A major cause of contemporary political ills in the world is the misnomers that help hide what the strong and rich aspire to and already control. A perfect example of this is the ubiquitous term ‘trade’ in what the media are telling us these days about the TPP and the TTIP – the transpacific and transatlantic treaties that seek to organize business activity under one monumental umbrella of new rules. These have been peddled as trade treaties, and hence as being great for growth and jobs, happiness and social well-being. But neither the TPP, tying the United States, a bit of Latin America and a series of East Asian countries together, nor its TTIP companion that is meant to shape American-European business relations, is primarily about trade, if stimulating genuine trade comes into it at all. It is primarily about power. Two kinds of it.
One is aimed at creating global disadvantages for China’s industrial power and putting brakes on what the two formerly communist giants on the Eurasian continent are developing together. The other is power of a collectivity of large politically well-connected corporations to engage in conduct unchecked by national rules, which seen by eyes unaffected by neoliberal dogma would be recognized as predation.
An earlier attempt to accomplish that second purpose, begun in 1997 by the OECD, was more honest by calling itself the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). Under MAI rules the participating governments would guarantee foreign businesses all the advantages enjoyed by their domestic producers and services. If implemented, foreign investors in these markets could with the superior force they can muster easily have wiped out domestic players altogether, and would once and for all have made the older standard development methods, once known as import substitution industrialization, impossible. Potential competitors would become perennial subcontractors. In other words, the MAI was a most blatant move to implement neocolonialism by treaty.
No surprise then that the MAI turned ‘globalization’ into a controversial project. It triggered mass activism that had never been seen before, as the Internet could for the first time tie together international protest against business power. Anti-MAI events encouraged other anti-globalization protest movements around the world, which peaked in 1999 in Seattle, and seemed to augur a new kind of ‘people power’ element in international affairs.
Until the eleventh of September 2001. The World Trade Towers and Pentagon attacks utterly changed the political attention of virtually everyone in the world, and calamitously diverted it with another misnomer (since the “war against terrorism” is a political impossibility).
An attempt to re-introduce MAI-like arrangements with the Doha Round of negotations under the auspices of the WTO has remained dead in the water, but with the TPP we may now be on the verge of precedents that will establish mainly American financial and other corporations above the legal systems of whichever country participates.
In 2006 Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand and Chile wanted to enhance trade cooperation and came up with the initiative for a TPP. That traditional effort for eliminating tariffs appeared laudable and innocuous enough. But Washington, nurturing schemes for regional economic hegemony, saw a chance to capture the initiative. It enticed Australia, Peru, Vietnam and Malaysia to join as well. Once Congress had endorsed related free-trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama, the TPP became the most important component in a scheme for a Pacific–Asian business playground on which, if Japan could be made to join as well, US corporations could be the bullies.
The most striking aspect of the eight years of TPP negotiations has been their utter secrecy. Only about 600 ‘cleared advisors’ – most of them linked with the businesses that stand to gain – have had access to parts of sub agreements; and critics among them have been sworn to remain silent about what they consider unacceptable. Some former trade officials and clued-in politicians in the United States and elsewhere have publicly noted that this treaty would not have the slightest chance of making it through the legislatures of participating governments if details were out in the open. Only the ‘fast track authority’ that Congress gave President Obama earlier this year (allowing the House and Senate only to vote yes or no, without changes or amendments) gives it an even chance that it will become law in the United States.
From what we do know American negotiators have concentrated on controlling labor laws, environmental legislation and intellectual property rights, which are not normally considered priorities for improving trade. But, again, the TPP is primarily a political program. More specifically it is about about the power of large, mostly American, business institutions that already have a great deal of power – which they have bought by making politicians dependent on them. It is political because it aims to change the power relations between transnational corporations and foreign governments. It is political because it will create patterns of colonial dependence through agricultural agreements. It is political because it seeks to place the governments of the participating countries under a kind of legal discipline that has nothing to do with the rights of citizens and everything to do with the ability of strong corporations to become even stronger.
TPP details have yet to be divulged, but what we may take away from the MAI experience is that it intended rules that participating governments could violate only at their own great disadvantage. The legal stipulations in effect would have created a new element of corporate groups operating internationally beyond any kind of accountability. Hence, the MAI was not about economic development, but about wholesale power shifts in the world, as the TPP will be.
These are shifts that suit the colonizing schemes of large American corporations, their sales and production abroad having reached gigantic proportions. Foreign markets are are about the only thing left offering promising prospects for recently evolved methods of profit making in the current phase of American late capitalism, while the domestic economy remains in the doldrums.
The political class of the Asian participants and the Europeans, who watch from the sidelines with the companion TTIP treaty in the back of their minds, fall back on the lines of seduction first penned some two centuries ago by David Ricardo about unfettered trade being always good for everyone. But Ricardo and his followers were talking about free trade in goods, which rather amazingly still serves as a model to emulate in our times when questions of liberalization are raised – fatefully with regards to the lifting of regulations that kept order in the world of international financial transactions. If genuine markets in goods were to determine profits, American businesses would hardly have a chance internationally, since they do not manufacture that much at home anymore. Hence corporate hopes are vested on two areas opened up in participating countries by the TPP: rents and ‘financial products’. Rent seekers and financial firms are the top predators, and the TPP will massively expand their hunting territory and give them fierce fangs in the bargain.
