Lambert’s post on Sunday about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) looks at the deal from an important perspective: Its effect on popular sovereignty. He links to Dean Baker’s short post and highlights this: “The main thrust of the negotiations is to impose a regulator[y] structure in a wide range of areas — health, safety, environmental — which will override national and sub-national rules.” International agreements have always had that character, of course. Treaties, conventions like the Geneva Conventions and Convention Against Torture and so on also (theoretically) supersede national and sub-national rules. They would be worthless otherwise.
The idea that trade agreements weaken national laws is also not new. One of the sticking points in the NAFTA debate was that worker and environmental regulations would be degraded as part of a rush to the bottom. There’s a big difference between warning of a risk, though, and actually quantifying the impact afterwards. Perhaps the growing awareness of those real world consequences has helped many realize just how much those without a seat at the table stand to lose from capital-privileging acts like TPP.1
Unlike treaties and conventions, these agreements have a key third party: investors and corporations. Lambert notes (emph. in orig.) “the tribunal can order your government to pay an investor for damages to their investment which may, as we saw in the definition of investment, include expectations of a return” (lest you think he’s being alarmist, he also links to a couple of examples). A major trade agreement, negotiated in secret, in anticipation of being hustled through Congress does not smack of democratic process - even if all the forms are technically observed.
I realize many conservatives make a similar argument about loss of sovereignty - or freedom, their preferred term - through laws like Obamacare. Say what you will about Obamacare, though, it was passed by elected representatives over an extremely public, contentious and drawn out (remember the Gang of Six? Good times) process. It was challenged and upheld in court. One might reasonably believe it is not an accurate expression of popular will, but it is silly to believe it did not adhere to the spirit of democratic process.
The sovereignty angle of TPP resonates with me because it seems to be an emerging theme. I am seeing it on a topic I just happen to follow closely; it isn’t hard to imagine other areas having similar developments.
The resource extraction industry is trying to route around troublesome outbreaks of democracy, and the strategy seems to be a TPP-like subversion of citizens’ self-determination. For instance, last week three cities in Colorado voted to ban fracking within their city limits; they are now poised to be sued by oil and gas companies. The state’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the industry in the past, and if it does so again it will raise the question of just how much citizens may decide what they want in their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile here in Ohio, Sunoco is looking to use eminent domain to expand one of its pipelines. Pipelines have become a new issue this year because their perceived lack is seen as a drag on capacity. In fact, they have been in the news elsewhere quite a bit as well, usually for bad reasons. Like the ruptured one in North Dakota that was discovered by a farmer and not disclosed to the public for eleven days. (Not an isolated incident either. But it’s being contained and remediated!) Or the one in Arkansas that spilled so much oil homes now need to be demolished. And of course the Big Kahuna is still out there.
We know that pipelines stay in place for decades and are rarely inspected, and we know what to expect from that, so naturally residents of the affected areas are concerned. In addition, this particular item appears to be set up to carry more than just oil. Is it right to use eminent domain for unrestricted use by a for profit company? We aren’t talking about installing a municipal sewer system here. The purpose is not the common good but corporate enrichment; must citizens really have no say in the matter?
At both the macro and micro levels there appears to be a new enthusiasm for using public tools for private purposes, with the intention of circumventing democratic processes or subverting popular sentiment. No one expects government to work the way we were taught in civics class, but there are limits to the amount of cynical manipulation a polity will stand. Take away popular sovereignty and the consent of the governed will follow not too far behind. And at that point, things get ugly.
I had Muscle Cars by Wussy on my best of 2009 and Marathon by The Ready Stance on my best of 2012. So when I saw them scheduled on the same bill at the Beachland Ballroom you can imagine I was pretty fired up. They play Saturday, November 16th at 9:00 PM and I’ll be there with bells on. If you’d like to get together and maybe yell about lefty politics between sets, drop me a line and we’ll work out the details. Tickets for the show can be purchased here.
In other music news, I had Capsized! by the Circus Devils as a recommended album in 2011. The band gave me preview copies of the two new albums they released on Tuesday, When Machines Attack and My Mind Has Seen the White Trick. Like the previous album each has lots of short songs (almost none over three minutes), but lots of cool and interesting sounds. Check out Eddie’s Derangement right here, and pick up the albums at your retailer of choice if you like what you hear!
On Monday workers from the Port of Oakland Truckers Association went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions. They were joined by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and their action closed one of the terminals. Their demands are fairly modest: an end to stagnant wages and the right to basic needs like bathroom breaks without being fined. Tuesday the strike seemed to lose steam, with at least one report that ILWU leadership crossed picket lines Monday and encouraged their members to stop supporting it.
Maybe there is some kind of behind-the-scenes intrigue going on between the truckers and the ILWU. O’Brien’s article hints at animosity towards the truckers for resisting previous organizing efforts, and also notes ILWU management was concerned about being fined if they supported the protest (make what you will of that profile in courage), so there could be more going on beneath the surface.
Still, it’s an effort by a group of workers to organize, and whatever the local politics or clash of personalities, one would think the truckers’ efforts would be worthy of support by national union leaders. Certainly someone like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who said last month the decline of union membership was a crisis and called for a big tent labor movement, might reasonably be supposed to think no effort to organize is too small.
Yet instead he has been blowing hot air at Washington. At a time when his union can’t prevent a deeply unpopular policy change and is doing everything it can to just put it off for a year, it would seem he is not in much of a position to dictate terms. Perhaps if the union aggressively increased its membership there wouldn’t be a need to issue empty threats at all.
As the face of his union, Trumka could lend great support and encouragement to organizing efforts by showing up, yet he can’t be bothered to do that even for the ones his own union is sponsoring. We are well outside of election season now. If this isn’t the time to focus on building up membership, when will be? Trumka seems content to talk tough in the capitol. Then next year will roll around, union numbers will have declined further, and their leaders will once again (despite all the tough talk) stand behind the neoliberal Democratic establishment because they have no place to go. That’s not a strategy, it’s a death spiral.
Speaking of having no place to go, a third party sure would be a nice alternative. Before last year’s election I wrote about the failure of the Greens to do the kind of work that makes a political party viable. Parties don’t spring full grown from some uber-politician’s skull - they get built from the ground up. My running complaint with the national Green party is that it seems to disdain such unglamorous grunt work.
I focused on Ralph Nader as my example because the Green’s 2012 candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, hadn’t had a post-election period to show (or not) her commitment to party building. The Greens don’t have anyone in Congress or state governorships. As with unions, one would think no effort is too small. And it so happens there is a Green candidate for mayor of Syracuse (Kevin Bott) and another running for 4th District Councilor there (Howie Hawkins).
Yet the party web site doesn’t feature either on its Current News (though one of its five rotating banners mentions Bott). Stein, meanwhile, is giving interviews about the Green New Deal and meeting with Green leaders from Ireland. For a party that has zero national presence outside of quixotic presidential runs, why isn’t every effort being made to elect actual candidates in an upcoming election? Over the next couple weeks, going door to door in upstate New York would seem to be a much better way for the party to spend its time than bitching about capitalism.
The reluctance of leadership in the Greens and the AFL-CIO to engage on the ground in local and regional battles speaks to an institutional aversion to taking on smaller, winnable, and low-profile efforts in favor of larger, futile, and vainglorious ones. It also makes it easier to write them off as egotistical, out of touch losers who are unworthy of the movements they represent. And when they plead their case to the public down the line, it will be easy to dismiss them: Were you in Oakland? Were you in Syracuse? Or did you spend your time issuing statements and going to conferences at the expense of those who were desperate for your support?