The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 83 (Fall 2010).
The April 20 explosion on British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers and resulted in an undersea gusher that spilled an estimated 5 million barrels of oil. At the moment BP is supposed to have finally stopped the flow of oil from their ruptured well. But the three-month-long leakage has already done incalculable damage to sea and coastal wildlife and brought economic disaster to fishermen and many others on the Gulf Coast. And huge plumes of oil continue to rise from the ocean depths and wash up on the shorelines of the Gulf Coast. This is the region that continues to reel from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Deepwater disaster once again exposes how the capitalist system drives the most reckless pursuit of profits, regardless of the cost in workers’ lives or catastrophic damage to the environment. In this time of economic crisis, competition over limited sources of oil is becoming particularly desperate, driving energy companies into increasingly risky projects; and stagnant profit rates are pushing capitalists to disregard considerations of health and safety even more than usual.
The spill and its aftermath also further illustrate that Barack Obama and the Democrats, though they may disagree with Republicans over details, are equally loyal servants of the capitalist class. During his campaign for the presidency, Obama promised that in order to protect the environment he would maintain a long-standing ban on oil and gas drilling off much of the U.S. coastline. But just weeks before the explosion in the Gulf, in the words of one newspaper, “Obama took the Republican slogan of ‘drill, baby, drill’ as his own” by breaking that promise and opening 167 million acres of ocean to such exploration. Furthermore on April 2, Obama attempted to justify his new policy in a speech: “It turns out,” he declared, “that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” This ridiculous claim is belied by the fact that in the Gulf of Mexico alone there have been almost 200 oil spills in the last ten years.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion gave Obama no choice but to declare a new moratorium on offshore drilling in July. By that time, however, while the White House no doubt desperately wanted the ruptured oil well capped and the spill contained, its primary concern had shifted to containing the political and financial fallout from the disaster.
BP is the third largest energy company and fourth largest company of any sort in the world. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP’s executives quickly realized that the loss of their rig and resources was just the beginning of their concerns; lawsuits holding BP responsible for clean-up costs and the compensation of workers and others put out of business by the spill threatened to bankrupt the company. To help limit such financial damages, as well as to undercut opposition to the expansion of offshore drilling that Obama now favored, the White House and BP spoke with virtually one voice for weeks in downplaying the effects of the spill. Obama’s White House allowed BP to block scientists’ access to the gushing oil, the better to hide the extent of the spill, and it allowed BP to spread massive amounts of oil dispersants into the ocean, chemicals which are toxic for marine life as well as humans. This made the spilled oil less obvious and thus helped BP and the White House downplay the danger.
Evidence of BP’s negligence leading to the explosion and spill has already emerged, although it will likely take years before the whole story becomes known. The Marine Board investigation into the disaster, conducted jointly by the Coast Guard and the federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM – which was until recently known as the Minerals Management Services) learned that BP was more than $20 million over budget in drilling the well when the explosion occurred. So BP had been in a rush for a month and a half to finish work and use the rig to drill another well. The chief mechanic on the rig testified that the BP representative on board ordered the removal of protective drilling mud from the well as a cost-cutting measure, overruling the objections of the drilling workers – just hours before the explosion. The BP representative refused to testify and invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
BP executives further enraged the public with a series of arrogant comments aimed at downplaying the impact of the spill and deflecting blame. CEO Tony Hayward was the worst offender: Attempting to downplay the disaster, he declared that the spill was “tiny in relation to the total water volume” of the Gulf, and made the ridiculous claim that the environmental impact will probably be “very, very modest.” He insulted the families of the dead workers and everyone on the Gulf Coast when he complained, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” He later apologized, but that didn’t stop him from taking a day off from overseeing the disaster response so that he could attend a yacht race in England on June 19. Hayward’s public relations blunders cost him his job, but his replacement, Bob Dudley, has continued the tradition with an announcement on July 30 that it’s “not too soon for a scaleback” in the cleanup. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg added to the insult with the patronizing comment that “We care about the small people.”
BP’s negligence in the Deepwater disaster is criminal indeed, but it is not an isolated incident. BP has a reputation as a company willing to violate minimum environmental and safety standards. Most notorious was the explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers. An internal memo revealed that the company had decided to save money by not building blast-resistant trailers for its workers, whom it likened to the “three little piggies” of the fairy tale – it just wasn’t cost-efficient to spend the amount necessary to save their bacon in the unlikely event that the big bad wolf blew their house down.
BP’s contempt for human life is by no means unique among capitalists. As Karl Marx commented in 1867 in his monumental analysis of the system, Capital:
Capitalist production ... disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man ... all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil ... The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the laborer.
