Deepwater Lesson: Expropriate the Expropriators

“If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it’s too deep to be drilled in the first place.” — Bob Herbert, June 1, 2010

Imagine “the Associated Producers, Rationally Regulating Their Interchange with Nature”

Amidst mass capital-imposed structural unemployment and ever-escalating environmental collapse, the ongoing epic British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon spill — more than 40 million gallons and counting (far beyond the previous record set by the Exxon Valdez) in the Gulf of Mexico — ought to be something of a teachable moment for radical opponents of the profits system.

“The realm of freedom,” one such opponent, Karl Marx, wrote in the third volume of his magnum opus Capital, “can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind force of Nature, and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”1  By “socialized man,” Marx meant (in the masculinized language of the Victorian era) civilization in a new era of classlessness — the real (he felt) match for homo sapiens’ liberated “human nature.”  Contrary to Cold War stereotypes that equate socialism and communism with the dungeons of Stalin and Mao,2 Marx did not see that desirable post-capitalist age as one of state dictatorship and productionism, with the state as capitalist, directing the toiling masses’ tasks and extracting surplus from above.  He envisaged rather an egalitarian time after the working class majority had “stormed heaven” (his description of what the ill-fated 1871 Paris Commune had attempted) in a great self-liberating struggle to seize the organization of production and work from bourgeois expropriators and exploiters.  The newly empowered citizen-workers would put these core human activities under popular control to meet human needs with the least possible investment of human and natural power.3

“Too Deep to Be Drilled in the First Place”

The current ecological disaster is straight out of Marx.  Consider Marx’s call for the “associated producers” to “rationally regulate” humanity’s “interchange with nature” (the production process, essentially), something he knew to be impossible under the unelected dictatorship of capital.  It is plainly irrational to build the many precarious deep water offshore oil drilling operations that British Petroleum and other leading multinational corporate petro-tyrannies manage around the world.  It only takes one big and inevitable screw-up for such operations to yield a colossal ecological catastrophe like the one currently underway in the Gulf.

Sane and reasonably knowledgeable and engaged citizen-workers organized as empowered and “associated producers” would never agree to let such a genie out of the bottle, with such potentially disastrous consequences for livable ecology.  As the liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert noted yesterday (I am writing on the morning of Wednesday, June 2, 2010): “If a bank is too big to fail, it’s way too big to exist.  If an oil well is too far beneath the sea to be plugged when something goes wrong, it’s too deep to be drilled in the first place.”4

Money Speaks for Money

Consider also Marx’s core analytical distinction between “use value” and “exchange value.”  For rational and associated citizen-producers, the point of liberated humanity’s core economic activities (its “interchange with nature”) would be to create goods and services of real and lasting human utility without damaging people or the environment.  Under capitalism, however, everything, including the core human activities of work and production, is “drowned in the icy water”5 of capitalists’ egotistical profit calculation.  The holy market (supposedly “free”) is the reigning regulating mechanism, the master arbiter of economic decisions.  The dominant consideration determining what gets produced and how and for whom is exchange value: how much money can investors make off this or that economic activity in the near term?  “Money speaks for money, the devil for his own.”6

British Petroleum (BP) has been raping the Gulf’s Coast sea-beds for many years in the obvious and simple pursuit of capitalism’s holy grail: market reward in the form of investor profit.  In service to that simple objective, the sine qua non of capitalist production, BP and other giant transnational corporation have quite logically and normatively (within the amoral reckoning that lay at the soulless heart of the profits system7) used bribery and threat to discourage and undermine anything approaching rational public regulation of their own particular deadly “interchange with Nature.”  Now that their perverted priorities have interacted with its awesome techno-destructive capacities to produce the Deepwater calamity, we confront their socially produced and record-setting oil slick as a “blind force of Nature.”

Means of Production Gone Wild

Consider also Marx’s core distinction between the “forces of production” (the technologies employed in economic production) and the “relations of production” (the social/class relations governing the purpose and structure of techno-economic activity).  Under capitalism, Marx observed, the awesome new means of production developed in the industrializing West could not be put to the rational purpose of enhancing the common good.  Only a radical-democratic working class revolution could turn exciting new techno-productive capabilities into means for generalized freedom and abundance.  The really existing production forces of the mid-19th century were shaped by and subject to the selfish imperatives of the owners, for whom the point of economic modernity was to extract as much surplus value and profit as possible from the working class, the broader society, and the ill-fated Earth.

Like so much else in today’s world economic system, the BP disaster is yet another case of the forces of production gone wild and deadly because of their captivity to and perversion by the profit system’s amoral and sociopathic imperatives.  It’s nothing new.  Again and again since Marx and other radical enemies of capitalism wrote, we have seen the profit imperative yield the ugly fruit of ecological catastrophe and a constant assault on the physical health of human beings and other living things.  Think mass corporate cigarette production (and marketing), Bhopal, the Amoco Cadiz spill, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez, the ongoing cancerous pollution of water, soil, food, and air, and, of course, global warming,8 intimately related back to leading auto and oil corporations’ purchase and dismantling of the United States’ once-impressive electric trolley and inter-urban rail systems (the list goes on).  Marx was horrified by the pollution of British and northern European air and waterways by the textile industrialists of his day.  He repeatedly denounced the ruination of soil fertility and forests by the relentless egotistical calculations of capitalism.

