New development banks unlikely to threaten World Bank

Forecasts that new development banks sponsored by the largest developing countries are destined to erode the economic dominance of the United States are quite premature, but it is nonetheless no contradiction that the global hegemon has vigorously sought to stop them. More than a little hypocrisy is at work here.

The newly created Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has drawn much more of Washington’s ire than has the BRICS New Development Bank formed by the five “BRICS” countries of China, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The U.S. government has leaned heavily on Australia and other countries sufficiently firmly that Canberra has declined to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite its initial interest, nor have Indonesia and South Korea.

Although the infrastructure bank is to be capitalized with US$100 billion, it would be ridiculous to say that the World Bank or International Monetary Fund will be put out of business. It will not necessarily go much beyond complementing the existing Asian Development Bank, a regional multi-lateral institution controlled by the U.S. and Japan. And even the World Bank says Asia will require trillions of dollars to build its infrastructure in coming years that it and existing institutions can’t supply.

Protest at the World Bank. (Photo by "Jenene from Chinatown," New York City)

Protest at the World Bank. (Photo by “Jenene from Chinatown,” New York City)

The politics of imperialism are at work here. The very idea that a country outside the control of the U.S. dares to set up an institution outside the control of the U.S. is an example that Washington, as the ultimate enforcer of multi-national corporations’ prerogatives, is determined to stamp out.

In a front-page article, The New York Times reported:

“American officials have lobbied against the [infrastructure] bank with unexpected determination and engaged in a vigorous campaign to persuade important allies to shun the project, according to senior United States officials and representatives of other governments involved.”

And what excuse does the U.S. government give for its opposition? Officially, the Obama administration is not talking, but, quoting a “senior official” granted anonymity, the Times reports:

“A senior Obama administration official said the Treasury Department had concluded that the new bank would fail to meet environmental standards, procurement requirements and other safeguards adopted by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, including protections intended to prevent the forced removal of vulnerable populations from their lands. … ‘How would the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be structured so that it doesn’t undercut the standards with a race to the bottom?’ asked the senior official.”

Has the Obama administration, or, more accurately, the government apparatus that has steered U.S. policy on behalf of corporate interests for generations, suddenly grown a conscience? Quite unlikely. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as regional banks such as the Asian Development Bank, have been under U.S. suzerainty since their founding. Does the World Bank really uphold development ideals? The record firmly says otherwise.

The World Bank’s record of destruction

The World Development Movement, a coalition of local campaign groups in Britain, reports that the World Bank has provided more than US$6.7 billion in grants to projects that are destructive to the environment and undermine human rights, a total likely conservative. To cite merely three of the many examples, the World Bank:

  • Loaned an energy company in India more than $550 million to finance the construction of two coal-fired power plants. Local people, excluded from discussions, were beaten, their homes bulldozed and complain of reduced food security and deteriorating health as a result of the power stations.
  • An Indonesian dam, made possible by the World Bank’s $156 million loan, resulted in the forcible evictions of some 24,000 villagers, who were subject to a campaign of violence and intimidation.
  • In Laos, a hydropower project made possible by World Bank guarantees displaced at least 6,000 Indigenous people and disrupted the livelihoods of around 120,000 people living downstream of the dam who can no longer depend on the rivers for fish, drinking water and agriculture.

A study of World Bank policies, Foreclosing the Future by environmental lawyer Bruce Rich, found that:

“Drawing on Bank studies, project evaluations and sectoral reviews, it is shown that the World Bank still suffers from a pervasive ‘loan approval culture’ driven by a perverse incentive system that pressures staff and managers to make large loans to governments and corporations without adequate attention to environmental, governance and social issues. In 2013, Bank Staff who highlight social risks and seek to slow down project processing still risk ‘career suicide.’ … [The bank] has continued to binge on enormous loans to oil and gas extraction, coal-fired power stations and large-scale mining generating environmental damage, forest loss and massive carbon emissions.”

A study prepared by the Institute for Policy Studies and four other organizations found that World Bank lending for coal, oil and gas was $3 billion in 2008 — a sixfold increase from 2004. In the same year, only $476 million went toward renewable energy sources.

It could be pointed out that China’s industrialization has had serious environmental consequences, and that Chinese money was critical to the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the construction of which led to the forced removal of at least 1.3 million people. True enough, but Canadian, French, German, Swiss, Swedish and Brazilian capital were also necessary to build the dam. The World Bank also provided loans associated with Three Gorges and provided experts during the project’s planning stages.

Despite the pressure from Washington, 21 countries signed up to be founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including India, Singapore and the Philippines.

BRICS bank expected to bow to the logic of capital

China’s new bank was formed three months after the BRICS New Development Bank. The BRICS bank will be more modest, with a goal of US$100 billion capitalization, spread equally among the five countries. In a July 2014 communiqué, the five countries said their bank will have the “purpose of mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging and developing economies.” They also pledged to organize a “BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement” to “help countries forestall short-term liquidity pressures” resulting from foreign-exchange or debt markets.

Although this bank is intended as a gesture of independence from the U.S.-dominated world financial system, and will use some combination of the BRICS currencies, detaching from the world system is not a simple matter of setting up new institutions. A New Delhi economics professor, C.P. Chandrasekhar, sees the bank being limited in what it can potentially do. Writing on Naked Capitalism, he said:

“However, the new development bank is fundamentally not detached from the global financial system. Being a bank, even if a specialised one, it must ensure its own commercial viability. And it must do so when a large part of the resources it lends would be mobilised from the market. … [W]anting to be seen as respectful of the sovereign interests of borrowing countries, the [New Development Bank] would be careful not to frame its lending rules in ways that threaten the policy sovereignty of borrowing countries. If the countries that approach the institution are pursuing neoliberal strategies, there may be clear limits in terms of what the new development bank itself can achieve.”

