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Aziz Choudry: Trade Talk - Speaking in Tongues

Trade Talk: Speaking in Tongues


By Aziz Choudry
September 06, 2003
From: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2003-09/06choudry.cfm

It’s enough to make your eyes glaze over.

Modalities. Conditionalities. Most-favoured nation. Rules of Origin. Phytosanitary Standards. TRIPS. TRIMS. GATS. WTO. APEC. FTAA. NAFTA. Trade negotiators, governments, the media and many non-governmental organisation (NGOs) are pumping out material brimming with an alphabet soup of acronyms and jarring technical jargon.

The torrent seems particularly bad right now. Another World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial meeting looms imminently, with a November Summit of the Americas not far behind, where trade ministers and officials will meet to discuss the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a trade and investment agreement between all of the countries in the Americas except Cuba.

The arcane language of trade negotiations and global economics resembles the incomprehensible utterances of those who, in a state of apparent religious ecstasy, believe themselves moved by a divine force – and speak in tongues. Whether it is a belief in salvation by God or the global free market economy, “true believers” frequently feel that they alone have the truth, the light and the way.

The inaccessibility of this language remains a big plus for the economic interests – governments and corporations – behind initiatives like the WTO and FTAA as they seek to mould the world so that global capital can do what it likes, when it likes, how it likes, and with whomever it likes. It is as though they have devised a secret code to keep most of us none the wiser about what they are doing and not particularly interested in finding out, either. That is a surefire way to minimise popular understanding, public debate and dissent.

The dense, confusing jargon and the rather abstract-sounding nature of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT – which established the WTO) led to the subject being dubbed a “ratings killer” by New Zealand media some years ago. It has only been popular education and action on these and other agreements – especially mass mobilisations and non-violent direct action – that have focussed any public attention on them.

Deconstructing and demystifying the WTO and global economics through popular education in terms that we can all understand is an important task if we are to reach out beyond activist and NGO networks and build genuine mass movements that can seriously contest the power of global capital and local elites.

But those of us who closely follow trade negotiations with morbid fascination and concern like soap opera addicts also have a tendency to adopt this gibberish. Perhaps there is something hypnotic and strangely seductive about these words, once we have figured out what they mean. After the initial bewilderment and alienation, they seem to become rapidly incorporated into our own vocabulary. Then we want to proudly show off our new words.

Why do so many NGOs critical of the WTO spend so much time speaking the same language as the trade bureaucrats?

Is it to seek legitimacy in the eyes of officials and institutions? “Take us seriously, we can use long and complicated words and phrases too”.

Is it an initiation rite into a cozier world away from the fraught and unglamorous work of mobilizing in communities? “I’m not one of those nasty anti-capitalists – let’s talk about modalities”.

When we try to fight them in their language we risk sacrificing the power to name our world and assert our values.

Policy analysis, research and advocacy are important but these must be directed by and used to advance the needs and demands of grassroots struggles, not the interests of NGOs which want to maintain good relations with governments and officials by showing that they speak and understand the same language – literally and figuratively. Unsurprisingly, that language tends to exclude criticisms of colonialism, capitalism or imperialism.

The framing of issues in this language, and the narrow focus on technical aspects of texts and official processes is hardly conducive to popular education for mobilization, and indeed shuts out the majority of our societies.

This addiction to technical jargon tends to obscure, rather than advance popular understandings of these processes and institutions and their effects on our lives. It inevitably permeates our “popular education” resources. It runs the risk of connecting only with a very small segment of societies in certain NGOs and activists who eagerly read the regular email bulletins on WTO negotiations. Without being connected to broader political, economic and ecological questions, and struggles for justice and dignity on the ground, their activities and analyses can seem as disconnected from on-the-ground reality as the heady world of trade bureaucrats.

Writing about “NGOism”, US global justice activist Patrick Reinsborough says that there is a “terrifyingly widespread conceit among professional “campaigners” that social change is a highly specialized profession best left to experienced strategists, negotiators and policy wonks. NGOism is the conceit that paid staff will be enough to save the world.”

