Trans-Pacific Partnership versus National Sovereignty: A False Dilemma

Glen T. Martin


We are faced here with a terrifying false dilemma because we refuse to recognize the bigger picture that includes the history of capitalism in relation to the system of sovereign nation-states. In the past several decades, the globalization inherent in capitalism has gone off the charts in its drive to colonize the entire world economy in the service of private corporate profits for the 1% who own and control these corporations.

Scholars commonly define “globalization” as “a multifaceted process that includes foreign investment, information exchange, and world cultural commercialization, as well as integration of trade and production” [1]. Karl Marx himself had characterized capitalism as having an intrinsic necessity to expand, turning everything, all things and relationships, into mere commodities in the service of private profit [2].  James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer conclude that “globalization grew out of the barrel of a gun—a gun wielded, pointed and fired by the imperial state”[3].

The facts have long been known, for example, concerning the negative effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on jobs, democracy, and the environment, and the immense benefit for the tiny elite who run multinational corporations involved. In its April 2015 bulletin, Public Citizen summarizes these effects and the clauses in the agreement that underlies them [4]. The coming Trans-Pacific Partnership only intensifies the conditions that privilege the controlling investors in multinational corporations and limit the ability of environmental, labor, or democratic institutions within those nations party to the agreement from having any significant impact on the profit margins of the corporations.

Ideologues of globalization declare that new levels of “governance” are emerging for the world beyond those of sovereign nation-states. Indeed, as with NAFTA, the TPP will have secret courts whose job it is to protect the profit margins of multinational corporations from interference by laws or any possible democratic processes of those nations subject to the treaty.

In a February 25 Washington Post article, Senator Elizabeth Warren describes this situation: “One strong hint is buried in the fine print of the closely guarded draft. The provision, an increasingly common feature of trade agreements, is called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement,” or ISDS. The name may sound mild, but don’t be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.”

This concept of “U.S. sovereignty,” however, is very deceptive.  Are the people sovereign, as Jeffersonian social contract theory has it, or is government power sovereign—a power that represents, and has always represented, the capitalist ruling class?  Marx had long ago pointed out that “political democracy” was only a façade without economic democracy. And the perpetual struggles of ordinary people for some modicum of rights (labor rights, pension rights, health-care rights, women’s rights, environmental rights, etc.) has been revealed to be a mockery since at least the time of the Ronald Reagan administration in which the immense wealth of capital began the counter-assault to rollback whatever had been achieved under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is in the nature of big capital to roll back every institutional protection that limits its capacity to maximize profits. This imperative is intrinsic to the capitalist system itself.

This is also true worldwide, since global capital is transnational, in effect penetrating every corner of the Earth. As Michel Chossudovsky puts it: “Under these conditions, the practice of democracy in the developed countries has also become a ritual. No policy alternative is offered to the electorate. As in a one-party state, the results of the ballot have virtually no impact on the actual conduct of state economic and social policy. In turn, the state under the neoliberal policy agenda has become increasingly repressive in curbing the democratic rights of its citizens” [5].

However, Chossudovsky is mistaken to claim that democracy has “become” a ritual. As Marx pointed out so well, under class society, democracy cannot be anything but a ritual, a way of placating the population and maintaining their loyalty through cultivating false hope that something might seriously change for the better, while government in reality continues to serve ruling class interests behind the scenes. For this to happen successfully, nation-states need a professional class of propagandists and liars (politicians and corporate media) who let the people believe they are being represented while at the same time they serve the interests of big capital. President Obama, charming promoter of the TPP and ruling class interests, is the ultimate con man.

Real struggle certainly exists, and partial victories for ordinary people are possible, but a true victory is ultimately impossible in the absence of substantial economic democracy. As Immanuel Wallerstein expresses this: “All known historical systems have also had to hold in line large masses of the population who are materially and socially ill-rewarded. The usual way to do the latter has been a combination of force and faith—faith in the sanctity of rulers combined with belief in the inevitability of hierarchy” [6].

