Thursday, June 4, 2015

Senator Bernie Sanders and the Ongoing Fight For a Progressive Agenda vs. the Mythology of Progressive Politics in the U.S. Today


During the so-called 'Age of Obama' (2008-Present) there has been an insufferable amount of sheer nonsense and brazenly dishonest assertions made by far too many people regarding what genuinely constitutes progressive politics' and even more idiocy has been expressed regarding what a truly 'progressive politician' is. In many quarters it's as if too many otherwise reasonably intelligent and concerned citizens have lost touch with what these terms even mean in today's corrupt and polluted political climate of crass opportunism, hubris, and the celebrity fixated commercial branding of individual politicians and their often hazy and manipulative self serving agendas.

Given this ugly and often depressing reality it is refreshing that we still at least attempt to not only remember but actually identify exactly what determines progressive politics and a progressive politician. One of the very few remaining exemplars of this still very proud but unjustly maligned legacy is Senator Bernie Sanders, the socialist independent from Vermont who along with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a great career long track record of proven outstanding and PROGRESSIVE service to the masses of poor, working, and middle class people in this fading oligarchic Republic we all tragicomically and rather inexplicably still refer to as the "United States."

The fact that a man of the undeniable quality, integrity, honesty, intelligence, and compassion of Senator Bernie Sanders doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of securing the Democratic Party's nomination for the Presidency in 2016 is a huge indictment of this country and its general political system which--as always--would much rather promote, support, and enable the selfish personal ambitions of bourgeois politicians like the ones presently controlling the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court who--as always--promote, support, and enable the corporate capitalist control of Wall Street and the general relentless institutionalized criminality of the financial sector of our hijacked economy at the massive expense of the masses of poor, working, and middle class people who make up 99% of the American population. Meanwhile BILLARY, INC. and the straightup reactionary MadMen of the venal Republican right contend for the spoils left by the current managers of the political economy. That's not Senator Sander's fault of course.  IT'S OURS...


What Kind of Mayor Was Bernie Sanders?
Peter Dreier and Pierre Clavel
June 2, 2015
The Nation

Bernie Sanders sits in his office at City Hall in Burlington, Vermont in 1981. (AP Photo/Donna Light)

John Davis remembers a meeting in 1986 when Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, confronted the owners of the city's largest affordable-housing complex. The federal program that had subsidized the Northgate Apartments for 20 years had a loophole that allowed the landlords to convert the buildings into market rentals or luxury condos.

"Bernie pounded his fist on the conference table in his office and told the owners, ‘Over my dead body are you going to displace 336 working families. You are not going to convert Northgate into luxury housing,'" recalled Davis, who was Sanders's key housing aide.

Under Sanders's leadership, the city adopted a number of laws to stifle the owners' plans. One ordinance required apartment owners to give residents two years' notice before a condo conversion. Others gave residents a pre-emptive right to buy the units and prohibited landlords from bulldozing buildings unless they replaced them with the same number of affordable units. (These measures lowered the selling price of the property.) Sanders then worked with the state government and Senator Patrick Leahy to get the $12 million needed to purchase and rehabilitate the buildings. The city allocated funds to help the tenants hire an organizer, form the Northgate Residents Association, and start the process of converting the complex to resident ownership. Today, Northgate Apartments is owned by the tenants and has long-term restrictions to keep the buildings affordable for working families.

The battle over Northgate Apartments illustrates Sanders's general approach to governing. In addressing this and many other issues, he encouraged grassroots organizing, adopted local laws to protect the vulnerable, challenged the city's business power brokers, and worked collaboratively with other politicians to create a more livable city.

Now that Sanders is running for president, the eight years he spent as Burlington's chief executive (1981–89) will be under close scrutiny. Although President Obama recently joked at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner that Sanders is a "pot-smoking socialist," he was actually a hardworking, pragmatic, effective mayor who helped transform Vermont's largest city (population: 38,000) into a thriving town.

Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington, the city's largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.

* * *

Sanders grew up in Brooklyn and attended the University of Chicago, where he was active in the civil-rights movement. After a short stint living on an Israeli kibbutz, in 1964 he moved to Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter, filmmaker, writer, and researcher, and got involved in radical politics. In the 1970s, after joining the antiwar Liberty Union Party, Sanders ran for several statewide offices, including governor, US Senate, and the US House (Vermont has only one seat). He never garnered more than 4 percent of the vote, but he did better in Burlington than in Vermont's rural areas, which gave him hope that he had a shot at winning office in the local government.

