Meta FTAA (2)
by Spencer Maybee

The Broad Perspective

Supporters of the FTAA believe that when the day is done, the economic benefits of the FTAA will outweigh the environmental and humanitarian costs. Protesters don't. This is making the all-too-naive assumption that most supporters of the FTAA have actually considered the environmental and humanitarian costs. I was listening to the CBC on Monday after the Summit weekend and a Manitoba resident came on a call-in show to say he didn't know what the protesters were protesting about, and he didn't care. He thought the security cost too much money and that it was the protesters' fault. (Because we all know how much input the protesters had in the Summit security budget.) Another caller said that he couldn't understand why so many people were against free trade when the economic benefits were so obvious. (His bank account, I'm sure, looks great what with all those deposits and no withdrawals?) This is all to say nothing of the assumptions being made about the economic benefits. Even if the FTAA did benefit Canada and her citizens, it may be at the cost of the citizens of the other countries included in the FTAA. But in a good game of Capitalism that's only fair. We—that is, North Americans—are winning so far aren't we?

(A note for the Levi-Straussians: If I criticize capitalism, that doesn't mean I'm a communist. If I criticize democracy, that doesn't mean I'm an anarchist, and if I refer to them, I'm not implying that I'm a part of we.)

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Representative Democracy vs. Social Activism

George W. Bush and The National Post would have you believe that the FTAA will bring democracy to the Americas. But what brand of democracy might that be? The Americas have already seen the brand of democracy displayed in Quebec, only it was called military dictatorship and didn't have a PR strategy. What we saw in Quebec was grassroots social activism going toe-to-toe with its more sophisticated, more entrenched cousin, representative democracy.

Representative democracy, the putative backbone of our society, is becoming less and less representative and more and more specialized. Women's groups, for a random, but excellent example, which represent more than 50 per cent of the population, are considered special interest groups, while MOPEs (managers, owners, professionals and executives), which represent a significantly smaller percentile, are the social group that our elected officials most truly represent-the FTAA is a case in point. Come election time, when we exercise our democratic power (we are allowed one decision every four years), many people reflecting on their values find themselves voting not for the candidate who most represents their values, but for the candidate who least offends them. This is more a lesser-of-evils democracy than a representative one.

That last paragraph is more a whinery passive lane than a useful plan of action, because the simple fact is that if we aren't satisfied with how our government is representing us we can run ourselves. But this is where the specialization endemic to capitalism bubbles up: My father, for example, is not a social administrator or politician, he is an accountant. He knows how to balance a monthly statement, not how to administer all the complexities of our government nor how to woo popular opinion. Though he can't afford to campaign, he does care about the decisions that affect him and that are made on his behalf. The only people who can afford a successful campaign are MOPEs and established politicians, or individuals like you or me, as long as we subordinate ourselves to a political party platform regardless of the cost to our constituents' interests. That being said, a weekend of activism is an affordable alternative method of demonstrating democratic power.

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Balancing the Statements

While economic benefits for North Americans may be obvious to some, they still don't eliminate the environmental and humanitarian hazards that can arise under an FTAA that doesn't address these issues. The environment and humanitarian issues are some of the biggest sticking points for anti-FTAAers. While some anti-FTAAers' primary sticking point is the claim of the economic benefits, which they dispute, these first two issues take prominence. Free trade will open borders to corporations so they can shop for the cheapest place to establish production facilities. The cheapest choice is often the choice that requires of the investing corporation the least environmental and humanitarian commitments.

While North American labourers want an air conditioned workplace and health benefits, or at least sick days, washroom breaks, and freedom from abuse from their managers, many of them still purchase products made by labour that has none of these things. North American marketing helps us forget all this, but the hypocrisy is blatant: if you demand certain working conditions, yet profit from low prices on goods made in poorer working conditions than the basic minimum that you demand, then you are a hypocrite. Buy Canadian made.

The environment is an even touchier issue, because the effects of what we do now won't be blatantly obvious until much later, when conditions will be irreversible. We have restrictions on our industry regarding air, water, and soil quality, emissions, pollutants, and wildlife habitat that require corporations in Canada to invest significant sums of money towards equipment and processes that reduce environmental damage. When we export production we reduce pollution in our backyard and it looks good to us. That's only marketing, however, because the pollution, though it has moved, still exists. Globalization, as portrayed by the FTAA, is only a trade agreement. Environmental activists on the front lines of the Quebec protests want globalization to include environmental responsibility on a global scale.

The not-in-my-backyard mentality towards pollution only feeds consumption. Imagine if you had to live with all the garbage you produced. You'd have to start composting, you'd have to find a way to reuse containers and other forms of packaging, and you might consider buying things in bulk to reduce the amount of waste you produce. And this only speaks to one form of pollution. Air, water and soil quality are under constant threat from mass production required to compete in a capitalist system.

Capitalism, like good old-fashioned Darwinism, is a competitive system, not a co-operative one. Competitive systems are contagious. They work along the same lines as a nine-slice pizza split between my brother, my dad and I. If my brother competes with me for more slices than his share, then I have to compete just to get my share. We eat as fast as we can to get our three slices in before the other horns in on our wedge. We end up not eating the crusts so that we can get on to the next piece quicker. A wasteland of grease-stained cardboard and uneaten crusts is left in our wake. Fun as it was when I was a kid, it's a juvenile and irritating way to spend all your meals. It was like living hand to mouth-either my hand was in my mouth or my brother's fist was. My brother got the first world share of the pizza and I got the third world share. (This is, of course, a lie. I was the pig.)

This competitiveness spreads not only within a capitalist system, but around it. Territorial imperialism in the 16th to 19th centuries is a classic example, except the competing groups weren't corporations acting on their own, but with the direct support of the standing monarchies.

