GLW: US -- Free trade or internationalism
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Wed May 17 20:16:20 MDT 2000
The following article appeared in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.
UNITED STATES: `Fair trade' or international solidarity?
SAN FRANCISCO -- The demonstrations in November-December in
Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have rightly
inspired activists in the labour movement.
Many have commented on the coming together of youth and students
concerned about the destruction of the environment and US
corporations imposing sweatshop conditions in their factories in
what used to be called the Third World, with tens of thousands of
trade unionists concerned with the loss of better paying jobs,
the reduction of real wages and increasing economic insecurity.
The consciousness of most of these forces could be summed up as
``anti-corporatism''. The big corporations and banks are seen as
dominating the world for their own greedy self-interests at the
expense of the majority of humanity. But which way forward for
this movement, if indeed it becomes a movement as we all hope it
will, has become a burning question in practice. Key to this will
be the struggle between two opposite political strategies.
One is the road of ``America firstism'' and US protectionism,
advocated by the top bureaucracy of the American Federation of
Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), and by some
ultra-right politicians such as Pat Buchanan. The counterposed
strategy is international working-class solidarity, which must
include solidarity with the world's peasant masses and with the
nations that are exploited by the imperialist countries.
The answer appears to be obvious for labour activists on the
left: we are internationalists, opposed to US nationalism. But it
is not so simple. Disagreements have arisen over just what
internationalism means in the context of this movement.
The sharpest expression of these differences has been whether or
not to join what has become the axis of the AFL-CIO's
protectionist campaign, the drive to keep China out of the WTO
and to prevent Washington from granting China normal trade status
with the US. Some left labour activists say ``yes'' to this
campaign. Others, like myself, say an emphatic ``no''.
Before discussing the case of China, let's recall some basic
facts about the world. Fact number one is that the nations of the
world are not equal. There are a handful of advanced capitalist
countries, with about 15% of the world's population, in which the
corporations and banks not only exploit their own workers and
small farmers, but suck super-profits out of the so-called
developing countries as well.
Since the early 20th century, this system of national oppression
and exploitation has been referred to as modern imperialism, and
the advanced capitalist countries as imperialist.
The Third World doesn't consist of developing countries, a term
which implies that they will catch up with the imperialist
countries sooner or later. A better term would be super-exploited
countries, for the truth is that the gap between these countries
and the imperialist ones is growing, not diminishing.
Within all countries, imperialist and super-exploited, the gap
between the rich and the workers and peasants is growing. The
neo-liberal policies being promulgated domestically and
internationally have exacerbated the situation.
After more than a century of imperialism, the world has now 800
million hungry people, 1 billion illiterates, 4 billion in
poverty, 250 million children who work regularly and 130 million
people who have no access to education. There are 100 million
homeless and 11 million children under five years of age dying
every year from malnutrition, poverty and preventable or curable
The WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank
and the governments of the imperialist countries are imposing
ever worse conditions on the super-exploited countries. Due to
imperialist policies, the Third World debt to the banks of the
First World has ballooned to more than US$2 trillion, from $567
billion in 1980 and $1.4 trillion in 1992.
The spiralling debt has become a perpetual motion machine of
money flooding away from the super-exploited countries, as
recalculated interest payments dwarf the principal and new loans
are needed to pay off a part of old ones. These debts are a club
the imperialist countries hold over the super-exploited, forcing
them politically to acquiesce to imperialist policies, such as
opening their economies to more imperialist ownership, slashing
social spending, etc.
Imperialist profits also flow to the advanced countries as a
result of such investments.
A third way the super-exploited countries are ripped off is
through unequal trade. Even if there were really free trade,
which there isn't, because the imperialist countries routinely
erect their own trade barriers, the gap between the have and the
have-not countries would necessarily widen.
This is because of the big gap in the productivity of labour
between the imperialist countries and the rest, due to the
difference in when these countries adopted the capitalist system
of production. The countries which adopted it first imposed on
the others a stunted and distorted version of capitalism that
made them dependent on, at the mercy of the First World. They
were not and are not being allowed to develop into ``normal''
This gap in the productivity of labour means that when products
are traded on the world market between the imperialist countries
and the super-exploited ones, the hours of labour exchanged are
far from equal. It takes more and more hours of labour in the
super-exploited countries to produce the raw materials needed to
buy one tractor, for example. While there is some high-tech
investment in the poorer countries by imperialist concerns, this
generalisation remains true overall.
Moreover, the wages in the super-exploited countries are very low
due to the difference in labour productivity, and to massive
unemployment. An aspect of this massive unemployment has been the
driving of hundreds of millions of peasants off the land because
they cannot compete with low-cost agricultural products from the
Another aspect of the displacement of the peasantry has been
reorientation of farming to the needs of the world market. These
landless peasants stream into and around the cities of the Third
World, seeking jobs that are very scarce. One need only think of
the slums of Jakarta, Mexico City, Teheran, etc. Imperialist and
local capitalist investments in these countries cannot meet the
demand for jobs.
