Privatizing profit and socializing risk
2 March 2011
As the Libyan uprising continues the news has come through that BP oil workers operating in the Libyan desert have been repatriated, by the SAS no less. This is a complex problem; as British citizens they have a right to be defended by their government, though this is not really the question. The question is: should BP expect national governments to repatriate their workers at tax-payers’ expense? Oil and conflict go hand in hand; there are very few oil-rich areas that are not conflict zones in one way or another. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that companies operating in these areas have carried out assessments of the risk to their workers and created contingency and evacuation plans should the situation get dangerous for those workers to remain. That it has taken so long to get the workers out and that the operation was conducted by the SAS and Royal Navy suggests that BP had no such plans in place, or that if they did, their plan was to let national governments deal with it and let the citizens pay for it.
A similar situation happened in the Gulf of Mexico last year with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP’s disaster response plan was not sufficient to cope with the scale of the disaster and therefore the burden of responsibility was shifted to US tax-payers. Now, BP did have to cough up a significant chunk of money to deal with the mess, and the eventual legal fees and result of the estimated 20-year litigation process to determine culpability will cost them greatly. Though it should be noted that rarely, if ever, are oil companies fined an amount that represents anything near the cost of the damage done. However there has been, and will still be, a significant burden on the tax-payer to deal with the ongoing repercussions of the disaster.
The financial crisis in the minority world is the epitome of the privatization of profit and socialization of risk. National governments across the rich minority world bailed out their failing banks to the tune of trillions of pounds. This was done, ostensibly because not doing it would have had more significant and disastrous repercussions for the citizens of those nations, the concept of ‘Too Big To Fail’. What happened in Britain was that HM Treasury set up a company, limited by shares, called UK Financial Investments that then bought up the now public stakes in banks such as RBS and Lloyds. This has allowed the banks to continue operating business-as-usual and turning over huge profits at little risk to their own livelihoods. That the unemployed, lowest-paid and most vulnerable in the UK are facing cuts to their public services whilst bankers are reaping the rewards of their risky investments is a case in point.
David Cameron has been in the Middle East as a trade envoy for the British arms industry. The insensitivity this shows – at a time when tyrannical dictators are crushing democracy with British arms – is incredible, but this is not the key point. Is it the responsibility of the Prime Minister to be touring the Middle East trying to sell things? Is there nothing more important for him to be doing than being a travelling salesman? Corporate globalization has engulfed national government and offloaded the risk so that the government has seemingly no alternative but to act like an advertisement for big business. Government has been reduced to the middle man, linking seller with buyer, desperately kowtowing to the megarich and the despotic (funny how often those go together) in the interests of the economy. The economy is a means to an end, not an end itself.
The role of a national government is to serve the people of the nation, not the interests of corporate globalisation. After all, as former New Internationalist editor David Ransom points out, the only time corporate globalization is interested in nations is when they need their money.