The “innocence” of early capitalism is another fantastical myth

It is not unusual for critics of United States foreign policy, whether or not they feel free to use the term “imperialism,” to express regret that a previously rational system has soured. Such sentiments are routine for liberals and hardly unknown among social democrats.

Such sentiments are, to anyone who cares to pursue a study of history, quite ahistorical. Violence, force and coercion — exemplified in widespread use of slave labor, imperialist conquests of peoples around the world and ruthless extraction of natural resources — pervades the entire history of capitalism. The rise of capitalism can’t be understood outside slavery, colonialism and plunder. To follow up on my previous article discussing how U.S. domination of the world is rooted in the stranglehold Washington has over the world’s financial institutions and its possession of the dominant currency, let’s conduct a further examination of the history of how capitalism functions, this time highlighting imperialism and violence.

My inspiration for this examination is my recent reading of John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Mr. Perkins, for those not familiar with his book, provides a first-hand account of how the U.S. government employs debt, financial entanglements, bribes, threats and finally violence and assassinations of national leaders who won’t place their economies and resources under the control of U.S.-based multi-national corporations. That is no surprise to anyone paying attention, but the book became an improbable best seller, meaning there must have been many eyes opened. That can only be a positive development.

The conquest of the Incas (mural by FUEJXJDK)

But even Mr. Perkins, who is unsparing in drawing conclusions and under no illusions about what he and his fellow “economic hit men” were doing and on whose behalf, shows a measure of naïveté. He repeatedly draws upon the “ideals of the U.S. founding fathers” and laments that a republic dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has morphed into a global empire. Given the outstanding service he has provided in writing his book, and the physical danger that he put himself in to publish it (he postponed writing it multiple times fearing possible consequences), least of all do I want to imply criticism or raise any snarky accusations against Mr. Perkins. My point here is that even a strong critic of U.S. imperialism with eyes open can harbor illusions about the nature of capitalism. The all-encompassing pervasiveness of capitalist propaganda, and that the relentless dissemination of it across every conceivable media and institutional outlet, still leaves most people with a wistful idealization of some earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t.

Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Markets over people from the start

Although the relative weight that should be given to the two sides of the equation of how capitalism took root in feudal Europe — feudal lords pushing their peasants off the land to clear space for commodity agricultural products or the capital accumulated from trade by merchants growing large enough to create the surpluses capable of being converted into the capital necessary to start production on a scale larger than artisan production — is likely never to be definitively settled (and the two basic factors reinforced one another), force was a crucial midwife. English lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows to take advantage of the demand for wool, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. These actions became known as the “enclosure movement.”

Forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours. The brutality of this process is glimpsed in this account by historian Michael Perelman, in his book The Invention of Capitalism:

Simple dispossession from the commons was a necessary, but not always sufficient, condition to harness rural people to the labor market. A series of cruel laws accompanied the dispossession of the peasants’ rights, including the period before capitalism had become a significant economic force.

For example, beginning with the Tudors, England created a series of stern measures to prevent peasants from drifting into vagrancy or falling back onto welfare systems. According to a 1572 statute, beggars over the age of fourteen were to be severely flogged and branded with a red-hot iron on the left ear unless someone was willing to take them into service for two years. Repeat offenders over the age of eighteen were to be executed unless someone would take them into service. Third offenses automatically resulted in execution. … Similar statutes appeared almost simultaneously in England, the Low Countries, and Zurich. … Eventually, the majority of workers, lacking any alternative, had little choice but to work for wages at something close to subsistence level.”

Additional taking of the commons occurred in the early 19th century, when British industrialists sought to eliminate the remaining portions of any commons left so there would be no alternative to selling one’s labor power to capitalists for a pittance. As industrial resistance gathered steam, the British government employed 12,000 troops to repress craft workers, artisans, factory workers and small farmers who were resisting the introduction of machinery by capitalists, seeing these machines as threats to their freedom and dignity. That represented more troops than Britain was using in its simultaneous fight against Napoleon’s armies in Spain.

Slavery critical to capitalist accumulation

Nor can the role of slavery in bootstrapping the rise of capitalism be ignored. The slave trade, until the end of the seventeenth century, was conducted by government monopolies. European economies grew on the “triangular trade” in which European manufactured goods were shipped to the coast of western Africa in exchange for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas, which in turn sent sugar and other commodities back to Europe. Britain and other European powers earned far more from the plantations of their Caribbean colonies than from North American possessions; much Caribbean produce could not be grown in Europe, while North American colonies tended to produce what Europe could already provide for itself.

Britain profited enormously from the triangular trade, both in the slave trade itself and the surpluses generated from plantation crops produced with slave labor. Proceeds from the slave trade were large enough to lift the prosperity of the British economy as a whole, provide the investment funds to build the infrastructure necessary to support industry and the scale of trade resulting from a growing industrial economy, and ease credit problems.

Sheep in a meadow (Eugène Verboeckhoven)

Spain’s slaughter of Indigenous peoples and Spanish use of the survivors as slaves to mine enormous amounts of gold and silver — the basis of money across Europe and Asia — also was a crucial contributor to the rise of European economies, both by swelling the amount of money available and enabling the importation of goods from China, which was not interested in buying European products but had a need of silver to stabilize its own economy. The Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, horrified at what he witnessed, wrote in 1542, “the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty — new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read of heard of — some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining.”

When the Spanish were kicked out by Latin America’s early 19th century wars of liberation, that did not mean real independence. The British replaced the Spanish, using more modern financial means to exploit the region. The era of direct colonialism, beginning with Spain’s massive extraction of gold and silver, was replaced by one-sided trading relationships following the region’s formal independence in the early nineteenth century. George Canning, an imperialist “free trader” who was the British foreign secretary, wrote in 1824: “The deed is done, the nail is driven, Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.” 

Canning was no idle boaster. At the same time, the French foreign minister lamented, “In the hour of emancipation the Spanish colonies turned into some sort of British colonies.” And lest we think this was simply European hubris, here is what the Argentine finance minister had to say: “We are not in a position to take measures against foreign trade, particularly British, because we are bound to that nation by large debts and would expose ourselves to a rupture which would cause much harm.” What had happened? Argentina flung its ports wide open to trade under British influence, flooding itself with a deluge of European goods sufficient to strangle nascent local production; when Argentina later attempted to escape dependency by imposing trade barriers in order to build up its own industry, British and French warships forced the country open again.

The “right” to force opium on China to maintain profits

Imperialism was not confined to any single continent. Consider Britain’s treatment of China in the latter half of the 19th century. (We are concentrating on Britain for the moment because it was the leading capitalist power at this time.) British warships were sent to China to force the Chinese to import opium, a drug that was illegal back home. This was done under the rubric of Britain’s alleged “right to trade.” Under this doctrine, underdeveloped countries had no choice but to buy products from more powerful capitalist countries, even products that caused widespread injury to the country’s people. This could also be considered a “right” to force opium on China. Where else but under capitalism could such a preposterous “right” be conjured? U.S. smugglers also made enormous fortunes selling opium to Chinese as well.

A 2015 Medium article detailing the background and results of the two opium wars, noted the huge amounts of money that were made:

“Opium was big business for the British, one of the critical economic engines of the era. Britain controlled India and oversaw one million Indian opium farmers. By 1850, the drug accounted for a staggering 15 to 20 percent of the British Empire’s revenue, and the India-to-China opium business became, in the words of Frederic Wakeman, a leading historian of the period, the ‘world’s most valuable single commodity trade of the nineteenth century.’ Notes Carl Trocki, author of Opium, Empire and the Global Economy, ‘The entire commercial infrastructure of European trade in Asia was built around opium. … [A] procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America.’ ”

Eventually, Chinese authorities ordered foreigners, mainly British and U.S., to hand over all opium. After a refusal, Chinese authorities destroyed all the opium they could find. In response, British warships were sent to bombard coastal cities until China agreed to the one-sided Treaty of Nanking, in which it was forced to pay Britain an indemnity of millions, to cede Hong Kong and to open five ports to trade, where foreigners were not subject to Chinese law or authorities.

When further demands were refused, the British, French and U.S. navies launched the second opium war, attacking coastal and interior cities. They invaded Beijing, “chased the emperor out of town, and, in an orgy of fine-art and jewelry looting, destroyed the Versailles of China, the old Summer Palace.” A new treaty, more unequal than the first, was imposed, forcing open the entire country. A British lawyer enlisted to provide justification for this behavior wrote, as the first opium war was developing, “Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be ‘our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.’ Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence — or series of offences — which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.” 

Fantastic profits for European capital; death for Africans

Nor was Africa spared exploitation. Far from it. The exact number of Africans kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic will never be known, but scholars’ estimates tend to range from about ten million to twelve million. The human toll, however, is still higher because, simultaneous with those who were successfully kidnapped, millions more were killed or maimed, and thus not shipped across the Atlantic. This level of inhumanity cannot be accomplished without an accompanying ideology. 

Walter Rodney, in his outstanding contribution to understanding lagging development in the South, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, pointed out that although racism and other hatreds, including anti-Semitism, long existed across Europe, racism was an integral part of capitalism because it was necessary to rationalize the exploitation of African labor that was crucial to their accumulations of wealth.  “Occasionally, it is mistakenly held that Europeans enslaved Africans for racist reasons,” Dr. Rodney wrote. “European planters and miners enslaved Africans for economic reasons, so that their labor power could be exploited. Indeed, it would have been impossible to open up the New World and to use it as a constant generator of wealth, had it not been for African labor. There were no other alternatives: the American (Indian) population was virtually wiped out and Europe’s population was too small for settlement overseas at that time.”

The triangular trade (Graphic by Sémhur)

Exploitation did not end with the end of slavery in the 19th century, Dr. Rodney pointed out. Colonial powers confiscated huge areas of arable land in Africa, then sold it at nominal prices to the well-connected. In Kenya, for example, the British declared the fertile highlands “crown lands” and sold blocks of land as large as 550 square miles (1,400 square kilometers). These massive land confiscations not only enabled the creation of massively profitable plantations, but created the conditions that forced newly landless Africans to become low-wage agricultural workers and to pay taxes to the colonial power. Laws were passed forbidding Africans from growing cash crops in plantation regions, a system of compulsion summed up by a British colonel who became a settler in Kenya: “We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country.” In other parts of colonial Africa, where land remained in African hands, colonial governments slapped money taxes on cattle, land, houses and the people themselves; subsistence farmers don’t have money to pay money taxes so farmers were forced to grow cash crops, for which they were paid very little.

The alternative to farming was to go to work in the mines, where wages were set at starvation levels. European and North American mining and trading companies made fantastic profits (sometimes as high as 90 percent) and raw materials could be exploited at similar levels. (A U.S. rubber company, from 1940 to 1965, took 160 million dollars worth of rubber out of Liberia while the Liberian government received eight million dollars.) Another method of extracting wealth was through forced labor — French, British, Belgian and Portuguese colonial governments required Africans to perform unpaid labor on railroads and other infrastructure projects. The French were particularly vicious in their use of forced labor (each year throughout the 1920s, 10,000 new people were put to work on a single railroad and at least 25 percent of the railroad’s forced laborers died from starvation or disease). These railroads did not benefit Africans when independence came in the mid-20th century because they were laid down to bring raw materials to a port and had no relationship to the trading or geographical patterns of the new countries or their neighbors.

The entire territory that today constitutes the Democratic Republic of Congo was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the personal possession of Belgium’s king, Leopold II. At least 10 million Congolese lost their lives at the hands of Belgian authorities eager to extract rubber and other resources at any cost. This genocidal plunder — the loss of life halved the local population — rested on a system of terror and slave labor. This system included forced labor requiring work in mines day and night, the chopping off of hands as punishment and “the burning of countless villages and cities where every individual who was found was killed.”

