The Spill in Our Soul (Part Four): Trauma and Industrial Violence in Louisiana’s Gulf Coast

Exploitation or Healing: Exploitation

I called my dad recently. I wanted to ask a few questions about his work and current thoughts on the state of the industry. My mom picked up and gave her testimony. She said he continues to work. My dad, now 71, has been trying to wean himself into retirement; something like settling into a hot bath. She reports that he’s said he is afraid of not knowing what to do with himself, of the quiet, of not waking up at 6 am. She says he’s constantly plugged into his computer, working on the order of 70 hours a week. She acts like she’s distraught over this, and I can’t really tell how much she’s playing it up for emphasis. “He’s obsessed!” she cried. I chuckled, knowingly. Then, I got my dad on the line. “How’s business?” I asked. He spoke of new developments happening in Peru, Brazil and the Gulf. He said the offshore waters have been reopened for drilling and that the companies have been waiting, preparing for this moment. He then quickly slipped into a politically-charged jeremiad about Obama the “anti-oil president.”

 

I knew this was a myth. In my thoughts I knew this wasn’t true and almost pointed out the facts of the matter on the oil moratorium to my dad. I had read about how the OCS moratorium that has protected the coasts from new leases was first enacted in 1981 by Reagan, and extended by Bush 41 and Clinton until the year 2012. I knew that the oil lobby has been fighting the moratorium for years. I had read that Senator Obama initially opposed new deep water drilling, preferring a policy of renewable energy. But Obama, shortly before winning the 2008 election, flip-flopped, supporting new deepwater oil leases as a concession to the industry for other regulatory measures that lead to cap-and-trade legislation.(1)   In fact, 20 days before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Obama announced an end to the OCS moratorium on the Atlantic Coast, saying, “’So today we are announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration,’ the president declared. ‘Under the leadership of Secretary Salazar we’ll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration. We’ll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment and our national security. And we will be guided not by political ideology but by scientific evidence.’”(2) The 2010 moratorium enforced by the MMA and the Department of the Interior, was to give time for the agency to do work it had not been doing for years. It gave time for the MMA to review leases it has signed for the previous 18 months. Lax regulation precipitated the BP disaster and the MMA was one body asleep at the wheel. Not only is the agency made up of former lobbyists and oil men, but they had just a handful of regulators for the more than 4,000 rigs in the Gulf region alone. And reports of cushy relationships between MMA regulators and corporate executives pervaded a culture of irresponsibility; including lavish gifts, golf trips, Super Bowl tickets and cocaine-laced parties. It was, as we say in the South, “like the fox guarding the henhouse.” Considering the magnitude of this disaster, a time of housecleaning was a prudent maneuver.

dispersant
Using dispersant on the oil plumes

 

I bit my tongue. I knew my dad couldn’t hear this. There is much we can’t see and hear about this spill. There is much we are forbidden to see when we live in a parallel universe of money, progress and control. I’m reminded of Upton Sinclair’s quote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”(3).

 

There was a striking graffiti piece scrawled on a house in spray paint in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina that read, “Hope is not a plan.” What is clear about the whole affair is the air of blind hope. BP had no plan besides its corporate ambition. It’s endemic to the culture, one prone to making the same mistakes again and again. It might be called the Titanic syndrome. Just as that mighty ship was unsinkable, the faith in these platforms was infallible.

 

But the carelessness of the industry sits in stark contrast to this ambitious bubble. It portrays a kind of adolescent narcissism – concerned about image and persona, yet incapacitated from taking real social responsibility. Like the adolescent, the corporation has a kind of magical thinking that others will pick up the tab for all this risk; that big daddy government will bail him out, and that “Mother Nature” will clean up after him. Asking BP to clean up has looked a lot like asking an adolescent to clean his room – there is a kind of suspension of reality and accountability. And when set to task, he will try to hide his mess under the bed and claim he did a good job. That’s where the dispersants come in.

oil-plume

 

In the midst of this ungrounded ambition, they could not fully conceive of things going wrong. The industry practices how to drill holes, but didn’t prepare to clean up the mess they made. In a surreal twist from the seventies, we can see that BP released a corporate board game in which the goal was for players to make money on cleaning up a hypothetical spill in the North Sea. This was as much a plan as they had – a kind of corporate treasure map. You hire workers to clean up the oil, get ships out there. It’s an eerie, if cold blooded premeditation on covering one’s tracks to minimize liability and still make a profit.
This is what BP did in hiring their “Vessels of Opportunity,” fishermen out of work in peak shrimping season were hired to lay out boom, but signed contracts limiting liability for the company. The oil assaulted their livelihood, and now they were hired to help pick up the evidence. They had difficulty getting paid through payroll, and made far less than a healthy catch would have made. More than that, the program would soon vanish and the Gulf would feel untold impacts for a long time to come. In the end, the VOO project was hush money, a corporate bribe that plays on the Orwellian double speak that makes an act of violence seem like a benefit. It’s an extension of the corporate culture and cushy relationship between the industry and regulators. The aim is to continue to suspend the illusion of corporate and industrial beneficence. It creates an upside-down world where oil “helps” oysters and corporations are “job creators.” The locals can clearly smell something afoul in this confidence game, (or, as we say in Texas, “Don’t piss on my boots and call it rain!”), but feel like they have no choice.

 

Hayward agreed to a deal with Obama for a 20 billion dollar trust fund to help the region, including settlements with fishing communities and help in marine biological research. Locals felt forced to settle with BP. They were mindful of the delays a large corporation can endure. Exxon fought off the town of Cordova for 17 years, and finally got the Supreme Court to reduce the lawsuit by 90 percent. Indigenous communities in Ecuador have been fighting Chevron-Texaco in court for nearly 20 years without seeing either a dime or cleanup reparations. Taking on a large company is daunting, and kind of like a war of attrition in which only the corporation, an undead entity with limited liability, can withstand.

 

All of these tactics play into the increase in power of the global over the local, of the corporation over the community. And it is the spirit of neoliberalism’s ideal of radical privatization, as Naomi Klein described in The Shock Doctrine, her seminal critique of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics. The idea is that when a community faces a disaster through catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, or the Haiti Earthquake, or the BP spill, or through acts of war, or financial manipulation, the government can use the loss of infrastructure and the traumatic shock of a community to push through initiatives that the community would have otherwise rejected under usual healthy circumstances. The more a community is shocked, the more pliant they are for social engineering. For post-Katrina New Orleans, this meant dismantling the public schools and hospitals and public housing in privatization initiatives; charters and contracts the government doled out. This is looked upon as a “vessel of opportunity” for the corporate state. It is a calculus that always increases the corporation with no sense of limits at the expense of liquidating public coffers.(4)

 
The problem with this is that it is more than about corporate power. There is another way of looking at this. It is a way of cultivating certain social ideals in a world that is stuck in an epistemological rut, a rut exemplified in the frozen adolescence of the corporate psyche. Morris Berman writes in The Re-Enchantment of the World, that the modern world is essentially in runaway mode in which we are addicted to our worldview of progressive, linear spaces – the spaces of the greens zones and virtual worlds the oil state suspends for itself. The corporate worldview is a system without negative reinforcement. It is always self-rewarding, garnishing itself with bonuses, prizes, incentives, stock options. Loss, accidents, any feedback inconsistent with the dominant narrative is denied. It couches exploitation as opportunity, and leads to a distorted worldview painfully disconnected from the way the rest of the world works. In short, it takes on the delusional quality of an addiction, and this characterizes the economy and industrial society today. Considering this, it is little wonder Eichmann regurgitated slogans and couldn’t put his thoughts together so that it seemed like there was a soul really present. There is no self-governance, no self-regulation, and no sense of limit, no plan in case of failure. I’m reminded of the Toby Keith song in that Ford commercial, “I ain’t got no boundaries, I don’t compromise.” Or, the corporate plaque in Tony Hayward’s office that read, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

 

But failures do happen. And it is necessary to understand these failures and breakdowns. It isn’t enough for the president to ask whose ass needs to be kicked. What needs to be asked is about our breakdowns, our violence, our addiction, our limits, and the way in which the industrial culture creates bubbles of denial and dissociation. This corporate narrative is a system that requires limits, that needs limits, that needs a new way of self-regulation via a new culture of limits. In these breakdowns, we have an opportunity to ask these questions, and move from a self-reinforcing loop of the capitalist semiotic universe toward dialectical reason, toward otherness. Berman writes:

Unless such a system abandons its epistemology, it will hit bottom or burn out – a realization that it now dawning on many individuals in Western society. There is no escaping self-corrective feedback, even if it takes the form of the total disintegration of the entire culture. A mental system cannot remain in permanent runaway, cannot maximize variables and also retain the characteristics of Mind. It loses its Mind; it dies. On the individual level, we experience cirrhosis, heart attack, cancer, schizophrenia, and what has to be called living death. The ethics of the system are implicit in its epistemology.(5)

 

Berman’s Batesonian cybernetics call for a new awareness and a new holism that requires us to lift ourselves out of our ruts; out of the addictive mechanistic utilitarian narrative that is murdering the land and driving us insane. In these limits, we have our best teachable moment to break through the privileged adolescent fantasy of omnipotence.

 

Naomi Klein crystallizes this narrative in a recent speech:

This is our real master narrative: however much we mess up, there will always be more. More water, more land, more untapped resources. A new bubble will replace the old, a new technology will come along to fix the messes we made with the last one. In a way that is the story of the settling of the Americas, the inexhaustible frontier to which Europeans escaped. And is also the story of modern capitalism … Our economic system cannot survive without perpetual growth and an unending supply of new frontiers. Now the problem is that the story was always a lie. The earth always did have limits, they were just beyond our sights. Now we are hitting those limits on multiple fronts. I believe that we know this, yet we find ourselves trapped in a kind of narrative loop. Not only do we continue to tell and retell the same tired stories, but we are now doing so with a frenzy and fury that frankly verges on camp. How else to explain the cultural space occupied by Sarah Palin? Now, on the one hand, exhorting us to “drill, baby, drill,” because God put those resources into the ground in order for us to exploit them. And on the other, glorying in the wilderness of Alaska’s untouched beauty on her hit reality tv show. The twin message is as comforting as it is mad. Ignore those creeping messages that we have hit the wall, there are still no limits. There will always be a new frontier, so stop worrying and keep shopping.(6)

 

To be concluded …

***

Notes

 (1) Watkins and Schulman, 50.
(2)  Like when BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg made this epic flub, “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don’t care. But that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people.” AP, June 16, 2010.
(3) Cajuns have owned one of the slurs applied to them from other French – calling themselves “coon asses,” a term derived from a French term meaning something like “dirty whore.”
(4) Watkins and Shulman, 167.
(5) Tidwell 93.
(6) Finn,, Mitch The Dialectic of Civilization: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problem of Anthropocentrism. (Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2012).
(7) Steffy, Drowning in Oil, 94-95.
(8) Naomi Klein, “Addicted to Risk.” TED. January 18.2011. Internet Resource

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