American capitalism has a long history of death, injury and destruction in its cruel and unrelenting search for profits. Just two weeks before the BP oil rig erupted, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners. The disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago was a product not only of outrageous racism but also of decades of government cost-cutting and neglect of levees, wetlands and emergency preparations that could have spared New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast from the worst flooding and destruction and saved the lives of thousands.
In the poorest countries, the situation is even more vicious and precarious; super-exploitation of labor in oppressed regions of the world has become a lynchpin of imperialist capitalism and is accompanied by a far greater neglect of human and environmental safety. Much of the Niger River Delta in Nigeria, for example, has been devastated by spills from Shell Oil’s operations there, and spills from the operations of a number of companies have similarly devastated the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. And there have been even worse disasters under the pseudo-socialist, state-run capitalist regimes in the former Soviet bloc and China. The world’s worst industrial catastrophe took place in 1984, when Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India leaked toxic chemicals that exposed nearly 600,000 people and killed 15,000.
Looming over all these specific horrors is the growing menace of climate change which is driving extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels that are an imminent threat to the lives of millions in the most vulnerable parts of the world. Regardless of dire warnings from scientists that the continued release of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, and the further the destruction of forests and marine life threatens catastrophic consequences for life on the planet, the capitalist ruling classes of the world refuse to change their destructive ways: for them, short-term profit trumps even the gravest of long-term considerations.
Capitalists always exploit workers and cut corners to make more profit, but it is not an accident that they are becoming more vicious. A number of interwoven factors conspire to produce accidents-waiting-to-happen, like BP’s. Most prominent is the decades-long stagnation in capitalist profits, accented by the “Great Recession” that the economy is now steeped in. This has led to a long-term capitalist offensive against workers’ working conditions and living standards and a continuing assault on government regulation of corporate activity, including environmental oversight. What emerged, with the strong backing of both the Democratic and Republican parties, was not only a crueler economic agenda but one riveted to short-term bottom lines – longer-term considerations like the decaying infrastructure and environmental destruction be damned. If there is any “vision” in the energy extraction industries, it is how to get as much coal, oil and gas out of the ground as fast as possible – in the face of intensifying international competition over limited natural resources.
The behavior of the MMS, the government agency responsible for regulating offshore drilling, fits this agenda. The MMS was set up under the Reagan administration and its notoriously anti-environmental Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, as a virtual arm of the energy industry. The agency functioned as both the overseer of operations and leaser of drilling rights – a classic conflict of interests whose potential was amply filled by corrupt government officials and business lobbyists. A review by the Interior Department in 2008 declared that the MMS was a “dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere” throughout the Bush administration.
The Obama administration’s role in the BP spill is further proof that the “change” it offered millions of voters disgusted by the openly pro-business agenda of the Republicans was a cruel illusion. In 2008 Obama was a favored recipient of financial contributions from BP-controlled PACs, and he has made some effort to repay his benefactors. Obama’s choice to head the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, was a Colorado politician notoriously in bed with the industries he would be charged with regulating. Only after the Deepwater Horizon disaster did the director of MMS resign when it was revealed that MMS staff had received favors from oil companies – dinners, sports tickets and even sex parties with prostitutes.
Faced with a public relations as well as environmental disaster, Obama & Co. were obliged to enact some high-profile measures that will achieve far less than their flashiness suggests. These include a $20 billion compensation fund paid from BP assets, a re-arrangement of the MMS, as well as the temporary suspension of new offshore drilling. Breaking the MMS into separate departments will do nothing to fundamentally alter the chummy relations of regulators and oilmen. The new offshore moratorium is for only six months and does nothing to address the mammoth problems of the environment and energy procurement. And the compensation fund is aimed at least as much at holding down BP’s liabilities as at aiding the company’s wide-ranging victims. For example, Gulf Coast fishermen and boat owners who were hired to work in clean-up efforts will have their pay subtracted from any compensation they get from the fund – thus they will have been essentially working for free.
The Republicans have used the disaster to raise a rash of condemnations of Obama and the Democrats. Their prevailing complaints have been that Obama has been too hard on BP and too anxious to regulate. Thus Texas Representative Joe Barton apologized to BP’s soon-to-be-disgraced Heyward for Obama’s “shakedown” (only to subsequently apologize for his apology). Also, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann labeled the pathetic fund payout a socialistic “redistribution of wealth.” The Republican establishment has for years been largely in bed with the energy industry, and Tea Party leaders like Bachmann have a knee-jerk revulsion to the mildest government regulation. Their attempts to depict Obama as an irresponsible enemy of capitalism should fool no one who has not swallowed Obama’s progressive promises.