I have nothing against sound critical policy analysis but I worry about the way in which this language in the gospel according to the WTO (or the FTAA, World Bank, IMF, etc) comes to frame so much of what we do and say. It is all-too-easy to develop a severe case of tunnel vision from poring over complex wordy documents and to adopt the bizarre compartmentalization of life-and-death issues which the agreements, provisions, articles and clauses of official texts lend themselves to.

Some NGO policy analysts do excellent work in monitoring negotiations and disseminating information. They are able to expose concrete examples of the anti-democratic processes and powerplay that characterizes WTO negotiations. But there is often a real sense of disconnect between their priorities and the priorities and struggles of peoples’ movements. Many people most directly affected by neoliberal policies and mobilising at the grassroots may not be familiar with the jargon but have a keen understanding of what is going on and a bigger picture analysis which is often missing in the world of professionalized NGO policy analysts.

The devil lies not only in the details of trade and economic agreements, but in the underlying economic, social, political and environmental agendas underpinning them. Too many of the analyses of trade negotiations have too little political analysis. We fetishise the minutiae of these agreements at the risk of losing sight of the fact that they are manifestations of bigger systemic problems - like capitalism and colonialism.

A certain elitism has already developed in “global justice” networks where policy “experts” in relatively well-resourced organisations are elevated to guru-like status and get to interpret the texts and meanings of meetings for the rest of us. These interpretations – and the accompanying suggestions for action are often divorced from the lived realities of daily struggles for justice and dignity, and a political analysis of the bigger picture. They often urge reformist solutions to try to change or insert some words here or there, rather than challenging the underlying values and principles on which the agreements are based, or heeding popular demands for radical transformation of the prevailing economic order.

We need to be wary of the development of an emergent class of high priests of policy analysis, who are claiming the space, authority and mandate to set strategy and direction of global justice movements. The gulf between them and the aspirations of peoples’ struggles needs to be acknowledged and addressed. If anyone is going to save the world from the ravages of neoliberalism, it will be community mobilizations and mass movements, not professional NGOers speaking in tongues.

ENDS

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    To understand the origins of this “ecosystem emergency” we need to understand the “dominion” worldview of capitalism. A worldview can be seen as a kind of self-replicating societal mind-virus or meme perpetuating and spreading its reality and manner of seeing the world. The scientific theory of memetics helps explain the power of such memes to spread a set of ideas throughout society. As Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk explain, memetics is increasingly validated by various branches of science, including evolutionary theory, quantum physics, cognitive linguistics, and epigenetics.

    The dominion worldview of the current global capitalist system is based on an inherently racist and patriarchal meme inherited from the bible. In this meme, God (usually depicted as an old white guy) grants Adam (a younger white guy) “dominion” over the earth and all of nature to “control and shape it.” (God: Genesis 1:26) This meme spread was globally through the enlightenment and places both nature and non-European people (or poor people in general) as inferior beings in a hierarchical construct called the “chain of being.” 

    The logic of the capitalist system sees eternal growth and control of nature and humanity as the primary motives within a game played by rational self-serving players. However, this dominion meme underpinning capitalism is ultimately predicated on the absolute rationality and morality of the cannibalistic consumption of both natural resources and human energy. This worldview ultimately leads to a narrowly materialist and reductionist vision of “human progress” that ignores the inherent importance of human and ecological diversity and interconnection with nature. 

    This mind-virus of the capitalist project has proven so infectious that it has spread its absolute dominion over the entire planet to achieve near-absolute hegemony and catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem and indigenous peoples. As Ladha and Kirk state “in order for Christianity to become dominant, the existing pagan belief-system, with its understanding of humanity’s place within rather than above nature, had to be all but annihilated.”

