Art & Oil in the Age of Monopoly and Disaster Capital

Daniel Beltrá, "Oil Spill #4," from the series May 6, 2010, 2010. Photograph
Daniel Beltrá, “Oil Spill #4,” from the series May 6, 2010, 2010. Photograph. Used with the permission of the artist

It’s been a half century since the publication of Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order. 1 The book was written by the American Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Swezy. Monopoly Capital advances a trenchant critique of advanced industrial capitalism. Still salient, the book remains important for romanticists invested both in the Marxist tradition in critical theory, and the project of tracing the eighteenth-century British origins of contemporary constellations of global capitalist political economy. In this post, I return to Monopoly Capital, trace the text’s key contours, and argue for both its importance for understanding aspects of the contemporary ecological predicament, and the need to update Baran and Swezy’s ideas according to the concept of “disaster capitalism.” 2

The spirit of Baran and Swazi’s project is emancipatory. Their purpose is vital. Monopoly Capital participates in the tradition of what Baran and Swezy call “the great social critics” of the 19th century, from Robert Owen to Charles Fourier, to Marx and Engels. Indeed, within this trajectory, the text is ultimately geared towards an analysis that advances the “conditions [that] must be created to foster the development of whole human beings, ‘free citizens,’ in possession all their faculties and capable of realizing their full potentialities.’” 3 It’s about the opening of possibility, for autonomous actors to fully and freely self-actualize. To do so, an economy must be collectively built with and for–and not above and against–them.

Towards this critical end, at the core of Baran and Swezy’s book is the idea that the rise of the multinational corporation necessitated a revision to Marxian economics. By the 1950s, a cornerstone of Marxian (and classical) economics had been falsified: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. By the 1950s, the ascension of the corporation as the key unit of financial accumulation and speculation changed the equation. 4 A key issue that emerged from the ever-increasing consolidation of economic activity, Baran and Swezy demonstrate, is a consequent rise in efficiency within the domain of productive output as a result of monopolization. They argued that while Marx “treated monopolies not as essential elements of capitalism but rather as remnants of the feudal and mercantilist past,” the reality is that the consolidation and globalization of the corporation as the core unit of capital had entered onto the stage of world history as a vital force in not just propagating but growing capitalist hegemony. 5 What Marx failed to predict, Baran and Swezy maintain, is that monopoly would come to comprise a sustained constituent element in the continued history of capitalist development.

For Baran and Swezy, the key result of the ascendence of monopoly capital is contradictiction, with adverse implications for social relations. They observe “monopoly capitalism is a self-contradictory system. It tends to generate ever more surplus, yet it fails to provide the consumption and investment outlets required for the absorption of a rising surplus and hence for the smooth working of the system.” 6 John Bellamy Foster observes in his recent introductory essay to the book, “[u]nder the monopoly stage of capitalism, the primary contradiction at the center of the system shifted from the generation of surplus to its absorption. Capital continually produced more surplus than it could absorb in existing and productive markets. The result was a tendency to economic stagnation.” 7 Under monopoly capital, the production of commodities exceeds the very possibility of the economic system creating and distributing sufficient wealth to absorb, sustain, and propagate its capabilities. In short, there’s too much stuff, not enough buyers. Economic growth becomes impossible. The social fabric deteriorates.

What’s missing from Baran and Swezy’s text is an engagement with the ecological implications of the rise of monopoly capital. Indeed, the moment of monopoly capital is, by recent scientific consensus, the moment of the emergence of the anthropocene, the shift in geological time when human industrial activity becomes the predominant influence on the earth’s geology. 8

The idea of disaster capitalism was first named by the Canadian journalist, cultural critic, and social activist Naomi Klein in her Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it, Klein identifies a trajectory of change whereby privatization of publicly-held and -organized property and services at moments of crisis. “Orchestrated raids on the public sphere,” Klein observes, “combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities” constitute “disaster capitalism.” 9

Antony Lowenstein has expanded from Klein, in his recent Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. As he argues in the introductory chapter of the book, “The Mad Max Economy:”

Predatory capitalism goes way beyond exploiting disaster. Many ongoing crises seem to have been sustained by business to fuel industries in which they have a financial stake. These corporations are like vultures feeding on the body of a weekend government that must increasingly reply on the private sector to provide public services. 10

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the energy sector, and no example is more poignant than the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010.  On April 20, 2010, the BP-operated Macondo well ruptured, after methane gas, under high pressure as a result of the extraction process, expanded into the drilling riser, igniting the Deepwater Horizon, floating drilling rig. 11 workers died. The Deepwater Horizon sank two days later. The same day, an oil leak from the well was discovered. It flowed into the Gulf for 87 days, before being sealed in mid July.

Soon after the blowup, an entire petrochemical industry was mobilized at great profit in the cleanup effort. The nexus of monopoly and disaster capital became most evident in the now infamous application of the “corexit” line of oil dispersants. Indeed, it wasn’t enough that corexit increased the toxicity of the oil spilt into the Gulf. But the chemical’s manufacturer–Nalco–was part of the BP corporate nexus. A former BP executive sat on the company’s board. 11 The contradiction of “safe” deepwater oil production becomes the mechanism of continued profit accumulation, in the face of catastrophe.

It’s this ambivalence that the contemporary Spanish photographer Daniel Beltrá captures so profoundly in the image that frames this post. The logic of the photograph powerfully propagates the contradiction of the event. The despoilment of the environment becomes the aestheticization of the seascape. Beltrá has superimposed the oil rig onto the image of the Gulf waters, oil staining the ocean’s surface. Monopoly capital turned disaster manifests itself in a haunting artwork, the specter of oil remaining dispersed in the waters just as the contradictions of a post-war global political economy Baran and Swezy charted continue to wash over the world.

Notes:

  1. Paul Baran and Paul Swezy, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).
  2. See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007); Antony Lowenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe (London: Verso, 2015).
  3. Baran and Swezy, 342.
  4. Though, I am interested in what might be excavated from eighteenth-century England in terms of antecedents for the globalized multinational, in this regard.
  5. Baran and Swezy, 4.
  6. Baran and Swezy, 108.
  7. John Bellamy Foster, “Monopoly Capital at the Half-Century Mark,” Monthly Review, vol. 68, no. 3 (July/August 2016): 3.
  8. A post-1945 date, intersecting with the emergence of monopoly capital, as the start to the anthropocene is likely to be the one the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommision on Quatrinary Stratigraphy finally comes to at their culminating meeting in Cape Town, in late August/early September 2016. On the group and its purpose, see “Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene,’” http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/ (accessed January 31, 2017). See also Ian Angus, “Anthropocene Working Group: Yes, a New Epoch has Begun,” Climate & Capitalism: An Ecosocialist Journal, January 9, 2016. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2016/01/09/anthropocene-working-group-yes-a-new-epoch-has-begun/ (accessed January 31, 2017)
  9. Klein, 6.
  10. Lowenstein, 7.
  11. Suzanne Goldberg, “Gulf oil spill chemical dispersant too toxic, EPA orders,” The Guardian, 20 May 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/20/gulf-oil-spill-chemical-dispersant (accessed January 31, 2017)