Professor Chandrasekhar concludes:

“The decision of the BRICS to set up mini-versions of the World Bank and the IMF seems to be more a symbolic declaration of resentment at the failure of the US and its European allies to give emerging countries a greater say in the operations of the Bretton Woods institutions. … The desire to redress the obvious inequities in the global financial system seems far less important.”

If it is a safe haven, it is not going away

That, for at least the near future, U.S. hegemony is not threatened received fresh confirmation during October’s week-long decline in the world’s stock markets — money from around the world quickly poured into U.S. treasuries as a safe haven. From a capitalist standpoint, doing so is entirely rational: If the U.S. government unravels, the entire global capitalist system disintegrates.

Although predictions of the U.S. eventually being dethroned will one day come true — every empire has an expiration date — that such a dethronement is imminent is wishful thinking. This is not to say that U.S. power is not eroding, but there is no conceivable replacement for the U.S. at the center of the world capitalist system. The U.S. spends about as much money on its military as every other country on Earth combined and the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency; that the world continues to buy U.S. debt as a safe haven enables the U.S. to continue to run up deficits and finance its military.

There is no military remotely in a position to become the global enforcer of capital, nor any currency that could replace the dollar at the present time. The euro is not a candidate because the eurozone is too fractured and unstable; the renminbi is not fully convertible. According to the Bank of International Settlements, the U.S. dollar was involved in 87 percent of the world’s foreign-exchange transactions in April 2013, while the euro was involved in 33 percent and the renminbi in 2 percent.

The U.S. needs China to buy its debt but China needs the U.S. as an export destination; Chinese growth continues to be dependent on unsustainable levels of investment rather than internal consumption, a situation difficult to adjust because production is moved to China to take advantage of its low sweatshop wages. A contradiction on the other side of the Pacific is that U.S. foreign policy treats China as a capitalist competitor that must be contained at the same time that U.S.-based multi-national corporations are instrumental in transferring production to China.

A change in the global hegemon from the U.S. to another country or bloc, leaving the capitalist system intact, provides no salvation, no more than did the early 20th century’s transfer from Britain. Another world is possible only with an entirely new economic system. Otherwise, the subaltern will remain subaltern, be they nation or people.

Reversing global warming will take far more than asking polluters to stop

Four hundred thousand took the streets of New York City on September 21, and, regardless of our critiques of the event and the groups organizing it, that is a memorable feat. But: What will it mean?

With no disrespect to the logistical work, the hardship of travel and all the rest of the organizing work carried on over several months, a demonstration is the easy part of a movement. The hard part is sustaining the many layers of strategic work necessary to prevail against vastly more powerful entities and having the courage to directly challenge the system.

A march of protestors literally miles long can’t help but earn attention, but without much follow-up work, it will mean little, exhilarating as it was to be among so many. The next day’s “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience, in which hundreds of people blocked a major Financial District street for several hours, is a hopeful step. If the energy unleashed in Monday’s flood is replicated in all the places from which people traveled to the September 21 demonstrations that took place around the world, then perhaps that could be the day we some day look back to as the start of a successful struggle to save the planet.

People's Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

People’s Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

South Africans struggling to dismantle apartheid through long decades and the civil rights activists of the 1960s in the Southern U.S. literally put their bodies and lives on the line. And yet, as inhumane as the local elites were in protecting their privileges, the global order was not targeted. Tackling global warming seriously directly challenges business as usual around the world.

Reversing global warming and living in harmony with our environment and all the living beings who share the planet with us humans means nothing less than putting an end to capitalism. The industrialists and financiers who dominate the world, and the governments that serve them, show no indication they will do anything other than throw all the violence they can summon to keep their system in place and themselves at the top of the pyramid.

Demonstrations, in themselves, change nothing: They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. Demonstrations do signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly (no, you are not crazy because you don’t believe the lies the corporate media feeds you), and serve as an invaluable organizing tool. An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force.

Will we use the tool — will we go back to our communities and construct the organizations that will find a path to a better world? That possibility is why we all had to march, despite the critiques put forth by thoughtful activists beforehand.

They say cringe, we say fight back

These critiques bring to mind the debates over the anti-war marches on the eve of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq, when activists in the U.S. were frustrated by United For Peace and Justice’s watered-down demands and transparent attempts to steer the anti-war movement into the Democratic Party and ultimately into the presidential campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry. The counter-argument then was for Left activists to show up anyway and raise more radical demands and bring forth more fundamental analyses.

Similar critiques were heard about September 21’s People’s Climate March, which was so watered down that it had no demands. For example, a detailed critique by Global Justice for Animals and the Environment reported that grassroots organizers were “shot down” in planning meetings when they tried to link global warming with economic issues:

“The point of the meeting, they were told, was to focus on how to bring people to the march, not to set an agenda for it. Grassroots organizers were thus being called upon to do work for an event controlled by others. This raised alarm bells for me from the outset. It’s an all too common problem for NGO staff to treat grassroots organizers as their unpaid employees. Coming in and telling us ‘we set the [nonexistent] agenda; you should do the legwork’ is insulting and disrespectful of our time, priorities, and insights.”

At some point, an undifferentiated “big tent” devolves into a marketing opportunity for those most responsible for global warming. The Global Justice critique concludes:

“Another world IS possible, but we will not find it on a literal and metaphorical march to nowhere with fossil fuel burning energy companies, cynical greenwash fronts for big food multinationals, and green Apartheid apologists.”

I had no reason to disagree with that assessment. Nonetheless, why stay home? Better to show up, ignore the organizers and make far more serious critiques and raise far more serious demands at the march. (Which the authors of that critique indeed did do.) It’s not every day that one can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of signs denouncing capitalism. And although even the route of the march came under criticism, it snaked through heavily trafficked areas of Midtown Manhattan. Going past Times Square alone, untold thousands of tourists — including people from across the United States, who most need that message put in front of them — saw it.

