Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson revealed last week that, after pushing the office of the US Trade Representative for six weeks, he’s now the first Congressperson to have seen the current text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The biggest so-called free trade agreement to date, the TPP is also the first to be negotiated entirely in secret – by the Obama administration, some 600 corporate lobbyists, and trade ministers from 11 other Pacific Rim countries: Japan, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Canada.
After viewing the draft, Grayson updated his blog, writing that,
The TPP is nicknamed “NAFTA on steroids.” Now that I’ve read it, I can see why. I can’t tell you what’s in the agreement, because the U.S. Trade Representative calls it classified. But I can tell you two things about it.
1) There is no national security purpose in keeping this text secret.
2) This agreement hands the sovereignty of our country over to corporate interests.
Why is the Obama administration keeping the negotiations and draft text so secret that even members of Congress are denied access? Grayson’s second point hints at the reason. In May 2012, then-Trade Representative Ron Kirk said as much when he told Reuters that making the draft text public would make the deal impossible to sign. He noted the case of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was permanently derailed when the released draft text triggered huge public outcry in Latin America.
The TPP is so radical, so clearly contrary to the values of people across the political spectrum, that a body as corrupt and right-wing as the US Congress might vote it down for fear of their constituents. The little we know about the deal is the result of leaks from the negotiations published by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. I want to highlight some crucial aspects of the TPP, and the threat they pose to national self-determination and the possibility of democratic governance anywhere in the world.
The first thing to note is that of the 29 chapters in the leaked text, only five have to do with trade as we usually think of it. The rest, writes physician and activist Margaret Flowers, “are focused on changes that multinational corporations have not been able to pass in Congress such as restrictions on internet privacy, increased patent protections, greater access to litigation and further financial deregulation.” As I’ve discussed previously, neoliberal policies are less about “free trade” than they are about limiting the ability of people and governments to challenge corporate power. For instance, in 2010, Switzerland sued Uruguay on behalf of Marlboro producer Philip Morris for the crime of putting warning labels on cigarettes and banning the sale of “lights”. Faced with a $2 billion lawsuit under the World Trade Organization for violating its “free trade” pact with Switzerland, the small South American nation watered down its legislation.
To take another example, under the WTO’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Agreement, multinational pharmaceuticals can sue any country that produces generic versions of life-saving medicines and treatments, such as treatments for HIV – even if the corporation refuses to sell the product for a price the people of that country can afford. As economist Dean Baker points out, while tariffs and quotas might make an item 20-30% more expensive, the monopoly patents enforced by “free trade” policies raise prices “2,000 percent or even 20,000 percent above the free market price. Drugs that would sell for a few dollars per prescription in a free market would sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars”.
So the scam of “free trade” – contrary to the standard neoliberal dogma – is as protectionist as it gets, regulating global capitalism in favor of (mostly US-based) multinationals. There’s nothing “free” about it. That being said, it’s hard to overstate how extreme the TPP is, even compared to previous disasters like NAFTA and CAFTA. Take drug patents: The TPP is the first trade pact to expand patent protections to cover surgical techniques and medical tests and treatments as well as drugs. Through a process called “Evergreening”, pharmaceuticals can extend patents indefinitely just by making a minor change in use or delivery, like producing gels instead of tablets. “Because of the negative impact on public health from patent protections in previous trade agreements,” Flowers notes, “former President Bush rolled some of these practices back. Unfortunately, the TPP will move them forward again.”
Even more disturbing is the TPP’s regime of investor privileges, which takes the existing system of “state-state” litigation (as in the case of Switzerland v. Uruguay) and radicalizes it: Under the TPP, companies can sue countries directly (“investor-state” litigation) in a shadow court where the judges are corporate lawyers, on temporary leave from their jobs and unbound by conflict-of-interest laws. As Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach explains,
The U.S. and the other countries would submit themselves to the jurisdiction of this corporate kangaroo court, and these three random attorneys would have the right to order the U.S. government to pay unlimited amounts of our tax dollars to corporations and investors who, A, claim regulatory costs need to be refunded, or, B, are saying they’re not being treated well enough, regardless if the policies they dislike are the exact same ones that apply to all of us.
Under the TPP, corporations can sue for “expected future profits” lost due to regulation of finance, health care, labor, the environment, and so on. According to Global Trade Watch, $3 billion has already been paid out under US “free trade” pacts to corporations as compensation for domestic laws, and $14 billion in lawsuits are pending. The cases of Uruguay, El Salvador, Canada, Germany, Australia and others add up to a chilling effect. The TPP’s investor rights provision promises to multiply that effect, making it clear to member nations that enacting progressive reforms just isn’t worth the cost.
So, for example, financial regulations (including Obama’s much-touted Dodd-Frank) will either be repealed or punished, making bans on even the riskiest and most toxic financial products all but impossible. As detailed in a letter from 102 economists to the participating trade ministers, the TPP will enforce a regime of total financial deregulation – at a time when capital controls at the national level could prevent the next financial crisis from becoming global. This is what Senator Elizabeth Warren meant when, last month, she warned that Wall Street is using the TPP and TAFTA (the US-EU pact) “to get something done quietly out of sight that they could not accomplish in a public place with the cameras rolling and the lights on.”
There’s much more in the leaked texts that impacts our lives, from internet freedom to food safety, and I encourage everyone to look into it for themselves. But maybe the most unique aspect of the pact is something called a “docking agreement”, which allows other countries to join the TPP in the future – just as long as they agree to all of its terms. “Larger countries are able to force smaller, more desperate countries to accept terms that are detrimental to them,” Flowers and Kevin Zeese point out in their analysis for Truthout.org. “As more countries sign on, the TPP could become an agreement that defines global trade.”
The logic of “free trade” is less economic than it is political. It’s in this sense that the TPP marks a milestone in capital’s revolt against the welfare state, a coup “made in America” that began with Nixon’s dismantling of the Bretton Woods system and hit its stride under Clinton. Its wild success might be attributed to the fact that it’s unfolded in slow motion, over the course of decades, as the hard-fought gains of the earlier part of the 20th century have been hollowed out from the inside. The TPP, more brazenly and more permanently than its predecessors, undermines the ability of states to shield their citizens from the worst of global capitalism – which is surely yet to come.
But as long as people can mobilize, government secrecy is the key to corporate rule. If we recognize the path we’re on, we can begin to fight back in precisely the way Ron Kirk, Obama, and the transnational capitalist class fear most. Whistleblowing not only enables dissent, it is itself one of the most vital forms of dissent. We in the US are uniquely situated to tear down a machine that will devastate small, powerless nations long before it turns on us. The Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings are doing their part to stop it. Now, it’s on the rest of us to do ours: Organize, build connections, take to the streets, make our government think twice before slavishly serving capital – and defend to the death our right to know what’s being done in our name.