Workers Vanguard No. 1167
13 December 2019
California: Fires, Blackouts and Capitalist Greed
In November 2018, a spark from a fault on a century-old high-voltage transmission tower operated by the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) company set off an inferno that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. At least 85 mostly poor and elderly people were killed, 14,000 homes gutted and 240 square miles torched. To get out from under an estimated $30 billion in liabilities for the death and devastation in Paradise and other fires ignited by its criminally neglected infrastructure, PG&E declared bankruptcy. Last week, a settlement was announced, bringing little relief to victims, who will receive half their payouts in company stock, yet another slap in the face from the utility.
Earlier this year, as a long fire season again took hold, PG&E responded to an angry public by repeatedly shutting off power to millions of people, rather than mounting a serious effort to fix the underlying issues. These blackouts, which often came with little or no warning, threw a glaring spotlight on the social reality of decaying American capitalism. The lights were left on in the economic and financial centers of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, while the lives and livelihoods of the working class and the poor were disrupted and endangered. The sick and the elderly had life-saving medical equipment dependent on electricity cut off. Refrigerated food rotted; schools, gas stations and supermarkets were forced to close. At the same time, a massive fire erupted in Sonoma County, likely started by a PG&E transmission line that the company had decided not to de-energize.
The largest investor-owned utility in the U.S. and main provider of electricity to Northern and Central California, PG&E has a long and notorious reputation for its depraved indifference to public safety. Its deadly contamination of the water supply in the small California town of Hinkley with carcinogenic waste from a natural gas compressor station was portrayed in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich. Three years ago, the company was convicted on felony charges for willful safety violations after a 2010 gas pipeline explosion in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno killed eight people and leveled 38 houses. A PG&E worker told Workers Vanguard that, according to a company presentation, the occupational fatality rate for electrical workers who repair its lines is 2.6 times the national average for manufacturing. The overwhelmingly Latino workers brought in to trim trees and clear brush for PG&E face even more hazardous working conditions.
Meanwhile, the company’s shareholders and investors have profited handsomely, raking in a reported $4.5 billion in dividends in recent years as PG&E let its aging infrastructure continue to rot. Now, PG&E’s CEO says it will take ten years to make the upgrades necessary to stop the fire season blackouts. Thus, California, which has the equivalent of the fifth largest economy in the world, is faced with a “new normal” of unreliable electric power more typical of an underdeveloped country.
More is at work here than simply the homicidal greed of PG&E—namely, the destructive irrationality of a system based on production for private profit and the anarchy of the market. PG&E is a monument to capitalist decay in the imperialist epoch, the period from the turn of the last century, marked by the domination of finance capital and the proliferation of monopolies. The company, which has since sold off its power plants, acquired monopoly status in 1930, after decades of alternately colluding with and gobbling up its competitors. This outcome gave PG&E a captive market, and greater incentive to price-gouge and run its infrastructure into the ground.
The PG&E monopoly cannot supply the energy needs of the population on a rational basis and, like all other monopolies, has acted as a barrier to development. At the same time, monopoly capitalism is based on substantial economic integration. In the case of PG&E, the electrical grid and gas supply were centralized, and the energy-sector workforce further concentrated. To harness the potential of such large-scale operations to provide vital services, and to clear the way for all-around social and economic progress, the proletariat must put an end to the rule of the tiny class of capitalist owners.
Reformist “Public Ownership” Schemes
Popular outrage against PG&E has led to calls for “public ownership” from many quarters. While the reformist left sometimes couples this call with one for “workers control” or “community control,” what they are demanding is that PG&E be taken over by the capitalist state. Even if such a move were to be made, it would not be to address the needs of the population but rather those of the capitalist class that the state apparatus exists to defend. Currently, some form of public ownership of PG&E seems to be getting traction among sectors of the bourgeoisie.
As the L.A. Times (14 November) noted: “Even those on Wall Street are looking to state leaders to do more about power line-sparked wildfires and mass blackouts before they wreak long-term havoc on California’s economy.” Demands that the company be run as a customer-owned cooperative have also been made by more than 20 mayors in Northern California. Even Democratic Party governor Gavin Newsom, who went to bat with legislation to protect PG&E from liability for its crimes, has mooted the idea of a possible state takeover.
