Last Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi repeated in no uncertain terms her opposition to granting President Obama authority to seek “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth “free trade” deal the US has been negotiating in secret since the days of George W. Bush. Fast-tracking the TPP—which Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes—would allow the administration to submit the treaty for an up-or-down vote, thus protecting it from any debate or discussion or amendments. Without that authority, the administration would have to take into account the vehement objections of labor unions and other opponents of the treaty, who rightly note that the pact—the text and scope of which have been zealously guarded from public scrutiny—would likely do irreversible harm to American workers and consumers; fast-tracking the TPP would allow its corporate backers and their congressional allies to run roughshod over the treaty’s opponents and avoid a much-needed debate.
If all this sounds familiar, it should: a common nickname for the TPP is “NAFTA on steroids,” and it is worth recalling now how clear it was twenty years ago (to anyone who cared to look) that NAFTA would have precisely the horrific impact on American industry, as well as on the global environment, that it has indeed had. In The Nation, writer after writer warned about NAFTA’s pernicious consequences, in terms that could easily be applied—with perhaps even more force—to the TPP today.
In our March 29, 1993 issue—after NAFTA had been signed by President George H.W. Bush but before Congress approved it—Noam Chomsky wrote in “Notes on NAFTA: ‘The Masters of Mankind’”:
One consequence of the globalization of the economy is the rise of new governing institutions to serve the interests of private transnational economic power. Another is the spread of the Third World social model, with islands of enormous privilege in a sea of misery and despair. A walk through any American city gives human form to the statistics on quality of life, distribution of wealth, poverty and employment…Increasingly, production can be shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas and directed to privileged sectors in the global economy. Large parts of the population thus become superfluous for production and perhaps even as a market, unlike the days when Henry Ford realized that he could not sell cars unless his workers were paid enough to buy cars themselves.
While President Obama has laudably dedicated the remainder of his term to reversing the alarming inequality that has gripped the country in recent decades, his push for TPP seems to demonstrate an insufficient historical awareness of the consequences of free-trade agreements. As Chomsky predicted, NAFTA has only worsened inequality, transferring unprecedented wealth and power from the working and middle classes to the bank accounts of the 1 percent:
The trade agreements override the rights of workers, consumers, and the future generations who cannot ‘vote’ in the market on environmental issues. They help keep the public ‘in its place.’ These are not necessary features of such agreements, but they are natural consequences of the great successes of the past years in reducing democracy to empty forms, so that the vile maxim of the masters can be pursued without undue interference.
In a special issue devoted to NAFTA, dated June 14, 1993, The Nation wrote in its lead editorial:
NAFTA is no simple exercise in good-neighborliness. It is a watershed in U.S.—and Mexican—economic history. To ratify the treaty is to condemn U.S. workers to more hard times, to confine Mexican workers in an economic ghetto utterly dependent on El Norte, to reduce the power of labor against ownership, to ravage the American industrial landscape and to transform forever the dream of America as a just and prosperous place of hope.
A major investigative report in the same issue, “Big $$$ Lobbying in Washington: Can Mexico and Big Business USA Buy NAFTA?” by Charles Lewis and Margaret Ibrahim of the Center for Public Integrity, explored how corporate lobbyists from both Mexico and the United States had purchased official support for a treaty sure to cause untold pain to large segments of the populations of both countries.
The debate over NAFTA, which will climax this fall when both the Senate and the House vote on the treaty, has yielded the most extensive—and expensive—foreign lobbying campaign on a specific issue ever seen in the capital. Since 1989 the Mexican government and business groups have spent at least $25 million to promote the development and enactment of NAFTA, hiring a phalanx of Washington law firms, lobbyists, public relations companies and consultants…
The Mexican government and Mexican corporate interests have used much of those millions to purchase the expensive services of a potpourri of inside-the-Beltway specialists. Former U.S. government officials, who know how to massage the Washington political system, have been snatched up and placed on Mexico’s payrolls. Indeed, since 1989 Mexican interests have hired thirty-three former U.S. officials who worked for a variety of government entities: Congress, the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and others. Their mission is to influence the political process for what is arguably the most significant trade issue to have faced the American people and their elected representatives in this century.
Why is the passage of NAFTA so important to Mexico? Because its government and corporations expect that a freshet of desperately needed U.S. investment and consumer dollars will flow into their country once the trade barriers between the two nations fall. A few million dollars is a small price to pay for what they hope will be a multibillion-dollar bonanza…
All this intensive lobbying by U.S. and Mexican interests is dedicated to drowning out any contrary or questioning voices in the United States. It is focused like a laser on the Washington power elite and aims to see that a treaty is approved that favors corporate interests.
If anything, the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations in recent years demonstrates that the “intensive lobbying” by corporate powers behind the scenes is even stronger, and more insidious, this time around.
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In the December 6, 1993 issue of The Nation, just after both houses of Congress approved NAFTA, Jeremy Brecher explored the broader historical context of so-called free-trade agreements in “After NAFTA: Global Village or Global Pillage?”
The North American economic integration that NAFTA was intended to facilitate is only one aspect of the rapid and momentous historical transformation from a system of national economies toward an integrated global economy. New information, communication, transportation and manufacturing technologies, combined with tariff reductions, have made it possible to coordinate production, commerce and finance on a world scale.
Resistance to such a reorganization of wealth and power, Brecher wrote, would have to begin with solidarity among the laboring classes in each country:
The beginnings of a new approach emerged from the anti-NAFTA movement itself. Rather than advocate protectionism—keeping foreign products out—many NAFTA opponents urged policies that would raise environmental, labor and social standards in Mexico, so that those standards would not drag down those in the United States and Canada. This approach implied that people in different countries have common interests in raising the conditions of those at the bottom.…
The struggle against NAFTA has shown that those harmed by the New World Economy need not be passive victims. So many politicians were so unprepared for the strength of the anti-NAFTA movement because it represented an eruption into the political arena of people who have long been demobilized. But to influence their economic destinies effectively, they need a movement that provides an alternative to the Ross Perots and Pat Buchanans. Such a movement must act on the understanding that the unregulated globalization of capital is really a worldwide attack of the haves on the have-nots. And it must bring that understanding to bear on every affected issue, from local layoffs to the world environment.
The positive developments Brecher saw coming out of the anti-NAFTA movement would begin to command mainstream attention with the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle—fifteen years ago this November. The coming debate over the TPP represents an important—and perhaps even more dire—opportunity for those interested in halting and reversing the trends described by Chomsky, Brecher and others. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in The Nation in July 2012:
We face a race against time—much of the TPP text has been agreed on. Will the banksters, Big Pharma, Big Oil, agribusiness, tobacco multinationals and the other usual suspects get away with this massive assault on democracy? Will the public wake up to this threat and fight back, demanding either a fair deal or no deal?
The declarations of opposition to fast-track from Pelosi and Reid represent a crucial, if preliminary, victory. The clock, however, is ticking.
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