Capitalism at $3 a gallon

After the New Orleans disaster, gas prices skyrocketed in a matter of days, shooting well over $3 a gallon everywhere in the U.S. While the prices have begun to come down somewhat, they are still substantially above what they were before the storm, and analysts are predicting that home heating oil will rise by 31 percent this winter.

If anything shows the inefficiency and injustice of permitting vital natural resources to be both privately owned and subject to the manipulation of “market forces” (i.e., price-gouging and producer price-fixing, and manufacturing and/or profiteering off scarcity-based crises), this certainly is it.

When this crisis broke, Lawrence Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Council, a business group, praised the EPA’s quick decision to permit lower grade fuels into the supply, commenting, “We need to create supply instantaneously.” Goldstein saw the administration’s use of reserves (which are “loaned” upon request to oil companies with the promise that they will return the oil at a later date — an interesting form of state capitalism) as a “good first step.” Why? Because it “tells investors and the market” that government is there to help. “It’s probably more psychological than physical, but it’s an important step. It breaks down the mindset that you are on your own.”

Who is on their own? The investors in oil stocks, not the people forced to depend upon private automobile transportation in a nation whose public transportation system has been largely gutted. Investors and “the market” are the ones to be helped, not consumers who must continue to “feel the pain” until investors and “the market” recover.

I doubt Goldstein is familiar with Karl Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism,” the view that policies made by business and political leaders are in reality not made by them but by markets, commodities, laws of supply and demand, i.e. forces outside human control which must be appeased the way ancient peoples set up totems to appease gods. But Goldstein’s statements are a textbook example of commodity fetishism.

This crisis has clearly been prepared for by a government of, by and for the oil companies, a government which barely pretends to be separate from the large multinational energy corporations. But the crisis also has long-term causes, as oil companies and automobile companies have worked together to de-fund public transportation, block the development of alternate energy sources and profiteer at the expense of the people, including many small and medium-sized business owners whose ability to survive is undermined by the private monopoly control of oil.

After a generation of deregulation and, except for the Clinton years, actively anti-conservation, anti-environmental administrations aiding and abetting corporations like Enron in extorting billions from California and other states through manufactured scarcity crises, we are more vulnerable than in the first “energy crisis” of the 1970s.

We need an international public energy policy that seeks to regulate and eventually bring the multinational oil companies under public ownership, while developing alternative energy sources that reduce dependence upon nonrenewable fossil fuels.

As a first step, progressive forces in the U.S. should take the lead in fighting for establishment of a national energy authority that would re-regulate energy production and prices, in a socially responsible way. It would eliminate the oil depletion allowance and other irrational corporate tax breaks, reward alternative energy innovation and conservation, and establish a public energy sector modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, which capitalists like to forget was enormously successful and efficient in producing low-cost power.

The U.S. could also begin to work with and learn from nations like Japan and Germany, which have continued to develop energy conservation programs while right-wing U.S. administrations since Reagan have ignored or actively opposed such programs.

The next step would be working with and through the United Nations to develop global and regional energy authorities to diversify energy sources, regulate the multinational oil companies and also begin to achieve the necessary economic and social development in the Middle East, the former Soviet republics, Africa and Latin America that will make those energy producing regions far more stable and far less subject to disruptions of production. As with international standards for labor, nutrition, housing and health care, energy resources literally cry out for an international planning process that is in the interest of the world’s people, not “investors and the market.”

If this sounds utopian, readers should ask themselves what the alternatives are. Many of the programs mentioned in this article have been carried forward in many countries in the past, often with great success. Such programs, along with a national public sector effort to reconstruct New Orleans and provide jobs and housing for its displaced people, are necessary if we are to cope with the disaster that both a freak of nature and a freakish reactionary government have created for us.





Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.