Thursday, March 13, 2014

A brief musical history of "free trade"

You can also listen to this in audio form.  I recorded the live internet broadcast of me reading the words and playing the songs -- with some embellishments!

For the past few millennia, much of the world has been gripped in the throes of bloody conflict between the haves and the have-nots. For the past few centuries, the haves have primarily been represented by national governments and massive corporations, and have sold themselves as believers in democracy and free trade -- individual freedom and economic freedom is how they sell it. In the real world, this is all just a line, and the ruling classes have supported democracy or dictatorship, free trade or protectionism, randomly, depending on whether it was advantageous to them at the time.

These days they're trying to pass the biggest, baddest international agreements ever -- the TPP and the TTIP -- which will, if passed, further destroy local democracy, and will result in a huge transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, in the guise of supporting "free trade," like usual in recent years. I thought I'd give you a little musical history of trade, "free" or otherwise -- its promoters and its opponents.

During the early 18th century, Great Britain was a very dominant military and economic power. Part of Britain's success lay in imposing severe restrictions on which countries the British colonies were allowed to trade with -- namely, you could only trade with them, and anyone else was liable to get their ship sunk by the British Navy. So the pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy, mostly British subjects of African descent, sank the ships of British merchants, as well as their French and Spanish competitors.
Black Flag Flying

Taxation without representation and British restrictions on colonial trade were two of the main reasons that spurred on the American Revolution. But promises by extremely wealthy slaveholders like George Washington that things would improve under the new government didn't pan out. Tenant farmers made the revolution and then came back to the same greedy landlords that they had before they went out to fight, kill and die for the cause. Their 3-year revolt led directly to the Bill of Rights being passed. (Though as with so many other laws, these ten constitutional amendments have always been only very selectively enforced.)
Berkshire Hills

Half a century later, life still had not improved significantly under the revolutionary government. Despite the supposed advantages of sovereignty and fewer trade restrictions, the rich still owned most everything, while the poor majority in the USA led short and difficult lives. The tenant farmers of upstate New York revolted, and for nine years they refused to pay the rent to the oligarchs of Dutch descent who had inherited the land they lived on over the generations, since the Dutch crown had first granted it to themselves. It was in reaction to the Rent Strike Wars of upstate New York that the US Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which is largely responsible for creating the phenomenon of small farmers and small businesspeople which came to be known as "the middle class."
Landlord

The Opium Wars were two of many examples of the enforcement of trade policy through the barrel of a gun. There was a great thirst for Chinese products in Britain -- especially tea -- but British industry had little to offer that the Chinese wanted. So Britain -- with help from France, the United States, and Russia -- attacked China, burned cities, killed tens of thousands of civilians, and forced the Emperor to sign a treaty giving British merchants the right to sell massive quantities of heretofore illegal and highly addictive opium to the Chinese people.
Trade War

The American Revolution was led in part by slave-owners who wanted freedom from trade restrictions imposed by Britain. The southern states' secession that led to the American Civil War was led by slave-owners who wanted freedom from trade restrictions imposed by the Northern-dominated federal government. This was far from the only blatant instance of slavery and "free trade" being bedfellows.
John Brown

During the period that became known as the Coal Mine Wars, the freer the trade was, the worst things were for the miners of West Virginia. Without any government protections in place, the many coal mine operators in West Virginia had to compete on the open market with coal from Illinois and elsewhere, which was much cheaper to produce and get to market, since Illinois is flat and West Virginia is (or at least was) completely mountainous. In order to compete on the open market, they kept wages lower in West Virginia than anywhere where. Problem was, that meant starvation for the miners. So they rebelled, organized strikes, fought, and did all the other things that workers have to do in order to survive when the purveyors of "free trade" rule the land.
Battle of Blair Mountain

After the unregulated US economic system bounced along for decades and then collapsed almost entirely with the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent period known as the Great Depression, the only thing that helped mollify the extremely stratifying effect of these conditions were things like taxation and government spending on social programs. And other things that today would be called "non-tariff barriers to trade" such as labor unions.
Union Makes Us Strong

