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Oil and the Left: An interview with Imre Szeman

Andony Melathopoulos with Brian Worley

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010

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In September of this year, Andony Melathopoulos interviewed Imre Szeman, author, professor, and founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies, on behalf of the Platypus Review, to discuss his analysis of oil politics in light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the political responses to it. The interview was prepared in conjunction with Brian Worley.

Andony Melathopoulos: In your estimation, did the recent BP disaster precipitate any new thinking from the Left? How could the Left's responses be characterized and do they reveal anything about the state of the Left more generally? Did the disaster in any way change your thinking about oil?

Imre Szeman: I must admit to not following the BP disaster too closely after the initial few days of the event. The direction that the news on the Gulf spill was heading followed a path well trodden by other disasters of the present age, whether natural or social. Shock that such an event could happen, public and political accusations of government and corporate malfeasance and ineptitude, a frightful encounter with (ecological) limits, and finally mitigation in the form of high-sounding words from those in power that seem to put everything back in its place and allow more quotidian disasters and problems to roll back into the news stream. I did not want to be taken on this particular ride, even given my interest in oil; I checked in with the news but tried to keep my distance.

One might expect that an environmental disaster on this scale might prompt some change in how oil is extracted and how it is consumed. Indeed, in a televised address on June 15, 2010, President Obama declared that the BP spill showed that the US had to end its “century-long addiction to fossil fuels,” and made promises to support the creation of alternative fuel sources. It’s an eerie echo of Richard Nixon’s speech from the White House on November 7, 1973, when in reaction to the oil crisis of that year he said that “in the long run, [the crisis] means that we must develop new sources of energy, which will give us the capacity to meet our needs without relying on any foreign nation.” Or Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Address on April 18, 1977, when he stated that “because we are now running out of gas and oil, we must prepare for a… change—to strict conservation, and to the renewed use of coal, and to permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.” As the spill fades from public and political consciousness, I suspect that the outcome of the most recent presidential speech will be like those in 1973 or 1977. Not much will change in the way in which oil is used, not just in the U.S., but anywhere in the world. Our social and economic systems are designed in such a way as to be utterly dependent on oil. After the 1973 oil crisis, the U.S. consumed 14.9 million barrels per day; in 2009, it was estimated that estimated U.S. oil consumption grew more than 40 per cent, to 20.7 million barrels a day. Obama may well want to get the U.S. off its addiction to fossil fuels. But he has a much bigger oil system to deal with. His actions at the COP 15 meeting don’t exactly leave one full of hope at the prospect of change, though the BP spill might alter the political landscape on this issue in some ways.

I’m not sure that the oil spill substantially changed any of my opinions. Mostly, it has reaffirmed several facts about oil. We need it to keep our social and economic systems operating—or at least, operating in their current fashion. We are running out of it, which is why dangerous, deep ocean drill rigs like the Deepwater Horizon—or the Mariner Energy Well, which caught fire in the Gulf on September 2—are in operation to begin with. We are likely to continue to try to find oil wherever it might be, because the operations of capitalism depend on it. While there is lots of talk about changing behaviors and altering the forms of energy we use in order to mitigate such disasters, the reality is that oil remains relatively cheap, easy to store and transport, and can be used for other purposes, too, such as for fertilizers and plastics.

As for responses to the oil spill on the Left, I would say that there are positions one can take with respect to fossil fuels that are not very productive, and insofar as the Left finds itself adopting these positions, it is problematic. The first problematic approach is to insist on the need for better legislation regarding where one drills for oil, as can be found in calls for a moratorium on deep water drilling. The implicit suggestion of such calls is that drilling elsewhere—that is, on land—is fine, as long as certain protocols are followed and laws adhered to. This is an environmental version of liberal capitalism, one that takes an ameliorative approach by which Nature is protected through the strong arm of the state. A second troublesome position is a blunt call for the end to all oil drilling and oil consumption, if not in the present, then in the near future. What this position gains in ethical certitude it loses in a test against reality: It comes across as moral hectoring or bad utopianism. In general, I think the Left must take oil as a symptom and be cautious about reacting to it on the same level on which it appears, namely as a “bad” source of energy that the Left has to reign in, eliminate, or come up with a “good” substitute for. The real issue is capitalism, not oil.

More broadly, the BP disaster exemplifies the way we tend to react to disaster with a kind of “faux shock”—faux because such spills have happened before and cannot but happen, given the scale of oil drilling on the planet—followed by rapid memory loss so that things can continue much as they did before. It was weeks before the U.S. media remembered that a major spill had occurred in the Gulf three decades earlier—the Pemex-owned Ixtoc 1, which spilled an estimated 3,000,000 barrels into the ocean in 1979–1980.

AM: Given that the real issue is capitalism, the difficulty would seem to rest in how one understands capitalism and, with regard to the politics of oil, how one understands the relation of capitalism to oil. In 2007 you took issue with the Retort Collective’s attempt to locate a capitalist core governing the economics and geopolitics of oil production.[1] Rather than separating contemporary capitalism and oil out, you suggest they should be intertwined as “oil capitalism.” What are the political stakes of making or failing to make this distinction?

IS: It is a heuristic move, one designed to draw attention back to capitalism rather than back to oil. The tendency is to think of oil as an externality, an element of capitalism (energy) that can be easily substituted by some other element (solar, wind, nuclear, etc.) without much impact on the nature or character of the system. This is why, when there is talk about energy futures, it seems to be assumed that the economic system of that future will continue to be capitalism. “Oil capitalism” is intended to make us think differently and more deeply about the socio-ontology of capitalism. Could we have capitalism without oil? Plainly. Would it have the same character and form, especially on a global scale? I think not. This is more than a game of alternative histories, of asking, “What if there was no such thing as oil?” Rather, it is meant to confront some challenges coming in the future, and to get the Left to think about topics essential to social emancipation and justice. We tend not to think about the work that energy does socially, and will have to do even if political circumstances change.

But I also think that conjoining capitalism to oil is productive in a more crudely materialist way. Oil is an essential element of capitalism today—essential to its being. We live out a laughable social existence, which at its base depends on a material that resulted from a happenstance of geological history that cannot be repeated and which is rapidly dwindling. Even if we were able to access all the oil on the planet, it would still be of limited supply. I continue to find it amazing that this fact of limit seems to have no impact on the day-to-day operations of capitalism. But how could it in a system in which the crude matter of nature comes as if for free and which measures itself not by limits but by the growth of profit year over year?

When I say that in thinking about oil we should think about “oil capitalism” it is, again, another way of saying that the problem is not oil, but capitalism. No matter what system we operated within, oil would be limited. In other systems, however, we might have a greater capacity to manage the expansion of our economies and populations, and to take this fact of limits into account instead of doing what we seem so adept at today: forgetting about it.

AM: Many Canadian leftists connect Alberta’s massive oil reserves to the 40-year political domination of conservatives provincially, as well as to the growth, since the 1990s, of a conservative populism nationally. Do you agree that the ways in which oil has transformed Alberta should have necessarily led to a rightward move? Are the activities of the Left with respect to Alberta oil in any way implicated? Does the Left’s naturalization of rightwing politics in areas with oil reserves clarify or obscure the political situation?

IS: These are difficult questions, in part because I am still trying to take the measure of the politics of my new home in Alberta. I don’t think that there is anything about oil that should of necessity push a polity to the right or leave it stuck there. Norway would be an obvious counterexample of a space with a very different politics connected to its oil riches. (Though there are problems with this, too: What do we make of a left-leaning country that accumulates riches through the demand and high prices for a commodity that generates political and ecological problems? Perhaps their Seed Vault assuages a guilty conscience.)

tar-sands-greenpeace-300x225

Greenpeace activists protest bitumen conveyor belts on the Canadian tar sands mine site, during the Autumn of 2009.

On the other hand, consider the political and economic interests involved in the Athabasca oil sands, commonly called “the tar sands,” in northeastern Alberta. The tar sands have been identified by the U.S. in numerous policy documents as a source of energy so secure for the U.S. that it can be considered less foreign than national. This has been done openly over the past decade or so, beginning with Dick Cheney’s 2001 National Energy Policy. The tar sands also constitute the largest single capital project on the planet, and perhaps one of the largest in the planet’s history, with more than $200 billion invested to date, not just by all the major players in the oil industry, but also by various sovereign investment funds. Incidentally, Norway is among them. So in short, a space dominated by powerful corporate interests and the global hegemon, as areas with large oil reserves tend to be, will have enormous amounts of pressure exerted on it to fall in line politically with the interests of capital.

