NAFTA and the Politics of Transformation
Corporations are creating educational systems that meet the goals of the 21st Century’s high-tech global capitalism. They only need a few highly educated workers. They intend to educate fewer people more, while educating far more people less. They work through national governments to pass laws and treaties to facilitate this.
A big step in that direction was taken when the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which took effect on January 1, 1994. Understanding the impact of NAFTA is a crucial part of preparing ourselves for what is to come.
Educators from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. formed the Trinational Coalition in Defense of Public Education, to oppose the degradation of public education from a right and a responsibility of government into “a service” that could be bought and sold on the market as a commodity: in essence, a corporatized form of profit-making property.
The teachers, parents, students and communities in North America, who have fought so valiantly against this social degradation, will continue to fight for a different vision of public education than the paltry and shriveled vision that capitalism trumpets: “get an education to get a good job.” A vision of public education as a right for all shows what is truly possible for society today. It’s time to raise this discussion in a broad way.
Since NAFTA was implemented, corporations have deeply penetrated public education across the hemisphere. The corporate agenda today is rapidly privatizing most of the functions of public education, as it turns this social right into a market that well exceeds a trillion dollars a year.
NAFTA at 20
NAFTA opened the communities and markets of Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to a flood of investment from financial institutions and transnational corporations. The treaty increased the flow of capital, profits, manufacturing and commodities across borders, but did not permit people to follow the jobs. The resulting economic effects have destroyed communities and people in each country.
It is well documented how Mexico’s small farmers suddenly had to compete with gigantic agribusiness corporations like Archer-Daniels Midland, which were heavily subsidized by U.S. farm bills. This corporation seized control of Mexico’s corn production, by selling corn cheaper than Mexican farmers could grow it. The dispossession of small farms drove millions into the cities to live in the streets, to labor in industry, and to cross the border to look for work. Between 1990 and 2008, the Mexican-born population of the U.S. went from 4.5 million to 12.67 million.
NAFTA is one of the ways that global capitalism creates the largest migration in human history; for the first time more people live in cities than in the countryside. Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today are part of a global new class of workers whose labor is exploited, but who lack civil, human and labor rights, and who today are concentrated in temporary, contingent and precarious work.
U.S. corporations responded to NAFTA by closing U.S. plants and moving jobs to exploit the cheaper labor of Mexico, China, and other countries. Simply due to trade deficits with Mexico, the U.S. eliminated 682,900 jobs, 60.8% of these in manufacturing.
Though manufacturing certainly moved across borders, the advent of labor-less production from human jobs to robot jobs caused the real transition from regular jobs to temp jobs supported by high technology. Many of the families dispossessed from the fields wound up working in far smaller numbers in these fields again, for corporations employing technology that only corporations can afford.
Such plant closings that eliminated jobs created an internal migration in the U.S. from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, from regular jobs to temp jobs, from homes to living on the street. The migration is larger than the 1930’s Dust Bowl. These workers are part of a new class, increasingly victims of a growing police state. Once again history shows that a society that brands some people as “others,” or outsiders, finds that anyone can be stripped of all rights. In Canada, against standards demanded by the public, NAFTA-inspired legislation radically reduced the governmental powers of provinces to restrict pernicious corporate penetration that increases labor mobility.
The number of people employed in manufacturing globally fell dramatically, replaced by robots and software. The multinational electronics contract manufacturing giant Foxconn, which employs over a million workers in China alone, has already brought tens of thousands of robots on line to replace its human workers and has plans to replace almost all its workers with robots. In the auto factories of India, only highly skilled workers are permitted to work a 40 hour week. Unskilled workers are temp workers and are hired on contingent contracts.
Into the Future
Capitalism has always configured public education to support the labor market, thereby shifting the costs of training the workforce onto society. Corporations require an educational system that supports both poles of the labor market. Educational technology, like any technology, is just a system of tools. As private property, it is distorted to guarantee private profit, thereby reinforcing the polarization of society. As public property it could be employed for the benefit of all.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) could be a wonderful way to provide access to quality education, by combining the best of online video with real interactions with live faculty. Some examples exist today, but MOOCs are generally configured by corporations for their own benefit.
