Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Philosophical Note on an Inauspicious Anniversary

The expression something “catching up” with you or “creeping up on you” are the people’s way of referring to a phenomenon that you notice not because you are particularly perceptive but because the phenomenon forces itself upon you; you could be dumb as a mule and yet, you will notice it because, like the impact of a whip, there is no escaping it. Old age, for example, creeps up on you. It eventually catches up with you.

Nothing creeps up on you and catches up with you like dialectics, if you live in an advanced Western society.

In his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean Paul Sartre has a relatively lengthy passage about the Chinese peasant destroying the forests in search of arable land. He writes:
But above all, deforestation as the elimination of the obstacles becomes negatively a lack of protection: since the loess of the mountain and peneplains is no longer retained by the trees, it congests the rivers, raising them higher than the plains and bottling them up in their lower reaches, and forcing them to overflow their banks. Thus, the whole history of the terrible Chinese floods appears as an intentionally constructed mechanism ... The peasant becomes his own material fatality; he produces the flood which destroy him.
Here, Sartre is exploring the broader relation of man and nature, but you see his point about the peasant becoming his own “material fatality”.

It is amusing that a mere 50 years ago, the perceptive author of a book on dialectics had to reach to a far away land in search of a suitable example of self-destructive conduct.

Every page of Speculative Capital, like every movement of speculative capital, contains one such example.

The comparison is not totally accurate because Sartre is talking about the relation of man and nature, you say?

That brings me to the inauspicious anniversary of the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico. I am thinking of course of British Petroleum.

BP is the old Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. If you are a student of history or Middle East politics, that would say it all. Long before the protection of the environment and workers' safety had impressed themselves upon the general consciousness, the British expatriates in Iran wrote of the callous and criminal disregard of the company for the environment and human life alike.

In the British way, the tradition continued. At the time of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in April 20 last year, BP had 760 “egregious, willful” violations of safety and environmental rules and regulations. ExxonMobil had 1. In all, 97% of all violations handed out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the U.S. were for BP.

Let me now give you another astounding statistic: 1 out of every 6 pound of pension money paid in the UK – about 15% – comes from BP.

With Cameron’s Great Society scheme, in which the private corporations are to take over the government function, and with the inevitable pension privatization that will follow, how do you restrict, never mind punish, BP?

The answer is that you cannot. BP's destruction of the environment and its handing out handsome dividends go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin. Only by having 760 “willful” violations, by totally disregarding all environmental concerns, could BP produce sufficient profits to keep the UK pensioners in relative comfort.

And it is not only the British people or the government. Cash-strapped U.S. consumers have the same attitude. Financial Times, Apr 20:
New polls show a majority of voters disapprove of his [Obama’s] handling of the economy. They also increasingly believe the US ought to increase drilling for oil and natural gas in US waters, a sign of their concern at skyrocketing petrol prices and, analysts say, the belief that the White House is dragging its heels on the issue.
Drill baby, drill!

If you can read this, Monsieur Sartre, I say forget the Chinese peasants. They did not know what they were doing. And when their error was pointed out to them, they stopped. They could afford to stop. What would you say about this situation?

In the same book, Sartre wrote:
The dialectic reveals itself only to an observer situated in interiority, that is to say, to an investigator who lives his investigation as a possible contribution to the ideology of the entire epoch and as the particular praxis of an individual defined by his historical and personal career within the wider history which conditions it.
Nice words, these. What Sartre did not tell us – it probably did not occur to him – was how uncomfortable the dialectic could be when it breathes down your neck when you are in the position of interiority!