This creates a formidable challenge for the Left. There is a tendency among some leftists to imagine an inherent conservatism in the Alberta populace—as though a kind of ingrained, old West libertarianism makes the necks of folks out here red, and their brains difficult to change. But how would one explain, then, the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary, Alberta in 1932—a party which led to the NDP and which proclaimed that it would not “rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth”?[2] It is a mistake to write off Alberta as a rightwing dead zone; this supports a misguided notion that activity concerning the tar sands or other political issues within Alberta must always be directed outward, to the rest of Canada or even to the world. Seeing Alberta as rightwing in every possible way serves a dangerous ideological function in the rest of Canada, allowing other governments to get away with neoliberal policies disguised as social democratic measures, as Alberta serves to absorb any fears and anxieties about a shift to the right.

Have the activities of the Left somehow enriched or supported the right? I don’t think so. There are innumerable groups, institutions, and individuals who do invaluable work in the province, including the Pembina Institute and the Parkland Institute. As I said before, the challenges are enormous: This space matters for capitalism, and so it should not be surprising that there is a vast amount of work to be done to produce a new politics in the province. The fact that the right is connected to oil does, I think, obscure what the real issue for the Left should be, since leftists tend to feel they must approach politics through environmental issues. At the level of official, party politics, there is no space for the Left: Could the Liberals or NDP suggest abandoning the tar sands? Insofar as these parties are committed, at best, merely to ameliorating the status quo, the answer is no. I think the focus should be rather on the crimes and misdemeanors of the system—that is, of capitalism. How to approach this at a practical level is a genuine challenge, though the tar sands do offer openings. Norway is a beginning point; it has a huge social trust fund as a result of its oil fields. Alberta has virtually nothing. Is this a legitimate outcome of a public resource?

But this can only be a step. One certainly can speak about capitalism in other than glowing terms in Alberta. In classes I have taught at the University of Alberta, students required little convincing that the system they lived in benefited the few at the expense of the many, and was unlikely to allow them or their fellows lives unstunted by the brutal game of profit.

AM: You have identified three political narratives that take oil to be their central object—namely strategic realism, techno-utopianism, and apocalyptic environmentalism—and criticized them for their inability to inform a politics that could overcome capitalism.[3] How can this critique, and your desire for a Marxian approach to oil politics more generally, help to clarify limitations in the politics of the Left? Why should energy production be seen as anything other than an immediate effect of capitalism?

IS: Talking about oil does not mean moving away from a critique of capitalism, nor does it mean privileging a discussion of energy over the broader system in which it operates. But it does offer a new way into the problem of capitalism, and thus perhaps new political possibilities, while also raising the question of energy for Left critique. One can say energy production is nothing other than an effect of capitalism, which is to say that the latter precedes the former, comes into history fully formed, and so on. Isn’t capitalism as it presently exists, in the form we are living it, an effect of energy production as well?

AM: Certainly, but there is much political content to the history of energy production. At the end of the 19th century, the working class consciously precipitated energy crises though their organized activity around the mining and shipping of coal. In many ways the concentration of energy in hydrocarbons, and its centrality to the expansion of capital, make the worksites where energy sources are extracted and moved ideal foci for the Left. With regard to coal, the Left was once able to integrate its energy politics into a critique of capital. By contrast, energy crises from the latter half of the 20th century onwards appear unconnected to a project of expanding human freedom through the overcoming capital. These crises have been driven by other social and political forces, notably post-colonial nationalism—one thinks of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for example. Meanwhile, during the Canadian mini-crisis of the 1980s, the politics of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy were shaped, essentially, by a clash between a centralizing nationalism and a regional Alberta populism, with neither side remotely resembling a Left. How do you account for this historically dynamic aspect of energy crises and the diminishing capacity of the Left to give these crises a determinate political character?

IS: This raises an intriguing point: Couldn’t oil workers go on strike? Couldn’t those who work on rigs stop what they are doing and create a crisis on an unheard of scale? Crises in relation to oil now come not even from geopolitical maneuvering—OPEC is unlikely to repeat its 1973 gambit for a whole variety of reasons—but from breakdowns of the system and from demand. “System breakdown” can mean, literally, when one of the aging series of large-scale refineries has to shut down due to mechanical problems, or when a port where oil is transferred from supertankers to container facilities encounters a problem. Supply chain problems and global demand matter more than political instability.

oil-workers-strike-iran-78-79-300x193

Oil workers on strike in Iran, 1978.