Any such takeover to bail out this failing enterprise, and restore its bottom line, will be purchased on the backs of working people and the poor. In fact, the measures passed to date by the Democratic-controlled California legislature have saddled consumers with higher rates for the mounting costs of keeping PG&E afloat. But this reality has not curbed the enthusiasm of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) in peddling illusions that Democrats, who have long covered for PG&E, will come to the rescue. As the lights went out and the fires raged, SAlt urged that “the Governor and state legislators need to act immediately to back up cities that want to nationalize their utilities and should introduced [sic] legislation for a state takeover of PG&E with compensation to shareholders based only on proven need” (socialistalternative.org, 27 October).
This revolting concern for PG&E’s investors is matched by SAlt’s touching faith in the capitalist state, the executive committee of the capitalist class as a whole, to run the utility in the interests of the many and not the few. In fact, making a utility public does not stop it from sacrificing safety and reliability. One need only look at public services that have been run into the ground by government austerity. The deteriorating roads and bridges of California—among the worst in the country—are maintained by the Cal Trans public agency. Little to no money has gone to providing roads and other infrastructure in high-risk wildfire areas where workers and retirees are increasingly driven to look for affordable housing due to extortionate rents in the Bay Area.
People trapped in traffic jams on the one main road out of Paradise burned to death in their cars. Fire warning systems were primitive or dysfunctional. With the state’s firefighting budget criminally underfunded, the capitalist rulers have revived the convict slave-labor system. Inmates from California’s overflowing prisons are paid $2 a day (plus $1 an hour when they are actively risking their lives) to fight fires. Currently, inmates make up one-third of the state’s firefighting force but are effectively barred from working as firefighters when they are released!
PG&E should be expropriated without a dime in compensation and the utility run in the interests of society. So should the energy industry as a whole and all other services on which the survival of the population depends. But this perspective immediately raises the question of which class rules society. Unlike the reformists’ demand for “public ownership” under capitalist rule, the demand for expropriation sharply poses the need for a revolutionary workers party that would link such a fight to a struggle to overthrow the entire capitalist system, establishing a workers government and a socialist planned economy.
The Fraud of “Workers Control” Under Capitalism
Putting a more left-wing gloss on the demand for public ownership of PG&E, a Left Voice article online (11 October) calls for “taking public ownership of these [big energy] companies immediately and putting them under worker control.” It goes on to rhapsodize that this measure would create “space for those who actually do and know the work to plan, regulate and innovate to address the current needs of the people.” Contrary to this fantasy, in the absence of the workers mobilized in a revolutionary battle against capitalist class rule, the call for “workers control” simply amounts to the workers “managing” their continued exploitation under the anarchic and irrational rule of capitalism. As Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1931 article “Workers’ Control of Production”:
“What state regime corresponds to workers’ control of production? It is obvious that the power is not yet in the hands of the proletariat, otherwise we would have not workers’ control of production but the control of production by the workers state…. Control can be imposed only by force upon the bourgeoisie, by a proletariat on the road to the moment of taking power from them, and then also the ownership of the means of production.”
The labor movement has long been saddled with a leadership that has repeatedly sacrificed workers’ interests to maintain the profitability of American capitalism. It would be hard to find a clearer example of such subservience than that of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245, which represents PG&E workers. Saluting the “free private enterprise system,” the union contract with PG&E opens with a pledge to “support the principle of private ownership of public utilities under enlightened regulation by public authority.” While PG&E workers are dying on the job, the IBEW bureaucrats vow that their members “shall use their influence and best efforts to protect the properties of Company.”
Rather than protecting the “property rights” of the exploiters, the union should be fighting for members’ right to shut down all unsafe work and for union-run safety committees! To repair and upgrade the company’s rotting infrastructure, a fighting union would demand a massive hiring program, both for electrical work and to clear trees and brush, bringing these workers into the union with full wages and benefits. Currently, much of the tree-trimming work for PG&E is done by Latinos, many of whom are Local 1245 members. This example is but one underlining the need for labor to mobilize against the oppression of Latinos, not least against anti-immigrant attacks. The criminally exploited prisoners used to fight fires should also be getting union wages and benefits. But such a struggle requires a leadership that proceeds from the elementary understanding that the workers have no interests in common with the PG&E robber barons and that will fight it out class against class.