In 1981, Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington as an Independent and defeated six-term Democratic Party  incumbent Gordon Paquette by ten votes in a four-way contest. Voters re-elected Sanders three times by increasingly wider margins: 52 percent in 1983, 55 percent in 1985, and 56 percent in 1987.

Burlington was no hippie counterculture enclave. Although the city attracted many young, educated people because of its natural beauty and the presence of the University of Vermont, it has always had a large working-class population (many of them from French Canadian stock) who, until Sanders came on the scene, tended to vote for moderate Democrats and Republicans. Each time he ran for mayor, Sanders attracted increasing support from the city's blue-collar precincts.

In his first two years in office, the City Council refused to allow Sanders to hire more than a handful of staff, while the entrenched bureaucrats in City Hall sought to thwart his initiatives. Randy Kamerbeek, the city's planning director, "tried to sabotage everything that Bernie proposed," recalled Michael Monte, who worked in that agency. "He told us not to allow Bernie to have any visible successes. He figured Bernie would be out of office after his first term."

After he was re-elected in 1983, and voters swept in a more progressive City Council, Sanders gained a stronger foothold in City Hall. With the support of local Republicans and business leaders, he created the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) to carry out his vision for more affordable housing, more locally owned small businesses, greater community engagement in planning, and job development.

When Sanders took office, Burlington's Lake Champlain waterfront was an industrial wasteland. Tony Pomerleau, an influential local businessman, planned a mega-project that included a 150-room hotel, retail space, a 100-slip marina, and 240 condominiums in 18-story buildings. In his first campaign, Sanders pledged to kill that plan. After Pomerleau withdrew his proposal, Sanders backed another waterfront plan that included some commercial development, affordable housing, and generous public access. But after voters defeated a bond measure for this proposal, Sanders went back to the drawing board to envision a "people's waterfront."

According to Monte, who worked on the waterfront project for Sanders and was CEDO director for 12 years, "Bernie wanted to make sure that it was a place with plenty of open space and public access, where ordinary people could rent a rowboat and buy a hot dog. That wasn't just for the elite. It was Bernie who set the tone that the waterfront wasn't for sale."

Thanks to Sanders, the Burlington waterfront now has a community boathouse and other facilities for small boats. There's also a sailing center and science center, a fishing pier, an eight-mile bike path, acres of parkland, and public beaches. The commercial development is modest and small-scale. On May 26, Sanders kicked off his presidential campaign with a rally at Waterfront Park.

Most of Burlington's business leaders initially distrusted Sanders. They didn't know what a socialist would do once he held the reins of power. But even many of Sanders's early opponents came to respect and even admire his willingness to listen to their views and his efforts to adopt progressive municipal policies.

Pomerleau was then—and remains today, at 97—one of Burlington's richest residents. A longtime Republican, he made his money developing supermarkets, hotels, and shopping centers, and he owns much of Burlington's commercial real estate. For decades, he has wielded considerable political influence, served as chair of the city's police commission, and been its most generous philanthropist.

"When [Sanders] first ran for mayor, he was running against guys like me," Pomerleau recalled in a recent interview.

Pomerleau, who voted against Sanders in 1981, knocked on his door the day after that election. "I said, ‘You're the mayor, but it's still my town,'" he recalled.

Pomerleau wasn't happy when Sanders opposed his waterfront development plan, but he gradually got to know the mayor and came to admire his pragmatism, his bulldog tenacity to get things done, and his support for the local police.

"Bernie and I worked very well together for the betterment of the town," Pomerleau said. "We were the odd couple."

Pomerleau voted for Sanders in his three successful bids for re-election. And Sanders frequently called Pomerleau to ask his advice. They stayed in close contact, even after Sanders was elected to Congress.

Pomerleau expressed his pleasure that for the past 35 years Sanders has never missed one of his annual Christmas parties for underprivileged children. He also praised Sanders for being a stalwart supporter of America's military veterans.

"If more rich people were like me," Pomerleau said, "Bernie would feel better about the wealthy."

* * *

"When Bernie first got elected, the local media said he was anti-business," recalled Bruce Seifer, an architect of Sanders's economic development efforts. "They called us the ‘Sanderistas.'"

