Magazine article Monthly Review

The Politics of Free Trade: The Global Marketplace as a Closet Dictator

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Politics of Free Trade: The Global Marketplace as a Closet Dictator

Article excerpt

Since NAFTA passed in the fall of 1993, a lot has transpired. As one who opposed NAFTA in a number of debates leading up to the vote it is tempting to say to NAFTA supporters "I told you so," but the recent stories in the American business press on the Mexican crisis and the fleeing of former president Salinas to the United States make the case against NAFTA even more convincing than a review of past arguments. The disclosure of a memo from Chase Manhattan Bank suggesting that President Zedillo eliminate the Zapatistas and give serious consideration to fixing elections underscores the necessity of examining the threat to democracy posed by the closet dictatorship of the global marketplace.

During the NAFTA debates and the intentionally shortened debate on GATT, workers and unions struggled to articulate a vision of their role in the global economy. It was a difficult task for the labor movement in the United States, which benefited in the past from U.S. dominance of the world economy. Driven by its uncritical acceptance of Cold War ideology, the national AFL-CIO had even assisted in suppressing independent labor movements in a variety of countries.

When the U.S. economy encountered fierce competition from capitalist rivals (from the mid-1970s to the present) and the global economy began working to the detriment of average working Americans, the U.S. labor movement found itself in a predicament. Anticommunism, the glue which held together the AFL-CIO's international operations, lost its ability to bind together conflicting interests when the Cold War ended. However, for the AFL-CIO anticommunism remained as a lens through which to view insurgent union movements in developing nations. As a result of alliances formed during the Cold War the U.S. labor movement typically backed union leaders in foreign countries who collaborated with modernizing elites. In so doing, the AFL-CIO contributed to the creation of a business climate favorable to transnational corporations and to the movement of jobs outside United States borders.

With the international economy increasingly affecting the prospects for retaining jobs in the United States, the labor movement faced a critical question--how would labor respond to this dramatically different political environment? In the NAFTA debate labor generally argued against the agreement by emphasizing the prospect of job losses in the United States and by voicing a paternalistic concern for Mexican workers. In addition, some in the U.S. labor movement also talked about cross-border solidarity and international labor rights while also raising questions about environmental concerns, human rights, and issues related to national sovereignty.

However, the focus of labor's criticism was on job losses and to a lesser extent on problems faced by Mexican workers. While these arguments were certainly credible they did not help unions escape the charge that they were backward-looking, ethnocentric, and protectionist in their outlook. When the Cold War ended the leadership of the U.S. labor movement made minimal adjustments to its previous stance on international issues. Just as the government and the major political parties struggled to define the role of the United States in a new world order, so did the labor movement. Ambivalent about free trade and pressured by an aroused membership fearful of more job losses, the labor movement was torn between economic nationalism and international solidarity. With some notable exceptions at the grassroots level, labor generally failed to articulate a coherent vision of its role in a changing international political economy.

Desperate to defeat NAFTA, labor turned over de facto leadership of the ANTI-NAFTA fight to Ross Perot and his followers and thus failed to present its case in its most compelling form or to clearly define its own stance. Nevertheless, it came very close to defeating NAFTA even though there was a huge corporate lobbying effort on NAFTA's behalf by Mexico and lobbyists for U. …

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