A teachable moment from an ass backward international trade negotiation

This piece is being cross-published from the I ♥ Democratic Socialism group at Daily Kos.

Except increasingly for pseudonymous blogging, much of the left in the U.S. long has been intimidated into keeping its heterodox political economic views to itself. Certainly for all the red-baiting on the right, even after Occupy the traditional print and broadcast media long has assumed we were dead or isolated to university campuses. And, sure, like the faux libertarians and Christian right, some of us may also from time to time get sucked up into embarrassing conspiracy theories. Best for the rest of us to hold onto our tongues and our jobs if we still have them. The lack of a parliamentary system also keeps those of us who wish to actually win elections pinned for the most part to the Democratic Party, so we may not even bother remembering what we believe. Or perhaps we inhale deeply a natural herbal product and remember fondly when we were giants who walked the earth like the Nephilim of the Old Testament.

Into the intellectual vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, in the world’s largest “economy” as well as in most of the rest of the world, entered global neoliberal triumphalism, with heavy doses of outright financial chicanery. The William F. Buckley-reading cocky cowboys had been tanned, rested, and ready to reassert imperial rule since at least the Goldwater campaign. Many a neoliberal chest has been proudly beaten about the wonders of bringing democracy to the heathen we have often chosen to bomb or knock off with our American snipers.

Like the drones that are now our most recognized calling cards in much of the world, ironically the trade deals produced by neoliberalism are often synonymous not with democracy but with oppression and sell-outs by the local oligarchy.

Meanwhile, back in the most heavily-armed nation in the world, good ole’ USA, our oligarchy would never do that to us. Supposedly it is in our collective best interest to let the triumphalist grownups make the decisions for the plebes, and many of us not being familiar with this thing called organized labor go along with this.

Then all of sudden, there is something blowing in the wind. Can you hear it? Out there, in the distance, but approaching? TPP, TPP, TPP.

I think that this may be one of those big semi-revolutionary moments in the land of the free, home of the brave, the first one since the Vietnam War, although Occupy came close and laid the groundwork. And, even more ironically, the very grandiosity of the imminent humiliation of the U.S. worker once again, may, just may, revitalize U.S. democracy and give the left back its voice. But not if we let our president intimidate us into silence.

Perhaps now, finally, we will feel it is long overdue for us to once again give our repressors the finger, to reopen our minds and our mouths, and to, if necessary, get off the well-worn couch and march, unless we want the neoliberals to complete the destruction of not only our jobs but also the planet itself.

Not that you asked, but while I am anti-TPP, I am not an isolationist or a Luddite. I want us, the we, the workers of the world wherever we live, the real people, as opposed to the legally-fictitious people, to unite. We have no choice if we want to survive on one heating up and overpopulated planet. We need to learn both to hold hands around the planet and to give each other our space to sense in our own way the mystical in the mundane.

Whether within or between borders, we cannot unite if we each view others primarily as competitors and not primarily as other human beings wanting and deserving to have decent lives.

Capitalist trade is about profit. It is consuming the earth with its endless need to accumulate capital, as Rosa Luxemburg observed a hundred years ago. The solution to this problem is not nationalism or attempting to otherwise retreat into a cocoon of advantaged sameness.

Love is both inward and outward looking. We should want to live in a loving world of affectionate comradeship. I know that I, as an anti-capitalist democrat internationalist, look forward to trade among a global community of freely associated individuals. But we will not get that under global capitalism.

Plutocracy is effectively in control in much of our world, even where we democratically through elections hand the power to their surrogates. Plutocrats effectively decide how our world does business, and what it even defines as the business of the world and its member societies.

It is the true business of a society to make itself humane not profitable. While counting and pricing resources requires accountants’ skills, fair distribution of those resources and the products of the labor applied to those resources is a moral issue, not an economic issue.

Healthy societies have healthy social compacts. A healthy world society would have a healthy world social compact. The U.S. is less healthy than it should be not because it does not have enough international trade but because it does not have a healthy enough social contract.