After Sanders's re-election victory in 1983, business groups concluded they could not defeat him and thus had to work with him. But many businesspeople also saw that Sanders shared their interest in "development"—what he saw as "good development"—while opposing projects that would hurt middle- and working-class neighborhoods or victimize low-wage workers.

"Bernie was never anti-growth, anti-development, or anti-business," explained Monte. "He just wanted businesses to be responsible toward their employees and the community. He wanted local entrepreneurs to thrive. He wanted people to have good jobs that pay a living wage. If you could deal with that, you could deal with Bernie and Bernie would deal with you."

The Sanders administration provided new firms with seed funding, offered technical assistance, helped businesses form trade associations (including the South End Arts and Business Association and the Vermont Convention Bureau), focused attention on helping women become entrepreneurs, funded training programs to give women access to nontraditional jobs, and lobbied the state government to promote business growth.

When Sanders took office, Burlington had no supermarket in the downtown area. The major grocery chains told city officials that they would invest in a new store only if they could build a mega-market that residents believed was too large. Instead, the Sanders administration put its hopes in the local Onion River Cooperative. With 2,000 members in its former location, some thought it was a risky venture. It turned out to be a good investment, and under Sanders's successor it became City Market, a thriving enterprise with more than 9,000 members.

Under Sanders, Burlington became a magnet for attracting and incubating locally owned businesses, many of which expanded into large enterprises. Burton, the nation's largest snowboard company, has its headquarters (as well as a snowboard museum) in Burlington. The city assisted Seventh Generation, a green cleaning-products firm, when it started in 1988. Today, with its downtown waterfront headquarters in a LEED-certified building and over $300 million in annual sales, it is one of Burlington's largest employers. With the city's help, Gardeners Supply Company, which sells environmentally friendly gardening products, moved to Burlington in 1983. Four years later, its founder, Will Raap, began the process of selling the firm to its workers. It now has over 250 employee-owners.

As he was transitioning Gardeners Supply to employee ownership, Raap also began organizing volunteers to clean up a largely derelict floodplain north of the store. Eventually CEDO, Sanders's development agency, helped arrange the purchase of the area and provided the capital for irrigation systems, farm vehicles, and washing stations for vegetables. By the end of the 1990s, it was home to a dozen urban farms, annually producing over 500,000 pounds of food for local homes and stores. Today it generates over 10 percent of the food sold in Burlington.

"Bernie realized that the economy doesn't have to be dominated by bad guys," explained Raap, a founder of the 750-member Burlington-based Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, an alternative trade association. "He saw that and he fostered it."

Burlington's strong economy and population growth put pressure on the city's housing supply, threatening to displace low- and middle-income families. Under Sanders, the city adopted policies to create permanently affordable housing. The city channeled a large portion of its federal block grant funds to nonprofits committed to that goal, and cultivated a constituency of these small development organizations. The first key move was support for the Burlington Community Land Trust with an initial $200,000 grant. Now named the Champlain Housing Trust, the nonprofit has over $290 million in assets;  manages a portfolio of 2,800 price-controlled houses, condos, co-ops, and rentals; and owns over 120,000 square feet of commercial space and nonprofit facilities.

To provide funding for new housing initiatives, the Sanders-led city created a housing trust fund, capitalized in part by a 1 percent increase in property taxes. A year after Sanders left office, the coalition he built successfully pushed the City Council to enact an inclusionary zoning law. Market-rate residential projects were required to set aside 10–25 percent of the units at rents and prices affordable to families with modest incomes and to keep them affordable for 99 years.

The Sanders administration carefully nurtured neighborhood planning assemblies (NPA) in each of the city's six wards, providing them with modest budgets to deliberate and advise on projects affecting their neighborhoods. The NPAs had a voice over the use of federal Community Development Block Grant funds in their neighborhoods. Today, Burlingtonians credit the NPAs with raising the level of resident participation and discussion in local politics.

Sanders jump-started the city's participatory energies in other ways as well. Early on he established a Youth Office, an Arts Council, and a Women's Council, whose first major initiative was an ordinance requiring 10 percent of all city-funded construction jobs to be filled by women.

* * *

Sanders's track record as mayor was so successful that Burlington voters elected his CEDO director, Peter Clavelle, to succeed him in 1989. (He was voted out in 1993 but re-elected in 1995, and served until 2006.) During his 16 years in the mayor's office, Clavelle expanded Sanders's agenda. A Republican held the office from 1993 to 1995, and another independent progressive, Bob Kiss, served from 2006 through 2012. After a controversy erupted over the city-owned Burlington Telecom, Kiss declined to run for re-election.

