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Synthesis/Regeneration 6   (Spring 1993)

Industrialism or Ecological Society:
A Green Perspective on "Free" Trade

by Roy Morrison, Green Economics Working Group

The economic, environmental and social depredations visited upon workers and communities in both rich and poor countries, in both the privileged center of the capitalist industrial world and its exploited periphery, by the current push for "free trade" need be understood as more than just a current variation of a very old theme.

NAFTA and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) represent the desire for super exploitation and super profits. The industrial zones of the global factory appearing around the world take advantage of mass unemployment and dramatically depressed wages, combined with political oppression that is translated into weak, coopted or absent unions, weak environmental and health and safety laws, with weak or nonexistent enforcement. On this level, the global factory—supported, facilitated and validated by the cult of free trade—represents the license for transnational corporations and compliant national elites to maximize short-term gain and minimize short-term cost.

But free trade and the global factory also reflects more than just classic exploitation in slightly different garb. It need be understood as the cutting edge of a new stage of industrialism, that of global integration. The characteristics of global integration include not only the global factory and supporting free trade entitlements to move and/or create factories and agricultural products in the most profitable locations. Global integration means, as well, the enormous growth of speculative global financial flows; the creation of a global industrial cyberspace of phones, computers, and fax machines knit together by satellites, fiber optic cables and microwave transmissions; and the relative weakening of the nation state in response to the imperatives of global integration and the global maximization of production and consumption. The nation state with its local customs, local laws, and community interests has become, to an extent, an impediment, either large or small, to the continued maximization of industrial growth.

Thus, the imperatives driving the push for free trade transcend the traditional desire and inclination of capitalists to make a fast buck and reflects deep transformative forces and tensions—and opportunities for positive change—within the global industrial order. The push for globalization, at bottom, is a reflection of the industrial order's need for continued expansion, both in intensity and geographical scope, in order to fulfill industrialism's prime imperative: To maximize production and consumption.

It is essential for Greens to remember, as we consider ecological transformative responses and strategies to the push for global integration, that the basic conduct of existing capitalists on socialist industrialism has been remarkably similar. The environmental devastation wrought by the centrally planned and marketless communist industrial states should disabuse us of a simplistic definition of capitalism or markets as being responsible for environmental and social devastation by their exclusive and inherent nature. Both capitalist and socialist industrialism with their markets and planning systems have pursued essentially similar goals of the maximization of consumption, production and power with broadly similar impacts upon the living world.

This is not to ignore differences between capitalist or socialist industrialism, but to suggest that Green strategies for change must fundamentally be rooted in a transformation of industrial to ecological social orders. Industrialism cannot be reformed on the basis of industrial values. Industrialism must be transformed to an ecological civilization.

For global integration, free trade is a logical reflection of the weakening of national sovereignties, of the efficacy of national industrial orders in the interest of industrial expansion. Free trade is meant to facilitate the expansion and penetration of industrial production and social norms in the so-called developing, that is, industrializing world, and at the same time, maintain the existing inequalities and power relationships between North and South.

Ecological transformation is predicated upon new ecological social choices made by empowered and linked communities forming the complex and ever evolving social matrix of an ecological society.

Malaysian economist Martin Khor Kok Peng concludes that GATT will "allow TNCs, (transnational corporations) to gain sweeping rights not only to export to the Third World, but also to base their operations in Third World Countries, and to be treated like locally owned companies with hardly any state controls. At the same time, TNCs want to restrict the free flow of new technologies to the Third World by imposing patent obligations and intellectual property rights requirements on Third World Countries." (1)

By dismantling protection for French farmers and for US manufacturing workers, free trade is intended not only to increase transnational profits, but to widen and broaden the scope of industrial activity. But the industrial promise is chimerical. Jobs and pollution are exported from North to South in the guise of the global factory whose end result is not the development of dynamic and competitive industrial economies in the developing world. Instead, the gulf between North and South continues to widen; the net flow of cash from South to North continues to increase; the average earnings of workers continues to decrease; environmental degradation and destruction swiftly follows in the wake of industrial development.

