Energy beyond Neoliberalism: Platform: A New Energy Settlement Will Be an Important Part of the Transition from Neoliberalism

Soundings, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Energy beyond Neoliberalism: Platform: A New Energy Settlement Will Be an Important Part of the Transition from Neoliberalism


The NHS was designed in 1948 by scaling up the Tredegar Medical Aid Society--a mutual health provision organisation in South Wales set up by miners and their families that had run for over fifty years. By scaling up this local community-controlled structure, the founders of the NHS fundamentally transformed the economy and politics of healthcare nationwide. Today, we need a comparable transformation of energy provision. Could Eigg in Scotland--an island owned collectively by its inhabitants and entirely supplied by renewable electricity be the Tredegar Medical Aid Society of energy?

This article seeks to explore energy alternatives that break with the foundational assumptions of the neoliberal order. Our argument is that, rather than begging for small palliative scraps, the left must make the argument for a new energy and economic settlement. This is necessary for survival, and for justice. We need a fundamental change of direction on energy.

Energy corporations, finance and the state

In Nigeria 72 per cent of people are forced to use wood for cooking, while their country exports 950 billion cubic feet of gas every year. Much of it is shipped to Britain. Yet when Platform invited Niger Delta activist Celestine AkpoBari to London, he was astounded to hear that Britain suffers the worst levels of fuel poverty in Western Europe, with one person dying of cold every six seconds last winter. So who benefits from this disparity? The answer lies in record energy company profits. Together, the big five oil companies--BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell--earn more in one minute than 90 per cent of UK couples earn together in a year.

A century-long strategic alliance between fossil fuel corporations and Western governments has fostered an energy system that has been structured by imperial, extractivist and then neoliberal power. Global neoliberal extractivism--based on the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources--has for the last few years been trying to solve the dwindling of easily accessible oil reserves by violently pushing for new reserves to be exploited. Cue Arctic drilling, fracking and efforts to extract from beneath the pre-salt ultra-deep waters off Brazil. Once discovered and measured, geological deposits are represented as 'proven reserves' and they then become financial assets that are tradable and valued on the FTSE (and vulnerable to extreme oil price fluctuations, such as we saw at the end of 2014).

This process thrives on accumulation by dispossession: the expulsion of people from their land, the occupation of villages by soldiers, and the poisoning of groundwater. Military, diplomatic and financial support from states to corporations is key to its facilitation. The aim of Western states is to maintain imperial power by keeping their corporations in control of fuel flows. London is now a centre of both financial and energy imperialism.

Neoliberal common sense persuades us that there is little we can do about this. We are addressed as individual passive consumers of energy, purely as 'customers' --and this serves to obscure our other identities, as Doreen Massey argued in the manifesto instalment on Vocabularies of the Economy We are encouraged to believe that BP and Shell, British Gas and EDF are the organisations best placed to 'efficiently' extract, process and generate energy, and that the market will deliver the best prices to us as the big companies compete among themselves for our custom. Our choices as customers supposedly influence this market. But in practice, the dominance of a small number of multinational corporations annihilates the possibility of any choice that could generate significant change. As Beatrix Campbell writes, global capitalism 'deploys the language of freedom, choice and competition to oust solidarity, co-operative creativity and equality'. (1)

As a result of these companies' dominance, itself the culmination of successive privatisations by Conservative and Labour governments, Britain's fuel poverty rates are now among the highest in Europe. …

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