As the U.S. grew to prominence, becoming a leading capitalist power itself as the 20th century began, overthrowing governments to ensure undisputed “profitable investment” became routine. The U.S., incidentally, was the first country to recognize King Leopold’s claim to Congo.

If it’s your “backyard” you do what you want to do

The U.S. has long considered Latin America its “backyard.” Cuba’s economy was based on slave-produced sugar cane under Spanish rule, and when a series of rebellions finally succeeded in freeing the country from Spanish colonial rule, Cuban independence was formal only as the United States quickly became a colonial master in all but name. U.S. forces left Cuba in 1902 after a four-year occupation but not before dictating that Cubans agree to the Platt Amendment. The amendment, inserted into the Cuban constitution as the price for U.S. withdrawal, gave the U.S. control over Cuban foreign and economic policies and the right to intervene with military force to protect U.S. corporate interests. By 1905, U.S. interests owned 60 percent of Cuba’s land and controlled most of its industry. Just four months after the 1959 revolution took power, the U.S. government was already viewing the potential success of the revolution as a “bad example” for the rest of Latin America. The U.S. State Department defined U.S. goals in Cuba as “receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade” and “access by the United States to essential Cuban resources.” Those goals have not changed to this day.

That follows naturally from what the pre-revolution U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, had said of the island country: “I ran Cuba from the sixth floor of the US embassy. The Cubans’ job was to grow sugar and shut up.”

When a strike broke out against the United Fruit Company in Colombia in 1929, the action was put down through a massacre of the workers. The U.S. embassy in Bogotá cabled the State Department in Washington this triumphant message: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” Honor. Think about that.

For much of the 20th century, the effective ruler of Guatemala and Honduras was the United Fruit Company. The company owned vast plantations in eight countries, and toppled governments in Guatemala and Honduras. For many years, United Fruit had an especially sweet deal in Guatemala. The company paid no taxes, imported equipment without paying duties and was guaranteed low wages. The company also possessed a monopoly on Guatemalan railroads, ocean ports and the telegraph. When a president, Jacobo Arbenz, moved to end this exploitation and orient Guatemala’s economy toward benefiting Guatemalans through mild reforms, the CIA overthrew him. U.S. intelligence agencies declared Arbenz’s program had to be reversed because loosening the United Fruit Company’s domination of the country was against U.S. interests. The U.S. instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder. A series of military leaders, each more brutal than the last and fortified with U.S. aid, unleashed a reign of terror that ultimately cost 200,000 lives, 93 percent of whom were murdered by the state through its army and its death squads.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

But not outside ordinary policy. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Most of these invasions were for reasons along the lines articulated by former U.S. president William Howard Taft: to ensure profits for one or more U.S. corporations or to overthrow governments that did not prioritize the maximization of those profits. 

The U.S. invaded and occupied Nicaragua multiple times. One of these occasions, in 1909, came as a result of a Nicaraguan president accepting a loan from British bankers instead of U.S. bankers, then opening negotiations with Germany and Japan to build a new canal to rival the Panama Canal. The U.S. installed a dictatorship, and President Taft placed Nicaragua’s customs collections under U.S. control. The disapproved British loan was refinanced through two U.S. banks, which were given control of Nicaragua’s national bank and railroad as a reward. These developments were not an accident, for President Taft had already declared that his foreign policy was “to include active intervention to secure our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment” abroad.

All these atrocities — and countless others — all happened before the assassinations in Ecuador, Iran and Panama of heads of state who refused to do as they were ordered to by U.S. government operatives (and, in the case of Omar Torrijos, refusing the bribes that were the first tactic to get local leaders on side) recounted by Mr. Perkins in Confessions. No, those atrocities — and the author leaves us in no doubt that those were not “accidents” but were assassinations carried out by the U.S. government — do not represent an unprecedented turn to the dark side. Those acts, as are the present-day sanctions that kill in the hundreds of thousands, are business as usual for the U.S. government and the capitalism it imposes around the world. Imperialism, brutality and violence are nothing new; they are essential tools long wielded in abundance.

Far more examples could be cited; the above represents a minuscule fraction of atrocities that could be told. Such a long history of systematic violence and brutality speaks for itself as to the “morality” of capitalism.

How the U.S. is able to dictate to the rest of the world

The United States government is able to impose its will on all the world’s countries. The rest of the world, even some of the strongest imperialist countries of the Global North, lie prostrate at the feet of the U.S. What is the source of this seemingly impregnable power? Which of course leads to the next question: How long can it last? 

The U.S. moves against any country that dares to act on a belief that its resources should be for its own people’s benefits rather than maximizing profits of multinational corporations or prioritizes the welfare of its citizens over corporate profit or simply refuses to accept dictation in how it should organize its economy. The military is frequently put to use, as are manipulation of the United Nations and the strong arms of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). But sanctions are a frequently used tool, enforced on countries, banks and corporations that have no presence in the U.S. and conduct business entirely outside the United States. The U.S. can impose its will on national governments around the world, using multilateral institutions to force governments to act in the interest of multinational capital, even when that is opposite the interests of the country itself or that country’s peoples. And when a country persists in refusing to bend to U.S. demands, sanctions imposing misery on the general population are unilaterally imposed and the rest of the world is forced to observe them.

In short, the U.S. government possesses a power that no country has ever held, not even Britain at the height of its empire. And that government, regardless of which party or what personality is in the White House or in control of Congress, is ruthless in using this power to impose its will.

This power is most often wielded within an enveloping shell of propaganda that claims the U.S. is acting in the interest of “democracy” and maintaining the “rule of law” so that business can be conducted in the interest of a common good. So successful has this propaganda been that this domination is called the “Washington Consensus.” Just who agreed to this “consensus” other than Washington political elites and the corporate executives and financial speculators those elites represent has never been clear. “Washington diktat” would be a more accurate name.

Much speculation among Left circles exists as to when this domination will be brought to an end, with many commentators believing that the fall of the U.S. dollar is not far off and perhaps China will become the new center of a system less imperialistic. On the Right, particularly in the financial industry, such speculation is far from unknown, although there of course the downfall of the dollar is feared. In financial circles, however, there is no illusion that the end of dollar supremacy in world economics is imminent.

There are only two possible challengers to U.S. dollar hegemony: The European Union’s euro and China’s renminbi. But the EU and China are very much subordinated to the dollar, and thus not in a position to counter U.S. dictates. Let’s start here, and then we’ll move on to the mechanics of U.S. economic hegemony over the world, which rests on the dollar being the global reserve currency and the leveraging of that status to control the world’s multilateral institutions and forcing global compliance with its sanctions.

Europe “helpless” in the face of U.S. sanctions

A February 2019 paper published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, discussing the inability of EU countries to counteract the Trump administration’s pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, flatly declared the EU “helpless”: “In trying to shield EU-based individuals and entities with commercial interests from its adverse impact, European policy-makers have recently been exposed as more or less helpless.”

The legislative arm of the EU, the European Parliament, was no more bullish. In a paper published in November 2020, the Parliament wrote this about U.S. extraterritorial sanctions: “[T]his bold attempt to prescribe the conduct of EU companies and nationals without even asking for consent challenges the EU and its Member States as well as the functioning and development of transatlantic relations. The extraterritorial reach of sanctions does not only affect EU businesses but also puts into question the political independence and ultimately the sovereignty of the EU and its Member States.”

No such open worries are going to be said in public by the Chinese government. But is China better prepared than the EU? Mary Hui, a Hong Kong-based business journalist, wrote in Quartz, “China is actually far more vulnerable to US sanctions than it will let on, even if the sanctions are aimed at individuals and not banks. That’s because the primary system powering the world’s cross-border financial transactions between banks, Swift, is dominated by the US dollar.” We’ll delve into this shortly. As a result of that domination, Ms. Hui wrote, “the US has outsize control over the machinery of international transactions—or, as the Economist put it, ‘America is uniquely well positioned to use financial warfare in the service of foreign policy.’ ”

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

In 2017, then U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened China with sanctions that would cut it off from the U.S. financial system if it didn’t comply with fresh United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea in 2007; he had already threatened unilateral sanctions on any country that trades with North Korea if the United Nations didn’t apply sanctions on Pyongyang.

So neither Brussels or Beijing are in a position, at this time, to meaningfully challenge U.S. hegemony. That hegemony rests on multiple legs.

The world financial platform that the U.S. ultimately controls

The use (or, actually, abuse) of the two biggest multilateral financial institutions, the World Bank and the IMF, are well known. The U.S., as the biggest vote holder and through the rules set up for decision-making, carries a veto and thus imposes its will on any country that falls into debt and must turn to the World Bank or IMF for a loan. There also are the U.S.-controlled regional banks, such as the Asian Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, that impose U.S. dictates through the terms of their loans.

Also important as an institution, however, is a multilateral financial institution most haven’t heard of: The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, known as SWIFT. Based in Brussels, SWIFT is the primary platform used by the world’s financial institutions “to securely exchange information about financial transactions, including payment instructions, among themselves.” SWIFT says it is officially a member-owned cooperative with more than 11,000 member financial institutions in more than 200 countries and territories.

That sounds like it is a truly global entity. Despite that description, the U.S. holds ultimate authority over it and what it does. U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency and Treasury Department, have access to the SWIFT transaction database. Payments in U.S. dollars can be seized by the U.S. government even when the transaction is between two entities outside the U.S. And here we have a key to understanding.

The skyline of Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Beyond the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to acquire information is the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, the foundation of the world capitalist system of which SWIFT is very much a component and thus subject to dictates the same as any other financial institution. What is a reserve currency? This succinct definition offered by the Council on Foreign Relations provides the picture:

“A reserve currency is a foreign currency that a central bank or treasury holds as part of its country’s formal foreign exchange reserves. Countries hold reserves for a number of reasons, including to weather economic shocks, pay for imports, service debts, and moderate the value of its own currency. Many countries cannot borrow money or pay for foreign goods in their own currencies—since much of international trade is done in dollars—and therefore need to hold reserves to ensure a steady supply of imports during a crisis and assure creditors that debt payments denominated in foreign currency can be made.”

The currency mostly used is the U.S. dollar, the Council explains:

“Most countries want to hold their reserves in a currency with large and open financial markets, since they want to be sure that they can access their reserves in a moment of need. Central banks often hold currency in the form of government bonds, such as U.S. Treasuries. The U.S. Treasury market remains by far the world’s largest and most liquid—the easiest to buy into and sell out of bond market[s].”

If you use dollars, the U.S. can go after you

Everybody uses the dollar because everybody else uses it. Almost two-thirds of foreign exchange reserves are held in U.S. dollars. Here’s the breakdown of the four most commonly held currencies, as of the first quarter of 2020:

  • U.S. dollar 62%
  • EU euro 20%
  • Japanese yen 4%
  • Chinese renminbi 2%

That 62 percent gives the U.S. government its power to not only impose sanctions unilaterally, but to force the rest of the world to observe them, in conjunction with the use of the dollar as the primary currency in international transactions. In some industries, it is almost the only currency used. To again turn to the Council on Foreign Relations explainer:

“In addition to accounting for the bulk of global reserves, the dollar is the currency of choice for international trade. Major commodities such as oil are primarily bought and sold using U.S. dollars. Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, still peg their currencies to the dollar. Factors that contribute to the dollar’s dominance include its stable value, the size of the U.S. economy, and the United States’ geopolitical heft. In addition, no other country has a market for its debt akin to the United States’, which totals roughly $18 trillion.

