Zapatista children. Wikimedia photo by Julian Stallabrass.

As the outgoing Mexican administration agrees to a still undisclosed U.S.-Mexico “free trade” agreement (before the new Mexican president elected on July 1 is sworn in on December 1) and Canada’s foreign minister urgently visits Washington with the U.S. president’s Friday deadline for Canada to join the deal, I am reminded of Naomi Klein’s comment regarding climate change: “We cannot solve this crisis without a profound ideological shift.”

Transnational corporations have lobbied hard for so-called free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Along with the sledgehammer threat of capital flight, these “corporate rights agreements” provide corporations with tools to constrain governments that are being successfully pressured by social movements to take legislative action in the public interest.

The most infamous clause is likely the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision that allows transnational corporations to sue national governments in secret tribunals not just to recover their investment but to claim lost future profits.

But there’s also the energy proportionality provision in NAFTA that stops the Canadian government from phasing out oil and gas exports — in order to address the environmental and human catastrophe of climate change — without also equally reducing domestic consumption. This creates a very real practical challenge to implementing a transition strategy that would allow for an economy based on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels.

Both of these disciplines — ISDS and energy proportionality — should be key concerns for climate justice activists calling for a 100 per cent clean energy economy by 2050.

Given a transnational corporation could sue for billions of dollars in lost future profits because of restrictions on water takings needed for their extraction processes, or over free, prior and informed consent for a pipeline traversing an Indigenous nation being respected by a future government, a trade deal is indeed a powerful tool for capital.

The threat in Mexico was clear enough that the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatistas) took up arms on the day that NAFTA came into force, January 1, 1994.

While the mainstream media now tends to uncritically report on NAFTA, almost as if it’s unthinkable to have a functioning economy without these rules, numerous progressive studies have documented NAFTA’s devastating impacts on jobs and environmental protections, and even the relatively minimal impact ripping up the deal would have on the economy.

And yet the fightback feels muted.

Maybe there’s the confusion of the leading opponent of NAFTA right now being the right-wing, misogynistic, much-hated U.S. president. A Zapatista has commented: “We knew that NAFTA would lead to problems. But we didn’t know it would lead to him.”

Maybe it’s that after almost 25 years of the deal in place, it’s harder to disentangle the economies of the three countries, to put the omelette back inside the broken eggs, so to speak.

Or maybe it’s that social movements and public attention appear to be more focused on the existential threat of our time, namely climate change, and the stopping of to-be-built tar sands pipelines, rather than a decades-old tool backed by Big Oil.

Whatever the case may be, there’s timidity or maybe inability of social movements to take opposition to the deal onto the streets in a sustained way in order to create real political pressure to stop it and to uncompromisingly demand better from transnational corporations and their governments of various partisan stripes.

Free trade is central to the neoliberalism that is decimating lives and ripping apart the planet. The impacts of “free trade” have also deepened economic anxieties that have been exploited by racists within the hard-hit working class.

But the collective failure of social movements in Canada, Mexico and the United States to mobilize an effective counter-force to NAFTA (and the mainstream narrative shaping our understanding of the agreement) at this juncture may also only be a temporary setback, albeit a serious one.

Perhaps this political moment may lead to a deeper analysis and fuller response in the years to come. Perhaps rather than a skirmish over a symptom of the current political economy, the fightback will more fully shift against the capitalist economy itself.

If Klein’s bestselling book This Changes Everything can be subtitled “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” maybe there’s hope that we can say “capitalism” more regularly, to greater effect and with more popular appeal when we next confront trade policy.

Image: Julian Stallabrass/Flickr

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Brent Patterson

Brent Patterson is a political activist, writer and the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. He lives in Ottawa on the traditional, unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin...