John Buell

Exxon’s Lies and a Word from the Pope

Viewers of the recent Olympic games were treated to another deceptive effort by Exxon to rebrand itself as a responsible corporate citizen. Exxon’s actions, however, were hardly unique. They reflect and help shape a neoliberal worldview — often called the Washington consensus.

Consider the infamous cap and trade. As Philip Mirowski points out, most neoliberals never believed in their own denialism. It was a strategy to fight off regulation and to find a market-oriented approach to the problem. A market in transferable permits for carbon emission seemed the ideal neoliberal solution. It was complex, creating possibilities for manipulation, and it established a new set of tradable securities.

From the start the market has been dogged by the failure of enforcement mechanisms. More fundamentally, markets for carbon permits interact in destructive ways with security and consumer markets. When the world financial market collapsed, coal prices and the price of carbon permits declined, thus removing any incentive to move out of this noxious fuel. Finally, when such dangerous and uncertain programs as cap and trade, financial deregulation, or offshore oil production blow up, as they inevitably will, clean-up costs are largely dumped on the public. Then when government debt grows, this phenomenon is taken as proof of government’s inevitable propensity to overreach.

Neoliberalism includes a dangerous contempt for democracy. In the marketplace of ideas, dollars vote. Some ideas are therefore more equal than others. Friedrich Hayek dismisses the popular will: “if we proceed on the assumption that only the exercises of freedom that the majority will practice are important, we would be certain to create a stagnant society with all the characteristics of unfreedom.”

Taken together, austerity, privatization, the collapse of periodic financial bubbles, and the hollowing out of democracy have driven a fierce turn toward socioeconomic inequality. Inequality shields the rich. The poorest — and especially minority groups — are virtually disenfranchised and left vulnerable to accepting the blandishments of the oil giants.

To paraphrase the 18th-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, inequality has reached the point where part of the population no longer has the resources to participate effectively and a tiny minority has the affluence and power to escape social problems.

What about those in the shrinking middle? Workers face longer hours in highly stratified workplaces, exacerbating pressures to keep up with the higher-ups Describing these phenomena in a 1995 book, The Ethos of Pluralization, William Connolly argues: “The American Political Economy is built around the illusory promise of universalizing exclusionary goods. As it becomes increasingly clear to a variety of constituencies that they are losing ground in this elusive quest, they either drop out of institutional politics or vent their anger on the most vulnerable scapegoats available.”

Despite these chronic problems, shareholder value, austerity, and the magic of the market are so common today that they are taken as axioms of modern societies. Mirowski calls this phenomenon everyday neoliberalism. Yet neither law nor economic history affirms the validity of the neoliberal creed. A corporation’s obligations are to its consumers, workers, and the larger community. Corporations are granted special privileges — by governments — but accompanying these privileges are obligations. The shareholder is owed corporate honesty but only residual earnings after workers’ and community’s responsibilities are met.

Adequately addressing Exxon’s lies involves more than punishment of the perpetrators. Market fundamentalism must be challenged, and the finance industry curbed. That sector breeds instability and sucks away talent and resources from the productive economy. Safety nets must be preserved and strengthened. They serve as precautions against at least some of the volatility of modern society. Proactively ambitious spending is required to meet a climate emergency. Declaration of a climate emergency should also include recognition that many poor and minority communities have been treated as sacrifice zones that must bear the burdens of what Naomi Klein calls the extractive economy. Proper attention to this phenomenon — including disproportionately generous funding — and recognition of the role that these communities have played in resisting extraction’s excesses might blunt some of the racial antagonisms that have bedeviled progressive politics.

In this connection progressives must consider some fundamental dilemmas of coalition building. University of Texas economist James Galbraith spoke of a “Keynesian devolution,” a set of policies that combined public spending, regulation and planning, tax incentives and private investment in transit and suburban housing. This combination brought us the relative prosperity of the post World War II era. We need comparable programs to revamp transportation, urban planning and the energy infrastructure to meet our current crisis, but meeting these needs requires addressing a persistent paradox. An ambitious progressive agenda might reduce social tensions and the inclination to demonize, but current racial and religious divisions impede enactment of such a program.

Some progressive Democrats are aware of this tension, but their approach is at so high a level of abstraction as to leave as many questions as answers. Consider this section from the party’s environmental platform.

• Democrats believe that cooperation is better than conflict, unity is better than division, empowerment is better than resentment, and bridges are better than walls.

It’s a simple but powerful idea: we are stronger together.

Unfortunately, many social conservatives would also endorse these terms — and be ready to impose their interpretation of unity on us. Their unities are fostered and sustained by denigration and demonization of a foreign or domestic dissident. Is unity sustained by commitment to one core principle? Could that principle subtly reflect values that exclude some segments and interests and thus be a tool to secure particular identities? Alexis de Tocqueville attributed America’s greatness to its being a Christian nation, thereby hiding from his readers — and himself — the violence and injustice inflicted on Jews and Native Americans.

Might more unity be possible through recognizing and cultivating current and emerging differences along multiple dimensions?

There are already expansive movements across ethnic, religious, and national boundaries to build coalitions in support of programs to secure environmental health. Pope Francis has acknowledged the reasonable contestability of his core creed. This is especially important if, as Connolly would argue, the traditional views of nature, which have sustained and been sustained by socialist, capitalist, and feudal regimes are deficient.

Nature has been conceived as an organic totality, an orderly hierarchy with God and man at the top or as a mechanistic domain fully comprehensible and manipulable for human purposes. In one way or another nature exists for us. This narcissistic view often undergirds the faith that society will eventually be sustained by unity of core beliefs. But if, as nontheists like Connolly argue, “the cosmos is composed of innumerable, interacting open systems with differential capacities of self-organization set on different scales of time, agency, viscosity, and speed,” such a world is unlikely ever to support and sustain unanimity of core beliefs or to have its future turn around one axis, such as class, race, or gender.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Francis does not denigrate atheists. He has invited participants from multiple religious backgrounds to debate the differing convictions as to the ultimate nature of the cosmos even as they converge on some common measures to save the planet. Different motives and ideals will lead different groups to participate in such politics, but the strength of the coalition depends on willingness to acknowledge that one may have gaps in one’s own world view analogous to those eagerly noted in the opponent and that new rights claims may emerge in a dynamic world. Connolly acknowledges “many will refuse his or similar invitations,” but positive dispositions — just as hateful and vindictive ones — can be contagious. Even sporadic and partial local successes in a world so linked by social media can by their example change the character of politics. Rather than wonder whether we have time to act we must proceed now.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2016

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