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Thoughts on Fair Trade
by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Greens
Fair trade is not possible as long as a few hundred transnational corporations (TNCs) dominate the world economy. Their sheer size, the massive volume of their internal cross border trade as well as normal sales and purchases across borders, and their enormous lobbying powers render any hope of a fair trade system nil as long as they continue to dominate the world economy.
We need radically democratizing structural changes in our political and economic institutions to create the conditions in which fair trade becomes possible. Greens call for a continent of decentralized regions of self-governing communities in place of centralized nation-states and global corporations. In the Green vision of free cities and municipal confederations, fair trade systems would be built up by agreement from below. The people, through democratic political and economic institutions, not elites through nation-states and TNCs, would determine conditions of trade. The Greens want a measure of self-reliance at the local and regional level. But we shouldn't want total self-sufficiency. Sharing resources among communities and across regions is a way to unite a Green society on the basis of shared material needs as well as shared cultural values.
We need radically democratizing structural changes in our political and economic institutions to create the conditions in which fair trade becomes possible.
Here are six reforms Greens can consider as steps toward a grassroots-democratic system of fair trade:
1. An Environmental Home Rule Amendment to the US Constitution. Give municipalities the absolute right (with no exceptions for national security, etc.) to refuse the siting and transhipment of toxic and radioactive hazards in their jurisdictions. As soon as people have this right, good-bye nukes and toxic industries.
2. Repeal the Interstate Commerce Clause in the US Constitution. Just as GATT and NAFTA remove many regulatory powers from the national level, the Interstate Commerce Clause establishes federal pre-emption of state and local regulation of trade between US states. Let's restore these regulatory powers to states and municipalities.
3. Develop International Social and Environmental Standards from Below. Clinton and Gore are saying that they won't sign NAFTA until certain social and environmental conditions are written into it. This is just a sop. The standards Clinton/Gore will set are not those the people would set if they had the opportunity. The alternative to centralized standard setting and beggar-thy-neighbor competition between countries for corporate investment is to keep raising the floors of social and environmental standards internationally through cooperation among localities and regions.
4. Restrict Capital Mobility through Local Ownership. Capital's mobility is what gives it its power to blackmail communities into complicity on tax and regulatory issues. One social standard we could raise in order to decrease capital's mobility is local ownership requirements, akin to local content requirements for protected manufacturers. To remain local, ownership has to mean non-transferable ownership by municipal or regional governments or by worker co-ops and not local private proprietors, partners, stockholders, or employee stock ownership plans, all of which can sell out their holdings to absentee owners.
5. Eliminate Migration Restrictions. If capital can be mobile, so should labor. The borders of the world have set up a system of international apartheid. The most blatant example in the world is the US/Mexico border. Mexico has been the US's bantustan, a cheap labor reserve. Mexicans have been let in when their cheap labor was needed, and deported when it was not, many times over the last century. Now, with the maquiladoras, the site of cheap labor exploitation has simply moved south of the border. No other single act would serve the goal of equalizing opportunities, income, and wealth as quickly and as much as tearing down migration restrictions, these economic Berlin Walls that protect rich countries from the poor countries they exploit.
6. Use the State Corporate Chartering Process to Enforce Social, Environmental, and Fair Trade Standards. As Frank Adams and Richard Grossman point out, popular movements in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries vigorously used the state's corporate chartering processes to make corporations serve the public interest or face a loss of their charter to operate. This is a tool we could use once again to make economic enterprises serve the public interest.
We need to go way beyond trying to tinker with and reform GATT, NAFTA, and the TNC-dominated world economy. We need to begin exploring fundamental alternatives that make the determination of a fair trade system a grassroots-democratic process.