To keep the affected public out of international trade negotiations that will, after all, affect the public is grossly undemocratic. We should all have a seat at the table, and the Internet can make that easy.

True enough that it is shame on President Obama for wanting to deny us that democratic right, and he himself should take advantage of this teachable moment to self-correct his ways. But, in a great piece of candor, during what seems like a long time ago involving health care, he told us that we needed to push him to do the right thing. We are honoring his own finest notions of democracy when we “go out and make [him] do it.”

He wasn’t the first president to supposedly say that. The statement is first attributed to FDR:

One of the most oft-cited incidents from FDR’s presidency is a policy meeting he held with labor leaders shortly after his election, which he concluded by telling them “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Did Roosevelt ever actually say those words? Who knows? Like Washington and his cherry tree, what matters is why we tell the story and what it says about how we view the man in question. FDR understood that regardless of what he personally believed, change had to happen from the bottom up, not just from the top down. He was a bold leader who was never afraid to take on a fight as long as he had the American people on his side. If we stop assuming that politicians will simply deliver progress without our involvement or that the process of policymaking is out of our hands once our votes are cast, then we might start to see elections in a very different light.

[Roosevelt Institute.]

We must respect the president’s best intentions and most importantly ourselves enough to begin to see not only elections but also our own ability to take direct action in a very different light. We must begin by knowing our rights as human beings and proceed from there to define and enforce decent social compacts.

When we the people “sit down” through “our” trade representatives, it had better be streaming over the Internet to keep things more honest. We should accept nothing less than this, and we should shut down the Capital if this is denied to us.

And as we approach our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world about trade, we should first have an honest and, again, necessarily open, discussion with these brothers and sisters about our respective social compacts, where we each need improvement, and how trade between our peoples may or may not help us to improve our social compacts for all of our peoples, including especially the least of these.

The ultimate need for the workers of the world is the manifestation of a humane global social compact, the beginnings of which were envisioned by Franklin Roosevelt, and even more so by Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the work to make it part of the U.N. Because of the Republicans, the U.S., to its shame, has never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Eleanor Roosevelt papers project provides an excellent short synopsis of the back and forth on that covenant, including this important acknowledgement of socialism:

The covenant’s provisions clearly reflect the socialist emphasis on economic rights, which is what the General Assembly had intended when it took the matter up in 1951. As a result, the United States and other western democracies remained unconvinced of the covenant’s merits and refused to ratify it. Despite a lack of support from these countries, however, the covenant entered into force on January 3, 1976 for those states that had approved it. As of 2002, the United States had still not ratified the covenant.

The Republicans should stop blocking ratification of this covenant if they want the U.S. to have a foundation for fair trade, not neoliberal triumphalism, and the Democrats led by President Obama should accept nothing less. Ratification should also be part of the Democratic Party platform until and unless it occurs.

Please read on for a brief discussion of some things we can learn from E. F. Schumacher in troubling trading times like these. My special thanks to SaraBeth for informing/reminding me about his important writing just the other day. (I greatly look forward to an upcoming piece by her on defining democratic socialism.)


You know something is up when even a Beltway bard like Dana Milbank says, “No, President Obama, Elizabeth Warren isn’t wrong.” He even implicitly, though too cautiously, links the flaw to the woefully inadequate social compact the U.S. has with its displaced workers:

Clinton, and Obama, should champion the trade bill — but only after congressional Republicans do what’s needed to protect low-wage American workers from the dislocation that will occur: approving some serious new spending on worker training and infrastructure to keep the United States in line with the rest of the industrialized world.

Milbank’s policy prescriptions are inadequate to the scale of the capitalist crises of long term un- and under-employment. To face a lifetime of hardship and post-layoff part-time minimum wage employment if you can get it is a bitter, mortgage-foreclosing, potentially family-wrecking and soul-destroying sentence that could lead anyone to self-medicate by any means necessary. Sorry Dana, training and infrastructure improvement, while quite valuable for some, are far from the needed guarantee of employment and a decent life for the least of these in U.S. society.

