The Selling of “Free Trade”

The Selling of “Free Trade”

Nafta, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy

John R. MacArthur

Category: History

This brilliant exposé shows how Washington works to make something happen, even when confronted with widespread popular opposition. It chronicles the brutal and expensive campaign in 1993 that led to passage of the poorly understood, highly controversial law creating the North American Free Trade Agreement, but its story is urgently up-to-date.


Above all, NAFTA guaranteed U.S. corporations access to cheap labor in Mexico and protection against expropriation there, but it was presented as a progressive law that would help workers everywhere. John R. MacArthur, investigating the political and public-relations tactics of the Democratic-Republican big-business coalition that favored Gore, Bradley, Clinton, Gephardt, Bush, and the other members of what he calls the bipartisan oligarchy—defeated the ad hoc groups of working people, skeptics, and mavericks on Capitol Hill who questioned the value of a manifestly unpopular bill. We learn how these oligarchs do their business with the Fortune 500 companies dominating American trade policy and how they have disregarded the workers' and environmentalists' concerns they now purport to care about.


How NAFTA was put across—or put over on us—is the central story of this book. The Selling of "Free Trade" begins with the 1999 closing of the famous Swingline stapler plant in Long Island City, New York, and ends with the factory's relocation just south of the border, in Nogales, Mexico, where MacArthur watches President Ernesto Zedillo preside over the ribbon cutting. In between, he talks to the lobbyists, White House aides, congressional staff, and politicians who framed the debate over free trade and the American economy; he investigates the advertising, public-relations, and politicking maneuvers that, with White House help, put NAFTA across as a pure free-trade issue; and he talks to American factory workers about their work and their working conditions, what the unions have or haven't done for them, and what it's like when they come off their last assembly line and watch their jobs move to Mexico. He attends meetings at an Arizona resort where a U.S. company helps U.S. businesses learn to save millions of dollars by using NAFTA regulations to relocate their factories south of the border. And he interviews Mexican workers about the deplorable wage variables and shocking lack of health, medical, and educational benefits they endure.


The ongoing decline of American democracy chronicled and predicted by writers as diverse as Joe McGinniss and C. Wright Mills came vividly true, MacArthur shows, when the American people were sold on what they thought was free trade but was actually a subversion of their political system. His book is essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of the American republic.


John R. MacArthur is the author of several books. He is the president and publisher of Harper's Magazine, and a columnist for The Providence Journal and Le Devoir.


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