10 July 2014

The TPP Part 2: Fire-proofing the Master's House

Intertextuality be the name of the game y'all. A few weeks ago, I focused on the way Western media employs Vladimir Putin as a useful villain for its imperial narratives. Not even a day after I emailed the piece, I was in an airport walking past a newsstand when I saw the cover of Bloomberg Markets, and this was pre-Crimea. On the cover was a giant picture of the dear Comrade with the headline “Russia's CEO.” The tag was “Vladimir Putin is using oil giant Rosneft to tighten his grip on the country's economy.” When trying to understand why certain places or governments occupy such villainy in the media landscape, from Russia to Venezuela, it's important to remember that there is one word more than any other that strikes fear straight into the heart of the capitalist class: expropriation.

As a head of state, you can feel free to oppress your people at will and expect relative silence from the West, but expropriate one little oil company (like Rosneft did with Yukos Oil), and like clockwork, you can expect the headlines calling you a power-mad dictator to start rolling in. Truly, you will be an enemy of freedom. Political freedom, yes, but more importantly economic freedom. If you watch any conservative politician or commentator worth his or her salt, you'll notice that the two freedoms almost always arrive together. In the minds of most Western self-appointed thought leaders, the virtues of liberal democracy are inextricable from the virtues of free-market capitalism.

Indeed, the capitalist class is right to worry about expropriation. Expropriation, i.e. the seizure of private property or companies by the state for a purpose deemed to be in the public interest, is a harsh reminder that property rights are not sacred, that they exist under the aegis of and are enforced by the government, and as such, just as easily as they are given, they can be taken away. And for the capitalist class, for whom property is infinitely more valuable than life itself, there is no worse nightmare than the though of losing said property. It only follows then, that if the global capitalist class were to write the rules of the world's economy, they would make expropriation, any vague scent of it, all but impossible. This, in fact, is exactly what the US is planning to do with with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

In any story, it is the most cartoonish evil that garners the greatest attention, but it is the underlying evil that poses the greater danger. In the case of the TPP, the cartoonish evil is indirect expropriation. The concept of indirect expropriation is not new; it was pioneered in NAFTA, but with the TPP it would expand to 40 percent of the world's economy. The principle behind indirect expropriation is that if a government enacts some burdensome regulations that deprive a company of future profits, that company can sue said government in an international tribunal and reclaim them. Note: we are talking about profits that don't even exist yet, but may exist in the future. I'll let y'all pause for a moment so that you can push your brain back into its skull.

Of course, this is a rather large concern at a time when the dangers of climate change are at the point wherein they can only be solved through large, definitive action that could quite plausibly be argued as indirect expropriation for our world's energy companies. Indeed, as it should be. It is nigh impossible to argue in any ethical sense that energy companies deserve their profits for extracting resources out of an Earth that they did not create, much less that they should have a right to future profits.

But even this concept presupposes a framework in which private energy companies have an unassailable right to exist and grow as large as they can. And accepting that is to ignore the important role that nationalization, and yes expropriation, has played in national struggles for liberation. For example no. 1, I point to our neighbors to the south, Mexico, who nationalized their oil production in 1938. Today, it is a national holiday, but back then, it caused a huge uproar including an embargo from the United States on all Mexican goods. And of course, over in Iran in 1953, the prospect of nationalizing oil production was so beyond the pale that the CIA organized a coup to oust the democratically-elected leader.

If Mexico, a signatory to NAFTA, tried the same thing today, American and Canadian oil companies would be well within their right to sue and bankrupt the Mexican government. Though we need not worry about anything like that. In a great victory for neoliberalism, Mexico began privatizing its state-owned oil company last year.

The cognitive dissonance surrounding these proposals on expropriation be on high function. Most supporters of free-trade ideology subscribe to Fukuyama's end of history hypothesis: that with the end of the Cold War, humanity has coalesced into consensus that free-market capitalism/representative democracy as practiced and exported by the West is the best and only way, and anyone who tries to build something different is just fooling themselves. And yet, the reality of the TPP goes against both, by making sovereign nations subservient to corporations, and with indirect expropriation really goes against the ideals of capitalism, as though a given corporation can dictate what should happen in the future. That don't really sound like the market deciding.

But more than platitudes about free trade, at the core of the scorched-earth policy taken toward expropriation is the sine qua non of bourgeoisie values: the sanctity of property. Expropriation is defined as the forceful taking of property by the state without compensation, and this to them is an abomination, no matter how oppressive the use of said property is. To fully understand the absurdity to which this belief can reach, we go back to slavery. A big problem with abolition, the property-holding class would argue, is that slaves were legally held property, and that it would be unfair to abolish slavery without compensation to slaveowners for their loss. And indeed, for much of the Western hemisphere, it was through compensated emancipation that slavery was eventually abolished. This valuing of property over the lives of humans is fully on display in the TPP, and it is this belief that is the evil that is baked into so much of our conceptions of the world.

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