As closed-door negotiations concluded in Singapore on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, opposition begins to build in many countries. At the urging of the United States, Canada and Mexico have joined the nine countries in the talks and now Japan has announced it too wants to be part of this new free trade pact of Pacific rim countries, described by its critics as “NAFTA on steroids”.

Going into its 17th round of negotiations, the Obama administration aims to wrap up an agreement by October, hoping to push ratification through the Senate on a fast- track basis. Called Trade Promotion Authority, fast track would mean an up or down vote without amendments or even hearings on the agreement presented to it. It is a profoundly anti-democratic procedure because it shuts down debate.

But from start to end, TPP has been thoroughly anti-democratic. On the first day of the Singapore talks a broad range of civil society organizations issued an open letter to Congress calling for greater transparency in the proceedings. The agreement is being hammered out in secret discussions among trade ministers. Even Senators have been denied a look at its draft provisions.

However, some 600 transnational corporations are in the inner circle. They are writing the rules for trade in their own interests without any democratic input from the people whose lives will be profoundly affected. If adopted, TPP will deny citizens their democratic rights to shape public policies on a host of domestic issues, conceding those decisions to the large corporations.

Some sections have been leaked. They reveal “an agreement that actually formalizes the priority of corporate power over government,” according to Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Only 5 of the 29 chapters have to do with trade. Wallach says the rest of the draft “include[s] new rights for the big pharmaceutical companies to expand, to raise medical prices, expand monopoly patents, limits on Internet freedom, penalties for inadvertent noncommercial copying, sending something to a friend. There are the same rules that promote off-shoring of jobs that were in NAFTA that are more robust that literally give privileges and protections if you leave. There is a ban on ‘buy American’ and ‘buy local’ or ‘green’ or sweat-free procurement. There are limits on domestic financial stability regulations. There are limits on imported food safety standards and product standards. There are limits on how we can regulate energy towards a more green future – all of these things are what they call ‘Behind the Borders’ agenda. And the operating clause of TPP is: ‘Each country shall ensure the conformity of its domestic laws, regulations and administrative procedures with these agreements.’”

Global Class War

Free trade is about more than trade. It is about favoring corporations over the democratic rights of citizens and the sovereignty of nations. As the former Director-General of the WTO, Renato Ruggiero, said in 1995, “We are no longer writing the rules of interaction among separate national economies. We are writing the constitution of a single global economy.”# What is being created is a global governance order in which corporation are the citizens, not flesh and blood humans like you and me. With free trade, corporations are making an end run around democracy.

TPP is the latest offensive in a global class war. For nearly 40 years now, since the mid 1970s, corporations have been rolling back the popular gains of the New Deal era and the 1960s. Democracy has been the target of a class war to restore the class power of capital. And there has been weak resistance, at best, by the popular classes. But the stakes have become increasingly clear to more and more. Indeed, on the issue of free trade, there is now a broad public sentiment against this aspect of the corporate offensive.

The US has become the world advocate of “free trade,” promoting it through trade agreements like NAFTA and other bi-lateral agreements as well as through global governance institutions it has sponsored such as IMF, World Bank and WTO. The US has promoted free trade for much the same reason Great Britain promoted it in the 19th century, viz. the economically strongest country in the world benefits from free trade. It is the weaker countries that seek tariff protection for their infant industries, protection from competition with cheaper and higher quality imports. That protection is what enabled the US to industrialize in the last half of the 19th century. But then when the US became economically strong enough to compete regionally and eventually globally, it became an advocate of free trade and demanded that others abandon protectionism.

The justification for free trade rests on the theory of comparative advantage. This is the view that if countries trade free of government impediments, the market will tend to direct each to export that which they can produce most efficiently and import what can be produced more efficiently and thus more cheaply elsewhere. The invisible hand of the market will guide each to specialize in producing what they have a comparative advantage in. Thus a rational production and trading system will emerge that maximizes efficiency.

Free trade agreements like NAFTA were sold to the US public by appealing to consumer’s interest in having access to cheaper goods imported from Mexico. What was deliberately soft-pedaled was their interest as workers in having jobs. Organized labor opposed NAFTA, fearing it would pit US workers in competition with low wage Mexican workers. Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot warned of “a giant sucking sound” as jobs would be off-shored to Mexico.

But the Clinton administration said US exports to Mexico would create new jobs. And so, ignoring opposition from its traditional base in the unions, new Democrat Clinton pushed ratification of NAFTA through the Senate as his first priority. Perot proved to be correct as US companies shifted production to low wage Mexico – until even lower wage Chinese workers were brought into play when China joined WTO. But Clinton was also right as cheaper consumer goods from abroad filled the shelves of Wal-Mart with bargains welcomed by US workers who found their wages reduced. Free trade proved to be a mixed blessing.

Capital Becomes Global

One important point about free trade that is often overlooked is that it is not only about the free, frictionless movement of goods and services across borders, unrestricted by tariffs, quotas and regulations. It assures the free movement of capital, as corporations are freed to invest abroad. The mobility of investment capital is of utmost importance, with profound economic consequences and consequences for democracy.

Unable to find sufficiently profitable venues for investment in the overdeveloped US economy, large corporations have increasingly moved abroad. They sought not just new outlets to sell their commodities, but low wage workforces that would decrease their production costs and thus boost their profits. Frequently that would involve locating different stages of the productive process in different countries so as to take optimal advantage of local conditions. The assembly lines of US industry were disaggregated and disbursed across the globe.

