Trans-Pacific Partnership and National Illusions

Editorial, November 2015

Need for ever expanding markets

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve nation transnational treaty – but one encompassing much more than tariffs – is now entering the public dialogue in a substantial way for the first time in the eight years since negotiations began. Previously talk of the TPP had been mostly limited to the odd pronouncement from the labor movement, online activists and left-liberal sources like Democracy Now, with the main bourgeois media outlets only turning their attention to it during the controversy over fast-track authorization this summer1. Now that the 12 nations’ trade representatives (the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam) have announced readiness to drive forward with approval, it’s likely – but not guaranteed – that the TPP will be enacted before President Obama leaves office. Trade unionists and working class partisans in general will come under tremendous pressure to either begrudgingly accept the Trans-Pacific Partnership (i.e. to take Obama’s word for it) or to oppose it on a “patriotic” and ultimately illusory basis.

Contents under pressure

As the TPP is only now reaching a broader audience beyond activist “usual suspects” on the one hand and capitalists privy to negotiations on the other, it’s worth examining what the deal would actually entail should it pass – although any such attempts at examination will be by definition incomplete, as the negotiations have been held behind closed doors and with precious little in the way of public access. While much quieter than machinations in the Middle East since 2008, the Trans-Pacific Partnership arguably represents the legacy of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, with the President having been the main mover of the treaty over the past seven years.

Now that the full text has finally been released to the public after years of secrecy, we can see it certainly lives up to the “NAFTA on steroids” pejorative given to it by the labor movement. By including countries like Brunei, Vietnam and Mexico in the bloc it will put a downward pressure on wages and conditions in the advanced capitalist countries while adding to the super-exploitation of the workforce in the neocolonial countries. Since it would be easier than ever for large corporations to move their capital abroad in search of cheaper labor, the race to the bottom logic of nation-states’ attacks on labor rights would intensify. The treaty would also significantly loosen regulations on finance capital – Wall Street and its cousins abroad – by locking down standards at a low common level, prohibiting even mild reformist measures like a “Robin Hood Tax” (a levy on financial transactions over a certain amount) or a reintroduction of the Glass-Steagal Act that separated commercial banking from investment banking.2

Indeed, freeing the capitalists’ hands to press downward on popular rights and standards (or, as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative euphemistically puts it, “open markets [and] high-standard trade rules”)3 is a shared theme throughout. The treaty weakens environmental regulations and food safety standards, strengthens incentives to privatize public services and state-owned enterprises, extends copyright and patent lengths whether on software or medicine and increases state surveillance online. (Despite the new restrictions of online freedom, the New York Times still found a way to claim that the TPP will “open the Internet” in “communist Vietnam.”4 Who knew?)

But any materialist analysis of the Trans-Pacific Partnership should see the forest for the trees. More significant than any particular counter-reform is the overall project of guaranteeing unfettered access to new markets or deeper penetration of existing ones. Perhaps the most worrying mechanism for accomplishing this is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS.) As this paper wrote last year:

“The TPP would give private corporations legal parity with national governments through the “investor-state” system, where corporations would be allowed to sue governments to overturn (and get financial compensation at public expense for) any local laws that hinder that corporation’s profits. These cases would be decided not in the public court system of the government in question, but in private tribunals.”5

While similar mechanisms have been enacted in previous free trade deals, the TPP version dramatically expands the definition of an “investment” to include not only measures that actually hinder corporate profitability but any measure that might reduce profits at some point in the future.

Bad for America?

So the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad – not a particularly controversial statement even on the mainstream of U.S. politics. However, communists differ sharply with bourgeois politicians and commentators on why it’s bad and what can be done about it.