One of the longstanding problems with the advocates of "free trade" is that the biggest and most influential among them have no allegiance to any particular government or people, so they tend to play governments off against each other for their own benefit. A prime example of this was Ford, which hedged their bets during World War 2, and built tanks for both the US and Nazi Germany, making sure that the more people who got killed and the longer the war took, the more money they'd make, regardless of who came out on top.
Henry Ford Was A Fascist

Since long before the First Opium War, "free trade" has been used as a fig leaf for naked imperialism. Claiming it was unfair for the taxpayers of Chile to buy and own their own country's finite resources from the foreign corporations that previously controlled them, the US undermined and ultimately arranged to overthrow the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, putting into power a "free trade"-friendly dictatorship that tortured and killed thousands of people and ran Chile's economy into the ground all at the same time. The foreign corporations made lots of money, though.
Santiago

While Allende was in power in Chile, the US was busy making the Chilean economy scream, to quote Henry Kissinger.  The US has been trying for over half a century to do the same thing to Cuba, but the project to isolate Cuba economically and politically ran into more snags, such as countries like the Soviet Union, Canada, Mexico and most of Europe refusing to go along with the US's program to overthrow the Cuban government because they don't embrace "free trade," and had the audacity to nationalize some of their own resources after overthrowing the odiously corrupt and brutal Batista dictatorship in 1959.
Trading With The Enemy

Once the US labor movement had largely been wiped out, and the transnational "free trade" corporations were firmly in control in the US and elsewhere, the new norm became a massive trade deficit between the US and China, with Chinese sweatshops producing 70% of the products sold on the shelves of the world's biggest corporation, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart became iconic in the new economy, a physical representation of the race to the bottom that "free trade" sets into motion, with some of the world's lowest-paid workers producing the products, in countries with very bad standards for labor or civil rights, with very lax environmental regulations, while the lowest of the low-paid workers in the consuming countries sell these outsourced, imported products.
Wal-Mart

The flip side of outsourcing manufacturing jobs has been to try hard to force workers inside the US into a "race to the bottom," competing for ever-scarcer jobs that pay ever-lower wages.  A big part of that process has always involved a vibrant "black economy" of millions of undocumented workers, which the ruling class makes sure to keep in a state of fear at all times, so that they keep working, but don't organize, and so that they are always available to be used against those who do try to organize, always available as a scapegoat for everything -- crime, poverty, the availability of illegal drugs, you name it.
No One Is Illegal

With the rise of the concept of privatizing resources that had long been publicly managed and the rise of the concept of intellectual property and copyright, all sorts of new battlefronts emerged in the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. The land once held in common among the peasantry in places like England and Scotland had long ago been enclosed and claimed by the ruling classes. In recent decades the new emphasis has been on privatizing the water that falls from the sky, the seeds farmers plant, our genes, and our culture.
The Commons

One of the many negative aspects of privatizing and deregulating everything in the image of some twisted idea of freedom is that not only does the whole process dramatically intensity both the extremes of poverty as well as wealth and gut the so-called "middle class," but it causes the atomization of society in other ways.  For example, if it's more profitable for the big corporations for everybody to drive a private automobile rather than to take mass transit, and it's more profitable to have all the stores located in a big mall outside of town, rather than to fix up Main Street, then so be it.  The result of all of this has been what has come to be known as "urban decay," which the ruling class of course likes to blame on some combination of African-Americans and immigration.  Of course, it's the "free traders" who created the mess, not the victims of "free trade."
Used To Be A City

The last few years of the 20th century saw the rise globally of a movement against world domination by transnational corporations and their bought-off governments. There were many large and militant protests as well as lots of community organizing throughout North America and Europe, and in Latin America, one government after another was freed from the shackles of the International Monetary Fund by leftwing governments coming to power, most notably in oil-rich Venezuela. Four years after his landslide electoral victory, Hugo Chavez was overthrown by a coup with US assistance. Millions of people poured into the streets, however, and blockaded the entrances of all the military bases, the coup plotters relented, and Chavez came back, and continued implementing the social programs that have made such a difference to the lives of so many people in Venezuela and throughout Latin America.
Song for Chavez

