The Oil Hemorrhage in the Progressive Narrative
The gulf oil disaster – which should be called a “hemorrhage”, not a “spill” – ought to repeal faith in the wisdom of unregulated markets. Like the financial crisis that has derailed so many lives and careers, the hemorrhage of oil from the sea bed is the result of policies and practices that might have seemed reasonable if you believed that our nation is suffering from excessive taxation, especially on the wealthy, and too much government regulation, both of which have extinguished the entrepreneurial spirit that made the nation great. Unfortunately, this is the mythology that has taken over most politicians and the mainstream press, but which should now appear ridiculous in light of the spectacular failure of the oil industry to prevent this catastrophe.
But where is the vision, the story, that can replace this “free-enterprise” myth that the establishment and many ordinary people buy into? In a recent article in The Nation, Amitai Etzioni claims that “there is no progressive narrative.” What the left has instead is a multitude of agendas and policy ideas that fail to unite even those on the left. What progressives do have, Etzioni writes, are
platform-like statements, replete with hortatory goals—for instance, that "all people should have equal opportunity in life, that all children should be able to go to good schools, and that everyone should have health care" (Mother Jones), or that "all persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment" (the Green Party).
Statements like these reflect the noble aspirations and sentiments of their authors but have all the mobilizing power of a sleeping pill. They provide no narrative, no explanation of why we are in such dire straits or how we must liberate ourselves.
Etzioni offers sets this as a task for progressives – to compose a shared narrative, which should include, he says,
a characterization of who bedevils us: Is it the military-industrial complex? Wall Street? Capitalism? The Christian right? Or what? [And then,] What is the end state we are aspiring to bring about? What is our shining city?
Etzioni suggests that we envision our society progressing “from one centered on labor, to one centered on work” – and by “work” he means productive activity “that is inherently satisfying and [makes] more room for social and spiritual pursuits.” By contrast, we are now “caught up in an economic system built around labor, one that makes a fetish out of long hours and the massive use of consumer goods to express affection, gain esteem and to self-actualize.”
Here Etzioni opens up a circle of issues that need to be vividly connected in the popular imagination: Oil and coal have provided the cheap energy that made industrial capitalism possible. But capital is like a cancer: it has to grow or else it shrivels, and this means that its fuels have to be increasingly exploited, to the point where they come up against the limits of the earth to supply them and to absorb their by-products. And to the point where their extraction creates ever greater damage to our earth and sea [as we heard earlier on the Old Mole from Michael Klare and Sandy Cioffi.]
But we have to remember that capital exploits not only the earth, but humanity as well. Way too many of us have soul-crippling jobs. As André Tosel puts it, the system requires “the real subordination of labor to capital, that is to say, the dispropriation of all those who work or are excluded from labor, from any control of their production or their existence.”
Capitalism also abuses us as consumers: “We are living in an age of consumerist intoxication spurred on by advertising,” to quote Edgar Morin. As Marx pointed out, “[capitalist] production not only creates a product for the consumer, but also a consumer for the product.” Capitalism creates us as consumers of oil and coal: it creates a world in which we drive and fly to get around, and consume products, like plastics, made from oil, and a cornucopia of food produced with petroleum-based fertilizers and herbicices, and brought to us from all around the world by means of oil consuming transport.
Etzioni distinguished between labor and work, where work is what we want to do for ourselves and for others. Labor, by contrast, is done for money, and that’s another way in which capitalism is destructive: it reduces our desires to the desire for money. This too is at the bottom of the petroleum hemorrhage going on in the Gulf – the necessity of oil companies as capitalist enterprises to grow they are to survive. Michael Klare writes,
The major energy firms have their own compelling reasons for a growing involvement in the exploitation of extreme energy options. Each year, to prevent the value of their shares from falling, these companies must replace the oil extracted from their existing reservoirs with new reserves. … Clearly, BP’s top executives believed that a rapid ramp-up in production in the Gulf was essential to the company’s long-term financial health (and indeed, only days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the company announced that it had made $6.1 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2010 alone).
Etzioni identifies as the “enemies of the good society” “those who promote the commodification of life, the promotion of consumer goods (and the hard labor that acquiring them requires), as the mainstay of the good life….” It is this commodification of all life that our new narrative must teach us to abominate and resist. As Bob Dylan says to the “Masters 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.
But this is a truth that applies to all of us: whether we pursue money because we need it to avoid starvation or eviction, or in order to maintain control of a corporation, if our life revolves around money, then we fail to satisfy our deepest desires, which are the desires for human contact and recognition.
So what we need in our new story is not only a visceral insight into the many evils brought on by money as life’s first concern, but also a clear-headed desire for a way of life that centers on taking care of ourselves and each other and our planet. That would be a perspective within which the oil disaster would be seen for what it is: a crime against the earth and the life it supports.