Post #38 – Common Sense (or Lack Thereof… ) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

After being under wraps for over five years, it arrived a couple of days ago. The long-awaited full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was released to the general public… and it’s fucking huge. Like, literally huge (30 Chapters all up). Across the expanse of the Pacific, people have been trying to sift through the text and figure out what it has in store for all of us… and thus far, it’s not pretty. But the question is, what can we make of it all? Well, the TPP signifies a new era in free-trade agreements, in that “the agreement goes beyond traditional trade issues such as tariffs and import quotas and includes giveaways to powerful business lobbies”. It’s a new kind of monster, the likes of which we have never seen before.

WHY THE HOSTILITY, MAN?: This is why the TPP faces such stiff opposition – both here in Australia and abroad. But like other things we the people despise, it will most likely pass into law across the Pacific over the next year or so. There’s a feeling of inevitability and helplessness wrapped up in these convoluted and secretive trade agreements our governments keep buying in to.

There was a man who understood better than most why we accept these bullshit trade agreements, and he died in the process of essentially, calling ‘a spade a spade’. He was a visionary in understanding how the capitalist state carries out its duties, some say a man ahead of his time. His name was Antonio Gramsci, and he was best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. He was a founding member and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy and thus imprisoned by Benito Mussolini‘s Fascist regime. He was considered such a threat by the establishment that at his trial, Gramsci’s prosecutor stated, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning”. He died under watch and in confinement for telling it like it is; a broken and lost man – however, his legacy lives on.

GRAMSCI, HEGEMONY AND THE TPP: As I’d noted in a previous post on the TPP, the power of language was a constant field of interest for Gramsci. But even more important was the conception of ‘hegemony’ that is encapsulated within the struggle between the contradictory class locations (i.e. 1% vs 99%). Gramsci believed that the way in which those within society align politically is crucial to the functioning and stability of capitalism. If those within the contradictory class divisions perceive that their interests are aligned with the capitalist class in maintaining the present political-economic arrangements, a more viable environment will exist for ‘free-trade’ agreements that ultimately benefit the emergent ‘transnational capitalist class’. This ‘1%’ class propagates their own values and norms, easily in an era of globalized mass media, so that they become the ‘common sense’ values of all. They want YOU to think you’re THEM… even though your bank account suggests otherwise. To sum it up,

The liberal vision of a transnational order institutionalising the values of freedom and prosperity—most firmly embedded in popular common sense during the postwar decades—may begin to seem bitterly ironic to growing numbers of working people, like a bad joke at their expense.

A NEGATIVE IS A POSITIVE: So why do we buy this bullshit? Herein lies a crucial characteristic of the power of Gramsci’s conception of ‘hegemony’ – the power to construct the negative impacts stemming from agreements such as the TPP simply as “the natural order of things”. Within this ‘consensual order’, hegemony is more than simply state dominance – it’s the construction of a ‘reality’ that benefits the fundamentals of capitalism. This is explicitly highlighted in aspects of the TPP that will ultimately limit the development of generic medication in Australia whilst increasing intellectual monopoly privilege protection, thus leading to higher consumer prices and monopolisation within the pharmaceutical industry. It makes you wonder, how is this good for us, the consumer? The answer is, it’s not. It’s all about perception. These sneaky alterations to the regulatory and corporate framework surrounding medicine provide an environment where us citizens gradually come to accept ‘the way things are’.

SNEAKY, SNEAKY: Contemporary ideas about ‘common sense’ in modern democracies means that power is fundamentally infused with the strength of a particular ‘worldview’, coupled with a “system of assumptions and social values accepted as ‘common sense’, which legitimates the existing distribution of power and, indeed, renders opposition to it inconceivable for most of the population”. The scary part is, the media is pretty much complicit in maintaining the dominant political ideology that deflects critique and examination of important events, such as the multilateral TPP negotiations. Within this realm of hegemonic power, the state is truly free to pursue the capitalist goal of “one government, one code of laws, once national class interest, one frontier, and one customs tariff”. It is not the workers of the world who are losing their shackles – it is the nation-state.

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is also tied to his interpretation of the capitalist state. Gramsci does not interpret the state in the narrow sense of governance, instead perceiving the state as…

the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those it rules

The power of the state thus lies in its ability to rule via force and consent. To understand how the state functions when dealing with negotiations such as the TPP, you have to understand the relationship between labour, capital and the state in this emerging phase of globalization. Paradoxically, as national governments have lost autonomy in regards to policy-making, they ultimately still play an ‘integral’ part in the process of negotiating trade agreements such as the TPP. However, with the state performing the facilitating role for negotiations between the various signatories of the TPP, the lines of allegiance become blurred for democratically elected governments within countries like as Australia. This is mainly because…

trade policies are powerful drivers of the distribution of power, money, and resources, which affect people’s daily living and working conditions, their health-related preferences and behaviors, and ultimately their health outcomes.

GIVE WITH ONE HAND, TAKE WITH THE OTHER: The ‘soft power’ of a neoliberal agenda has therefore established perceived norms that prove difficult to stave off. So although the TPP will allow Australia greater access to the markets of other signatories, “it also opens itself up to legal action from big corporates in those countries, and in the US”. In particular, an ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlements) clause within the TPP agreement will allow corporations such as tobacco companies to sue governments over lost revenue due to government policy changes (e.g. Australia’s plain packaging laws). In fairness, the Turnbull government has come out and said tobacco companies won’t be able use the ISDS clause against Australia, but what is to stop other firms using it to protect profits (i.e. mining or pharmaceutical corporations)? Clauses like the ISDS illustrate the importance of the state in facilitating a globalist expansion of hegemonic idealism. Without the state, these agreements can’t be ratified and enforced.

So despite claims that, “a spectre is haunting the world’s governments — the spectre of globalization”, the nation-state is coping with this threat quite well. Globalisation isn’t killing the nation-state, it’s just giving it a new role. Sadly that role is increasingly ignoring the people it should be protecting. The TPP is yet another example of this.

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