Despite the opulence of large companies, their indecent volume of profits, and the impunity with which they operate, the capitalism in which they are involved is also in crisis. A crisis mediated by the greatest challenge it has faced in its history: maintaining the logic of accumulating a huge surplus, on a horizon of low economic growth and a reduction in the material and energy base.
We are witnessing a particularly uncertain moment. Can capitalism overcome its contradictions and promote a new expansive long wave? Will it give way to a corporate and eco-fascist neofeudalism, in the hands of big tech companies? Will we be able to position emancipatory and sustainable models of life? Although the answers to these questions remain open, we can assure you that capitalism will do the unspeakable to continue reproducing itself, updating its project to try to get out of the current quagmire.
A project of capitalism of the 21st century characterized by launching a very virulent offensive of commercialization on a global scale: nothing can be left out of the action radius of the businesses of large companies. For this, economic, political and cultural transformations are foreshadowed, from a comprehensive approach. In the economic sphere, the commitment to the fourth industrial revolution (4RI) of digitization and artificial intelligence is combined, with the search for new sectors of reproduction of capital and of maximum extraction of the profit from work and finances. Politically, it is intended to impose a kind of global constitution in favor of transnational companies —converted into a de facto government—, while the States are limited in their capacities to deregulate rights and security. And in the cultural, increasingly violent and reactionary stories are assumed, while the public and the common are diluted in the primacy of the private and the corporate. That everything changes so that nothing changes.
Towards a de facto government of large companies
The new wave of trade agreements is one of the milestones of 21st century capitalism. If in the 1990s the global commercialization attempt represented by the WTO and the MAI failed, after the financial explosion of 2008 a new offensive is launched; this time, more gradual and based primarily on bilateral and regional agreements as a starting point. CETA, TISA, TTIP ... are just some of the most outstanding initiatives of this new wave which, under another strategy, pursues the same objective as the previous one: to generate a self-regulated market, in which multinationals act autonomously, and at the same time ultra-regulated to avoid any sectoral, geographical and political obstacle to the economic flow.
Trade treaties pay tribute to this self-regulated market, positioning a global economic constitution at the top of the law. We are talking about a constitution, although it does not have a specific article or a single text, nor does it of course have a process of submission to popular endorsement. But its objective is the same as those pursued by these types of documents: to set norms that limit the political debate, to define the framework of what is possible based on a series of political-legal priorities. That is the goal, a new framework of the possible that will definitely promote and shield capitalist commodification and corporate hegemony on a world scale.
The new treaties would thus become the articulation (dispersed, ambiguous, dynamic) of this corporate charter, which shields the commercializing offensive through four complementary channels:
Expanding the definition of international trade, now including investment, services, finance, natural goods, public procurement, digital trade, innovation, competitiveness, etc.
Positioning as a table of corporate commandments a series of values of great enforceability, justiciability and capacity for coercion on a global scale: unfettered market access for large companies, primacy of investments over the popular mandate, normative harmonization in rights Multilateral interference in government decisions, impossibility of reversing commercialization processes.
Adding new regional and multilateral structures to those that already exist in favor of corporate power, with the specific task of influencing towards regulatory convergence; that is, advancing in the deregulation of environmental, economic, social and labor regulations.
Expanding the radius of action of a privatized justice in defense of foreign investment and under the aegis of corporate injunctions, imposing arbitration tribunals on a world scale where only companies denounce the States.
Therefore, the de facto government of large companies is imposed, protected by a constitution, a regulatory procedure and a justice system.ad hoc. Capital shows its incompatibility with democracy, relegated to the formality of managing disposable crumbs for the market. Could this economic-political-cultural proposal be sustainable?
Treaties and ecological collapse
The official account offers us a promise horizon linked to the expansion of trade and the 4RI, which supposedly would bring us closer to a more collaborative and decentralized economy, in turn efficient and effective in the use of materials and energy. All of this within the framework of an expansive wave of sustained economic growth. But there is no data to corroborate this: there have been no significant increases in productivity, a necessary condition to promote an expansionary phase; the radius of action of the “new economy” has not yet managed to exceed the scope of consumer services; the centralization and concentration of capital have not only not been reduced, but the figure of the “corporate champions” - unique companies in their sector on a global scale - such as multinationals has been substantiatedbig tech.
In addition, the dematerialization and decarbonization of the economy are evidenced as simple siren songs, which pale before the ecological dystopia offered by the new offensive led by trade agreements. Faced with the capitalist and digital probe balloon, we are clearly presented with a scenario marked by the deepening of climate change, by the growing imbalance between demand and the available energy-material base, by the deepening of socio-environmental conflicts and by the amputation of the institutional capacities to promote alternative and transition policies, which are so urgent and necessary.
Regarding climate change, the treaties would blow up international goals through a double track. On the one hand, by strengthening agribusiness as a hegemonic model - something evident in the case of CETA or the EU-Mercosur agreement, for example - which is one of the main emitters of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On the other hand, favoring the extraction of oil, gas and coal by shielding their commercialization - as reflected in the CETA with Canadian heavy oils, or in the leaked documents of the TISA on energy services -, when the International Agency itself de la Energía (IEA) argues that two thirds of current deposits should remain underground to achieve international goals.
At the same time, the very relative reduction in the use of materials and energy that a more digitized economy could lead to, would not compensate even minimally for the increase associated with the expansion of the capitalist market on a global scale. The IEA predicts that by 2050 the demand for energy will triple, while the pressure on other finite materials linked to this 4RI increases. As Silvia Ribeiro has written, the “invisible” digital economy will need a gigantic amount of energy and materials to manage all the data forecast for 2025, roughly equivalent to two high-capacity hard drives for every person on the planet.
We are therefore witnessing a deepening of carbonization —complemented with the offensive on renewables from “green capitalism”, without altering the hegemonic matrix— and in the materialization of the economy, in the context of runaway climate change. Conflicts of environmental origin proliferate, to the point that they become 70% of the current ones according to the United Nations, in a political framework in which the corporate charter on the democratic search for the common good also prevails. Its full implementation would prevent the promotion of transition policies towards sustainable life models, which would suffer the threat and permanent intimidation of corporate orders, regulatory convergence structures and arbitration courts.
An accelerated collapse, in short, with an amputation of the capacities to face it. A capitalist model in which trade agreements, as we have seen, demonstrate their incompatibility with democracy and sustainability. A dilemma for the times to come: capital or life.
By Gonzalo Fernández Ortiz de Zárate
Researcher at the Observatory of Multinationals in Latin America (OMAL) - Peace with Dignity.