TPP -- and a Defense of Marx On Trade

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Once again the US Left -- broadly defined, including a range from the Sierra Club to the Communist Party -- is getting ready to oppose a new trade agreement covering many pacific rim nations and peoples.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, launched in 2007, and strongly supported by the Obama administration, is envisioned as a new and much expanded multilateral free trade agreement. The current list of participating, negotiating, and observing countries includes: Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, United States, Vietnam, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea,  Taiwan, and the Philippines.


The opposition to the agreement on the Left is in much the same spirit as its prior vocal opposition to NAFTA (the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), and to the very existence of the World Trade Organization  (WTO), and indeed all “capitalist” globalization.



These ongoing negotiations have drawn criticism and protest not just from the Left, but also a number of public and elected officials, in part due to the secrecy of the negotiations and a number of controversial clauses in draft agreements leaked to the public. For example, the Citizens Trade Campaign writes, “Of the 26 chapters under negotiation, only a few have to do directly with trade. The other chapters enshrine new rights and privileges for major corporations while weakening the power of nation states to oppose them.


Most controversy to this point (according to leaks) has centered around intellectual property rights, agriculture, and negotiation secrecy. A number of United States Congresspeople, including Senator Bernard Sanders and Representatives Henry Waxman, Sander M. Levin, John Conyers, Jim McDermott, John Lewis, Pete Stark, Charles B. Rangel, Earl Blumenauer, and Lloyd Doggett, have expressed concerns about the effect the TPP requirements would have on access to medicine. In particular, TPP may protect intellectual property to the detriment of efforts to provide access to affordable medicine in the developing world.

Leaked provisions of the draft treaty also reference “investor-state arbitration” provisions, which permit foreign investors to bring claims directly against states before panels of unelected trade arbitrators if they perceive a country’s actions, whether democratic or arbitrary,  have “expropriated” their property. "Expropriated"also includes "excessive" taxation.

Further, this supra-national “investment protection regime” stands in potential conflict  with national environmental and  labor laws, human rights protection, and with public health and welfare regulation. TPP could be used to force states to lower (or raise?) standards for environmental and workers protection - or be sued for damages,   pointing out the key question --- why can’t a trade agreement be used to force states to RAISE environmental and workers protection??  “Investor-state arbitration” will undoubtedly give transnational corporations powers to trump the sovereign powers of nations. Its true -- the rise of transnational institutions is an absolutely necessary to manage global trade and its many effects. Since economies of scale are a principal motivator of international trade, it also inevitable that large corporations will play a major role in trade negotiations. But it is also necessary that the ILO and Environmental interests also have comparable arbitration powers to trump  the anti-labor and anti-environmental  “sovereign powers of nations.”

The progressive sentiments motivating critics of TPP tempt us to simply oppose the agreement, as has been the pattern on the Left and in the labor movement for the past 70 years, at least.  We know it puts American and Chinese and Mexican and Canadian and many other nations’ workers  in direct competition with each other.  There will be winners and losers in each country. There will not be unity. The UAW supports the Korea agreement because it expands auto exports; they oppose NAFTA because of lost manufacturing jobs to Mexico; Mexican auto workers, of course, support NAFTA.

Neither the left nor the labor movement has much to show for their opposition to free trade over the years. The protests have not stopped it. Or even slowed it down. Capital is invading every nook and cranny in the world. The global integration of economies, supply trains, communication and transportation systems and infrastructure, and even lagging labor markets, all lubricated by the dominant financial services industry, is advancing even in the depression. Depressions are normally strong protectionist eras.

Should the Left Have a Pro-Free-Trade Policy, and What Would That Policy Be?


First, A dose of Karl Marx on Trade.

Engels provided  a short summary of Marx’s widely circulated 1848 speech on Free Trade.

     To [Marx]  Free Trade is the normal condition of modern capitalist production. Only under Free Trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be full developed; and the quicker the pace of this development, the sooner and the more fully will be realized its inevitable results; society splits up into two classes, capitalists here, wage-laborers there; hereditary wealth on one side, hereditary poverty on the other; supply outstripping demand, the markets being unable to absorb the ever growing mass of the production of industry; an ever recurring cycle of prosperity, glut, crisis, panic, chronic depression, and gradual revival of trade, the harbinger not of permanent improvement but of renewed overproduction and crisis; in short, productive forces expanding to such a degree that they rebel, as against unbearable fetters, against the social institutions under which they are put in motion; the only possible solution: a social revolution, freeing the social productive forces from the fetters of an antiquated social order, and the actual producers, the great mass of the people, from wage slavery. And because Free Trade is the natural, the normal atmosphere for this historical evolution, the economic medium in which the conditions for the inevitable social revolution will be the soonest created - for this reason, and for this alone, did Marx declare in favor of Free Trade.

Both Marx and Engels observe no fundamental distinction between free trade vs protectionist policies with respect to workers immediate interests. Not much has changed since then to refute this assessment, and there is good ground to explore their deeper observation  -- that free trade breaks down national and other barriers to trade faster, and thus accelerates the development of capitalism, the enlargement of the working class, the intensive application of technology, and the prospects for social progress. Most important, trade brings the workers of the world face to face with each other -- to confront each other as they really are, with more interest in common with each other than their respective employers.

Rather than reject trade agreements, perhaps a better tactic is to embrace them, in the first place, as an opportunity to meet and establish common ground with the workers of trading countries. If the ILO can ever establish the presence and authority it deserves at trade agreement bargaining tables -- it will be through those issues where workers on all sides of trade agreements agree.