In 2012, for the first time since Sanders's first campaign in 1981, Burlington elected a Democrat—Miro Weinberger—to serve as mayor. Although more conservative than Sanders, Clavelle, and Kiss, he has been reluctant to reverse their policies because they've been so popular. Burlington's progressives have not only held on to their main policy achievements but, after the most recent election, have gained seats on the City Council and catapulted Progressive Party member Jane Knodell into the presidency of that body.

In the 1970s and '80s, Sanders was one of a handful of mayors—including Paul Soglin of Madison, Wisconsin; Gus Newport of Berkeley, California; Ruth Goldway of Santa Monica, California; Chicago's Harold Washington; and Boston's Ray Flynn—who sought to use the levers of local government to adopt enlightened progressive policies. More than in any other city, Burlington's progressives consolidated those reforms over the long haul. The coalition that coalesced around Sanders in 1981 governed Burlington for all but two of the next 31 years.

Burlington is now widely heralded as an environmentally friendly, lively, and livable city with a thriving economy, including one of the lowest jobless rates in the country. Burlingtonians give Sanders credit for steering the city in a new direction that, despite early skepticism, proved to be broadly popular with voters.

A growing number of cities—including Seattle, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Newark, and others—are now led by progressive mayors. They are adopting municipal minimum wage laws, requiring developers to build mixed-income housing, strengthening regulations against corporate polluters, and enacting other policies to address the nation's growing economic inequality and environmental crises.

What they can learn from Sanders is that good ideas are not sufficient. Creating more livable cities requires nurturing a core of activist organizations that can build long-term support for progressive municipal policies.

Global Capitalist Crisis and the North American Free Trade Agreement: Reflections 21 Years On
Thursday, 04 June 2015
by William I. Robinson
Truthout | News Analysis   

Recent US Senate approval won by President Obama for "fast-track" negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal has thrust "free trade" and capitalist globalization again into the headlines. Often referred to as "NAFTA on steroids," the TPP is but the latest in more than two decades of "free trade" agreements that have helped open up the world to transnational corporate plunder.

If we want to understand such deals we would do well to reflect on the first of these, the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which went into effect in January 1994. We cannot understand NAFTA without understanding the larger picture of which NAFTA and the TPP form part: the new system of global capitalism and the crisis of that system.

NAFTA, and by extension, capitalist globalization, were outcomes of the last great crisis of world capitalism, that of the 1970s. Emergent transnational capital responded to that crisis by "going global," which paved the way for NAFTA. To understand NAFTA and the TPP, we must grasp four novel features of world capitalism in this epoch of globalization:

1. The rise of truly transnational capital and the integration of every country into a new globalized production and financial system. NAFTA served as a midwife for Mexico's integration into this system;

2. The appearance of a new transnational capitalist class, a class group grounded in the new global control over national circuits of accumulation. NAFTA and Mexico's globalization involved the rise of a powerful group of Mexican capitalists, epitomized by Carlos Slim, currently the richest man in the world. These emergent transnationally oriented Mexican elites led the charge in Mexico's globalization and used NAFTA to join the ranks of the transnational capitalist class.

3. The rise of transnational state apparatuses, comprised of dense networks of nation-states and supranational and transnational institutions that promote transnational over national accumulation in each country and act as the collective authority of the transnational capitalist class - as the new global ruling class. NAFTA was drawn up and imposed on the peoples of North America by this transnational state;

4. The appearance of novel relations of inequality and domination in global society, including the spread of new transnational class inequalities, the farcical wars on drugs and terrorism, as well as the wars on immigrants, youth "gangs" and social movements, all part and parcel of capitalist globalization in North America and elsewhere.

Capitalist Crises and "Free" Trade

Capitalism experiences major episodes of crisis about every 40 to 50 years as obstacles emerge to ongoing accumulation and profit-making. These are "structural" or "restructuring" crises because the system must be restructured in order to overcome the crisis. As opportunities for capitalists to profitably invest dry up, the system seeks to open up new outlets for surplus capital, typically through violence, whether structural or direct. NAFTA constitutes one such form of structural violence, whereas the "drug wars" and US militarization on both sides of the border are a form of direct violence. Both have the function of opening up new opportunities for capitalist expansion and control in North America.

