The famous American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that…
Language is a city to the building of which every human being brought a stone
That was in 1876. Today, I reckon Ralph might agree with me that large multinational corporations are on the brink of buying up all those ‘stones’. You see, language is no longer simply a form of communication between us common folk – it is a tool. As with any tool, it can be used for good… or evil. Contemporary ‘free-trade’ agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) demonstrate the latter.
From his self-imposed refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, the whistle-blowing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange recently railed against this new global ‘free-trade’ agreement by calling it out for what it is. He proclaimed in succinct and somber terms that…
if you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs
With Abbott and Co. close to signing an agreement that you and I have no control over (or that most Aussies have never heard of), but that the largest corporations in the world were brought to the negotiating table for – you have to ask yourself, ‘how’d they get away with it?’. It’s nothing to worry about according to Tony Abbott, we’re just ‘open for business!‘ – but what does this phrase, and others like it, really mean?
Well I’m glad you asked. I’m going to show you in layman terms how language has been used to help the rise of free-trade agreements in an increasingly globalised world. To do this, I’m going to specifically focus on the words about free-trade agreements and the TPP in particular to highlight the power of language in exerting influence favouring the capitalist mode of production. It’ll be by studying the language of the TPP that we can truly examine the inner machinations of the newest, largest and most pervasive trade agreement the world has ever seen.
To begin with though, a bit of a ‘refresher’ course in what the word free-trade actually means… or at least, what it’s supposed to mean. In the broadest sense, ‘free-trade’ simply involves the “exchange of commodities for money or other commodities”. In reality the definition is a lot more complex than that. This has already been demonstrated with the implications of the recently signed free-trade agreements between Australia and South Korea, and Australia in China. For example, a little known fact about the agreement is that it “allows China to bring in foreign workers on projects worth more than $150 million”.
The particular free-trade agreement I’m gunna focus on today though is the TPP, a proposed regional regulatory and investment treaty that would represent more than 40% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). Negotiations have been taking place since 2005, with 12 countries in the Asia-Pacific and South America currently in debate.
It’s a ‘new type’ of trade agreement that has been criticised for attempting to “enshrine new rights and privileges for major corporations while weakening the power of nation states to oppose them”, but sadly looks set to be passed as law in Australia, America and elsewhere pretty damn soon. If it succeeds, it’s hard not to agree with Karl Marx that the aim of capitalism to “create a world after its own image” may be one step closer.
So what about the actual language surrounding these ‘free-trade agreements’? What do the words mean? An analysis of the opaque language surrounding the TPP (and free-trade in general) helps draw a connection between the real world and the importance of language by highlighting Marx’s belief that “language is practical consciousness”.
So what he and I are essentially saying is it’s not just the TPP and free-trade agreements in general that are deceptive – it’s the adoption of specific words, lingo and phrases too. The whole narrative espoused by the proponents of the TPP is deceptive, with some scholars such as Quiggin pointing out that…
the term ‘Free Trade Agreement’ is a completely misleading description of the proposals currently under negotiation. Many of these proposals will be economically harmful to Australia
These words adopted by our politicians and our corporate overlords are adopted to lull us into a false sense of security. The ‘brave words’ adopted by proponents of free-trade agreements such as the TPP advocate the ‘freedom’ of trade and commerce inherent in this era of ‘new capitalism’. This new phase of capitalism is also dependent on a new level of secrecy. The less the public knows the better. It was recently revealed in leaked documents from the negotiations that “the futures of publicly owned enterprises such as Australia Post, the ABC, SBS and state power utilities may be on the negotiating table” with the Australian negotiating team proudly leading the charge. But what do we hear from our elected officials at home about this matter? Not a peep. No language at all also speaks volumes when assessing shitty free trade agreements such as the TPP.
Marx expands on this in noting that “by [adopting the word] freedom [it] is meant, under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying”. It can easily be argued that the national policy changes resulting from agreements such as the TPP are frequently discussed in terms of inexorable and uncontrollable processes brought upon by the forces of globalisation. In reality nothing could be further from the truth! This only happens because…
there are clear benefits for public policy-makers seeking legitimation for potentially unpopular reforms in the rhetorical strategy of appealing to transnational processes beyond their ability to control
Specifically in regards to the language surrounding the TPP, the nobel-winning economist Stiglitz underscores the point that free trade agreements are actually “managed trade agreements, tailored to corporate interests, largely in the US and the European Union”. Stiglitz further notes that these deals are now contemporarily referred to as ‘partnerships’ (i.e. the TPP) – but importantly they are “not partnerships of equals: the US effectively dictates the terms”. That’s right – you really think Australia is going to get as sweet a deal as the world’s sole economic and military powerhouse? No chance. And that’s why Obama recently pushed so damn hard to fast-track the TPP through Congress.
So does it all become a bit clearer now? The benefits of free trade are positively framed as a “belief, a fact or a possibility” which helps slot this warped ideology neatly into the realm of everyday language. By painting ‘free-trade’ agreements as ‘free’ and as ‘trade’ and as an ‘agreement’ (which none of us fucking agreed to!) us paupers get lulled into a false sense of security about the benefits of these deals. By denying the coercive and exploitative nature of such things we are less likely to question the merits of these dubious undemocratic contracts.
And that’s a shame, because the TPP fucking sucks. Sorry… excuse my language.