January 6, 2012, by Adrian Mateo
Challenging the logic of free trade
On 2 and 3 December 2011, the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice in partnership with the Integrating Global Society research priority group at the University of Nottingham hosted a two-day workshop on free trade, trade unions and the labour movement’s complex relationship with the various configurations of the free trade phenomenon. The workshop was organised by Dr Andreas Bieler (Professor of Political Economy) and was supported by the British Academy.
In addition to keynote speaker, distinguished political economist Samir Amin (who also delivered the CSSGJ Annual Lecture and participated in an exclusive session), twenty-five participants discussed over a dozen papers on the topic and attempted to provide insights into the mechanisms of trading regimes and to highlight the ever-growing global resistance against the impositions of free trade agreements (FTAs). While the lively debate revealed a wide spectrum of varying interpretations and showcased detailed case studies of the direct effects of free trade regimes, there was one prevailing sentiment at the end of the workshop: Free trade, both as a concept and an institutional arrangement, has to be continuously challenged.
It is, perhaps, necessary to start with asking a simple, yet important question: What is free about ‘free trade’? The term conjures up often misleading, progressive connotations of unhindered economic activity, wealth and prosperity for all—a narrative which has become the first line of defence against critics. Free trade, as the mainstream argument goes, is good for all participants since it creates hitherto nonexistent, or limited, opportunity for profitable exchange and local economic development. As repeatedly underlined by many discussants during the workshop, the reality of FTAs is far from corresponding to this benevolent portrayal. A report prepared by War on Want, and presented in the workshop by its executive director John Hilary demonstrates that the impositions of free trade regimes have resulted in mass unemployment, destruction of national and sub-national economies and a wave of rapid deindustrialisation, especially in the Global South. Moreover, as Aziz Choudry highlighted, FTAs represent the economic leg of the current geopolitical order by creating the conditions of super-exploitation in the South. Silke Trommer, similarly highlighted how free trade reproduces the entrenched power relations of the global capitalist order instead of challenging them or providing equal opportunity for trading partners. Regularly utilised to mask the vented interests of both Western powers and national elites in sustaining unequal exchange and the conditions of underdevelopment (aptly demonstrated by Cheikh Tidiane Dieye), free trade has merely become an institutional scheme to enforce a particular set of commercial relations that are, by design, exploitative and profitable for a small minority.
Labour’s relationship with free trade reveals more fundamental contradictions regarding the way in which global production is organised as well as commodities and services are distributed. While ‘transnational solidarity’ remains a cornerstone of global labour activism, many discussants drew attention to the still existing dividing lines between the Global South and North. Mònica Clua-Losada’s study on dockworkers displayed how an active solidarity agenda can become a powerful tool for the organised workforce, yet critical contributions by Salimah Valiani and Amanda Latimer also put forward the question of grossly underrepresented informal labour and migrant workers, who remain outside the limited boundaries of traditional union organisation. It is perhaps the greatest irony of the logic of free trade that labour could only gain mobility, thus become ‘free’, when it is not organised and is subjected to a greater degree of exploitation.
What about the alternatives to free trade? One of the most encouraging features of the workshop was to underscore the multiplicity of grassroots and more formally organised struggles against FTAs across the world. From collective initiatives such as bilaterals.org to efforts to construct ‘labour internationalism from below’ like SIGTUR, the ongoing resistance to partisan free trade impositions take different shapes. Yet especially at a time when the foundations of global economy are shattering with the perpetuation of crises, it is not surprising that many participants joined Samir Amin in stressing the need to challenge the structural dynamics of global economy rather than undertaking a critique exclusively focused on FTAs. Labour’s crucial position in bringing about this change is undeniable, yet precisely what form it would take will only be revealed through constant construction of transnational linkages and translation of systemic problems into everyday struggles.
Cemal Burak Tansel (PhD candidate, University of Nottingham Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice)