Counterpunch, January 14, 2016
When Feelings Reflect Reality
Introduced in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four, the word “doublethink” refers to the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and to believe both of them. I don’t know about the belief part (see note 2, below), but Barack Obama’s seventh and thankfully final State of the Union Address (SOTUA) last night (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, January 13, 2016), was a tribute to doublethink when it comes to the rest of Orwell’s meaning. Listen to the following passage, delivered as Obama neared the end of his speech:
“A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests…But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic… Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest….Too many Americans feel that way right now.”
Yes, most Americans do feel that way right in these time. Could it be that they feel that way because things are that way right now? You don’t have to be a Marxist or other kind of “dangerous radical” to note that popular governance or democracy has been trumped by oligarchy and plutocracy in the contemporary United States. In a major study released in 2014, the leading mainstream political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) report that U.S. democracy no longer exists.
Over the past few decades, Gilens and Page determined that the U.S. political system became “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule,” wielding wildly disproportionate power over national policy. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steered the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the U.S. majority. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” The thesis holds, the leading academics noted, regardless of which of the two dominant political parties holds nominal power in Washington. The Obama administration, Gilens and Page might have added, has been a chilling Big-Business-friendly illustration of the oligarchy’s bipartisan nature.
Investor Protection: Why So Secret
But I digress. Back to “doublethink” in Obama’s SOTUA. Just eight paragraphs above his seemingly passionate half-call for more democracy and less plutocracy in the U.S., the legendarily mealy-mouthed Obama briefly urged Congress to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in order to “open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia.” And what is the TPP? It is, among other things, a fitting capstone to Obama’s rich history as a shiny Trojan Horse for the unelected dictatorship of global capital that rules the United States and other nations beneath the ruse of democracy and behind the marionette theater of partisan and parliamentary politics. It is a fitting monument to Karl Marx’s observation in 1857 that “Capital must strive to tear down every spatial barrier…to conquer the whole earth for its market.”
Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working up the TPP and promoting it for nearly a decade. The measure would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. Obama and his largely Republican “free trade” allies say the TPP will open foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”
But that’s just blatantly deceptive business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade and it certainly isn’t about improved standards. Its real thrust is to strengthen corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards – something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. Key parts of the TPP permit foreign capital to freely and easily enter a country and for profits to be just as easily removed. The TPP would ban capital controls, which let nations block disruptive inflows of ‘hot money’ from speculative investors and then escape before the bubble they create explodes. It would also block the passage of financial transaction taxes, a method for checking speculation and generating public revenue. The measure also legitimizes the extensive privatization of public enterprises.
The TPP is designed to help big multinational businesses attain special deals they would be unable to get through existing political processes, considered excessively democratic by the global deep state of capital. A foreign corporation could sue and receive damages for anticipated profit losses resulting from an increase in the minimum wage (federal, state, or local) in the United States. A U.S. state or Canadian province (or any other member-state jurisdiction) would have to compensate oil and gas companies for anticipated profits lost to bans on the environmentally disastrous practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Big Pharma and the big corporate media firms would be granted stronger and longer-lasting patent and copyright protections across the “free trade” zone. Big multinational banking and investment firms would have to be paid by TPP governments that wanted to keep their nations’ financial systems safe through responsible regulation. Food, chemical, consumer goods, and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of TPP governments to impose safety and environmental regulations on the things they sell and how they make them. The giant global and U.S.-based consumer packaged goods firm Procter & Gamble could demand compensation from any TPP nation (including the U.S.) that dared to subject its products and workplaces to basic social and environmental standards. (One could go on and on with such examples.)
“Level playing field”? The TPP is about a race to the capitalist bottom, a levelling down of people and government’s capacity to impose limits on business behavior. Like its regressive predecessor the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), it’s about what the New York Times calls “investor protection.”
