The Coming Fight Over Free Trade

Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future

'To worship the market is a form of idolatry no less than worshiping the state." Sound like Jesse Jackson? Perhaps, but it is from "The Great Betrayal," the recent assault on global capitalism by Patrick J. Buchanan, Reaganite stalwart. "The truth is that free markets are creatures of state power and persist only so long as the state is able to prevent human needs for security and the control of economic risk from finding political expression." Excerpts of a Ralph Nader commencement address? No, from "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism," by John Gray, British Thatcherite and leader of Britain's new right.

"Mr. Chairman I urge you to revoke China's MFN [most favored nation] trade privileges. I do not believe that we are the moneybag democracy Beijing has contemptuously called us. I believe we can act to defend our people, our honor and our interests." House Minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) catering to the unions? No, Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, and potential new-right contender for the GOP presidential nomination.

As pundits celebrate the triumph of global capitalism, a populist rejection of what Gray calls "the Washington consensus" is gathering on the right. With the contradictions between free markets and strong families, between global corporations and love of country growing increasingly stark, more and more conservatives are questioning the laissez-faire corporate globalism that has enjoyed bipartisan support for two decades.

Only a minority of conservatives have thus far embraced this new-right rejection. But its potential to transform our politics is already seen in the Congress, where the corporate trade agenda has been stalled by an uneasy coalition of new-right activists and progressive workers, consumer and environmental movements. As Buchanan and Gray show, the power of the conservative critique of globalism is likely to attract even greater support.

In "The Great Betrayal," Buchanan scorns the globalist project touted by President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as an idolatrous "first cousin to Marxism." For Gray, laissez-faire globalism is, like communism, a false utopia, sharing "their cult of reason and efficiency, their ignorance of history and their contempt for the ways of life they consign to poverty and extinction."

Buchanan and Gray focus on the new right's core concern: the disintegration of the American family. The entire conservative galaxy--the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition, Empower America--recites what William J. Bennett packaged as the "leading cultural indicators of America": divorce, out-of-wedlock childbirth, crime, drug use, delinquency. The "de-moralization of society," as Gertrude Himmelfarb put it, is the staple of conservative rhetoric.

Yet, conservatives have been risible in their attempts to locate the cause of social disintegration. Most blame the poverty programs of the Great Society and the cultural upheavals of the '60s. But as decades pass, that grows less and less convincing. Bennett sporadically turns his attention to the decadence of the media, but has no explanation for why the most stable industrial society, Japan, coexists with the most blood-curdling media. The Heritage Foundation makes "the breakdown of the American family" a central chapter in its Issues 98 candidates briefing book, but is at a virtual loss about cause or solution. Clinton's repeal of a Ronald Reagan executive order on the family gets top blame. Tax cuts, school vouchers and privatization of Social Security are offered as key 1999 reforms.

Buchanan and Gray dismiss this cant. For them, the global free market is the central cause of disintegration. "In the United States," Gray writes, "free markets have contributed to social breakdown on a scale unknown in any other developed country. Families are weaker in America than in any other country. At the same time, social order has been propped up by a policy of mass incarceration . . . . Levels of inequality resemble those of Latin American countries more than those of any European society."

"Broken homes, uprooted families, vanished dreams, delinquency, vandalism, crime," Buchanan writes, "these are the hidden costs of free trade. And if not families and neighborhoods, what in heavens name is it that we conservatives wish to conserve?"

They expose the dirty little secret of free markets. The global market, they argue, does not grow organically from society. Its imposition requires the exercise of concerted, centralized state power, in service of powerful private interests, shielded from democratic controls or social constraints.

Buchanan and Gray denounce global institutions--the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank--as designed to empower unaccountable globalist technocrats to enforce rules that serve multinationals at great cost to society. "In the global economy," Buchanan writes in remarkable echo of progressive writer Richard J. Barnet, "money has no flag . . . . The transnational corporation has no home. It is an amoral institution that exists to maximize profits, executive compensation and stock dividends. If the bottom line commands the cashiering of loyal workers after years of service, it will be done with the same ruthless efficiency with which obsolete equipment is junked."

This searing critique of the global market is not original. From Edmund Burke to Karl Marx, social philosophers across the political spectrum have marveled at the revolutionary energy of capitalism and warned of the social and moral destruction left in its wake. What makes Buchanan and Gray fascinating is that they are calling conservatives to arms against corporate globalism.

Gray and Buchanan reflect the growing political frustration of the new right. Gray indicts Margaret Thatcher's experiment in laissez-faire for undermining the family, increasing inequality and strengthening the unaccountable state. For Buchanan, the contrast between Reagan--a "conservative with a heart"--who was the most protectionist president in the postwar era, and the Washington globalist consensus embraced by Gingrich and GOP presidential nominees is apparent.

Bauer takes this into the political arena. He has called on the radical right to oppose the core agenda of the corporate globalists: MFN treatment for China, fast-track trade authority, expansion of the IMF. Last fall, fast-track authority was defeated by a right-left coalition. IMF refunding is being held up primarily by conservatives demanding antiabortion riders. MFN for China will face its strongest opposition from religious activists calling for sanctions because of China's repression of religious practice.

The Gray-Buchanan critique provides the new right with an economic argument of enormous populist appeal. It also poses a painful choice between money and morality. It is difficult to imagine the GOP, awash in corporate contributions, turning against the corporate globalist agenda. Already, business lobbyists are warning Republicans there is a price to pay if IMF funding doesn't go through, or fast track isn't passed. Bauer and the leaders of the new right face a hard choice between the corporate money that sustains them and the conservative values they claim to represent.

When conservatives turn to the destabilizing effects of a global economy, they find themselves in what the Wall Street Journal scorned as "Halloween coalitions" with progressives. Buchanan, for example, wants Republicans to return to their traditional support of high tariffs, but his agenda for a "new nationalism" begins with a call for full employment, rising wages, a fairer distribution of profits and prosperity and a family wage so that one salary can house, feed and educate a family. Gray calls for global regulation that will control capital, protect the environment, allow nations to follow their own path and give workers greater security. Together, they echo the "new internationalism" put forth by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, or the "moral-center politics" of Jackson.

At the beginning of this century, the laissez-faire consensus that spawned the robber barons was shattered by the populist and progressive challenges that arose on the left and right. The potential of this new upheaval remains to be seen. As Buchanan admits, with the best economy in 25 years, this isn't an auspicious moment for a broadside critique.

Yet, the U.S. trade deficit is soaring to new records each month. Even at the height of the business cycle, we're losing manufacturing jobs.

Last fall, the president, the GOP leaders of Congress, the Business Roundtable and numerous economists and pundits were stunned when a right-left coalition in the Congress blocked renewal of fast-track trade authority. The president and the business community are committed to passing fast track after elections are out of the way. But the vote against fast track may turn out to be not the last gasp of an old protectionism, but the first breath of a new populist rejection of the Washington consensus.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°