Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 3-2010, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

A Threatened Way of Life — or:
An Oil Spill as a Systemic Question

In the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explodes. For months, huge amounts of oil flow out of the borehole into the sea, reaching the American coast and in effect ruining the environment in several states, together with the livelihoods of large parts of the population. According to experts, this is the biggest environmental catastrophe in American history — and in view of this occasion, the country’s president, in his speech to the nation, draws attention to the importance of what is happening on the Gulf coast.

“As we speak, our nation faces a multitude of challenges. At home, our top priority is to recover and rebuild from a recession that has touched the lives of nearly every American. Abroad, our brave men and women in uniform are taking the fight to al Qaeda wherever it exists. And tonight, I’ve returned from a trip to the Gulf Coast to speak with you about the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens.” (All quotations taken from “Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill,” June 15, 2010.)

When the American President compares his nation’s battle against an oil slick with the fight it has taken on to restore its financial and economic power from the harm done to it by the crisis, a fight which is on the same level as the one the nation has been waging for years in order to eliminate its enemies, then one thing is certain: the man really blows his own trumpet. However, it would be unwise to brush his hyperbole aside as mere rhetoric. After all, the leader of the nation introduces his countrymen to the authoritative view of things, that is to say, to how they have to see the disaster in the Gulf. And when he classifies it as one of the worst-case national scenarios “challenging” the nation, then this reveals one thing: for him, the harm done by the oil far exceeds the damage recorded by the coasts and the citizens, the fishing industry and tourism — in the president’s view, the entire nation is essentially threatened by the oil pollution in the Gulf. Hence tackling the challenge that Obama has in mind extends beyond the restoration of the living conditions that are threatened by this accident. Rather, this requires that America comprehends and politically heeds the lessons that, in the president’s opinion, have to be learnt from the latest stroke of fate — first bin Laden, then the recession…

Lesson number 1: clouds of crude in the Gulf — a “most painful and powerful reminder” for a “change” in energy policy

The president opens a one-sided discourse with his people by reverting to the tried and tested patterns according to which, whenever there are minor or major catastrophes happening in capitalism, the administration in office sees itself called upon as a matter of course to prevent such unwelcome incidents in the future. Since, after all, it is the authority that permits all sorts of entrepreneurial risk-taking in the lucrative oil business, the conditions under which it does so can certainly be expected to be of a sort that business will take place incident-free:

“So one of the lessons we’ve learned from this spill is that we need better regulations, better safety standards, and better enforcement when it comes to offshore drilling.”

Having made the promise that drilling in seabeds will soon run smoothly, the president nonetheless has to warn his people against nurturing false hopes for security. Security standards being one thing, their enforcement another, America will, now and in the future, have to live with all the risks that the oil companies simply have to take on if they are to profitably exploit the desired raw material deep under the seabed. For their ambitious plans, they only follow the self-evident need in the market economy to close a demand-supply gap, which on its part results from the circumstance that the country consumes more oil than it has lying around at home.

“But a larger lesson is that no matter how much we improve our regulation of the industry, drilling for oil these days entails greater risk. After all, oil is a finite resource. We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.”

The lesson that the president draws from the exploded borehole turns out to be rather comprehensive, indeed. According to him, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico not only shows the risk that the companies encounter that could be managed by “better regulations.” Regulations are definitely needed, but they will not eliminate dangerous situations like the present one, simply because they are nowhere up to the risk that the nation has created for itself with its consumption of these “finite resources.” Since the country, in its consumption of the raw material, neither accepts its finiteness nor the difficulties in extracting it, the oil companies encounter unavoidable risks in trying to satisfy the country’s continuously growing need for oil — in the name of the nation that is paying the price for that in the form of the oil-spill.