Structural crises of capitalism involve social upheavals, political and military conflict, and ideological and cultural changes. The last major crisis of world capitalism prior to the 2008 global financial collapse began in the late 1960s and hit hard in the early 1970s.

"Free trade" and neoliberalism are fundamentally programs of transnational capital liberated from the nation-state through globalization.

The year 1968 was a turning point. That year saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States in the midst of expanding Black and Chicano liberation movements, the countercultural and antiwar movements, and an escalation of militant worker struggles. The Tlatelolco massacre of students took place in Mexico City that same year, at a time of great campesino, worker and student upheavals across the country. Further away, 1968 saw the Prague Spring, the uprising of students and workers in Paris, the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which marked the beginning of the first major defeat for US imperialism, and the spread of anti-colonial and armed liberation movements throughout Africa and Latin America.

All this reflected a crisis of hegemony for the system - a crisis in its political and cultural domination. Then came the economic dimension. By 1973, the US government had to abandon the gold standard; the recently formed Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed its oil embargo, which sent shock waves through the world economy; and stagflation (stagnation plus inflation) set in everywhere. This was, in a nutshell, a severe structural crisis of world capitalism, a crisis of 20th century nation-state capitalism.

Stepping back even further in history, at the time of the 1970s crisis, working and popular classes all around the world had accumulated a significant amount of power relative to dominant groups. Why? The  world had seen a prolonged period of international conflict involving world wars and social and class struggles from the 1890s into the 1960s. Working and popular classes were able to make social and economic gains in many countries, leading to the so-called social-democratic "class compromise" of the mid 20th century, whereby the capitalist system was forced to make a number of concessions to significant sectors of the international working class. By the early 1970s, a pre-revolutionary situation was percolating in many countries and regions. The popular classes were able to resist attempts by the dominant groups to shift the burden of the 1970s crises on to their shoulders.

But as the crisis intensified, these dominant groups sought ways to liberate themselves from the "class compromise." Analytically speaking, capital sought to free itself of any reciprocal responsibility to labor in the capitalist system and capitalist states sought to shed themselves of the social welfare systems that were established in preceding decades. Elites in the rich countries also sought ways to integrate emergent Third World elites into the system.

NAFTA was but one small part of a vast restructuring of world capitalism.
These dominant groups launched the "neoliberal counterrevolution," an attempt to roll back the social welfare state, to resubordinate labor and to reconstitute their hegemony at the global level through a newfound transnational mobility of capital and a transformation of the interstate system. The roots of NAFTA are to be found in this response of economic and political elites to the 1970s crisis.

The model of "savage" global capitalism that took hold in the late 20th century involved a new capital-labor relation based on the deregulation, informalization, deunionization and flexibilization of labor as more and more workers have swelled the ranks of the "precariat" - a proletariat existing in permanently precarious conditions. NAFTA and other trade agreements along with neoliberal policies have played a key role in the subordination of labor worldwide and the creation of this global flexible labor market.

The new model of global capitalism has also involved a renewed round of extensive and intensive expansions of the system. The former socialist countries and the revolutionary states of the Third World were integrated into the world market in the late 20th century. Free trade agreements such as NAFTA and neoliberal programs have lifted restrictions to this expansion of transnational capital. A third aspect of the new model is the creation of a legal and regulatory structure for the global economy, characterized by such agreements as NAFTA and the creation of the World Trade Organization. "Free trade" and neoliberalism are fundamentally programs of transnational capital liberated from the nation-state through globalization.

Opening North America for the Transnational Capitalist Class

US, Mexican and Canadian elites turned to negotiating and implementing NAFTA so as to open up new opportunities for expansion in the face of stagnation and to appropriate resources in Mexico and beyond. Capitalist globalization in North America created outlets for a mass of accumulated capital following the stagnation and decline in the profit rate as a result of the 1970s crisis and helped to reverse the worldwide correlation of social and class forces that throughout the 1960s and 1970s had become adverse to capitalist expansion and elite interests.

Yet NAFTA was but one small part of a vast restructuring of world capitalism. NAFTA and free trade are components of neoliberalism, which in turn is an integral component of the project of transnational elites in North America to restructure the system, restore the class power of an emergent transnational capitalist class, and lift obstacles and barriers to new transnational circuits of accumulation opened up by capitalist globalization. NAFTA must be seen in this larger context of capitalist globalization as an attempt to resuscitate the North American and world economy and to restore capitalist hegemony after the great crisis of the 1970s. It is not separate from other free trade agreements around the world; NAFTA is simply the North American regional variant of the project of capitalist globalization.

