If there’s one thing more disconcerting than Republicans opposing Barack Obama at every turn, it’s the rare occasion when they actually agree with him. True, the gridlock resulting from their dysfunctional obstinacy is unproductive. But there is something comically reassuring about the predictability of their childlike tantrums. If Obama said Rachel Dolezal was white, the GOP would swear blind she is black.
So when Obama recently teamed up with congressional Republicans to try to ram through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) against the wishes of the labor unions, his own party, and the progressive movement in general, he was modeling the kind of bipartisanship we could all do without.
The TPP is a deal among the United States and 11 other nations in Asia, Australasia, and the Americas that has been negotiated mostly in secret and that would lower tariffs, gut regulations, depress wages, and wreck the environment, all in the name of “free trade.” The first attempt at passing it through Congress failed after a Democratic rebellion. As of this writing, Obama was working with Republicans to try again.
The TPP is an appalling initiative on its own terms. Labor unions and others are right to point out that it will hurt American workers. Moreover, Obama’s pursuit of it is as clear a betrayal of his candidacy as one is likely to find. When running for president in 2008, he said: “I voted against CAFTA [the Central American Free Trade Agreement], never supported NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and will not support NAFTA-style trade agreements in the future.” Former Labor Department secretary Robert Reich has described the TPP as “NAFTA on steroids.”
But left there, the analysis of the TPP’s flaws would be entirely solipsistic. The fact that it will be bad for America isn’t actually the worst thing about it. When viewed through the wider lenses of underdevelopment and migration, the pact illustrates much of what is wrong with the neoliberal global framework the West has erected over the last 30 years.
Given Congress’s refusal to pass comprehensive immigration reform, what the TPP helps build is a world in which capital is free to roam wherever it pleases, while borders remain closed to people. While machines and money may scour the globe in search of cheaper labor, weaker unions, and looser regulations, people are stopped from crossing borders in search of the kind of work that might pay them enough to feed their families.
It’s a system in which economic and military power go hand in hand. “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman once wrote. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Such is the huge gated community that is now the West, spreading chaos and deprivation with its economic and foreign policies and then retreating into its fortified laager to repel those who attempt to flee the mayhem it has wrought. “Free trade,” when dictated by corporations and defined by the powerful, is actually anything but free—and the cost is ultimately paid in human lives.
You can see them perish in rickety vessels on the Mediterranean, having been fleeced by unscrupulous traffickers in Libya—who are thriving thanks to the nation’s near-total collapse following the bombing four years ago—only to be repelled by European nations.
You can see them in Mexico, where, thanks to NAFTA, corn production collapsed when farms and smallholdings withered against competition from US agribusiness.
But it is perhaps most starkly evident right now in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
In June 2009, five years after the United States ousted Haiti’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, its Parliament passed unanimously a law raising the minimum wage to $5 a day. David Lindwall, the deputy chief of mission there for the United States, believed this new rate “did not take economic reality into account,” and so worked with factory owners and contractors to push the hourly rate down to 31 cents.
With poverty in Haiti so endemic, entrenched, and enduring, people already had few options. In 2005, I went to Dajabón, a town in the Dominican Republic that borders Haiti, where it was possible to buy a Haitian child for $100.
“Half of all Haitians struggle to eat even once a day,” Helen Spraos, Christian Aid’s Haiti representative, told me. “Once they reach rock bottom, the one way they can provide for their children is by sending them to live in the cities or in the Dominican Republic. There at least they may be fed and have some prospects for making a living.”
Many were used as slaves and prostitutes, or were exploited in the sugar fields. Now the Dominican Republic is poised to expel anyone born there to undocumented Haitian parents, deporting them to Haiti, a country many have never even seen.
Neither the West in general nor the United States in particular is uniquely responsible for all of these woes. But when rich nations simultaneously rig trade and raise barriers to migration, they both exacerbate the misery beyond their borders and create the conditions for bigotry to flourish at home. “Globalization, being a force without a face, cannot be the object of ethnocide,” points out Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. “But minorities can.”
It is not poor migrants from the Global South who are undercutting Western wages. It’s big business and those legislators who want to let the rich move their money wherever they wish, while preventing the poor from moving their families where they must.