Against Free Trade and Against Protectionism

As many as 50,000 or more workers, trade unionists, environmentalists, and others concerned with defending the social and economic interests of the great majority of the American people will be coming to Seattle to protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Nov. 30 through Dec. 3, 1999. (The WTO is slated to meet in that city on those four days.)

Socialist Action wholeheartedly supports the fight for jobs and higher living standards, for the abolition of child labor, and against the super-exploitation of our class sisters and brothers who are ruthlessly exploited and oppressed at home and abroad.

This newspaper also stands four-square against the unremitting degradation of the biosphere of our planet and against corporate America which bears sole responsibility for all the evils of the profit system.

We are, moreover, unalterably opposed to such instruments of the global status quo as the WTO, which is the champion of all the things that the many thousands of us will be protesting against in Seattle at the end of this month.

Unfortunately, however, most of the main organizers of the Seattle demonstration refuse to condemn those responsible for the evils they claim to oppose as well to its source-the profit system. That raises the question of what the aims and purposes of most of the main organizers of the Seattle protest really are.

In the first place, corporate America stands on both sides of the free trade versus protectionism debate. And while the majority of corporate America clearly and unambiguously argues for a free trade policy, saying it is for the good of all the people, there is a minority of the capitalist class that favors protectionism, which they also claim is for the good of all the people.

It should be obvious, however, that both capitalist free traders and capitalist protectionists support the policy that serves to gain for them the highest profits-and for the most part support both tactics in their profit-motivated strategy.

While the great majority of corporate America that openly hopes to gain higher profits from free trade are least able to conceal their motives, the sector that hopes to gain higher profits from higher tariffs on cheaper imports competing for customers in the American marketplace are better able to conceal their real motive-which is solely to protect their own narrow interests as capitalists.

Consequently, to gain leverage against the capitalist free trade majority, the side that opposes free trade aims to involve the very people that are the victims of their strategy.

For instance, billionaires like Ross Perot and radical right-wingers like Pat Buchanan-who can hardly be described as being in favor of jobs for all and against exploitation and oppression-are opposed to free trade legislation and are specifically opposed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And 77 percent of Republican senators and 49 percent of Democratic senators voted for NAFTA.

Buchanan’s argument in opposition to free trade is most clearly designed to win over those workers who see their jobs disappearing and their living standards falling. Thus, his line of argument is designed to appear far to the left of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, who hold an identical position to Buchanan’s in regard to NAFTA.

This is one example of Buchanan’s cynical and hypocritical “left” rhetoric. He wrote:

“Free trade” is just the spin the Wall Street bankers and Rockefeller Republicans have put on these trade agreements. These trade agreements violate American sovereignty and are stealing our jobs away! We were suckered into these trade deals by those who crave the holy dollar and could care less about the American worker as long as they are rolling in the dough.

In other words, Buchanan seeks to appear more for workers and against capitalist profiteers than the AFL-CIO officialdom, who prefer to avoid calling a capitalist a capitalist-since they are also in league with the capitalist opponents of NAFTA.

(It is important to note that such radical, left-sounding, populist rhetoric was the stock in trade of both Benito Mussolini in fascist Italy and Adolph Hitler in fascist Germany-neither of whom could be called a friend of the poor and downtrodden. And workers naturally see their employers as their adversary in their day-to-day experiences on the job or the cause of their joblessness.)

And then there is the great majority of the capitalist class on both sides of the NAFTA debate who look at free trade and protectionism as a tactical question. The mighty American steel industry, for instance, is for”fair trade,” by which they mean, of course, free trade when it serves to increase their profits, and they are at the same time for protectionism when that serves to maximize their profits.

Unfortunately, the giant American steel corporations have won over the top officials of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in support of the steel bosses’ slogan, “Stand up for steel!” This means a demand for high tariffs on imported steel in order to keep the American market for steel exclusively reserved for American steel manufacturers.

And worse, the Steelworker union bureaucracy tells its membership the big lie, that this serves the common interests of both capitalist profits and steelworkers’ jobs. But in order to believe this fallacy, one has to forget the ongoing shutting down of steel plants and downsizing of merged sectors of their industry.

Plainly, the USWA officialdom’s support for the steel industry’s so-called fair trade policy amounts to subordinating the interests of rank-and-file steelworkers in the service of increased profits for their bosses.

Or as one steelworker correctly observed at a Labor Notes conference last year: “As unions get more involved in ‘standing up for steel’-they have become less involved in defending the interests of steelworkers!”

But the USWA’s policy only reflects the stance of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy as a whole in its general policy of subordinating the class interests of workers to the profitability of corporate America.

No, the enemy is neither free trade nor protectionism. The enemy is all capitalist trade policies and the capitalist class-which always puts profits before human needs.


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