The corporate media won’t do our work for us

A sign that the march was too big for the corporate media to ignore was that the local newspapers actually ran articles about it. But New York City’s tabloids in particular were true to form, with the Daily News headlining its story “Thousands of protesters, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, join People’s Climate March.” Alas, the article mostly consisted of breathless celebrity sitings, with only one actual activist quoted.

That was one more activist than could be found in The New York Post’s content-free article. The Post’s headline also referred to “thousands” and its article consisted entirely of celebrity mentions. But lest we think Rupert Murdoch’s minions are losing their extremist edge by uncharacteristically deigning to cover (however superficially) a demonstration not organized by the tea party, it ran an accompanying story headlined “Climate change skeptics call out marchers’ ‘hypocrisies.’ ” We’ll pause here while you enjoy a laugh.

Given the dearth of television coverage, the organizers’ goal of attracting media attention didn’t materialize in any meaningful way. And if there had been a flurry of television coverage, the corporate media would have moved on after one day with no follow-up. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead end strategy.

So despite the march-organizing NGOs’ faith in the Democratic Party and wish to avoid offending their corporate donors, there is not going to be a faction of the establishment suddenly open to confronting the issue of global warming. “Green capitalism” is an illusion — a system based on infinite growth on a finite planet, that grants a few vast rewards while shifting the costs to everyone else, is the problem and not the solution.

Organizing and struggle is the route to reversing global warming, not asking those who profit from destruction to please stop doing so.

“Justice” for a billionaire, none for the state he ripped off

There has been much cheering across the corporate media about the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ordering the Russian government to pay more than US$51 billion as compensation for confiscating the assets of Yukos, yet silence concerning the original theft of the company by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The basis of the decision by the arbitration court was that the assets of Yukos, seized for alleged non-payment of taxes, were sold for US$9 billion, well below the estimated value of the company. Conveniently left out of this picture is that Mr. Khodorkovsky purchased the assets for $159 million seven years earlier in a rigged process that he controlled. He did so as one of seven oligarchs who bought deeply unpopular former President Boris Yeltsin a second term and were handed control of the country’s vast natural resources as a reward.

This is a story that can not be separated from the fall of the Soviet Union and the looting of its assets, with a handful of newly minted oligarchs, mostly former black marketeers who became bankers, coming to control post-Soviet Russia’s economy. Estimates of the size of the assets that came to be owned by the seven biggest oligarchs (Mr. Khodorkovsky was one of them) in the late 1990s range up to one-half of the Russian economy. This at the same time that the Russian economy shrank by 45 percent and an estimated 74 million Russians lived in poverty according to the World Bank; two million had been in poverty in 1989.

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

Siberian mountain formation (photo by Irina Kazanskaya)

An important factor in the failure of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was that working people saw the reforms as coming at their expense. A 1987 reform loosened job protections in exchange for enterprise councils that were to have given workers a voice in management, but the councils were largely ineffective or co-opted by managements. The law had also been intended to eliminate labor shortages. It didn’t, and a 1990 reform was stealthily passed to reduce employment and eliminate the ability of working people to defend themselves. Enterprises would now have private owners with the right to impose management and ownership shares could be sold.

Exhaustion from years of struggle also were a factor in the lack of organized resistance to the elements of capitalism that were introduced in the last years of perestroika and to the shock therapy that was imposed on Russia at the start of 1992, days after the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and the assumption of uncontested power by President Yeltsin. Shock therapy wiped out Russians’ savings through hyperinflation and state enterprises were sold at fire-sale prices, or sometimes simply taken.

Connections allowed him to set up businesses

Mr. Khodorkovsky used his connections as an official within the Communist Youth League to found a company that imported and resold computers and other goods at huge profits and engaged in currency speculation. The proceeds were used to buy companies on the cheap and found a bank. His bank, Menatep, earned large fees by providing credit when it was in scarce supply during the post-Soviet collapse.

When President Yeltsin was up for re-election in 1996, he faced a daunting challenge as his popularity rating was well below 10 percent — tens of millions of Russians had been plunged into poverty and the economy had contracted for several years in succession. The president admitted in his memoirs that he was about to cancel the election. But he was presented with a plan by the seven oligarchs, the scheme that became known as “loans for shares.”

These seven oligarchs offered President Yeltsin a bargain: In lieu of paying taxes, they would make loans to the government so it could meet its expenses, such as actually paying its employees. In return, the government would give the oligarchs collateral in the form of shares of the big natural-resources enterprises that were soon to be privatized. (Other state enterprises had been quickly privatized upon the implementation of shock therapy.)

If the loans were repaid, the bankers would give the shares back. If not, the oligarchs would hold auctions to sell the collateral. The government had no ability to pay back these loans, but President Yeltsin issued a decree sealing the deal in August 1995.

The oligarchs used their own banks to conduct the subsequent auctions, and, through a mix of rigged terms and conveniently closed airports, won them all at prices that were small fractions of the enterprises’ reasonable market value. These enterprises represented Russia’s enormous reserves of oil, nickel, aluminum and gold, and a minority share in the dominant gas company, Gazprom.

These seven oligarchs all became billionaires through the “loans for shares” scam. The oligarchs, who owned almost the entire Russia mass media, spent 33 times the legal limit on the election and provided 800 times more television coverage of President Yeltsin than was provided to his opponents.

Mr. Khodorkovsky’s bank, Menatep, was put in charge of the auction of Yukos. It avoided competitive bidding, enabling his holding company to buy it for $159 million, only $9 million above the starting price. As long as Boris Yeltsin was president, the oligarchs could steal all they wanted. Nor did Western authorities complain about this; President Yeltsin’s bombardment and illegal disbanding of the Russian Parliament in 1993, resulting in more than 500 deaths, was celebrated as a democratic triumph. Indeed, the World Bank’s chief economist for Russia declared, “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”

Corporate lawyers as arbitrators

The Permanent Court of Arbitration that handed down the $51 billion judgment is one of the international tribunals that hear investor-state disputes behind closed doors. As is customary with these bodies, the arbitrators are corporate lawyers appointed by governments.

