Tuesday, July 29, 2008


NPR reports that World Trade Organization negotiations have collapsed this week. In an election year it might be important to remember that it was the Clinton administration which threw the US into the WTO and that Congress still has yet to ratify US membership in this organization — which means the US is technically not a part of it, but yet has a surprising amount of sway in these negotiations. The US is precisely the reason talks have collapsed, the US accusing China and India of "insisting on too much protection for their farmers" (BBC). In India food prices have skyrocketed. And this is to mention nothing of the strangle-hold US-based corporations like Monsanto have had on their agricultural and food supplies for the past few decades, forcing Indian farmers to bend to their will through introducing highly destructive GM seed, pesticides and other products into their agricultural economy.

But it's not only in India that food prices have skyrocketed. While lumpenproles in developed countries continue to enjoy the dollar-menu at McDonald's — even though some may have lost their homes — the working poor in much of the underdeveloped world have seen food prices double and even triple, creating a market-driven food crisis. In other words, like the potato famine of 1848 or the Ukrainian famine of 1932 (which continues to be memorialized annually in the Ukrainian Orthodox church), this food crisis has less to do with climate conditions than with the machinations of the market. The food is there, being produced. This crisis, like most other famines, is man-made and determined by market prices. Much of this is naturally connected to the rising cost of oil and petroleum-based products.

Food prices have risen in the US (grains and cereals by 41%) but this increase is slight compared to the rising cost of foods in underdeveloped nations. Food riots have been common in much of Africa, but also in nations as geographically disparate as Bangladesh and Haiti, whose government completely fell apart as the result of food riots back in April. This to say, most of those hardest hit by these rising costs are curiously not white.

Many of the farmers Chinese and Indian WTO officials seek to protect are subsistence farmers. Thus while the US refuses to lower tariffs in key industries (auto and manufacturing) and continues to provide subsidies which give American farmers an edge on the global market, US trade reps like Susan Schwab are struggling to muscle China, India and other nations into lowering the import tariffs that protect their farmers. All of this is further complicated by the fact that underdeveloped nations like Uruguay and Bangladesh have been pitted against other underdeveloped nations in negotiations over trade barriers and protection.

These issues are crucial in an election year — especially one where the lesser of the two meatheads comes to us in the form of a messianic figure. Obama is wealthy. He's connected to the Chicago School of Economics. In fact, Obama's already selected staunch Wal-Mart defender Jason Furman to lead his economic policy team. Here Naomi Klein's article "Obama's Chicago Boys" has been immensely useful. Little of this information appears on his own website, his Wikipedia entry or even the wide range of essays, columns and articles produced by Obama's more conservative critics. In other words, on the terrain of global trade, it's unlikely that Obama's policies will be markedly different from Clinton or Bush administration policies. After all, NAFTA came into effect on Clinton's watch. As Klein writes:

Now is the time to worry about Obama's Chicago Boys and their commitment to fending off serious attempts at regulation. It was in the two and a half months between winning the 1992 election and being sworn into office that Bill Clinton did a U-turn on the economy. He had campaigned promising to revise NAFTA, adding labor and environmental provisions and to invest in social programs. But two weeks before his inauguration, he met with then-Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin, who convinced him of the urgency of embracing austerity and more liberalization.

Liberalization here of course means privatization, just as so much of the war in Iraq has been "liberalized" rather than regulated, strategic security missions continuing to be farmed out to corporations like KBR that make of the Middle East a sort of wild west, a lawless region that truly understands the destructive currents of neoliberal laissez-faire policy. And here I wonder how the economic policies of a candidate like Obama, both at home and abroad, will act on or inflect his foreign policy. If he's already selected figures like Furman to deliver economic advice, who else is lurking outside the limits of his down-home neo-populist rhetoric? Might we also find executives associated with Halliburton, Lockheed Martin and other corporations deeply invested in the war milling around the Oval Office in January?

The complicated relation of world trade to US foreign policy, a policy presently characterized by protracted war, is crucial here. The deficit is immense, ringing in at around $450 billion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue — and it is unlikely either of those nations will see the withdrawal of US and coalition troops during the next presidential term. In some ways I find myself more frightened by Obama's connection to Chicago and Friedmanism than Alan Greenspan's connection to Ayn Rand. The distance between one party and another is almost negligible here. It's important to remember here that the ongoing war in Iraq didn't end under Clinton, it was simply elided by the media. The bombings continued, almost without interruption. And much like the international community's long delay in entering into the Rwandan crisis in the 1990s, we see a similar delay in responding to the current rape crisis in the Congo where rape has been deployed as a strategic military tactic. But this is the Congo which, along with Mozambique and other West African countries, supplies the metallic ore coltan to much of the world, an ore which we find in everything from cell phones to computers to digital cameras. It is coltan in fact which allows me to upload this entry to the web. On the terrain of the market, is there something to be gained by not intervening in the Congo crisis?

Given the complexity of all of this, the overdetermined relation of economic and foreign and domestic policies — including those policies and less formal trends that govern the ebb and flow of media and culture — I find it hard to believe that casting a ballot can effect change in any meaningful way. As Ed Dorn said, if voting changed anything it would be illegal. The new boss, if not the same as the old boss, will never be too markedly different. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe questioned years ago the limits of political participation, asking why it's so difficult to imagine a form of participation broader, more immediate and more inclusive, than the token forms of participation offered to us through western democracy. After the failures of the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early '00s this decade, in terms of struggle, has been characterized by a debilitating and deeply fatalistic sense of powerlessness. But if Obama swings into the Oval Office next year perhaps his presidency will simply give us a greater sense of agency, even if largely illusory as it was under Clinton.