The capitalists would like us to believe that there is no alternative to their continued rule, that an economy driven by profit is the only possible way to run things, that devastating disasters like the Gulf oil spill are an unavoidable cost of a modern industrial economy. They are wrong! Modern industry can be operated efficiently and productively without reckless disregard for health and safety – but not if it remains in the hands of the capitalist class and the bottom line is profit rather than society’s needs. Only when control of the economy is seized by the working class can production be brought into harmony with the natural environment. Until then, capitalism will continue to pollute and destroy the environment. The stark choice that Marxists have often said confronts humanity, between socialism and barbarism, is increasingly becoming a choice between socialism and the extinction of our species.
Capitalism long ago ceased to play a progressive role in the development of society. Humanity needs a socialist economy where the means of production are controlled collectively by the working class, along with workers’ states to begin that transformation by taking power from the capitalist class. As we can see in the safety disputes on the BP drilling rig, workers are often better informed (and certainly better motivated) to make decisions about how to operate their industry than the managers are. Furthermore, only when control of the economy is torn from the hands of the capitalists and placed under the collective control of the working class will the system’s reckless production for private profit be able to be replaced by an economic plan in the interests of the vast majority of society. For everyone’s sake, from the Gulf Coast to West Virginia to everywhere in the world, our society needs an economy where the workers are in charge.
Workers’ states will need to dramatically increase energy production in order to power a rise in the masses’ standard of living, especially in the poor countries. That would mean crash programs, unparalleled in intensity, for developing electricity from renewable energies and delivering that power. There would also be vast investment in public works to clean and rejuvenate the environment, undoing capitalism’s destruction of soil, water and atmosphere. Demands for such programs must be made under capitalist rule as well, not only because these tasks are necessary but also to demonstrate to the masses that capitalism as a system is incapable of reforming itself, either to do away with mass unemployment or to save the planet.
The potential already exists for the technical development of alternative and renewable energy sources. But capitalism has held back their implementation, bringing them on line only in halting steps. The capitalists with vested interests in the present forms of energy extraction don’t want to lose on their investments, no matter what the consequences for the environment. And capitalist governments are loathe to undertake such massive public efforts, much less ones that are counter to the profits of an important segment of their class.
The capitalists of course will not just give up their power voluntarily. It will take long and disciplined struggles by the working class to take power away from them. These struggles include those at the point of production as well as those focused on the capitalist state. They will show the need for a socialist revolution to get rid of the capitalist state and replace it with a workers’ state that serves the interests of workers and all of society. Such a struggle will require a political party committed to achieving the workers’ socialist revolution and made up of the most class-conscious workers. Building that revolutionary party of the working class is the task that we in the League for the Revolutionary Party are dedicated to. We urge everyone who wants to put an end to the devastation caused by capitalism to join us.
1. Mac McClelland, “Found: BP’s Missing Oil,” www.motherjones.com, August. 26, 2010, motherjones.com/rights-stuff/2010/08/found-bps-supposedly-missing-oil.
2. Suzanne Goldenberg, “Barack Obama reverses campaign promise and approves offshore drilling,” Guardian (UK), March 31, 2010, guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/31/barack-obama-drilling-offshore-approves.
3. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in a Discussion of Jobs and the Economy in Charlotte, North Carolina,” White House Press Release, April 2, 2010, whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-a-discussion-jobs-and-economy-charlotte-north-carolina.
4. Elana Schor, “Oil Spill Dispersants Shifting Ecosystem Impacts in Gulf, Scientists Warn,” nytimes.com, July 30, 2010, www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/07/30/30greenwire-oil-spill-dispersants-shifting-ecosystem-impac-95608.html; Dr. Susan D. Shaw, “Consensus Statement: Scientists oppose the use of dispersant chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico,” Marine Environmental Research Institute, July 16, www.meriresearch.org/Portals/0/Documents/CONSENSUS%20STATEMENT%20ON%20DISPERSANTS%20IN%20THE%20GULF%20updated%20July%2017.pdf.
5. David Hammer, “Marine Board investigation of Gulf oil spill to continue in Kenner all next week,” The Times-Picayune, July 14, 2010, www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/07/marine_board_investigation_of.html.
6. Rick Outzen, “BP’s Shocking Memo,” www.thedailybeat.com, May 25, 2010, www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-05-25/shocking-bp-memo-and-the-oil-spill-in-the-gulf/full/.
7. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 15., Sec. 10.
8. Michael Cooper, “Spill Fund May Prove as Challenging as 9/11 Payments,” New York Times, August 21, 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/us/22spend.html.