The dollar’s centrality to the system of global payments also increases the power of U.S. financial sanctions. Almost all trade done in U.S. dollars, even trade among other countries, can be subject to U.S. sanctions, because they are handled by so-called correspondent banks with accounts at the Federal Reserve. By cutting off the ability to transact in dollars, the United States can make it difficult for those it blacklists to do business.”

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. government are effectively extra-territorial because a non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The agency that monitors sanctions compliance, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), insists that any transaction using the dollar comes under U.S. law and thus blocking funds “is a territorial exercise of jurisdiction” wherever it occurs, even if no U.S. entities are involved. Even offering software as a service (or for download) from United States servers is under OFAC jurisdiction.

Two further measures of dollar dominance are that about half of all cross-border bank loans and international debt securities are denominated in U.S. currency and that 88 percent of all foreign-exchange transactions in 2019 involved the dollar on one side. That forex domination has remained largely unchanged; the figure was 87 percent in April 2003.

Dollar dominance cemented at end of World War II

The roots of the dollar as the global reserve currency go back to the creation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944 (named for the New Hampshire town where representatives of Allied and other governments met to discuss the post-war monetary system as victory in World War II drew closer). The World Bank and IMF were created here. To stabilize currencies and make it more difficult for countries to reduce the value of their currencies for competitive reasons (to boost exports), all currencies were pegged to the dollar, and the dollar in turn was convertible into gold at $35 an ounce. Thus the dollar became the center of the world financial system, which cemented U.S. dominance. 

By the early 1970s, the Nixon administration believed that the Bretton Woods monetary system no longer sufficiently advantaged the United States despite its currency’s centrality within the system cementing U.S. economic suzerainty. Because of the system of fixing the value of a U.S. dollar to the price of gold, any government could exchange the dollars it held in reserve for U.S. Treasury Department gold on demand. 

Rising world supplies of dollars and domestic inflation depressed the value of the dollar, causing the Treasury price of gold to be artificially low and thereby making the exchange of dollars for gold at the fixed price an excellent deal for other governments. The Nixon administration refused to adjust the value of the dollar, instead in 1971 pulling the dollar from the gold standard by refusing to continue to exchange foreign-held dollars for gold on demand. Currencies would now float on markets against each other, their values set by speculators rather than by governments, making all but the strongest countries highly vulnerable to financial pressure. 

“Imperialism is the real virus.” (photo by Paul Sableman from St. Louis)

The world’s oil-producing states dramatically raised oil prices in 1973. The Nixon administration eliminated U.S. capital controls a year later, encouraged oil producers to park their new glut of dollars in U.S. banks and adopted policies to encourage the banks to lend those deposited dollars to the South. But perhaps “encourage” is too mild a word. The economist and strong critic of imperialism Michael Hudson once wrote, “I was informed at a White House meeting that U.S. diplomats had let Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries know that they could charge as much as they wanted for their oil, but that the United States would treat it as an act of war not to keep their oil proceeds in U.S. dollar assets.”

Restrictions limiting cross-border movements of capital were opposed by multi-national corporations that had moved production overseas, by speculators in the new currency-exchange markets that blossomed with the breakdown of Bretton Woods and by neoliberal ideologues, creating decisive momentum within the U.S. for the elimination of capital controls. The ultimate result of these developments was to make the dollar even more central to world trade and thus further enhance U.S. control. Needless to say, bipartisan U.S. policy ever since has been to maintain this control.

U.S. sanctions in action: The cases of Cuba and Iran

Two examples of U.S. sanctions being applied extraterritorially are those imposed on Cuba and Iran. (There are many other examples, including that of Venezuela.) In the case of Cuba, any entity that conducts business with Cuba is barred from doing business in the U.S. or with any U.S. entity; foreign businesses that are owned by U.S. companies are strictly prohibited from doing any business with Cuba. Any company that had done business in Cuba must cease all activities there if acquired by a U.S. corporation. Several companies selling life-saving medical equipment and medicines to Cuba had to cease doing so when acquired by a U.S. corporation.

Meanwhile, U.S. embassy personnel have reportedly threatened firms in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico and the Dominican Republic with commercial reprisals unless they canceled sales of goods to Cuba such as soap and milk. Amazingly, an American Journal of Public Health report quoted a July 1995 written communication by the U.S. Department of Commerce in which the department said those types of sales contribute to “medical terrorism” on the part of Cubans! Well, many of us when we were, say, 5 years old might have regarded soap with terror, but presumably have long gotten over that. Perhaps Commerce employees haven’t.

The sanctions on Cuba have been repeatedly tightened over the years. Joy Gordon, writing in the Harvard International Law Journal in January 2016, provides a vivid picture of the difficulties thereby caused:

“The Torricelli Act [of 1992] provided that no ship could dock in the United States within 180 days of entering a Cuban port. This restriction made deliveries to Cuba commercially unfeasible for many European and Asian companies, as their vessels would normally deliver or take on shipments from the United States while they were in the Caribbean. The Torricelli Act also prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba. … The Helms-Burton Act, enacted in 1996, permitted U.S. nationals to bring suit against foreign companies that were doing business in Cuba and that owned properties that had been abandoned or confiscated after the revolution. Additionally, the Helms-Burton Act prohibited third-party countries from selling goods in the United States that contained any components originating in Cuba. This significantly impacted Cuba’s major exports, particularly sugar and nickel. 

[T]he shipping restrictions in the Torricelli Act have increased costs in several ways, such as Cuba sometimes having to pay for ships carrying imports from Europe or elsewhere to return empty because they cannot stop at U.S. ports to pick up goods. Shipping companies have partially responded by dedicating particular ships for Cuba deliveries; but in most cases, they tend to designate old ships in poor condition, which then leads to higher maritime insurance costs.”

The United Nations estimates that the cost of the embargo to Cuba has been about $130 billion.

However distasteful we find the religious fundamentalist government of Iran, U.S. sanctions, which are blunt weapons, have caused much hardship on Iranians. The same restrictions on Cuba apply to Iran. The Iranian government said in September 2020 that it has lost $150 billion since the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and that it is hampered from importing food and medicines.

The Trump administration’s renewed sanctions were imposed unilaterally and against the expressed policies of all other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia. With those governments unable to restrain Washington, businesses from around the world pulled out to avoid getting sanctioned. EU countermeasures were ineffective — small fines didn’t outweigh far larger U.S. fines, European companies are subject to U.S. sanctions and favorable judgments in European courts are unenforceable in U.S. courts.

Sascha Lohmann, author of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs paper, wrote:

“Well ahead of the deadlines set by the Trump administration and absent any enforcement action, major European and Asian companies withdrew from the otherwise lucrative Iranian market. Most not­a­bly, this included [SWIFT,] which cut off most of the more than 50 Iranian banks in early November 2018, including the Central Bank of Iran, after they again became subject to U.S. financial sanctions. …  [T]he exodus of EU-based companies has revealed an inconvenient truth to European policy-makers, namely that those companies are effectively regulated in Washington, D.C. … [T]he secretary of the Treasury can order U.S. banks to close or impose strict conditions on the opening or maintaining of correspondent or payable-through accounts on behalf of a foreign bank, thereby closing down access to dollarized transactions — the ‘Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty.’ ”

The long arm of U.S. sanctions stretches around the world

The idea that sanctions can be the “Wall Street equivalent of the death penalty” is not a figment of the imagination. Two examples of sanctions against European multinational enterprises demonstrate this.

In 2015, the French bank BNP Paribas was given a penalty of almost $9 billion for violating U.S. sanctions by processing dollar payments from Cuba, Iran and Sudan. The bank also pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. These penalties were handed down in U.S. courts and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The chief executive officer of the bank told the court “we deeply regret the past misconduct.” The judge overseeing the case declared the bank “not only flouted U.S. foreign policy but also provided support to governments that threaten both our regional and national security,” a passage highlighted in the Department’s press release announcing the settlement.

Why would a French bank agree to these penalties and do so in such apologetic terms? And why would it accept the preposterous idea that Cuba represents any security threat to the U.S. or that a French bank is required to enforce U.S. foreign policy? As part of the settlement, Reuters reported, “regulators banned BNP for a year from conducting certain U.S. dollar transactions, a critical part of the bank’s global business.” And that gives us the clue. Had the bank not settled its case, it risked a permanent ban on access to the U.S. financial system, meaning it could not handle any deals denominated in dollars. Even the one-year ban could have triggered an exodus of clients in several major industries, including oil and gas.

Viñales Valley, Pinar del Rio province, Cuba (photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com)

This was completely an extraterritorial application of U.S. law. An International Bar Association summary of the case noted, “the transactions in question were not illegal under French or EU law. Nor did they fall foul of France’s obligations under the World Trade Organization or the United Nations; no agreements between France and the US were violated. But as they were denominated in dollars, the deals ultimately had to pass through New York and thus came under its regulatory authority.”

It does not take direct involvement in financial transactions to run afoul of the long arm of U.S. sanctions. A Swiss company, Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), was forced to agree to pay $8 million to settle allegations that it provided blacklisted airlines with “software and/or services that were provided from, transited through, or originated in the United States.” Among the actions punished were that SITA used software originating in the U.S. to track lost baggage and used a global lost-baggage tracing system hosted on servers in the United States. Retrieving baggage is a service most people would not consider a high crime.

Can the EU or China create an alternative?

Dropping the widespread use of the dollar and substituting one or more other currencies, and setting up alternative financial systems, would be the logical short-term path toward ending U.S. financial hegemony. The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, in a 2018 report, quoted the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, “We must increase Europe’s autonomy and sovereignty in trade, economic and financial policies. It will not be easy, but we have already begun to do it.” DW reported that the European Commission was developing a system parallel to SWIFT that would allow Iran to interface with European clearing systems with transactions based on the euro, but such a system never was put in place. In January 2021, as the new Biden administration took office, Iran dismissed it entirely, Bloomberg reported: “European governments have ‘no idea’ how to finance the conduit set up two years ago, known as Instex, and ‘have not had enough courage to maintain their economic sovereignty,’ the Central Bank of Iran said in comments on Twitter.” 

It would seem that Teheran’s dismissal is warranted. The European Parliament, in its paper on U.S. sanctions being imposed extraterritorially, could only offer liberal weak-tea ideas, such as “Encourage and assist EU businesses in bringing claims in international investor-state arbitration and in US courts; Complaints against extraterritorial measures in the [World Trade Organization].” Such prescriptions are unlikely to have anyone in Washington losing sleep.

What about China? Beijing has actually created a functioning alternative to the World Bank and IMF, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Just on the basis of the new bank representing a bad example (from Washington’s perspective), the U.S. government leaned heavily on Australia and other countries sufficiently firmly that Canberra initially declined to join the bank despite its initial interest, nor did Indonesia and South Korea, although all three did later join. There is a possibility of one-sidedness here, however, as China has by far the biggest share of the vote, 27 percent, dwarfing No. 2 India’s 7 percent, giving Beijing potential veto power. And with US$74 billion in capitalization (less than the goal of $100 billion set in 2014), it can’t realistically be a substitute for existing multilateral financial institutes.

China has also set up an alternative to SWIFT, the Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), a renminbi-denominated clearing and settlement system. CIPS says it has participants from 50 countries and regions, and processes US$19.4 billion per day. But that’s well less than one percent of the $6 trillion SWIFT handles daily. The Bank of China, the country’s central bank, is on the record of seeking an alternative to the dollar system so that it can evade any U.S. sanctions. “A good punch to the enemy will save yourself from hundreds of punches from your enemies,” a 2020 Bank of China report said. “We need to get prepared in advance, mentally and practically.” The report said if Chinese banks are deprived of access to dollar settlements, China should consider ceasing the use of the U.S. dollar as the anchor currency for its foreign exchange controls.