Of critical and dark significance, the TPP constructs a new legal structure that transcends the existing, nation-based legal system. Big global corporations who don’t think that American, Australian, Japanese, or Malaysian (etc.) courts can be trusted to give them a “fair deal” (translation: decisions consistent with their desired rate of profit) will be able to turn to “investor-state dispute settlement [ISDS] tribunals”: three-personal corporate lawyer-staffed panels that will effectively make their own law on behalf of big business. They will be kangaroo courts of and for global capital. Corporations will get to sue governments in these secret corporate-globalist courts if national, state-provincial, or local laws are passed that challenge any provision of the TPP, such as the one that prohibits privatization. It doesn’t get much more sinister than that.
No wonder the Obama administration has worked to keep the specifics of the TPP under wraps. The secrecy has been remarkable. A select small number of U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff have been permitted to see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public. Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. corporate lobbyists have full knowledge of the TPP’s text, of course; many of them have helped write the measure.
“Of the 566 groups that have been invited to attend the [TPP’s] negotiations at various levels,” economist Jack Rasmus noted last spring, “480 are representatives of businesses, trade, and industry groups. The rest are pro-trade academics, a smattering of sympathetic NGOs that benefit from corporate contributions, and a few token union representatives in the pockets of their corporations or governments at home.”
As Los Angeles attorney William Bibb recently wrote me, “Giving away consumer, environmental, and labor rights to large multinational corporations cannot properly be called ‘trade.’ Doing this in secret cannot properly be called ‘free.’”
It’s also no wonder that (as Bernie Sanders has noted) the corporate media (whose leading firms stand to profit handsomely from the treaty) has been paying the TPP – a hugely significant measure – very scant attention, preferring to keep the populace focused on the latest horrors of the U.S.-generated Islamic State and the most recent absurd utterances and Tweets of The Donald.
Fast Track: Why Now
It’s not for nothing that Obama bullied Congress last spring into granting him “fast-track authority” on the TPP. . Under fast-track rules, there’s no time for careful consideration. There’s no chance for revisions, delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame. “The idea,” economist Dean Baker observes, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”
Obama’s craven captivity to big capital and its neoliberal ideology is evident in the curious fact that the TPP has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker called last spring “special meaning for a president eager to change the world….a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with Obama’s military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.” How sadly and darkly Orwellian.
Still, nobody should be surprised by Barack Obama’s championing of the TPP. Despite his 2007-08 campaign stump claims that he would not support “free trade agreements,” he’s been unambiguous advocate and agent of such measures during his time in the White House. More broadly, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon and president has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class – something that I have documented at no small length (at book-level in two cases) on countless occasions (for one example, see this essay from last spring)
Obama will sign the measure in New Zealand along with other head-of-state puppets of the world capitalist deep state next February 4. The U.S. Congress will still have to ratify the accord, however. There is no guarantee that it will, given its broad unpopularity in the U.S. – so great that the top four current U.S. presidential candidates (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) are on record against it.
The global capitalist elite wants the measure written into U.S law as soon as possible. As Rasmus noted last spring, the essential support of Democrats in Congress for “free trade” measures depends on the cover provided by the presence of Democrat in the White House:
“Recent U.S. history shows that a massive, free trade treaty like TPP can only be passed with the support of a Democratic president and Democrat support in Congress — just as Democrat Bill Clinton was essential for passing the previous USA free trade initiatives in the 1990s: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and opening up China-USA trade by proposing the Preferred Nation Trading Rights (PNTR) for China, a quasi-free trade measure…if a Republican is elected president in 2016, it is likely that Democrats may not support TPP in Congress. Corporate America does not want to wait that long for TPP, given either those events. It wants TPP now, not later.”
With the strong (if hardly certain) likelihood of a Democratic (Clinton) victory in the 2016 election, the urgency for capital remains. Hillary Clinton, under pressure from Sanders and Democrats’ progressive primary base, has come out against the TPP, as have the top Republican contenders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is hedging in his past support for TPP, reflecting his Big Tobacco backers’ disappointment with the degree of protection they have received so far in the treaty. (McConnell recently sad that Obama is risking defeat of his signature trade deal if he tries to push for passage before a lame-duck session next year. “It certainly shouldn’t come before the election,” McConnell told the Washington Post in an interview: “I think the president would be making a big mistake to try to have [the TPP] voted on during the election. There’s significant pushback all over the place.”) If Hillary Clinton gets in and pulls a NAFTA-like bait and switch on the TPP, she would probably still have to wait until 2018 or later to make a strong push for the measure.
