The Trans-Pacific Partnership Vote: A Character Defining Moment

by on June 1, 2015 · 0 comments

in American Empire, Economy, Environment, Labor, Politics, World News

enjoy poverty

By Jim Miller

A couple of weeks ago, Bill McKibben penned a very sharp editorial in the New York Times in response to the Obama administration’s choice to allow drilling in the Arctic noting that, “The Obama administration’s decision to give Shell Oil the go-ahead to drill in the Arctic shows why we may never win the fight against climate change. Even in this most extreme circumstance, no one seems able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry. No one ever says no.”

Indeed, it is precisely this kind of political cowardice that may very well cost us far more dearly than we can imagine. In his defense, Obama went to Twitter and had little to offer other than red herrings and equivocation about the limitations of existing regulations.

But the bottom line could not be clearer: in the face of a stark moral choice, the President punted.

As McKibben points out, this behavior amounts to another kind of climate denialism, “This is not climate denial of the Republican sort, where people simply pretend the science isn’t real. This is climate denial of the status quo sort, where people accept the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground.”

Score yet another one for corporate rule.

The TPP Debate: Labor Afflicts the Comfortable in Congress

The same lack of character can be seen in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) debate where the corporate Democrats that the President is hoping will join him in throwing labor and the environment under the bus are feeling the heat and are not happy about it. According to Politico some (mostly anonymous) Democrats find it distasteful to be held accountable by the folks who worked to elect them in the first place. In their version of events, labor’s forceful anti-TPP campaign amounts to political bullying:

The AFL-CIO was blunt in the call that went out to Rep. Scott Peters, a Democrat who represents San Diego: Vote yes on fast-track authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, people familiar with the conversation recall, and they’d spend a million dollars to knock him out in next year’s primary. If he managed to win, they’d drop another million against him in the general election.

The real fight over the trade agenda has always been in the House, and that’s where organized labor has been focusing for months. The aggressive effort has left even members who’ll be voting labor’s way bruised, and others who’ll be supporting President Barack Obama anxious enough that many won’t discuss their experiences publicly, instead dispatching staffers to speak on their behalf.

“They were very heavy-handed. And it was not appreciated. And it will not be forgotten,” said one Democratic staffer for a member who will be voting no on trade, as the unions want.

The same piece quotes a number of political insiders either belittling opposition efforts as “bluster” or chastising critics for not being “responsible” and acting like someone who’s had “one drink too many.” Apparently, in some quarters, when labor ceases to be a compliant ATM machine for politicians who betray American workers after happily accepting union support, they have crossed the line and their actions are “not in good taste.”

Clearly, in this case, the barbarians are at the gates.

The Death of Citizenship?

And perhaps some of the unruly rabble is upset because they know that the TPP is really more about increasing corporate control than trade. As the founder of WikiLeaks recently argued, this secret deal is about, “erecting and embedding new, ultramodern neoliberal structure in U.S. law and in the laws of the other countries that are participating” that will chill the enactment of labor, health, and environmental regulations that benefit ordinary citizens while granting more power to multinational corporations.

But, of course, this is just more of the same process that has been eroding our democracy for decades. As Bill Fletcher, Jr. argues in “Neoliberalism has Created a New System of Dual Citizenship for the Poor and the 1%,” while marginalized communities still have formal rights many have come to “see little advantage in political and/or civic participation” because “their situation is so depressed that the existence of their formal political rights are almost meaningless.”


Trade deals like the TPP are part of this in that, “Neo-liberal globalization is experienced by masses of people as taking away the decision-making power from the local or even national levels and investing control and/or veto power, in supra-national formations, e.g., NAFTA.”

Thus it is not just job loss or the undermining of labor or environmental regulations that is at stake, but the power of ordinary citizens to control their democracy and their lives.

According to Fletcher, the global elite does not see the death of traditional democratic citizenship as a crisis as long as it remains “manageable”:

The neo-liberal world is a world of vast inequalities. In the last several years the matter of economic inequality has received significant attention. Yet the neo-liberal world contains other forms of inequality, not the least being between the citizen and the sub-citizen. The inequalities exist on multiple levels including relationship to the police; housing; education; employment; and healthcare.

The existence of these inequalities is largely considered collateral damage by the elite; acceptable losses, in certain respects, in an otherwise healthy socio-economic system.

Thus, the dystopias predicted in science fiction are not seen as catastrophic in any real sense as long as the situation is managed or manageable.

Hence, entrenched inequality and environmental degradation are seen as acceptable trade-offs for the short-term profit of the elites. So as long as the real costs can be conveniently externalized, that’s how the game is going to be played.

In Fletcher’s estimation, the beleaguered labor movement can still play a key “anti-dystopian” role against the “the neoliberal nightmare”:

Labor unions are an instrument to struggle against sub-citizenship which, in many respects, constitutes part of the explanation as to why they are being viciously attacked.

Neo-liberal capital needs the sub-citizen category not only as a source for increasing their profits, but also as a means of eliminating or reducing the size of the relevant population (thereby reducing the demand for the provision of social and human services to huge segments of society).

That’s a good reason to side with the barbarians.

A Character Defining Moment

I have written at length about the politics with regard to TPP here, here), and here, but what strikes me most about the TPP debate is that it is a character defining moment.

This political spectacle illustrates how the clear political choices on the great moral questions of our age—whether we will continue to pave the way for ever more entrenched corporate rule that undermines our democracy and murders the future in the process–are being answered as if they are merely matters of legislative technicality by those who should know better.

When the moment demands decisiveness and bold vision, too many Prufrocks in the White House and the halls of Congress tell us that there will be “time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions.”

And, as with the speaker in the great T.S. Eliot poem, their actions show us that:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Here’s hoping enough of our leaders in Congress can summon the courage to finally say no.

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