"To a certain extent, we are armoring NAFTA."
As many have documented, global capitalism has produced an unprecedented concentration of wealth in Mexico and the rise of 24 new billionaires, some of the wealthiest people in the world. Carlos Slim's worth went from $6.6 billion in 1994 to $73 billion in 2014. It generated a high consumption Mexican middle class that identifies more with its counterparts in the United States and elsewhere than it does with the mass of impoverished Mexicans.

At the same time, living conditions for most in Mexico plummeted in the wake of NAFTA's implementation. From 1992 to 1999, extreme poverty increased from 16 to 28 percent of the total population, and in 2012, the poverty rate stood at 52.3 percent, slightly higher than it was at the time of NAFTA's approval. Some 2 to 3 million families were thrown off their land in the wake of NAFTA and millions more were made unemployed in urban areas, creating a mass labor force for maquiladoras, agribusiness projects, mining operations and service sectors. A major portion of those displaced became transnational migrants, servicing the US and global economy outside of Mexico.

NAFTA thus generated for transnational corporate capital new pools of exploitable labor and access to vast new reserves of land and resources in Mexico. The treaty opened up new markets in Mexico and access to Mexican resources for the transnational capitalist class, but also allowed this transnational capitalist class to attack the working class throughout the region. It allowed the transnational fraction of the Mexican capitalist class and elite to globalize and consolidate its hegemony over the Mexican political system. In this sense, NAFTA has been an incubator of the transnational capitalist class in Mexico.

The War on Drugs and Immigrants as Counterparts to NAFTA

NAFTA has its counterpart in the ongoing militarization of North America, including the militarization of borders, the drugs wars, the war against immigrants and the repression of social movements. North America is "a shared economic space," declared then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon in 2005, when the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America went into effect. "To a certain extent, we are armoring NAFTA." In 2007, the Security and Prosperity Partnership was replaced by Plan Merida, also known as Plan Mexico, a more sweeping program for militarizing Mexico, including the country's southern and northern borders, with hundreds of millions of dollars in US military and security assistance.

The "drug war" has been a critical mechanism for accumulation and social control in both Mexico and the US.

It is noteworthy that the Security and Prosperity Partnership and Plan Merida brought leading transnational corporations, especially from the military-industrial complex, into coordination with US and Mexican military and security forces, and provided new opportunities for militarized accumulation throughout North America.

The so-called "drug war" has been a critical mechanism for accumulation and social control in both Mexico and the United States, and highly functional for the transnational capitalist class. As Canadian journalist Dawn Paley shows in her important new study, Drug War Capitalism, this war is an instrument of primitive accumulation, social cleansing and profit-making through militarization and conflict. It has allowed, among other things, for:

--the social control of the North American working and popular classes; 
--repression of Mexican social movements;
--vast profit-making through military forms of transnational corporate accumulation, such as the production and deployment of military equipment and forces, border walls, surveillance systems, prison-industrial and immigrant detention complexes;
--the expulsion of communities from rural and urban conflict areas, the appropriation of lands, and establishment of agribusiness and mining operations in place of small-scale agriculture;
--the creation of a system of mass incarceration in the United States disproportionately targeting the African-American population as surplus labor.
This "war on drugs" is reciprocal to the war on immigrants, itself an integral part of the story of NAFTA. The campaign of control and repression against Mexican (and Central American, Asian and other) immigrants in the United States has three key functions for transnational elites. First, it is a system for criminalizing this population, and therefore making it a cheap and tightly controlled labor supply. Second, it allows more generally for control over the transnational working class, including political, cultural and ideological mechanisms of social control; the conversion of immigrants into scapegoats for the crisis; and the sublimation of social tensions that may otherwise be directed against systemic sources of the crisis. And third, together with the farcical wars on drugs and terrorism, the war on immigrants justifies ongoing militarization and "securitization," generating widespread opportunities for transnational corporate profit-making through militarized accumulation.

