Thus far, there has not been much ‘debate’ per se over the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a secretive trade deal being negotiated among 12 countries that account for roughly 40% of the world’s GDP. To the extent that there’s been any coverage, it’s mostly been the sort of procedural drama articles about vote counts in Congress that only interest people who treat politics as sport.
But if/when an actual debate about the TPP occurs, one can already imagine what the arguments of its proponents will be:
For market fundamentalists and capitalist true-believers, some generic talking points about “expanding opportunity” should suffice.
For nationalists and patriots, rhetoric about increasing our industries’ ‘global competitiveness’ and opening other countries up to products ‘Made in America.’
And for everyone else, some lofty language about how the world is getting smaller, and how the TPP will bring us closer together. Perhaps there will even be a few lines pulled from Thomas Friedman’s “Lexus and the Olive Tree” or “The World is Flat” and maybe some reformulation of his now thoroughly discredited “Golden Arches Theory.”
And It must be said that, notwithstanding its lack of empirical justification, the warm, fuzzy tale told by proponents of trade agreements like the TPP sounds lovely. Indeed, the image of a shrinking world where we are all increasingly connected to each other by trade conjures up the image of a global village that is downright quaint in its idealism.
But perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider exactly how we are becoming more connected to one another in a globalized world, and to ponder the question that the legal expert put to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor”.
It’s quite clear that the increased connections embodied in the pro-globalization and pro-TPP narrative aren’t meant to be actual human connections, or anything approaching neighborliness. The proof of this can be seen in the TPP’s ideological fore-runner, NAFTA.
When NAFTA threw open the doors of Mexico’s economy to heavily-subsidized US crops, Mexican agricultural production was devastated, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their fields and to seek livelihoods elsewhere. When this massive displacement resulted in an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration from Mexico, many of the same politicians who had trumpeted the ‘openness’ NAFTA would bring about, became advocates of building a wall and closing the border to keep people out…of course, goods would still be allowed to cross.
Apologists for globalization talk about the pacifying impact of trade, and how countries that open their economies to globalization become more cosmopolitan and tolerant. Yet the slew of inflammatory comments about Mexicans — most recently by Donald Trump, but there have certainly been many others — suggests that free trade and increasing economic interdependence might have made US Americans more enamored of guacamole, but no more neighborly or understanding of Mexican people.
This insistence on the freedom of movement for goods and services — but not people — is a telling feature of our neoliberal age. Yet there is one situation where free trade proponents are willing to make an exception: when people are goods.
Slavery is perhaps the most iconic example of global ‘free trade’. And one need not go all the way back to the infamous Trans-Atlantic slave trade — so forcefully interrupted by the non-market forces of the British Royal Navy after 1807 — to understand the important connection between ‘free trade’ and slavery. Indeed, President Obama opposed an anti-slavery amendment, proposed by the Senate during the TPP negotiations, on the grounds that it would hurt Malaysia — one of the TPP countries — where companies rely on forced labor to produce cheap (and environmentally destructive) palm oil.
Indeed, in a world governed by the logic of neoliberal free trade — where labor unions and environmental regulations are impediments to economic competitiveness — slavery can be a useful policy for gaining a competitive advantage. After all, the enslaved are nothing more than labor units, and since their ’employer’ has access to consumer markets in another country for their products, one needn’t worry about the purchasing power of enslaved masses.
And this points toward the most important distinction between the connections among neighbors and those among trading partners:
Free trade is about power
This is certainly true when it comes to negotiated trade agreements between nation-states, but it often holds true even at the level of individuals. Anyone who ever engaged in trading toys or stuffed animals with their siblings as a child might remember that the older sibling somehow always got the better end of the trade. That free trade agreements allow the US and Europe to subsidize agricultural production, but forbid poorer developing countries from doing so, should be no surprise in light of the above maxim. That some larger countries like Brazil have successfully challenged this hypocrisy and have been paid off by the US, while smaller countries in Africa suffer from this unfair ‘free trade’ with no recourse is also unsurprising to anyone who grasps this basic characteristic of trade.
A world of neighbors who care about each other beyond just the ability of the other to fulfill their contractual obligations is perhaps unrealistic. But as with any ideal, even if it is unattainable, it is still a target worth moving toward even if it proves to be asymptotic. It’s quite clear that the TPP is a move in the opposite direction, toward an increasingly commodified world where nothing has value, only a price.