The “Conspiracy” Of Free Trade

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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Free trade is a generalization that is often confounded by its own reality. Governments, formed of different regime types, and ideological fervor, can only remain in power if they respond to the interest of the masses. No governments can afford to ignore the interest of the people completely; including dictatorship. At some point, they are obliged to respond to the aspirations, invariably, also the frustrations of the masses. This implies an attitude that both rejects and accepts free trade at the same time, but in myriad forms. Free trade, in this sense, is akin to flea trade. The government will pick and choose on the industries that it can liberalize, or, can’t, due to their vested interest, or, the back-lash from the voters.

The “Conspiracy of Free Trade” is an excellent work in the sense that it can actually delve into the twists and turns of the concept across the divide of the United States and United Kingdom, with the overarching concern on how each tried to protect their industries, while concurrently, score quick gains from the being the first to benefit from bigger share of the global markets. No one, for example, has paid much attention to Friedrich List. Many have attributed free trade to the ideas of David Ricardo and Adam Smith. But it was List who argued that certain infant industries have to be protected first before the gates of free trade are swung wide open to allow them to enjoy some low tariffs. Even then, one has yet to consider non-tariff barriers in the equation.

Dr. Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter in United Kingdom. He specializes in the intersection of British and American imperialism within the broader history of globalization since the 1800s. Among a crowded field, his commentary on historical and contemporary global affairs has appeared in the New York Times, the Australian, History Today, Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Globalist Magazine, the History News Network, History and Policy, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Common Dreams.

He is the co-founder of Global Economics and History Forum. He is also the founding editor of the Imperial and Global Forum, the blog of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter, traditionally a university that is strong in Islamic, Middle East and Arabic Studies, even policing and criminology. That much for the author’s academic background. Now it is key to understand at which historical juncture did he write from.

Following the Second World War, the United States did become the leading ‘neoliberal’ proponent of international trade liberalization. Yet for nearly a century before, American foreign trade policy was dominated by extreme economic nationalism. What brought about this pronounced ideological, political, and economic about-face? How did it affect Anglo-American imperialism? What were the repercussions of the global capitalist order? In answering these questions, “The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade” offers the first detailed account of the controversial Anglo-American struggle over the empire and economic globalization in the mid- to late-nineteenth century of almost the entire globe.

The book reinterprets Anglo-American imperialism through the global interplay between Victorian free-trade cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism, uncovering how imperial expansion and economic integration were mired in political and ideological conflict. Beginning in the 1840s, this conspiratorial struggle over the political economy would rip apart the Republican Party, reshape the Democratic Party, and redirect Anglo-American imperial expansion for decades to come.

This book is remarkable in the sense that it was able to go into the roots of both the Democratic and Republican Party in the United States. It also explored the ideological views of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who starting from the 1930s, had begun to urge the United States to go “global”. The results of that clarion call are clear to see for all, an America astride the world; but also an America that is often sucked into numerous conflicts when its imperial imprints become too big and large. Invariably, an an America that is not insulated from the pandemic as well. But the beauty of this book also lies in its excellent bibliography. There is actually a bevy of scholars who have warned about the dangers of globalization. Anyone keen to look into other works along the same theme, can use this book as a primer.

However, the question confronting many is no longer globalization, however, but Sino-US decoupling as they go at each other to reassert the independence of their supply-chains, with China enjoying an advantage, as many industries of the West had prior to the pandemic been located in China anyway.

Be that as it may, the global economy is driven by algorithm, analysis of big data, artificial intelligence and automation, all of which are concurrent to globalization. Jobs will be lost permanently, up to one, perhaps two third of them across the European Union (EU) alone. In the United States, where their industries have been battered by the pandemic, the work force is bound to change forever. All these negative reversals of free trade, will lead to more frustrations. They will be projected on the back of misogynistic and xenophobic sentiments too. President Donald Trump who won the 2016 election on the basis of these grievances, which Hilary Clinton called the “basket of deplorables”, a sharp lament that probably cost her the presidency, will tap into the frustrations of these voters time and again. Free trade, in this sense, is nothing less than managed trade, subject to huge elements of manipulation from the top of the political echelon and the leading players in the market.



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