Devaluing the Currency of Democracy

We might also consider Marx’s suggestive insights on the distinctive relationship between the political and the economic spheres under capitalism.  It might seem a “paradox” that the rise of large scale industrial capitalist tyranny — characterized by the massive top-down command and systematic exploitation of labor and related gross, authoritarian, democracy-disabling economic inequality — coincided with the expansion of formal democracy (universal suffrage, free political parties and associations and speech, etc.) across the West.  But, as the Marxist political scientist Ellen Meiksens Wood noted in her 1995 book Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, this was no real contradiction in this combined and simultaneous development.  Relying largely on Marx’s originally unpublished reflections on pre-capitalist economic formations, Wood noted a critical point about the historical specificity of capitalism as a system of social relations and political power.  Capitalism, she observed, is different from previous and other class systems and modes of production (oriental despotism, ancient slavery, feudalism, and the bureaucratic collectivism [or state capitalism] of the Soviet bloc) in that it is characterized by a fundamental division between the political and the economic.

Compared to earlier and other class systems, western capitalism has offered its populace an abundance of outwardly exciting and meaningful “political goods”: free speech, public assembly, voting rights, political parties, and the like.  But this has all been eminently tolerable to the capitalist class because political life is largely separated from the organization of production and economic exploitation under the bourgeois system of socioeconomic management.  It is one thing — quite dangerous for the ruling economic class — for the people to have democratic political rights and citizenship when a society’s core material and economic class relations are significantly run through and regulated by the political sphere.  It is quite another thing — quite safe for that class — for the people to have those rights when that sphere is largely walled off from production.  That separation leads to the “devaluation of political goods.”

“The status of political goods,” Wood argued, “is bound to be diminished by the autonomy of the economic sphere, the independence of capitalist exploitation from direct coercive power, the separation of appropriation from the performance of public functions, the existence of a separate purely political sphere distinct from the ‘economy,’ which makes possible for the first time a ‘democracy’ that is only ‘political’, without the economic and social implications attached to ancient Greek democracy.”

“In pre-capitalist societies,” Wood argued, “extra-economic powers had a special importance because the economic power of appropriation was inseparable from them.  One might speak here of a scarcity of extra-economic goods because they were too valuable to be widely distributed.  We might, then, characterize the situation of extra-economic goods in capitalism by saying that it has overcome that scarcity.  It has made possible a far wider distribution of extra-economic goods, and specifically the goods associated with citizenship, than was ever possible before.  But it has overcome that scarcity by devaluing the currency.9

This is more than a merely abstract reflection when it comes to the history of class relations in the United States.  In his detailed history of U.S. workers’ experience with democracy and the “free market” during the 19th century, the radical American historian David Montgomery brilliantly challenged reigning U.S. ideology’s doctrinal conflation of democracy and “market freedom.”  “The more that active participation in government was opened to the propertyless strata in society,” Montgomery found, “the less capacity elected officials seemed to have to shape the basic contours of social life” — a reflection of the fact that (as historian Ray Gunn’s history of New York in the 1840s showed) “the economy was effectively insulated from democratic control.”  Montgomery’s book Citizen Worker showed that as government became more outwardly democratic, what it could do to shape daily material and economic experience on behalf of working people became more restricted.  Characterized by ever-increasing class inequality and bourgeois tyranny in what Marx called “the hidden abode of production,” economic development was placed beyond the reach of popular governance.  Government increasingly turned to literally and figuratively policing “free market” relations (including workplace relations) on behalf of the employer class.10

For the Democratic Organization of Production

This is useful historical context for understanding the pathetic powerlessness of the popularly elected — and, well, plutocratically selected11 — President Barack Obama’s claims to be in charge of the societal response (and non-response) to the dire situation in the Gulf of Mexico.  Much of the citizenry, which Obama supposedly represents (some gulf-shore residents seem to disagree, asking him to “stop acting like he works for BP”), is naturally outraged by the corporate-inflicted eco-tragedy and wants government to hold the perpetrators accountable.  Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder is preparing to pursue legal action against the British petroleum giant to “hold it accountable” for the environmental disaster.  Fine, good, whatever: he and the rest of the political class are “shockingly helpless” (Herbert) in the wake of the disaster.  As Bob Herbert’s fellow Times columnist, the Republican David Brooks, puts it, Americans “know there is nothing a man in Washington can do to plug a hole a mile down in the gulf.”12

The core problem here is that U.S. “democracy” has always been merely “political” and has not extended to the purpose, structure, technology, and essence of the core economic activities that constitute so much of the essence of humanity’s “interchange with nature” and of the material basis of daily life.  We need to correct, abolish, and overcome that separation, giving egalitarian material meaning to the devalued currency of democracy by organizing as “associated producers” to govern that interchange in accord with the common good.  “The most promising place to start,” Wood writes at the end of her aforementioned book, “is the democratic organization of production, which presupposes the re-appropriation of the means of production by the producers.”13

As the ongoing eco-cidal BP-Deepwater calamity suggests and as a growing mountain of scientific evidence shows, the overdue correction — the restored communal regulation of production — is more than merely desirable and recommended.  It is an existential requirement for the human species, for which it has long been (as the prolific Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros puts it) “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.”14  The barbarism has already begun and the fight is now both against that and for mere survival.  The corporate state is leading us on a death march at an ever-escalating pace.  Deepwater and Bhopal are us.  It will not do to tinker around the edges in response.  Only revolution can save the Earth.15



1  Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole (New York: International, 1967), p. 820.

