Thursday, September 07, 2006
Big fat selfish Americans. posted by Richard SeymourThere's a mode of liberal critique of American foreign policy, especially on matters of oil, which holds it to be "selfish", which is to say that America is selfish, that American voters are too hooked on SUVs and their environmentally destructive lifestyle. Such criticisms often involve referencing Kyoto, a set of protocols that involved hardly any movement which the Bushies rebuffed in favour of moving not at all. Look, they say, we enlightened Europeans signed up and some of us are even meeting our targets - as if European electorates are more altruistic and long-sighted. That irritating Greenpeace advertisement the other week was of a similar persuasion: if not discussing Americans, it did manage to attribute environmental destruction to the selfish consumer who unnecessarily drives around in a big, gorgeous, gas-guzzling vehicle. Such critique sits well within the usual narrow spectrum of debate over such matters, since it carefully exculpates the system that drives the increasingly rapid exploitation of the last oil resources.
But is it self-interest? This happens to be fairly easy to test, since the American public is the most polled and probed population in the world. Even on the narrow issue of Kyoto, American opinion has for years supported the protocols and in fact a plurality appears to believe that Bush supports them too. On the issue of demonstrable self-interest, it so happens that studies show that the biggest losers from high oil prices are the working class, since they must use a higher proportion of their budget on energy costs. (It's expensive being poor). The oil prices may fall back again temporarily, but everyone knows that the oil is becoming more expensive to mine, more difficult to find, and eventually much much more scarce.
The cost to the average working class American for this enforced dependency is therefore going to be enormous. And not only in their wallet. The attempt to control the oil spigot is going to involve the US army in an increasing number of interventions around the world, and almost every expert in the field anticipates that this will expose Americans to an increased risk of being targeted by militant groups.
Americans are increasingly aware of the consequences of those policies, and report growing support for different policies. The American government doesn't care, as why should it? It is not beholden to the fraction of the population that bothers to vote for it. Even where states try to research and implement alternatives, powerful lobbies block it. To move as fast as we would need to on environmental terms would involve a massive restructuring of the economy which, while certainly in the interests of working class Americans (as well as almost everyone else), would involve an unthinkable challenge to the interests and priorities of capital. Not only oil, oil-processing and car companies, but all derivative economies resist such moves. In fact, throughout the 20th Century, oil multinationals have worked extremely hard to roll back alternatives wherever they have emerged, often to the great detriment of the hated consumer, as when in 1940 GM, Standard Oil and Firestone acquired and dismantled electric rail links in parts of California. They also ripped up and dismantled the electric rail and car system in Los Angeles and motorised downtown - they were all convicted of criminal conspiracy in 1949, but fined so little that it hardly mattered. Now, Los Angeles has beautiful smog sunsets. Even on such piddling matters as Kyoto, the Global Climate Coalition - an axis of oil and car companies including Shell, Texaco and Ford - has been working overtime to block even the slightest shift, bribing politicians and parties to achieve this. This sort of thing is referred to as 'corporate greed': it is the competitive accumulation of capital and those who run the system couldn't do otherwise if they were self-abnegating puritans who preferred the lifestyle of ascetic monks.
Still, it serves the self-love of European liberals to bleat about naughty, wicked, selfish Americans, and this passes for stringent critique in some quarters.