sponsored measure isn’t really about trade. It certainly isn’t about meeting enhanced social and environmental requirements. Its real purpose is to strengthen corporations’ ability to defend and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) specifications – something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. Key parts of the TPP permit foreign capital to freely and easily enter a country and for profits to be just as easily removed. The TPP would ban capital controls, which let nations block disruptive inflows of ‘hot money’ from speculative investors and then escape before the bubble they create explodes. It would also block the passage of financial transaction taxes, a method for checking speculation and for generating public revenue. The measure also legitimizes the extensive privatization of public enterprises.

The TPP is designed to help big multinational businesses attain special deals they would be unable to get through existing political processes, considered excessively democratic by global capital. A foreign corporation could sue and receive damages for anticipated profit losses resulting from an increase in the minimum wage (federal, state, or local) in the United States.

A U.S. state or Canadian province (or any other member-state jurisdiction) would have to compensate oil and gas companies for anticipated profits lost to bans on the environmentally disastrous practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Big Pharma and the big corporate media firms would be granted stronger and longer-lasting patent and copyright safeguards across the “free trade” zone.

Big multinational banking and investment firms would have to be paid by TPP governments that want to keep their nations’ financial systems safe through responsible regulation.

Food, chemical, consumer goods, and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of TPP governments to impose safety and environmental regulations on the things they sell and how they make them. The giant global and U.S.-based consumer packaged goods firm Procter & Gamble (just for one example) could demand compensation from any TPP nation (including the U.S.) that dared to subject its products and workplaces to basic social and environmental rules and regulations.

Beneath Obama’s claim that it is about creating a “level playing field,” the TPP is about a race to the capitalist bottom, a levelling down of people’s and government’s capacity to impose limits on business behavior. Like its ugly predecessor the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it’s about what the New York Times calls “investor protection.”

Of special undemocratic significance, the TPP constructs a new legal structure that transcends the existing, nation-based legal system. Big global corporations who don’t think that American, Australian, Japanese, or Malaysian (etc.) courts can be trusted to give them a “fair deal” (translation: decisions consistent with their desired rate of profit) will be able to turn to “investor-state dispute settlement [ISDS] tribunals”: three-person corporate lawyer-staffed panels that will effectively make their own law on behalf of big business.

The panels will be kangaroo courts of and for global capital. Corporations will get to sue governments in these secret corporate-globalist courts if national, state-provincial, or local laws are passed that challenge any provision of the TPP, such as the one that prohibits privatization.

It doesn’t get much more sinister than that.

Obama might have attended the Auckland signing himself but that would have been unwise given the measure’s unpopularity at home and abroad. The treaty’s declared opponents include Bernie Sanders, most of the Democratic Party “progressive base,” Ted Cruz, Donald Trump (who has called the TPP “insanity”) and (disingenuously enough) the arch-neoliberal fake-progressive Hillary Clinton, who cannot follow her usual corporatist instincts on the measure during a primary campaign.

Consistent with its longstanding and remarkable efforts to keep the details of the TPP secret, the Obama administration is scurrying to get the measure through Congress before the elections this fall. Last year, the neoliberal president got enough Democrats votes in Congress to pass “fast-track” legislation so that Congress will have to vote on the treaty in a rapid, up-or-down, all-or-nothing way, with no time for careful study and amendment. With all four of the top presidential contenders – Sanders, Trump, Cruz, and Clinton – technically opposed to the measure for now, speed and stealth are the order for the day for Obama and his largely Republican congressional TPP allies. Media silence is critical for passage.

The Auckland signing and protests took place with remarkably little U.S. “mainstream” media coverage and commentary. This is consistent with the national corporate communications complex’s enduring pattern of relative quietness on the TPP – a reflection of the multinational media oligopolies’ strong interest in the measure’s final approval on Capitol (Capital) Hill.

The pattern has been sustained in the media-managed Democratic Party presidential debates. During the February 4th CNN-choreographed Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton “Town Hall” in New Hampshire, CNN questioners avoided the critical measure completely. A Microsoft Word search of the event’s voluminous transcript (politicians’ hot air runs to high word counts) yields two scant hits for “TPP” or “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (two on the former, zero on the latter, to be precise). Both came courtesy of New Deal liberal Sanders, who made the following brief and passing references:

  1. “Secretary Clinton has been a supporter in the past of various trade policies, NAFTA and PNTR with China. Reluctantly, and after a lot of pressure on her, she came out against the TPP, and I’m glad that she did. “
  2. CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “Did President Obama let progressives down?”

