Friday, 13 December 2013

Walter Shows the Way

The big news in the world of wacky baccy this week was the decision of Uruguay to partially legalise marijuana, which has resulted in apparently sober calls for the nation to be awarded the Nobel peace prize (I love you too, man). Ultimately this is a sideshow. Perhaps of more significance is the suggestion that the UK government may look to regulate rather than ban synthetic drugs, though I suspect they'll pass up this opportunity in the short term. The emblematic role of drugs in the tabloid press (see Nigella Lawson) means that we'll probably be a late adopter as far as liberalisation or decriminalisation is concerned, but the fact that it is being considered indicates that a shift in attitude is under way. The key word is "regulate".

Perhaps the most overt sign of this change in popular culture has been Breaking Bad. Because of their length, TV drama series tend to require a lot of supporting comment - the auxiliary of constant blather intended to make you watch the programme and thus the adverts. Drama provides more grist for this than comedy, which suggests that the rise of social media has been decisive in creating the current "golden age of TV". With the exception of those aimed at knowing niche audiences (The IT Crowd, The Big Bang Theory), sitcom has been on the slide since 2006 and the birth of Twitter. If we'd imagined microblogging in the 90s, we'd probably have thought that the dissemination of jokes would be a killer app, but it turns out that the TV cheese for this particular wine is the traditional water-cooler guff of dramatic reveals and shouting at talent shows and politicians. It's reassuringly like Drury Lane in the eighteenth century.

Though much ink and many bytes are spent explicating the "narrative arc" and the moral quandaries of the central characters, the key meaning of these dramas can be found in the mise en scene, which doesn't tend to change much from beginning to end. Thus The Sopranos was a study of an SME in self-destructive and terminal decline, while The Wire looked more widely at institutional failure. Breaking Bad suggests that drugs might be a domestic manufacturing industry of the future, with a bit of luck. Despite the thick icing of morality and symbolic violence, all of these series are worrying away at industrial decline in the US and its social consequences. In Walter White's fall from grace as a chemistry teacher, there is a recognition that recreational drugs are the misapplication of a noble calling. The implication is that a small shift in the law (remember prohibition) could make this a respectable business.

The background to this spectacle is international economic negotiations, both the global efforts coordinated by the World Trade Organisation and regional initiatives such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The WTO was created in 1995 as an institutional upgrade on GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a rolling series of negotiations that was started in 1947 with the aim of avoiding the protectionism and autarky that had scarred the 1930s. Though GATT remains active, in the form of the outstanding Doha round, the global focus has long since shifted from the reduction of tariffs towards the harmonisation of regulations, notably in the areas of commercial services, intellectual copyright and foreign investment. The last GATT agreement before the creation of the WTO was, coincidentally, the Uruguay round, which ran from 1986 to 1994 (the duration, longer than the Congress of Vienna, is indicative of the scope and detail of these negotiations as much as the difficulty in securing agreement).

Despite the regular use of the words "trade" and "tariffs", and the implicit valorisation of "free trade", international agreements since the Uruguay round have had less and less to do with the traditional exchange of raw materials, agricultural produce and manufactured commodities. The objective in the neoliberal age has been to extend the rights of multinational corporations in the areas of intellectual property, investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS, i.e. the rights of foreign investors to trump domestic legislation), and the regulation of regulation (i.e. ensuring that domestic laws are harmonised to the satisfaction of global capital). As Dean Baker says, "the dirty secret about most trade negotiations today is that they aren’t really about 'conventional barriers to trade' any more. 'Non-tariff barriers', which get most of the attention in trade talks these days are a euphemism for differing national approaches to regulation".

While a lot of the criticism directed at these negotiations focuses on the anti-democratic implications of ISDS, the really big issue is intellectual property. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) is in large part targeted at extending US IP rights in South East Asia, where a large proportion of the world's "knock-offs" currently originate. But the scope of this goes beyond bootleg copies of The Hobbit. As Walter White has shown, we now have the technology to create knock-off drugs. As well as crystal meth, we can safely produce mildly psychoactive agents with minimal harmful effects (certainly less harmful than alcohol). If Big Pharma doesn't do this, then the market will be left to "unregulated" and "unscrupulous" producers in Vietnam and Mexico. It should be obvious that the gradual extension of IP rights is preparation for the decriminalisation of drugs, not to mention the ubiquity of high-profit GM.

There are many who cheer the Uruguay decision because it proposes nationalisation, rather than the regulation of a free market, and thus the adoption of a more socially-embedded response to the collateral damage of the drugs trade, but what they fail to appreciate is that this is only possible because there is no patent on cannabis or THC. In the future, the rights of nation states to manage their drug policy and direct their drug industries will be constrained by the rights of Big Pharma, who will own the "good stuff".

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