That is easier said than done — China holds $1.1 trillion in U.S. government debt issued by the U.S. Treasury Department. That total is second only to Japan, and Beijing’s holdings comprise 15 percent of all U.S. debt held by foreign governments. The South China Morning Post admits that China holds such large reserve assets of U.S. debt “largely due to its status as a ‘safe haven’ for investment during turbulent market conditions.” Although Beijing seeks an erosion of dollar dominance and fears that U.S. economic instability could result in another world economic downturn, its use of the safe haven is nowhere near at an end. “While it is clear that China is keen to lessen its dependence on US government debt, experts believe that Beijing is likely to continue buying US Treasuries, as there are few risk-free low cost substitutes,” the Morning Post wrote.

Coupled with the restrictions on renminbi conversion, Chinese institutions are today far from a position of challenging current global financial relations. The U.S. investment bank Morgan Stanley recently predicted that the renminbi could represent five to 10 percent of foreign-exchange reserves by 2030, up from the current two percent. Although that would mean central banks around the world would increase their holdings of the Chinese currency, it would not amount to any real threat to dollar dominance.

No empire, or system, lasts forever

The bottom line question from all of the above is this: Will this U.S. dominance come to an end? Stepping back and looking at this question in a historical way tells us that the answer can only be yes, given that there has been a sequence of cities that have been the financial center. Centuries ago, the seat of a small republic such as Venice could be the leading financial center on the strength of its trading networks. Once capitalism took hold, however, the financial center was successively located within a larger federation that possessed both a strong navy and a significant fleet of merchant ships (Amsterdam); then within a sizeable and unified country with a large enough population to maintain a powerful navy and a physical presence throughout an empire (London); and finally within a continent-spanning country that can project its economic and multi-dimensional military power around the world (New York). 

No empire, whatever its form, lasts forever. But knowledge of the sequence of capitalist centers tells us nothing of timing. Each successive new financial locus was embedded in successively larger powers able to operate militarily over larger areas and with more force. What then could replace the U.S.? The European Union has its effectiveness diluted by the many nationalisms within its sphere (and thus nationalism acts as a weakening agent for the EU whereas it is a strengthening agent for the U.S. and China). China’s economy is yet too small and retains capital controls, and its currency, the renminbi, isn’t fully convertible. U.S. Treasury bills remain the ultimate safe haven, as shown when investors poured into U.S. debt during crises such as the 2008 collapse, even when events in the U.S. are the trigger.

There are no other possible other contenders, and both the EU and China, as already discussed, are in no position to seriously challenge U.S. hegemony.

Here we have a collision of possibilities: The transcending of capitalism and transition to a new economic system or the decreasing functionality of the world capitalist system should it persist for several more decades. Given the resiliency of capitalism, and the many tools available to it (not least military power), the latter scenario can’t be ruled out although it might be unlikely. Making any prediction on the lifespan of capitalism is fraught with difficulty, not least because of the many predictions of its collapse for well over a century. But capitalism as a system requires infinite growth, quite impossible on a finite planet and all the more dire given there is almost no place on Earth remaining into which it can expand.

Although we can’t know what the expiration date of capitalism will be, it will almost certainly be sometime in the current century. But it won’t be followed by something better without a global movement of movements working across borders with a conscious aim of bringing a better world into being. In the absence of such movements, capitalism is likely to hang on for decades to come. In that scenario, what country or bloc could replace the U.S. as the center? And would we want a new center to dictate to the rest of the world? In a world of economic democracy (what we can call socialism) where all nations and societies can develop in their own way, in harmony with the environment and without the need to expand, and with production done for human need rather than corporate profit, there would no global center or hegemon and no need for one. Capitalism, however, can’t function without a center that uses financial, military and all other means to keep itself in the saddle and the rest of the world in line.

Yes, the day of U.S. dethronement will come, as will the end of capitalism. But the former is not going to happen any time soon, however much millions around the world wish that to be so, and the latter is what we should be working toward. A better world is possible; a gentler and kinder capitalism with a different center is not.

Riots don’t change systems: There’s no shortcut to organizing

You say you want a revolution? There are no “lessons” for anyone on the Left to draw from the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol building in Washington.

If we were to set aside for a moment the fascistic nature of the mob, egged by on former President Donald Trump and his minions (which I am not suggesting we actually do), there is nothing to be taken in the abstract. Apparently there are some folks who, while certainly not condoning the political outlook of the insurrectionists, believe the example set might provide something of a template for how to achieve very different goals.

Even before we get to what should be an obvious observation — the Trumpite mob was enabled by some Capitol Police officers and law enforcement agencies largely share the insurrectionists’ politics while not hesitating to crack down violently on Left demonstrations, no matter how peaceful — governments and economic systems are not overturned by mobs storming the headquarters of the government. Any change to a better world by Left-led social movements can’t succeed without having a large majority of the population behind them with a significant number willing to act on the desire for systemic change in well thought out moves and not simply be passive supporters. There is no shortcut to organizing.

Hugo Chávez swearing in as Venezuela president in 2013 (photo by AVN, Prensa Presidencial/Venezuelanalysis)

As comforting as it may be to believe that any form of economic democracy, whether we call that socialism or something else, can simply be voted in, that path isn’t available. History has amply demonstrated that peaceful roads will meet with massive counter-attacks, from the Paris Commune in 1870 through Salvador Allende’s democratic election in 1970 and right up to today with the Bolivarian Revolution. That, on the other hand, doesn’t mean we are condemned to wringing our hands in frustration and doing nothing as capitalism continues to immiserate more people and destroy the environment.

Everything of human creation has a lifespan and everything of human creation can be changed or removed by human hand. Slavery, feudalism and other systems of the past were not natural, they were not ordained — they were products of human imagination. Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.”

A serious movement needs to use a wide range of tactics and approaches wielded by cohesive organizations bringing together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneously with rooting these in larger understandings of their structural causes and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to “wait your turn” and, anyway, “your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution” need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness in terms of tackling the overall systemic problems that underlie so much of what we fight. 

Masses in motion in 1917

It’s a myth that the October Revolution in 1917 Russia was the work of a small conspiratorial clique that violently took power. A contingent of Bolsheviks walked into the Winter Palace, then moved through hallways until they found the room where the remnants of the Provisional Government were meeting and simply arrested them. Hardly a shot was fired in St. Petersburg (then known as Petrograd).

How could it have been that simple? Because the entire country was in motion and support for the deposed government had evaporated. The urban masses in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in other cities, had swung behind the Bolsheviks. In the countryside, where political support remained with the Social Revolutionaries, there was tacit support for the revolution — peasants had actually defied the Right Social Revolutionary leadership (the SRs having just split into two) by taking land from landlords and the aristocracy and redistributing it among themselves, actions strongly supported by the Bolsheviks and the Left Social Revolutionaries, who would soon join the Bolsheviks in a coalition government.

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

All this could have happened because Bolshevik, Left SR and Interdistrict Organization agitation had turned the Russian Army, which led to the disarming of the police, who melted away. Russian soldiers and sailors took control of their units, refusing to follow orders by their officers, and even disarming them, putting control of the army and navy in socialist hands. This was most clearly demonstrated when the army chief, Lavr Kornilov, attempted a coup against the Provisional Government. Train tracks were torn up to block military movement into St. Petersburg, and Aleksander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, had to call on Bolshevik militants to defend the capital. Enormous work over years, in extremely repressive conditions, was behind all this.

And what of the February Revolution that preceded the October Revolution? 

Neither the Bolsheviks or any other party played a direct role in the February revolution that toppled the tsar, for leaders of those organizations were at the time in exile abroad or in Siberia, or in jail. Nonetheless the tireless work of activists laid the groundwork. The Bolsheviks were a minority even among the active workers of Russia’s cities then, but later in the year, their candidates steadily gained majorities in all the working class organizations — factory committees, unions and soviets. The slogan of “peace, bread, land” resonated powerfully.

On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end. Why that one day? Why that one strike among many that had broken out in recent weeks and over years? We can never know with certainty. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians finally had enough. This was an amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries. Here, too, police considerations are part of the equation — some of the troops sent by the tsar to put down the rebellion refused to fire or even took the side of the people.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions. Organizing.

Masses in motion in 1979

One more example. The Sandinistas took power in 1979 at the head of a broad coalition encompassing wide sections of Nicaraguan society, despite the efforts of Nicaragua’s corporate elite — industrialists and agricultural exporters — who wanted Somoza removed but retain his extremely repressive system. The United States government, under Jimmy Carter, was working toward the same goal, having decided that Somoza had become too much of a liability. Therefore, Sandinistas argued, the task was to build its own multi-class coalition, going beyond peasants and blue-collar workers to include other social groups, including church groups and social christians.

Although Sandinistas developed an insurrectionist strategy in an underdeveloped country of the Global South, their strategy has broad applications for the developed countries of the Global North, for similar social complexities and differentiations exist there. While no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, organizers explicitly acknowledged, and acted upon, the fact that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people, those regularly employed and those precarious, if it is to succeed in the 21st century. 

Strikes alone would not be enough. In September 1978, Sandinista forces attacked the National Guard in several cities, including León, sparking uprisings in each of them. Although the Sandinistas were forced to retreat, thousands left with them in long columns, demonstrating that they would not abandon the people who supported them and the cause of building a better world. 

On June 4, 1979, Sandinista calls for an “insurrectional general strike” shut down the country. Coordinated attacks began in a series of cities, isolating units of the National Guard and forcing the Guard to stretch its forces too thin. By July 16, almost every major city in Nicaragua was in insurgent hands and the régime was about to topple. The U.S. government this day was still trying to negotiate a deal to block the Sandinistas from assuming power with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua, various members of the anti-Somoza corporate elite and the Junta of National Reconstruction — this last maneuver was an effort to get the Junta, the government in waiting that had recently been formed, to add a member of the National Guard and a member of Somoza’s Liberal Party. With Nicaraguans solidly behind them, the Sandinista could easily say no to the U.S. maneuvers.

On July 17, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country after years of waging war on his country’s people and muscling in on so many businesses that even sizable numbers of Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie wanted him gone. Years of tireless organizing by Sandinista militants, often at the risk of their lives, led to that day. Two days later, on July 19, the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua, the capital, having already captured control of much of the country in the late stages of the insurrection.

This success was not the product of a random mob attacking a government building, but patiently building a mass movement that became strong enough to topple a deeply corrupt, extraordinarily brutal dictatorship.

A disorganized group of people, even if they had the goal of bringing into being a better world that we would agree with, has no chance of success. None. Trying to create an alternate history or counter-factual by substituting good people for the fascists acting out an absurd fantasy is a sterile exercise, and one undertaken in an absence of historical knowledge. It would be a service to humanity and the health of the Earth if capitalism and the governments upholding it through violence were swept into the dustbin of history. But that will take monumental organization, getting a healthy majority to back the vision of a better world, linking hands across borders and solidarity across movements. That is as far removed as can be from a mob egged on by an aspirant fascist.

Private sector is “efficient” only at extracting money from public

There is nothing that capitalists won’t grab if they see a possibility to score a profit. Not even the most basic needs for human life, such as water, are exempt.

A favorite tactic for grabbing what had once been in the public domain and converting it into private profit is the “public-private partnership.” A tactic sadly abetted by the world’s governments, as the name implies.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs), a decades-long string of disasters for the public but often a bonanza for the private, have left behind a long trail of one-sided results in water systems, electricity distribution, sewers, highways, hospitals and other infrastructure. The latest report testifying to the damage wrought by PPPs comes to us courtesy of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), a federation of 8 million public service workers from over 250 trade unions across Europe, and the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), a network of 49 civil society organizations from 20 European countries “working for transformative yet specific changes to global and European policies, institutions, rules and structures.”

