In October, 1993 Democrat Jimmy Carter joined Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to push Congress and the incoming (Bill) Clinton administration to pass NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the Democrat tradition Mr. Carter had gotten his ‘free’ trade bill, H.R. 4537, passed in 1979. NAFTA had been enthusiastically opposed by Congressional Democrats when George H.W. Bush was President for fear that it would diminish organized labor and environmental regulations. It took the election of ‘liberal’ Democrat Bill Clinton to see NAFTA finally passed. Through Mr. Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street, his plan to privatize Social Security, to cut Medicare (prior link) and to cut government payments to destitute children, economic divisions in the U.S. have evolved as a thoroughly bipartisan affair.
For those who remain confused, U.S. President Barack Obama is being enthusiastically and aggressively mendacious about the details of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) ‘agreement;’ its ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) mechanism and his goals in seeking ‘fast-track’ authority to see the agreement passed without amendments being made. (A quick technical take down can be found here). Under ISDS mechanisms virtually identical to those in the TTP and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) Australia has already been sued by Philip Morris Asia for ‘lost profits’ from a plain packaging law that discourages tobacco use. Under the terms of the ISDS mechanism no reciprocation is required; there is no obligation that Philip Morris pay Australia for the increased health care costs from use of its tobacco products.
Free-trade the National Lampoon way. Image source: coffein.cafecommunications.hu.
Rather than arguing the merits of his ‘trade’ agreements Mr. Obama is using deception by omission to sell them. By analogy, in 1973 National Lampoon ran a cover (above) with the threat “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog,” the point being that people are ‘free’ to buy the magazine or not, but the dog will die if they don’t. In similar fashion Mr. Obama is selling the ISDS mechanism by claiming that allowing corporations to exact large fines for passing labor and environmental regulations will have no effect on ‘sovereignty.’ While it is technically true that the ISDS mechanism doesn’t preclude civil legislation from being passed, the ability of corporate tribunals to assess and enforce ruinous fines will be an effective deterrent to passing civil legislation in the public interest. Mr. Obama could not have graduated from Law School without understanding this.
As current mythology has it, Republicans are the central proponents of ‘free-trade’ policies and the trade deals that are their product. But this view requires an improbable parsing of U.S. trade policies from broader foreign policy undertaken for the benefit of Western capitalists over the last six decades. Since the end of WWII the U.S. has engaged militarily across Central and South America, the Middle East, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Southeast Asia for the benefit of U.S. corporations and connected capitalists. For much of this time Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as they rotated in and out of the White House. The overwhelming purpose of these invasions, coups, assassinations, arms sales, bombings and political impositions was to undermine (foreign) sovereignty for the benefit of large corporations.
Only you can save ‘Petey.’ Vote for free-trade today. Original image source: google images.
Tied to this improbable parsing of history is the contention that ‘money in politics’ explains the neoliberal ascendance. If capitalist interests were driving U.S. foreign entanglements from the 1940s to the present, when precisely did the corrupting influence of money motivate the process? This isn’t to dispute the assertion, but rather to clarify it. The Supreme Court’s ‘Citizens United’ ruling that political expenditures are protected speech has domestic reach. Where in the past U.S. foreign policy reached outward, modern trade deals impose imperial terms on the domestic population. The ISDS mechanisms in the TPP are intended to impact both foreign and domestic civil governance. From neoliberal trade deals to domestic surveillance and the militarization of the police, U.S. citizens are being made colonial subjects by multi-national corporations and their servants in government.
Mr. Obama’s ability to sell the TPP depends in part on this contrived mythology that neoliberalism is a Republican program. While Ronald Reagan is put forward as the ‘father’ of free trade revivalism, his domestic policies were among the most protectionist in U.S. history. Under the cover of the Cold War Mr. Reagan promoted capitalism abroad by ‘freeing’ Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala from the ‘burden’ of self-governance and several hundred thousand citizens from their mortal coils. But this was capitalist imperialism pushed outward, not turned inward. NAFTA was crafted under Republican George H.W. Bush but he was unable to get it passed by Congress. It required the carefully engineered takeover of organized labor by self-serving opportunists and the ‘liberal’ Bill Clinton to reunite ‘social’ liberalism with neoliberalism, the Party of FDR with (Milton) Friedman’s conflation of political and economic ‘liberty.’
Identity politics take an ugly turn. Original source images: fineartamerica.com and Miriam M Clown Painting.
The collective memory of Democrats as the Party of FDR facilitated Bill Clinton’s hard-right turn and it greeted Barack Obama when he entered office. Following from Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Don Regan to a senior policy role, Bill Clinton appointed former Goldman Sachs executive Robert Rubin as Treasury Secretary in his administration. Mr. Rubin was the first national Democrat since the Great Depression to apply the IMF’s creditor’s view of national accounts to the domestic economy. When Mr. Obama entered office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression he brought Rubin acolytes Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner with him to ‘manage’ the crisis. (Bill) Clinton’s deregulation of Wall Street produced the sharp financial dealing that led to crisis and Mr. Obama closed the circle by sweeping the mess that was created under the carpet.
