In the wake of the accelerating trade war between US and China, ministers of ASEAN countries urged for the swift completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Ministers of all these countries were unanimous in touting the RCEP as the one-stop solution to the growing protectionism which in their opinion was the biggest threat to the region’s prosperity.
Maybe one should stop here and ask the question: what is RCEP? This question will enable us to answer the basic question pertaining to the nature of our democracies. For, although this Free Trade Deal (FTA) is the largest FTA as it covers almost half the world’s population (it includes 16 nation states: 10 ASEAN countries plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand), no official documents of the negotiations, which began way back in 2012, have been made public. More importantly, as the website bilaterals (a treasure trove of information regarding RCEP) notes:
In fact, civil society groups were completely shut out of the 22nd negotiation round in Singapore in March 2018 while transnational corporations were invited for a business dialogue.
So what does it tell about our democracies? In his On Belief, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek asks an important question pertaining to democracy, which might be of some help for us here. For him, owing to its predominant use, democracy has increasingly become discredited and should be abandoned to the enemy. Important for our concerns are his questions pertaining to democracy itself:
Where, how, by whom are the key decisions concerning global social issues made? Are they made in the public space, through the engaged participation of the majority? If the answer is yes, it is of secondary importance if the state has a one-party system, etc. If the answer is no, it is of secondary importance if we have parliamentary democracy and freedom of individual choice.
Following this logic, with regard to RCEP, can we not then say that, RCEP precisely point towards the undemocratic core of our parliamentary democracies? While we choose our candidates, lifestyles, commodities etc. doesn’t RCEP create the very space in which such choices can happen? The question then is the one of fundamental choice that structures our social relations. Is that done democratically, with the consent of the majority? If not, are we living in democracies? As early as the nineties, EMS Namboodiripad located this shift in Indian Democracy with the much touted decentralization of power into three tier Panchayati Raj system. While everyone was celebrating it as the victory of democracy EMS noted a subtle shift that points towards the undemocratic basis of this new democracy. For him, this shift also occasioned the transfer of powers from the elected representatives in the local bodies to that of the bureaucrats. In other words, though we jovially elect our representatives, we are electing them within a space in which they have been stripped of their powers. The very un-democractic nature of the process of creation of this new democratic space is vividly elaborated by EMS. For him, no political party had asked for this change from the two tier to three tier system. It was externally imposed by the Central Government. One should not forget the rational hand of Capital- the World Bank’s structural role in the structural readjustment program in nineties India. With regards to its structure, isn’t RCEP the same but in a larger scale with even more dire consequences? Historically what this signifies is a shift from popular sovereignty to what Zizek refers to as expert rule.
It is unnecessary to list of umpteen adversities that is going to befall us if this deal comes to fruition, as very many articles have been written about them. Suffice it to recall the warnings of several groups about its provisions on copyright and digital rights, something so dear to us. As they tell us, these provisions are much harsher than found in many other FTAs. Maybe, it is time to stop celebrating it as the largest and start denouncing it as the harshest. In our times it wouldn’t be too much to say that with the largest comes the harshest!
But as psychoanalysis teaches us we are more and more becoming adept at disavowing and foreclosing such harsh realities to continue in our illusion and stupor. It is precisely against this illusion that the groups who are resisting RCEP are fighting against. They might be farmers, activists, domestic servants etc. but they are not merely fighting for their own concerns. More importantly, their fight is to awaken us from our own illusions. Time is against us; the powers are planning to implement it by the end of the year. What they are calling the alternative to protectionism is the very structure that will lead to protectionism and phenomena like Donald Trump and the very many apparitions like him around the world. It is therefore important to reject both these solutions. These movements are thus not just against something but for something. It is precisely the content that fills in this something that is going to determine the future of over half the population of the world. It is owing to this that this struggle is, as the philosopher Frank Ruda would call it, “a struggle we cannot flee from”. Ruda’s formulation when faced with such a struggle is pertinent to all of us in Asia today: Act in such a way that you accept the struggle you cannot Flee from!
Georgy Kuruvila Roy, a PhD student at CSSSC, Kolkata, India.