Sanders: “I think in some areas, progressive — for example, in the trade area. Right now, I think they signed today the TPP in New Zealand. I think it is a continuation of bad trade policies. The president supports it, I strongly disagree with it.”

That was it. There was no further or serious discussion of the critical measure.

The TPP did not make it into either the questions or the answers to be searched in the 13,500-word transcript of the February 11th Hillary-Bernie debate conducted by the “Public” (Petroleum?) Broadcasting System’s obsequiously imperial Newshour hosts Gwenn Ifill and Clinton Foundation donor Judy Woodruff. (The second “P”BS anchor is a Clinton Foundation donor, by the way)

A Planet-Baking/Bakken Pipeline in the Upper Midwest

Meanwhile, 12,899 kilometers northeast of Auckland, in Des Moines, Iowa, the Big Carbon-captive Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) is moving toward final approval of the 1,134-mile Bakken Pipeline. The planet-cooking creation of Dakota Access LLC (itself a division of the eco-cidal corporation Energy Transfer Partners), this $4 billion project will carry 570,000 barrels of largely fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” on a diagonal course through South Dakota, 18 Iowa counties, and a Native American reservation to Patoka, Illinois. It will link with another pipeline that will transport the black gold to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of the “sweet crude” may be loaded onto rail cars for shipment to the east coast.

Besides contributing to the catastrophic problem of anthropogenic – really capital-o-genic – climate change (global warming driven largely by the excessive extraction and burning of fossil fuels), it helps capitalists make profits on the environmentally disastrous, water-wasting and water-polluting practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and threatens Iowa waterways, groundwater, and lands with terrible toxic leaks and spills. As Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement noted last year: “If the Bakken Pipeline is built, it would seriously harm Iowa’s already impaired water quality, threaten the integrity of the fertile farmland of thousands of everyday Iowans, and contribute to our dependence on fossil fuels. This steers us away from developing renewable energy infrastructure and curbing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.”

The project includes the assertion of eminent domain whereby Iowa farmers and others will be forced to grant Dakota Access, well, access to their supposedly private property. The pipeline requires a permanent easement 50 feet wide, with no structures allowed on the easement.  A wider, temporary easement will be corporately appropriated during construction. The company boasts that it has purchased voluntary easement agreements on nearly 80 percent of the properties along the route in Iowa.

Iowa’s Meskawki Indian tribe objects to the pipeline, which will defile the group’s burial grounds and treaty-ceded territory. Also voicing opposition is the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi, whose Tribal Chair Judith Bender told the IUB last year that the “pipeline will cross every major watershed in Iowa. It will only take one mistake and life in Iowa will change for the next thousands of years. As a people that have lived in Iowa for thousands of years, we have environmental concerns about the land and drinking water….Our main concern is that Iowa’s aquifers might be significantly damaged, We think that should be protected, because it is the water that gives Iowa the best way of life.” Indeed, as few Americans know, Iowa is one of the most watery states in the nation.

The Bakken Pipeline is part of why Big Carbon is undaunted by Obama’s decision not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline late last year.

The pipeline’s builders are not especially worried about public opposition or the IUB’s decision. They have amassed vast quantities of material and equipment ready to go into destructive motion the minute the anticipated final thumbs-up is given. If all goes well for Dakota Access, the company will begin construction of the pipeline (to the standard environmentally oblivious applause of regional construction worker unions) this spring and complete the pipeline next fall – perhaps around the time of the culmination of the next “quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky).Maybe the company is counting in part on the state’s progressives being hypnotized by the major party candidate madness – the endless rolling spectacle that is the US presidential election process and which counts as “politics,” the only politics that matters[1] – to pay all that much attention to unpleasantly plutocratic and environmentally catastrophic “background noise” like the Tans-Pacific Partnership and the Bakken Pipeline.

In the days leading up to presidential electoralists’ Iowa Caucus Holy Day, Iowa was briefly home to a large number of Sanders-backing political visitors with out-of-state license plates and banners proclaiming on the sides of their SUVs that “the Revolution Starts Here.” The slogan appeared inside an outline of the state of Iowa. I doubt that many of these politico-motorists will be returning to Iowa to engage in civil disobedience and other forms of resistance against the planet-baking Bakken Pipeline.

“American Woman, she gonna mess your mind,” The Guess Who warned. Substitute “media and politics” for “Woman” and “they” for “she” in that lyric and start on the path to un-messing the American mind.



1 As Chomsky explained (in the present essay’s last hyperlinked source) on the eve of the 2004 elections: “Americans may be encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is a method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics… So, in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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