The Hudson's Bay Company came to Canada and killed millions of beaver for their pelts, not for consumption in the Americas, but overseas where this "soft gold" was highly valued. The ecological damage incurred to support the consumption of the dominant class was exported. This manifests itself today in the McDonald's hamburger, Canadian softwood, and fresh water. McDonald's hamburger products come mostly from South America, where millions of hectares of rainforest are slashed and burned to clear grazing ground (and poor grazing ground at that, since the soil on which the rainforest thrives does nothing for grazing crops). Canadian forests are being clear-cut for export, and our fresh water is being sold off. You can develop film in Lake Ontario, yet our biggest city lives off it as a source of fresh water.

If this sounds like a statement of the deplorable condition world trade has left our countries in, it's not. Even if Canada had tariffs that acted as an impermeable boundary for trade, Ontarians would still be eating Alberta beef, Manitoba wheat, Maritime seafood, and BC lumber. What's happening with free trade is that tariffs are disappearing and these used to act as a mitigator. If our forests were being leveled by Weyerhauser and taken out of the country, then we were compensated in form of taxes, which presumably would trickle back down to us. School would be cheaper. Healthcare would be better. Fuel wouldn't cost as much. Under free trade, the only thing we get in exchange for the slow erosion of our environment and the loss of our natural resources is jobs. Under free trade, our tax dollars can go to paying a US pharmaceutical company a $300 million settlement for "lost profits" if our Surgeon General doesn't think their drug is good for Canadians. That's 10 bucks apiece so they can't sell poison to Canadians.

* * * * *

The Angles

Here I wish I could quote Tom Howell's essay "Confessions of a Left-wing Bigot," but I'm afraid he hasn't published it and I don't have a copy on hand, so I'll summarize my take on it. In his essay, Howell lays out the basic ideals behind the left wing and the right wing: Lefties value people more than money. Righties value money more than people. This is a distilled yet functional polarization of a political (personal) spectrum. I know some people who will believe that they are left-wing because they value some people more than money, but that's not how it works. If we're going to polarize, the poles have to be absolutes. The some-people-over-money attitude is more towards the middle, moving further right the smaller that "some" is, until it reaches the right pole where that "some" becomes "me." Where that "some" includes everyone but Hitler and George W. Bush, then it's safe to say you're on the left (but still to the right of magnanimous Buddha-types who might still include Hitler on account of he's dead).

Another more functional way to look at it might be this: Lefties believe that social systems should serve people, while righties believe that people should serve the dominant system. Full disclosure: I consider myself left of center, because I believe in giving people the respect I would want for myself, and because I have enough of an imagination that I can picture myself in someone else's shoes. (Actually, I consider myself a magnanimous Buddha-type because I believe in respecting all things and because I am in everyone else's shoes.)

It's simple logic that social systems exist ultimately to serve people and that—even while people need to support the system that serves them—the vice-versa, that people exist to serve the system, is impossible. That is unless you're dealing with stratified society, where one class-we're not talking upper-, middle-, and lower-class here, we're talking first, second and third worlds-exists to serve a system that ultimately benefits a dominant class. We're back to social Darwinism, only one system of power, brute force, has been replaced by another, brute wealth.

If you can read English, then chances are you're of the first world. If you're reading this on-line then chances are you own a computer or have a job, which puts you in the global social class that Capitalism, as a power system, serves. If, like me, you're an ice cream snob and you only buy the best, then Capitalism is serving you dessert. If, like me, you have an imagination, then you can imagine what it might be like if your share of the world's food was going to some fat kid from Illinois at the Big Boy off I-95 who wants a third burger because he "hardly even noticed" the first two, and you can imagine that Capitalism might not be the greatest thing since plastic bullets.

Yet another way to see it is this: Righties believe, like my parents told me when my brother got to play hockey before I did, that life isn't fair. Lefties believe, like my parents believed after I threw a fit, that we have a responsibility to make things fair. Sometimes a fit is what it takes.

* * * * *


It is inevitable that world-wide free trade will be attempted. The European Economic Community is a wide scale free trade agreement that sets a paradigm. So is NAFTA. There is economic reward for the first on the boat and the western leaders are trying to ensure that they get there while the pickings are still juicy. There is a $20 dollar bill on the ground. You might walk by it and hope that the person to whom it belongs will come back and pick it up, but chances are you won't, not because you're a greedy person, but because you can be pretty sure that the next person that comes along will pick it up. The karmic high-ground isn't as tangible as the ice cream and beer that that $20 can turn into.

Whether hemispheric free trade works or not—I suppose by this I mean whether it lasts or not—no one will know until it happens. This isn't a defeatist proposition for anti-FTAAers, nor is it a certificate of success for pro-FTAAers. The FTAA is a set of terms under which anti-FTAAers would find hemispheric free trade intolerable. The job of anti-FTAAers is to ensure that when a large-scale free trade agreement is established, that it includes a charter of responsibilities to environmental and humanitarian issues.

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I am against the FTAA as it stands (that is, as it stands in secrecy). I didn't go to Quebec to show support for the side of the FTAA that I stand on. Instead I stayed in Winnipeg and called in to CBC Radio One to explain why I wasn't in support of the FTAA. Thanks to everyone who went and demonstrated their-our-concern over the FTAA. Thanks to those who took gas, thanks to those who were arrested, thanks to those who weren't, thanks to those police who behaved reasonably, thanks to those who protested peacefully and thanks to those who tore holes in the fence. There's nothing wrong with a good fight as long as we understand each other more clearly and respectfully when it's over.

Spencer Maybee knows a good pizza, beer, or fight. When he sees one.

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