The Palace of Westminster (photo by Andrew Dunn)

The EPSU/Eurodad report, “Why public-private partnerships (PPPs) are still not delivering,” paints a damning picture. The report declares:

“PPP advocates claim they bring financing, efficiency and innovation. But real-life experience reveals a different picture. The following points outline eight reasons why PPPs are not working: 1. PPPs do not bring new money – they create hidden debt 2. Private finance costs more than government borrowing 3. Public authorities still bear the ultimate risk of project failure 4. PPPs don’t guarantee better value for money 5. Efficiency gains and design innovation can result in corner-cutting 6. PPPs do not guarantee projects being on time or on budget 7. PPP deals are opaque and can contribute to corruption 8. PPPs distort public policy priorities and force publicly run services to cut costs.”

The EPSU/Eurodad report defines PPPs as “long-term contractual arrangements where the private sector provides infrastructure assets and services that have traditionally been directly funded by government, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and water and sanitation plants, and where there is also some form of risk sharing between the public and the private sector.” There may be risk sharing on paper, but in reality even this definition is a little too generous toward PPPs — in almost all cases, contractual clauses put the risk squarely on the public, and when the private company that has taken over a previously public good proves unable to manage or goes out of business, it is the public that pays.

The paper drew on examples across Europe, with some of the worst examples coming in Britain. Privatizing public services leads to higher costs, reductions in the quality of service and lengthier periods in completing construction. All of these results, of course, are directly opposite of what incessant capitalist propaganda continually blares. Although the EPSU/Eurodad report didn’t speculate as to why these results occur, it takes little imagination to see the reasons: Corporations exist to make the biggest profit regardless of social cost while governments need only provide a reliable service without having to generate seven- and eight-figure salaries for executives and windfalls for stockholders and other speculators.

It’s not profits above all else, it’s nothing but profits

Consider the words of Milton Friedman, godfather of the Chicago School of economics whose words are widely followed in corporate boardrooms and in financial publications. He put it plainly in an interview with author Joel Bakan in the context of a former BP chief executive officer suggesting (however disingenuously) the company would make environmental concerns more important:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

That is the standard of the corporate world: Profits for speculators, period. No other considerations, no matter how flowery their public relations concoctions may be. There are no exceptions because a service or product is necessary for human life.

To return to the EPSU/Eurodad report, a much higher cost of financing was one cause of higher costs for the public to access previously public goods. Noting the hidden debt in these deals, the paper said, “In a PPP, instead of the public authority taking a loan to pay for a project, the private sector arranges the financing and builds the infrastructure, then the public sector pays a set fee over the lifetime of the PPP contract. In some cases, users also pay part or all of the fee directly to the private sector company (e.g. toll roads).” The United Kingdom National Audit Office “found that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%-8%) was double that of all government borrowing (3%-4%).”

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

An even larger differential was found in France: “A particularly vivid example was the Paris Courthouse PPP, signed in 2012, which featured an investment of €725.5 million and no less than €642.8 million in financing costs. The French Court of Auditors found that the interest rate for borrowing for the PPP was 6.4 per cent, while in 2012 the weighted average rate for government bond financing in the medium-long term was 1.86 per cent,” the report said, adding that operating costs were also higher. 

Another example is a Stockholm hospital that cost €2.4 billion instead of the projected €1.4 billion. The hospital was not only completed four years later than scheduled, but a “design competition” resulted in “operating theatres not being adapted for operations; the risk of medicines being destroyed because of medicine rooms being too warm; and physicians having to carry administrative material in backpacks because of the lack of space for administrative tasks.” One conclusion from this poor result is that “the high level of complexity, together with the private partner’s interest in cost-cutting as much as possible, can easily result in undesirable corner-cutting.”

The report concludes that “What decades of experience has shown is that PPPs come at a high cost and are not delivering the expected benefits.” 

If you can sell it, they will buy it

PPPs are particularly common in Britain, an unfortunate development that is not the cause of any one party. Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent revealed that the British government owed more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reported:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies. Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

The Independent article reported that private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost. Nor is health care exempt: A 2019 report by the Progressive Policy Think Tank found that there are English hospitals forced to divert one-sixth of their income to paying back private finance initiatives, with National Health Service trusts paying more than £2 billion on such repayments per year, “taking money away from vital patient services.” For just £13 billion of private investment, the NHS must pay back £80 billion! Quite a windfall for banks.

Naturally, such financial legerdemain is not limited to any particular country. Here is just a small sampling of outcomes:

  • During the course of a 25-year contract with Suez and Veolia, water rates in the city of Paris doubled after accounting for inflation. Thanks to a secret clause, the two companies received automatic price rises every three months. When the contract finished, Paris re-municipalized its water system. Despite the short-term expenses of doing so, the city saved about €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce rates by eight percent.
  • A privatization of the Buenos Aires water and sewer systems resulted in chronic failures to meet contractual obligations, repeated demands that the contract be renegotiated (granted by the neoliberal governments of the 1990s), failure to meet water-safety standards, worsening pollution of underground water sources, and price increases over the first decade of the contract 12 times that of inflation. The Argentine government then had to spend years raising legal challenges to take back the system even though the private company was in obvious default of its contractual obligations.
  • The German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000) reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city began earning €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.
  • A report by Food & Water Watch found that investor-owned utilities in the United States typically charge 59 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local-government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, nearly tripling on average after 11 years of private control. Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.
  • A study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts. Elsewhere in Canada, the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia will cost taxpayers C$220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly, and the cost of a project at the Université de Québec à Montréal was doubled to C$400 million.

Water as a commodity rather than a human right

That even water is a commodity is no surprise when corporate leaders consider it just another product that should have a price, most notoriously enunciated in 2014 when the chairman of Nestlé S.A., Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, issued a video in which he denounced as “extreme” the very idea of water being considered a human right. And not only water — various schemes exist to destroy the U.S. Postal Service in the interest of corporate profit.

There are even corporate executives who want to privatize the weather. No, that’s not in the realm of science fiction. The head of a private weather forecaster, AccuWeather, has repeatedly lobbied to prohibit the U.S. government’s National Weather Service from issuing forecasts! Under this scenario, the Weather Service would hand all of its data to private companies, who would then issue forecasts, while of course letting taxpayers foot the bill for the data. One of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum (thankfully no longer in office), once promoted a bill to do just that. And, incidentally, the National Weather Service issues forecasts more reliable than those of AccuWeather.

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

Public-private partnerships are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service. Capitalism in action.

The threat of fascism rears its head in Washington

Let’s not mince words: Wednesday’s storming of the United States Capitol building was the work of fascism. That it didn’t and couldn’t succeed, and that Donald Trump is days from being out of the White House, should not blind us to the reality of larger social forces at work.

The Orange Menace possibly finished off his personal political prospects with his pathetic attempt at a putsch — although I suspect the shameless toadying of Republicans seeking to capture his base for future elections will continue — but, as I have already written, Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere. Neither are Trump’s fans among the police.

By midnight Wednesday, police had arrested a total of 52 people, counting from Tuesday afternoon. Contrast that to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when at least 430 people were arrested.

Consider the difference. White people storm an important seat of government, terrorize those inside and stage the equivalent of an armed insurrection, yet it takes hours for police reinforcements to arrive and those who don’t leave are allowed to mill around for hours past a curfew. Police claim they were surprised by the size of the crowd even though Trumpites had announced their intention days ahead of time, the Orange Menace himself told his followers to go to the Capitol that morning and Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” 

In contrast, peaceful protestors motivated by the injustices of police brutality and indifference to Black lives walked down streets and are met with massive force and indiscriminate arrests. Multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies brought in tanks and other vehicles and built an eight-foot-tall fence surrounding Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. And that show of force was hardly limited to Washington. By June 4, less than two weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police, more than 10,000 people had been arrested across the U.S., according to an Associated Press tally. Here’s what The Associated Press had to say that day:

“As cities were engulfed in unrest last week, politicians claimed that the majority of the protesters were outside agitators, including a contention by Minnesota’s governor that 80 percent of the participants in the demonstrations were from out of state. The arrests in Minneapolis during a frenzied weekend tell a different story. In a nearly 24-hour period from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon, 41 of the 52 people cited with protest-related arrests had Minnesota driver’s licenses, according to the Hennepin County sheriff. In the nation’s capital, 86 percent of the more than 400 people arrested as of Wednesday afternoon were from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.”

Those “outside agitators” must have had sophisticated teleporting equipment to have been in so many cities at once. What a pity they haven’t shared it with us.

Police show their preferences

During Trump’s inaugural, more than 200 protestors were arrested, including journalists. Earlier this year, tear gas and force were used to disperse peaceful demonstrators just so Trump could wave a bible in front of a church. So we have a pattern here.

The skin complexion of the demonstrators has much to do with these different approaches on the part of law enforcement. We can all imagine the body count that would have resulted had a Black group decided to storm the Capitol. But political affiliation is not absent. It’s no secret that police heavily favor Trump and are well to the right of the populations they supposedly serve, and police unions across the country took a few minutes off from screaming for officers to be entirely beyond accountability to endorse Trump.

Pictures of police posing for selfies with the invaders inside the Capitol began circulating by Wednesday evenings, and videos circulated showing officers allowing the mob through a gate, facilitating the invaders’ ability to get inside the building. Anybody who was watching the television coverage as the events unfolded, as I did, could see that the Capitol invaders were handled with kid gloves. Police were seen walking with the invaders down the steps of the Capitol and only hours later slowly pushed the mob away with periodic advances, taking care to give the mob plenty of time to move back.

Nor was the storming of the Capitol a spontaneous event. As housing and feminist activist Fran Luck noted, there was the appearance of preparation:

“While watching coverage of the terrorist incursion into Congress today, when I saw the group of burly men effortlessly scale a 20+-foot wall surrounding the Capitol, it occurred to me that they must have had military training to do this — it’s not easy to climb straight up vertically without much to hold on to — but it is what they teach you to do in army basic training. I also noticed they were dressed similarly, with flag handkerchiefs hanging out of their back right-hand back pockets. In my opinion, this was a staged action — probably rehearsed by a ‘militia’ and consciously created for future propaganda for the purpose of attracting new recruits This might also apply to the photo they released of the man wearing a MAGA hat and holding a rifle while sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s computer; it could be used to convey the message: ‘Look how far we got this time — next time we’ll be ready to go all the way!’ ” 

Again, a most sharp contrast to Black Lives Matter protests, repeatedly violently attacked by police. And police violence at demonstrations for Left causes is routine. Again, it is impossible not to notice the bias in policing. Recall the 2016 standoff in an Oregon national wildlife refuge, when a pack of White far right militia members took over the refuge’s headquarters, seeking to spark a national uprising, yet were allowed to come and go as they pleased and to destroy Native American artifacts.

White privilege was fully on display during Wednesday’s Capitol invasion, in addition to police demonstrating plainly their political preferences.

Aspiring fascist leaders need violent mobs

“What else is new” shouldn’t be our response. The conclusion to be drawn from Wednesday’s events is that we are almost certainly at the beginning of a fascist upsurge. There is no other conclusion to be drawn. Trump doesn’t have the intelligence or sufficient ruling-class backing to be a fascist dictator, and we can only hope he’ll be seeing the inside of a courtroom soon and then the inside of a prison. But it is quite possible another demagogue will arise, and the next one might not be such a buffoon. 

