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Synthesis/Regeneration 6   (Spring 1993)

Development and Democracy

by Paul Fleckenstein, Left Green Network

The proposed new GATT (Uruguay Round) and NAFTA will extend the powers of international trade bureaucracies to undermine local, state, and federal policies on environmental, health and safety, and economic issues. Yet underlying these formal limitations on self-governance, the agreements embrace the still more imperious goals of growth and economic development. Although growth and economic development are ultimately more threatening to self-determination and ecological sustainability than any of the particular provisions of the trade accords, these aims are either unseen or supported by many of those rallying against the current versions of GATT and NAFTA.

Suggested rewrites of GATT and NAFTA to proactively protect society and nature are fanciful. Amending the agreements to set minimum international standards in the areas of labor and environment, for instance, fundamentally contradicts the purpose of the accords. GATT and NAFTA are not regulatory. They are designed to deregulate by excluding social and ecological concerns from any policies that may effect trade.

Growth and Development

Market rationalization means leveling standards and regulations across continents so that global merchants can trade one essentially unvarying product in dozens of different regional or national markets. In free market thinking, local governments with bothersome laws on packaging or hazardous chemicals must be disciplined. The result is monopolization by which a few industrial corporations become the only source of essential goods.

The growth fostered by market rationalization is, of course, theoretically unending. It claims ever more energy and natural resources. Capitalist growth threatens sustainability, adequacy, and abundance wherever it encounters them. Clean water, fisheries, and healthful air are all subject to degradation and scarcity. The ecological basis of all complex life on our planet is at risk.

Economic development is the corollary of growth. Most participants in the free trade debate are firmly in favor of it, although in different forms. However these different forms of development often have similar objectives: raise the standard of living (especially in "developing" countries), benefit the poor with trickle-down wealth (through government redistribution as necessary), enable more social services and environmental protection programs, and increase consumer incomes and spending to buoy industrial production. The condition of this economic progress is an increasingly integrated global economy where every community's material provisioning depends on geographically extensive economic networks.

Progressives have in mind schemes strikingly similar to those of the free marketers, only progressive development is more managed and responsible.

To their credit, free trade critics envision a more humane development than does Washington. But, as a result, the problems with this more "progressive" development are perhaps less obvious. Progressive free trade critics make persuasive arguments. Realistically, they contend, we must accept a globally integrated economy within which profit-seeking capital roams the globe searching for cheap labor and lax environmental regulation. Since there are very few social democratic governments, world development occurs unequally as transnational corporations bargain one country against another in order to ratchet down social and environmental protections. Furthermore, say progressives, the new GATT and NAFTA promise very few shifts in investment or exports and imports not already well under way. The agreements primarily codify existing trading patterns.

"Better" Economic Development?

Progressives have in mind schemes strikingly similar to those of the free marketers, only progressive development is more managed and responsible. Responsible development seeks to moderate the power of wealth, distribute incomes more evenly, and create wealthier consumers to support expanding production and sustained growth. For progressives, increased state management, would mean rising incomes and stronger environmental standards in Mexico; thus, our southern neighbor would cease to be the US's toxic dump and a low-wage lever used to lower wages and worker protections here.

Both of these development routes, however, are narrowly economic. They foster industrialization to eliminate scarcity, increasing incomes to alleviate poverty, growth to compensate for social inequality, and rational planning (corporate or state) to improve society. Expanded trade, efficient production, and commodification of more aspects of daily life are the shared components of economic progress. Furthermore, neoliberal or progressive development excludes individual and community initiatives oriented toward self-reliance and participatory organization (democracy) instead of toward merging with the industrial system.

Development Over Democracy

Writing on NAFTA's potential effects on Mexican culture, a Mexican news columnist reflected, in rough translation, "Under the Mexican ways of acting and reacting, wealth is not a serious prerequisite for the enjoyment of one's lot.... Getting satisfactions and contentment from non-work connected activities are popular Mexican targets."

With or without NAFTA, however, economic development will continue to overrun Mexican society. It will organize people to work more efficiently for long hours under rigid rules. Economic integration tends to arrive as an external and imposed force. Ways of getting satisfaction that don't have a price will be devalued, forms that can be made to have a price or that are created because they have price will be valued and then rationed based on ability to pay.

Democracy, equity, and material adequacy should not be expected consequences of economic development in Mexico or the US. If the aspiration for a democratic society is to be realized in secure and rewarding livelihoods, it cannot be anchored in the struggle over managing and dividing the economic development pie. A democratic response to trade issues need not be confined by such economic indicators as incomes, growth, unemployment, and sustained profitability. These indicators provide an obviously important but ultimately one-sided picture.

The myth of economic progress has a dark underside connected to the process of valuing economic aspects of society—goods and activities that can be rationally organized on a large-scale and given a price—while devaluing others. The Green Revolution is illustrative. Begun as a development project to raise living standards and eliminate food scarcity, it has brought growing misery instead. Conceived economically, the Green Revolution sought higher yields of grains sold in national markets, higher incomes, and efficient management. However, the purchased packages of hybrid seeds and petrochemical inputs delivered only fleeting success to Third World farmers. Although market transactions increased, and in some cases incomes as well, reliable food supplies, secure livelihoods, and local self-reliance suffered. The non-market village institutions supporting a relatively self-reliant agriculture system disappeared, and with them the cautious integration of farming with natural soil, water, and pest cycles. Diverse cropping patterns and cooperative social forms gave way to the more violent and centralized institutions of international finance, seed corporations, and government ministries. (1)

In the North and South, development smothers individual choices and forces compliance with externally determined patterns that have no regard for social or ecological balances. As with the Green Revolution, it depoliticizes power by economizing it—by equating progress with increased sales and incomes. Expanded market relations assume an inevitable character which help justify social deprivation and ecological destruction.

The Fateful Decision

Options fostering increased community self-reliance or democratic and cooperative initiatives are not about lashing onto national or global economic systems. On the contrary, noneconomic alternatives would focus on reducing the need for incomes and jobs, and also the need for ever more commerce to keep wealth trickling down to the least advantaged.

I certainly do not have the plan for greater self-reliance and ecological sustainability. One step in this direction, however, is to revalue and foster the non-paid and free activities that provide enjoyment and sustenance: self-directed construction, gardening, cooperative community projects, play, mutual aid, and other "work" occurring outside of market and hierarchical institutions.

Whether Congress rejects (my choice) or amends the new GATT and NAFTA, or whether Clinton signs parallel agreements to NAFTA is of little consequence. In any case, we are in no position to be advocating superficial amendments that leave the key aims of free trade untouched. If we ignore the underlying themes of growth and economic development, and do not strive for non-economic solutions to social and ecological dislocations, we've lost everything.

(1) Vandana Shiva in The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (London: Zed Books, 1991) insightfully describes the broad cultural and ecological effects of the Green Revolution in the Indian Punjab. Also, Wolfgang Sachs (ed.), The Development Dictionary (London: Zed Books, 1992) is very helpful in unveiling development myths.

Paul Fleckenstein is a community activist from Burlington, Vermont and member of the Left Green Network. He works with the Fair Trade Campaign in Vermont.

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