Once upon a time copyright was meant to provide protection to authors for a set number of years. Then it was applied in a broader way to works of art in general. This made sense, and was in line with the thinking behind patents for industrial inventions. But it has long since become exploitative. Attracted by an opportunity to make money without production, corporations began to to claim the rights of all manner of artistic merchandise after paying off needy creators, or they claimed the right to something that had theretofore been free, like the extraction of something with medicinal properties from plants and trees used in indigenous forms of medicine. For maximizing rent extraction a new category was created and named ‘Intellectual Property’. It had nothing to do with intellectual pursuits, and everything with property, which under rightwing influence gained an aura of sacredness. Property can be had everywhere: not only of music and films that have earned any original investments many times over, but also Indian Ayurvedic medicine formulas, images of temple paintings in South-East Asia – you name it, we are only at the beginning of this.
Public gullibility under neoliberal regimes can be measured by the ease with which the notion of ‘piracy’ has become widely accepted, along with the moral construction that taking things freely available through the Internet constitutes theft. Under ever more stringent and internationally enforced controls, films that have made their intended profit many times over in general release, on TV and with large DVD editions, are set up to be making money forever.
The Intellectual Property regime of TPP contain traps of which the countries seduced to join this twenty-first century ‘unequal treaty’ are unlikely to be aware. Much of the discussion among critics has revolved around the obviously questionable closed-door tribunals to arbitrate investor-state disputes. But other legal entanglements awaiting those who sign have as yet been overlooked. The rules demanded by the United States will create conditions for an even greater American popular culture hegemony. Local producers of popular culture products are likely to find themselves pressed to the margins in their own countries, and bankrupted by very costly litigation in which the Americans are masters. An army of lawyers may be expected to become a parasitical growth on the culture of the participating countries, with a new category of ambulance chasers inspired by the new industry of American lawyers who, on their own, ferret out possible cases of copyright infringement by unsuspecting parties, and then threaten those people with litigation unless they pay a settlement fee.
The expected Intellectual Property stipulations of the TPP related to medicine have drawn much attention, as these will enlarge the oligopoly power of Pharmaceutical companies. Global public health is likely to suffer from this, because from what is already known the new rules will lengthen the period before the use of generic drugs is permitted; and these are the only affordable medicine for patients in poorer countries. The organization Doctors Without Borders has concluded that “the TPP agreement is on track to become the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries.”
It is not difficult to understand that TPP participants who have not guessed the consequences of what they will be signing will bring social misery upon themselves. It is also not difficult to understand how the TPP fits in with Washington’s ‘Asian Pivot’ as part of its Full Spectrum Dominance campaign. (A little detour: the first cabinet of Japan’s DPJ, which ended half a century of factual one-party democracy, was overthrown because its head, Yukio Hatoyama, had sought better relations with China and Russia and would not submit to the kind of bullying inherent in the TPP. Japanese prime ministers after him were scared that they might fall victim to similar Washington-directed regime change manipulation, and halted such overtures to China while facilitating a return of the LDP’s Shinzo Abe who recently had a law adopted re-interpreting the Japanese anti-war constitution to please the United States). Japan in the TPP, something that Abe is eager to bring about, would be the biggest clincher for America’s containment of China tactics. It would push Japan deeper into an American embrace over which it has little control. After intense concentration on export-led developments, the Chinese economy is evolving into a consumer oriented system and its huge middle class has lots of money to spend. Of all the world’s countries Japan is in the best position to benefit from this switch, which is one of several reasons why it ought to treasure every opportunity for improving relations with its neighbor. The TPP would hinder that process, as has precisely been Washington’s intention.
All this is easily understood. But it still leaves us with the puzzle of why Asians as well as Europeans, whose EU trade commissioners have been mouthing the same job creating nonsense around the TTIP that has come with the TPP, appear unable to tackle intellectually the dominant power aspects of these treaties. Perhaps because they exist in a world of their own that is politically sterilized by current economic suppositions. More generally, the concept of power (not influence with which it is often confused) receives a stepmotherly treatment in popular as well as serious writing, and the social science denizens of academia are entirely at sea with it. Mainstream economics is ahistorcal on purpose and hence has no room for power, which has helped continue the fateful division of political and economic affairs into separate realms for discussion that has long served the interests of power elites.
Since the political dimension to economic arrangements in the United States remains hidden in most discourse because political and economic reality are routinely treated as separate realms of life, few notice that what is justified in the United States by casting it in terms of the market at work, is frequently the result of heavy political involvement and interference. Politically well-connected American corporations, paying for the election expenses of Congress members who determine their fate, need not fear ‘market forces’. If the banks responsible for the credit crisis of 2008 and the subsequent world-recession that is still with us, had not been lifted out of ‘the market’ by the state, they would no longer exist. Powerful corporations have been allowed to swallow the state; they have as the power sensitive economist James Galbraith calls it, created a ‘predator state’, which they of course exploit for their own expansion. There is no frame of reference with which we can more convincingly define the TPP.