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Issue #1767      March 1, 2017

Culture & life

Not so free trade

Why does someone like Malcolm Turnbull go into politics? A filthy rich ex-banker, he certainly doesn’t need the money. Is he just bored, or does he have a burning desire to do something for the weak and the powerless? Well, he’s unquestionably ideologically driven but his concerns are not for the weak and powerless, but for his fellow capitalists: everything he does is undeniably for rich people like himself. In short, Malcolm Turnbull went into politics to protect and promote the interests of his own class.

“Along the banks of the Río Santiago the larger impact of the agreement [NAFTA] immediately becomes a searing reality.”

That is the reason he fights so tenaciously for anti-democratic free trade agreements (FTAs). Yes, they transfer sovereignty from the elected governments to unelected corporate entities, but hey! What could be wrong with that? You can trust big corporations to look after ordinary people, can’t you? Well, actually, you can’t but anyway rich people like Malcolm don’t really give a toss about ordinary people, people who work for wages and don’t have an investment portfolio.

An FTA, whose negative impact on ordinary people – workers, farmers, etc – has been evident for some time now, is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Donald Trump and his team of far right advisers have made such a song and dance about Mexico that you could be forgiven for thinking Mexico and the US were at war. And, of course, in a way they are. The war however is economic, the aggressor is the USA and a principal weapon in this war is NAFTA.

Even before NAFTA, Mexico’s environmental regulations were weak to the point of being almost non-existent. Under NAFTA, however, compliance with them was actually made voluntary! And just in case the Mexican government should try to beef up its regulations, in response to public or scientific pressure, under NAFTA foreign corporations can sue the Mexican government for imposing regulations they consider to be unfair or burdensome. In fact, under all the FTAs being promoted around the world in recent times, governments can be sued for any legislation that adversely impacts a corporation’s bottom line.

That means governments are vulnerable if they legislate to improve working conditions, increase wages, protect workers’ health and safety, alleviate or prevent pollution, in fact do almost anything that could be construed as increasing employers’ costs. And the case is not heard in a regular court but before a panel of corporate lawyers with no right of appeal. National sovereignty is replaced by legalised corporate rule.

And what’s wrong with that? Big companies won’t do anything that might adversely affect the health or living conditions of ordinary people or do anything that might damage the environment, would they? Well, let’s see. As Michael Meurer writes in Truthout about NAFTA: “Along the banks of the Río Santiago in the pueblo of Juanacatlán, Mexico, the larger impact of the agreement [NAFTA] immediately becomes a searing reality. One’s eyes and skin burn after only a few minutes’ exposure to the toxic spray and sulphurous stench as foaming waves of chemical pollution cascade over a once pristine falls known only a few decades ago as the Niagara of Mexico.

Fusion magazine dubbed the Santiago the ‘river of death’. Vice magazine describes it as a ‘toxic hell’ that caused 72 deaths in 2015 alone. The pollution of the river includes large concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals used in unregulated NAFTA electronics fabrication, but it also includes toxic runoff from export-oriented agribusiness that relies heavily on chemical fertilisers and pesticides”.

The Mexican Revolution of 1915 instituted a much-needed land reform in the country. In the Constitution of 1917, the small peasants were guaranteed title to their farms. Land could not be acquired by foreigners. NAFTA wiped that legal protection away and as a result export-oriented large-scale foreign-owned agribusiness has doubled its holdings in the country.

Even domestic agriculture has been adversely affected. The staple crop is corn (maíz), which originated in Mexico and is a historic and sacred crop of Mexican rural culture. However, since NAFTA was signed in 1994, production of the many colourful varieties of Indigenous corn has been undercut by mass imports of subsidised, genetically modified mono-culture corn from the US.

Capitalism, of course, is all about maximising corporate profits. Genetic diversity and farmers saving their seeds to use in next year’s sowing do not accord with capitalism’s goal of controlling global food production. The capitalist powers’ military goal is designated as “full spectrum dominance” and control of food and water supply is a vital part of that. Already, according to the USA’s Centre for Food Safety, just five companies – chemical giants Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow and Bayer – account for 62 percent of world seed sales. These same companies own multi-decade patents on many varieties of crop seeds for staple agricultural items found in daily diets worldwide.

Donald Trump has declared himself to be against the new FTAs, especially the Trans Pacific Partnership, much to the alarm of Malcolm Turnbull. But Trump’s concern is not with the adverse effect of FTAs on poor countries, but with what he perceives as their adverse effect on the USA itself. He has voiced no criticism of NAFTA and its effect on Mexico, for example. Instead, he is ramping up the pressure on Mexico with demands that Mexico pay for the construction of a huge wall along the US-Mexican border.

FTAs are designed to work for the benefit of big corporations. Trump’s opposition to them is presumably prompted by the fact that his own companies do not benefit from them. Despite the way his populist opposition resonates with his supporters, his corporate colleagues will surely persuade him to view FTAs differently before very long. After all, he won’t last long as US President if he stands in the way of increasing corporate profits, will he?

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