What Elizabeth Warren (and many so-called “progressive” writers) misses when she states that the TPP will erode national sovereignty is that the system of sovereign nation-states is integral to the advance of big capital in dominating the world in the service of private wealth extraction for the 1%.  As social-scientist Christopher Chase-Dunn concludes: “The state and the interstate system are not separate from capitalism, but are rather the main institutional supports of capitalist production relations. The system of unequally powerful and competing nation states is part of the competitive struggle of capitalism, and thus wars and geopolitics are a systematic part of capitalist dynamics, not exogenous forces”[7].

The endless wars of the imperial nations of North America and Europe are not accidents of random historical forces. They are integral to fostering the interests of global capital, competitively diminishing the ability of competing nation-states (such as Russia or China) to promote their ruling class interests, and securing markets and client states complicit in the exploitation of resources and cheap labor worldwide. As Petras and Veltmeyer conclude: “It is impossible to conceive of the expansion and deepening involvement of multinational banks and corporations without the prior political, military and economic intervention of the nation-state” [8].

Our conceptual problem is that we lack a truly global perspective on the world system as organized in the service of economic and political domination. And we lack a corresponding insight into its possibilities for transformation in the service of human liberation. As Chase-Dunn puts this, we lack “a ‘utopian’ goal against which to organize criticism and more importantly, to direct progress.” This has led “erstwhile progressives and leftish intellectuals into nihilism and endless relativism” [9].

Such a goal, which is both practical and “utopian,” is provided by the Constitution for the Federation of Earth [10].  It alone recognizes the people of Earth as sovereign. Human rights and dignity, after all, are universal and not predicated on arbitrary territorial boundaries.  As Emery Reves pointed out in 1946, this is the only legitimate sovereignty.  False territorial sovereignty pretends that the people of some particular nation are sovereign to the exclusion of the rest of humanity, their rights and dignity [11].  It is human beings who are sovereign and who have the right to flourish in equality, dignity, and security, not the people of this or that territorial segment.

It is, of course, correct to fight against passage of the TPP, but it is foolish to think that defending the sovereignty of one’s nation will ultimately win the battle against the capitalist system, or that it can end war, or protect our planetary environment. This is a battle that cannot be won through the sovereign nation-state system since that very system is at the heart of capitalism, war, and environmental degradation. 

The only route to democracy and freedom for humankind is for the people of Earth to use their legitimate authority through an Earth Constitution and a World Parliament that legislates a decent system of property rights laws and ensures genuine public banking on behalf of every citizen of the Earth.  These features are built into the Earth Constitution from the very beginning. It posits a system of reasonable economic equality, global environmental protection, disarmament, and fundamental democratic freedoms for everyone.  This document can and should serve as the “utopian goal” for progressives: making possible both a standard of criticism of the current system and a vision of how things could genuinely be different.

Both globalization, as represented by the TPP, AND the system of sovereign nation-states constitute our problem.  It is not one versus the other. It is a matter of having the courage and vision to realize that the entire world system is broken through the inseparable interface of the system of competitive territorial nation-states and the emerging global ruling class. The 1% need this fragmented system of nations to keep humanity disunited and divided in order to continue consolidation of their power over the entire globe. 

They can only be defeated by a legitimate global power bigger than they are: the united sovereign authority of the people of Earth. Let’s put the 1% in jail where they belong, along with the heads of sovereign nation-states who are their lackey’s and spokespersons. Let us use the Earth Constitution as our conceptual weapon, our ideal standard, and our ultimate goal.


[1]  Boswell, Terry and Chase-Dunn, Christopher, The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000, p. 33.

[2]  Capital, Vol. I, Part I, sect. 4.

[3]  Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. Zed Books, 2005, p. 14.


[5]  The Globalization of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms. Zed Books, 1999, p. 25.

[6]  Historical Capitalism. Verso, 1983, pp. 147-48.

[7]  Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy. Roman & Littlefield, 1998, p. 61.

[8]  Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century. Zen Books, 2001, p. 54.

[9]  Boswell and Chase-Dunn, op. cit. p. 9.


[11]  The Anatomy of Peace. Harper & Brothers, 1946.