Recently, President Obama promised to push the Trans Pacific Partnership toward ratification before leaving office next January. This is something that should concern anyone who possesses even the mildest progressive sentiments as the TPP is one of the most anti-democratic documents ever written.
Anyone who has followed my work knows that I’m a vocal advocate of many liberal causes. Feminism, environmentalism, worker’s rights: I support each of these things. I’ve also been a vocal advocate of the position that radicals like myself should endeavour to be flexible and work side by side with more moderate liberals. However, there are some tendencies among moderate liberals that I find problematic, and one of them is a failure – an almost outright refusal – to question the economic and philosophical foundations of Empire. The Trans Pacific Partnership embodies the worst aspects of American Empire, and it’s time that we took a good hard look at what that entails.
It’s no secret that – like NAFTA and other free trade agreements that came before it – the Trans Pacific Partnership includes provisions that allow for Investor-State Dispute Settlements. In simple terms, this means that multinational corporations can sue sovereign governments if those governments pass laws that undermine the corporation’s expected future profits. For instance, Tobacco giant Phillip Morris recently lost two lawsuits against Australia and Uruguay, lawsuits that were predicated on the claim that the anti-smoking policies enacted by those countries hurt the company’s profits.
Now, you might be thinking, “But wait, Rich. The good guys won! What’s the problem?” The problem, dear reader, is that the good guys don’t always win. ISDS arbitration can undermine a sovereign nation’s ability to set its own policies.
In 2009, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall sued Germany for 1.4 billion euros, claiming that Germany’s new environmental regulations hurt their expected profits. The result was an out of court settlement in which Germany agreed to water down those regulations. A foreign corporation got to have a say in German public policy. I hope you can see the problem with this.
The basic principle of market economics is that the government is a referee that sets the rules for how corporations conduct business. A company that wishes to do business within any country should be subject to the laws of that country. It should not get to write those laws!
Ordinary citizens can petition governments to change laws, and this is a necessary part of the democratic process. However, there are key differences in this case. First and foremost, Vattenfall is not a German company; so it shouldn’t get any say in German public policy. Secondly, while popular movements have influenced government policy – the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s comes to mind – in theory, governments do not change their country’s laws simply because a massive popular movement demands it. Rather they do so because the movement’s arguments have convinced them that an amendment to the law is in the public’s best interest.
Popular movements achieve results by changing minds; they don’t simply put a gun – figurative or literal – to the government’s head and speak their demands. That’s called terrorism. Vattenfall presented no argument for why looser environmental regulations are in the German people’s best interest; they simply strong-armed the German government into giving them what they want. Any legal mechanism that allows this is fundamentally anti-democratic.
This is a reflection of a deeper problem at the heart of market economics; capitalism is a perfect representation of what political theorist Sheldon Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. To simplify, the primary difference between classical totalitarianism and inverted totalitarianism is that the latter epitomizes the sentiment that Joseph Von Goethe expressed when he said, “None are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
Where classical totalitarianism relies on a highly-visible public figure to galvanize the people through fear and anger, inverted totalitarianism relies on anonymity and power that is wielded quietly, away from public scrutiny.
Where classical totalitarianism relies on brute force to coerce conformity through the threat of violence, inverted totalitarianism relies on more subtle instruments of control. Americans are told from birth that they live in the land of the free, but according to a study conducted by Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Princeton University, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon policy.” And furthermore, “economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”
Any state that caters only to the whims of the elite very quickly devolves into a society that is no less authoritarian than the most brutal regime. The so-called freedom that Americans like to boast about is nothing but an illusion. They live in a totalitarian state that hides its true colours by constantly insisting that the populace is free. This is what inverted totalitarianism looks like: corruption at the highest levels of government allows the few to impose their will on the many. The Trans Pacific Partnership will only exacerbate this problem.
A corporation is essentially a totalitarian organization; it has a top-down hierarchy with steep punishments for any challenge to authority. Workers have little to no say in the policies, goals and power structures of the companies they work for. What’s more, a corporation’s primary duty is the maximization of profit, not the preservation of human life. One need only look at Texaco’s reckless destruction of the Amazon to verify this.
Before merging with Chevron in 2001, Texaco spent twenty-eight years exploiting cheap access to crude oil in the Amazon Rainforest. Each of Texaco’s several hundred oil wells was surrounded by pits into which Texaco dumped gallons and gallons of toxic crude waste. The result was contamination of the local environment and massive health problems experienced by the local population, including a spike in cancer rates and birth defects.
In 2011, Ecuador’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the indigenous people of the Amazon Rainforest, ordering Chevron to pay US$9.5 billion in damages. And Chevron’s response to this was to simply ignore the ruling. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Chevron has no major assets in Ecuador, and thus Ecuador must turn to other countries for help in enforcing the ruling. It will be a long and hard fight, but I’m encouraged by the fact that Ecuador is willing to try. In many ways, this small, South-American country has become an exemplar in the fight for human rights.
In 2014, Ecuador and South Africa passed a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council to begin negotiations for a legally binding instrument to regulate transnational corporations. With luck, such an instrument will provide countries like Ecuador with a recourse the next time a transnational corporation commits a grievous violation of human rights. Because let’s be honest with ourselves: there will be a next time.
The moral of the story is that we can challenge corporate power, but only if we start taking it seriously. The Trans Pacific Partnership is anti-democratic by design. Left unchecked, transnational corporations will exploit developing nations, lower working standards – both at home and abroad – and cause untold damage to the environment in the name of profits. We need to put pressure on our governments to reject shady trade deals like the TPP.
I write this op-ed as a plea to moderate liberals; thus I will couch it in language that will be familiar to moderate liberals. Those of us who live in Canada, Western Europe or the United States share a kind of geographic privilege. While environmental racism is a serious problem in both Canada and the United States, the devastation faced by countries like Ecuador is compounded by the fact that they don’t even prosper from the extraction of their own natural resources. No…We prosper from the extraction of their natural resources. The TPP, if passed, will make it that much harder for the people of Ecuador to seek justice.
What’s more, consider any other progressive issue. Anti-racism, affordable health care, climate change: these causes only make sense in the context of a functioning democracy. When the government feels no inclination to base its policies on the needs of its citizens, it becomes a lot harder to pass environmental regulations or laws that mandate deescalation training for police officers. That is why, in my opinion, opposition to corporate power should be a part of every other progressive cause.
Let me be clear on this point. I am not suggesting that opposition to corporate power is more important than abortion rights or marriage equality or clean energy programs. I would never suggest such a thing because I don’t believe in a hierarchy of causes. We need health-care options that guarantee access to contraceptives and energy programs that reduce our carbon footprint. The idea that we have to choose one over the other is largely the product of politicians who want to secure the votes of certain demographics every election season.
I am simply saying that the Trans Pacific Partnership is a potential obstacle for every progressive cause under the sun, and that is why all progressives, from the fiercest radical to the mildest moderate, should unite in opposing it.