[Marxism] Nader and Peak Oil

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at gmail.com
Sat Jun 7 20:52:16 MDT 2008

My comments are interspersed throughout:

On Fri, Jun 6, 2008 at 9:09 AM,  <bauerly at yorku.ca> wrote:
[actually, brad was quoting me here]
> ---As can be seen, production has been essentially flat for three years.
> How can these numbers be reconciled with the claims that a) demand is
> growing but b) supplies are adequate?---

[then he replied]
> You are confusing production with reserves.  Production is flat because global
> extraction is at approx 80% of capacity and US refineries are running at approx
> 70% capacity.  This is a manufactured shortage not peak oil.  Also, as someone
> else mentioned there has been little increase in price of production (I love
> how they call extraction production in the oil business).

I don't understand your claim that I've mixed up production and
reserves. I've not mentioned the issue of reserves *at all.*

The figures you give for utilization of extraction capacity and U.S.
refinery utilization are unfamiliar to me, and I question their
reliability. What is the source of these estimates?

It is, I concede, entirely possible and perhaps even likely that this
current three-year production plateau is not yet "peak oil" but rather
something else, including, conceivably, the result of concerted action
by oil producers, a conspiracy to restrain output.

But I remain sceptical that this latter scenario is the case.

I think this year's $100+ barrel prices give the imperialist
countries, which taken as a whole are net oil importers, plenty of
motivation to lean all over the Third World producing countries to
open the spigots, and if months of $100+ prices haven't done this,
certainly $125 or $150 barrels of crude will. The Saudi monarchy is in
no position to resist such demands, nor are the other middle eastern
rulers, the Nigerian government and so on. These are not solidly based
regimes with untapped reserves of popular, anti-imperialist support
for patriotic policies, but mostly corrupt, cynical cliques of

EVEN the incompetents in the Bush regime could see their way clear to
making, for example, the Saudi rulers an offer they couldn't refuse,
explaining the dialectical relationship between the health of these
rulers and an increased oil supply -- and even blame al Qaida for the
outrageous blowing up in mid air of a planeful of Saudi princelets, if
the Saudis are initially unpersuaded.

I do not believe the view that this is mainly or solely the work of
the international imperialist oil companies to be plausible. But were
that to be the case, the same principle is operative there, although
the instruments of persuasion are likely to be different.

> The whole theory of peak oil is based on neoclassical theories of supply and
> demand equilibrium which obfuscate the political (read class) aspects.  It is
> based on an acceptance of the idea that an economic formula can predict how a
> complex social system will allocate a scarce resource.  While there are
> obviously limits to oil use, the particularities of the current conjuncture
> have more to do with capitalism than with a declining resource base.

Which is to say: peak oil theories aren't applicable in such a direct,
immediate way to the communist geological operations and explorations
of the People's Commune of Altair VI, nor even to, say, medieval
Europe. It really applies mostly, in a strict and direct sense, to
this planet and the world economy we actually have right now.

I thank Brad for clearing this up, as some may have thought the
replicators on the later Star ship Enterprise would be unable to make
"oil, light, sweet," just as easily as "Tea, Earl Gray, Hot." Though I
would recommend to Captain Picard he not use the crude for

And, yes, Brad is right that the purely economic mechanisms of Adam
Smith-type theories are likely to be interfered with, in fact, are
already systematically interfered with, but I don't think this changes
the validity of the peak oil theory.

> I think everyone agrees that US society uses too much oil, this is not a
> leftists position. This does not mean that the only solution to the oil price
> rise (is this really a gasoline crisis?  Europeans have had $5 gas for a
> decade), and therefore the only problem, is the overuse of a finite resource.
> While I agree that SUV's and the whole US consumerist lifestyle is
> unsustainable, the bourgeoisie has figured out that they can profit from this
> by using the MSM to over-hype peak oil and sell you the necessary goods to
> consume our way out of the 'crisis'.  While at the same time they can cash in
> on the hysteria by raising prices through manipulation.

