Jeb Sprague and Cesar Rodriguez
From the plumes of corporate crude in the Gulf of Mexico, to the assault on migrants in Arizona, the U.S. appears locked in a continual state of emergency. However, both crises have their roots in fundamental structures of our society that are at the core of globalization today.
The explosion on April 20th at BP’s offshore drilling rig fifty miles off the coast of Louisiana led to the worst oil spill in the country’s history, killing 11 workers and unplugging an oil gushing vein in the sea floor. Just three days later, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into Law SB 1070, which requires state police there to check the legal status of anyone suspected of being undocumented. While seemingly unrelated events, it is important that we consider how the two are intricately connected within a system that values the accumulation of capital over the livelihoods and survival of people and the environment.
Sociologist Leslie Sklair has described two central crises in the era of globalization: (1) a class polarization crisis with the “creation of increasing poverty and increasing wealth within and between communities and societies;” and (2) an ecological crisis with “the unsustainability of the system.”
In 2010 we have seen more clearly these disastrous consequences, in a time of fiscal crisis, the stirring up of nativist sentiment in Arizona against the poorest and most susceptible. On the gulf, instead of mounting a herculean national effort to halt the spill, government elites, taking on practices and ideologies of global capitalism, have relinquished guardianship over the ocean.
During the Bush II administration the U.S. Mineral Management Service stated that oil companies themselves were in the best position to determine the environmental effects of drilling, a policy continued under the Obama administration.
Ira Leifer, a researcher in the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a member of the U.S. government’s Flow Rate Technical Group, now says "there’s no reason to disbelieve BP’s worst case and that it could be very large, in the 100,000-plus range". That could mean more than 4 million gallons a day.
Today a ten-mile plume of petrol surges toward the Gulf’s complex loop current. U.S. gulf-coast marshes, home to a rich spectrum of flora and fauna, face eco destruction. Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, various species of sharks, dolphins, mollusks, as well as the Brown Pelican and approximately 96 species of migratory-song birds are under threat.
The Atakapa-Ishak nation, a centuries old indigenous community subsisting on the Grand Bayou, watches the disintegration of its habitat. Plaquemenies Parish’s black fishing community, just gaining stability five years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed many homes, now struggles with a moratorium on fishing. In another local town, St. Bernard Parish, federal authorities have imposed checkpoints aimed at immigrant workers.
Just as transnational petroleum companies, with the ready support of allies in government, gained drilling access to vast tracks of sea floor, so too, transnational agricultural firms, also with the blessing of state leaders, carried out the massive dispossession of lands from peasants in rural Mexico.
Faced with rising unemployment and violence in their homeland many chose often to leave for ‘global cities’ to the north, where, according to Sociologist Saskia Sassen they provide “labor for the low-wage service and manufacturing jobs” that in turn service “the high-income lifestyles of those employed in the specialized, expanding service sector.”
The nature of these dual crises is entwined with transnational processes, distinctly different from the past era of nationally based business monopolies. BP is a company that is truly transnational, both in its production networks, but also in its financial portfolio. Similarly, the formation of a supra-exploitable class of migrants in Arizona is a transnational process with migrant
workforces now in almost every country on the planet; a linchpin of the global capitalist economy.
Across the U.S., intense media coverage has reflected the explosion of outrage against BP. Still, this has not diminished the use of immigrants as a punching bag in the other ongoing national debate.
The well-timed campaign of xenophobia appears to have had some success, as a nationwide Gallup poll in April indicated. In Arizona the polling numbers in support of SB 1070 are even higher, a state where in 2004, 100,000 voters, overwhelmingly Latino, were blocked from registering to vote in the state. SB 1070 serves not only to drive undocumented migrants into the shadows but also to further disenfranchise lower income Latino voters.
Sen Russell Pearce (R-A.Z.), who pushed through SB 1070, is now working on a piece of legislation that plans to deny the children of undocumented immigrants their 14th Amendment right of automatic birth citizenship, a right that stems from efforts in 1868 to turn-back the legacy of slavery. He explained to CNN his proposal for a highly securitized guest worker program: “Crops have to be brought in, but I don’t need a man to wash my car, mow my lawn, or do I need to eat at fast food restaurant…it doesn’t lead to citizenship, doesn’t lead to any permanent status, can’t bring family with you, can’t come here and bring your babies, can’t come here and bring a burden on the tax payer, come here work, earn your wages and go home on a stub.” The CNN reporter interviewing Pearce described it as “labor without the laborers.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues the rightward lurch, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), author of a new Democratic immigration plan, scolds party activists who refer to illegal immigrants as “undocumented workers.” Pro-business sectors of the immigrant rights movement, now close with the Obama administration, have long sought to speak for and co-opt the larger grassroots movement.
From the gulf to the University of Arizona, voices are being silenced. Fisherman, at Grand Isle on the gulf, report being required to sign contracts with BP that guarantee their silence in order to receive
compensation. In Arizona, with the mandated closure of the U of A Ethnic Studies program, Associate Professor Sandra Soto, speaking out in protest at her universities graduation commencement ceremony, was jeered by a part of the audience in attendance.
However, a movement from below is mounting. In late-May one hundred thousandpeople gathered in Phoenix, AZ to protest SB 1070. Three undocumented students, now facing deportation, carried out a sit-in on Sen. John McCain’s (R-A.Z.) office. Student and community activists have carried out a number of acts of civil disobedience in South-west U.S. cities. Locals from the gulf, such as the Plaquemines Parish community, are also organizing. One Texas shrimper, Diane Wilson, went so far as to douse herself with petrol at a recent senate energy hearing as oil-industry ally and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar spoke.
Salazar, President Obama, and BP executives regularly churn out the rhetoric of change, but the plight of migrant workers and the environment, reveals that elite driven globalization is a machine that relentlessly produces victims as well as profits. Soothing words will not turn it off.
Cesar Rodriguez and Jeb Sprague are graduate students in the PhD program in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.