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Synthesis/Regeneration 6   (Spring 1993)

A Tri-Polar World

by Eric Chester, Left Green Network

The North American Free Trade Agreement has become the flash point for popular discontent with the precipitous decline in the US economy. Without a doubt, the implementation of a virtual free trade zone between the US and Canada on one side, and Mexico on the other will have significant implications throughout the continent. Yet NAFTA is only one link in a far more powerful dynamic, the drive toward a tightly knit, globally integrated world market. It is to this underlying dynamic that we need to turn our attention.

Before World War II and the resulting reordering of the global hierarchy of nation-states, the world economy was also marked by acute competition. It was in this context that the roaring twenties led into the Great Depression. Even after the new deal and the Popular Front government in France, the world remained buried in the most severe depression in the history of capitalism. Only total world war brought prosperity and full employment. Fifty years later, we have come full circle, with the same three countries (Germany, Japan and the US) trying to establish economic supremacy.

The US has declined as an economic power over the last decades and it is this decline that has been the focus of a great deal of concern. Still, American goods remain competitive in certain cutting edge fields, such as computer software and biotechnology. Certainly the US benefited from its earlier status as the dominant partner in world trade, and it has suffered from the continuing decline in its competitive position.

Nevertheless, this only begins to explain the sharp decline in American living standards. After all, it is not just the United States that is in the midst of a drastic economic transformation. Countries that would seem to be the winners in the cutthroat competition for over seas markets are still undergoing profound, and deleterious, transformations in their economies.

Policies designed to make the US more competitive on the world market are bound to fail because they do not address the fundamental, underlying problem, let alone solve them. We now live in a tri-polar world, with three industrialized giants fighting to gain an economic advantage. In this context of intense competition, living standards are squeezed, as each competitor is forced to move to the lowest common denominator. The safety of workers, and consumers, is sacrificed to the absolute goal of becoming the lowest cost producer, while environmental concerns become a minor nuisance, to be taken into consideration only when catastrophe becomes imminent.

Contrary to the common wisdom, as purveyed by the mass media, competitive markets bring instability, unemployment, environmental destruction, and a grossly inequitable distribution of income and wealth. The latest spiral in capitalist development, the global integration of trade and markets, has only intensified these general tendencies.

As each of the three major economic powers seeks a special advantage, each power creates its own distinctive zone of influence and dependency. Within these zones, the subordinate countries provide low cost labor for multinational corporations engaged in industrial production. To maximize the economic advantage, the dominant power presses for the total integration of the dependent countries into one common market, without tariff barriers, but with an unimpeded flow of capital across national boundaries.

Obviously, this is where NAFTA fits into the tri-polar global economy. While Germany constructs a united Europe, in which its enormous productive capacity will ensure it a hegemonic standing, the US absorbs Canada and Mexico directly into its economy. Canada, as a lightly populated but high wage country, would seem to have little attraction for the US, and yet its rich resource base could supply this country with scarce raw materials and energy sources. Mexico, on the other hand, represents the ideal subordinate partner. With a large population, and a vast number of poverty-stricken workers and peasants, desperate for a job, NAFTA would be a boon for US corporations, and a disaster for its workers.

Greens and Leftists can begin to develop an effective strategic approach to defeating NAFTA. To begin with, we need to place our objections to the specifics of the proposed agreement into a wider setting, one which challenges the ascendancy of the world capitalist market. This means projecting a vision of a very different society, decentralized, nonhierarchical, egalitarian, with production based on need, not profit.

We also have to be very clear that attempts to amend NAFTA are futile. Efforts to alter the free trade agreement with Mexico to insist upon the government passing legislation mandating stiffer environmental controls, higher minimum wages, and safer working conditions can only serve to divert attention from the underlying reality. The Mexican government knows full well that US corporations are moving plants across the border to escape domestic environmental controls, and to fully exploit a low wage workforce. Furthermore, the Mexican government is a corrupt, entrenched, one-party dictatorship, with intimate ties to corporate interests. It already fails to enforce existing laws governing the wages and working conditions of its workforce. Insisting on new, more stringent standards is therefore utterly pointless.

We have to oppose NAFTA in its totality, not with the goal of revising it, but defeating it. Yet this struggle is only one element in a far more extensive project. We need to build a social movement that can effectively challenge the driving force underlying NAFTA, the global integration of national economies into one cutthroat competitive world market.

Working people in Canada are resisting NAFTA because they see it undermining the higher standard of living that Canadian workers have won. Already, that government, in alliance with big business, has initiated a frontal assault on the social service system, insisting that Canada has to produce at lower cost, or watch industrial plants move south, across the border to the lower cost sanctuary of the United States.

Of course, the gap in living standards is far greater between Mexico and the US than between the US and Canada. The past few years has seen a radical shift in the orientation of the Mexican government. Instead of policies designed to encourage industrial production for the domestic market, the Salinas regime has enthusiastically introduced market driven policies, opening Mexico to foreign investment. At the same time, subsidies for basic foodstuffs have been drastically reduced, leaving millions at the edge of starvation. NAFTA will only accelerate this process.

In organizing against NAFTA, those of us within the US Left need to emphasize the importance of international solidarity. We can only benefit from closer ties with our comrades in Mexico and Canada.

Eric Chester is author of Socialists and the Ballot Box and is currently working on the separation of church and state in Arlington.

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