If this is the case, it would seem easy for the Left to have an impact through collective action of one sort or another. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is in many parts of the world not just carefully guarded, but hidden away, sequestered underground. It is one thing to block trucks dragging coal away from mines and another to identify essential sites in the supply chain of oil. How do you stand in front of a pipeline, for instance? Coal mines are labor intensive and accumulate bodies on a different scale than oil production sites, though here again the tar sands may stand as an exception.

Unions could engage in actions that could produce larger consciousness about oil and capitalism. When it comes to oil, however, this seems unlikely after the 2009 creation of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labour-Management Committee, a group consisting of the American Petroleum Institute and fifteen labour unions that plan to work together to retain and increase employment in the oil patch for its members.

AM: But, from the Ogoni and Ijaw in Nigeria to the Achuar people in Peru to fisherman in Louisiana to farmers and ranchers in your home province of Alberta, protests against oil companies seem intent on merely resisting the dynamism of capital. Is there a viable future within these movements? What, if anything, is the upshot of “resistance”?

IS: Resistance… is futile? It seems the problem you are pointing to is the difficulty there has been thus far in developing a politics that goes beyond an immediate negation of (let’s say) a corporate decision. As an example, we could imagine someone taking an oil company to court, saying, “You have polluted my land illegally, so you must, by virtue of the existing set of rules and policies, recompense me.” This is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a politics organized against the broader logics of capital. Can this necessary condition become sufficient? I don’t see why not. But it may be that some of the impetus and direction for it to become sufficient must be applied onto these movements from points outside of them. I do not buy the idea that opposition organically or inevitably moves from part to whole, as seems to be the assumption guiding a number of Left theoretical positions today.

AM: In your work you have commented on an inability, or at least a protracted difficulty, of the Left to locate “the political, economic and conceptual significance of raw inputs into the shape of capitalism.”[4] But isn’t capitalism characterized precisely by its capacity to continually reshape the significance of these natural inputs? Surely the task of the Left would be to realize the potential latent in oil through emancipating society, rather than to naturalize the use of oil under present conditions?

IS: On the contrary, I make no insistence on the present conditions passing over into the future. Let’s put this another way: The Left needs to think about capitalism and work to bring about its end. But it should also consider what that end might look like, though one must be wary of engaging in a kind of “bad utopianism” that tries to sketch out exactly what the future is supposed to look like. When the Left adopts the view that it is a crime to use oil at all, that we should give up on this resource at once and then figure out what to do next, we are presented with neither a convincing position about the present nor about the future.

By mid-century it is estimated that we will have a global population of 10 billion. The carrying capacity of many parts of the planet, in the absence of fertilizers, would be well below what it currently is. We face a future in which we will continue needing fertilizers, whether or not this is seen as being against some inviolable notion of Nature. The planet is filled with infrastructure of all sorts, which is a history unto itself that actively shapes the direction of social life in significant ways. It is unlikely to be simply abandoned, in the manner of a ludic fantasy that the Left still tends to exhibit in some of its concrete imaginations of the future—a future that, apparently, would be filled with trees instead of computers.

The inheritance from capitalism need not commit the future to be capitalist. But it does represent a material and political reality with which we have to contend. I think the banishment of oil from our lives and our consciousness, which does constitute at least some part of the Left’s response to energy, is an error. Indeed, why couldn’t we see oil as a means of emancipating society? Granted, oil could not serve as a permanent means to maintain emancipation, since oil itself is impermanent and limited, and because there are negative ecological repercussions to its use. But imagining that there is a more general politics contained within a blunt opposition to fossil fuels seems to me an error. At best, such an opposition is a first-level response not just to environmental concerns, but to the system that generates them. At worst, it is not much of a politics at all, since it offers only the smallest negative gesture without any suggestion of what might yet be. |P


[1]. Retort Collective, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in the Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005). Szeman’s response to Afflicted Powers can be found in his article “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:4 (2007): 805–823.

[2]. "The Regina Manifesto," Program of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation 1933–1956, <http://economics.uwaterloo.ca/needhdata/Regina_Manifesto.html>.

[3]. See Szeman, “System Failure.”

[4]. Szeman, “The Cultural Politics of Oil: On Lessons of Darkness and Black Sea Files,” Polygraph 22 (2010).

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