Profiteering by Big Oil might just be the thing that pushes U.S. consumers over the edge into insurrection mode. Given what’s happening at the gas pump, that’s not so wild an idea. Gas prices have leaped 31 percent in just one year!
And if that weren’t enough of a problem, the burning of fossil fuels has created a global warming emergency that is already making populated parts of the Earth inhabitable.
Poor and working people are being stiffed, the planet is out of whack, and everyone knows it. But what’s anybody doing about it? And what could be done?
Solutions versus profits. Reams have been written, including in this newspaper, about possible solutions.
Put an immediate cap on gas prices for nonindustrial consumers. Make autos that don’t run on fossil fuel. Create a system of free, rapid mass public transportation across the country that includes light rail, heavy rail, buses, etc. Redesign cities with lots of pedestrian and bike paths. Research and implement renewable, eco-friendly energy options.
All of these proposals, and more, are conceivably doable. But there’s a catch. Like free, quality healthcare and public education for all, they’re not generators of guaranteed, immediate, exorbitant profits.
For example, it takes a great deal more labor and energy to harness wind and solar power, at present, than to extract oil. Oil men are clear on the subject. “Renewable energy,” said former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond in the British newspaper Economist, is “a complete waste of money.”
When Raymond retired last December, ExxonMobil reported profits of $36.1 billion — the largest in U.S. history. Raymond personally raked in $400 million that year.
Clearly, when wind and solar power finally get developed, it won’t be thanks to capitalist industry. There is no solution for skyrocketing consumer costs and plunging planetary health as long as control of the energy industry remains in the hands of the monster oil industry and its kindred financial and industrial monopolies.
Take back the stolen wealth! The obvious answer, then — the elephant sitting in the corner — is to take the control out of their hands. Energy is too important to be anything but a nonprofit, public industry: that is, a nationalized industry.
And the oil fields and rigs, the private electrical power stations and grids, etc., should be expropriated — taken from corporations like ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch/Shell without compensation. Why? Because theirs is stolen wealth in the first place.
To start with, the basis of all profits is the appropriation of the enormous surplus value created by workers. By surplus value is meant the economic value of a product over and above the amount of the stingy paycheck of the worker who produced it.
But, for the energy gangsters, that’s just the beginning of the theft. On top of the exploitation of workers, add consumer price-gouging; corporate subsidies, tax breaks, and tax cheats; the plunder of a planetary resource, fossil fuels, that took millions of years to form; and the lost lives and looted public treasuries that are the cost of war for oil. These are the means by which energy fortunes are built.
In workers’ hands. More than 80 percent of the world’s oil is already nationalized. But most countries where this is true are capitalist countries, and that’s a problem, because decisions are still made in the interest of big business.
For that reason, what’s needed is nationalization under workers’ control — the direct management of industries by working people organized together.
Radical? Yes. But if we want affordable energy and a Manhattan that’s still above sea level 100 years from now, radical is the only way to go. And, in many places, steps are already being taken in this direction.
In Argentina in 2001, 52 workers, most of them women, took over the Brukman textile factory, because their boss wouldn’t pay back wages. They’re still running the place, just like many other Argentineans who occupied their job sites when the country’s economy collapsed. However, because the workers did not go as far as taking over the government at that time, their factories are now in a precarious position.
In Venezuela, the government of Hugo Ch‡vez permits workers to take over abandoned or under-utilized companies, and people are vigorously debating whether this development should be expanded upon. Neoliberal finance capital still holds sway in Venezuela, but the ferment about worker control is sparking some very far-reaching ideas.
Obviously, workers can and do manage job operations. In the oil industry, for example, the skill and experience of employees, from rig operators to office workers and researchers, is more than enough to run things.
CEOs plan merely for profit. Those who care about something other than the bottom line, and who actually know the work, would plan for safe and efficient production and distribution of the goods and services they create.
Challenging Big Oil with a big movement. Consider these features of the U.S. scene: a morally outraged movement that is fighting to end a dirty war dedicated to enlarging oil profits; a scientifically savvy environmental movement that regularly exposes the energy industry’s predatory behavior; a restive rank-and-file labor movement that is fed up with union leaders who accommodate the bosses rather than confront them; and millions of pissed-off worker-consumers who come to a boil every time they pass a gas station.
Think of the power of all these people combined into one mass movement! They would be unstoppable.
Nationalization of the energy industry under workers’ control, with all of its revolutionary implications, is already being discussed on internet blogs. It needs also to be openly debated in union and neighborhood meetings, strike kitchens, feminist caucuses, coalitions for racial justice, town halls, and at dinner tables.
In his seminal work History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote, “The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old regime.” People tend to rebel, that is, when they can’t stand it any more.
Is that time now?