So what trade policy would help reduce the gap between the rich
and poor countries, even without the overthrow of imperialism on
a world scale?
There are two sides to the question. The first is that the
super-exploited countries need protectionist measures of their
own, to allow their industries to develop in the face of
competition from the advanced countries. Otherwise, the gap will
The second is that the imperialist countries should end all
tariffs and quotas on goods from the super-exploited countries,
especially for goods these countries can produce competitively
because they do not require massive capital investment and are
labour intensive, such as textiles and garments.
These two trade policies should be complimented by cancellation
of the debt the super-exploited owe the super-rich.
In the longer run, trade between the advanced countries and the
poorer ones should be based, not on world market prices, which
are largely determined by the labour productivity in the advanced
countries, but on exchange of equal hours of labour. This would
help the super-exploited countries build up their economies and
improve their labour productivity.
Cuba succeeded in forcing the former Soviet Union to move in this
direction, a fact which is expressed in the assertion by
capitalism's apologists that the Soviet Union ``subsidised'' Cuba.
The adoption of such a policy, however, would probably require a
victory of the socialist revolution in one or more of the
advanced capitalist countries.
Of course, the imperialists are pressing in exactly the opposite
direction from eliminating tariffs on goods from the poor
countries, and allowing those countries to implement
protectionist policies. They are demanding that the poor
countries open their markets, while maintaining protectionist
policies for the imperialist countries.
A 1992 United Nations Development Program report (and things have
gotten worse since) put it this way: ``20 out of 24 industrialized
nations are generally more protectionist than they were 10 years
ago and their protectionism is exercised largely to the detriment
of developing countries ... Overall, we can estimate that world
market restrictions cost developing countries approximately
US$500 billion a year. Those $500bn in losses are equivalent to
around 20% of the global GDP of developing countries and
represent seven times the amount such nations currently allocate
to spending on priorities related to human development.''
A good example is Latin America, where protectionist measures
were put in place by many nationalist governments. In addition to
tariffs to protect local industries, there were substantial
sections of nationalised industries protected from imperialist
Under the whip of imperialist-dominated international competition
and debt owed to the imperialist banks, countries like Mexico and
Argentina are privatising like mad, including allowing
imperialist investment in former nationalised industries.
And they have been forced into accepting cheaper imperialist
goods. This has been good for some sections of the local
capitalists, at least while the ``Asian flu'' can be kept at bay,
but it has been a big setback for the living standards of the
It is in this context that we have to view the proposal by the
AFL-CIO brass that the WTO should erect tariff barriers against
countries where there is child labour and low wages.
Why is there child labour and low wages in the super-exploited
countries? Because of imperialist exploitation, of course!
Because of this exploitation, many families cannot survive
without their children working. And wages in these countries
cannot match in dollar terms wages in the US.
The AFL-CIO's call is phoney through and through. It is an
attempt to make more palatable the real demand of the AFL-CIO
bureaucracy: more protectionism against the poor countries.
What the AFL-CIO should be doing instead is building solidarity
with workers and farmers in those countries as they fight for the
right to organise to better their conditions. Calling on the
imperialists to bar goods from those countries only punishes the
workers in those countries. It will mean more child labour and
still lower wages.
The talk about child labour and low wages is a fig leaf to cover
the top union bureaucrats' collaboration with the US bosses
against the workers and peasants of the Third World. For example,
the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees
(UNITE) officials are lobbying for higher tariffs on garments
from the Third World, supposedly to fight against sweatshops and
low wages there. But barring those goods does nothing to help
workers in those countries to improve their conditions.
This protectionist campaign is being waged in the context where
Washington imposes 3000 tariffs on clothing and textiles brought
into the US. The countries of sub-Sahara Africa are among the
poorest in the world. At a time when they are ravaged by AIDS,
and 290 million Africans -- more than the entire population of
the US -- are living on a dollar a day, UNITE has ``united'' not
with the African garment workers, but with the US garment
employers' organisation to stop Congress allowing these countries
to export clothing to the US duty free (currently there is a 17%
This proposed bill should be opposed, but not for the reasons
UNITE and the garment bosses do. What's wrong with the bill is
that it demands that the African countries accept
pro-US-imperialist conditions in return for the elimination of
Jobs and protectionism
Another argument the labour tops use in defence of protectionism
is that US jobs are at stake. Capitalists can threaten their
workers that they will build plants in countries with lower wages
if the workers won't accept the bosses' terms.
The imperialists have built plants all over the world, in other
imperialist countries as well as in super-exploited countries, to
be nearer potential markets, to take advantage of lower wages and
for other reasons. This cannot be stopped by raising tariff
Calling for protectionism is a substitute for really fighting for
jobs here, by calling for a reduction in the work-week with no
reduction in pay, a massive public works campaign to improve
deteriorating infrastructure and poor housing, etc. But that
would mean waging a fight, including on the political level,
which is not on the agenda of these labour ``leaders''.