I might quibble with one or another word but it seems to me Brad and I
don't really look at this all that differently, which makes me wonder
why he is addressing this to me in a polemical way.

> When Obama says we
> need to break our petroleum addiction he mean we, individual consumers, need to
> use our liberal individualist power to consumer our way out.  It operates just
> as Marx explained, it obfuscates the true power relationships that created the
> problem.  It is not that our things are bad, or that we are bad because we
> 'choose' them.  It is the objectified human relationships in the form of things
> that prevent a more ecologically benign society.

It is far from clear to me that this is what Obama means, that simply
as individuals we should adjust to $4, $6, or $10 gas. While he has
been completely and entirely vague, as is his wont, it seems to me he
has framed this as a social and governmental problem and not just an
individual one, although I'm sure IF he ever gets down to concretes,
there is likely to be much more than a little of what Brad believes
will be his message. But I would be surprised if that were the
entirety of it, as Brad seems to believe.
> The Krugmanite solution- increased mass transit, downgraded lifestyles,
> increased population densities- are all necessary steps.  However, there is a
> difference between seeking them within the parameters of capitalist social
> realtions or exposing how production and a society oriented toward profit
> maximization have both produced these problems and will produce new problems if
> the solutions simply shift consumption towards 'green' alternatives within
> capitalist society.

But of course, Ultimately a real solution can only be the one that
socialism potentially provides, not just of gearing economic activity
to serve human needs in the sense of making it possible for people to
find fulfillment rather than maximize profits, but also of reconciling
humanity and human society to the reality that we are inextricably a
part of this world and this biosphere. This is *precisely* at the
heart of the "battle of ideas" I propose the left needs to wage.

[Brad again quotes me]
> ---In other words, I believe the battle the U.S. left needs to wage today
> is a battle of ideas and fundamentally about *values.* This is, to be
> brutally frank, NOT NOT NOT a "class" message as that is traditionally
> understood on the left, but first and foremost a message addressed to
> the intelligentsia, and most especially the youth.---

[and then he replies]
> If you really want to influence the youth you need to stop talking about the
> 1960's and about 'values'.  I would also fundamentally challenge the notion
> that we should not talk about class (not sure what you mean by traditionally
> understood on the left).  Class needs to be THE message (I would also dump the
> 'battle of ideas' 60's mantra).  Class as the way to understand the lack of
> true democracy and control over our own society.  Class as the inability to
> elect a true representative of the society that we want.  Class as the driving
> force of war, ecocide, hunger, racism, despair....  Class as the analytical
> tool to uncover the connection between society and the economy.  These are
> issues that everyone can understand, not just the intelligentsia and youth.

The "battle of ideas" meme isn't really a 1960's you radicalization
one, but a 21st-Century Fidelista one. But it does tie in
fundamentally to the 60's and what happened then. As comrade Ricardo
Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People's Power
explained at the unveiling of John Lennon's statue in Havana, on the
20th anniversary of his assassination:

"The Sixties were much more than a period in a century that is ending.
Before anything else, they were an attitude toward life that
profoundly affected the culture, the society and politics, and crossed
all borders. Their renewing impulse rose up, victorious, overwhelming
the decade, but it had been born before that time and has not stopped
even up to today.

"To these years we turn our sights with the tenderness of first love,
with the loyalty that all combatants feel for their earliest and most
distant battle. With obstinate antagonism, some still denigrate that
time -- those who know that to kill history, they must first tear out
its most luminous and hopeful moment.

"This is how it is, and has always been in favor of or against 'the Sixties.'"

As for "class," I agree with most of what Brad says, especially and
most emphatically his presentation of the capitalist class and its
control being at the heart of all these. What I DISAGREE with is the
idea that there is a working class movement worthy of the name in the
United States today. I believe there has not been what Marx called a
"class for itself" movement among even a small sliver of the U.S.
working class certainly in my entire political lifetime (and I turned
57 today). Trying to base our activity and messages so as to influence
and appeal to that illusory "class" movement is precisely what I was
alluding to in saying the message I proposed wasn't a class message in
the sense the left usually understood it.

