At Reason, Brian Doherty tears into Bernie Sanders for opposing what the latter calls “unfettered free trade” (“Bernie Sanders Hates The World’s Poor, and Wants to Hurt Them,” April 5). “This wicked man deliberately wants to make it impossible for Americans to do the thing that historically most guarantees helping the truly poor in the long term: supporting their jobs and economies.”
Sanders is wrong — big time — about one thing: his characterization of the corporate globalization created by “Free Trade Agreements,” from NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of GATT to the present, as “unfettered free trade.” But that’s a misconception that Doherty seems to share, framing Sanders’s stance as opposition to “allowing things to happen that will overwhelmingly benefit the less well off,” and wanting to “make sure no freely chosen action of any American could possibly benefit” the Third World poor “via trade.”
And in fact these so-called Free Trade Agreements” are all about protectionist barriers to “allowing things to happen that will overwhelmingly benefit the less well off.” Their central feature is not the reduction of tariffs, but imposing maximalist “intellectual property” standards — the main form of protectionism that global corporations depend on for extracting profits from ordinary people in both the Third World and here at home.
The whole point of these fake “free trade” agreements is not to “allow” trade to take place, but to put it under a global corporate lockdown. Even the language of “trade” between America and other countries, as if Chinese-owned industry exported goods to America and vice versa, has an archaic ring to it. In reality, the majority of world “trade” is not trade at all, but an administrative action: the shuffling of raw materials and goods within transnational corporations between their subsidiaries in different countries. And free trade — the genuinely free exchange of goods between actual producers — is precisely what they’re designed to prevent.
Their strong patent and trademark provisions serve exactly the same protectionist functions for transnational corporations today that tariffs did for the old national industries a hundred years ago: They give the corporation a legal monopoly on disposal of a given product in a given market. Because of these protectionist restrictions, a global corporation is able to make money, not from actually producing things, but by controlling the conditions under which other people are allowed to produce and exchange with each other. It is able to contract out all actual production to Third World sweatshops, pay next to nothing for the goods, and then use its legal monopoly on disposing of the product to gouge Western consumers with a thousand percent price markup over actual cost of production.
These so-called “Free Trade Agreements” also protect global corporations in their ownership of the land, oil and mineral resources that were looted from the Third World under centuries of colonialism.
Transnational corporations play the same role that free market radical Thomas Hodgskin ascribed to capitalists in his 1825 tract “Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital”:
“Betwixt him who produces food and him who produces clothing, betwixt him who makes instruments and him who uses them, in steps the capitalist, who neither makes nor uses them, and appropriates to himself the produce of both. With as niggard a hand as possible he transfers to each a part of the produce of the other, keeping to himself the large share…. While he despoils both, so completely does he exclude one from the view of the other that both believe they are indebted him for subsistence. ”
And it’s the monopolies on the free movement of information and artificial titles to stolen resources, enforced by these “Free Trade Agreements,” that enables the corporation to occupy this usurped position. (The fact that free market libertarians have gone from Hodgskin’s jeremiads against the plutocracy in 1825 to Doherty’s apologetics for them in 2016 tells you, by the way, everything you need to know about who owns the mainstream libertarian movement today.)
Here are some of the actions that aren’t “freely allowed,” thanks to so-called “Free Trade Agreements”: A factory in China isn’t able to produce identical copies of the iPhone or Nike sneakers and sell them directly to the local market, without an enormous trademark or patent markup. People in Africa can’t produce cheap generic forms of life-saving AIDS drugs because they’re under patent. People in Shanghai, Nairobi and Mexico City can’t legally copy a CD or DVD and sell it cheaply — in fact the proprietary content and software industries even harass governments, under “intellectual property” accords, for using open-source software like Linux in preference to Windows. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the Third World are unable to feed themselves on the land that they or their parents or grandparents were evicted from, by neo-feudal landlords acting in league with global agribusiness corporations, because that would violate the “private property” of the thieves (and it’s largely these landless robbed people, by the way, who are forced to accept sweatshop jobs on whatever terms they’re offered).
Bernie Sanders is right that “Free Trade Agreements” exploit working people — in both the United States and overseas. He’s wrong — very wrong — to call it “unfettered free trade.” The global corporate economy is the very definition of “fetters.” What we need to do is abolish all the fetters — the legal monopolies, subsidies and fictitious titles to stolen loot — that enable global corporations to control trade. And if Brian Doherty, wicked man that he is, truly wants to allow all freely chosen actions that help the world’s poor, he should demand repeal of the protectionist “Free Trade Agreements” that allow global corporations to impede production and exchange outside their own control.