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Articulating a Left Trade Agenda


I have a new essay up in the Boston Review arguing that the left needs to take the policymaking of global trade regimes seriously, offering real alternatives to the corporate-political domination of the issue that push for the accountability of multinationals and empowering workers globally to press for their own rights. As is common for a piece like this, the title of it is reduced to being about the Democratic Party, which isn’t quite the point. But then authors almost never get to choose their own titles. More to the point, it’s that no one on the left really takes trade seriously except to shout “NO!!!” when it comes to trade agreements. Obviously, globalization isn’t going away and neither are trade agreements. So it’s about using the tools of the neoliberals against our neoliberal masters, which isn’t so different from how Americans tamed corporations nationally over much of the 20th century. An excerpt:

The left cannot continue to cede the field on trade policy to corporations. Nor can it embrace tired old protectionist policies. Instead, the left must understand that there is no national solution to global trade. Better lives for Americans cannot be won by demonizing Chinese workers for “stealing our jobs.” Any trade solution from the left must embrace globally inclusive values. Moreover, it must use a multi-faceted strategy that seeks to roll back the fundamental problem the United States and the rest of the global working-class face: that corporations have created international legal systems to govern trade while citizens remain constrained by national law.

This problem was at the core of opposition to the TPP. Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) courts can supersede national laws by allowing corporations to sue nations for violating trade agreements when those nations have acted to protect their citizens. For example, under NAFTA, one of these courts ordered Canada to pay the U.S. toxic waste company S.D. Myers C$6.05 million because the nation banned the export of toxic waste. The French company Veolia sued Egypt for lost profits after the nation raised its minimum wage; the company lost but it took six years of Egypt defending its law. Philip Morris sued Uruguay in 2010 after the nation passed legislature requiring graphic depictions of tobacco-caused diseases on cigarette packaging. Such undemocratic attacks on national sovereignty certainly figure in the left’s understandable distrust of trade deals.

However, the economy is global, and therefore trade agreements are required to govern it. Globalization is not going away. We have to be realistic about this and find new ways to solve the problems of global trade. For guidance, it is helpful to recall that in 1900, corporations had nearly total freedom to do as they wanted. Backed by a right-wing Supreme Court, they busted unions, trumped other claims to property rights, created monopolies, and could call on state security forces to crush any resistance. Like today, corporations seemed to have total power over regular citizens. Yet the story of the first three-quarters of the twentieth century is how Americans fought to tame corporations, with surprising success. Unions were established, consumer protections won, pollution was reduced.

Unfortunately, this hard-won progress was not permanent. Since the 1970s, corporations have used capital mobility to escape most of these restrictions, recreating the exploitative conditions of the late nineteenth-century United States on a global scale. This time around they have also undermined the economic security that allowed workers to make new demands on their employer and the state. Corporations, in other words, have learned from their “mistakes.” The left must do the same.

I then go onto to discuss my proposals for a Corporate Accountability Act and advocating for opening U.S. courts to lawsuits against corporations for harm done to them through making products for American companies. The left should openly advocate for these positions. It’s the Abolish ICE of trade, but as the policy is harder and less sexy, it’s more difficult to get people’s attention. However, I see no other proposals out there to bring trade back onto progressives’ agenda at a time when a whole lot of ideas once seen as hopelessly left-wing are going to be on the Democratic platform in 2020. This is one of the greatest injustice issues the world faces and it’s well-past time we articulate real alternatives to what is happening.

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