THE MEDIA AT THE BARRICADES IN SUPPORT OF "FREE TRADE"
The same bias, and the same resentment at the intrusion of dissidents and dissident opinion, has characterized media treatment of the Summit of the Americas at Quebec city, April 20-22. Now, as in the Nafta case, the media editorialists and pundits huff and puff, sneer, caricature dissidents' views, throw out words like "free trade" and "democracy" in coordination with their political leaders, but carefully avoid a serious discussion of issues.
Caricatures and Sneering
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, an op-ed by Mathew Ingram, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, notes that many people across the globe would "love to get access" to the products of McDonalds and other transnationals, but "Such deluded citizens obviously have been brainwashed by company marketing...they're just pawns of U.S. commercial imperialism" ("Clueless in Quebec," April 24). His article never rises above this level of inanity. The next day the Inquirer offered its inhouse economist Andrew Cassel, who argues that "misinformation...leads some to equate busting a window or confronting a cop outside an international meeting with helping the poor and downtrodden" ("They are free to travel the world to fight free trade," April 25). Cassel like Ingram sticks to this kind of drivel and carefully avoids addressing any substantive issue.
Because "free trade" has a virtuous ring, officials and pundits supporting the ongoing corporate globalization process use the phrase without scruple. But recent "free trade" agreements have been primarily "investor rights" rather than trade agreements, and they have focused on spelling out national rights of foreign corporations that protect them from any performance requirements or taxes that limit their activities or tend to favor local companies or local government activities. They have all aimed at reducing the rights of governments to engage in business, and they now regularly seek to allow transnationals to sue governments for redress. But "investor rights" doesn't sound as heart-warming as "free trade," so Cassel, Ingram, or Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, stick to "free trade." These investor rights also only help very large global corporations mainly located in the United States, Europe and Japan, so that the "freedom" arising from the new agreements only helps those giants get larger and extend their domination to weaker countries no longer able to help out indigenous firms. But those indigenous firms are "free" to invade the United States, a bit reminiscent of that famous equality of the law that penalizes both the poor and rich for stealing bread.
The other main thrust of the new "free trade" agreements, besides protecting investors, is protecting patent rights, as in the recent notorious case where the drug companies tried to force South Africa to pay full prices for patented AIDs medicines. These are "monopoly rights," with many of those rights based on government subsidization of research or on the corporate capture and patenting of traditional knowledge and methods. But you won't find the pundits noting the "unfree trade" contradiction in the Western push for such rights or stressing the enormous abuses and inequities involved. Words like "exploitation" and "imperialism" don't show up either.
Even more gross than the misuse of "free trade" is the new alleged elevation of "democracy" to a concern of the global leaders in their push for enhanced investor rights. This is laughable at many levels. First, consider George W. Bush, prating about his own devotion to democracy and belief that free trade will do it. Bush was "elected" by a Republican activist majority of the Supreme Court, but this was only the final corruption of a political process that makes him an illegitimate and undemocratic authority. He got less than a majority of the votes, and would have lost the election if large numbers of blacks hadn't been illegally deprived of their vote in Florida. But the election was a plutocratic affair anyway, with both parties on the corporate take and unrepresentative of the public interest. This has long been dramatically evident on "free trade" issues where, as I noted, the public doesn't want these agreements, but the two property parties (and the media) always support them. So Bush, speaking for "free trade," already displays the absence of substantive democracy in the dominant superpower itself; he represents an elite minority dominating a nominal democracy.
Second, one of the most notable features of corporate and financial globalization is their contribution to draining substance from democracy. Governments must placate global finance, and the growing centralization of corporate power has consolidated their political influence, making social democrats into neoliberal toadies serving the big boys and helping them to deregulate, privatize, and dismantle the welfare state. Corporate globalization and the policies its leaders have enforced have also increased inequality, and as Mexican president Vicente Fox stated in Quebec City, "You cannot have genuine democracy in a society where there is so much inequality and poverty." So the spread of "free trade" will make any nominal democracies even more devoid of substance.
Third, the agreements themselves are designed to weaken democracy by establishing investor rights that override governmental authority and that give transnationals the right to sue governments. They also establish secret panels to adjudicate disputes, again a remarkably undemocratic feature of these new arrangements that make the use of the word "democracy" by their defenders hypocritical. These undemocratic arrangements complement the role of the IMF and World Bank as supra-national instruments that override political democracies and force them to fix policies in accord with higher (i.e., trasnational corporate) interests.
Finally, it is enlightening to observe how the meetings from Seattle to Washington D.C. to Czechoslavakia to Quebec have become increasingly militarized as protestors refuse to allow them to proceed in their usual secretive way. The apparent planned shift to meeting in Qatar is a logical development as these elite meetings want maximum insulation from any public attention and public debate. Their most notable feature historically has been a reluctance to provide public notice of what they are doing and what they propose, which would allow some kind of public input. The protests have made this secrecy difficult. A move to Qatar makes sense given their undemocratic ends and means. The increasingly violent treatment of protestors fits the same undemocratic and anti-democratic pattern.
The New Concern Over Poverty
Because of the publicity aroused by the protests, and the hard- to-escape real world facts of increasing inequality and poverty, surely related to the hugely biased and corporate supportive efforts of the IMF, WTO, and World Bank and agreements like Nafta, the Quebec meeting expressed deep concern over world poverty as well as devotion to democracy. George Bush said that he and the other leaders were also "strongly committed to protecting the environment and improving labor standards." Small sums were even promised for labor training and the like. The media and pundits have not analysed the likelihood that Bush will be helping the environemnt and labor on a hemispheric basis, nor have they discussed the earlier World Bank claims of a new anti-poverty thrust and its impact (and inconsistency with the main effects of standard IMF-World Bank policies of forcing cutbacks in social expenditures).
Pundits like Andrew Cassel and Thomas Friedman repeatedly assert that the protesters are really injuring the world's poor, because globalization, even with sweatshops and nasty maquiladoras, benefits poor people who would otherwise be worse off. They ignore both the record--e.g., Mexican real wages are now substantially lower than they were in 1980--and the extent to which the new global agreements and institutions are biased against the interests of poor people and threaten to worsen their position. They also ignore the fact that corporate globalization and its supportive agreements cut off the policy options of weaker countries, that increasingly are blocked from helping poor people, but are also prevented from taking a different development course that would put the interests of the domestic populace ahead of that of the transnationals.