ATTAC: neither free trade nor protectionism are a solution

The development of the ATTAC association in France, launched by le Monde Diplomatique, has attracted a lot of attention on the left. This article from the French Marxist magazine, La Riposte, analyses this phenomenon and outlines the limitations of its programme and its effectiveness in fighting world capitalism.

In the industrialised countries, whilst the big financial and industrial enterprises are making record profits, capitalism is leading to dramatic consequences for the majority of the population. Public services are being dismantled, the past gains of working people are being undermined, and working conditions are going from bad to worse. In the less developed countries, people are living in nightmare conditions, falling victim to a double oppression, at the hands of the major powers and of their "own" ruling classes.

In this context, the development of the association ATTAC is hardly surprising. The various publications and initiatives of this association have exposed widespread financial speculation on a world scale, and underlined the cynical involvement of the capitalists in the numerous wars being waged throughout the world. The critical and indignant tone of ATTAC contrasts sharply with the resigned complacency of the leaderships of the left parties.

At first sight, the policy put forward by ATTAC seems to suggest, at least implicitly, a socialist approach. When ATTAC castigates profit-hungry share-holders, denounces the race to grab markets and natural resources in disregard of people's needs, when it exposes the totally undemocratic character of the huge industrial and financial combines and demands the setting up of "citizen's control" over the economic apparatus, it appears to share some of the ideas put forward by La Riposte, whose programme explains that democratic control and management of the economy are impossible unless the means of production and the big financial institutions remain as private property of the capitalists, who use and abuse to their own advantage the enormous power thus concentrated in their hands.

However, on closer examination, it can be seen that the most important leading personalities of ATTAC do not so much attack capitalism as a system, but rather the "globalisation" of this system, as expressed in the international exchange of goods and money. Poverty, inequality, social and economic instability, corruption, wars and all the other scourges of capitalism are blamed on "free trade" and "globalisation".

In a television programme in France (channel Arte) devoted to ATTAC broadcasted in March 1999, Ignacio Ramonet and Bernard Cassens who founded ATTAC and manage Le Monde Diplomatique, clearly explained that their policy was in no way designed to harm capitalism, but was on the contrary intended to "stabilise" the system by struggling against free-trade policies. In order to do this, they propose a whole series of taxes and tariff barriers according to various criteria, with the obvious aim of reducing trade and investment between the different regional "blocs" such as the European Union, North America, Latin America and Asia.

Two recently published articles particularly caught our attention, both of which advocate a protectionist policy, which, if it were to be officially adopted by the ATTAC leadership, would mark a serious step backwards for the association. In the article Let us invent together an altruistic protectionism, against the proliferation of world trade, by Bernard Cassens (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2000) the author proposes the imposition of taxes on exports according to a scale of points attributed to different countries according to the extent to which they respect human rights. The exports of one country to another, he says in substance, must be taxed in proportion to the difference between the number of points given to it and that given to the importing country. "Thus, writes Cassens, between two countries or common markets with the same scores, be they good or bad, no tax would be imposed. Between the European Union and China, they would no doubt be very high."

Cassens proposes that the United Nations Development Project, a department of the UNO, which is in turn dominated by the United States of America, should measure the performance of each country in terms of democracy and human rights. In practice, to be applied, these taxes would have to be approved by the most powerful countries, which point the finger at one country or another according to their own interests at a given moment in time. It is precisely the rich and "democratic" countries that are directly organising shortages and famine in a number of countries, such as Serbia or Iraq, for example. Do not European countries, of which France, give support to dictatorships throughout the world? The schema put forward by Cassens would have the overall effect of placing yet another weapon in the punitive arsenal of the great powers. In practice, it would mean penalising the exports from poor countries, which would in no way serve to improve the living conditions of the people who live in them.

A second article, written in this case by professor Jacques Berthelot, Agriculture, the real north-south debate, for protection and against export subsidies, (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2000), argues for a reduction in world trade by the setting up of protectionist barriers between the different regional "blocs". Europe is called upon to protect its internal market from "low-priced raw materials" coming from the outside. The author also advises the Mercusor countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) to take protectionist measures against Europe and the United States by the imposition of a "Latin American preference". Free trade policies and multilateral agreements are no problem for Berthelot as long as they are applied within each trading bloc, but he condemns such agreements made between countries belonging to different blocs, since these are an expression of "globalisation"!

