Free Trade™

Free trade. So benign sounding a phrase. A concept whose principles no reasonable person would challenge. Trouble is, free trade as we know it – free trade as it is pushed by those who will mass at Cancun, Mexico, in September – is far from free. Think about it. If it truly was free, would they put sanctions on those who don’t want to participate and use police to violently put down protests by those who oppose it? Free trade is really just a euphemism, like ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘forest management’, that hides a far uglier, more brutal reality. Free trade is a brand – Free Trade™, which sells a repackaged product no one in their right minds would buy if they knew what it really was.

So what is that product? The Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Similarly, free trade is the continuation of colonialism by other means. My dictionary defines colonialism as ‘(a) control by one power over a dependent area or people; (b) a policy advocating or based on such control’.

Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that the rich of the world still control the former colonies (although few are so impolite as to call them that anymore), because many of the colonial structures the rich nations built up were simply left in place after ‘independence’. Corporate access to land, resources and markets, debt peonage, tax structures favorable to the powerful, commodity pricing aimed at driving small producers off their land, the massive export of resources – these are all similar to procedures that existed hundreds of years ago. Only the names have changed. And in some countries, poverty is much worse than it was under direct colonial rule.

In the footsteps of the Nazis
It’s a story as old as civilization, about which the anthropologist Stanley Diamond said: ‘Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.’ This will not be news to the citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, Grenada, Panama, Palestine (and so on, ad nauseum), or the people ‘at home’ who’ve felt the pepper spray, batons and rubber bullets of cops whose job it is to protect those in power. These people understand that those at the center of empire have always needed to import resources to maintain and expand their realm. That’s why the trade our leaders will talk about and promote at Cancun is not and can never be ‘free’; when the powerful need resources, trade that is purely voluntary for all concerned is never sufficiently reliable. That’s why anytime some community sits on a resource needed by those in power, and chooses not to sell that resource (at a price convenient for the powerful), the people are killed, the community destroyed, the resource stolen.

Far-fetched? The architects of empire have been killing people and stealing resources – that is, expanding their region of control and exploitation – for some 6,000 years. At every step of the way, these conquistadores have not encountered vacant land but functioning human communities living in dynamic equilibrium with their landbases.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton is probably the world’s foremost authority on the psychology of genocide. In his extraordinary book The Nazi Doctors, Lifton showed that to commit a mass atrocity you first have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is not an atrocity but instead beneficial. Thus the Nazis weren’t committing genocide and murdering Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Russians, and so on, they were ‘purifying the Aryan race’ and gaining lebensraum they needed to fulfill their destiny. Thus the Americans weren’t committing genocide and murdering Indians, they were fulfilling their own ‘manifest destiny’ (gaining lebensraum for themselves). Similarly, those in power today aren’t destroying communities and committing ecocide, they are ‘growing the economy’, ‘developing natural resources’, ‘helping those in the Third World to develop their infrastructure’, ‘bringing to all the benefits of free-trade capitalism’, (even if it is at the point of a gun). No longer is the choice being offered to the exploited ‘Christianity or death?’. It has become free trade or death.

But wait a minute. How can I compare Free Trade™ to lebensraum? Isn’t trade a good thing? Isn’t free trade just the untrammelled exchange of items for the benefit of all? Isn’t that what happens when two kids trade baseball cards? ‘I’ll give you a Pedro Martinez for a Barry Bonds, straight up.’

Sure, free trade can be good – if all parties hold equal power. But negotiations aren’t possible when one side holds a gun and the other does not (the technical term for this sort of exchange is robbery). That is how the ‘civilised’ were able to get the American Indians to sign treaties through which the latter gave up their land for a pence. The Indians knew that if they didn’t sign they’d receive nothing but bullets and bayonets to their throats.

Privatizing the air
The powerful have always recognized the impossibility of negotiations between parties of unequal power, and have done everything they can to magnify this disparity. Without access to land there can be no self-sufficiency. Land provides food, shelter, clothing. If you can force people to pay just so they can be alive on this earth (nowadays these payments are usually called rent or mortgage), you’ve forced them into the wage economy.

The same holds true for forcing people to pay for materials that the earth gives freely: the salmon, bison, huckleberries and willows, for example, that are central to the lives, cultures and communities not only of indigenous peoples but of all of us (even if we make believe this isn’t the case). To force people to pay for things they need for survival is an atrocity – a community- and nature-destroying atrocity. To convince them to pay willingly is a scam. It also, as we see around us (or would had we not been brainwashed), causes people to forget that communities are even possible.

Just as those in power must control access to land, the same logic dictates they must destroy all stocks of wild foodstuffs. Why would I go to Safeway if I could catch wild salmon in the stream outside my door? The same is true, obviously, for everything that is wild and free, for everything that can meet our needs without us having to pay those in power. The push to privatize the world’s water helps make sense of official apathy over the pollution of (free) water sources. You just watch: air will soon be privatized; I don’t know how they’ll do it, but they’ll certainly find a way.

But the destruction of wild foodstuffs doesn’t require some fiendishly clever plot on the part of the powerful. Far worse, it merely requires the reward and logic systems of civilization to remain in place. And so long as the rest of us continue to buy into these systems, which value empire, Free Trade™, the centralization of control and the production of things over life, so long will the world, which is our real and only home, continue to be destroyed, and so long will the noose that is empire continue to tighten around our throats.

Originally published in the June 2003 issue of The Ecologist.
Republished in August 2003 by Organic Consumers Association.

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