For many of us, it’s hard to get excited about another review of NAFTA’s economic successes or failures. It’s not that such an economic review is irrelevant — coping with the economic implications of NAFTA obviously remains central to anyone concerned with social change. But in itself, the economic debate is unlikely to move us much ahead. There are just too many ‘what-ifs’ involved for any numbers to convince skeptics. (Would business investment in Canada have slowed down if the corporate sector were defeated on NAFTA? Would Canadian companies have been less productive if they didn’t face the pressures of free trade? Would U.S. retaliation against Canadian exports into the U.S. been worse?)
We can of course easily expose the free-traders’ promises that NAFTA would deliver security and a generally better life for all while not undermining the substance of our democratic capacities. Yet even in making this point, we need to be a little more circumspect about our own counter-warnings. In arguing that losing the particular struggle against NAFTA would mean that the overall battle ‘for Canada’ and for progressive social change would essentially be over, weren’t our doomsday scenarios also exaggerations?
NAFTA: A Moment in A Deeper Struggle
The point is that NAFTA’s immediate impact was in fact a secondary issue; the more fundamental issue (whether expressed this way or not) was about longer-term positioning. The underlying issue wasn’t NAFTA per se, but NAFTA’s role in the context of a larger conflict that evolved through the 70s and 80s that we have come to summarize as ‘neoliberalism’. For the supporters of free trade, winning the fight for NAFTA was not just about confirming access to U.S. markets, but about consolidating an environment in which the values and power embedded in markets and corporate rights were supreme. For those of us on the other side, defeating NAFTA was both an ideological fight against those values and a practical fight against the deepened legal and economic integration that would make future progressive change so much more difficult.
If NAFTA was a moment in a deeper struggle, then strengthening that struggle demands – at a minimum – that we do now what was generally not done in the heat of the moment. At the time, pressures for unity and a focus on the immediate prevented us from stepping back and asking ourselves some of the more difficult questions and issues posed by the issue of free trade. In addition to the importance of such discussions for our future struggles, this is also important for the international movement. Canada has, for historical reasons, been at the forefront of many of the issues that later emerged in the globalization debates and we should, therefore, be able to contribute possible ‘lessons’ for others.
What follows are some of the inter-related issues that, it seems, need to be more widely discussed and eventually incorporated into our strategies.
State sovereignty or democratic sovereignty?
The Canadian state was not a victim of NAFTA but one of its authors — the Canadian government was often more aggressive in moving towards a Canada-U.S. free trade agreement than was its American counterpart. This helps explain the paradox of the Canadian state acting to undermine its own independence. Free trade did not undermine the sovereignty of the Canadian state but in many ways reinforced its ability to do things which popular resistance previously blocked, delivering to Canadian governments the cover to say “we have no choice; free trade forces us to do that (or free trade blocks us from doing that).”
Free trade does represent a loss of sovereignty, but it is not so much the sovereignty of states that is undermined as it is democratic sovereignty — our collective capacity to shape our lives.
Globalization and the end of nation states?
Far from globalization and free trade making states irrelevant, they have rather changed the roles of nation states, adding certain responsibilities and weakening others. Globalization has internationalized states. Over and above being the central site through which domestic property rights are reproduced, contracts protected, the value of money secured, competition managed, labour markets shaped and potential opposition contained — states now have the additional responsibility for reproducing, within their own borders, the conditions for international accumulation (that is, for the international expansion of investment and profits).
When Canadian companies go abroad, they don’t ‘escape the state’ but become dependent on many states for supporting the conditions which make their profits possible. Free trade agreements set the framework for this internationalization and contain within them both limits on what states might, under popular pressure do, and responsibilities for what they must do.
The issue isn’t seizing the state but transforming it
Coming to government does not automatically mean coming to power. First, economic power — with its implications for political power — still rests in the private economy. Second, the capitalist state is not just a ‘thing’ to take over but a set of institutions and relationships with goals and capacities that have developed over a long period of time. Its particular capacities are appropriate for administering and developing a capitalist economy but it has never had to develop capacities for democratically administering and developing a different kind of economy and society.
This means that coming to government can only be part of moving ahead if its also about transforming the state — that is, if it’s about struggling inside and outside the state for new institutions that both extend democracy inside the state, and create the kind of state that is democratic in the decisive sense of mobilizing and developing popular capacities to democratically transform, over time, the economy and society more generally.
The notion of a progressive alliance with Canadian capital must (finally) be buried. A striking fact about the free trade debate was how overwhelmingly united Canadian business had come to be with regard to free trade. Their unity in favour of economic integration into the American empire raised the question of what is really Canadian about ‘Canadian’ business. The reality is that the Canadian capitalist class basically consists of American corporations in Canada, and Canadian companies that are either dependent on these companies or wannabes whose main goal is to become like their American competitors by gaining secure access to American markets and technology (which includes the competitive need to shape the business climate within Canada so it better emulates the U.S. economically and socially).