The longer the nefarious corporatist treaty hangs out there, the more time and opportunity there is for opponents to expose the real and disastrous, arch-authoritarian nature of the TPP. The longer it has the chance of being undone by global economic instability, leading to currency, investment, and trade conflicts that undermine unity between the “partners.” And the longer the delay in gaining final U.S. constitutionally mandated approval, the more difficult it will be to keep the member nations on board – and out of economic alliance with the growing, long-game power China, the great geostrategic threat behind the U.S. imperial elite’s embrace of the regressive measure. The time for TPP is now, the waning days of the deeply deceptive Obama era, as far as big “American” capital is concerned. Hence the urgency of mass popular opposition now and in coming months.
The February 4th signing date seems like a potent popular organizing target in the U.S. Millions upon millions of U.S. workers and citizens are struggling just to keep their heads above water in the neoliberal mess that is New Gilded Age America, where the top 1% owns more wealth than the bottom 90% while half the population is either poor and near-poor. This on a planet where, according to Oxfam last year, 80 people together possess as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. What does the slithering neoliberal snake in the White House  propose to do about all that, in order, supposedly, to “leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured by the number of lives improved rather than by the number of bodies left behind”? Why, fly to New Zealand, of course, far from the rotting and police-terrorized ghettoes, the battered working class communities, the shameful mass prisons, and the ever-shrinking middle class of the “God”-blessed United States. To do what? To put his John Hancock, as the official representative of “We the [American] People,” on a darkly authoritarian and secretive, arch-global-corporatist measure painstakingly crafted over many years by corporate lobbyists, corporate lawyers, and state-capitalist technocrats to further yet more the upward concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the corporate and financial Few – this at great and possibly fatal cost to the common good! Surely this is an intolerable insult and offense to the American populace, something that merits mass protest and resistance in the streets, schools, workplaces, and town halls of the nation.
1 A story about Gilens and Page’s study in the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM) bore an interesting title: “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy.” The story contained a link to an interview with Gilens in which he explained that “contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence.” The leading Princeton economist, and former Federal Reserve Chair Alan S. Blinder, appeared to agree. “Sadly, within our political system so dominated by money, ‘equal political rights’ is a cruel deception…political and economic inequality reinforce one another, creating a well-known vicious circle” wrote Blinder in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal.
2 Where Obama falls short of Orwell’s “doublethink” is on belief when it comes to the contradiction between (a) seeming to call for more democracy and less plutocracy and (b) calling for Congress to pass TPP. In Obama’s case, we are dealing with abject cynicism and hypocrisy. My strong and educated sense of the 44th U.S. president is that he knows very well that he is functioning as a tool of global capitalism’s endless war on democracy and the common good and that he enjoys it. He particularly enjoys hare-brained liberals and progressives who are still to this day bamboozled into thinking that he is anything more than a slithering neoliberal snake, a shiny tool of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. Folks who believe that are rightly amusing to the president. I particularly enjoyed the cynicism of the following line in Obama’s address last night: “Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word – voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love. They’re out there, those voices…I see it in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages to keep him on board.” Here is my experience-based assembly line working-class translation of “clocked extra shifts to keep his company open”: the company is using the threat of plant closure and moving to a lower-wage zone of the world capitalist system to compel US workers to exhaust themselves. Assembly line workers do extra shifts to try to get enough money to survive because wages are too low. This is all thanks in no small part to “free trade” (investor rights) measures like NAFTA and (if it gets enacted) TPP. Appropriating the great Dr. King to celebration of factory laborer overwork is pretty appalling but it’s just standard Obama-era neoliberalism, with the usual spicing of identity politics added on. The bosses who pay higher wages to keep their workers on board? I’m afraid that’s not all that common these days.