In the Yukos case, each side could choose one of the three panelists who hear the case. The deciding panelist was Yves Fortier, a former chair of one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms and of Alcan Inc., a mining company since bought by Rio Tinto, and a director of several other companies.

I see no sense in denying that politics were behind Mr. Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence and his loss of Yukos. But there can be no dispute that politics and shady dealing earned him his fortune in the first place. The gangster capitalism in which he excelled in the 1990s, cheered on by the West, was without mercy. Are there going to be outpourings of sympathy for the tens of millions of Russians immiserated so that the country’s Khodorkovskys could become billionaires? I think we already know the answer.

Mayor de Blasio is the Obama of New York City

He’s only been in office six months and I know we should be leery of making comparisons that risk becoming glib, but the consistencies are already too apparent to be ignored: Bill de Blasio is the Barack Obama of New York City.

Both took office with expectations higher than were reasonable but have fallen short of what someone with sober expectations might have expected. High expectations without mobilizing a movement to realize those expectations is part of the problem, true. That is, and is not, a mitigating factor. That too many hopes were poured into individual office-holders, and too little effort into holding them accountable, is beyond reasonable dispute. But that does not ameliorate the necessity of judging them by what they do rather than what they say.

And who they appoint. Among President Obama’s first significant appointments was Lawrence Summers to be his lead financial adviser. All was lost right there; an unmistakable neoliberal signal. Among Mayor de Blasio’s first significant appointments was William Bratton as police commissioner. Commissioner Bratton held that office under Rudy Giuliani, a time when the New York Police Department often acted like an occupying army, with relations between the police and, in particular, Black and Hispanic communities, abysmal.

He followed his Giuliani-time stint with a lucrative deal with Kroll Inc., a security firm that describes itself as “Wall Street’s eyes.” He also greatly increased the use of “stop and frisk” tactics when he was Los Angeles commissioner despite his new boss’ promise to curtail usage, and the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force increased under his leadership.

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

The new look of Williamsburg (Photo by Alex Proimos)

Should we judge Mayor de Blasio by his words or by his actions? He certainly said words welcomed by most New Yorkers in the days leading up to the June 23 vote by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board in which it voted for an increase in rents for rent-stabilized apartments, as it has in each of its 45 years of existence. Consistent with the position he took during last year’s mayoral campaign, he publicly called for a rent freeze. He went so far as to say, hours before the vote, that:

“We need a course correction, a one-time action to clearly rectify the mistakes of the past, and a course correction that will actually provide fairness to tenants who have been charged more than they should’ve.”

But he also said the decision should be based on “the actual facts, the actual numbers.” That was a signal to not expect a rent freeze.

The Rent Guidelines Board is independent, but the mayor appoints all nine members; Mayor de Blasio has had time to appoint or re-appoint six of them. So although the mayor can’t dictate what the board members will do, he can select people who will follow his alleged philosophy. Previous mayors such as Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, each unreserved servants of New York’s two dominant industries — real estate and Wall Street — had no difficulty packing the board with appointees who routinely gave landlords significant rent increases.

Two board members represent tenants and two represent landlords, so the five “public” members are decisive. And it was one of Mayor de Blasio’s picks, an executive with M & T Bank, who put forth the proposal for a one percent raise despite widespread hope that this year would see the first-ever freeze. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the bank executive, Steven Flax, cut a deal with landlord interests on the board because the latter realized they would not be able to get the much bigger increase they sought.

Landlord profits rise with rents

According to a report prepared by the board — which presumably relies on landlord reporting and thus likely somewhat understates their income — apartments in rent-stabilized buildings generated an average net income of $436 per month in 2012. The average building surveyed has 45.3 units — thus, the average building yields $237,000 in profits for one year! It is true that many buildings are much smaller, but it is also true that many landlords own multiple properties.

Moreover, that average net income has increased 31.5 percent since 1990, with much of that coming since 2005. Landlord profits have increased all but one year since — that is, the rents collected have risen faster than expenses.

Mayor de Blasio has kept former Mayor Bloomberg’s real estate policies intact. During the billionaire ex-mayor’s reign, zoning laws were changed over wide swathes of land to allow luxury high-rises where either smaller residential buildings or commercial operations had been, accelerating gentrification. The zoning could have been reversed; 40-story towers are out of place in neighborhoods where buildings had been on a human scale. But just last month, Mayor de Blasio allowed the notorious developer Two Trees (which has already rapidly gentrified another Brooklyn neighborhood down the East River) to build towers up to 55 stories in Williamsburg, on the site of a shuttered sugar factory.

The developer that previously owned the property wanted to build an out-of-scale luxury housing complex that is certain to put still more upward pressure on local rents — this is a historically working class area — consistent with the new zoning. Having instead flipped the property to Two Trees, the “progressive” mayor decided to capitulate to the new developers’ demand to allow even bigger buildings in exchange for a token increase in the number of affordable units.

But perhaps we should not hold our breath waiting for the lower-priced apartments to be built — another developer, Forest City Ratner, has pushed the date for the promised affordable housing associated with the massive luxury-housing project at Barclays Center far into the future. That despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and buying rights to what had been public land for below market value.

Mayor de Blasio has made no move to reverse any of the Bloomberg-era rezoning — heavily opposed by neighborhood residents who rightly saw them as being implemented to benefit developers at their expense. He is eyeing similar rezonings (in other words, keeping the wave of gentrification moving) for another 15 neighborhoods. The mayor is already on the record as saying he will continue the Bloomberg administration’s policy of higher-density building. That’s music to the ears of the city’s billionaire developers. Not so much to neighborhoods lacking the infrastructure to handle such influxes.

Folding on charter schools

Then there is the matter of charter schools — funded through city taxes but privately run and given public-school space for free at the expense of the public-school students. Charter schools are the leading edge of efforts to privatize school systems and put them under corporate control while busting teachers’ unions so as to bring on younger teachers with less pay and less job security. And they achieve similar or worse results than traditional public schools, despite the hype that surrounds them.

