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The Coming Fight Over Free Trade

June 21, 1998|Robert L. Borosage | Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future

WASHINGTON — 'To worship the market is a form of idolatry no less than worshiping the state." Sound like Jesse Jackson? Perhaps, but it is from "The Great Betrayal," the recent assault on global capitalism by Patrick J. Buchanan, Reaganite stalwart. "The truth is that free markets are creatures of state power and persist only so long as the state is able to prevent human needs for security and the control of economic risk from finding political expression." Excerpts of a Ralph Nader commencement address? No, from "False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism," by John Gray, British Thatcherite and leader of Britain's new right.

"Mr. Chairman I urge you to revoke China's MFN [most favored nation] trade privileges. I do not believe that we are the moneybag democracy Beijing has contemptuously called us. I believe we can act to defend our people, our honor and our interests." House Minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) catering to the unions? No, Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, and potential new-right contender for the GOP presidential nomination.

As pundits celebrate the triumph of global capitalism, a populist rejection of what Gray calls "the Washington consensus" is gathering on the right. With the contradictions between free markets and strong families, between global corporations and love of country growing increasingly stark, more and more conservatives are questioning the laissez-faire corporate globalism that has enjoyed bipartisan support for two decades.

Only a minority of conservatives have thus far embraced this new-right rejection. But its potential to transform our politics is already seen in the Congress, where the corporate trade agenda has been stalled by an uneasy coalition of new-right activists and progressive workers, consumer and environmental movements. As Buchanan and Gray show, the power of the conservative critique of globalism is likely to attract even greater support.

In "The Great Betrayal," Buchanan scorns the globalist project touted by President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as an idolatrous "first cousin to Marxism." For Gray, laissez-faire globalism is, like communism, a false utopia, sharing "their cult of reason and efficiency, their ignorance of history and their contempt for the ways of life they consign to poverty and extinction."

Buchanan and Gray focus on the new right's core concern: the disintegration of the American family. The entire conservative galaxy--the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition, Empower America--recites what William J. Bennett packaged as the "leading cultural indicators of America": divorce, out-of-wedlock childbirth, crime, drug use, delinquency. The "de-moralization of society," as Gertrude Himmelfarb put it, is the staple of conservative rhetoric.

Yet, conservatives have been risible in their attempts to locate the cause of social disintegration. Most blame the poverty programs of the Great Society and the cultural upheavals of the '60s. But as decades pass, that grows less and less convincing. Bennett sporadically turns his attention to the decadence of the media, but has no explanation for why the most stable industrial society, Japan, coexists with the most blood-curdling media. The Heritage Foundation makes "the breakdown of the American family" a central chapter in its Issues 98 candidates briefing book, but is at a virtual loss about cause or solution. Clinton's repeal of a Ronald Reagan executive order on the family gets top blame. Tax cuts, school vouchers and privatization of Social Security are offered as key 1999 reforms.

Buchanan and Gray dismiss this cant. For them, the global free market is the central cause of disintegration. "In the United States," Gray writes, "free markets have contributed to social breakdown on a scale unknown in any other developed country. Families are weaker in America than in any other country. At the same time, social order has been propped up by a policy of mass incarceration . . . . Levels of inequality resemble those of Latin American countries more than those of any European society."

"Broken homes, uprooted families, vanished dreams, delinquency, vandalism, crime," Buchanan writes, "these are the hidden costs of free trade. And if not families and neighborhoods, what in heavens name is it that we conservatives wish to conserve?"

They expose the dirty little secret of free markets. The global market, they argue, does not grow organically from society. Its imposition requires the exercise of concerted, centralized state power, in service of powerful private interests, shielded from democratic controls or social constraints.

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