The direct result of this protectionist policy would be a serious contraction of world trade, throwing the world economy into a particularly acute recession. Pour every protectionist measure installed, the countries on the losing end would carry out counter-measures. Deprived of external markets, many enterprises would collapse with widespread job losses as a result. The most powerful companies, and the multinationals in particular, would strive to reinforce their position on the home markets, where there would not be enough room for them all. Fusions and bankruptcies would follow on from one another, at the expense of workers and of the smaller enterprises, which would also suffer from a general rise in prices, which is another consequence of protectionism. The contraction of world trade would lead to an even more ferocious struggle for markets between the multinationals.

The protectionist spiral would take place at the expense of the weakest, dramatically worsening the plight of the peoples of the underdeveloped world. There is absolutely nothing "altruistic" about protectionism.

At the same time, the free trade policies imposed by the multinationals and by the major powers means disaster for the whole of humanity, and in particular for people in the underdeveloped world. However, far from resolving the concentration of capital and the growth of inequality, protectionism would only make matters worse. The cure is worse than the disease.

Contrary to the impression given by the media, "globalisation" is by no means a new phenomenon. From its very beginnings, the rise of capitalism was accomplished through the extension of its base beyond the frontiers of home markets towards external markets, creating an international division of labour and giving an international character to production. The entire world has been transformed into a single economic entity of which the various parts are indissolubly linked to one another. Did Marx and Engels not describe this very process in the Communist Manifesto written more than 150 years ago?

Capitalism has developed in a contradictory fashion. On the one hand, there is the contradiction between private property of the means of production and the collective, social, character of the productive process itself. One the other hand, there is the contradiction between the maintenance of the nation state and the international character of the economy. The attempt on the part of the capitalists to overcome these contradictions caused two world wars and numerous "small" wars in the course of the last century. No country, nor any "bloc" of countries can escape from the domination of the world market, which has become the dominant feature of our epoch.

Marx saw in the development of the world market and in the international division of labour a lever for human development in that this process was laying the material foundations for a society of abundance, a society which could henceforth become a reality provided that private property of the means of production was overthrown. This point of view is even more valid today than it was at the time of Marx, precisely because this process has gone much further than he could have imagined at the time.

The advocates of protectionism such as Cassens and Berthelot attack world trade, but ignore the question of capitalism. They want to reduce international trade and "bring producers and consumers closer together". They defend the notion of "community preference" for Europe and for Latin America. "It is necessary to urgently reduce the number of planes, trucks and merchant ships, and yet the very opposite is happening", writes Cassens. But since he rules out socialism, since he is for capitalism but against it's "globalisation", he has no alternative but to try and turn back the wheel of history, imagining that it is possible to dismantle the international division of labour and limit the exchange of goods to "local" markets. This is simply a reactionary utopia.

If "globalisation" does so much damage, it is not because people from the four corners of the world exchange the fruit of the labour, but because these exchanges are carried out in the interest of the capitalists and according to the criteria fixed by them. The immense productive resources developed to date by humanity could eradicate all forms of poverty. But these resources are in the hands of a shrinking class of wealthy property-owners. Under these conditions, the profitability of private capital is the decisive element in all economic activity. Why is the Brazilian rain forest being destroyed? Why are vaccines against illnesses not available in Africa? Why are social conditions getting worse? Because of "globalisation" or because of production for profit?

Protectionism and free trade policies are in reality two sides of the same capitalist exploitation. Neither one nor the other offers a way out for humanity. The revolutionary movements, which have begun in Indonesia, in South Korea, in Ecuador or in Iran, will not be accomplished under the sign of protectionism, no more than will the social movements underway in France. The "globalisation" of trade and the international character of the productive process are not scourges in and of themselves. On the contrary, the development of an international economy has prepared the basis for a paradise on earth, once it will have been freed from the grasp of the capitalists.