War-torn Colombia became one of the last remaining countries in South America to be suffering under US "free trade" tutelage.  In Colombia, they do what the corporate leaders like to do best with community leaders and union organizers -- they shoot them.
Drink of the Death Squads

The movement in the US against the "free trade"-pushing corporate elite and their Democratic and Republican servants was put on the map with the protests outside the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, and faced a crossroads during the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas meetings in Miami in 2003, with wanton and extreme police brutality as well as many underhanded police tactics, and outrageously biased media reporting, combined with the psychological aftermath of 9/11, since after 9/11 the lines in the eyes of the corporate media between peaceful protesters and Al-Qaeda suicide bombers became blurred.
Miami

When the purveyors of "free trade" make plans to have a big meeting of the elites, they like to have them in places where protests aren't allowed, like Qatar and Russia.  If they have them in the US, they like to have John Timoney running the police department.  They like him because he's an anti-democratic thug with a well-deserved reputation of undermining the rule of law and violating civil rights on a massive scale.  Now he's training the cops in Bahrain.
Butcher for Hire

Another "free trade" advocate who has worked lots in both the US and the Middle East is Paul Wolfowitz.  He went from being one of the main people in charge of privatizing the Iraqi economy at the point of a gun, to running the World Bank and trying to implement those kinds of draconian policies on a more global scale.
Paul Wolfowitz

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union continued to embrace more and more "free trade"-style reforms -- deregulating banking, privatizing trains, prisons, formerly public utilities like water, etc. Going in the opposite direction of much of South America, and becoming more and more like the USA.
Welcome to the European Union

And then came another financial meltdown.  Many countries around the world went into a spiraling economic tailspin, requiring massive bailouts, with no hope of paying off the loans without selling most of their country's assets to the IMF.  Massive banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, while millions of people lost their homes and their savings.
Crashing Down

In different parts of the world, people dealt with the economic crisis in different ways.  In many South American countries, they further rejected the "free trade" model of perpetual underdevelopment, strengthening a political and economic block that very purposefully excluded the US.  In Somalia, the economy had been in a shambles for quite some time.  And in addition to the legacy of colonialism and the corrupt puppet governments that had long ago run the country into the ground, foreign corporations had taken advantage of the lack of a functioning government to dump nuclear waste off the Somali coast for years, helping to destroy the once-vibrant fisheries there.  So many people in Somalia did what desperate people have done for centuries -- they raided the ships belonging to those transnational corporations who were mainly responsible for creating and maintaining the tremendous global inequities in the first place.
Pirates of Somalia

In Greece, huge numbers of people and canines alike protested against their government's complicity in the global financial collapse, and their leaders' collective inability to stand up to the institutions who had created the problem.  Massive protests often turned into riots, and the financial district of Athens was torched repeatedly.
Riot Dog

Far less well-known than the pirates in Somalia or the riots of Greece were the peaceful protests in Iceland, and the elections which brought to power a government that rejected the bank bailouts on offer, and started procedures to protect underwater homeowners, and jail bankers.  After taking these actions, although in many ways still economically isolated from the rest of the world, Iceland is doing a hell of a lot better than Greece.
Iceland, 2008

As a result of the financial collapse and the policies of deregulation and privatization for decades that led to it, stratification of wealth in the US reached a new high -- it was now the worst it had been since 1929.  Although taxes in the US are higher for the average person than they are in Japan, the US has so much less to show for them, because half of those federal taxes are spent on the military and other worse-than-useless things.  But the idea of doing the obvious, such as cutting military spending or significantly raising taxes on the rich, are not even acceptable topics for discussion in Congress.
Tax the Rich

Deregulation and privatization over the decades have been Republican-led initiatives, but, contrary to popular mythology, the Democratic leadership has long been supportive of these policies as well.  If only the things the Republicans say about the Democrats were true, there might be some hope within the electoral system to take on these advocates of "free trade."  But a recent study pretty much sums up the problem:  the average Democrat in Congress is actually wealthier than the average Republican.
If Only It Were True

The US Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people, too.  And of course presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously agreed with that assessment.  In a way, this ruling sort of legally completed the process of moving from a government that at least pretended to understand itself as a democratic one, representing the human population of the country, to one that was now openly representing the corporations.  No more backroom bribery -- just perfectly legal lobbying, with unlimited funds now, to even further promote the "free trade" agenda that led to the financial collapse and so much more destruction.
Corporations Are People, Too

