Image: Citizens Trade Campaign

Cross-posted from In These Times.

With the U.S. economy stuck in a constant rut and Europe going into a tailspin, President Obama is looking to escape to the East. While the nations of the Asian Pacific rim face strains of their own, from massive inequality to climate change, their growth rates look positively zen compared to the stagnant economies that used to run the world.

So for the past several days President Obama has been charming Asia-Pacific officialdom, hoping these “emerging” economies can prop up the West’s sagging empires. At home, the White House has sold its vision for the “Pacific Century” as a boon for U.S. jobs, and abroad, he’s looking to consolidate influence over Asian leaders with subtle overtures toward checking China’s regional power.

The centerpiece of this program is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would involve Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, in addition to the U.S. While it would build on existing trade ties in the region, critics see it as an unprecedented supersized neoliberal agenda repackaged with the bow of modernization and “development.”

But according to fair trade activists, the deal may end up not only failing to bring significant job opportunities, but laying the groundwork for an economic regime built on offshoring, deregulation and the swapping of national sovereignty for corporatocracy.

Negotiations have proceeded quietly for months, cooking up sweeping new trade rules for the nine partner countries (with diplomatic nods at another enfeebled giant, Japan). The factsheet reiterates the usual boilerplate lines on ensuring a “competitive business environment,” and “securing fair, open, and transparent markets for services trade.”

At the recent APEC summit in Hawaii, the White House laid out the goal of mowing down trade barriers in this terse factsheet:

A set of new, cross-cutting commitments are intended to reduce costs, enable the development of a more seamless trade flows and trade networks between TPP members, encourage the participation of small- and medium-sized enterprises in international trade, and promote economic growth and higher living standards.

All that jargon can be boiled down into a tried-and-true formula that’s had a long test-run with the Clinton-era North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA set the template for liberalization-at-all-costs: allow multinationals to raid poor communities and redistribute wealth across borders up to a corporate elite. On the flipside, “free trade” has allowed for the erosion of blue-collar jobs in the U.S. and spawned a transnational underclass of displaced and migrant workers, uprooted yet enchained by borders that let money flow freely but not humanity.

The more abstract legal negotiation documents seem designed to ease restrictions on global financial service firms and to manage the trade in ideas, namely “intellectual property enforcement and genetic resources and traditional knowledge.”

In addition to basic concerns about jobs and economic security, those intellectual property policies are particularly worrying to activists because they could threaten public health by undermining access to medicine. Rather than improving on previous free-trade frameworks, James Love, director of the IP think tank Knowledge Ecology International, said a recently leaked draft negotiation document “confirms the worst fears of health officials…. Collectively, the provisions are designed to strengthen IPR monopolies on drugs, and make it harder to regulate prices.  The consequences of stronger monopolies and higher prices are less access to medicine.”

The problem isn’t just the potential monopolization of social resources, but the macroeconomic ripple effects: the systematic alienation of workers from the products and processes of labor, and people from the markets that they depend on for survival. It’s the usurpation of people’s basic sovereignty by the forces of capital.

Any promises of new jobs seems absurd if they’re tied to a trade structure that attacks something as basic as access to health care, as some labor groups have pointed out.  This is especially true in a swath of the world plagued by huge gaps in living standards, government accountability and environmental sustainability.

Arthur Stamoulis of the Citizens Trade Campaign told In These Times that the key challenge at this stage in the game is that the public simply doesn’t know what exactly officials will write into the deal:

[C]ivil society, most Members of Congress and the people most affected by the negotiators’ decisions have no right to see the documents until the negotiations are over — at which point it is all but impossible to make changes.

What we know about the negotiations comes from leaked documents, conversations with insiders and what we’re able to parse from public statements….

What we do know is that corporations are pushing for a deal that’s worse than business as usual, and it will hurt working families and the environment throughout the Pacific Rim if they get their way.

In the coming months, Citizens Trade Campaign will be working to raise public awareness about the TPP, but the opacity of the entire negotiation process is a metaphor for just how little the concerns of ordinary citizens matter to politicians in their dealings with corporations.

The hard lessons of the 1990s Asian financial crisis have faded from public memory, politicians diligently ignore the grievances of Wall Street protesters–and let’s not even start on the history of American imperialism in the East. It’s going to take a decisive push from the 99% to remind the architects of trade policy about who will get caught in the perilous tides of free trade in the Pacific. Once the wave of opposition gets going, they won’t be easily swept aside.