“Free Trade is Under Attack!”

It’s bizarre and incredible, to me, to read what passes today as expertise and informed opinion — the Consensus or the Chorus — in the reactions to the breakdown of the Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA or Comprehensive European Trade Agreement). The Chorus, as I call it, is the assembly of those anxious voices crying out that “free trade is under attack!”, which really only means that the hegemony of neo-liberal ideology become the assumed “common sense” and unquestionable economic orthodoxy is under attack.

Well, it has been under attack and on the defensive especially since the 2008 market meltdown proved its deficiencies and self-contradictions. And since nothing was done, then or now, to redress those deficiencies and self-contradictions, it will remain under attack. As previously, Keynesian economics ran aground on its own self-contradictions in the phenomenon of “stagflation” in the 70s, so now the ostensible slayer of Keynesian economics, neo-liberalism, economic reductionism and market fundamentalism, has run aground on its own self-contradictions. Obviously, something they share in common lies at the root of these mutual instabilities and defects in which both eventually flounder on the reefs of their own self-contradictions — meaning, that they may be effective responses for a time, but eventually become self-devouring.

It isn’t especially the objections of the Walloon government and its First Minister Paul Magnette that have suddenly stalled the momentum of neo-liberal globalisation. That was effectively the result of the global financial crisis of 2008. But so entrenched and myopic is the economic orthodoxy that it was simply concluded that if the damned thing wasn’t working as predicted, it was because there wasn’t enough of it. “Too big to fail” became the exact equivalent of “stagflation”, but sensing no other recourse (because, after all, Margaret Thatcher had told us “there is No Alternative” and Fukuyama had announced that it was “the end of history”), if the damned thing wasn’t working, then it must be because there wasn’t enough free trade, not enough privatisation and deregulation.

Is this not the most glaring example of “zombie logic” that there is? The Chorus is nothing but this “zombie logic” — the orthodoxy.

The most critical and glaring self-contradiction of neo-liberal globalisation is the climate change crisis. Climate change is the cancerous side of neo-liberal globalisation, of the growth imperative and economic expansionism. You cannot decouple or compartmentalise these issues, which is why denialism is such an intransigent and incorrigible phenomenon. To acknowledge climate change as anthropogenic would be to concede that there is something essentially defective about neo-liberal economic orthodoxy. And yet, you will seldom, if ever, read in the mainstream press that the global climate change and the push for global “free trade” are reciprocal processes — or what we call “co-evolutionary” processes. The liberal Chorus, even when not explicitly denialist like the reactionary right, has its own form of denial — it simply refuses to acknowledge the connection between global “free trade” and economic expansionism and the climate crisis.

And, in that respect, it is true. There is a rather extensive and unconscious self-censorship in the mainstream media that, even though it may not go to the extremes of the reactionaries of the right in overt and irrational denialism, nonetheless does much the same thing by decoupling the issue of neo-liberal economics from the issue of climate change — the result of dualistic thinking of the either/or variety — that is to say, following Jean Gebser’s cultural critique, “deficient perspectivisation”.

So, the Chorus sings: “we can fix the financial crisis without questioning the economic orthodoxy” or “we can fix climate change without questioning the economic orthodoxy” or “we can fix the problem of plutocracy and increasing wealth inequality without doubting the economic orthodoxy”. This is the contemporary form of The Creed of the Faith.

No, you can’t! And that, not “isolationism” or “protectionism” or “nationalism”, is what the mainstream media does not understand about First Minister Paul Magnette’s objections to “free trade”. Almost every article I have read on the controversy has completely misrepresented the issues of contention because they cannot think at all outside the parameters of the orthodoxy, and so Mr. Magnette is cast as villain, buffoon, and even heretic or, God Forbid, just another version of a Trump or a Farage or a Boris Johnson.

Mr, Magnette is none of those things. He is a Cambridge-educated lawyer and a former professor of law. He knows law. And what he sees in these “free trade agreements” is a Trojan Horse that he doesn’t like — mainly the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS). He doesn’t like the restrictions they place on the exercise of democracy. He doesn’t like the idea of handing over social destiny to the whims of “rootless capitalism” and multinational corporations. He doesn’t like that the hands of the public authority can be potentially tied and prevented from regulating economic activity in the social and environmental interest or that the commonwealth could be potentially broken up and privatised. He doesn’t like the fact that these agreements prevent the public authority from achieving a truly balanced economy. And for this he is castigated as a bumpkin, an “anti-globalist”, and even a free trade villain by the Chorus.