    Over the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the global economy has orchestrated an unprecedented acceleration of the destruction of nature in its quest for eternal growth from ever-dwindling resources. This is simply because the rules of its operating system depend on this expansion and consumption of new territories and natural and human resources for its continued existence. However, as Ladha and Kirk outline, the exponential nature of the World Bank’s 3% global GDP growth imperative to avoid recession, means we now need over US2 trillion in growth every year “just so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble.”

    The ever-higher levels of consumption of the commons needed to provide grist for this mill, has also given rise to an increase in authoritarianism and an associated chilling of the freedom of the press and human rights globally. A fierce suppression of whistleblowers, inconvenient journalists, and activists, all but ignored by the mainstream media has effectively ended the accountability of governments and businesses for this human and ecosystem devastation.

    Meanwhile, the propaganda arm of this capitalist mind-virus has entered a golden age by taking advantage of the unregulated social media frontier and the breakdown of real journalism. In this new environment, the use of memes as warfare to control, manipulate and misinform the populace to perpetuate and spread the dominion mindset has been perfected.

    What is the end game of this dominion worldview? It appears to be incapable of stopping anywhere short of the destruction of all life on Earth. As Nafeez Ahmed defines it: 

    “This is a life-destroying paradigm, a death-machine whose internal logic culminates in its own termination. It is a matrix of interlocking beliefs, values, behaviours and organisational forms which functions as a barrier, not an entry-point, to life, nature and reality.”

    The First Great Extermination

    What is the Rojava Revolution? | Accidental Anarchist

    “The future of the extraordinary feminist and democratic revolution in Rojava is now in danger. The US has announced it will withdraw its military forces from Syria, with whom the Kurdish forces have been fighting against ISIS. This will be a green light for Erdogan’s Turkey to fulfill its threats to attack Rojava and eradicate its nascent democracy. There’s never been a more important time to support Rojava. This clip from Accidental Anarchist shows why it matters.” – Carne Ross

    Watch the full movie: filmsforaction.org/watch/accidental-anarchist/

    Posted by Films For Action on Saturday, 22 December 2018

    “This Is Not the Sixth Extinction. It’s the First Extermination Event. What we are witnessing is not a passive geological event but extermination by capitalism.”  

    Justin McBrien

    This increasingly aggressive search of capitalism for new territories and untapped resources has placed increasing pressure on ecosystems across the globe in what Justin McBrien terms the First Extermination Event. As McBrien says, “the great historical struggle against this extermination has been, and remains, the struggle for land and the rights of the commons.”

    Developing nations and indigenous people are at the forefront of this struggle as the commons in the global south have increasingly come under pressure from privatisation. Indigenous nations account for less than 5 percent of the global population, but are protecting 80 percent of its biodiversity. This ecological wealth is largely in the form of commonly held ecosystems such as forests, oceans, wetlands, and other wildernesses that are crucial reservoirs of biodiversity and buffers against climate change.

    Indigenous peoples and developing nations are also suffering disproportionate losses due to an increased reliance on and interconnection with the natural world. Many have already faced, or now face Cultural Extinction due to the fact that their languages, stories, religions, and customs are inextricably interconnected with the ecosystems being destroyed. Nowhere is this process more evident than in the Amazon, where Guardians such as Paulino Paulo Guajajara (above) are being killed for defending their ancestral lands from deforestation.

    Due to indebtedness and years of extractive imperialism and capitalism, these nations have minimal ability alone to resist the destruction of these commons or to fund mitigation or adaptation measures. However, they also hold the key to our survival. Unless we are prepared to aggressively challenge this destruction of the remaining commons in the developed world, our chances of preserving biodiversity and a habitable climate on this planet are slim.

    Ah… About That “Hope”?


    Tree at dawn. Image by Johannes Plenio from Pixabay

    “Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced.” – David Graeber

    Hope and belief in a better future is an important and subversive act of defiance against the possibility-limiting paradigm of this dominant worldview. In such concerning times, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of “learned hopelessness.” However, as anthropologist David Graeber states in a recent “Tactical Briefing,” to make sense of the seeming impasse of our current situation we must realise that this feeling is the product of:

    “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”

    So where is one to find hope in the face of this death machine? 