NAFTA has had the effect, in sum, of generating an almost limitless supply of immigrant labor for the North American economy, in the context of the restructuring of global labor markets. Criminalization of immigrants in the United States has played a key role in pushing immigrant workers underground, making them more vulnerable to super-exploitation and less able to resist, and keeping them deportable.  Racist anti-immigrant laws, the immigrant detention complex and militarized borders all reproduce a reserve army of immigrant labor and at the same time open up new sources of profit-making for the transnational corporations that are actually contracted to build border walls, supply military equipment to the state military and security forces, and establish and run surveillance systems and detention centers.

US Colonization or Transnational Capitalist Class Conquest?

Some have argued that NAFTA aimed to close off North America from other regions and to allow US capital to face European and Asian competitors. This thesis of "regionalization" and a tripolar world in competition, however, does not correspond to reality over the past 20 years. The evidence shows that NAFTA has served as a platform for ever-greater transnational integration and globalization of North America. Transnational corporations from all over the world have poured into Mexico (as well as the United States and Canada) over the past two decades in order to have direct access to North American labor and consumer markets. NAFTA opened the region to greater integration with Asia. China, in fact, is currently funding the "NAFTA super highway," that is, the construction of vast new highway and rail networks integrating the entire North American region.

With the collapse of the Doha round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization, the strategy pursued by the transnational capitalist class has been to negotiate a multiplicity of bilateral and multilateral regional and interregional trade deals, the latest of which is the TPP. We have seen an accelerated transnationalization of the entire North American region since NAFTA went into effect.

We have seen an accelerated transnationalization of the entire North American region since NAFTA went into effect.

Others have portrayed NAFTA as a recolonization of Mexico by the United States. But this image, too, is demonstrated to be false. NAFTA allowed the transnational fraction of the Mexican capitalist class to transnationalize. The Mexican contingent of the transnational capitalist class has been just as much a protagonist and beneficiary of NAFTA and capitalist globalization as has its US and Canadian counterparts.

The Mexican-based Cemex conglomerate, the largest producer of cement in the world, not only operates on every continent, but also is the principal supplier of cement to the US market. While mining companies from the United States and Canada, as well as from Asia, Europe and elsewhere, have poured into Mexico over the past two decades, the largest of these companies are actually owned wholly or in part by Mexican capitalists. Carlos Slim's Grupo Mexico and Grupo Carso conglomerates hold major shares in Saks Fifth Avenue, Best Buy, The New York Times, Philip Morris, Apple and Alcatel, not to mention holdings in companies on every continent.

The case of the "corn tortilla circuit" is instructive. Those who say NAFTA represents a US takeover of Mexico point to how US-based agribusiness subsidized by the US state has flooded the Mexican market with cheap corn and displaced millions of small farmers. This is true. However, these lands have been taken over as much by Mexican and transnational agribusiness, mining and other concerns from around the world as by US-based investor groups. Mexican agro-export and mining capitalist groups have proliferated in Mexico.

Specifically, when NAFTA went into effect, the price of bulk corn dropped - yet the price of tortillas actually rose. This is because NAFTA allowed Mexican transnational capitalists to gain monopoly control  of the corn tortilla market. Just two Mexican companies, GIMSA and MINSA, captured 97 percent of the industrial corn flour market in the country, with the help of Mexican state subsidies. These two companies also control major shares of the US tortilla market (e.g. Mission brand is owned by GIMSA). NAFTA facilitated a shift from small-scale to transnational corporate control of the corn tortilla circuit on both sides of the border, with both Mexico and the US, as transnational state apparatuses, subsidizing both Mexican and US members of the transnational capitalist class.

Twenty-one years into NAFTA, world capitalism is again in deep crisis. Globalization, free trade and neoliberalism may have facilitated a renovated round of capitalist expansion, but they have also generated new contradictions that the system has not been able to resolve. These processes have helped to bring about a transnational working class in North America and globally that is increasingly moving from the defensive to the offensive. The great challenge for transnational elites is how to contain the real and potential rebellion of this mass of dispossessed humanity. As the battle heats up around the TPP, reflections on NAFTA 21 years on can be instructive.

This article is an edited version of a speech William I. Robinson gave at the National Autonomous University of Mexico on April 16, 2015. The analysis is drawn from his latest book, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Thanks to Steven Osuna and Kevin Robinson for their contributions to this article.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

William I. Robinson is professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity.

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NAFTA at 20: "A Vehicle To Increase Profits at the Expense of Democracy"
By Dave Johnson, Campaign for America's Future | News Analysis