British Petroleum and friends: The face of the enemy

When we rail against corporate abuses on these pages and elsewhere, we sometimes forget that a corporation is not a person, it is an inanimate thing, a mere instrument used by certain flesh and blood individual persons to advance their economic and political interests. The enemy of the working people of the world may seem at times to be “the corporations” but behind the corporations are the ruling class and its individual members, who are human beings, sort of.

This is revealed in the ease with which certain ruling class individuals are sometimes willing to loot “their own” corporations and leave them as heaps of rubble underneath which their employees and small scale investors lie buried. We saw that with Enron and with a whole bunch of corporations in the last couple of years.

So when we denounce British Petroleum, Halliburton and other corporations for the catastrophe they have created in the Gulf of Mexico, we must not let the actual individuals who made the decisions off the hook. The corporate structures must not be allowed to mask the face of the enemy, which is a human face, though a nasty one.

Let us look at the Board of Directors of British Petroleum. It is composed of extremely high powered individuals. They cannot wash their hands of responsibility for the disaster and pass the blame to some underling, saying “I did not know”. They are experienced achievers, movers and shakers, not fools or puppets of their own underlings. They as individuals, and not just the corporation, have to be held personally accountable. On the board of directors there are no fewer than four people listed as being on the committee charged with “environmental responsibility’. With so many people at the top looking out for “environmental responsibility” you would think that some environmental responsibility would have materialized. Maybe that was not really their role.

The Chairman of the Board of British Petroleum is a Swede, Carl-Henric Svanberg, who has plenty of establishment connections, which got him a medal from King Carl-Gustav for “his contribution to Swedish industry”. There are a number of Englishmen, Scots, Americans and others, some of whom began as humble chemists or engineers but all of them are now as wired as can be with transnational capital.

Particularly interesting to me is board member Cynthia Carroll, an American, who is one of several people on the BP board with membership in the corporation’s “safety, ethics and environmental responsibility committees”, again according to the website.

What caught my eye about Ms. Carroll, as I scanned over the potted biographies of Board members, was the fact that she is the current Executive Director of Anglo American PLC, as well as sitting of the board of DeBeers and BP.

For those who don’t following mining matters, Anglo-American and DeBeers are the two ugly twins of South African mining. Both companies are heavily implicated in oppressive labor conditions in South Africa and its neighbors. Historically, Anglo-American ran the gold mines of the Transvaal, while DeBeers is of course world famous for its diamonds. Ms. Carroll became Executive Director of Anglo-American in March 2007, and has been sharply criticized in South Africa because of her company’s labor practices. She was also formerly associated with the aluminum mining giant, Alcan, and other corporate behemoths. Her salary at BP is said to be about $2 million per year.

Anglo American is now worldwide. It is in the process of developing a very large scale gold and molybdenum mine, the Pebble Mine in interior Alaska, near villages of the Tanana and other Native American communities. In fact, the project is very controversial locally and beyond, because it may block salmon migrations, vital to the local fishing industry, by damming the rivers the fish need for spawning, and because of fears that cyanide and other materials used in such mining will create an environmental catastrophe that will harm the livelihood and health of the local communities.

Both Anglo American and BP are huge transnationals, the leaders in the respective fields of oil extraction and mining. Their fingers are in many, many pies, and the greed and irresponsibility that have bubbled to the surface in the Gulf of Mexico disaster amount to a systematic rape of the whole planet. Nor are they alone: Other major mining companies such as Rio Tinto and Pacific Rim have their own scandals. But in each case, the corporations do not make the bad decisions that harm people and the environment, the ruling class people who run those corporations do.

Let us work to for an accounting of the flesh-and-blood ruling class, not just their bloodless corporate instruments.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.