The TPP enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, with the Republican Party bucking its typical knee-jerk opposition to any Obama initiative to do so – a sign in itself of the class interests at stake here. One exception is Hillary Clinton who, tacking slightly to the left under pressure from Democratic primary voters, recently came out against the TPP. In fact the presumptive Presidential nominee claimed that she never supported the deal, despite making dozens of supportive public comments during her time as Secretary of State and leaked diplomatic cables showing her intimate involvement with the negotiations.6

Among liberal Democrats and right-populist Republicans (a la the Tea Party) there is some opposition and hesitancy, but in the absence of a powerful mass movement with a realistic strategy of sinking the treaty President Obama and the new Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan (an enthusiastic champion of the TPP) enough will fall in line for the deal to pass. Naturally, none of these politicians oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they’re principled defenders of the world working class. Every single one of them both liberal and conservative, including Bernie Sanders, is leaning against the TPP on a nationalist basis. We need to defend “our” industrial capitalists against foreign capital and “our” jobs against workers abroad (presumably Mexican or Australian workers can go to hell.) Measures like the investor-state dispute settlement are framed as an issue of foreigners imposing their will on American national sovereignty – neoliberalism as a foreign import. If only we could return to the good old days of protectionism! But even if it was desirable to go back to the post-WWII Keynesian consensus, the material reality of modern capitalism doesn’t allow for it. The state – which can be best understood as a firm in the world market – can’t simply pull out of that market and revert to autarky.

Sadly the labor movement in the U.S. by and large subscribes to this completely hopeless perspective. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka penned an op-ed7 for Time correctly noting that “corporations seem to win at every turn at the expense of working people”… but then placing the blame on foreign imports and currency manipulation, even incredulously claiming that China – a country pointedly locked out of the TPP – will benefit from it. Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers (organizing 800,000 workers) sounded the alarm about “our producers and workers” being “under siege” from “other nations.”8

Class-collaborationist nonsense. If it was bad for U.S. workers and capitalists alike, why would Goldman Sachs, Walmart, Haliburton, Pfizer et al. bother writing it and heavily lobbying9 for its passage? In reality the Trans-Pacific Partnership is as American as apple pie, both because it expresses the real needs of capital in this period and as a geopolitical tool for U.S. imperialism to block the development of its Chinese rival. (In fact the labor bureaucracy has been unwittingly playing into the hands of pro-TPP forces with its shortsighted China-bashing, as the anti-China goal is a selling point for policymakers.)

No patriotic front between the U.S. labor movement and sections of the ruling class is going to stop the TPP. Slick social media graphics and appeals to “Buy American” aren’t going to cut it, either. Some unions, like the Communication Workers of America, have been involved in on-the-ground organizing around the TPP and at least recognize some kind of international dimension to it. But they too remain hobbled by economic nationalism and a reliance on capitalist politicians to advance their interests.

Vietnamese assembly line workers and Chilean garment weavers are not the problem here; the enemy is at home. Left groups like Socialist Alternative, Socialist Action and the International Socialist Organization are right to call for “mass struggle” and mobilization against the TPP – but street action alone won’t be enough. Of course, communists should join with and build anti-TPP agitational initiatives from organized labor and the broader class, bringing with us our critique of the labor bureaucracy and popular-frontism.

We should also begin to think strategically. There is not much time to build that “mass struggle”; President Obama has signaled his intent to sign, starting a 90-day clock at the end of which Congress must vote on the treaty. In the absence of a real working class political party it’s difficult to produce a large-scale active opposition – and the only existing mass organizations of our class, the trade unions, don’t have the political will in their leadership to do it. This isn’t to say the TPP is a foregone conclusion, but rather that communist strategy should have a perspective of what should be done whether or not the treaty is enacted. If it is, the need for unity across borders will become even more important.

This can only be done by pushing for the regeneration and construction of class organizations on a militant, democratic and internationalist basis. This means close cooperation among the workers’ movement across the Pacific Rim countries, championing our shared interests – the right to organize, the right to a living wage job, freedom from imperialist meddling in the neocolonial countries et cetera. An international day of action would have a significant rallying effect and lay the foundation for closer ties. Vitally, we need pan-American unions, organizing workers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. If capitalism has its transnational corporations reaching effortlessly across the boundaries of nation states, the working class deserves a movement capable of fighting to level up its conditions across the board.



  1. Legislation enabling a strict up or down vote, without floor debate or amendment.
  2. Enacted in 1933 as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal and repealed in 1999 with the support of the Clinton administration.
  9. From the pro-treaty TPP Coalition’s website, featuring a who’s who of U.S. capitalism:

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