Yes, but what are they trading?

It has long been a dogma of global capitalism that trade is good, and more trade is better.

But what is the substance of any proposed trade? This is the question that we need to be asking. Rather than zombieing out and letting our eyes glaze over as we pretend that trading periwinkles for cheese is the same as trading oil for nuclear weapons, it behooves us to be more discerning in regards to the actual goods being traded.

The numbers game of money, which performs the pernicious trick of equating anything with anything else (slavery for diamonds, anyone?), has pulled the wool over our eyes regarding how we evaluate and regard trade.

An example is the recent Kremlin talks between India’s Prime Minister Modi and Russia’s Putin. They wanted to increase trade. Sounds good, right? Well, here’s what it turns out they’re trading: “The two sides are expected to sign a number of pacts to expand cooperation in a number of key areas including defense, nuclear energy, hydrocarbons and trade.”

If trade boils down to exchanging widgits which ultimately do not bring more equality, justice, happiness, contentment, and sustainability to both countries, perhaps we need to call it by a different name. Children trade card with each other, to play. Rural neighbors trade eggs for squash, milk for apples. All benefit, and this benefit comes from nourishment. Building more Bhopals, half-built radar stations, more Fukushima Daichi nuclear plants, or more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis–is not what I would call trade. I would call that evil.

The impetus behind such trade made be wholesome notions like security, safety, energy independence, and wanting to not be manipulated by other powers. But the defensive, reactive actions that are taken in response to these legitimate concerns are short-sighted in the extreme. What our world desperately requires is visionary leaders, not scared, short-term thinking ones.

I’d like to think that this historic meeting between Modi and Putin could be one of enlightenment, with each country channelling the best of their talent, brilliance, and resources into a sustainable future not riddled by corporate predatory interests. This future would respect the limits of earth systems, and rights of other living beings to persist rather than be driven to extinction, and the blessings of fresh clean air, water, soil, and energy. Such a meeting would look honestly into the well of inequality which has emerged in the past decades both in Russia–once a former communist country espousing ideals of economic and political equality, however distant from this ideal they came–and India, a country with a great history of democracy and deliberation (as Amartya Sen has gleefully documented).

Real trade and new leadership consists of long-term projects that build up community and land, that deepen resiliency and mutual trust, and that consecrate the goals of a global culture that is sustainable from the ground up. Facing those painful truths of lack and error and foolishness are the only way to transcend them. Giving into fear and trying to save face will bring us little progress, ultimately undermining any success. Building a solid ecological and social foundation requires the slow work of nations building friendships not predicated just on fear (the enemy of my enemy is my friend) but rather on mutual goodwill, however tentative or tenuous this may be at first.

Immanuel Kant’s notion in Cosmopolitan Citizenship, that interstate trade would foster world peace had a sound argument at its core. But what Kant mistook, as all others prey to hypostatic abstraction before and after him, is that a rose is not a rose is not a rose. Things are different from other things and cannot be collapsed through some abstract quantified theory of value that commensurates them. Getting to the uniqueness of objects brings us to the importance of the virtue of the things traded. May trade only heretoforth refer to things that actually make the world more peaceful and ecological, and let us reserve the word smuggling for the rest.