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Trade Deals and the Environmental Crisis

With the release of leaked documents from the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) ‘trade’ deal Greenpeace framed its conclusions more diplomatically than I will: the actions of the U.S. political leadership undertaken at the behest of American corporate ‘leaders’ and their masters in the capitalist class make it among the most profoundly destructive forces in human history. At a time when environmental milestones pointing to irreversible global warming are being reached on a daily basis, the U.S. political leadership’s response is to pronounce publicly that it favors environmental resolution while using ‘trade’ negotiations to assure that effective resolution never takes place.

Those representing the U.S. in these negotiations are mainly business lobbyists who have been given the frame of state power to promote policies that benefit the businesses they represent. The thrust of the agreements is to enhance corporate power through legal mechanisms including patents, intellectual property rights and ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions that create supranational judiciaries run by corporate lawyers for the benefit of corporations. Shifting the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to the corporations producing them precludes effective regulation in the public interest. The position that environmental harms must be proven before regulations are implemented leaves a dead planet as the admissible evidence.

U.S. President Barack Obama is both the most articulate American politician urging action on climate change and the central Liberal proponent of the trade agreements. The apparent paradox isn’t difficult to understand— the trade agreements will be legally binding on signatory states while Mr. Obama’s statement of the problem won’t be. As evidence of global warming mounts the Republican tactic of denial is looking more and more delusional. By articulating the problem Mr. Obama poses Democrats as the solution while handing the power to curtail greenhouse gas emissions to business lobbyists and corporate lawyers.

History is important here: the claim of ‘anthropogenic,’ or human caused, climate crisis universalizes the consequences of capitalist production when the carbon emissions that are causing it can be tied through both history and geography to the rise of capitalism. While the ‘industrial revolution’ began in England, it was the second industrial revolution and more
zen economicsparticularly, U.S. industrial production since the end of WWII, that is responsible for the exponential increase in carbon emissions behind global warming. At this stage the addition of China as major carbon emitter can be tied largely to its exports to the West.

The spread of capitalist production makes global warming very difficult to resolve. Were the U.S. and developed Europe the only material greenhouse gas emitters, capitalist logic would be inexorably linked to its product. However, the spread of this production has naturalized it by creating the illusion of the universality of both stuff lust (commodity fetish) and the social mechanisms for producing it. The environmental implausibility of seven billion people driving cars and living in McMansions has given way to the local logic of manufactured wants motivating an entrenched economic order.

The rise of neo-liberal ‘state capitalism’ infers a period that never existed when state and economic power were separate and distinct. It is hardly an accident then that ‘free-trade’ agreements codify the relations of state and corporate power. Following from Bill Clinton, Barack Obama’s sleight-of-hand is to pose the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP ‘agreements’ as economic policies when their intent is to cede political control to large corporations. Social understanding is gradually moving from corporations being political actors through campaign contributions to their being political entities that decide public policy through these ‘trade’ agreements.

The real paradox in play is between democracy and capitalism. ‘Trade’ deals are profoundly anti-democratic in that they cede civil control to ‘private’ corporations. Policies that maximize profits for corporations and their owners do so by reducing or eliminating democratic control over civic life. In civic logic ending human life on the planet is Dr. Strangelove-level insanity. In the realm of capitalist logic we all benefit from the stuff that capitalism produces, so what is the problem? The Liberal claim that ‘we’ can have both the stuff of capitalist production and environmental security through ‘smart’ capitalism ignores the ‘private’ control of the public realm inherent to capitalism.

What is made evident by the documents leaked by Greenpeace is that electoral politics are largely irrelevant to the business of ‘governing.’ The U.S. representatives negotiating ‘U.S.’ trade positions no more represent your and my interests than do the business executives selling us products. The public’s role in elections is as consumers of political rhetoric. Hillary Clinton’s willingness to say anything to win election reflects that her ‘product’ is political rhetoric and that it will bear no relation to her actual policies once the ‘sale’ is made. More profoundly, were Bernie Sanders to be elected his ability to govern in the public interest would be bounded by institutions dedicated to supporting ‘private’ interests.

In this sense Mr. Obama’s willingness to articulate positions on climate resolution, economic justice and concern for ‘human rights’ while doing the opposite is his skill as a political ‘leader.’ As long as this system is considered legitimate it will confer political legitimacy back on those elected. The oft heard complaint that elections don’t change anything depends on the ‘anything’ under consideration— the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is ‘consumer choice’ politics. The choices not available through electoral politics are: ending the threats of climate crisis and nuclear weapons, placing economic justice as the central role of Western governments, ending wars of choice while de-militarizing the West and creating new forms of democratic participation.

The logic of ‘smart’ capitalism proceeds from the base conceit that people want the stuff of capitalism and that capitalist production is the way to get it. History locates this want as a consequence of capitalist propaganda undertaken in the U.S. in the early twentieth century— it is no more ‘natural’ than a toaster oven. The aggregating logic of capitalist ‘efficiency’ produced the environmental aggregates of global warming and climate crisis. The capitalist logic of more capitalism to resolve the consequences of already existing capitalism proceeds from the premise that manufactured wants need to be met rather than simply not manufactured. Current ‘trade’ deals rely of these manufactured wants as a form of political control by the corporate class. The choice is ours to reject manufactured wants in favor of self-determination. As the capitalist class understands, doing so would end capitalism and the economic order it represents.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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