If we can have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, why can’t we have one on TTIP? The latter may well pose a far greater threat to our democracy than the former, although exactly how much of a threat can’t be known, because the negotiations over it have been kept so secret. It’s almost as if the TTIPers want to hide it from us until it can be slid under the door and into European law, unnoticed.
It doesn’t sound very dangerous on the surface: a mere ‘trade deal’, rather technical, and far more boring than the great issue of ‘sovereignty’ which the EU referendum is supposed to be all about. But in fact it could affect our ‘sovereignty’ far more drastically than questions of straight bananas, or Brussels bureaucracy, or even immigration, which we at least have some distant and shared influence over. For the principle behind TTIP – however much this may be modified by negotiation – is that commercial considerations should override democratically arrived-at laws, whenever they come into conflict: for example, if controls on certain consumables for health and safety reasons hinder those (American) firms who want to sell us those products un-safely, or a country’s labour laws hinder foreign investment, or a democracy’s preference for a ‘national’ and publicly-owned health system doesn’t allow (American) healthcare businesses to buy up parts of it. People (like me) have been noticing the slow but inexorable advance of free-market capitalism, both in the dominant discourse of society and in practice (especially privatisation, but also in the way universities are run), for thirty or forty years now, not just in Britain, but in the world generally; seeming to confirm either Marx’s or the Neoliberals’ insistence – they both agree on this – that this is a ‘natural’ and inevitable process, until Utopia is reached (the neo-liberals), or the system collapses under the force of its internal contradictions (Marx). TTIP is a very obvious stage in this, giving market considerations primacy over democracy, quite overtly now. In the past it was foreign nations or confederations that threatened the latter. Now it’s this more opaque but also insidious power.
In part it has become powerful because of the unquestioning and almost mystical respect the world seems to pay nowadays to the principles of ‘competition’ and ‘free trade’. The subject of my first book, the economist and journalist JA Hobson, was one of the first to point out, around 1900, how oppressive those things could be, both abroad, in firing exploitative ‘Imperialism’, the title of his most famous work; and at home, in working against the interests of domestic society as a whole. The argument was roughly this: competitive capitalism encouraged manufacturers and other employers to lower costs by reducing wages, which also reduced the domestic demand for the goods they were making, so forcing them to look for cheap markets abroad. Pay the workers more, and none of this would happen; employees would themselves soak up the ‘surplus products’, thus keeping the factories (or whatever) going and the workers in work, and lessening the necessity for them to sell to and exploit foreigners. Hobson even maintained that there was no need for foreign trade at all, except on the margins: in things that a country could not produce or grow itself. Britain’s dependence on foreign trade (and increasingly investment) since the eighteenth century was weakening her, impoverishing her people, destabilising her society, and getting her into dangerous scraps abroad. Of course there’s more to Hobson’s ideas than this – enough for them to furnish the foundation for John Maynard Keynes’s much more famous theory – as Keynes himself generously acknowledged. But it makes you think.
In reality, however, it doesn’t seem to depend on ‘theories’. Keynes’s were tried out, notably in Britain after the last war, with great success, as most leading economists recently have come to acknowledge. But no matter; they were overturned in the 1970s and ’80s by the new breed of economists who had such an influence on Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan, in a way we can only understand, I think, if we acknowledge that the combined power of selfish and powerful interests – a.k.a. historical inevitability – was bound to trounce rational thinking, and also – as a side-effect – democracy, in the end. TTIP is the climax of that process. (So far.)
To return to the EU: it’s one of the drawbacks of the great debate we’re having over that to distract us from this graver threat to democracy – defined, that is, as a people’s ability, collectively, to arrange their affairs as they want. Ours of course is the traditional way to think about international politics: in terms of national independence, sovereignty and the like, when they seem to be threatened by other nations and their sovereignties. Nations are something you can see, on maps for example. Capitalism is less visible, except in its effects, which are not always traceable back to it. So it plays only a bit-part in the current referendum debate.
To my mind it should count much more. My whole present view of the European question, and the way my vote will go, revolve around what it will mean for TTIP. If I thought Brexit could mean that an ‘independent’ UK was likely to opt out of it, I’d vote with Boris and Nigel – holding my nose, of course. But I’m not at all convinced that the majority of the people who lead the Vote Out campaign, or would take the helm of the nation after a withdrawal (especially if Scotland took the opportunity to secede), are sufficiently anti-‘trade’. Most of them are free marketeers. In Europe things are different. Europe is marginally more ‘socialist’ in any case. If we stay, we can team up with like-minded and more popular anti-capitalists there, hopefully to vote TTIP down.
It’s a long shot, I realise; and I’m also aware of the downsides of the EU, from a left-wing point of view, as presently organised. Yes, it has become mainly a capitalists’ club. It’s austerian to a fault. Its treatment of Greece was unforgiveable. The bureaucracy is a problem. ‘Enlargement’ is an even a greater one: smelling to me of ‘imperialism’ – and I know about such things. (Putin is right about Ukraine.) And some of the propaganda on the ‘Remain’ side is enough to put anyone off.
But a radical Europe seems to me just now to hold out a slightly better chance for real independence – independence, that is, from the Global Leviathan – than Britain is likely to achieve on her own. Jeremy Corbyn is presently out there now campaigning on the slogan ‘Another Europe is possible’. Bless him. Let’s hope he’s right. – And be prepared to read here that I’ve changed my mind.