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Exporting Local Capitalism: West Michigan World Trade Week

May 9, 2016

For 31 years, numerous businesses, trade associations, universities and non-profits have come organized what has become known as West Michigan World Trade WeekScreen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.59.53 AM

The event is primarily organized through the Van Andel Global Trade Center, which is part of Grand Valley State University. The Van Andel Global Trade Center is located in the Seidman College of Business, which has grown to be the primary source for creating new “talent” for local businesses that have a global reach.

The proponents of West Michigan World Trade Week claim that the benefits of their efforts are as follows:

  • Highlight the link between international trade and Michigan’s economic well-being
  • Recognize the contributions of international trade to job creation in Michigan
  • Celebrate companies succeeding in the global marketplace
  • Share knowledge, resources and ideas to facilitate business success internationally

While points 3 and 4 are true, in that they both celebrate local companies that do global business; and they do share resources and ideas that benefit local companies that profit in the world market, the first two points are false claims or capitalist myths.

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Capitalist Myth #1Highlight the link between international trade and Michigan’s economic well-being

The link between international trade and the economic “well-being” of Michigan’s economy is a rather slick way of saying that businesses in Michigan that engage in global trade are making a hefty profit. There is no such thing as Michigan’s economy and more than there is a Grand Rapids economy. We all are subjected to the economic system of Capitalism, and Capitalism as we know primarily benefits the ownership class.

Even if we accepted the idea that Michigan had its own economy, we could discern its well-being by looking at certain factors. First, what percentage of the children are currently experiencing poverty? According to the most recent data from the Michigan League for Public Policy (2014), 22.6% of children between 0 – 17, are experiencing poverty. If we looked at just Kent County, the percentage of children living in poverty is 20%. If one looks at the poverty rates for African American and Latino/a children living in poverty, it’s almost 1 out of 3.

Does this seem like the economy of Michigan is well off? Of course, those who truly believe in a Michigan economy are those who most benefit from capitalism that is practiced locally. Those who are experts on Michigan’s economy are people who represent firms such as Anderson Economic Group, which are the same experts that represent big business in Michigan. If on the other hand you spoke to working class people, people making poverty level wages, working long hours and constantly struggling to make ends meet, they you could get a very different picture of “Michigan’s economy.” However, we almost never hear from these people, especially not from commercial media sources.

Capitalist Myth #2 – Recognize the contributions of international trade to job creation in Michigan

Another indicator is the so-called link between international trade and job creation in Michigan. While some of the larger companies that engage in global trade have added some jobs, thousands of jobs in Michigan have been lost due to global trade.Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 4.15.37 AM

According to a recent study done by Public Citizen

Over 21 years, a series of trade agreements not only have failed to meet their corporate and political backers’ glowing promises of job creation, but instead have contributed to unprecedented and unsustainable trade deficits, the net loss of nearly 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs and more than 55,000 factories, the offshoring of higher-wage service sector jobs, flat median wages despite significant productivity gains and the worst U.S. income inequality in the last century.

For most working class people, they recognize that trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Korean Free Trade Agreement and the most recent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) have resulted in the loss of manufacturing jobs. Under NAFTA alone, according to the US Labor Department, 154,497 jobs were lost in Michigan since the agreement was signed in 1994.

Countering World Trade Week and local capitalism

The West Michigan World Trade Week will not be challenged until there is a substantial multi-issue movement that can make the link between local capitalism and their own experiences. As of right now, such resistance is a long way off. There have been some encouraging and even inspiring actions that are challenge neo-liberal capitalism on the local level, particularly the bus drivers union and Students Against Sweatshops, but there needs to be a much larger movement with a broader vision if the local capitalist class is to be challenged.

First, we need to shift our energies away from the empty promises of electoral politics. The two-party system in the US is essentially just 2 branches of the capitalist class. If more energy and resources we re-directed to mass movement, the capitalist class would feel threatened.

Second, there is no real hope in the non-profit industrial complex. Too many non-profits not only rely on a disproportionate amount of funding from the capitalist class, they have deep relationships with them in the form of projects, who sits on the board of directors and the internalization of the values that is the foundation of neo-liberal capitalism.idle-no-more-banner

Lastly, there are no significant intersectional movements in West Michigan that can challenge local capitalism. Too often organization and movements are operating in silos and do not, or will not, see the connection to other pressing issues of the day. This is often of no fault of their own, since it is difficult to survive in this capitalist economy, especially if you are against war, poverty and racism.

However, this does not mean that we have to accept the status quo. We can chose to put our efforts into movement building. We can chose to organize in grassroots and autonomous ways, and we can develop a more robust intersectional analysis that can actually challenge the local economic and political systems of power. We can also be encouraged by the numerous existing global movements that do make the links and do operate outside of mainstream politics, movements such as the MST in Brazil, the PAH in Spain, the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Idol No More movement in the occupied territories of Canada and the US.

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