In contrast to his campaign promises to reign in charter schools and make them pay for the space they use, Mayor de Blasio’s first move was to approve 39 of 49 charter-school applications that had been rubber-stamped late in 2013 in the waning days of the Bloomberg  administration. Hedge funders and other corporate interests, backed by “Governor 1%,” Andrew Cuomo, swiftly reacted with a counter-offensive against that tepid opening. Governor Cuomo rammed through a provision in the state Legislature that requires the city to hand over space for free to charter schools.

Mayoral control of schools was fine when a billionaire mayor wanted to corporatize them but not when there is a theoretical possibility of a mayor allowing public input in education policy.

Mayor de Blasio’s reaction? Not so much as a whimper as his charter-school promises were eviscerated as if they had never existed, and then he played a critical role in defeating an electoral challenge to the governor when the latter was challenged for the nomination of the Working Families Party, a small party that seeks to provide progressive cover to Democrats by cross-endorsing them.

The mayor has yet to challenge the governor on any issue, despite the latter’s corporate agenda, backed heavily by the financial industry. The New York City government is hamstrung in advancing tenants’ interests because of the state law known as the Urstadt Law, which forbids local governments from enacting rent laws better than the limited protections allowed under state law. The mayor could push for the repeal of Urstadt, a long-time demand of housing activists, but has remained silent. The one thing he could have delivered, a rent freeze, he did not do.

Although it may seem that a one percent increase — the smallest ever granted — is not much different than zero percent, a first-ever freeze would have set an important precedent and created the conditions for future rent freezes — or rollbacks. In 2011, about 55 percent of New York City’s households lived in apartments with rents that exceeded 30 percent of household income, defined as the maximum affordable rent, up from about 45 percent ten years earlier.

Just as President Obama made a couple of symbolic gestures that were easy to do — successfully pushing for the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay act and withdrawing the Bush II/Cheney administration’s legal memos “legalizing” torture — Mayor de Blasio has overseen a reduction in “stop and frisk” police tactics and pushed for an expansion of pre-kindergarten school programs. Those are widely popular and represent a minimal “promise kept.” But, so far, overall, an Obama-esque drifting and surrender to corporate ideology. Both have effectively turned Right-wing offensives in bipartisan collaborations.

Trend is larger than any one personality

One person, one office-holder, can only do so much; all the more so is that the case when there is no sustained grassroots mobilization that can hold them to account. Nor should we overemphasize personalities when the structure that maintains corporate domination is as strong as ever. This is hardly a new phenomenon — North American liberals and European social democrats have been capitulating to corporate interests and adopting right-wing positions steadily through the three decades of the neoliberal era. The tenures of Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, François Hollande, to name only a few at the national level, tell us there is something much larger than individual personalities at work here.

There is a breakdown of coherence beyond dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, and cowardliness. It’s that North American liberalism and European social democracy no longer stand for anything. They, and their leaders, believe as fervently in capitalism and its limitations as strongly as any conservative. But although acknowledging problems and advocating reforms, they are trapped by their belief that capitalism will solve its own problems and nothing more than tinkering is necessary, or imaginable.

Beyond the exhaustion of liberalism and social democracy, and their submission to corporate perspectives, is the lack of mass movements. At the start of his first term, President Obama told his supporters to “make me” do what they wanted him to do by applying pressure. They didn’t, and haven’t. Mayor de Blasio did not go so far as to say that to his supporters, but the same principal applies. There is no serious movement pressuring him to not only fulfill his campaign promises, but, more importantly, to move the political agenda well beyond.

For example, why shouldn’t housing be a human right instead of a commodity for private profit?

In the absence of popular pressure, corporate money speaks all the louder. Ringing your hands in frustration gets you nothing. Organizing a movement, filling the streets, refusing to cooperate with business as usual changes societies. Until that happens, corporate power and money will continue to call the tune, no matter who is in office.

Labor rights respected nowhere on Earth

If labor rights were a test, the entire world would flunk. Basic labor rights are under sustained assault, but just how badly is quantified in a just released report by the International Trade Union Confederation in which every country scored below 50 percent.

To better summarize these results, the ITUC grouped the world’s countries into five rankings, with a ranking of one signifying the countries with the (relatively) best conditions for working people and a ranking of five signifying those with the most repressive conditions. Most of those countries with a ranking of one were in the European Union, but this group also included Togo and Uruguay. Those with a ranking of five include some of the world’s most repressive countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, but also Greece, Turkey and South Korea. The United States has a ranking of four. So much for the home of the free.

The ITUC describes itself as “a confederation of national trade union centres” that includes 325 affiliated organizations in 161 countries and territories. Its Global Rights Index summarizes data on the abuse of trade union rights around the world. The report’s introduction states:

“The increase in precarious employment relationships has further deepened the vulnerability of workers to discrimination at the workplace. Governments in the vast majority of countries have been convinced to alter their labour legislation to encourage various forms of precarious work. In virtually all countries, temporary work, agency work, subcontracting and other types of informal work are expanding rapidly. Given their unstable employment situation and the high risk of dismissal, precarious workers are discouraged from joining unions and being covered by collective bargaining. This means that workers in precarious forms of employment do not have the necessary support to improve their work situation.”

The report collects information on each country for 97 indicators derived from International Labour Organization standards. These indicators relate to one of five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. It assigns a simple yes or no to each of the 97 questions rather than a more gradated system to eliminate any potential bias and because each is a “universally binding obligation” that all countries should respect.

Therefore, 97 is the highest possible score for any country. The highest score attained, however, was 43. The lowest was zero. Therefore, the study grouped the world’s countries into the five rankings, with each ranking containing roughly one-fifth of the total. The ITUC’s map of workers’ rights is below, with the brightest yellow those countries with a ranking of one (those with the most respect for rights) and the deepest orange and red those with a ranking of five (those with the least respect for rights).

