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Issue # 1425      26 August 2009

Culture & Life

It’s corporate power

The American playwright Clifford Odets succinctly stated a profound idea when he wrote “You believe in theories when they happen to you.”

More and more people living in capitalist countries are beginning to believe in theories about the system they live under thanks to the global economic crisis, but also thanks to the arrogance and contempt shown by capitalist corporations towards ordinary people and their governments and laws.

Worried that the people’s elected representatives might pass legislation in the not too distant future reducing and then ending the production and selling of coal, the coal companies are busy ramping up coal production to get maximum profits while they can.

A concomitant of burning coal is the emission of greenhouse gasses, which threaten the planet’s very survival. Coal companies know this; their bosses read the newspapers like everyone else. But they can’t pass up the chance to make all that lovely profit.

So they’re expanding their coal mines in all directions (and probably slinging some extra campaign contributions towards the bourgeois parties to keep them co-operative and on-side).

They soothe their consciences by affecting to be “climate change sceptics” like the notorious ex-PM John Howard or half of Malcolm Turnbull’s front bench, as if, by not believing in it, it will go away.

But these attitudes are not restricted to coal companies, of course. They are general across the world of “business”.

When the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, oil giant Exxon rushed a top man to the area. Not, as you might expect an expert in cleaning up oil spills, but an expert in cleaning up bad PR situations.

The head of Exxon’s PR department (for that is who he was) put his hand on his heart, figuratively at least, and promised the people of the region that the company would spare no effort to “make them [and the fishing industry on which they depended] whole again”.

But when a court awarded the affected citizens a total of US$5 billion in damages, a sum which Exxon acknowledged they had available in operating capital, the company dropped any pretence of concern for the ordinary folk of Alaska, and showed much more concern for the welfare of lawyers. It launched appeal after appeal, all the way, ultimately, to the US Supreme Court.

All in all, Exxon is estimated to have spent at least half a billion dollars in legal fees, but that was not the point of the exercise from the company’s point of view. Their imperative was to deter the victims of other corporate foul-ups from trying through the courts to get compensation from the corporation responsible.

And anyway, Exxon, by holding on to the five billion while they argued through the courts, made $9 a second using that money. Over the course of the protracted court case, Exxon made US$26 billion in profits.

Corporations have deeper pockets than ordinary folk and their tactic is to demonstrate that whenever they feel the need. Look at the lengthy battle over James Hardie and asbestos damages claims.

When people gain a legal victory over a corporation it is an occasion for rejoicing, because it doesn’t happen that often. Stephen Soderbergh’s movie Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts, was a big hit partly because it was a true story of little people gaining a glorious legal victory over a corporation that had seen nothing wrong in poisoning their water supply and destroying their health.

The film struck a resonant chord with people everywhere, for the heavy hand of corporate power knows no borders. In Sydney, the chemical company Orica has entered into a bizarre arrangement supposedly to clean up its intensely polluted site at Botany, near Mascot airport. Apparently, the company anticipates the clean up will take 160 years!

Meanwhile, Orica’s stockpile of extremely hazardous HCBs (HexaClorideBenzines) is going to be packed up, moved through Sydney and shipped to Denmark to be dealt with by the geo-melt process (Denmark’s economy is apparently so hard up that they have to take other people’s toxic waste for disposal – hurrah for capitalism!)

However, it would run counter to normal corporate practice for Orica to stay the course on this one: most experienced corporate watchers expect the company, as soon as it has done what ever it feels it must do to protect its arse, to dispose of any remaining assets, and send itself under.

So many companies in recent years have gone belly-up – after first making sure that their tangible assets were now in the name of unrelated companies or individuals and usually after looting their employees’ entitlements – that people feel justified in being more than a little cynical about so-called corporate ethics.

People are also learning, by what’s happening to them, to believe in theories about what’s wrong with capitalism. As an Alaskan fisherman says on leaving the courthouse after the US Supreme Court decimated the damages originally awarded to the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill: “Exxon wins: that’s another vote for the corporate, capitalist structure that this country seems to be labouring under.

“The people no longer matter, it’s corporate power that’s running things in this country.”

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