2  For an unfortunate example of this confusion from a smart left writer who should know better, see Chris Hedges’ recent argument that to call for more left struggle and consciousness in America “does not mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of enslavement of the working class.”  That is a very childish and largely false understanding of Marx.  See Chris Hedges, “This Country Needs a Few Good Communists,” Truthdig (May 31, 2010).

3  Marx, it is worth recalling, was a great fan of free time and many-sided human creativity beyond the authoritarian dictatorship of involuntary work.  See Doğan Barış Kılınç, “Labor, Leisure, and Freedom in the Philosophies of Aristotle, Karl Marx, and Herbert Marcuse,” Masters Thesis, Middle East Technical University (2006), pp. 52-59.

4  Bob Herbert, “Our Epic Foolishness,” New York Times, June 1, A27.

5  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

6  Billy Bragg, “There is Power in a Union,” 2005.  So what if the activity in question ruins lives and environment beneath and beyond immediate profit considerations? So what if the spectacular division and mechanization of labor in the bourgeoisie’s large new manufactories reduced work activity to the mindless repetition of the same soul-smashing and mind-numbing task for 10, 12 and more hours a day and 6 or even 7 days a week for masses of de-humanized wager-earners?  This was of no concern to the industrial capitalists and their apologists in the times of Smith and Marx (or to this day).  What mattered to the people who mattered (the people with big money to invest in production and in the cultivation of loyal politicians and intellectuals) was that these glorious innovations increased the rate of labor exploitation and reduced the exchange value of commodified labor power, thereby increasing the rate and quantity of “surplus value” (the difference between [i] the workers’ wage and [ii] the full value created for the employer by the worker) and hence profit.  The seeming “paradox” of mechanization actually increasing the length of the workday, not reducing it, actually makes perfect sense under the perverse, selfish logic of capital, for devalued and more easily replaceable workers have less bargaining power to flex in defense of a human working day.  Progress in the development of the means of production does not mean more leisure and freedom for the working class under specifically capitalist relations of production; it means the opposite.

7  As Bob Dylan once said to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and others corporate “Masters (and profiteers) of War”: “Let me ask you one question: is your money that good?  Will it bring you forgiveness?  Do you think that it could?  I think you will find, when your death takes its toll, all the money you made will never bring back your soul.”

8  A report released by MIT scientists in the spring of 2009 advanced the most comprehensive modeling ever constructed on the global climate change.  The report showed that “without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago — and could be even worse [since] the model does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane.”  A prominent earth scientist heading the MIT report said that, “There’s no way the world can or should take these risks” and argued that “the least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies.”  See Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought: New Analysis Shows Warming Could be Double Previous Estimates,” MIT News, May 19, 2009.

9  Ellen Meiksens Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 274-276.

10  David Montgomery, Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States with Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

11  See Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); John R. MacArthur, You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (New York: Melville House, 2008).

12  David Brooks, “The Oil Plume,” New York Times, June 1, 2010, A27.  Brooks likes it that “the government is not in the oil business.”  That’s as it should be, as far as Brooks is concerned.

13  Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, p. 292.

14  Istvan Meszaros, Socialism or Barbarism: From the “American Century” to the Crossroads (New York: Monthly Review, 2001).

15  As Ricardo Levins-Morales noted in an important reflection on Left strategy and prospects last summer, the cautious “one small step at a time” approach to progressive change loses credibility when the existing order is posing ever more imminent existential questions of — and indeed radical threats to — survival of the species.  Honest appreciation of realistic imperatives calls for a more radical approach.  “If the road we are on leads to a precipice,” Levins-Morales observed, “then a shift in our strategic orientation is overdue.  If the Obama administration proposes modest green-oriented initiatives and then waters them down to mollify corporate interests, we will still (it can be argued) end up further along than we were to begin with.  If we envision ourselves as advancing across an expanse of open field, then we can measure our progress in terms of yardage gained and be satisfied that we are least moving in the right direction.  If, instead, a chasm has opened up which we must leap across to survive, then the difference between getting twenty percent versus forty percent of the way across is meaningless.  It means we have transitioned from a system of political letter grades to one of ‘pass/fail.’  We either make the leap or not.”   Ricardo Levins-Morales, “Revolution in the Time of Hamsters,” ZNet (September 1, 2009).

Paul Street is the author of many books, chapters, articles, reviews, and speeches.  His next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, August 2010).

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