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August 07, 2008

Ding, dong Doha is dead

By Rick Salutin
This article originally appeared in the August 1, 2008 Globe and Mail
It's reprinted with the kind permission of the author

We're all prisoners of our autobiographies. It determines what we have to offer to each other. I, for instance, felt a sweet little surge of schadenfreude this week when I read that the latest "Doha" round of free-trade talks in Geneva had failed. Free trade does that to me. This fall will be 20 years since the free-trade election of 1988 but it still feels like the most dire Canadian event of my lifetime.

The ongoing tetchiness will seem offensive to some and merely peculiar to other, perhaps younger, readers. Isn't ever freer trade just part of globalization, which is inevitable and mainly a Good Thing? But I'd be inclined to reply that this isn't globalization in any meaningful way. Real globalization is equivalent, more or less, to human history. It started when the species emerged in Africa and began to disperse across the globe. Globalization in the recent usage is narrow and argumentative; it means the primacy of corporate power and profit over all other forms of power: political, national, communal, democratic.

Free-trade skeptics always had to tussle with these language issues, starting with terms like "free" and "global," as deployed by the media. This latest round, for example, was meant to "strengthen the international trading system" (New York Times) and be a "a powerful vote of confidence in globalization" (Guardian). It's hard to object to phrases like that. But the breakdown actually came due to demands by China, India and Indonesia, to protect their farmers from being undercut by highly subsidized U.S. and European products. In a way, it was about selling rice to China. You can debate that but it's hardly a clear case of inevitable progress. I've always felt that a healthy national ag sector is nice to have for purposes of food security, dignity and the qualities farmers add to urbanized societies. Or sheer survival if you're facing mass starvation like, say, Haiti is.

The whole progression began in the 1970s, when corporate profits were drooping due, it was widely claimed, to rising wages built on union power; and to high business taxes that funded social programs, a.k.a. the welfare state. The solution was called globalization: Union and government strength would be sapped by shifting investment and production elsewhere or threatening to. It worked splendidly. Skilled union jobs in manufacturing were destroyed and replaced by crummy service jobs; the work force became flexible, as in scared. The outcome was encapsulated for me by an Ontario worker, a proud union member, when owners warned they'd simply move their factory away, as others had. "Let's just turn around," he said, "drop our pants, let them do what they want, and hope we're still around when it's over." That's my image when I hear "globalization" and it shows that you can't excise your past experiences from your present reactions.

Profits did rise impressively and so did the costs of "externalities" like shattered communities and lives, foreclosed homes, toxic fear and resentment of "others" here and abroad, and vast disparities in wealth, health, life expectancy, etc. Many people did brilliantly. A judge told me recently that law students now expect to make $150,000 to $200,000 shortly after graduating, some of which they need to pay off huge student loans. Whether their orientation is good for our society, or for the law grads themselves, I'll let you consider in line with your own autobiographical expectations. But ex-U.S. senator Ernest Hollings this week, when accused of being a protectionist, said, more or less: Darn right I am. We protect our borders, our streets, our kids and our health. Why wouldn't we protect our jobs and our economy? The senator is 86. He grew up during the Depression and the New Deal. Action ... reaction.


Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Globe and Mail. He teaches a course on Canadian media at the University of Toronto.

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