In fact, though, this teachable moment can allow us to reflect on what it means and does not mean to have a society as opposed to an economy. In contrast to Milbank (although I am hesitant even to type their names in the same sentence), Schumacher wrote critically about the system we simply assume we must have:

The strength of the idea of private enterprise lies in its terrifying simplicity. It suggests that the totality of life can be reduced to one aspect – profits. The businessman, as a private individual, may still be interested in other aspects of life – perhaps even in goodness, truth and beauty – but as a businessman he concerns himself only with profits. In this respect, the idea of private enterprise fits exactly into the idea of The Market, which, in an earlier chapter, I called ‘the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility’. Equally, it fits perfectly into the modern trend towards quantification at the expense of the appreciation of qualitative differences; for private enterprise is not concerned with what it produces but only with what it gains from production.

Everything becomes crystal clear after you have reduced reality to one – one only – of its thousand aspects. You know what to do – whatever produces profits; you know what to avoid – whatever reduces them or makes a loss. And there is at the same time a perfect measuring rod for the degree of success or failure. Let no one befog the
issue by asking whether a particular action is conducive to the wealth and well-being of society, whether it leads to moral, aesthetic, or cultural enrichment. Simply find out whether it pays; simply investigate whether there is an alternative that pays better. If there is, choose the alternative.

This is not to say that “small is beautiful” is naïve, simple, a panacea, or a matter of being locked in the past. Those who have studied him most closely pay him the greatest compliment by approaching the struggle in both a critical and forward-looking manner:

At the time of Schumacher’s death [1977], the world was at the high point of corporate organisation, of mass consumption, of mass employers, of geo-political blocs. Big seemed destined to succeed. But in reality, this world was already starting to come apart. Since then, the large employers shed jobs, the state shed functions, mass production started to give way to mass customisation. The inhumanities and abuses of power have not gone away, but the new models of organisation are different, appearing to focus on networks rather than on hierarchies.

At a shallow level, from cars to computers, the new consumer society, oriented to the personalisation of goods and services, has embraced the allure of the small. And yet not all that is small-scale is human scale, or carries the virtues of community, spiritual connection and ecological balance. The struggle for the kind of society Schumacher envisioned has moved on to new forms of articulation and organisation, while holding true to the same enduring truths and insights.

However, it is to say that to have the conversation about these kinds of things as a society is the beginning of good sense. In contrast, to spring into trade deals before we openly have this conversation with ourselves and our trading partners is to get it precisely ass backward.

We must include our bodies and our souls and those whose lives depend on us, and those of all other human beings on our crowded planet, in our emotional and material boundaries:

Schumacher’s work in developing countries began in 1955, with a United Nations assignment to advise the government of Burma about its development programme. It was then that, as a student of Buddhism, he asked himself what an economics based on Buddhist values would look like. He concluded that at least in two fundamental ways it would be the exact opposite of conventional Western economics, the economic thinking that has resulted in ‘globalisation’.

First, he argued, a Buddhist approach to economics would distinguish between misery, sufficiency and surfeit. Economic growth would be good only to the point of sufficiency. Limitless growth and limitless consumption would be seen to be disastrous. Secondly, a Buddhist economics would be based squarely on renewable resources: an economics of permanence.

In contrast, Western economies are based on the ruthless exploitation of nonrenewable resources; they do violent, possibly terminal damage to renewable resources such as agriculture, forestry and fishing; the technologies and systems employed are harmful to the great majority of people.

Let us not sell out ourselves and our fellow species-beings by trusting those profit-sinks known as transnational corporations, or anyone who lets “them” have “seats” at negotiating tables which the real flesh and blood workers of the world do not have, to do the right thing. Let us live, and trade, as if real people and other living things matter, and nothing else does.

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