> We
> must move beyond being a sect that is attempting to build a secret movement of
> intellectuals and college students.  Our analysis and ideas must become common
> sense.  As Ralph Milliband explained; culture is not what supports the
> capitalist systems repressive apparatus, culture is the repressive apparatus of
> the capitalist system. Values and culture as political strategy reinforce
> bourgeois rule.

If I understand what Brad is saying here, I VEHEMENTLY AND TOTALLY
disagree. Even discounting the obvious polemical exaggerations and

I think a lot of what is wrong with the U.S. Left is precisely this
idea that "we must move beyond" students and so on, i.e., that we can
voluntaristicaly change objective conditions that are the result of
weighty material factors.

The U.S. Marxist Left needs to accept reality: Although we view
ourselves as the conscious expression of an actually existing class
movement, we must accept the reality that we have no choice but to
lead a semi-sectarian existence, i.e., an existence in isolation from
that movement, because for a whole series of reasons that movement
does not manifest as a movement in the United States right now, had
not done so in decades, and assuming conditions going forward roughly
in the same ballpark as those that have prevailed for the last half
century of not, is unlikely to suddenly cohere as a class for itself

The left needs to stop blowing smoke up its own ass about a class
movement and class radicalization that quite simply DOES NOT EXIST.
The Left needs to rejoin the reality-based community.

The standard response by Marxists and especially groups to statements
like the one I'm making is to admit that, yes, the working class has
been "relatively quiescent" (or some similar term that OBFUSCATES the
QUALITATIVE difference between what Marx called "a class in itself"
and "a class for itself"), but, --oh happy coincidence!-- that is just
now coming to an end because of the cost of the war in Vietnam, the
Nixon wage-prize freeze, the Arab oil embargo, stagflation, Reagan's
attacks on the right to unionize, etc. etc. etc. down to today when
I'm sure the editors of some wannabe All Russia Central Organ are even
now penning the lead article for the next edition about the meaning of
the half-point jump in the unemployment rate announced on Friday.

[Brad quotes me:]
> ---And I can see myself just as easily or more easily starting a
> useful discussion from Obama's vague statements about oil addiction
> than from Nader's (frankly) demagogic anti-corporate muckraking. The
> problem is not just that corporate interests are in control, but what
> they DO with that control, and not mostly in terms of the marginal
> immediate material well-being of people in the U.S., but in terms of
> the fundamental sustainability of human civilization as a whole.---

[And he responds:]
> I don't understand this.  If the problem is what certain interests do with their
> control, than how would Obama's postion, which denies that there is even any
> class aspect to oil or food prices, offer a better starting point than one that
> is too anti-corporate?  It would appear to me that the Obama position is to
> shift the chairs on the sinking Titanic, while Nader is complaining about where
> he has to sit.  I agree that the whole point needs to be about the large whole
> in the ship.

My point is simply that Nader's propaganda implicitly refuses to
recognize that there is a problem beyond corporate greed and
manipulation, indeed the claim is precisely that the *entire* problem
is corporate manipulation. Perhaps it is just a narrowness of a few
recent campaign press releases and the person who wrote it for them, I
HOPE that is the case, because as I see it, the corporate manipulation
is the smaller problem, the bigger problem is the underlying problem
that is making possible the corporate manipulation, namely, that the
"life style" and not just that, but the whole socio-economic structure
of the U.S. and other advanced imperialist countries, the way they are
structured and organized concretely, is fundamentally unsustainable,
it is destined to crash, not into a brick wall, but a granite mountain

There is a shorter distance between Obama's diagnosis of oil addiction
and that reality (the U.S. and imperialist "civilization" in general
is unsustainable) than there is between the (implicit) position of the
Nader campaign statements that there really isn't an issue about oil
supplies, which flows from the (explicit)  statement that the run up
in prices is just speculation and manipulation.


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