Is Trade Evil

Trade has become a sacred cow with no one questioning its costs. Even anti-globalization organizations do not argue against trade but argue for “fair trade”. In a world where economic power is so unbalanced can trade ever be fair.

Globalization is supposed to save the world and provide untold opportunities for the “third world” to develop. But has global trade ever served the interests of the “third world” or the working classes of the “first”/imperial/developed world.

The history of modern trade as we know it (beyond barter) begins with colonialism and in particular the British Empire. It started with luxury goods such as silks and spices and tropical fruits. It extended into what became basic, but not essential goods, such as coffee and tobacco.

One of the first impacts of this broader trade was the development of monoculture in the colonized “third world”, particularly in the form of coffee, tobacco and sugar cane. Agriculture in these countries was transformed from sustainable farming that fed the people to cash crops that provided money to colonial financial interests. Monoculture not only did not feed the people it also contributed to the decline of soil quality and greater susceptibility to drought. From there came the inevitable impoverishment of the “third world”, in particular Africa. Trade in drugs and slaves followed.

Fast forward to the current day.. Trade has gone way beyond trading what we can produce (and others cannot) for what they can produce (and we cannot) to where the developed world is dependant on imports from “third world” countries for basic goods such as food and clothing and even technology. These good are produced at below subsistence wages in dangerous slave-like conditions. This is called raising the standard of living of poor people. Meanwhile in the developed world unemployment is rampant, factories and whole towns are closing. This is called progress.

But the owners of “the means of production” are getting richer and richer. As our economies become more prosperous on paper the gap between the rich and the poor is at an historic high.

One of the major impacts of unnecessary trade (trading for goods that can be produced in the home market) is the additional costs of transportation. To offset that it becomes an absolute necessity of the system that the workers producing the goods be paid less than they could have been paid if they were selling into the local market. Because of the huge power differences between workers and owners in poor countries where there are no unions (and even talking to a union organizer, if there were any, would likely result in death) the gap is even greater than it needs to be.

But that does not mean that those of us in rich countries who buy the goods benefit. A lot of these goods are “designer” products that are heavily advertised with advertising and endorsement costs likely being more than production costs resulting in the consumer paying more to be convinced to but the product than he is paying for the cost of producing the product. Even after adding those costs, and transportation costs, there is lots of room for excess profits. Meanwhile we watch factories and towns close and our neighbours thrown out of work so we can pay excess prices for cheaply produced goods made by workers treated like slaves.

But this is only half the story. At a time when the very survival of the human race on the planet is threatened by global warming, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, we are transporting goods from the far corners of the world, rather than producing them at home, using tremendous amounts of energy that contribute to this crisis.

So what is the solution. It is an age old common sense principle that both right and left wingers can appreciate - community and self sufficiency, taking care of ourselves and our neighbours. The most efficient way of doing something is doing it yourself - taking care of yourself first so you are not dependent on others and building communities to take care of common needs.

It starts at the most basic level by feeding ourselves. In this day and age we cannot all be farmers but we can buy our food locally. Locally produced food, produced by farmers who own their land, provides more income to the farmers than mass produced food provides to factory farm labourers and is usually much more environmentally sustainable and does not include transportation costs, with its environmental impacts. We need to go beyond buying a few things at the local market - we need to rearrange our agricultural economy to encourage and support local agriculture.

We need to extend this to the basics of our economy. We need to rebuild an economy based on local industries producing the basics of life. We need to rebuild the economy of the local textile, footwear, furniture and electronics factories. We need to use local products in our building our homes, factories and locally owned stores (rather than chain stores where the profits go outside the community). Would it not be wonderful to know that the people who produce the basic things we use in our everyday life live in our communities and benefit from our purchases.

What cannot be done locally should be done regionally and what cannot be done regionally should be done nationally - always keeping the costs and benefits as close as possible to the local community.

That is not to say that there will not be a place for trade in our economy, for goods we cannot produce locally, but it should be a small part of economic life, not as the driving force of a global economy that only serves transnational corporations and the wealthy classes.

Some will call this a backwards step - fighting progress. But does the system we have now serve the community and the workers, or does it just serve the establishment, the owners of the “means of production”.

It does not take much to extrapolate the economic benefits of this economic community building to all facets of our community - from reduced poverty to safer communities.

Nor does it take much to extrapolate these same principles to the “third world” and the building of economic structures that serve local communities and people rather than global financial interests controlled by a few wealthy transnational corporations and individuals in the “overdeveloped” world.

We need to start building a global economy based on sustainable local communities. It may be the only way to prevent a global economic and environmental crisis. It may be the only way to prevent the “terrorism of desperation” that is a growing force in the world..

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