But he is none of those things, although we are very rarely allowed to hear his own voice directly by the “gatekeepers”. He has said explicitly that corporate-led globalisation is “not the kind of globalisation we want”. There is nothing in that statement that suggests reactionary nationalism or isolationism or anti-globalism. But the Chorus can’t seem to interpret it in any other way. Why? Because they’ve bought into the orthodoxy, and have assumed Thatcher’s logic that “There is No Alternative” and “No such thing as society”, and because they have bought into Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” insanity, and because they can’t even think in any other terms but dualistic or dialectical terms.

But, as they say, “there is more than one way to skin a cat”, and it’s not necessarily true that all opposition to neo-liberal globalisation can be lumped together.

So, Mr Magnette is painted as being unreasonable, or even irrational. Perhaps the shoe is on the other foot? As my aboriginal friends say: “when you point your finger at others, remember there are three fingers pointing back at you”. Indeed, it is my contention that it is the orthodoxy — this “zombie logic” — that is the truly unreasonable and even irrational factor here, for it is neither proportionate, measured, balanced, nor a true “ratio” at all, but the logic of “the one best way”, the logic of economistic reductionism and market fundamentalism — the logic of a purely commercialist mentality and civilisation.

Yet comes the problem: how to persuade the Chorus that its logic is not holistic but merely a totalitarian logic? Not an ecologic but a monologic, and not even a dialogic, and as narcissistic and as reactionary in its own way, and as much psychic contagion and groupthink, as the explicit monologic of reactionary nationalism and the authoritarian right?

What’s needed is a saner, more balanced approach to economics and globalism than is offered by the economic orthodoxy. That’s Mr. Magnette’s position, in effect, and not a globalism that is led, directed, legislated, and shaped by transnational corporations, essentially a global corporatocracy which is what we really mean by the phrase “neo-liberal globalisation”, and to which governments merely serve as handmaiden and facilitator, or even auctioneers.

We simply must start thinking in terms of ecologics and ecodynamics if we are to avoid the worst excesses and crises of Late Modernity and to keep our wits about us as we transit the chaos of post-modernity.


3 responses to ““Free Trade is Under Attack!””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    The Huffington Post, at least, has an effective summary of the 5 points of contention raised by the Walloon government


  2. Scott Preston says :

    Finally, some vindication! The CBC now reports today that a “leaked document” reveals the real sticking-point that led to the refusal of Wallonia to support the CETA deal and the unclosed “loop holes” in the dispute settlement mechanism. The leaked document is quoted by CBC

    “The European Union and its member states and Canada have agreed to begin immediately further work on a code of conduct to further ensure the impartiality of the members of the tribunals, on the method of their remuneration and the process for the selection,” said the line that was added to the Oct. 13 “Joint Interpretative Declaration.”


    If we have to get this from a “leak”, then the process isn’t very transparent at all.

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Canadian lawyer Rocco Galati is attempting to sue the Canadian government over the CETA deal for not doing what the Walloons have done — respect their constitution.


    This is fun.

  3. Charles Leiden says :

    Scott, I agree. Anyone who goes against the “orthodoxy” is always labeled something derogatory. I feel humanity and the earth (which are in relationship) are in a transition as the situation gets more chaotic, more humans will become prophetic in their own way. I was nurtured by the social justice stream in the Catholic tradition such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. I understand the change will come through the courageous acts of a creative minority that imagines history as a move to peace and justice for all. Walter Breuggemann (The Prophetic Imagination) writes that ” that powers that be” the consumer culture and the corpocracy is ‘organized against history, a depreciation of memory and ridicule of hope which mean that everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now.” He calls the power that be, “royal consciousness”. Breuggemann is writing about the prophets of the old testament culminating Jesus and a community of faith. The dynamics are similar. An alternative future must be imagined before it before it can happen.

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