Look for an expanded analysis in the July-August issue of News & Letters

Gulf oil rig explosion kills workers, devastates environment, exposes capitalist "development"

by Franklin Dmitryev

The April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off the country's biggest oil spill, still gushing nearly two months later, underscores what needs no more proof: that capitalism develops, as Karl Marx wrote, "only by sapping the original sources of all wealth--the soil and the laborer."

Working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico is particularly dangerous: from 2006 to 2009 30 workers died and 1,296 injuries were reported in 632 fires, explosions and other accidents. No doubt many more injuries were covered up. Much press coverage has brought out BP's sordid history of safety violations, including the 2005 explosion at its Texas refinery that killed 15 workers. Workers and engineers from the Deepwater Horizon have told of the many ways corners were cut and danger signs ignored before the April 20 explosion in the rush to get production going.

And yet, while BP is one of the most blatant killers, the truth is that sucking the life out of workers, quickly or slowly, to build up capital is the very essence of the system itself. The latest disaster came on the heels of the Massey mine explosion 15 days earlier (see "For Mine Bosses, 29 Dead Just the Cost of Digging Coal," May-June 2010 N&L), and that in turn followed by three days another explosion at the Tesoro oil refinery near Seattle, which killed seven. Yet another explosion in February at the Kleen Energy power plant under construction in Connecticut killed five workers. In fact, just in the U.S. over 5,000 workers are killed on the job every year, while ten times that many die from occupational diseases, and several million are injured.


From the start of the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been key to capitalism, for the energy to drive its machines for production and, later, to power vehicles, whether for consumers, for global trade, or for its armies of destruction. Those industries, therefore, combine extraordinary political and economic power with a recklessly lethal drive for production. They are heavily implicated in environmental racism across the world. In the Niger Delta in West Africa, Shell Oil pulls out billions in revenue while leaving the local peoples in poverty and pollution, and the Nigerian government, on behalf of Shell, viciously attacked the freedom movement, executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders. In the industrial corridor called "Cancer Alley" between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, predominantly African-American communities suffer high rates of cancer linked to the many oil refineries and petrochemical plants near them, where quite a few of them also work. Many of these communities were founded by former slaves after the Civil War, and today they exemplify the inseparability of capitalism's war against workers and its war against the environment.

Marx's Capital, as quoted above, gave a good description of this aspect of development under capitalism: "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."


What is absolutely central to capitalism's laws of development is its need and drive for never-ending growth and accumulation of capital, which means ever-greater domination and oppression of the worker at the point of production together with growing unemployment outside it, as well as ever-greater pillaging of the earth and burdens on its ecological systems. How incredibly inhuman this development is was seen in the reactions to the oil rig disaster from the ruling class, its corporations, its political parties and its media. The 11 workers who died were quickly overshadowed by the all-important task of making sure that this disaster would not derail the expansion of offshore oil drilling. Republicans howled from the beginning that this should not be the excuse for one step back from "Drill, baby, drill!" while the Obama administration called for a moratorium to deflect pressure to cancel the drilling expansion, but initially kept granting offshore drilling permits and environmental waivers. They have no intention to roll back Obama's March 30 opening of vast areas in the Gulf, the Atlantic, and Alaskan waters to oil and gas drilling for the first time.

BP lied from day one--or rather, before it, since their drilling plan claimed that a spill was highly unlikely ever to occur and also claimed that they could handle a spill even bigger than the biggest estimates of this one. From day one they downplayed the size of the oil spill and to this day they are still blocking independent scientists who want to bring in technology that could accurately estimate the rate of oil gushing from the sea floor. Eventually, a special government technical team released its official estimate that the spill is the biggest in U.S. history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago--where neither communities nor ecosystems have ever fully recovered. In spite of BP's lies, everybody knows now that a major environmental disaster is underway. BP lied to cleanup workers, telling some that the oil and toxic dispersants they were swimming in was "red tide" or detergent.

The cleanup is part coverup. The dispersants BP is pumping into the ocean and spraying from planes are toxic chemicals that do not eliminate the oil but break it up and keep some of it under the surface. Veritable lakes of oil mixed with water--whose existence BP denied--have formed beneath the surface, with unknown consequences, possibly including huge dead zones to come.

One of the Democrats' big concerns is that a temporary retreat from expanding offshore drilling will shoot down the careful compromise underpinning the Kerry-Lieberman "American Power Act" bill to deal with climate change. Designed to ensure that the energy needed to power capitalist production continues to flow, it contains so many concessions to oil drilling, "clean" coal, nuclear power, and financial derivatives to be based on pollution credits, also known as carbon emission trading, that it charts a course not far from business as usual, which is the path leading to climate chaos. That is not inevitable if humanity can take rational, freely associated control of social production and the direction in which it develops. However, under capitalism, whether in the U.S. or China, India or Brazil, the direction is to suck up ever more energy, so that even the most determined initiatives to improve energy efficiency and provide alternative sources of energy are not enough to satisfy the werewolf's hunger, and it will literally go to the ends of the earth to devour more oil, coal, and natural gas.


Case in point: the Arctic Ocean. Shell is moving forward with a drilling project there, excusing itself from planning for a blowout on the grounds that "a large oil spill...is extremely rare and not considered a reasonably foreseeable impact." Don't worry about the gale-force winds, the subzero temperatures, the lack of capability to respond to a spill in these icy waters.

Or take Canada's tar sands. The extraction of oil from these tar sands has been called "possibly the largest industrial project in human history." The process is so intensive that huge amounts of energy are used and huge amounts of carbon dioxide are released just in producing the oil.

The point is that easily accessible oil and gas reservoirs in most parts of the world have been depleted. So the push is on to drill now, drill not so much here as in the Arctic, in the tar sands, in the deep waters, even 9,000 feet below the surface, past the Deepwater Horizon's 5,000 feet.


You can see the same dynamic at work in China, where the world's biggest wind power construction program coexists with the world's greatest production and consumption of coal--and death toll of coal miners, with 592 reported in the first three months of this year--as well as cultivation of oil exports from Africa, Latin America, Iran, and Uzbekistan. Clearly, China is on the same unsustainable development path as the U.S. Not realizing that they were illustrating the unsustainability of capitalism itself, some environmentalists have pointed out that, if China reached the same consumption patterns per person as the U.S., then that country alone would use twice as much paper as the world produces today, and would drive 27% more cars than the world has today, which would require paving an area comparable to what China now plants in rice. China would need 98 million barrels of oil a day, 13 million more than current global production. These analysts overlook the fact that oil use is driven by production as well as consumption, and that in capitalism production drives consumption, that even the consumer is a product of capitalist society carefully shaped by marketing, education, city layout, design of infrastructure, and so forth.

This realization brings new urgency to the category Raya Dunayevskaya made of the multilinear paths of development that Marx was writing about in the new philosophic-historic moments of his last decade. He pointed out that some countries could develop to socialism without going through the vicissitudes of capitalism, that communal forms contained a duality and could be the basis for such a development, but that it would take a revolution to accomplish it--that revolution could happen first in a non-capitalist country and could be the starting point for development of the new society if it "becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other." Today we can see that for all countries to go through the vicissitudes of capitalism to the point that has been reached by the highly industrialized countries is not even possible.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is one of the more horrific examples of the fallout from capitalist development, with much worse to come if it is allowed to continue. Nothing less than a social revolution can break with that suicidal direction and put society on a path of truly human development.

--June 8, 2010

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