ITUC map of workers' rights

ITUC map of workers’ rights

Countries with a ranking of four, such as the United States, Honduras, Indonesia and Kuwait, “have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.” Only somewhat better are those with a ranking of three, such as Australia, Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, where “Government and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.”

Those conditions are reflected in the dwindling number of strikes. During the 1970s, an average of During the 1970s, an average of 289 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers took place annually in the United States. In 2009, there were no more than five. Lockouts, in which management bars employees from working, have become more common, reaching record levels this decade.

That is a worldwide phenomenon, of course, in no way limited to any one country, including the one imposes its will on the rest of the world through a misguided ideology of “exceptionalism.” The ITUC notes in its report:

“[W]orkers are struggling everywhere for their right to collective representation and decent work deficits exist in varying degrees in most countries. Abuses of rights are getting worse not better and too many countries take no responsibility for protecting workers rights in a national context or through corporate supply chains. Based on reports from affiliates, workers in at least 53 countries have either been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for attempting to negotiate better working conditions. In the vast majority of these cases the national legislation offered either no protection or did not provide dissuasive sanctions in order to hold abusive employers accountable. Indeed, employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation.”

A continuing race to the bottom is all that is on offer. Capitalists are well organized, across borders. Working people had better do the same.

Trade legerdemain on both sides of the Atlantic

The Democratic Party has responded to the resistance against ramming through new trade agreements by giving the process a new name. “Fast-track” has been rebranded as “smart-track” and, voilà, new packaging is supposed to make us forget the rotten hulk underneath the thin veneer.

Don’t be fooled. The Obama administration and its Senate enablers are nowhere near giving up on its two gigantic trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Because the stealthy “fast track” route — special rules speeding trade legislation through Congress with little opportunity for debate and no possibility of amendments — is the only way these corporate wish lists can be enacted, a “rebranding” is in order.

The new chair of the U.S. Senate’s Finance Committee, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, earlier this month, in a speech given to apparel-industry corporate executives, announced his intention to replace the “fast track” process with a “smart track” process. That is noteworthy because the Finance Committee has responsibility in the Senate for trade legislation. It also noteworthy because Senator Wyden has voted to approve the last five U.S. “free trade” agreements, going back to 2005.

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Although the Transatlantic Partnership being negotiated between the United States and the European Union receives less attention than the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, neither has much chance of passing without special fast-track authority. Should Congress agree to grant the White House fast-track authority, the Obama administration would negotiate a deal and submit the text for approval to Congress under rules that would prohibit any amendments or changes, allow only a limited time for debate, and require a straight yes or no vote.

None other than the previous U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, said the Trans-Pacific Partnership has to be secret because if people knew what was in it, it would never pass. We should take him at his word.

Tell the people what they want to hear

On the surface, Senator Wyden’s speech to the American Apparel & Footwear Association Conference on April 10 sounds conciliatory. He made the standard ritual references, calling for trade agreements that create jobs and “expand … the winners’ circle.” The senator proclaimed:

“I want to be very clear: only trade agreements that include several ironclad protections based on today’s great challenges can pass through Congress. I am not going to accept or advance anything less.”

He did not fail to declare that “strong standards and enforcement” on labor and environmental standards “is an imperative.” But we can be forgiven skepticism here because Senator Wyden had this to say on existing labor and environmental standards:

“People on all sides of the trade debate should more openly acknowledge the progress in these areas and the hard work that went into getting those reforms.”

Progress? There are no enforceable rules concerning these areas in existing trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. Lost jobs, reduced wages, more unemployment, higher food prices and reversals of environmental laws have invariably been the results. Unaccountable, secret tribunals staffed by corporate lawyers have enabled corporations to overturn regulations in all three NAFTA countries — and the U.S. government, in its current trade negotiations, wants rules even more weighted in favor of multi-national corporations than exists in NAFTA.

If this is what Senator Wyden considers to be “progress,” what possible basis could there be for believing the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships will deliver anything other than more corporate-dictated austerity?

The existing version of fast-track legislation — the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, better known as the Camp-Baucus bill — was effectively dead not long after its January release. It was expected that a new version of fast-track, with a couple of small, cosmetic changes and a cover story that opponents had been heard, would come. Senator Wyden has not disappointed, and it’s coming perhaps quicker than activists expected. This will become a hot potato as the November mid-term elections approach, so the senator was careful in his speech to not provide a timetable:

“I am going to work with my colleagues and stakeholders on a proposal that accomplishes these goals [of more transparency] and attracts more bipartisan support. As far as I’m concerned, substance is going to drive the timeline.”

‘Consultation’ only to let people vent

The perception of more transparency and public participation is all that we are likely to see, perhaps on the model of the European Union’s new public-consultation process. The process centers on a web site that E.U. citizens can use to fill out a questionnaire. The page is complicated to use, and has a 90-minute time limit, after which any imputed data is wiped out. Write fast! And for good measure, the E.U. trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, once again declared, in his last visit to Washington:

“[W]e are happy to be scrutinized on this: no standard in Europe will be lowered because of this trade deal; not on food, not on the environment, not on social protection, not on data protection. I will make sure that [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] does not become a ‘dumping’ agreement.”

Neither his office, nor that of the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, have been kind enough to share with the public when the next Transatlantic negotiating session will be held. There has been no lack of communication with corporate lobbyists, however. A European public-interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory, requested documents from the European Commission (the bureaucratic arm of the E.U.) to discover with whom E.U. negotiators are consulting.

It was revealed that of 127 closed meetings concerning the Transatlantic Partnership talks, at least 119 were with large corporations and their lobbyists. The Observatory reports:

“The list of meetings reveals that … there is a parallel world of a very large number of intimate meetings with big business lobbyists behind closed doors — and these are not disclosed online. These meetings, moreover, were about the EU’s preparations of the trade talks, whereas the official civil society consultation was merely an information session after the talks were launched. The Commission’s rhetoric about transparency and about consulting industry and NGOs on an equal basis is misleading and gives entirely the wrong impression of [the European Commission’s] relations with stakeholders.”