    There are plenty of indications the people have finally had enough of this worldview driving life on the planet towards extinction. Worldwide uprisings of Extinction Rebellion, the Youth Climate Marches, or other little-publicised uprisings in Ecuador, Iraq, Algeria or Lebanon are all evidence of a desire for a more equal and sustainable world. Perhaps most significant are the protests raging in Chile – the birthplace, most extreme testing ground, and now death ground? of the neoliberal project. 

    However, past uprisings teach us that in order to ensure this distributed energy succeeds in bringing about lasting change, we require a clear shared vision of the future world we seek to create. The emergent cooperatism worldview gaining traction worldwide provides such a potential framework for the more “life-affirming” future these many groups are seeking to create.

    Hope In Common 


    Protesters react as they gather during the evacuation operation by French gendarmes in the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, France, April 11, 2018. Stephane Mahe

    “Every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons”

    Michel Bauwens

    The current crisis can be seen as stemming from the failure of the dominion worldview and the increasingly strained institutions of the capitalist system to protect our environmental and social commons. One result has been a global resurgence of interest in the commons. This resurgence is underpinned by the cooperatism worldview which stands in direct contradiction to the assumptions of the dominion paradigm of global capitalism.

    As Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation summarises, “The commons are three things at the same time: a resource (shared), a community (which maintains them) and precise principles of autonomous governance (to regulate them).” This complex and inherently cooperatist nature makes the commons a powerful and popular organising system for managing natural resources and ecosystems amongst people across the world.

    This broad-based nature of the commons increases human agency by redistributing power and control over land-use decisions and favouring direct, participatory decision-making by the greatest number of people affected. The bottom-up and decentralised nature of the cooperatism worldview enables solutions and responses to environmental challenges to emerge from those most intricately familiar with particular ecosystems.

    This upsurge in the ground-up approach to land-use is evident in the many distributed, local-level collaborative initiatives taking on the guardianship and sustainable use of common lands and resources. In NZ examples include the landscape-scale community conservation literally in my own backyard in Miramar, the self-governance of Te Urewera or the granting of legal rights to the Whanganui river. Ellen Rykers’ recent article on The Dig explores the potential of the Community-centred to biodiversity action in Aotearoa.

    More ambitious commons-based approaches abroad include commons fisheries management in Kenya or Nepal’s Community-owned native forests or a plethora of tea, coffee and cacao cooperatives across the developing world. Then there is the astounding (ZAD) “Zone a Defender” – an occupied autonomous zone near Nantes, France (pictured above). Here occupiers have been conserving the forests and wetlands, collectively farming the commons and with community support, resisting forcible eviction by the police for decades. 


    Zapatista Women work on community-owned and operated farms. Tim Russo

    There are many other examples of the cooperatism approach emerging to create a parallel economy of self-governing alternatives alongside the global capitalist system. These range from small neighbourhood cooperatives and Community Land Trusts to large-scale anti-capitalist experiments like the autonomous indigenous communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement.

    Such alternatives also include the occupied factories in Paraguay, Argentina or the USA, and autonomous institutes in Korea or the cooperatives, self-governed city areas, and free medical care centres formed in Greece after the recent political and economic crisis. As David Graeber says, such forms of mutual aid associations “spring up pretty much anywhere that state power and global capital seem to be temporarily looking the other way.” 

    Perhaps most inspiring of all is the success of Rojava, a self-governing, non-denominational and non-patriarchal, autonomous Kurdish region amidst the chaos of Syria. Sadly, this revolutionary “democratic confederalist” project is currently being crushed by surrounding authoritarian powers clearly threatened by the precedent it sets.

    Bringing Out The Best In Humans

    A commons-based or cooperatist approach to organising society, offers a more rational and scientifically sound way to relate to natural resources than the top-down and growth-based imperatives of the dominion worldview.