It wouldn’t have needed the catastrophe for Obama to take his ‘lesson’ from it. What can be learned from it is something he has always known and now explicitly blames on his predecessor administrations, never abandoning the form of the national “we”:

“For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked — not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”

The oil-drilling disaster stands for the disaster that the nation is still addicted to fossil fuels, showing in its awful consequences the neglect of duties by all his predecessors who — far worse — have not weaned the country from its dependence. In the incumbent president’s view, they lacked the backbone for that, which he, of course, has. Instead of preparing the “path forward” for the nation, they did what they always do in their lobbies, thereby committing the nation’s weal and woe to the oil-companies’ private interests. The consequences of this irresponsibility of the highest authority are so dire that they reach from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to China, to the Middle East, and once again back to America’s Holiest of Holies:

“The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight. Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.”

In its narrow-minded and irresponsible fixation on oil as the energy source, the leading world political and economic power has maneuvered itself into the shadows in its president’s eyes. Having heard something about a highly promising future market in alternative energies, he automatically takes it for granted that his country will have to strategically occupy and organize it as a means for its own business success — and what does he see? Of all rivals, it is the one on the opposite coast of the Pacific, already far too powerful, that is grabbing this market, building up industries that actually belong to America! As concerns the rest of the world which America trades with, a trade whose balance results in a deficit on its accounts, there are a few “foreign countries” that, on this occasion, irritate the president. In itself, it is perfectly clear to him that the nation’s money has no other purpose than to increase America’s power and wealth — and who are its true beneficiaries? It is paid away to others who are gorging themselves from America’s dependence on the oil that lies buried on their territory. And hardly has the nation created a makeshift, trying to free itself at least a bit from the access to its wealth that sheiks and other parasites control, when the oil film floating in the Gulf makes it once again obvious to the president that the nation doesn’t have its vital basis of life under control. Here he sees nothing less at stake than the ‘way of life’ so typical of America — the ensemble of all tried and tested morals and customs that have turned capitalism made in the USA into the world’s leading power.

In this way, Obama portrays the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf as the manifestation of a general catastrophe of the nation. He dramatizes his predecessors’ sins of omission in the fight for the energy market of the future into treason, taking all unborn generations under his wings — “we cannot consign our children to this future” — in order to make it more than obvious to his countrymen that he is the one that can be unconditionally trusted. The future after all must change, and so it does — right now, under the leadership of its president.

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.”

As every tragedy has its catharsis, so does the nation’s departure from hard times have a bright mission and a leader who promises to lead it to success on all battlefronts.

Lesson Number 2: The crisis of an “entire way of life” — an order for “change” in political responsibility

The man has been there himself, so he knows what he’s talking about:

“You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. … The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they’ve lost. It’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.”

For the president, third and fifth generation shrimp fishermen and oyster gatherers are one thing above all: typical local editions of the shining hero, the hard-working American that honestly fights against others for his success, caring for himself, getting over each defeat, and carrying out, together with others who do the same with their means, the principle of life that has made America great. The chief of this country is so enthralled with them that he wants to have their economic damage immediately understood as a case of a much more general menace to the entire country: the impending loss of the genuine American way of life. In order to save it, the president is already on his way, and of course right at the spot from where, in his opinion, the threat emerged.

“One place we’ve already begun to take action is at the agency in charge of regulating drilling and issuing permits, known as the Minerals Management Service. Over the last decade, this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility — a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves. … But it’s now clear that the problem there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow. And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency … And his charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry’s watchdog — not its partner.”

Allegedly, a culture of irresponsibility has infected the control of the oil business. An administration “hostile to government” is said to have breached its official duties, to have, in essence, only administered its own non-regulation, and to have given away the sovereign definition of business regulations — which, as can now be seen, is urgently needed so that every “hard-working fisherman” can care for himself under fair conditions, so that the American way of life can unfold freely, and so that it is made clear even in big business that everything that is good for BP and all the other conglomerates is also really good for America!