Three German Green Party members of the European Parliament (Ska Kellar, Rebecca Harms and Sven Giegold) have leaked the E.U.’s position paper on the Transatlantic Partnership negotiations (Members of the European Parliament are shut out of the negotiations.) Although this leak offers only a glimpse at E.U. negotiating positions, Europeans have a basis for concern. A rough English translation of the leaked document (available only in German) states:

“The agreement will provide for the reciprocal liberalization of trade in goods and services and rules on trade-related issues, which it pursues through ambitious goals that go beyond what is available via the existing WTO commitments.”

Although it also says the agreement will include a “general exception clause” on the basis of articles XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which purport to allow exceptions to trade agreements when necessary to safeguard human, animal or plant life or health, such clauses are meaningless. Other agreements have similar clauses, but are consistently superseded by rules such as Article 12.6 of the Trans-Pacific Partnership text that “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law.”

‘Customary law’ is what a secret tribunal says it is

Precedents handed down in secret tribunals are what constitute “customary international law.” That the E.U. negotiators intend to “go beyond” the rules of the World Trade Organization should leave no doubt that “law” as desired by multi-national corporations is what is contemplated. Indeed, the leaked E.U. text states an intention to:

“Provide a level playing field for investors in the U.S. and in the EU. … The agreement should provide an effective mechanism for the settlement of disputes between investors and the state.”

That goal should be borne in mind when evaluating the E.U.’s April 10 announcement that it has refused to include the standard investor-state dispute rules in its proposed trade agreement with Canada, despite Canada’s now dropped insistence that it be included. Inside U.S. Trade reports that:

“Canada and the EU have agreed to a ‘closed list’ approach toward defining what constitutes a breach of fair and equitable treatment that was proposed by the EU. … The closed list that the two parties agreed upon is comprised of: denial of justice in criminal, civil or administrative proceedings; a fundamental breach of due process; manifest arbitrariness; targeted discrimination on manifestly wrongful grounds; and abusive treatment of investors.”

On the surface, the “closed list” approach to the bases over which a corporation can sue a government appears to have narrowed from the more common approach that places no limits on corporate suits. But, critics say, the list of arbitrable issues remains open-ended and open to corporate abuse. The Canadian public interest group International Institute for Sustainable Development, in a recently updated paper, warns:

“The definition of investment is defined too broadly, covering any kind of asset, independent of whether or not investments are associated with an existing enterprise in the host state. … [The E.U. proposal would] make the concept of fair and equitable treatment very open-ended and, as a consequence, highly problematic.”

The agreed-upon language, by not defining what constitutes an “asset,” would enable corporations unlimited opportunities to sue governments. Any rule or regulation that a corporation says will reduce its profits remains eligible to be overturned under the precedents of “customary international law.” The text of the agreements — and how they are likely to be interpreted — count for vastly more than the happy talk of trade negotiators, whichever side of the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

European countries with strong regulations on the environment or food safety are at grave risk from the U.S., and environmental laws everywhere are prime targets. Activist work against these multi-national trade agreements has gained momentum in the past year, but there is much work to be done to stop what constitutes the most destructive corporate power grabs yet. Popular pressure is the only means to stop the Trans-Pacific, Transatlantic and Canada-E.U. trade deals. The next task will be to reverse existing trade deals that have done so much damage.

Corporate power grab of Trans-Pacific Partnership clearer, but opposition building

The usual boilerplate announcements that “significant progress” was achieved in the just concluded round of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations can’t mask that public opposition is growing and that the United States seems to be having difficulty bullying its negotiating partners.

That does not mean that the TPP is dead — far from it — but the continued insistence of the Obama administration that the text will be complete by the end of 2013 is no more than wishful thinking. That Congress might not play its assigned role of rubber-stamping was strongly signaled last week when 151 Democratic Party members of the House of Representatives and more than two dozen Republicans signed various letters opposing “fast-track” trade authority. Many did so due to sustained grassroots activism.

“Fast-track” is a mechanism whereby Congress waives its right to debate and amend, instead binding itself to a straight up-or-down yes or no vote in a limited time frame. The worst trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, have become U.S. law through this mechanism. The Obama administration is widely expected to introduce such a bill, passage of which would greatly increase the chances of the Trans-Pacific Partnership getting approved by Congress.

Activists have anticipated since early October that a bill for fast-track authority — formally known as trade promotion authority — might be introduced at any moment. That such a bill has been delayed is a sign that mounting opposition to the TPP within the U.S. has introduced an element of caution into the Obama administration’s thinking.

Demonstration against TPP in Salt Lake City (Photo courtesy of Citizens Trade Campaign)

Demonstration against TPP in Salt Lake City (Photo courtesy of Citizens Trade Campaign)

Strong opposition to draconian U.S. proposals by several of the 11 other Pacific Rim countries negotiating the text of the TPP has certainly played a role in slowing down the negotiations. The divergence of the negotiating positions became clear earlier this month when WikiLeaks published the full text of the TPP chapter on intellectual property. Despite being billed as a “free trade” agreement, this chapter, like most of the TPP, has nothing to do with trade. Rather, it — and, in particular, the U.S. negotiating positions — are the dreams of the most powerful multi-national corporations.

The same is true for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, another “free trade” agreement simultaneously being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. The TTIP also just concluded a negotiating round, with similar opaqueness. What the U.S. is attempting to impose on Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the other TPP countries on behalf of its multi-national corporations is undoubtedly the basis for what it seeks to impose on Europe. Corporate lobbyists have access to the text, but legislators and parliamentarians do not.