Since the very beginning of the modern labor movement, many unions and labor federations have reached out to initiate or establish fraternal ties with unions in different countries, often in response to solidarity appeals. But trade and globalization has compelled relations of a qualitatively new kind and intensity between workers across the world. The recent  efforts of the USWA and the UAW are examples of solid steps toward meeting these challenges with greater international cooperation.

However, the fact that Korean and US auto unions did NOT agree in the end of the trade negotiations; that the UAW and OTHER unions such as the USWA, IAM, UE also had opposite positions on the Korean Agreement; that China-bashing still dominates some union ïnternational web pages, that Mexican and US auto workers do not agree on reforms to NAFTA; that there are very few foreign labor organization endorsements of US labor positions on trade agreements --- all this indicates that the road to common ground between workers of different nations is rocky and difficult.  

But there is no other road to progress!. Simply protesting trade agreements for their defects with respect to ONE’S OWN nation does not generate sufficient force to prevail.  And, as Marx notes, the alternatives of protectionism in the form of tariffs, bans or tax barriers to trade provides only illusory protection. The job claims of its advocates are at best ephemeral and more often simply fraudulent -- a cover for shifting capital from a less efficient to a more efficient business, and getting government price protection in the bargain. There is one exception to this: legitimate protection of what a nation may deem “strategic” investments --- investments in accord with a national industrial policy, and with a particular partition between private markets and public goods. One nation’s public health, safety, security and entitlements may appear to another as a trade subsidy, or unfair or unequal constraint---all matters on which workers of different nations can contribute useful ideas on cooperation.

In the fair trade regime that includes an appropriate voice for labor --- that voice must be international, and united, or it is powerless. And yes, there must be supra-national institutions, capable of sanctioning sovereign nations from violating universal human rights, as well as, and at times against, property rights. The pressures on these institutions are objective and arise from the ever-deepening commercial and infrastructure relations between nations. But commercial relations are inseparable from  political relations and thus the politicization of international institutions inevitably contends and ultimately weakens the sovereignty of nations. Just like Marx predicted.

But, some will argue, doesn’t adopting a left “free trade” position run headlong into the theory of imperialism, outlined in a 1916 pamphlet by Lenin? In that pamphlet Lenin argued that oppressed nations’ aspirations for independence from “free market” predations was the progressive ally of workers’ worldwide common effort to prevent world war, and to prevent workers shooting each other on behalf of the the capitalists of their own nation’s ambitions to favorably re-divide the worlds resources and markets.

But, I submit, all of the re-division of the world envisioned by Lenin’s pamphlet has in fact transpired,. The heroic and titanic struggles of working people of the 20th century greatly shaped how the remaking of the world took place, on what terms some nations become independent, and others disappeared. The “anti-imperialist” and popular democratic movements spawned in response to two world wars and Fascism turned back a dark era.  

But today, a single world market in everything, including labor, is clearly emerging and gaining ground. It is compelling a vast realignment of powers and resources across the globe, in every region. The question of whether or not to integrate into the world market is over.  I submit there can be an approach to free trade, and free trade tactics, that is based on internationalism, and that points to the most powerful  negation of imperialism. It will not be exactly the same as one based on national or sectoral advantage -- but it has a greater power to prevail politically in the long run, and more important, it can lead to real, incremental, measurable progress enforcing universal rights of workers.


Conclusion: Meetings between workers of trading partner countries should be the FIRST action item on the left trade agenda. Next, identifying common ground---Assess common ground potential BEFORE taking a position on the agreement. Next: agitating the government to include ILO representation with standing to demand “labor and human rights” arbitration powers to enforce compliance with ILO universal human right principles.

US labor law is in fact not currently in compliance ILO fundamental rights.  And a supra-national sanction against firing and threatening people for engaging in union activity would be welcomed by millions of workers.

“...and the final lesson, that those who do the work of the world, ought to be united, is still to be learned....”  

Int'l Rep Don Tormey, 1978 UE District Council 2 meeting.

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  • Sorry for giving Lenin life after death in the last comment. However, many, and the present writer with them, would prefer make this rather glaring error than blame a dastard, like even Joseph Stalin, for the imperialism of German Fascism, or, to fail to give the main and great credit for ridding humanity of the Fascist menace of WWII to the Soviet working class.
    We must be clear on this.
    It is the foundation for humanity once again unifying against imperialism today.
    Unity against imperialism is the linchpin of international labor and human rights, along with the rights of Mother Nature.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/28/2012 4:31pm (5 years ago)

  • In the zigs and zags of contemporary history-post Lenin, some would maintain, Lenin and our own W. E. B. Du Bois, the most brilliant continuers of Marx-as the outstanding Communist, James E. Jackson Jr. told our class(it seems the 1976 class of the Du Bois/Foster School in beautiful Hibbing,MN)- Du Bois re-edited and re-worked all of his brilliant contributions to incorporate his communist intellectual convictions, his Marxism, to show that the attitude of the communists toward "free trade" is the dialectical opposite of that of the super exploitive and oppressive imperialist and neo-colonialist.
    Trade unionists rights, human rights, economic rights, civil rights and rights accorded for nature as humans live in nature, are due to workers, all workers, including women and workers of color- for the Leninist and the Du Boisite.
    All of Marx's work on trade is done for workers, to support workers, and not to support "free trade" separate from this express purpose.
    In the support of workers by workers and workers' intellectuals-Lenin his workers fought the war against Fascism and the Nazis fought the war for Fascism-what was WWII-the Leninists won-with the Du Boisites support.
    That the workers of TPP are workers of color is no coincidence. The murderous anti-communism and racism of have crippled the workers and oppressed of the world for too, too long in these areas of the world.
    We agree that ILO principles and rights must be protected in these areas.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 11/27/2012 11:01am (5 years ago)

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