Global assembly lines emerged. These global production chains have become a signature feature of contemporary capitalism. Components may be manufactured in Singapore, transported to China for subassembly and then shipped to Mexico for final assembly before sale in the United States. Although global assembly lines are geographically dispersed, they overcome the limitations of the fixed assembly lines of the Fordist era in that they no longer have to rely on a fixed labor force that can organize itself to effectively claim a share of the surplus they create.

Instead, the global assembly line gives capital the flexibility to seek out the lowest wage workforce and friendliest business environment available anywhere in the world. This has been made possible by the development of a global computerized network of instant communications via satellite. That and the computerization of banking have made money transfers and the movement of capital both easy and instantaneous. The communications network also allows the decentralization of technological development and design. Technicians can work at points distant from the processes of production to which they address themselves. And the entire process can be coordinated by management located anywhere on the globe. The limitations of space and time have been overcome by digital communications and cheap energy for transporting goods to their ultimate consumers.

For such globalized production to be possible, capital must be able to flow freely across national borders and products have to be able to move with minimum friction across those borders, unhampered by tariffs or quotas or non-uniform standards. In other words, there must be free trade for transnational capital to optimize accumulation.#

But transnational corporations also need legal protection of their investments. They need protection from expropriation of their assets, laws and governments that can ensure their property is secure. A crucial part of free trade agreements is protection of what are called investor rights. This involves more than just protection from expropriation, as happens with revolutions. It also involves protection from governmental actions that might reduce the value of their property or potential profits by environmental and health regulations, labor laws or other such measures even though they might be for the public good. What in US law is called “regulatory takings” are seen as tantamount to expropriation.

When such governmental actions do occur, free trade treaties give the foreign corporation the recourse to sue. The suit is not adjudicated in a national court, but by a transnational body of experts operating in secret. States are expected to enforce its decisions on their own nation’s taxpayers and consumers. This favors investor rights (i.e. the interests of transnational corporations) over the democratic rights of a nation.


As corporations have globalized, morphing into transnational corporations, they have promoted free trade agreements to get national governments to assist them. But when “investor rights” trump the democratic rights of citizens, the transnational corporations become the real citizens of the emerging global order. TPP is a further step in this direction, making an end run around a number of important issues –banking regulation, extension of patent protection, food inspection, environmental protection, food sovereignty, internet freedom, health care, job creation policies, and more, denying voters the opportunity to decide such matters when they impinge on corporate profit making.

Here are a few of the issues around which opposition to TPP is beginning to emerge.

* Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF) is concerned that TPP would “enhance patent and data protections for pharmaceutical companies, dismantle public health safeguards enshrined in international law and obstruct price-lowering generic competition for medicines.” The intellectual property provisions would give pharmaceutical companies prolonged monopoly protection for medicines and delay access to cheaper generic versions. This would have disastrous consequences in poorer countries.

* Internet freedom is also in danger. The Council of Canadians and OpenMedia have warned that the TPP would “criminalize some everyday uses of the Internet,” including music downloads, making no distinction between commercial and non-commercial copyright infringement. The TPP imposes a “three strikes” system for copyright infringement, where three violations would result in the termination of a household’s Internet access.

* Japanese farmers are concerned that TPP will force removal of protections from Japan’s agriculture needed to maintain food sovereignty for the country. They are protesting Japan’s decision to enter into TPP negotiations at all.

* Guaranteed compensation for loss of “expected future profits” from health, labor or environmental regulations.

* Corporate performance requirements are banned.

* Capital mobility is to be guaranteed, preventing capital controls in event of a financial crisis. TPP will require countries to let capital flow in and out without restriction, not allow the banning or regulation of risky investments like derivatives and credit-default swaps and will prevent the formation of much-needed public banks

Democratic sovereignty

Most fundamentally what is at stake with TPP and existing free trade treaties is the sovereignty of nations and the ability of their peoples to make democratic decisions. This is a concern on both the Left and the Right, suggesting the possibility of a broad coalition opposing TPP, bridging our otherwise polarized politics.

A major NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll from September of 2010 revealed that “the impact of trade and outsourcing is one of the only issues on which Americans of different classes, occupations and political persuasions agree,” with 86% saying that outsourcing jobs by U.S. companies to poor countries was “a top cause of our economic woes,” with 69% thinking that “free trade agreements between the United States and other countries cost the U.S. jobs.” Only 17% of Americans in 2010 felt that “free trade agreements” benefit the U.S., compared to 28% in 2007.

Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizen Trade Campaign  said: “If they were to negotiate an agreement that put human rights ahead of corporate profit, creating more just and sustainable social policy, the TPP could be a tool for incredible good. But if you look at who has a seat at the table, with the public shut out and more than 600 corporate lobbyists included, there is nothing to indicate that’s the deal we’re going to get.”

The developing opposition to the corporate coup that the TPP represents has the potential to win. It’s about time for the people to win one victory in the corporate class war. Our first chance in this campaign will be over granting fast track Trade Promotion Authority. And that battle will be followed by the fight over Senate approval of TPP itself. This is one that we can win. The stakes are high. The alternatives are democracy or plutocracy.


Cliff DuRand is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program He is co-author and co-editor of Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State (Clarity Press, 2012). Contact him at

For More Information:

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

on TPP

Citizens Trade Campaign

A coalition of labor, environmental, religious, family farm, and consumer organizations united in the pursuit of socially and environmentally just trade policies.

It’s Our Economy

It’s Our Economy seeks to educate, organize and mobilize Americans to shift the power from concentrated capital to the people.