Today the liberal press and Democrat functionaries are stepping over one another to portray Mr. Obama’s support for the TPP as a departure from his prior seven years of domestic governance. In fact, Mr. Obama’s ‘signature’ accomplishment, Obamacare, is not only modeled after the Heritage Foundation’s ‘market based’ health insurance subsidy scheme designed to preclude the introduction of single payer health care, it also closely resembles George W Bush’s Medicare Part D program that subsidizes pharmaceutical and insurance company profits under the guise of providing a health benefit to poor and middle class citizens. In addition, Mr. Obama continued and expanded George W Bush’s bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry under the neoliberal premise that all-powerful, if poorly managed, corporations are a necessary precondition for economic well-being.
The devil explains ‘comparative advantage’ in hell. Original image source: pinterest.
Following from the theoretical economics that support capitalism, the liberal opposition strategy to the TPP is to draw a circle around the political process, ‘fast-track,’ rather than challenging the base premises of the broader proposal. In fact, the ‘free-trade’ theories that bought thinly considered liberal support for prior trade deals are so heavily burdened with caveats and conditions that perfectly opposed outcomes are equally probable when the theories are turned into actual policies. The (Bill) Clinton administration gave Wall Street its wish list of ‘freedoms’ that financial executives claimed would benefit business and economic calamity was the result. With government transfers and guarantees still supporting Wall Street Barack Obama now wants to give multi-national corporations unfettered power to determine the policies that best serve their interests irrespective of the public interest and past outcomes.
The ‘free-trade’ coalition has long consisted of ideological true-believers; technocrats who built careers in academic economics by producing quasi-plausible social apologetics and temporary economic fixes and capitalist opportunists who don’t believe a word of the ideology or the economics but who see them both as useful tools for imperial looting. History ties many of the largest corporations in modern day Germany to Nazi war production, many of the largest Italian corporations to the rise of Italian fascism and many of the largest British and American corporations to state sponsored imperial endeavors. Through state support for Wall Street, arms merchants, technology and pharmaceutical companies and various and sundry industries and industrialists the last thing that multi-national corporations want is ‘free-trade’ as capitalist theory would have it.
A child trades ‘leisure’ for ‘labor’ when wages rise to $0.07 per hour. Original source image: democraticunderground.com.
In an ode to empty-headed bullshit Hillary Clinton was quoted last week as wanting to ‘topple’ the 1%.’ With full knowledge that all this would require is one drink too many by her or any of her major campaign contributors, those imagining Ms. Clinton on the front lines of the people’s revolution with a gun in her hands need to get out more often. The most effective way to end Western capitalism would be to elect a capitalist ideologue with the political skills to get a real free-trade agreement— one that ends all government support for ‘private’ enterprise, passed. Mr. Obama’s trade agreements propose the opposite of free trade; they are intended to further instantiate private interests into state functions. Those theorizing that this represents a fundamental departure from ‘traditional’ capitalism need to revisit Marx and Lenin on the topic.
By appearances most Westerners today aren’t familiar with the intellectual roots of modern liberalism that tie democracy to economic ‘freedom.’ The economic ‘freedom to choose’ relates George W Bush’s Medicare Part D directly to Obamacare by posing government subsidies for private corporations as market competition. And the ‘freedom to act’ in an economic capacity ties the Koch Brothers’ ‘right to pollute’ being formalized in Mr. Obama’s TPP to mass incarceration (prison labor) and for-profit prisons; to predatory student, auto, ‘payday’ and mortgage lending and to various and sundry scams and schemes like deregulation of natural monopolies explained as a way to let utilities and cable companies ‘compete.’ Democrats are the more proficient facilitators of this unfettered corporatism because they are skilled at hiding economic interests behind political platitudes.
The TPP should be the wake-up call for liberals and progressives that the bank bailouts and Mr. Obama’s Cabinet appointments could have been seven years ago. The problem isn’t Mr. Obama per se— he is the vessel containing the positive and negative characteristics needed by the corporate state to manage us nominal citizens for the benefit of the entrenched plutocracy. Given the nature of the concentrated wealth that supports this plutocracy— economic power expressed through internal and external capitalist imperialism and the levitation of financial assets by Western Central Banks, the levers are visible and prone to adverse events like large scale rebellion. The American political system is a home for plantation managers, not for transformative social visionaries. Some plantation managers may be better than others, but why waste time electing better managers when the goal is to get off the plantation?
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.