Free trade, monopoly and NAFTA

It is now well over a century since Frederick Engels wrote Anti-Dühring, his famous polemic against Eugen Dühring. In it Engels described how the bourgeoisie used the revolutionary slogans of the French Revolution -- Liberty, Equality and Fraternity -- to put across its own program.

The cry for freedom by the bourgeoisie, Engels explained, meant nothing more than freedom of trade. All else was mere window dressing. In the struggle with feudalism, the bourgeoisie was tireless in not only denouncing but demolishing the many restrictions on trade and commerce that inhibited the development of the capitalist system. Having triumphed over feudalism, however, and overturned the many archaic restrictions against capitalist trade and commerce, the bourgeoisie soon went to work in force to introduce its own restrictions. It reduced the newly born working class to no more than an appendage of its system of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Freedom or free trade?

In the contemporary world struggle, the bourgeoisie still postures as the champion of free trade. But it is not the free trade of the old, competitive stage of capitalism. It is the free trade of giant imperialist monopolies.

Free trade as it existed before the middle of the 19th century has virtually disappeared. Its replacement by giant, marauding imperialist monopolies has meant an increasingly restricted role for the smaller nations of the world and increased domination by the most powerful imperialist monopolies throughout the globe.

Small-scale production, which had a more or less stable role in the epoch of the classical competitive stage of capitalism, has an altogether unstable and precarious existence in the epoch of the imperialist monopolies. What has given it an extension of life so to speak is the growth of the service sector. But that is dependent on the stability of the capitalist monopolies. A serious economic crisis would almost certainly result in a catastrophic situation for small business as well as the service sector.

Most important, monopoly capitalism has meant a restricted role for the working classes, given the virtual omnipotence of the monopolies that control the imperialist governments of the world lock, stock and barrel. It is in this contemporary context that we should view the attempt by the U.S. to create a sort of "free trade zone" among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Labor and NAFTA

A great deal of importance has been attached to the North American Free Trade Agreement, originally negotiated by the Bush administration. The Clinton administration, after making a few changes of its own, is pushing hard for the U.S. government to adopt this agreement.

The organized labor movement is opposed to it. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration is moving swiftly to get the agreement adopted.

It is important, however, to consider it from the viewpoint of the interests of the working class, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but most particularly in Mexico.

Trade between Mexico and the U.S. has increased sharply since 1986, when the Mexican government began to lift what Washington considered restrictions against U.S. exports. Thus U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 17, "Exports from the U.S. to Mexico grew to $40.6 billion in 1992 from $12.4 billion in 1986. Our $5.7-billion trade deficit with Mexico in 1987 was transformed into a $5.4-billion surplus in 1992."

This means that the Mexican government opened up its economy in a big way to the penetration by U.S. capital.

Attitude of U.S. workers

What should be the U.S. working class's attitude? From a class point of view, neither the agreement nor any of its side or supplemental agreements should be supported. We should not support the expansion of U.S. capitalism anywhere -- north, south, east or west.

The U.S. working class's task is to increase its role in the struggle against monopoly -- not to conduct a struggle on behalf of extending monopoly capitalism. It is good that the AFL-CIO opposes NAFTA. But it's on very narrow grounds -- how NAFTA affects the particular unions. In discussing relations among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, however, the unions are inevitably drawn into the vortex of world politics. They are obliged to take a position on the role U.S. imperialism plays in the contemporary world.

It is correct to point out that NAFTA almost entirely neglects a role for the unions in the negotiations. But it is more important to demonstrate to Mexican workers, and also to Canadian workers, that the U.S. labor movement can play a thoroughly independent and progressive role regarding the expansion of U.S. finance capital abroad.

The issue is difficult if considered on principle. But if we abandon this position, then what follows? We willingly or unwillingly become an instrument for supporting U.S. capitalist exploitation abroad.

No chance of tranquil development

All the talk that NAFTA will inevitably create jobs in the U.S. and Mexico as a result of Mexico lifting restrictions against U.S. corporations is unwarranted. It entirely leaves out of consideration the nature of capitalist development, which is marked by inevitable crisis.

Capitalism not only moves upward; it can also decline to abysmal levels. That's only one aspect of it. Another is that the capitalist class will abandon one market for its products, no matter how lucrative, in the interest of another more lucrative market where the rate of profit is even higher.

The objective of imperialist diplomacy, and of U.S. diplomacy in particular, is to aid the capitalist monopolies wherever they seek to broaden their influence. It's in their nature to pull out of Australia and go to New Zealand, or go from New Zealand to Nicaragua or Mexico if the rate of profit is higher. This is the motive force of capitalist development.

It was good for the AFL-CIO and all its affiliated unions to at least oppose the agreement, even if only on narrow trade-union grounds. But that is inadequate, considering the agreement's dimensions. To go along is to become a silent partner to the devastating role of U.S. finance capital abroad -- and at home.

Labor's real objective should be to forge a solidarity agreement among the trade unions of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It must take into consideration, first and foremost, that Mexico is an oppressed country and that the U.S. and Canada are imperialists, although Canada is a junior partner in the struggle.

Agreements come and go

NAFTA is not unique as an instrument to expand finance capital. Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium -- all of the imperialist countries have over time made similar agreements. They lasted until the relationship of forces changed, at which time the agreements were abandoned. Witness the attempt of Europe to create a common market soon after World War II. Now the capitalists are seeking a means to unite all Europe within their net. But they are constrained by the sharp contradictions among the European imperialist countries -- and by the domineering role of the U.S.

From all this it should follow that the only salvation for the working class and the oppressed countries, as Marx pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, is "Workers of the world, unite!" Lenin added "oppressed people and workers of the world, unite" to bring this slogan into the imperialist epoch.

Sam Marcy
Workers World, August 26, 1993

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