Protectionist campaigns in the imperialist countries make it
appear that the problems workers face there are due to other
countries, and not to their own capitalist class, the way the
capitalist system works and the capitalist government. It puts
workers in the position of defending ``our'' company or ``our''
industry, against the world, including the workers of the world.
It cuts across what is needed, international working-class
Just before the Seattle demonstrations, a full-page ad in the New
York Times (and possibly other papers I didn't see) calling for
protectionism for the US steel industry was signed by various
steel magnates -- and the head of the United Steelworkers! It
claimed that Chinese steel companies were ``dumping'' their steel
in the US.
Every capitalist firm will ``dump'' their goods -- try to undercut
the prices of competitors -- if necessary and it makes economic
sense. Steel from China, Russia and other countries presently has
the price advantage of a strong dollar, so their prices can be
lower in dollar terms.
The AFL-CIO's anti-China campaign is straight-out protectionism,
designed to protect ``our'' industries from competition. It appeals
to anticommunism, the ``threat'' of ``Red China'', and the racist
fears of the ``yellow horde'' in the midst of a major anti-China
campaign by the right wing, backed by the White House, although
with more moderate language.
The most hypocritical of all the ``left'' arguments on why US
workers should oppose China being able to trade with the US and
other countries is that we must punish China for its government's
trampling on human rights and workers' rights.
Why single out China for such treatment? The AFL-CIO never
proposed such a ``remedy'' for Suharto's Indonesia, Pinochet's
Chile, Mobutu's Zaire, Franco's Spain, Rhee's South Korea,
Somoza's Nicaragua, the regimes of the Greek, Brazilian,
Argentinian, Uruguayan and Guatemalan colonels, and so on.
Does anyone think the AFL-CIO would call for stiff tariffs on oil
from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, countries where most workers are not
even citizens and have no right to organise, where half of those
considered citizens (women) cannot vote and are subjected to
extreme discrimination and brutality? Why not call for a trade
embargo on Israel, which has carried out the biggest campaign of
ethnic cleansing (of Palestinians) in the world since World War
The bigger hypocrisy, however, is to look to the US as world
disciplinarian and protector of human and labour rights. Didn't
Washington support all of the above regimes, and helped put in
power most of them? Didn't Washington atom bomb Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, and initiate the atomic arms race? Weren't these
actions detrimental to human rights?
How many million Koreans and Chinese did the US kill and maim in
the Korean War? Doesn't the destruction of 2 million Vietnamese
say anything about human rights? Didn't the USA keep millions
under the heel of the Jim Crow system of legalised racial
segregation, and doesn't it still oppress blacks and other
minorities? And are the other imperialist powers any better?
Why call on these forces to protect human and workers' rights in
China or anywhere else? And why does anyone think that trade
boycotts and blockades and high custom duties by the imperialist
powers will improve human rights anywhere? They raise and lower
trade barriers only in their own interests, and are for ``free
trade'' one day and for ``protectionism'' the next, or sometimes
both on the same day.
The anti-China campaign strengthens Washington's hand in trade
negotiations with China. The agreements reached with China just
before the WTO conference were spelled out by a State Department
communique released on November 15. These are some of the unequal
trade positions the US forced China to agree to:
* China will reduce, on average, custom duties on imported
cars from about 22% to 17%, and from 85% to 20%.
* China agreed to progressively increase quotas for importing
cereals, rice and cotton, and that an important part of
these imports could not be distributed by the state.
* China will do away with the state monopoly on soy oil.
* China will stop state support of exports.
* US firms will have new access to set up banks, insurance
companies and telecommunications.
* US exporters to China have the right to control distribution
of their goods.
* Concerning textiles, the USA and China agreed to take
measures to prevent disorder on the markets after the
elimination of quotas -- which Washington takes to mean that
China should erect no barriers to the free flow of US-made
products, while the US has the right to stop made-in-China
products coming into the US.
This is an unequal treaty in the most elementary sense of the
term. If workers in China organise to oppose these terms, we
should give them all-out support. But they would not be demanding
that China not be allowed to trade with the US; they would be
demanding more equal terms of trade.
Workers in the US should demand from the US government exactly
the opposite of what the AFL-CIO is saying. Instead of trying to
block Chinese goods from entering the US, we should be for ending
all trade barriers for such goods.
Instead of opposing trade with China, we should attack the
unequal terms of trade Washington seeks to impose on China. As
against Washington's demands on China to further open its markets
to US goods -- which is the other side of the protectionist coin
-- we should defend the right of China and all super-exploited
countries to protect their own industries.
The ``don't trade with China!'' slogan is not just wrong, it is
reactionary. It pits US workers against Chinese workers. It cuts
across the only road forward for those who want to oppose
imperialist globalisation -- the international solidarity of all
the workers and oppressed.
[Abridged from an article being circulated among labour activists
in the US.]
BY BARRY SHEPPARD
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