That is only part of the equation — there can be no fascist movement without street thugs and followers willing to use violence. The shock troops were on display Wednesday. Not nearly enough to pose an immediate threat and certainly too few to actually take over the Capitol even with police assistance. But with millions believing Trump’s lies and ready to move on his word, a latent threat exists. And, perhaps, those shock troops might transfer their loyalties to another wanna-be dictator, one perhaps with more ability.

Nor can we take solace in the fact that formal democracy remains the preferred method of governing; with most United Statesians still willing to believe they can better their circumstances through electoral politics, there is no need for U.S. industrialists and financiers to impose an outright dictatorship, especially as they continue to have an iron grip on the country’s government, mass media and institutions, and exert decisive influence over both major political parties.

The threat of fascism always looms in the background as long as capitalism exists. If a capitalist ruling class comes to a consensus that dictatorship is the only way to maintain their profits and power, then they are willing to unleash fascism, as happened in Italy, Germany, Spain, Chile, Argentina and other countries across the 20th century. The imposition of fascism arrives with shock troops — street thugs — augmented by police and the military, although sometimes, as was the case in Chile and Argentina, the street thugs augment the police and military. 

The street thugs following Trump have now shown their willingness to spring into action. Are the rest of us willing to step up and out-organize them?

Never let a crisis go to waste: The pandemic brings more inequality

Heeding that time-honored advice to never let a crisis go to waste, the world’s industrialists and financiers have taken full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to accumulate more wealth. And although you already know that large numbers of people have been thrown out of work and/or are at risk of losing their home, you might not have realized how obscene the increase in inequality has become.

Not surprisingly, given that capitalism is a system with a stranglehold on almost every place on Earth, the rise in inequality is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, capitalists have usually understood their class interests better than do the world’s working people.

When we discuss the increase in wealth the world’s richest are enjoying, we are talking literally about trillions of dollars. 

We’ll start our survey with a report issued by one of the world’s biggest banks, UBS, and Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The authors of the report, “Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes,” can hardly contain their enthusiasm at how successful their clients have been during the pandemic. UBS and PwC “have unique insights into” billionaires’ “changing fortunes and needs” and in the report breathlessly extol “a time of exceptional, Schumpeterian creative destruction” by “billionaires [who] live in turbulent but trailblazing times.” As you can already surmise by the tone-deaf writing, the report is intended as a celebration of vast wealth inequality and is written in a style that comes as close to that of Hollywood celebrity publicists as you are likely to find produced by bankers and accountants.

(Artwork by Susana Anaya)

The report says “Some 209 billionaires have publicly committed a total of USD 7.2 billion” in donations, written within a passage told in solemn tones intended to make us gasp in awe at the selflessness of the international bourgeoisie. Yet we soon enough read that the wealth of the world’s billionaires totaled US$10.2 trillion in July 2020. For those of you scoring at home, that $7.2 billion in proposed donations represents 0.07 percent of their wealth. The average working person donates a significantly bigger portion of their income.

In just three months, from April to July 2020, the world’s billionaires added $2.2 trillion to their wealth! Technology billionaires did particularly well during the pandemic, the UBS/PwC report says, due in large part to the surge in technology stock prices. During the first seven months of 2020 alone, technology and health industry billionaires saw their wealth increase by about $150 billion. Yes, never let a crisis go to waste.

The number of the world’s billionaires, the report tells us, is 2,189. To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, there are exactly two countries in the world (the United States and China) that have a bigger gross domestic product than the wealth of those 2,189 billionaires. Or, to put it another way, their wealth is greater than the economic output of Japan, Germany and Britain, the countries with the world’s third, fourth and fifth largest GDPs and which have a combined population of 277 million.

Is there really no money for social programs?

As might be expected, billionaires in the center of the world capitalist system are no laggards among those accumulating wealth at the expense of everyone else. An Institute for Policy Studies study, “U.S. Billionaire Wealth Surges Past $1 Trillion Since Beginning of Pandemic — Total Grows to $4 Trillion,” reports the collective wealth of the 651 billionaires in the United States has increased by over $1 trillion “since roughly the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to a total of $4 trillion at market close on Monday, December 7, 2020. Combined, just the top 10 billionaires are now worth more than $1 trillion.” Those gains are more than the $900 billion pandemic relief package that passed Congress this week, a package held up for months by Republicans fretting over the cost. 

Wall Street has been amply taken care of in the current economic crisis, as it was in the wake of the 2008 collapse, and industrialists also have had massive amounts of subsidies and tax cuts thrown their way. For working people, crumbs. The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, committed US$5.3 trillion to corporations on its own initiative in the first weeks of the pandemic, and most of the $2.5 trillion offered in last spring’s two congressional stimulus packages (the CARES Act of March 27 and the supplement of April 24) went to big business. (There was nothing unique about that as Britain, the European Union and Canada pushed through similar programs.)

The Institute for Policy Studies report notes that the $1 trillion gain by U.S. billionaires since mid-March is: 

  • More than it would cost to send a stimulus check of $3,000 to every one of the roughly 330 million people in the United States. A family of four would receive $12,000.
  • Double the two-year estimated budget gap of all state and local governments, which is forecast to be at least $500 billion. By June, state and local governments had already laid off 1.5 million workers and public services—especially education—faced steep budget cuts.
  • Only slightly less than total federal spending on Medicare ($644 billion in 2019) and Medicaid ($389 billion in fiscal year 2019), which together serve 120 million Americans.
  • Nearly four times the $267 billion total in stimulus payments made to 159 million people earlier in 2020.

During the same period, about 70 million lost employment, 12 million workers lost their health insurance due to losing their jobs, 26 million did not have enough food to eat just during a two-week period in November and 98,000 businesses closed. The Economic Policy Institute predicts that if federal aid is not forthcoming, as many as 5.3 million public-sector jobs—including those of teachers, public safety employees and health care workers—will be lost by the end of 2021.

An excuse to ramp up privatization in Canada

The pandemic is being used as an opportunity in Canada to advance corporate goals of privatization. Health care workers in Alberta walked off their jobs in a wildcat strike in November to protest Alberta Health Services’ announcement that it would be laying off 11,000 public positions so those jobs could be filled by private contractors. The Canadian news site Rabble reports:

“Alberta leads Canadian provinces and territories in its pursuit of privatization, and its October announcement that it was laying off up to 11,000 hospital workers has led to worker resistance and criticism from the province’s doctors. (One Calgary physician even set up a grassroots political organization against health-care privatization). Affected workers include those working in housekeeping, food services, laundry and laboratories. The Alberta government claims that these roles are not being eliminated, but instead transferred from public positions to ones filled by private contractors. … This past summer, Alberta Bill 30 was also criticized as opening the door to further privatization of health care. The Health Statutes Amendment Act was an omnibus bill that passed at the end of July.”

Alberta legislators also pushed through a bill that weakens rules and requirements for charter schools to operate and allowed for home schooling to go on unsupervised by public school boards. (Charter schools are designed to weaken teachers’ unions and hand schools to corporations for profit, while the supposed improvements in student outcome are mostly mythological.) Not to be outdone, Manitoba’s provincial government seeks to privatize child care, long-term care homes and liquor sales, and intends to cut public service jobs by 25 percent, Rabble reported.

Jobs losses and insecurity around the world

A University College London report, “Financial inequalities widen due to Covid-19,” called by the authors the “UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown,” found that more than two-thirds of Britons surveyed have suffered deteriorating finances. The report said, “Almost half (47%) of those who were finding things ‘very difficult’ financially before lockdown are now reporting things are ‘much worse’, with a further 23% saying things are ‘worse’. This figure has increased significantly from July, when 57% of the same group reported being financially worse off than before the pandemic.” The report quoted an educational leader, Cheryl Lloyd, as summarizing the situation as follows: “This report shows that the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis is not being felt equally across the UK. This threatens to further widen existing inequalities as the pandemic continues.”

Conditions are no better across the Channel in the European Union, with disparate impacts on jobs widening inequality on the continent. The Brussels think tank Bruegel reports that, across the EU, “8% of workers educated to lower secondary level or below lost their jobs between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Over the same period, the number of jobs for workers with university degrees increased by 3%. Jobs for employees with middle-level qualifications declined by 5%. This picture of differences between low-educated and tertiary-educated workers can be seen in all EU countries and the United Kingdom.”

Those at more risk of losing their jobs are also at more risk of contracting Covid-19. “Sectors more exposed to the pandemic, including restaurants, travel, entertainment and personal services have unsurprisingly suffered more,” Bruegel reports. “But the ability to telework has greatly influenced labour market outcomes. About 70% of those who completed university studies are able to work from home, compared to about 15% of those who have not completed secondary school. Two-thirds of professionals and 85% of managers can work from home, in contrast to close to zero for workers in transportation, installation, construction and agriculture.”

And, as would be expected, conditions in the developing world are still worse. India has experienced a 26 percent decline in industrial employment, according to an India Today report. The broadcaster said:

“Ever since India went under a strict lockdown on March 25, millions of the country’s poorest workers were immediately rendered jobless and left without any income. An unresolved migrant crisis is the biggest example of the plight India’s poor are facing at the moment. Even the country’s vast middle class population encountered a sharp loss of income during the pandemic due to a wave of job losses and pay cuts. … A recent report by the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicates that [21 million] salaried jobs were lost in the first five months of the pandemic, indicating that income levels among middle class households have fallen sharply.”

At the same time Indians across the country were undergoing difficulties, Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest persons, saw his wealth increase by $30.5 billion. Another Indian billionaire, Cyrus Poonawala, added $5.6 billion to his wealth this year, India Today reported.

Even capitalists’ spokespeople profess concern

Inequality has become so extreme that even some of the staunchest upholders of the capitalism that creates this inequality profess to be concerned. (Or perhaps they are worried about people rising up to do something about it and thus advocate a little softening, at least for now.) In November, the Brookings Institution was moved to issue a report, “Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic,” that discussed the big increases in profits enjoyed by giant retailers while their workforce sees only crumbs. Brookings reported:

“We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.”

For top executives and speculators who hold large numbers of shares, however, the year of the pandemic has been a bonanza. The Brookings report further stated:

“Many of the least generous companies were the most financially successful, posting huge profits. Amazon and Walmart combined earned an extra $10.9 billion in profit compared to last year, an increase of 53% and 45%, respectively. Their workers, on the other hand, have received below-average COVID-19-related compensation: an extra $1,369 ($0.95 per hour) and $900 ($0.63 per hour), respectively, over the eight-plus months of the pandemic—representing just 6% pay bumps for full-time workers that earn starting wages. Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart’s stock prices are up 65% and 41% since the start of the pandemic, adding more than $70 billion to the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, and $45 billion to the Walton family—the country’s richest family, who own more than half of Walmart’s shares.”

Wal-Mart spent $500 million on new stock buybacks during the third quarter of 2020 while offering no new hazard pay bonuses for its employees, the Brookings report said. Another big chain, Kroger, announced $1.2 billion in new stock buybacks, causing the stock price to rise (which is the intention), at the same time its grocery workers were given no hazard pay for six months while earning an average wage of $10 per hour. Kroger’s profits during the first six months of the pandemic, meanwhile, totaled $2 billion.

Wal-Mart is a company that pays its employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes. Meanwhile, the Walton family collects billions of dollars every year from dividends just for being born in the right family.

Amazon is notorious for the brutal inhuman conditions in its distribution centers and for not paying taxes. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is one of the world’s richest people yet he organized a nationwide sweepstakes to see what cities or states would give him the biggest subsidies when he announced Amazon would create a second headquarters.

