The Obama administration has labored since 2009 to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade agreement with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. The President insists TPP will not repeat past trade deals that led to hundreds of thousands of good jobs leaving the United States for low-wage nations. Yet with more than 500 corporate lobbyists advising U.S. negotiators as talks continue behind closed doors, concerns abound among labor, environmental and consumer advocates.
The TPP’s U.S. opponents will be going all out to derail the deal when it’s expected to come before Congress sometime later this year. To better understand the meaning of the TPP and how it looks from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, The Indypendent spoke with Walden Bello, author of numerous books on corporate globalization and its discontents and co-founder of the Bangkok, Thailand-based think tank Focus on the Global South.
John Tarleton: Why does the U.S. government want the TPP so badly?
Walden Bello: It’s an effort by a superpower that feels threatened and seeks to contain China. There has been a tremendous economic crisis since 2008 and the United States has not come out of it. Meanwhile China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy, according to World Bank figures. So this is an attempt by the United States to shore up its position with the 11 other TPP countries to bring down investment and regulatory barriers so that transnational corporations, primarily U.S. ones, will be able to solidify their hold within these countries. This is happening in tandem with a “pivot to Asia” that has seen the U.S. strategically deploy its military forces to surround China.
What do you find most objectionable about the TPP?
The TPP is not really about trade. It’s a really big push to deepen and solidify U.S. corporate control over every sphere of life. For people in the United States, the greatest concern is that the TPP will promote the export of jobs and will have a very negative impact on the environment because corporations as much as possible will try to weaken environmental laws in all of these countries.
On our side of the Pacific, the great concern is that our governments are going to lose their power because Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms will give corporations the right to sue states that interfere with their push for profitability. These cases would be heard in secret tribunals staffed by corporate lawyers that will have the power under the TPP to overrule national laws. There is also a push for very strict intellectual property rights that will have a major impact on public health, because they’re going to be very tight restrictions on the use of generics that would be cheaper, including life-saving medications for people who have HIV-AIDS.
Why are national governments willing to relinquish their ability to regulate their economy in their own nation’s interest? It’s unusual for governments to give up power that they hold.
Many of these governments that are part of the TPP process have conservative officials who think the best government is minimum government and that regulation stands in the way of prosperity. It’s an ideology many of these technocrats learned while being educated at U.S. institutions.
So technocrats are blinkered by neoliberal ideology. But at the same time, large transnational corporations are desperate for this. How should we understand the TPP as flowing out of the logic of capitalism?
There’s a worry on the part of corporations that government regulation will cut into their profitability. The TPP is an attempt to foreclose that possibility. Capital has a very strong sense of what its class interests are and is moving heaven and earth to win passage for this agreement.
The crisis faced by capital at this point, however, is much bigger than a problem of regulation. It is experiencing a crisis of accumulation or overproduction, and it is this that is responsible for lowering the rate of profit. Globalization, deregulation and financialization were efforts put in motion to escape this depressive tendency from the 1980s on, but they have been unsuccessful, and so too will the TPP. In this sense, salvation through TPP is another of capitalism’s “grand illusions.”
The TPP’s chances of making it through the U.S. Congress in 2015 increased in June when the House and Senate approved Fast Track, which means the TPP will likely be coming up for a simple yes/no vote in Congress later this year.
One has to admit that things are currently not going our way. The important thing at this point in time is mobilization of the public and the electorate. The fight over TPP has increased the level of anti-neoliberal consciousness in the United States, making “trade” a very politicized issue that cuts across some of the usual partisan boundaries. All sorts of possible alliances could emerge once the final treaty is brought back to Congress for a vote and we are finally able to see what’s in it. As Yogi Berra put it, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”
What do you see as the alternative to corporate trade deals like NAFTA and TPP?
The important thing is not to move away from trade but to make trade and investment rules subordinate to society, to benefit people instead of corporations. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) is a valuable example, though it needs to be reinvigorated. It has brought together Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua as well as several Caribbean island nations in a network of people-centered trade, economic cooperation and investment relations that respect the autonomy of countries while trying to maximize benefits for all parties. Given that it’s a pioneering effort, ALBA has encountered its share of problems. Still, it represents an alternative path of global economic cooperation, away from corporate-driven free trade.