In 2011 Sebastian Thrun put his graduate-level class in artificial intelligence at Stanford on-line as a free MOOC. Over 160,000 people worldwide took the course; many tens of thousands completed all the work. The top student at Stanford finished 411th. Thrun crowed, “We just found over 400 people in the world who outperformed the top Stanford student.”
Meanwhile, twenty miles away, San Jose State, a public university, tried out MOOC courses for remedial math. Only 23% passed the first semester, and about 29% the next. Thrun’s explanation was “we have a bad product.” This corruption of public education is the result of private ownership of technology as property; it is not inherent in technology itself.
U.S. corporations still spend billions on training, but they are also cutting apprenticeship programs, which have dropped 40% since 2008. On-the-job training programs are vanishing, as corporations shift the training burden on to community colleges and society. Workers themselves are forced to become debt slaves by financing their own training. This is the inevitable predatory result when education as a social right becomes replaced by “consumer rights.”
As productivity and corporate profits continue to skyrocket due to electronic technology, the oversupply of skilled and unskilled workers likewise increases. It’s not workers that are lacking; it’s the work. Every community can identify plenty of things that need to be done to benefit people, but corporations will not permit them to be “jobs” because they produce no profit.
The Politics of Transformation
Corporations demand new skills: developing ideas from data, identifying large-picture patterns and complex communication that uses many forms of technology. These skills are best taught by human beings in small well-supported learning environments. They will be reserved for the elite pole of the workforce, but these skills are essential for everyone in a society that is bursting with transformation.
Everyone knows that the resources children need to unleash their individual potential are abundant, inexpensive, and can be easily made available everywhere. But in a desperately unequal society, abundant resources are only distributed according to the needs of capitalism. When the necessities of life are potentially abundant, capitalism has no choice but to enforce scarcity in order to create markets.
As the technological revolution destroys the old industrial society, most working class people hope to somehow “fight back” and return to the mythical good old days. But corporations are “fighting forward” into a new hi-tech global capitalism, that sacrifices our future for theirs. The transformation of society is not reversible, but it can be seized and directed towards the benefit of humanity and the survival of the planet.
The Chicago Teachers strike of 2012 indicated that the material conditions of transformation are passing over into the actual political process. Working together, both the union and the community gained important practical experience of the power that can be exercised when people come together. This indicates the enormous potential working people have to collaborate and transform all of society in their interests.
NAFTA was written by corporations, but it was implemented by the States of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. In every country the State steps in to block every attempt of people to control the corporations. The State therefore becomes the point of contention. Taking the offensive demands a political battle for power.
Last year Mexico’s President, Pena Nieto, forced changes to the Mexican Constitution that had guaranteed quality public education, eviscerating education funding and replacing the right to a decent day’s pay with the right to a temp job. Tens of thousands of teachers joined other workers in blocking Mexico City to pressure the State. In Quebec, when government at the behest of corporations doubled the fees for higher education, the people fought the State for months and forced a reversal. In Chile, where all higher education is privatized, students passed over to the offensive to fight for free, open public education and escalated the issue to bring down the president.
The future will be either all private and corporate, or it will be all public and free. Humanity stands on the threshold. The people now alive will make this determination. The magnificent vision — that public education can raise all humans to their full potential — contains the embryo of the future.
Today corporations and States are preparing the Trans Pacific Partnership to extend, among other things, the corporatization and privatization of public education across the Pacific basin. Corporations will relentlessly strive to impose this new order. The challenge of the TPP is that it forces the working class of every country to confront the capitalist power behind the treaty, while dealing with the States that are implementing it.
As we fight for public and free education for all, we must also consider how to take power out of the hands of the corporations. The role of revolutionaries is to provide the ideas that show the real cause of society’s destruction, and thus to reveal how far this battle can really go.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011