For an awfully long time, a lot of people were wondering if there was ever going to be a popular response in the US to the corruption, to the vastly expanding inequality, to the use of taxpayer money to bail out some of the world's richest corporations, while they turned around and took the bailout money in order to give their executives multi-million-dollar bonuses.  Then came Occupy Wall Street.  And then came 7,000 arrests, large helpings of police brutality, as well as police infiltration and spying on a large scale, as recent revelations have shown.
Occupy Wall Street

Pharmaceutical companies, Hollywood, and the music industry teamed up to try to pass legislation in the US, Europe and elsewhere that would cause drug prices to skyrocket, and have people imprisoned for downloading music and movies, among other bad things.  The idea was to further protect these industries, using the threat of imprisonment and lots of government regulation, all in the name of "free trade" and intellectual property rights.  So government regulation is good when it comes to protecting corporations, but bad when it comes to protecting real people.  Large numbers of people responded, particularly in eastern Europe, with protests and other forms of organizing campaigns, and SOPA, PIPA and ACTA were all defeated, for the time being.
Steal This MP3

"Free trade" is not only bad for humans because of the tendency of the "free traders" to try to profit off of every possible intellectual idea or piece of research anyone has ever done, to the point where they make it impossible for anyone to use a lot of available research without paying for patents they can't afford to pay for.  "Free trade" has also been absolutely devastating in the world of culture.  Since it's most profitable just to promote a small number of well-known musicians and ignore all the rest of them, regardless of talent or potential appeal, the "free traders" have created a sort of mono-culture, doing the same thing to music that they do to agriculture.  The influence of the "free traders" is so far-reaching that even much of the ostensibly independent media unwittingly play right along.  (Count how many of the music breaks on Pacifica radio programs are major label artists and you'll see what I mean.)
Why Don't They Play You On The Radio

One way that the "free trade" propagandists have tried to deal with the mass poverty they've created is to redefine notions of class.  So people who formerly would have thought of themselves as poor or working class are now meant to think of themselves as "middle class" or "lower middle class."  No one tries to define what "middle" means, since it's not in the middle of anything that anyone cares to acknowledge.  But if everybody who's barely scraping by but is, at least, employed somewhere, thinks of themselves as "middle class," maybe the belief that they're doing OK will keep them pacified, even if in actuality they're not doing OK at all?
Welcome to the Working Class

The same politicians and corporate spokespeople who promote "free trade" also claim to be environmentalists.  This, however, is impossible.  Those who promote "free trade" are promoting the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to countries that have no environmental standards to speak of.  Thus, they are encouraging massive polluting and a massive rise in carbon emissions globally.  And then, on top of that, they have the gall to talk about "energy independence," as if more oil drilling and fracking and the inevitable spills and leaks resulting from it will do anything other than exacerbate the problem.  Real energy independence would mean massive government investment in windmills and solar panels, not offshore oil drilling, fracking, mining tar sands, creating more wastelands, and shipping the dirty stuff through aquifers in pipelines.  And opposing such development or supporting other development are both considered to be "non-tariff barriers to trade" -- which is very bad, apparently.
Pipeline

And now the elites in the US and many other countries have decided that the WTO and other "free trade" agreements are not enough.  There's still too much power in the hands of elected officials, and not enough power in unelected corporate boardrooms, and they want to fix that problem once and for all, with an unprecedentedly huge trade deal -- or two unprecedentedly huge trade deals, one between the US and Asia, and one between the US and Europe.  If passed, the TPP and the TTIP would even further restrict the ability of national government's to impose regulations on things like pollution, workplace safety standards, food standards, wages and much more.  These agreements also sneak ACTA in through the back door, with all the negotiations being kept secret, conducted by corporate representatives.  The intention then is to get the Congress to pass it as one big trade agreement, without being able to make any adjustments, "Fast Track" style -- preferably without reading what's inside it.  The question remains, whose world is this, and how are we going to stop the "free traders" from completely destroying it?
TPP 101