So the president is stylizing himself the fisherman’s friend, the savior of his way of life and that of all other good Americans — and in this way at the same time a determined fighter against all those on the other side who will once again accuse him of left-wing control mania, un-American business-damaging behavior and blame him for the crisis that he is ostensibly combating. Obama’s critique of them is that they make themselves henchmen of private interests instead of providing reasonable rules for competition, from which both sides, the private interests and the nation, benefit. Anyone, says Obama, who denies this common sense subscribes to a “failed philosophy” that endangers America’s successful emergence in the future and threatens to undermine its sound civil society right now by colluding with big business.

If the material core of the hype about the Deepwater accident and its extensive interpretation by the nation’s chief is taken seriously, it is clear at least what all that does not mean. In no way does the president turn the golden rule upside down according to which the state fares best when it releases the private interests of its citizens into competition for their success, and when it restricts its oversight to the principle that competition has to be fair; continued, intimate cooperation between big business and politicians is expected to foster the nation’s success. In the case of BP, he is bothered about a government agency that apparently did not execute its control properly — had it done so, nothing would have gone wrong with the drilling in the Gulf. This is why the head of the nation wants to ensure immediately more control for all the enterprises that are imperative for successfully drilling for America’s own oil — which is still necessary, after all. But did this man really have to talk so big to say this, and to announce a new energy policy?

Lesson number 3: Yes we can!

Perhaps he can’t help it. But the big talk about the nation having to take an existential decision in energy questions on the occasion of the oil accident; the exaggerating generalizations of its causes, for instance, of a false philosophy of governance: this is what the head of the world power seems to find appropriate with regard to the state of his nation. His theatrics are not just an unfounded exaggeration, but stand for the political view of things in the White House, and in this point, the state of the union obviously causes discontent among its present leaders. They consider the state of global energy competition not to be beneficial for America’s wealth and might, neither at present nor in the future. Apart from their rhetorical elevations, these considerations concern the material conditions of America’s status as a world power, which is why the president regards it as appropriate to serve up the most severe caliber of nationalist agitation. He tries to woo support for his energy policy and at the same time to ward off the congenially fundamentalist attacks of the opposition; he seeks to prepare the masses for the costs and victims demanded by the way out of the economic crisis and the prospective success in the competition for global power; and he therefore once again announces a new national “mission”: when he does all this, then there is simply nothing else demanded but abstract confidence and — this is also typical of America — absolute trust in the national community’s tradition of success. Obama is an expert on this subject:

“Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs — but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment. And only if we rally together and act as one nation —- workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors…”

Obama’s sweeping blow, with which he seeks to take his nation back to the role of globally leading economic power, is reckoned to unleash the grandest possible moral force: it is not only an urgent requirement — it is also possible! It only has to be tackled swiftly, this very instant and, crucially, all together: this is how America will soon have millions of more jobs as a result, and the world market for clean energy in its hands. Dreaming big dreams and having iron confidence in their coming true — this also belongs to the enduring tradition of the American way of life, which Mr. Yes-we-can wants to raise to a new international standing.

“The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny — our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there…”

This nation manages simply every challenge with which fate encumbers it, and actually only because it has resolved to do so. For that, it does not even have to exactly know what it is that it manages; nor does it have to know how to deal with it, and even less so, who will benefit from the result when it has managed it. When America’s pioneers say, ‘Go west!’, America will simply be there sooner or later. When this nation wants to win a war, it builds lots of tanks and wins it. And, just as the moon landing only rewarded the determination of this nation, because simply any of its exertions have always guaranteed the success it has envisaged, so it is in this case. When God’s own country adjusts itself to clean energy, the world market will belong to it tomorrow.

This is how the president tries to gather his people behind him for the national departure he considers due. His opponents mobilize the American people for the nation’s departure the other way round, depicting the doom to which America and everything that this glorious nation represents are heading. The nation splits over this into two camps, which agree in principle on one point: anybody concerned about America’s success sees its current situation as intolerable.

© GegenStandpunkt 2010