Sustained and organized mass opposition is the only thing that will stop these two extraordinary power grabs that will fatally undermine any semblance of democracy. If the TPP were to be implemented, labor safeguards, safety rules, environmental regulations and measures to rein in financial speculation would be struck down because a multi-national corporation’s profits might be affected — corporations would be able to bypass national laws and courts when they are in a dispute with a government, and instead can have their dispute adjudicated by a closed tribunal controlled by their lawyers.

Huge giveaways to pharmaceutical industry

The TPP intellectual property chapter, published by WikiLeaks, is crammed with corporate giveaways in its 96 pages. (This is only one of about two dozen chapters.) Japan is the country, at least in this chapter, most often in alignment with U.S. negotiating position, although frequently the U.S. is opposed by all other countries.

There are several sections that broaden what is patentable subject matter — if implemented, the TPP would make patents:

  • “Available for any new uses or methods of using a known product.”
  • Require patents to be granted if the patent “involves an inventive step,” even if there is no new use for it.
  • Allowable for living organisms, including plants and animals.

What these proposals would mean, if implemented, is that a name-brand pharmaceutical company, for example, would be able to claim a new use for high-priced medicines just before the patent was due to expire, thereby extending the patent and blocking a far less expensive generic equivalent from becoming available.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly sued Canada for $500 million because the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the invalidation of an Eli Lilly patent. Canada’s ability to enforce its own laws would be undermined by the TPP, according to a Public Citizen analysis:

“Canada’s decisions are based in its ‘promise doctrine,’ a patent rule which requires patents claiming a future usefulness to demonstrate or soundly predict that usefulness at the time of filing. The United States has proposed a rule for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that could undermine Canada’s promise doctrine. Whether purposeful or not, this would support Big Pharma’s plans to transform Canadian practice and even, seemingly, some of the goals of Lilly’s outrageous suit.”

Stop TPPCompanies like Eli Lilly would be in a stronger position to overturn any law they don’t like. The TPP’s intellectual property chapter would also attack rules such as the Indian Patent Act that protect access to affordable medicines worldwide, and would require extensions of patents on the demand of a corporation if it deems the period of time required to approve its patent “unreasonable.” Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières reports:

“The leak confirms our worst fears—the US is continuing its attempts to impose an unprecedented package of new trade rules that would keep affordable generic medicines out of the hands of millions of people.”

The return of SOPA

The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) — thinly veiled attempts at Internet censorship stopped by popular pressure — would be reversed under the TPP. A proposal by the U.S. and Australia would require Internet service providers to police their users, with ISPs required to cut off Internet access, block content and actively monitor usage to avoid liability if a copyright holder claims one of its copyrights is being infringed.

Monica Horten, a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics writing on her Iptegrity.com web site, summarizes the TPP’s dangers to the free flow of information:

“[T]t is a toxic potion that would force the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to police their networks, and turns current law on its head. … Where it concerns the Internet and digital content, much of the TPP intellectual property chapter looks like a cut-and-paste from ACTA. Certainly, it brings in similar secondary liability and criminal measures that were in ACTA. However, there are specific new proposals that give more reasons for concern. … Within the Internet section, is a  USA/Australian proposal that contains the core desires of Hollywood and the Motion Picture Association.”

Canada, back by several countries, is seeking less onerous restrictions, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes:

“From a Canadian perspective, the U.S. demands would require an overhaul of Canadian copyright law and potential changes to privacy law. For many other TPP countries, the issue is creating a clear divide, with the U.S. conditioning ISP safe harbours on subscriber termination and content blocking, while the Canadian model favours greater flexibility in establishing systems that create incentives to address alleged infringements online.”

Will Canadian negotiators hold firm or capitulate? Given the harsh policies of Prime Minister Stephen Harper — the George W. Bush of the North — much activism will be required to avoid SOPA getting in through the back door.

You won’t be able to know what is in your food

At the behest of corporations like Monsanto, which seeks to control the world’s food supply, labeling of genetically modified organisms would be illegal. Specific Trans-Pacific Partnership language on GMOs and GMO labeling has not yet surfaced, but because the goal of Monsanto and other U.S. manufacturers of GMO foods is to remove European restrictions against GMOs, this is likely to be an area where U.S. negotiators are pushing hard.

The European Union’s chief trade negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero, said “We are not in the business of lowering standards” in response to concerns that food safety rules will be lowered if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership comes to fruition, and European Union justice and rights commissioner Viviane Reding threatened this week that the E.U. would “freeze crucial data-sharing arrangements with the U.S.” if the U.S. refuses to acquiesce to European privacy standards.

But despite huffing and puffing from various European leaders, the latest round of TTIP talks proceeded smoothly. A European Commission press release happily declared, “A good atmosphere and the active involvement of regulators from both sides meant significant progress was made.” But, as usual, no details were forthcoming. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative similarly reported “a very successful and productive set of meetings” about the TTIP and “significant progress” in the just concluded Salt Lake City round of TPP negotiations.

This latest round of TPP talks was even more secret than usual, with negotiators not bothering this time with the pretense of meeting with civil-society groups; thus much caution is advised. A potential turn for the worse is possible with the recent election of the right-wing Tony Abbott government in Australia, which may reverse some of the previous positions Canberra had taken against certain U.S. proposals. For example, previous Australian governments opposed investor-state disputes being adjudicated by secret tribunals controlled by corporate lawyers. It is unknown if the Abbott government will reverse that position.

The Australian television program Lateline reports that Prime Minister Abbott is in favor of “fast-tracking” the TPP and other trade agreements. A worrisome sign, as the U.S. is pushing hard for anti-democratic provisions such as investor-state disputes to be adjudicated in the secret tribunals. These mechanisms are in force in the North America Free Trade Agreement and many bi-lateral trade agreements. NAFTA, for example, uses a tribunal that is an arm of the World Bank in which only two of the more than 200 cases it has heard have been open to the public.

Agreements like TPP and TTIP have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing a corporate dictatorship. There is no time to waste.