Home > Autonomy, Economy, Environment > The Gulf oil spill and the case for socialism

The Gulf oil spill and the case for socialism

By Jerry White

The Gulf oil spill and the case for socialism

The ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the US government’s complicity and impotence in relation to energy giant BP reveal in the most striking manner the irrationality and socially destructive character of the capitalist system.

Even as the world reels from the consequences of the financial crisis and the spread of Wall Street’s toxic assets, the same mad drive for profit, this time by the multinational oil conglomerates, has produced an ever-spreading toxic mix of crude oil and chemical dispersants in the Gulf that threatens to go up the eastern seaboard and travel as far as Europe.

Scientists are only beginning to calculate the long-term consequences of the catastrophe, which is ruining precious wetlands and beaches, threatening entire species with extinction and destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers in fishing, tourism and other industries.

Seven weeks after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig which killed 11 workers and set the catastrophe into motion, and after repeated failures to stem the torrent of oil leaking from the seafloor, BP and Obama administration officials claim a new containment cap is having success. One can only hope the gusher is contained as soon as possible, but the record of BP and the government suggests that nothing they tell the public should be accepted at face value.

On the contrary, from the beginning the overriding concern of BP executives and the White House has been to conceal from the public the extent of the disaster and protect the revenue and profits of the corporation. Last week, the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS)—which was complicit in ignoring the safety and environmental violations prior to the blast—deliberately distorted the findings of the scientific team commissioned to estimate how much oil was leaking into the Gulf.

In a press release, the government claimed the estimated range was between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day, even though scientists had concluded that “at least” 12,000 to 25,000 barrels per day were being released in what they called the “lower bounds” of their estimate. The maximum figure still needed to be determined, the scientists said, and it could very well be “significantly larger” than 25,000 barrels per day (See “BP and White House continue cover-up of oil spill”).

The Obama administration has consistently downplayed the extent of the spill not just to cover up for BP and its own responsibility. Most fundamentally, in the aftermath of the devastating economic meltdown caused by the financial speculators and other events such as the death of 29 coal miners in the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, the White House senses a growing anti-corporate and anti-capitalist sentiment that it is determined to deflect.

During the weekend news shows, the point man for the administration’s response to the oil spill, Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, again downplayed the extent of the disaster, claiming that after a “final fix” was implemented in August with the completion of a relief well, “there will be oil out there for months to come. This will be well into the fall.”

Allen was later forced to backtrack from his ridiculous claim during a White House briefing Monday, admitting, “I agree with you, long-term issues of restoring the environment and the habitats and stuff will be years.”

As oil and dead animals washed up over 140 miles of spoiled coastline, Obama also downplayed the scope of the catastrophe, saying, “This is a resilient ecosystem” and there are “resilient people” in the Gulf. “I had a chance to talk to them, and they’ve gone through all kinds of stuff over the last 50, 100 years. They’re going to bounce back.”

The president’s complacency and indifference is not simply a personal trait. It reflects the hostility and contempt that the political representatives of big business have for the masses of working people who are the victims of the profit system.

The well-paid politicians, journalists and academics have long defended capitalism by claiming that the “market” is the most efficient and rational means of organizing the economy and allocating society’s resources. But the BP disaster has revealed to the world the terrible consequences of the anarchy and unplanned character of capitalism, and its subordination of human life to private profit.

Like his Republican predecessor in the White House, Obama identifies not with the plight of the victims of this disaster but with the corporate criminals responsible for it. Less than three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Obama promoted his plan for the expansion of offshore drilling, telling a North Carolina audience, “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

In fact BP and other oil corporations were totally unprepared for what BP CEO Tony Hayward called “low-probability risk” of a leak one mile below the surface of the ocean. Like the Wall Street banks, the Big Oil companies are not driven by long-term and socially necessary considerations—including preserving the planet. Their overriding concern is ensuring the largest and quickest quarterly results and returns for their shareholders. How else can one explain the haste with which BP sought to wrap up operations on the Deepwater Horizon—ignoring and covering up the warnings of an impending disaster—and move on to the next multi-billion dollar drilling site.

Even in the midst of the disaster a central focus of the company has been to keep its stock value from falling. BP’s share price actually rose 2.7 per cent on Monday morning, reportedly in response to statements by its Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg late last week that the company executives “fully understand the importance of our dividend to our shareholders.”

The most logical and necessary response would be to requisition the dividends and all of the productive and financial resources of BP—which made a $17 billion profit last year—to effectively deal with the consequences of the spill and compensate those being devastated by it.

However, the Obama administration has steadfastly defended the private property and profits of BP, presenting these as sacrosanct and inviolable. In the White House press conference Monday, Admiral Allen said the government had to “work in parallel, in a cooperative manner” with BP to “get things done, because they own the means of access” to the underwater drill site. This was a variation on his comments on May 24, when he said that the government could not push BP aside because the company “owned the means of production.”

The question is why should a gigantic corporation—whose single-minded goal of augmenting the personal wealth of top executives and big shareholders has produced such a catastrophe—be allowed to maintain control of the means of production? Moreover, why should vast natural resources, such as petroleum and natural gas, “belong” to any private corporation? Instead, the assets of BP should be commandeered in the interests of society as a whole and utilized to address this emergency.

But the nationalization of the oil industry, no less than the nationalization of the banks, will not be carried out by a government—whether led by the Democrats or Republicans—which is owned lock, stock and barrel by the corporations themselves. The transformation of the energy conglomerates into publicly owned utilities and the establishment of a democratically, planned socialist economy, can only be achieved if the working class takes political power in its own hands.

Related stories:

June 8, 2010: Gulf Oil Spill: BP To Go Ahead with $10 Billion Shareholder Payout

June 8, 2010: Gulf Oil Leak Causing Huge Upheaval In Marine Ecology

  1. The Destructionist
    June 8, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    As the oil spill in the Gulf grows larger and more deadly, decimating all that it touches, BP continues to turn down assistance from Americans who just want to help clean up the mess. (…I hear they even turned down Director James Cameron and actor Kevin Costner…)

    First let’s get one thing perfectly straight: If you want to go and help clean up the oil spill, don’t let some corporate Big-Whigs “handle” you into believing that you’d be more of a liability, than an asset. I applaud you for recognizing that we all depend on our oceans for our very survival. It is this water that sustains every living thing on our planet, and it is also this water that we must protect in order to save ourselves from extinction.

    BP has downplayed the problem in the Gulf from the beginning as a means of corporate damage control. I don’t think they’ve yet recognized the severity of the problem. As I’ve written in past blog posts; the pipe needs to be capped and the relief well needs to be drilled. It’s not an exact science by any means, and if BP doesn’t get it right the first time, they’ll have to do it over, and over, and over again, until they do. How many months (or years) will that take? How much damage will have been done to our environment by then? We’ve already seen what 51 days of oil can do to the Gulf of Mexico… What would happen if the oil was left, unabated, for several months, or years? It’s a frightening example of corporate greed gone awry and it’s criminal, pure and simple.

    Corporations should never be allowed the opportunity to risk the lives of everyone on the planet just to make a profit for a few shareholders. (What good is money, after all, if you don’t have air to breathe, water to drink, or food to eat without fear of contamination?)

    BREAKING NEWS: I’ve just heard that those enormous plumes floating just under the surface of the water have been certified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) as crude oil.

    (Are we just casual witnesses to our own demise? I wonder…)

  2. June 10, 2010 at 12:07 am

    According to an interview on Russia Today with Greg Palast, BP has an exploding legacy of corruption.

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