The Third Doctrine: Capitalism

Capitalism is Western journalism’s best-kept secret.

There are vivid and explicit connections between global trade, human-made global warming, global capitalism, social and gang violence, so-called “climate refugees,” population displacement and more. It is today more than evident that we cannot amputate environmental consequences from trade and economic policies, the question of displacement and refugees from the theft of land, the destruction of agricultural worlds, migrants from the wars we wage or destruction of farming from dams and the construction of factories and sweatshops.

But, this is precisely the amputation we witness in how US media covers the consequences of US capitalist practices and policies. Journalists disappear capitalism’s role in environmental destruction, poverty, economic inequality, social violence, migration, famine, droughts, and soil erosion. And war. They instead offer us these issues as separate, unrelated, and apart. More often than not, a nation’s poverty, growing social unrest and violence, rising migration, and political chaos are never associated with economic policies and priorities enforced by powerful transnational actors such as the WTO, the World Bank, or the IMF.

Let’s take the issue of Central American and Mexican migration to the US. This story has been on the front pages of the newspapers, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, who used racist and derogatory language to make migrants one of the most important election issues in 2016. The news media covered this issue from as many angles as possible, including architecture (the wall, size, shape, design), legislative, legal, criminal, immigration, racism, and humanitarian. But what was left unsaid was that the migrants from Mexico and further south, as far as El Salvador, Honduras, and beyond, are products of US and Mexican economic and trade policies that have destroyed livelihoods and reduced millions to poverty and flight. And yet, these are never at the centre of articles about migrants, migration, borders and fences.

Media coverage of the hundreds of thousands of Central Asian and Mexican migrants who attempt to make their way into the USA each year has been near hysterical, sensations, fear-mongering, paranoid, racist, and perhaps most egregiously misleading. American media has most often framed the issue of migrants through a narrow, simplistic, and frankly dehumanizing frame that presents migrants and refugees as seeking “a better life,” jobs, or leaving their homes and cities because of “gang violence” or “crime.” [For example, see: Michael D. Shear, Miriam Jordan and Manny Fernandez, “The US Immigration System May Have Reached a Breaking Point,” New York Times, April 10, 2019; Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti, “US has Hit ‘Breaking Point’ at Border Amid Immigration Surge, Customs and Border Protection Chief Says,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2019; Neil Collier, Emily Rhyne and Ainara Tiefenthäler, “A Day on the Road With the Migrant Caravan,” New York Times, October 26, 2018; James Fredrick, “One Family Shares Why They Joined The Migrant Caravan And Their Challenges,” NPR: All Things Considered, November 22, 2018;].

What is left unaddressed is that trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have ruined local economies in countries like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia. These trade policies opened the door to highly subsidized US agribusiness conglomerates, immediately flooding the markets with their products. Millions were bankrupted, and local agriculture was destroyed, forcing millions off their lands and pushing them towards the city and its teeming slums.

Perhaps Mexico’s most significant population exodus directly results from “agricultural liberalization” policies. [Gerardo Otero, “Neoliberal Globalization, NAFTA, and Migration: Mexico’s Loss of Food and Labor Sovereignty,” Journal of Poverty, 15:4, 2011:384-402]. There is no easier way to understand that the migrant crisis is a capitalism crisis. Even the opening statement of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) piece, “One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap US corn.” [Karen Hansen-Kuhn, “NAFTA and US farmers—20 years later,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Nov 22, 2013]. It may be the most straightforward story, but it seemed not to have caught the media’s attention.

The other straightforward story is that NAFTA is designed to exploit lower-cost labour in Mexico. Cheap labour-displaced, unemployed people without options do not grow on trees but must be created. As John Berger long wrote:

Migrant workers come from underdeveloped economies. The term “underdeveloped” has caused diplomatic embarrassment. The word “developing” has been substituted. “Developing” as distinct from “developed”…An economy is underdeveloped because of what is being done around it, within it and to it. There are agencies which under-develop [John Berger, A Seventh Man, Verso Books, 2010 (1975): 25].