    The standard argument for the application of a dominion approach to land and resources is Garrett Hardin’s theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom’s worldwide Nobel Economics prize-winningstudy of “common-pool resource” (CPR) groups in the ‘90s, debunked this idea entirely. Ostrom concluded that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, as long as certain “core-design conditions” are met. 

    Even that champion of neoliberal economic theory, The Economist is now on board. The September 2019 issue featured the article:“The alternatives to privatization and nationalization: More public resources could be managed as commons without much loss of efficiency.” The author cites Ostrom’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she called on policymakers to “facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” 

    However, the fact is, a thermodynamics perspective actually demonstrates the commons approach is MORE energy efficient than standard methods. A research project led by the P2P Foundation on the thermodynamic efficiencies of peer production found that a transition to open and shared models can result in an 80% saving in the amount of matter and energy used in running our society.

    Hope From The Edge of the World


    April 2019 protest in Brasilia (Sergio Lima)

    “The kin networks that bind people with other living systems resonate with the science
    of complex networks, key to understanding many ‘wicked problems’ of our time…”


    Dame Anne Salmond, Gary Brierly and Dan Hikuroa.
    Let the Rivers Speak: thinking about waterways in Aotearoa New Zealand

    We can also take much inspiration from those indigenous people acting as guardians of the natural world against extermination where states and institutions have failed to do so. Examples such as the Guardians of the Amazon, Mauna Kea or Ihumātao represent a refusal to accept the arrogant and materialist dismissal by the dominion paradigm of ancient indigenous knowledge and locally-derived wisdom, democracy and sustainability. 

    Understanding the worldviews of indigenous societies offers important shifts in perspective, consciousness, and behaviour that global society needs to make urgently in order to have any chance of surviving the coming wave of ecological and social disruption. These worldviews are imbued with a deep understanding of cooperatism and shaped by long histories of using the commons as an approach to land-use and social organisation.

    Growing understanding in anthropology and archeology and the science of complex networks confirms the validity of the fundamental tenets of indigenous worldviews: 1. that cooperation is what defines us evolutionarily as a species (Graeber), and 2. that humanity and nature are inextricably interconnected (Salmond et al). Veronika Meduna previously discussed these concepts in relation to Mātauranga Māori in her article on The Dig: Kaitiakitanga: Seeing Nature as your Elder.

    We are not, as the dominion worldview of capitalism holds, hierarchical and self-serving beings governed by a “selfish gene.” For most of our history, humans have existed in a mode of cooperation and relational interconnectedness with each other and the natural world. We must all urgently remember and recreate this way of being.

    Changing Our Minds


    Roy Scott Getty Images

    “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    George Bernard Shaw 

    Widespread adoption of a worldview grounded in Cooperatism is the fastest way to get public support for an overhaul of our approach to land-use and rapidly regenerate ecosystems. However, this is easier said than done. The theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’, holds that when reality falsifies our deepest beliefs, we’d rather tinker with the nature of our reality than update our worldview. This accounts for the growing tribalism of populist politics and the susceptibility to disinformation and narrative control that holds the status quo in place.

    Cognitive dissonance means that changing minds regarding the environment and our insane economic paradigm will not be done by using facts, statistics or rational debate to convince people of the merits of such an approach. Rather, as Maarten Van Doorn outlines, “Ideas change the world by upgrading people’s ‘normal’… by showing people what is possible, and changing their views about what is socially acceptable.”

    In short – the most effective way to change minds is to actually build the world (and worldview) of the commons all around us, making it the new normal as ordinary people rub up against it in their everyday life. Ensuring as many people as possible are able to participate in or benefit from commons-based and ground-up initiatives is one of the most powerful solutions there is to have an impact on the current crisis. 

    A Global New Deal For The Commons 

    Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate—just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society… I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution. But unless the memes are released to play the game, there is no progress.

