The price of power

By Ronald M. Horvath | Jul 21, 2010

What do we see when we sit aghast in front of our TVs and watch the environmental devastation of the once pristine and seductive Gulf of Mexico? We see blue waters and white sands fouled by the red and black slime of an unnatural disaster. We see wildlife, dead and dying, drowning in our own excessive hunger for energy, apparently at any cost. We see the livelihoods of millions of Americans smothered under the carelessness of corporate arrogance anxious to profit off those excesses and thousands more held captive by that same arrogance. We see all the consequences of the abuse of corporate power, paid for by our own acquiescence in the pursuit of power.

Power. That’s the word that drives everything else (no pun intended) and it has many ramifications, all of which are on display in this tragedy.

Recently a member of the American Birding Association named Drew Wheelan was filming across the street from the BP building/Deepwater Horizon response command in Houma, La., when he was approached and harassed by a local law enforcement officer, a deputy for Terrebonne Parish. BP has used every means to keep anyone from filming any of the cleanup sites and afterward Wheelan was followed, stopped again, and questioned by BP security while the supposed officer of the law stood by. Later it was discovered that the deputy was off duty at the time, and working in the private employ of BP.

Certainly there’s more to this simple scenario than that of a small-town cop moonlighting as a strong arm for a powerful corporation, a common enough practice in small-town America. What’s really going on here is the subverting of at least one aspect of a free society -- that of the public’s right to freedom of information -- by an entity grown too rich, and therefore, too powerful.

The fact is that BP is probably a major employer in Terrebonne Parish giving it plenty of hostages to its own fortune. Louisiana, along with being BP’s chief victim, is also the state with the biggest investment in the oil industry. For years now childhood leukemia has been of epidemic proportions in Louisiana and environmentalists have pointed to the chemical runoff of oil refineries into the state’s swamps and bayous as the principle cause, though no one would say so in any official capacity.

So we have to wonder which of this officer’s employers provides the bigger paycheck. Does Terrebonne Parish have pockets as deep as BP, which just got “shaken down” for $20 billion to provide for all the lost revenue of the coastal work force, idled by BP’s carelessness? I doubt it, and I have to doubt that such a public servant would serve the public as ardently as he serves BP.

And that’s the crux of this column, that corporate power, based on the wealth, can subvert society and government at every level.

More blatant examples of late were the astounding apology, during a committee meeting, to BP for the president’s “shakedown” from a Texas congressman who, it turns out, owns stock in oil companies presently drilling in the gulf. Then the administration’s moratorium on drilling was overturned in an amazing conflict of interest by a federal judge who is also deeply involved in the oil industry, owning stock not only in BP but in companies that build and operate the drilling rigs for that corporation, all displayed in a highly revealing and detailed segment of Rachel Madow’s news program.

All this comes after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission bowed to corporate power in influencing elections and the infamous bank bailout merely sustained the status quo of the corporate elite. Is it any wonder that the United States is losing its competitive edge, when buying influence is more profitable than actually producing a viable product?

It was only days ago that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island gave a speech in the Senate excoriating the agency responsible for inspecting offshore drilling rigs, not just for negligence but for outright complicity with the oil companies by allowing themselves to be bought off with political favors, free trips, promised jobs, money and even women. When that didn’t work there was the threat of legal action against the agency itself, with all the lawyers that corporate money could buy. Power was never so blatantly used, nor so readily acquiesced to.

John Adams, our second president, once described the process of wealth’s overwhelming power in the politics of “old” Europe. He might as well have been describing our modern corporate world: “Economic power became concentrated in a few hands, then political power flowed to those possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny.”

But democracy is based on a certain level of egalitarianism in the society itself. The huge disparities of wealth Adams talks about create an imbalance of power -- through patronage, influence and access to media -- that constantly threatens to turn any democracy into a sham of the kind represented by most Third World countries where true governance (and all law enforcement) belongs to a cabal of wealthy elites and elections are only for the periodic re-assumption of power by some “president-for-life.”

The result is a society divided against itself. The competition of the free market becomes just another version of divide and conquer, of buying the loyalty of some to defend against all “others.” When loyalty is based on such short-term self-interest it becomes hierarchical at best and feudal at worse. The common good becomes a contracted network of alliances limited to those specific individuals for whom “common” means only their own closed circles. In this way nation, society and even community break down, or regress, into another version of the tribal, dividing the masses against themselves.

To end this I can, sadly, only quote G.K. Chesterton: “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.

 

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