Similar chaos has resulted because of CAFTA. The Northern Triangle–Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador–have become so dangerous and violent that hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee, including children, towards the USA for safety. [Héctor Perla Jr., “The Impact of CAFTA: Drugs, Gangs, and Immigration,” TeleSur, March 1, 2016]. [Joseph R. Biden Jr., “A Plan for Central America,” New York Times, January 20, 2015]. Throughout this exodus, the US has continued to provide support, military and political, to dictatorships, coups, and military juntas in the region. [Belen Fernandez, “The Biden Plan for Central America: Militarised Neoliberal Hell,” Al Jazeera, November 18, 2020].

Joe Biden’s ironically named “Alliance for Prosperity” plan for aid and improving “security” in counties like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador called for these governments to work closely with the US and “international financial institutions and the private sector.” [Joseph R. Biden Jr., “A Plan for Central America,” New York Times, January 20, 2015]. Lost to America’s new President-elect was that the US, international finance, and the private sector were precisely the three forces that were tearing apart the people’s lives in these countries and leaving them with severe insecurity and fear for their lives—and ultimately, heading towards the US border.

There is a relationship between signing trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA and US financial, military, and diplomatic support for authoritarian regimes in the region. These regimes facilitate and benefit from capitalist extraction and profiteering. When the media differentiates between “economic migrants” and “war refugees,” denigrating the former as illegitimate while expressing sympathy for the latter, they operate with fictitious categories. They create the impression that economics, trade, and war are unrelated. Perhaps they might understand better if they paid attention to the two lawsuits filed by US mining companies under NAFTA that threatened Mexico with a bill of nearly $4 billion. These lawsuits are designed to break the back of environmental legislation and community organizations holding up mining projects. [Manuel Perez Rocha and Jen Moore, “Extraction Casino,” Institute for Policy Studies, April 2019].

Global capitalism undoes national sovereignty. Supranational regulatory institutions like the WTO, OXFAM and others directly impact national economies and influence the management of people’s welfare. International agreements in transnational governance regulate everything from trade and labour policies to the environment, endangered species, development, violence, and human rights. National sovereignty is increasingly divided and franchised to transnational organizations, NGOs and private sector players. [Akhil Gupta & Aradhana Sharma, “Globalization and Postcolonial States”, Current Anthropology Volume 47, Number 2, April 2006].

The impact of such powerful transnational forces today is even more significant and has fundamentally affected the political and economic sovereignty of the nations of the global south. Achille Mbembe, speaking about the power of institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), argued;

The tutelage of international creditors was considerably strengthened and now involves a range of direct interventions in domestic economic management, credit control, implementing privatizations, laying down consumption requirements, determining import policies, agricultural programs and cutting costs–or even direct control of the treasury. [Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001:70–78].

The consequence for national political decision-making, regional conflict resolution, social and cultural life, and community has been significant. The state’s power to operate the nation-state has diminished, and it no longer has the financial means or even the administrative ability to resolve the political and economic crisis. There is today, Mbembe continues, a “direct link…between, on the one hand, deregulation and the primacy of the market and, on the other, the rise of violence and the creation of military, paramilitary, or jurisdictional organizations.” [Achille Mbembe, On The Postcolony, University of California Press, 2001:70–78]. Journalists often use the tactic to deflect or disappear these transnational forces–many resulting from colonial-era arrangements and power hegemonies–to write about countries as discrete, isolated units encapsulated within clear and explicit juridical and geographical boundaries.

US journalists prefer to represent and understand nations as social anthropologist Ernest Gellner did, as “discrete, ethnological units unambiguously segmented on the ground, thereby naturalizing them along a spatial axis.” [Liisa Malkki, “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and The Territorialisation of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees”, Cultural Anthropology, February 1992, Vol.7(1), pp.24-44].

This habit reduces complex stories to shallow humanitarian and human rights narratives for convenient consumption. They omit the hard questions and reduce people to apathy, helplessness, victimhood, and damage. It reduces complex lives, histories, memories, motivations, desires, and dreams into one of many forms of “contemporary pathologization,” including refugees, asylum seekers, war victims, and the poor. And it limits their speech and their role in the narratives written about them. They are silenced as whole human beings and allowed to voice only as dependents to Western generosity and concern.