The implications of this are, as with the need to rethink the state, radical. If we can’t depend on any major section of business to support social change, than we have to depend on ourselves and new forms of major public ownership. This obviously implies a major degree of delinking from the American economy. That Americans would react goes without saying; what must not, however, be underestimated would be the equally hostile, and likely more overtly aggressive, reaction from within Canadian business. Without Canadian capitalists in the alliance, does Canadian nationalism become inherently progressive?
No. Even without a Canadian capitalist class, there is still the danger of a nationalist project to mobilize Canadians around the goal of making Canada a globally-competitive space. That is, in place of a nationalism supporting specifically Canadian business, there would be a nationalism based on ‘were-all-in-this-together’ to do whatever is necessary to attract foreign investment — whatever nationality it might have.
‘Competitiveness’ is of course a real-world constraint we have to deal with; we can’t simply declare it out of existence. But for progressives, it must never be a goal. The very reason we oppose free trade and the free mobility of capital is to weaken this constraint of competitiveness on our daily behaviour and on our expectations of what is possible.
Internationalism begins at home
Ultimately the condition for helping others is that we have some capacity to help ourselves. If we’re making concessions to corporations within our own country, we’re undermining others abroad and adding to the pressures they face — just as we won’t be able to achieve significant change in Canada unless there are struggles elsewhere that expand our own space for moving on. Along the same lines, if we don’t have any control over production and the state in our own country, our ability to concretely support third-world development through a solidarity-based transfer of resources and providing substantive access to the technology and know- how we’ve developed, will be limited.
Limits of the labour movement
The centrality of the labour movement to social change was evident in the free trade fight. Without the organization and resources of labour, there would simply not have been the kind of public debate that did emerge. In fact, the free trade fight signaled an important shift in the political leadership within Canada against the neoliberal drift. Rather than leadership coming from labour’s political arm, it was labour and the social movements that took the initiative and the NDP that faded into the background. That shift in leadership extended through the opposition to the Ontario NDP’s attacks on the public sector and was especially evident in the innovative opposition that emerged in the Ontario Days of Action. Yet in spite of that potential and on- going struggles, the labour movement has not proved capable of sustaining and building a larger movement with larger goals across workplaces, unions, communities, and regions. Indeed, it is currently floundering in dealing with the impact of restructuring on its members. We must ask why and how this might be changed.
Limits of the social movements
As for the social movements, one can credit them with reviving an anti-capitalist opposition, but their own weaknesses are also increasingly apparent. The anti- globalization movement, for example, can bring 50,000 people out to protest global developments but not to oppose homelessness, racism, plant closures, or privatization.
Deepening its base for international work by addressing the latter means rethinking not just which issues to focus on and how to make the links, but the language used, the forms of protest, the sites of organization, and the nature of internal organization and decision- making. Moreover, while the anti-globalization movement was right to express skepticism about ‘statism’, its refusal to address the issue of state power remains a barrier to its political development.
If free trade taught us anything it should have been that the options we face have been polarized. When Margaret Thatcher introduced TINA (There Is No Alternative), she was really saying that if you accept the general need for a capitalist society then certain things follow. The implicit challenge to us is therefore that moving on requires us to challenge capitalism as a social system.
Moreover, this includes a challenge to how we do our politics. Given what we’re up against, spontaneity and spectacles are just not enough — which does not mean they don’t have a role. Nor can we simply dream of the labour movement and the social movements developing a new unity. This too is not enough unless each of them is transformed in the process of building that unity into radically new kinds of movements. Such a transformation can only come from a new politics that not only bridges labour and the social movements, but also goes beyond them.
If we knew during the free trade fight what we know now, we would probably still have lost that fight . Had we, for example, put more radical issues on the agenda at the time, this might have scared some. So the point is not about second-guessing tactics, but second-guessing our goals. If our goal is to go beyond sporadic opposition to actually transforming society, we will have to transform ourselves and especially our collective political capacities.
If we’re honest about the scale and scope of what we face, there is a clear message for the need to build an organizational capacity to consolidate the strengths we do have; provide the forums to deepen our analysis, spread our understanding, and develop strategic abilities; creatively mobilize support for, and lead in the extension of on-going and new struggles; and above all raise again our ambitions of what human societies can achieve.
Whether we consider this a ‘structured movement’ or the beginnings of a new ‘party’, the crucial point is that we understand this a distinct project that goes beyond the nostalgia of recovering a kinder Canadian capitalism or the illusion that tinkering with capitalism can develop our full human potential.
The ultimate message of the free trade fight in Canada — and related struggles that have occurred here and elsewhere since then — is that even had we won that fight, the basic issues and challenges of putting a real alternative on the agenda would remain.
Sam Gindin writes frequently for CD. He teaches Political Science at York University