- The need for a left internationalist trade policy
Trade is the lynchpin of the global economic system. What we trade, how we trade it and with whom is central to understanding economic power. And it is at the centre of the political and economic crisis now gripping European and American politics. My argument is that, unless the left can develop a model to replace corporate globalisation that resonates with the many people currently marginalised by neoliberalism, we face a dark future.
While few people directly cited trade in Britain’s EU referendum campaign, the issues that dominated it - immigration, deindustrialisation, public services, financial power and inequality - all directly relate to the global trade system we live under. Trade will also be at the centre of the Brexit negotiations over the next few years.
The type of deals Britain signs will dictate much of what happens to our [End Page 74] economy. And, although left-wing forces have been working hard to defeat mega corporate trade deals like TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership between the US and EU), it is still the right that leads the debate on trade.
The widespread capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism in the 1990s is the main reason that today’s left lacks a clearly articulated alternative which could resonate with potential supporters - whether in the internationalist remain camp or the protectionist leave camp. We urgently need a clear left strategy and vision for a trade system which promotes more democratic public services, improves social and environmental protection, and at the same time preserves and expands free movement of people and a genuine regional and international cooperation.
A short history of trade deals
Resistance to the free trade deals of the 1990s began with the Zapatistas on New Year’s Day 1994; they were rightly concerned that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - which came into force that day - would wipe out peasant farmers, and force them into sweatshops along the US border. The anti-globalisation movement (or, more correctly, the anti-neoliberal globalisation movement) went on to bring together western liberals, socialists, anarchists, environmentalists and feminists in a diverse movement which allied with countries in the global South in an attempt to reinvent an internationalist democratic left politics. At the centre of the struggle was the issue of ‘free trade’ - that universal ‘good’ that became a vehicle for the limitless expansion of corporate power into every corner of our lives.
The movement had a number of successes, including the abandonment of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998, and the great difficulties encountered by those attempting to ‘reform’ the World Trade Organisation’s rules that began in Doha in 2001. It has drawn attention to the machinations of corporate globalisation, and shone a light on the institutions that have been created to govern the world economy (the G8, WTO, IMF, World Bank). What’s more, it did this while remaining outward-looking, and driven by a sense of international solidarity, something which is, in practice, missing from most of today’s left. But social democrats didn’t listen. Their conversion to neoliberalism, especially acute under Clinton and Blair, led the centre-left to see free trade not simply as a necessary evil but as a key mechanism for making the poor richer. [End Page 75]
In the end big business gave up on the WTO as a space to ‘get things done’. Not just the pink tide governments of Latin America, but also China and India proved hostile to a neoliberal agenda dominated by the west. So a new strategy was adopted, based on regional trade deals - a series of four massive deals is currently on the international negotiating table, deals that seek to incorporate all the policies big business has been seeking for the last twenty years, locking together to cover vast swathes of the world.
The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) covers Pacific Rim countries from the US, Japan and Australia to Vietnam, Chile and Peru. The Transatlantic Partnership (TTIP) comprises the US and EU. CETA (which has now been signed by the EU Council but faces obstacles in ratification by individual member states) covers the EU and Canada...