The TPP is Dead: Time to Transform the Food System

Eric Holt-Giménez | 01.26.2017

Donald Trump has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The United States was to be the largest partner in a treaty that attempted to bring 40% of the world’s economy into one trading region. The decision is huge. The silence is deafening.

During the presidential campaign it began to dawn on politicians and mainstream media that the era of free trade ushered in by Bill Clinton with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 is despised by working people. Gee. It only took them a quarter-century to figure it out.

The alternative, bilateral approach signaled by the Trump administration is actually nothing new—and will not likely bring back manufacturing jobs (unless American workers are willing to work for Chinese wages). The United States has been pursuing bilateral trade agreements ever since the World Trade Organization got stuck in the mud in Cancun, Mexico in 2003. That was when South Korean farm leader Kun Hai Lee, immolated himself on the fence separating protesters from WTO negotiators claiming, “The WTO kills farmers!” No matter, the United States under Clinton, Bush and Obama all doggedly pursued free trade agreements (FTAs), behind closed corporate doors, no matter what the costs to people or the environment. Why?

Because, until the recent elections, there was no political cost to supporting free trade agreements. Both Republicans and Democrats danced to the music of the global monopolies as they deregulated, privatized, and plundered the world’s local economies. Elections could be fought over social issues, tax cuts, or birth certificates—anything but the trade agreements that gave corporations power over our national labor, environment, and property laws.

Despite support from mainstream politicians, FTAs have been bitterly opposed by peasant and farm organizations, environmentalists, and hundreds of thousands of activists in the global justice movement for decades. Well, Trump just nixed TPP and put NAFTA on notice. Shouldn’t we be celebrating?

This era of free trade has allowed major corporations to do as they please. Now that they have seized control of pretty much every economy on earth, protectionism—under new corporately-drawn boundaries—is going to be much more important for the monopolies controlling our energy and food systems than rampant free trade. In his move towards protectionism, Trump is only sealing the first deal in a trend that will further strengthen the power of corporations. It’s hard to be happy about that.

Anyway, for many activists—especially in the food movement—free trade was a remote issue. True, the global food sovereignty movement has always denounced FTAs as a façade for the corporate colonization of peasant food systems, but this had relatively faint echoes among US food activists.

The food justice movement had its hands full trying to get healthy food into poor and underserved communities, making land available to young farmers, and setting up farmers markets, farm-to-school programs, and CSAs. The organic agriculture movement was wrestling with regulations, their struggling seed industry, and the difficulty of just making a living. The farm justice movement, committed to re-introducing the long abandoned idea of parity to the Farm Bill, did not come out strongly against the FTAs. Even the burgeoning food workers movement, whose ranks are replete with free trade refugees, focused on the immediacy of starvation salaries and miserable working conditions rather than the cause of their displacement and low-end jobs. Their struggles all brought important wins, but the separation of free trade from the food justice agenda came at the cost of a divided movement.

This separation began with the food movement’s high expectations for the presidency of Barack Obama, whom Michael Pollan called, “the farmer in chief.” Actually, Michele Obama, with her White House organic garden and her efforts to get the food industry to clean up its act, was more of an ally. The Democrat’s realpolitik towards the food movement was both receptive and contradictory. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack actively pushed GMOs, industrial agriculture, the “ethanolization” of the Midwest and FTAs while his Deputy-secretary Kathleen Meerigan supported community food security and pioneered the “Know your farmer, know your food” initiative. During every Farm Bill renewal, the food movement hitched its wagon to the Democratic Party in hopes of protecting the nutrition programs from Republican attack.

However, corporate free trade agreements—despite their devastating impact on our food systems—were kept out of the political conversation with politicians, and stayed largely off the food movement agenda. One can understand the difficulty of working with the Republicans on these issues, but aren’t the Democrats supposed to be “liberals” and “progressives”?

Yes, indeed they are, but economic liberalism and social progressivism, while related, are two very different things.

Starting with the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party has linked a progressive social agenda to a neoliberal economic agenda in a form of progressive neoliberalism. As Nancy Fraser wrote:

In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.

For years, the Republican Party linked the same neoliberal economic agenda to a reactionary social agenda in a form of conservative neoliberalism. Donald Trump’s clever trick was to mobilize social discontent against the political establishment by condemning the Democrats for their social progressivism and both Democrats and Republicans for their economic neoliberalism. His new brand looks to be a particularly toxic, socio-economic variety of reactionary reformism. That Trump and his crony cabinet would introduce reforms to dismantle FTAs doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the interests of the billionaire class; he’s just changing the tools of domination.

Where does that leave the food movement? (Or most progressives for that matter.) First, the important news is that progressives no longer need to trade away economic justice for social justice. As the era of free trade comes to an end, those working on food justice, community food security, organic agriculture, and farm justice can join efforts with those working on food sovereignty and structural reforms. It’s time to link social justice with economic justice issues. Therein lies the opportunity to build a broad-based political project for transformative reform—in the food system and beyond.


Featured photo by SumOfUs.