The International Monetary Fund likely isn’t having second thoughts or feeling remorse about its decades of imposing harsh austerity on developing countries, but has weighed in on the rise of inequality — whether from genuine concern or, much more likely, as a public relations gesture. (IMF papers purporting to reconsider neoliberalism are always much less than they appear.) Because lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and thus more likely to have lost their job, the IMF said “the estimated effect from COVID-19 on the income distribution is much larger than that of past pandemics.”

Loss of work and specter of hunger hit developing world hard

Whatever the motivations of the world’s capitalist think tanks and financial institutions may be in discussing global inequality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no question that working people everywhere are suffering. As early as late April, the International Labour Organization issued a report, “As job losses escalate, nearly half of global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods,” predicting that half of the world’s working people are in danger of disaster. The ILO said:

“The continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the Covid-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — that is nearly half of the global workforce — stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. … The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally. This translates into a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia. Without alternative income sources, these workers and their families will have no means to survive.”

Large numbers of the world’s peoples were already in a highly precarious condition. An estimate by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney is that there are 2.4 billion people in their prime working ages (25-54) who are unemployed, vulnerably employed or economically inactive, compared to 1.4 billion actively employed. In other words, there are far more people in the “reserve army of labor” who are precariously or not at all employed than those with jobs, and far from all those 1.4 billion who are employed have secure work. 

Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in an April 2018 action in Minneapolis. (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And with loss of livelihood comes the specter of hunger. The United Nations World Food Programme, also in late April, predicted that the pandemic “will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action is taken.” The agency said, “The number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million from the 135 million in 2019, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19.”

Nor does the developing world have the health care infrastructure necessary to handle the number of people falling sick from Covid-19. The United Nations Development Programme noted that developed countries have 55 hospital beds, more than 30 doctors and 81 nurses for every 10,000 people, but for the same number of people in a less developed country there are seven beds, 2.5 doctors and six nurses.

Pandemic widens education disparities

The lack of infrastructure to provide education is also acute. Because of school closures and the divide in distance learning, an estimated “86 per cent of primary school-age children in low human development countries are currently not getting an education, compared to just 20 per cent in countries with very high human development,” according to the UN Development Programme. “With schools closed, UNDP estimates that effective out of school rates could regress to levels not seen since the 1980s — the largest reversal ever … and threatening the hard work and progress of the past 30 years.”

Similar conclusions were reported by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequalilty.org project. In a September report, the project found that just 6 percent of children in eastern and southern Africa have access to the Internet. In Kenya, schools have been closed for six months. And that has further consequences. “One likely impact of Covid-19 is a rise in teen pregnancies, as adolescent girls are left without the safety net that schools provided,” the report said. “This gendered menace deprives young girls of the opportunity to further their education and attain their career goals. It also exposes them and their children to major health risks. According to the World Health Organization, ‘pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally.’ ”

The pandemic has also widened inequality in education in the developed world. VoxEU, which calls itself a provider of commentary by “leading economists,” reports that the disruption to higher education caused by the switch to online classes is much larger for lower-income students because “lower-income students were more likely to have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and were more worried about the direct health risks from the virus.” VoxEU found that “Lower-income students are 50% more likely than their more affluent peers to expect a delayed graduation due to COVID-19, a gap which disappears once accounting for the differential financial burdens or health risks imposed by COVID-19.”

Pandemic places greater burden on women 

Concomitant with the various inequality aggravations, it’s no surprise that women are being hit harder than men.

Alison Andrew, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, said: “Mothers are more likely than fathers to have moved out of paid work since the start of lockdown. They have reduced their working hours more than fathers even if they are still working and they experience more interruptions while they work from home than fathers, particularly due to caring for children. Together these factors mean that mothers now are only doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours that fathers are. A risk is that the lockdown leads to a further increase in the gender wage gap.”

The Institute, in its report on British fallout from the pandemic, “Parents, especially mothers, paying heavy price for lockdown,” found the following:

  • Mothers are 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs (temporarily or permanently) during the current crisis. Of those who were in paid work prior to the lockdown, mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit, and they are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. In all, among those working in February 2020, mothers are now 9 percentage points less likely to still be in paid work than fathers.
  • Mothers who are still doing paid work have reduced their paid working hours substantially and by more than fathers. Prior to the crisis, working mothers did paid work in 6.3 hours of a weekday on average; this has fallen by over one-fifth to 4.9 hours. Working fathers’ hours have also fallen, but by proportionally less, from 8.6 hours before the crisis to 7.2 hours now. 
  • Mothers are also far more likely to be interrupted during paid working hours than fathers. Almost half (47%) of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work are split between that and other activities such as childcare, compared to 30% of fathers’ paid working hours. Where focused work time is important for performance, gender differences in interruptions and multitasking risk further increasing the gender wage gap among parents.
  • In families where the father has lost his job while the mother kept hers, men and women still split housework and childcare responsibilities fairly equally. In all other types of households, mothers spend substantially more time on domestic responsibilities.

Such disparate impact means women are again falling further behind men in earnings. “Analysis of those that did produce data suggests it will take almost 200 years to close the gap,” says Dr. Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of the Equality Trust. “Undoubtedly women are bearing the brunt of this, as they did in austerity when 86% of cuts fell on women. There is a cumulative effect which consistently pushes progress back.” The general secretary of the British Trades Union Council, Frances O’Grady, said, “[O]nly one in 10 lower earners are able to work from home, and 69% of low earners are women; it is not a panacea. …Working women have led the fight against coronavirus, but millions of them are stuck in low paid and insecure jobs. We need a reckoning on how we value and reward women’s work.”

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

Then there is the specter of violence from male partners. María Noel Vaeza, United Nations Women Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, in a November report, said:

“While lockdowns and stay-at-home orders may be crucial in limiting and preventing the spread of COVID-19, they also have a devastating impact on women and girls living with the risk of gender-based violence, as many of the factors that trigger or perpetuate violence against women and girls are compounded by preventive confinement measures. Emerging global data has shown an increase in calls to [violence against women and girls] helplines. … Stay-at-home measures are compounding perpetrators’ use of mechanisms of power and control to isolate victims of [violence]. Unemployment, economic instability and stress may lead offenders to feel a loss of that power, which in turn may exacerbate the frequency and severity of their abusive behaviour. At the same time, the crisis is generating additional barriers for women and girls’ access to essential life-saving services such as counselling and justice resources, and legal advice; sexual health and other crucial medical assistance; and the provision of refuge.”

Racial disparities widened by pandemic

No roundup of Covid-19 inequalities would be complete without discussion of racial disparities. The impact of the pandemic’s effect on the economy, because it impacts lower-income working people most severely, has fallen heavily on People of Color. A Center for American Progress report authored by Dania Francis and Christian E. Weller demonstrates the severity of the disparities:

“African Americans have experienced particularly large job losses in a labor market characterized by persistent racism and inequality. … Estimates based on census data show that 54.8 percent of Black workers said that they had lost incomes due to a job loss or cut in hours from late April to early June, compared with 45.8 percent of white workers. The labor market pain has created housing instability for Black families to a much larger degree than was the case for white families. Estimates based on census data show that more than one-third of African Americans who experienced job-related income losses said that they either didn’t pay their mortgage or deferred their mortgage, compared with only 16.9 percent for white families with earnings losses. Among renters, 38.3 percent of Black families with income losses didn’t pay or deferred their rent, compared with 23.1 percent of white families in a similar situation.”

Compounding this financial distress is that, with schools going to remote learning, a lack of resources impacts the education of African-American children. The Center for American Progress report said:

“The lack of reliable internet or an electronic device for remote learning also correlates with fewer hours per week of teaching time. … Unreliable internet access and a lack of consistent access to electronic devices reduces families’ time teaching children by two to three hours among Black families but only by one to two hours among white families. … While the short- and long-term impacts of coronavirus-related school closures and job losses on children’s educational outcomes cannot be measured yet, it is already clear that there are differential effects by race on access to educational resources as a result of the pandemic. In particular, the persistent and large Black-white wealth gap directly and immediately feeds into persistent educational gaps.”

Higher poverty rates also increases the mortality rate from Covid-19. Writing in City Limits, Bijan Kimiagar and Jack Mullan report:

“The pandemic has entrenched extreme inequalities in New York City. Insecurities surrounding employment, health, education and basic safety are affecting many New Yorkers today, but they are disproportionately experienced in communities with the lowest incomes. The sheer rate of COVID-related deaths is more than two times higher in zip codes with very high poverty rates (where 272 out of every 100,000 residents have died) than in zip codes with low poverty rates (125 out of 100,000). New Yorkers with the lowest incomes are feeling the impact of the pandemic on all sides—living in fear of eviction, struggling to put food on the table, and having trouble getting devices to support remote learning for their children.”

For industrialists, financiers and their publicists, the year 2020 might be a time of “exceptional creative destruction,” but for the overwhelming majority of humanity who do the actual work that is converted into the fabulous wealth of those at the top, it’s just plain old destruction. Capitalism as usual.

Far from a change, RCEP agreement is more capitalism as usual

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is being called a new model of trade agreements. Such paeans appear to be premature, and we might better hold off on uncorking the champagne.

It is best to remember that so-called “free trade” agreements are products of neoliberal assaults on any and all efforts to protect people and the environment from the rapacious effort of corporations to profit to the maximum extent and without regard to external cost. “Free trade” agreements are not the cause of neoliberalism; they are a product of neoliberalism.

It is true that the RCEP is less draconian than recent trade deals, and less one-sided in advancing corporate profiteering above all other human concerns than the Trans-Pacific Partnership was when the United States was involved and pushing for the harshest rules. But is that the standard we wish to uphold? “It’s not as bad as the worst agreements out there” really shouldn’t be a cause for celebration.

Much of the same language commonly found in “free trade” agreements is in the RCEP, and what appears to be the most promising development, the lack of the usual “investor-state dispute settlement” process that uses corporate-dominated tribunals that consistently overturn health, safety and environmental regulations, is much less than it appears once we look into the details. And there are no labor or environmental provisions. What we have here is more capitalism as usual, including a dispute process still weighted toward corporate interests.

Tokyo at night (photo by Basile Morin)

For readers not familiar with the RCEP, it is a trade deal reached by 15 countries across East Asia and Oceania. Although some commentators believe that China has been the impetus behind the RCEP, in fact it is the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that were the driving force. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea join China and the ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — in a deal that encompasses nearly one-third of the world’s economy. India was originally a negotiating country, but dropped out, expressing concerns that the RCEP would be dominated by China.

As would be expected, mainstream economists, who as a group act as cheerleaders for capitalism rather than seriously analyze capitalist economies, are cheering the agreement. The Financial Times, for example, breathlessly reported that the RCEP “could add almost $200bn annually to the global economy by 2030,” a number repeated by signatory governments. That despite the fact that Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea each already has a trade agreement in place with ASEAN.

Signatory countries were also enthusiastic. China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, said the agreement is “a victory of multilateralism and free trade.” The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, “The agreement will help ensure New Zealand is in the best possible position to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and seize new opportunities for exports and investment.” The Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, “Australian farmers and businesses are set to benefit from better export opportunities.”

Unions fear working people face a race to the bottom

Once we turn our attention to those not highly placed, a rather different picture emerges. A bloc of seven trade union federations strongly condemned the RCEP after its signing. Those federations, covering workers in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, services and education, said, “Instead of furthering a free trade project, countries should be collaborating on reviving their economies and expanding public goods. … RCEP and other trade agreements that protect intellectual property rights threaten the ability to secure a globally accessible [Covid-19] vaccine. … [W]hile [corporate executives] traveling for business will benefit from facilitation of procedures for entry and temporary stay, workers face deteriorating working conditions in a race to the bottom under heightened competition in which migrant workers are facing the worse consequences. Regional cooperation based on a collective intent to promote decent work, quality public services and sustainable and inclusive development are a better solution.”