    ~ Terrence McKenna

    To have any chance of being adopted en masse, proposals for environmental action must directly benefit everyone, but especially disadvantaged communities in most need – migrants, working-class communities and developing nations. As Naomi Klein argues on The Intercept (and in her new book), if we do not link the intersecting climate, migration and social justice crises together into a holistic response, we will face a popular backlash. Klein’s astute hypothesis is that “only a Green New Deal can douse the fires of eco-fascism.”

    However, proposals for a Green New Deal and other green-growth based approaches such as New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act, simply do not go far enough. They fail to effectively challenge the core extractivist and dominion assumptions of the paradigm that has created the biodiversity crisis. Such approaches miss the point entirely unless they ensure that the basic needs of people and planet are met. The neglect of these core needs for so long by the establishment is the breeding ground for both the increased susceptibility to fascist and authoritarian memes and environmental catastrophe.

    There is an existing proposal and petition for a Global Deal for Nature, which I fully support and recommend. However, due to the importance of language and memes to changing worldviews, I still wish to launch this slightly different framing.

    So allow me to launch my meme: A Global New Deal For The Commons:

    I propose that what humanity and the planet desperately needs is a Global New Deal For The Commons. Such a deal would require a global mobilisation to ensure that the natural and cultural commons are protected and sustainable biodiversity-friendly and cooperatist land-use is adopted. If structured right, such a deal would have a massive impact towards restoring the planetary ecosystem and biodiversity, as well as healing deprived and hopeless communities everywhere in the process.

    To truly turn the biodiversity and climate crises around, this new deal needs to happen at least on a scale of wartime efforts such as the Marshall Plan of WWII or the New Deal of the Depression-era. As Rutger Bregman argues, centralised state action will be essential to any realistic efforts to drive an environmental effort on the scale required. However, I am less cynical than Bregman about the power of bottom-up efforts, and believe a properly balanced combination of the two is essential.

    A biodiversity-focused investment on this scale could combine central investment with an approach focused on catalysing, fostering, and scaling bottom-up land-use initiatives and ideas. It could prioritise local communities as workforces and support the emergence of ground-up, decentralised solutions and initiatives over centrally imposed or market-based solutions wherever possible.

    Such a new deal for the commons would require associated work on reforming land tenure and local democratic and economic institutions on a scale not attempted since the communist project. However, rather than the top-down command and control approach of communism, it would provide a framework, resources and tools for communities to re-learn how to live harmoniously with each other and with nature’s abundance. This approach could spread knowledge, technology and best practice for environmental restoration globally through open sourcing IP and implementing solidarity networks or networks of mutual aid across society.

    This new deal would also require real action on the national and global level to reform global governance and regulation and build a more just international order and institutions. This would require new agreements such as an international law of “ecocide,” and strengthened international environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the compliance of corporations and rogue imperialist nations. This new order would also need to address debt-enslavement, eternal growth imperatives, and rebalance global wealth disparity to stop wealthy nations from shifting the impacts of growth onto vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

    However, crucially, to bring about this new order, we must find ways to continue challenging the narrow confines of permitted thought and debate keeping us locked in the destructive dominion paradigm. It would need to restore the rule of law and ensure the protection of whistleblowers, journalists, activists and politicians challenging this narrative. If not, who will hold power accountable for their inaction or blocking of real progress? Who will continue to tell the stories and defend the rights of those on the margins building the alternative futures discussed above?

    The debate around Te Koiroa o Te Koiora, and the to-be-finalised national biodiversity strategy and policy provide an excellent opportunity for New Zealand to lead the way in protecting and restoring the commons with such a new deal. There are good indications that a more community-focused approach is being considered and that more radical proposals resonated well with the public in our recent HiveMind engagement. However, we must ensure that translating this into real progress to fund and support ground-up and cooperatist environmental initiatives is seen as a priority for the Government.

    Please indicate if you agree with this statement of hope and declaration of intent here. You can also add your own statements for others to vote on if you wish: