Friday, 25 February 2011

Conservatives, Oil, and Dictatorships

This cartoon and its associated opinion piece got me thinking. (Along with this piece on what conservatives really want -- an eye opener!).


What happens when the oil runs out? By that I don't mean "when conservative news mouthpieces start freaking out about gas prices due to an oil shortage". I mean gone. Nada, niks, fokkol.

By and large, Arab dictators seem to be propped up by oil money. Nobody wanted to disturb the status quo for fear of the oil companies' wrath -- jacking up our fuel prices even more. In 2008, for instance, Libya produced around 1,5 million barrels of the 80-odd million barrels of the worldwide crude black gold output. What will the production look like this year, I wonder? Let's just say I wouldn't buy shares in any oil company heavily involved in Libya.

The oil dictators have always seemed to get along well with American oil companies, probably because these seem to be headed up by old-money rich conservatives with few moral qualms about raping the environment, the economy, and entire societies for personal gain. (Sound familiar? Old money sticks together.) A large majority of the news services in the US are conservative-owned mouthpieces. From the article quoted above:

Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on TV are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. 

So what happens when the oil runs out? Yes, firstly the dictators topple due to a lack of rich white erstwhile-slaveowner money. Some see this as an end in and of itself. I completely agree; dictatorship is always bad. I see the dictators as merely the dominoes at the end of a very long row. Corporations in the US and elsewhere have achieved domination through legal means. Suddenly their cash flow runs out, and so do the lawyers. The United States of America is the world's top consumer of oil, using even more than the combined European Union. (An estimated 18,690,000 barrels per day in 2009.) 

What happens when the oil gets low with no prospect of getting more? Prices go up. The rich get richer. This will become a vicious cycle of personal gains and a societal downward spiral. The ones at the top won't be affected by these shortages, of course. Their luxury vehicles will eventually be the only ones still driving on America's massive road system. They will drive past all the cars standing abandoned next to empty roads for lack of fuel. Before long they, too, will have no fuel left. The poor will become more and more disenfranchised as they are progressively excluded from economic participation -- until one day, someone will snap and become the spark in the powder keg of disillusionment and unfocused anger which is the people of America. SUVs and limousines will burn with their sneering oil peddlers inside. News stations denouncing the mob will themselves be torched.

The US' love of cable TV and internet over wireless tech will be the undoing of many networks; it's easier to find a cable than an antenna. The sysadmin in me cries -- network damage is anathema -- but the greater Internet will survive. The thought censorship imposed by American ISPs will go with the networks themselves. One can but hope that sysadmins of the people get there first to preserve these, like the Egyptian students protecting priceless museum pieces by simple expedient human chain.

The bigger picture here is that almost the entire world labours under an economic dictatorship. Wherever you can point to a large enough disparity between the rich and the poor, you can be absolutely certain that somebody cynically planned the systematic exploitation of the working classes. Of course this was so successful that others copied the system in good faith, thus giving rise to the multitude of personal responsiblity avoidance exploitation-enabling systems we now know as corporations.

Let me bring that home for you a little. Most of Cape Town is dirt poor. The rich neighbourhoods cluster on the slopes of Table Mountain and Bellville's hills like a crust on a really big pie -- deep and wide, the Flats dominate by square kilometerage, population... everything but per capita income. Conservatives everywhere will point to the disparity as proof that they possess more discipline and personal responsibility than the poor, who are obviously less deserving "because they'd be rich if they worked hard enough and applied themselves instead of smoking tik all day" (I quote a bigot I overheard at a braai recently, sans the racial epithets. He was subsequently uninvited from my home evermore.)

Many of these people work for large corporations run by capitalists. They are the company's first line of profit. They work long hours in suboptimal conditions for meager wages, while the 1 or 2 percent at the top skim off 95% of the cream for themselves. Now add the lack of oil to the mix, and what happens?

Corporations can't move stock. Contracts are defaulted on. The money isn't rolling in anymore, so the workers can't get paid. The factory workers, truck drivers and supermarket shelf stockers can't feed their children anymore. People get savage when they're hungry and they're fighting for them and theirs. They will eventually come after the wealth like a swarm of small sharks attacking a very big surfer with a bleeding toe.

I'm not saying this is a good, right or just thing. I'm not proposing to join the fray of looting and democracy-in-action. If we're lucky, there will be no bloodshed... if we're unlucky, the government will come down hard on protesters. Civil war won't be far behind if the governmental response is sufficiently harsh.

If we're very lucky, though, we can avoid all this. We can realise that social responsibility doesn't end with paying your taxes and giving the local bergie (vagrant) a cup of tea now and then. Our responsibility to our fellow man doesn't end with voting for whomever promises the most free clinics and jobs. (To be realistic, voting doesn't even enter into social responsibility anymore -- it only encourages fat cat politicians into believing they're still relevant.) It's not enough to donate books to the charity shop. All of that is great, don't get me wrong -- but all of that is giving a man a fish. A fish wrapped in ancient newspaper and boxed in the small picture, the Kool-Aid which says that rocking the boat is immoral and irresponsible. The message charity and government handouts give to the man on the street is that everything will be fine if they just carry on with their lives and ignore the injustice we all witness every day. If you don't stand out, if you go along with the mob, everyone's lives will be better.

The idea of party politics draws on this -- a mob protests, a mob gets its will. The ones who profit, however, aren't the ones who bus themselves in at oh-god-thirty in the morning to toyi-toyi all day; the head honcho pitches to prance at the head of the mob for a few minutes for the TV cameras. The rest trudge back to their shacks and dream of one day when their leader manages to make something happen for them. The glorious leader, meanwhile, returns to a comfy home in an airconditioned luxury car and dreams of the personal and filial profits to which his rule over the mob entitles him. Should he attain power, his followers see no more of the profit from their campaigning than do the factory workers on the assembly line see the profits others have attained by their sweat and blood and silent stoic tears.

Is this what the struggle was about? Even that glorious memory has been subverted into profit by individuals and parties far and wide. It seems that no sooner does someone gather a large enough group of people before he turns into a profit pimp, whoring out his followers for personal and political gain.

I have no answers, only more questions. Russia tried redistributing the wealth; their workers' collectives fell prey to the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin, and we all know how that went. Communism and socialism no more the answer the burning questions of today than do democracy and capitalism. All known forms of government and economy eventually fall prey to human nature -- dictatorship just does so sooner than most, hence the revolts we're seeing right now.

When the oil runs out, there will be a great reckoning and renegotiation. Government will no longer be the lowest bidder in the price wars for services. Taxes levied will have to drop, for the simple reason that the services we pay for will no longer even be rendered to the already almost nonexistent extent they are now. South Africa is lucky in that it has few enemies right now. When the oil runs out, though, who knows? We have some of the best (locally-developed!) oil-from-coal technology and some of the richest coal deposits in the world. Will America get greedy and park another aircraft carrier in Cape Town harbour, this time as a show of strength as their embassy in Pretoria does some underhanded "quiet diplomacy" of their own? (Quite literally a dictator-ship...) It's not unlikely. I saw a t-shirt the other day which read "If only Mugabe had WMDs" -- in the wake of the revelations that the whole "Saddam-has-WMDs" story was fabricated, that could well read "If only Zimbabwe had oil". That just gets more chilling the longer I think about it...

Thoughts welcomed. Comments lacking same aren't.