The seven trade union federations also pointed out that RCEP was shrouded in secrecy throughout its eight years of negotiations, with the text released to the public only after the agreement was signed. (All 15 countries must still formally ratify it.) The intellectual property chapter was leaked in 2015, prompting the Electronic Frontier Foundation to characterize the IP text as “a carbon copy” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership then also in negotiation. “South Korea is channeling the [U.S. trade representative] at its worst here,” the Foundation said in its commentary, speculating that Seoul was pushing draconian IP rules because accepting unfavorable rules in its bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. would put it at a disadvantage otherwise. We’ll return to the intellectual property text, always a key chapter in any trade pact, below.

There are also fears that trade deficits for less developed countries will increase and pressures for privatizations will increase.

The skyline of Bangkok (photo by kallerna)

A senior economist with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Rashmi Banga, expects that, assuming tariffs are removed on all products trading among RCEP countries, most ASEAN countries will see their imports rise faster than their exports, believing that those countries won’t be able to compete with China.

Kate Lappin, the Asia Pacific regional secretary of Public Services International, a federation of more than 700 trade unions representing 30 million workers in 154 countries, said “free trade” deals such as RCEP “also increase the pressure on governments to privatise, as public services need to be traded and compete on the market. This will have negative impacts on equality, including corrosive impacts on gender equality.” Noting that some measures governments are taking to combat the Covid-19 pandemic would be in violation of the RCEP or other trade agreements, Ms. Lappin said “RCEP will bind the hands of governments in taking measures in the public interest in crises to come, be it health or environmental.” 

There could also be problems for manufacturers in small countries because “rules of origin” rules mandate that parts from any signatory country must be treated the same as domestic production.

Bad news for farmers, good news for agricultural multi-nationals

The ability of farmers to maintain control of their seeds is in peril, according to GRAIN, which describes itself as an “international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.” GRAIN, in analyzing a separate leak of RCEP chapters, said the agreement was in danger of requiring all signatory governments to adopt a seed law designed to provide private property rights over new crop varieties, giving corporations like Monsanto or Syngenta a legal monopoly over seeds, including farm-saved seeds, for at least 20 years; require adherence to the Budapest Treaty, which enforces patents on microorganisms; and make violations of these corporate-friendly rules criminal violations. Australia, Japan and South Korea were described as the “hard-line camp” on these issues.

Those fears remain in place. Article 11.9 of the final text indeed mandates that RCEP governments not already signed onto the Budapest Treaty do so. Adherence to several other international treaties are also mandated. Language concerning adoption of the seed law described in the preceding paragraph (the Act of International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, amended in Geneva in 1991) is at Article 11.9, but the language is ambiguous, encouraging governments to sign the Convention and “cooperate” with other signatory governments “to support its ratification.” Also worrisome is Article 11.36, which mandates patents on plants: “[E]ach Party shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof.”

There is also concern about the availability of medicines. A key goal of the United States when it was negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership was to undermine government procurement of medicines that reduced the cost of health care and to extend patents and data exclusivity periods for brand-name drugs, impede trade in generic medicines, and place new limits on how drug prices are set or regulated, all in the service of pharmaceutical company profits.

Canberra at night (photo by Ryan Wick)

Croakey Health Media, an Australian “not-for-profit public interest journalism organisation,” in a commentary on the RCEP’s potential impact on medicines, feared some of those goals could find their way into the final text. “Early in the negotiations, leaked texts indicated that Japan and South Korea had proposed rules for the RCEP intellectual property chapter that would extend and expand monopolies on new medicines in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand,” Croakey said. “These types of rules can delay the availability of generic medicines.”

It appears there is at least some backing off of the worst provisions that had been under discussion. Article 11.8 of the final RCEP text says “The Parties reaffirm the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health” adopted in 2001. The Doha Declaration is an ambiguous document that “affirms” intellectual property rights but also “should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health.” How the text will be interpreted will likely determine how far it will be possible to go in attacking government health care systems.

It should be stressed that grassroots organizations had no chance to affect any aspect of the RCEP text as the negotiations were secret throughout.

Lots of language customarily found in trade agreements

The text of “free trade” agreements is always dry and technical, even neutral-sounding. It is in the interpretation, and what certain phrases actually mean, that determine their outcome. So let’s take a very brief look at some of the text, and what it might mean.

Chapter 10, covering investments, is crucial to understanding the similarities to existing deals. Article 10.1 on “covered investments” contains the standard list of what is covered typically found in “free trade” agreements, including “claims to money or to any contractual performance related to a business and having financial value” and “intellectual property rights and goodwill.” There is an important exception, however — the chapter does not apply to government procurement, “subsidies or grants provided by a Party” or “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority.” What that means is that the RCEP theoretically reduces the ability to attack or force privatization of government-owned enterprises, a consistent goal of U.S. trade negotiators in agreements the U.S. is involved in, and a goal generally shared by multi-national corporations seeking new markets. But this clause could potentially be negated by the heavier market pressures that could lead to privatizations, as discussed above, and once a government enterprise is privatized, the clause is no longer relevant.

The investment chapter contains the standard clause that “Each Party shall accord to investors of another Party treatment no less favourable than that it accords, in like circumstances, to investors of any other Party or non-Party.” Article 10.5 follows up with language that is also typical: “Each Party shall accord to covered investments fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security, in accordance with the customary international law minimum standard of treatment of aliens.” Although these passages are bland, neutral-sounding phrases, this language has often been used as key points of attack for multi-national corporations seeking to eliminate government health, safety, labor or environmental regulations. As always, “customary international law” has been established by a series of rulings by the corporate-dominated secret tribunals that hand down unappealable decisions, decisions that are used as precedent for further such decisions. The expectation of profits by a corporation as a “right” superseding health and environmental regulations has been repeatedly handed down.

The skyline of Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Further language routinely found in “free trade” agreements stipulate that capital controls are prohibited, and, in Article 10.13 of the RCEP, “No Party shall expropriate or nationalise a covered investment either directly or through measures equivalent to expropriation or nationalisation.” What will constitute an illegal “expropriation”? How this clause will be interpreted is crucial. In existing “free trade” agreements, government regulations protecting health or the environment are frequently overturned because complying with such regulations would reduce profits, and thus constitute “expropriation” because corporate profits are presumed to be an entitlement by the tribunals sitting in judgment. Will the repeated examples of such rulings in, inter alia, the North American Free Trade Agreement, be replicated here?

In Chapter 11, covering intellectual property rights, there is no mandatory schedule for when those rights expire; this constitutes a small victory. The chapter also states that signatory governments “may establish appropriate measures to protect genetic resources, traditional knowledge, and folklore,” a right not ordinarily granted in “free trade” agreements.

But in the Financial Services Annex of Chapter 8, language similar to that found in other trade pacts requires that foreign financial services firms be given free reign to operate, even to take over a country’s banking system. Specifically, “Each host Party shall endeavour to permit financial institutions of another Party established in the territory of the host Party to supply a new financial service in the territory of the host Party that the host Party would permit its own financial institutions, in like circumstances.” Again, what seems neutral-sounding on the surface has specific meanings when interpreted by a tribunal in the context of “customary international law.”

Corporations will continue to be elevated above governments

And that brings us to Chapter 19, covering dispute settlement. Article 19.4 leaves us little doubt, reiterating that “This Agreement shall be interpreted in accordance with the customary rules of interpretation of public international law” and that adjudicators “shall also consider relevant interpretations in reports of WTO [World Trade Organization] panels and the WTO Appellate Body, adopted by the WTO Dispute Settlement Body.” No specific tribunal for the settlement of disputes is mandated, and the intent appears to be to have ad hoc panels rather than panels seated by one of the tribunals ordinarily used in trade disputes in existing trade agreements. Nonetheless, Article 19.5 gives right of forum selection to the complaining party — i.e., the corporations that will be suing governments — so the use of the tribunals can’t necessarily be ruled out. When seating an ad hoc panel, the complaining corporation and the respondent government are supposed to mutually agree on the three members of a panel but if they can’t agree, the WTO director-general will complete the panel — given the role of the WTO in imposing draconian pro-corporate rules, this clause can hardly be considered neutral.

And so who will sit on the panel and adjudicate the case? Article 19.11 designates those who “have expertise or experience in law, international trade, other matters covered by this Agreement, or the resolution of disputes arising under international trade agreements.” In other words, the same corporate lawyers who sit as judges on the tribunals that adjudicate cases brought under existing “free trade” agreements. If the WTO director-general seats panelists, those must not only meet the requirements stated above but additionally “be a well-qualified governmental or non-governmental individual including an individual who has served on a WTO panel or the WTO Appellate Body or in the WTO Secretariat, taught or published on international trade law or policy, or served as a senior trade policy official of a WTO Member.”

Under most existing “free trade” agreements, one of three tribunals is used, most commonly the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arm of the World Bank. ICSID is the forum that was used in NAFTA and is used to adjudicate disputes under dozens of bilateral trade agreements, and is responsible for a long list of outrages declaring environmental and health regulations illegal. Conflicts of interest are blatant in these tribunals — corporate lawyers who specialize in defending multinational corporations in trade disputes alternate between appearing as counsel for corporations and as judges handing down the decisions.

This process is summed up well on a Bilaterals.org page answering “frequently asked questions”:

“In effect, ISDS creates a parallel business-friendly judicial system exclusively for transnational corporations. The power rests upon for-profit arbitrators who come from the corporate sector and face unverifiable conflicts of interest. They have no sovereign legitimacy and are not accountable to the public. The decisions they make can be inconsistent between one another and cannot be appealed. Plus, the arbitrators effectively serve as judge and party, because the same appointed arbitrators who plead the case for the parties make the decision. Imagine a football match where the referee plays for one of the teams! With ISDS, this becomes a possible scenario. So much for justice.”

RCEP rules not mandating ICSID or one of the other tribunals is a cosmetic change. Governments continue to tie themselves to rules and precedents that elevate multi-national corporations above national governments, and thus elevate corporate profiteering above all other human considerations. There will still be panels seated to adjudicate disputes, but instead of using ICSID or another permanent forum, there will be ad hoc panels, which will, as noted above, have the exact same criteria for seating judges. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union pioneered this cosmetic change, intended to make the one-sidedness of ISDS appear somewhat less blatant, and will also be used in some disputes covered by NAFTA 2, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement.

Thus the “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) process is very much in place in the RCEP. That should not come as a surprise. “Free trade” agreements arise because multi-national corporations scour the globe searching for the places with the lowest wages and least regulations in order to maximize their profits over all other considerations. As capitalist competition intensifies, corporations must match the moves their competitors make in order to remain in business, and adopt still more harsh policies to stay ahead. Once production is moved overseas, and supply chains are spread into ever more locales, tariffs and rules protecting domestic production are barriers to be removed. Trade deals at first mainly dealt with technical issues or tariffs, but as the relentless grasping for profits becomes ever more intense, regulations safeguarding health, labor, the environment or safety are seen as barriers to profit-making, and corporations seek to sweep them away, too.

Later trade agreements had much more to do with erasing regulations than with actual trade rules, which was reflected in the draconian rules the U.S., often assisted by Japan, sought to impose in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That the RCEP has less draconian rules is not a cause for celebration — the rules are still plenty tilted in favor of multi-national capital and will inevitably be wielded as a cudgel by those beneficiaries. A rational trading system requires a rational, democratic economic system, not the dictatorship of capital.