War and the new Global 500

Fortune magazine recently published its latest “Global 500” listing of the world’s 500 largest corporations, ranked by their sales (revenues) in 2001. Eleven enterprises are from China, which is the product of a socialist revolution despite capitalist inroads, and all eleven are state-owned, according to Fortune. For the remaining 489 corporations, the results testify to capitalism’s inequalities, contradictions, and rising need for war.

Using relatively uniform methods internationally, Fortune reports profits fell 54.1 percent from 2000, to $306 billion. “Overproduction,” “overcapacity,” “lack of demand” is fundamentally behind this fall, even as hunger rises and the standard of living under capitalism declines.

The 489 capitalist corporations on the list had combined revenues of $13.8 trillion, or about 35 percent of the world’s production of goods and services. Yet they employed only 42 million people, or 1 percent of the 4 billion people in the world of working age in 2001. So 1 percent of the world’s population accounts for 35 percent of world production! This disparity speaks volumes about inequality and social productivity under capitalism. Billions of people have been left to scratch the earth, to forage garbage dumps, to work and live under conditions that would have horrified feudal serfs.

The list also gives an indication of the relationship of forces among imperialist powers. 197 of the 500 corporations this year are U.S.-based, up from 151 in 1995. These accounted for 43 percent of the 500’s sales in 2001, up from 29 percent six years earlier. Only 87 hail from Japan, down from 149 in 1995; their share of sales has fallen in half since 1995, to 17.4 percent. 143 corporations hail from the 15 European Union countries, down from 155 in 1995.

Even more indicative of the relationship of forces is the distribution of profits. The U.S.-based corporations’ profits, some $217 billion, were more than double the profits of all the corporations from the rest of the world combined. The 87 Japanese corporations had combined profits of – negative $38 billion. Yes, Japan Inc. suffered net losses last year.

Marx pointed out that capitalists are not beneath looting each other, using relative strength to pocket wealth from others. The first place to look for evidence is the oil monopolies. More than one hundred years ago, capitalist families led by the Rockefellers realized that energy products in general, and oil in particular, are like the oxygen of modern society. If they could monopolize oil, they could have a stranglehold not easily achievable from monopolizing other industries. Monopolize they have. Oil, which costs an average of perhaps $2.40 a barrel to produce (much less in the Middle East), has been selling for over $20 for years.

The results are evident on Fortune 500 lists. Five oil monopolies are among the world’s 15 largest corporations. ExxonMobil was (once again) the world’s most profitable corporation, reporting profits of $15.3 billion on sales of $192 billion. Exxon accounted for 5 percent of the Global 500’s total profits. Yet its sales were just 1.4 percent, and its payroll but 0.2 percent, of the 500’s total. That’s extraordinary.

In recent weeks, oil monopolies have reported a sharp decline in profits so far this year. A slumping world economy and “low” oil and gas prices were blamed. Almost simultaneously, Washington stepped up calls for more war in the Middle East, specifically against Iraq. Oil prices jumped.

The owners of the oil monopolies – and the big banks – have a profound interest in “expensive oil,” not cheap oil, even if achieved through war. A significant share of debt around the world owed to Wall Street is repaid from oil sales. Heavily indebted countries like Venezuela, Mexico or Nigeria may record big oil sales. But before they get a penny, Chase, Citi and the other Wall Street banks first take their loot. “Low” oil prices endanger debt service.

It is entirely possible that escalated war in the Middle East could temporarily double or triple the price of oil, bringing the owners of Exxon and Citibank momentary relief from their declining profits and growing scandals. But higher oil prices could push the shaky economies of Japan, Germany and other oil-dependent countries into full crisis.

The working class has no interest in high energy prices, war or economic crisis. Worldwide, working class parties and trade unions have played the leading role historically against high energy prices. With Washington now beating the drums for escalated war in the Middle East, it is necessary to bring together the struggle against monopoly prices, imperialist wars – and for working-class power.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org