Thus, from a Green perspective the needs and tasks of those in South and North are related and complimentary. To resist industrial globalization we must gain control of our communities. We must demand and struggle in common not only for fair wages, environmental protection, health and safety standards for workers and their communities. A Green response to global integration need be predicated on more than just a fairer and better deal within existing industrial power relationships. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy. For example, European Community (EC) integration was predicated, to an extent, upon raising wages and environmental protection standards in the poor nations within the EC and not simply accepting the lower standards of the relatively poor and less regulated EC nations. And while such an EC strategy, in the context of US and Mexican workers and communities under assault by NAFTA would seem to be deliverance, in the long run it is essentially a more enlightened means to continue industrial business as usual within the EC,—and maintain existing inequalities between the European Community and the South.

A Green response need be conditioned by explicit ecological values and programs based on democracy and true ecological sustainability. This means sustainability not of industrial production and consumption, the goal of industrial economics, but of the sustainability of the intertwined human and natural ecologies.

Ecological sustainability must be based on democratic community control of our lives and protection of the biosphere. This means local ownership in the form of worker cooperatives, credit unions, housing and agricultural cooperatives, nonprofit and municipal corporations, sole proprietorships, and small businesses. Ecological transformation is predicated upon new ecological social choices made by empowered and linked communities forming the complex and ever evolving social matrix of an ecological society. This means a new social compact not just between, for example, US workers and the US industrial state; and Mexican workers and their state, but equitable and ecological relationships between Mexican and US workers and their communities.

An ecological society is more than creation of an enlightened or reformed industrialism, but represents a trajectory that leads to transformation of industrial orders focused on production consumption, to lifeways organized around the protection and nurturance of the living world. An ecological society is created by empowered communities through the pursuit of a variety of complimentary venues. These include a social wage, a democratic cooperative economy, a solar transition, demilitarization, dematerialization of much production and consumption, the practice of an industrial ecology.

An ecological society coheres around the emergence and nurturance of what will be understood as an ecological commons, a social space created by the ecological practice of freedom and community where the rights to use the commons are balanced by the responsibility for its maintenance. The commons is created not by mandate or fiat but by social practice.

To expand briefly upon the venues for change that facilitate the building of an ecological commons: The social wage means the provision of adequate income for all people, in return, by all who are able, for a limited amount of broadly defined socially useful work. A cooperative economy means the transformation of a corporate economy to one based upon community centered and worker owned organizations. A solar transition means transforming the industrial fossil fuel, nuclear and megatechnological energy system to one based on decentralized and democratically controlled renewable resources. Demilitarization means an end to the global arms races and transfer of trillions of dollars to help sustain the human and natural ecologies. Dematerialization of production and consumption means democratically and decentralized control of rapidly expanding information technologies and "products." An industrial ecology means the careful equilibration and control of production and consumption cycles to eliminate or minimize the use of scarce material inputs, and the discharge of waste into the biosphere. Products and processes that cannot meet this test will be eliminated, not "regulated." This list of ecological venues is of course meant to be suggestive not exhaustive of the kinds of community social initiatives that will help build an ecological society.

Thus, the struggle against free trade as defined by the global industrial system must be viewed, as part of our work not only for desperately needed change and reform today, but as a part of our work for fundamental social transformation. Our struggles against NAFTA and GATT and for dignity and justice need be informed not by an effort to maintain existing industrial privileges or prerogatives. Instead our work need be guided and inspired by a transformative pursuit of both freedom and community that will enable us to make the kinds of social choices that ultimately will lead, by steps small and large, from an industrial to an ecological civilization.


1. Martin Khor Kok Peng, "GATT Threatens Third World Sovereignty," Earth Island Journal, Winter, 1992, 31.

Roy Morrison is a member of the Green Cooperative Economic Circle. He is the author of We Build the Road as We Travel: Mondragon, a Cooperative Social System. (New Society Publishers, 1991). He's at work on Green Economics: Practical Principles for Building an Ecological Society, forthcoming from South End Press.

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