Globalize! Who's Afraid of Free Trade?

Twenty-two countries walked out, hundreds of activists were imprisoned, one protesting Korean farmer died, and a handful of rich countries went home frustrated and empty-handed. These events marked the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 2003 meetings held September 12th to September 15th in Cancun, Mexico. This year’s meetings continued attempts by Europe and the United States to impose their model of free trade on the rest of the globe. But this round of talks made obvious the increasing inability of the neoliberal free trade regimes to pacify the “underdeveloped” world with neoliberal economic arguments. The events in Cancun marked the growing refusal of people, inside the meetings and out, to accept the uneven imposition of free trade laws. The growing discontent expressed in Cancun also crystallized the existence of two distinct and increasingly vocal positions against neoliberal globalization.

The U.S. and Europe have traditionally used the WTO to enforce “free” trade laws that require poorer countries to open their borders to international trade while removing all protections of national industry, such as subsidy supports for domestic production and tariffs leveled on imports and exports. Yet Europe and the U.S. have at the same time insisted on maintaining their own national subsidy schemes that distribute billions of dollars to their corn, cotton, and sheep farmers, to cite just a few recipients. These subsidies allow farmers to sell their products well below international market prices, effectively eliminating competing producers which translates into the loss of livelihood for millions of people across the world. These European and U.S. subsidies are not aimed at the sustenance of the small Midwest farmer or lone French shepherd, it should be noted, but rather the massive transfer of public funds to major agro-industrial corporations such as ADM, Cargill, and Monsanto.

While both positions opposed to neoliberal globalization represented in Cancun object to unfair subsidy schemes, their alternatives place differing emphases on these subsidies as the actual source of unjust free trade. One position, that of the national representatives inside the WTO meetings identifies as the G-22, a group of less-industrialized nations led by Lula and the Brazilian Labor Party, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, South Africa, and India, and loosely associated with the international Tobin-tax activists (ATTAC), propose solutions that rely on either restoring national protections through taxes that support domestic products, removing remaining subsidies in rich countries, or establishing an international taxation scheme (i.e. the Tobin Tax, a 1% tax placed on all international market transactions that would be then be divided among nations for social welfare programs). These proposals would, according to their proponents, level the international trading floor by curbing the power of Europe and the U.S. to impose unequal trade terms while easing the most extreme poverty, thus constituting an effective reform of the neoliberal market.

In practice, however, it is far from clear that removing rich countries’ subsidies would make even a minimal difference in global inequalities. For example, corn farmers in Mexico can’t compete with corn farmers in the United States with or without U.S. subsidies: the nutritionally superior Mexican corn is cultivated through an entirely different production process that can not match—in purely economic terms—the size, scale, and technology of U.S. industrial agriculture. Economic analysts say that even if all countries’ subsidies were removed, the advantage for the average world citizen who makes $1,000 a year would be minimal—a raise to approximately $1,006 per year.

Statistical possibilities aside, the real problem with this kind of reform is that it refers to an outdated conception of both commerce and the state. In the age of globalization, an increasing proportion and value of goods traded are “immaterial:” word-processing, data production, bio-technological information, image-marketing, and the realm of financial capital, many of which exist as computer code and travel as ether. Reforms which place emphasis on ending subsidies as a way to resolve the inequalities of neoliberal trade presuppose that the state in this new economy can track, and thus tax, this new commerce. In addition, this position presupposes that the “national interests” put forward by government officials truly represents the population of their nations rather than the interests of an emerging domestic elite vying for market share versus its “first world” competitors. International taxation schemes such as the Tobin tax rest on these deficient presumptions: that the state has the capacity to track and tax the new economy, as well as the will to equitably redistribute income. The architects of these proposals, though moderate reformists, can authentically be called the anti-globalization movement.

In sharp contrast stands a second form of opposition, one opposed not to globalization but to its hierarchical organization of labor, distribution of goods, and the means of production in accordance with accumulation and corporate profit. These opposition forces, which we’ll refer to as the globalists, were present on the streets of Cancun and include groups such as the Zapatista movement in Mexico, a strong faction of the Argentinean Piquetero movement, the Brazilian Landless Movement, militant labor and landless peasants in South Korea, the Spanish Okupa movement, and the Italian Desobedienti. The globalists propose not a renewed protection of national boundaries, but rather an intensification of global exchanges that exceeds the limited monetary logic of financial markets; in other words, not less globalization, more globalization.

One example of the globalist position has been the demand for the deregulation of the international regime on intellectual property and patents. First, globalists demand freedom for the formation of collective mechanisms intended for the free exchange of private goods. Good examples of such mechanisms are Napster and other file-sharing software that have now threatened to break the market control by music, movie, and book-publishing conglomerates while offering users high quality goods at little to no cost.

Second, globalists have worked toward the establishment of a “copyleft” system that would recognize the potential social value of collectively produced goods held through common property in perpetuity—that is, goods that everyone can use but no one can own. This would include recognition and respect for the inalienable character of products that have no legally recognizable “author,” such as historically generated indigenous knowledge and medicines, or shareware technology such as Linux (the computer operating system developed through voluntary labor and a collectivized intellectual initiative). These cooperative and non-alienable systems have already proven that they produce higher quality goods at a faster rate of development than those marketed (and patented) by Microsoft and Apple. Not coincidentally, Bill Gates has referred to Linux as “communism for the 21st century.”

Third, globalists demand the abolishment of the patent system which allows pharmaceutical companies—whose research and development costs are largely funded by taxpayer dollars (over 50%)—to lock much-needed medicines into patents that assure enormous company profits at the expense of suffering patients. These patents multiply the cost of pharmaceutical drugs up to a hundred times their production costs. Why should an African AIDS patient pay hundreds of dollars for a U.S.-marketed drug that can be produced and distributed for just a few dollars by an Indian pharmaceutical corporation? Or, why should our grandparents, having paid taxes their whole lives to support drug research and innovation, have to travel to Canada or Mexico to buy generic drugs made in Europe for a fraction of the U.S. (patent-protected) price?

To do justice to the globalist position we would have to further consider proposals for the free movement of peoples, a global guaranteed income, and the establishment of global non-hierarchical political institutions outside of nation-state structures through the elaboration of infinite networks. For the sake of space we can simply reiterate that whereas neoliberal globalization attempts to reduce exchange to the hierarchical necessity of profit and accumulation, the globalist positions seek solutions that liberate global exchanges from this reductive logic and open the possibility for an even more intense globalization.

Being that social change has always meant taking hold of the present so as to force open an unexpected future, neither the calls for an idyllic past nor the demands of timeless utopias that permeate the anti-globalization movement seems sufficient for our situation. We must therefore take hold of our conjuncture, come to an understanding that it is ours—ours in the sense that it was our power of creation that has brought it about—and therefore only an increase in the application of that same power can bring about another. “The wind is rising and the rivers flowing, times are getting hard and we can’t go home again.”; Dig out your umbilical cords from the nation, the city, the street, the home, and the very identity where you have buried it, now bury it again in the very same place, but this time recognize that it is has been buried on the entire body of the earth. GLOBALIZE!!

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