Visible State, Invisible Government

We started The Ram’s Horn three decades ago when we were sheep farmers. We wanted to shed some light on murkier affairs of sheep farming and marketing and larger issues such as, “How come New Zealand can land lamb here in Nova Scotia cheaper than we can raise it?” Since then, we have continued to study both the logic of the food system and the context within which in it operates. Now this is leading us into asking some big questions about the roles of states, governments and corporations in shaping and benefiting from the industrial food system and its injustices and inequities.

It used to be that the words government and state referred to different aspects of the same entity: The state was an autonomous structure identified with a discernable territory and responsible for maintenance of public order and the protection of private property, by force of arms if necessary; Government consisted of the institutions and/or people that looked after the functioning of the state. A democratic state/government was one in which the citizens, the public, had ultimate authority and gave direction, through political structures and processes, to the government. Thus in ancient Greece the people (or at least the men) assembled in the Agora to debate politics and formulate policy for the state. Leadership came from the demos, the people. Once upon a time the citizens of Canada elected representatives who then met to decide, collectively, as the government, on how to best carry out the will of the people. Today, there are still elections, but Parliament has lost its teeth and the government really consists of the Prime Minister, his cabinet, and most importantly, the Prime Minister’s Office the Invisible Hand of the G20or PMO, with a large contingent of unelected, publicly anonymous policy makers.

We still talk about democracy, though, and have by and large been mesmerized by our “free and fair” elections to think we still inhabit a democratic country. Despite the increasing and increasingly obvious power of the PMO and the extent of corporate influence, if not control, over public policy and state practice, we still believe we can address the government and that our voices will be heard and heeded by our representatives. However, the Harper Government (formerly the Government of Canada) is doing everything it can think of to quash public participation in policy or what it calls “political activism”, to the point where we now enjoy, not a democracy, but an elected dictatorship.

Let’s not give Harper too much credit for all of this, though. A quick look at the G20 and the newer B20 can shed light on the changing relationship between corporation and government and state, illustrated by the latest in trade agreements, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The G20 is technically a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 major “economies” (19 countries plus the European Union), formed in 1999 as a forum for cooperation and consultation on matters pertaining to the international financial system. Though it has no formal ability to enforce rules, its influence on global policy is considerable. Given that it is ‘The Economy’ that dominates political life, it could be said that the G20 is really an alternative to the United Nations, with a rather different set of rules and accountability, and in practice it is the G20 rather than the UN that dictates international policy. The public, the citizens, are neither consulted nor invited to G20 meetings, the latest of which was in Mexico in June, and when they show up uninvited, as in the 2010 meeting in Canada, they are – to say the least – made very unwelcome.

Now, behind the G-20, so to speak, we have the B20, the B standing for Business.

The “Business-20” Summit is an international forum aimed at fostering dialogue between governments and global business. It describes itself as composed of CEOs and Chairmen of leading global companies, as well as experts from international organizations and universities, with the main objective to provide Heads of State and other government leaders of the G20 with meaningful recommendations from the private sector, which could contribute to the achievement of its objectives of global economic growth and social development.

The B20 first met in Toronto in parallel to the G20 Summit in June 2010. On this occasion, for the first time the dialogue between government and corporate leaders was institutionalized, allowing the private sector formal access to the G20 discussions. Since then, the B20 has gathered and met with the G20 leaders four times: first in Toronto in June 2010 and most recently in Mexico.

Cargill describes the agenda in terms that borrow extensively from the food movement. According to Cargill’s own account,

“Twenty organizations from the private sector and civil society, including Cargill, came together to form the B20 Food Security Task Force, with the goal of developing recommendations and securing commitments for tackling the complex issues impacting food security. The Task Force is now asking for G20 government commitment to work with the private sector to make these recommendations policy.  Among the specific B20 Food Security Task Force recommendations are creating an enabling environment for investment, optimizing agricultural productivity and nutrition, and ensuring sustainability through effective resource management. . .

“As a company dedicated to being the global leader in nourishing people, Cargill is working to address the complex challenge of feeding the world while at the same time protecting the planet. Cargill advocates for policies that let markets work and enable farmers to thrive; helps expand access to food, improves nutrition and pursues partnerships to end hunger; and works to increase agricultural productivity and incomes while ensuring responsible land use. Over the past five years, Cargill has contributed more than $55 million to reduce hunger and improve nutrition globally. . .  (emphasis added)

“At the Mexico Business 20 (B20) Summit held in advance of the G20 Summit, Cargill Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Greg Page joined other business leaders in offering support for new recommendations to improve global food security, including increased public and private sector investment in agriculture, and the strengthening of national-level food security programs. Recommendations were provided in a dialogue between heads of state and CEOs representing the B20 Food Security Task Force.”
                         –, 20/6/12

With the B20 meeting to draw up the policies and programs to be carried out by state governments, then sitting with the G20 to help them carry the policies forward, a more-than-trade agreement is now called for. Enter the TPP.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was, created, not primarily to break down trade barriers, but as a ‘gold standard’ to which countries could aspire – comparable, perhaps, to the European Common Market. The TPP was created in 2005 by the highly unlikely grouping of New Zealand, Brunei, Chile and Singapore. In 2008, the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam joined. In June, 2012, after strenuous lobbying by Prime Minister Harper, Canada was ‘invited’ to join, along with Mexico. 

There has been one authenticated leak, the draft chapter on investment, indicating negotiators have already agreed on measures dealing with the rights and privileges of foreign corporations (and given the extent of these rights and privileges, what corporation would not identify itself as ‘foreign’ by one sleight of hand or another?). According to Public Citizen in the US, the trade deal would limit the extent to which signatory countries could regulate foreign firms operating within their boundaries, effectively giving them greater freedoms than domestic firms. Another issue is that of Tribunals established to arbitrate disputes. They would be staffed by private-sector lawyers who would rotate between acting as judges and acting as advocates for the investors who might be suing a particular government over a TPP-related  matter. In other words, there is to be a permanent structural conflict-of-interest between investors and states or corporations and the public.
The utter backwardness of the whole deal is evident in the way supporters of the TPP (as of other trade agreements) are complaining about Canada’s supply management systems for dairy and poultry. Food manufacturers such as McCains and Saputo want to sell their products in the Asian market but complain that they can’t buy dairy ingredients here at competitive prices. They also spread the falsehood that somehow farmers can set whatever price they want for supply-managed foods, when in fact prices are set at a level which will assure the price of production (not including profit!) for a reasonably well-managed operation. Why the interests of corporations such as Saputo and McCains should get any special consideration at all may be obvious to their profit-seeking shareholders, but such special interests should certainly not take any precedence over the welfare of dairy and poultry farmers and the Canadian public. It is high time we just kicked the absurd ideas of corporate rights – to trade, export, make a profit or anything else – right out the door.