The “Green New Deal”
The crimes of PG&E have also been seized on to peddle the so-called “Green New Deal” (GND), a favorite talking point of Bernie Sanders, candidate for Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, and Democratic Congresswoman and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. These plans to promote “clean energy” capitalism also promise jobs, as well as affordable housing, health care and food. And the bill for this pipedream is supposedly to be footed by the very capitalist rulers who have looted industry and forsaken the maintenance of the power grids, water and sewage systems, roads and bridges in their naked pursuit of profit.
It is no accident that the GND invokes Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Contrary to liberal myths, the purpose of FDR’s program enacted during the Great Depression was not to end mass poverty and destitution. It was to restore capitalist profits and to head off the possibility that the militant working-class struggles of the 1930s would be coalesced into a proletarian socialist movement. Today, the GND aims to decarbonize the economy—that is, ax entire industries in the U.S. like oil, natural gas and coal mining. Its implementation would result in the complete destruction of strategically placed unionized workforces in the name of “green” capitalist exploitation. No good can come from making common cause with Democratic representatives of the capitalist exploiters.
An article in the DSA’s Socialist Forum (Winter 2019) argues for “the gradual dismantling of the centralized power grid,” to be replaced by “urban micro-power grids.” Calling to break up the centralized grid is thoroughly reactionary, as it promises a huge spike in energy inequality, not to mention that the notion of microgrids powering a modern industrial economy is completely absurd. With over 100 microgrids currently up and running in California, state officials, along with corporate magnates and environmental activists, are pushing to commercialize these localized electrical networks that can operate on or off the traditional grid. This push, presented as a way to generate lots of carbon-free electricity, is nothing but a substitute for fixing the existing infrastructure. The DSA scheme would have clean energy flowing to those with money, and everyone else would be paying through the nose for increasingly spotty service, if not literally left in the dark.
Centralization is the best guarantee of service to everyone, everywhere. Wind and solar are by their nature intermittent power sources; only a vastly upgraded nationwide grid can bring renewable (or non-renewable) power from any part of the country to any other. The problem with power distribution in the U.S. is not that it is nationally interconnected, but rather that it is crumbling under the dead weight of private property and the profit motive.
The experience of the Soviet Union shows the superiority of collectivized property and centralized economic planning, despite the degeneration of the workers state under the rule of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste. Thanks to the proletarian seizure of state power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution, a backward country achieved successes in development unparalleled in history. Among them, electricity generation jumped nearly twenty-fold between 1917 and 1935, placing the USSR behind only Germany and the U.S. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin evocatively put it, communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country. (The soviets, or democratically elected workers, peasants and soldiers councils, were the organs of proletarian rule in the early years after the October Revolution.)
Climate Change and Capitalism
Climate change, raising summer temperatures and lengthening the fire season, is a factor in the growing number and intensity of wildfires that have long been endemic to California. But the capitalist rulers’ profit-driven system greatly amplifies the risk of such blazes, as well as the resulting death and destruction. As we wrote in a polemic against self-described “eco-socialists”:
“We are far from indifferent to climate change, whatever its timetable and consequences. But our primary concern is human civilization, and we are implacably hostile to its greatest enemy: the U.S. capitalist ruling class. Nothing good will come from advising these plunderers of the world on how to best generate energy. Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.”
—“John Bellamy Foster & Co.: ‘Ecosocialism’ Against Marxism,” WV No. 1032, 18 October 2013
This country’s capitalist rulers have so squeezed working people that they are forced to work long hours or multiple jobs just to survive. Yet, eco-socialists, having declared war on carbon, haughtily lecture workers on the supposed evils of “limitless” consumption, often while pitching the GND. In contrast, the whole point of the fight for socialist revolution is to massively increase the production of things people need. A workers government would also strive to generate and use energy in the most rational, efficient and safe manner possible, including by developing nuclear, solar, wind and other non-carbon sources. Even then, it will likely prove necessary to harness fossil fuels for a period of time to lift everyone out of misery.
The capitalist exploiters are incapable of maintaining this society, much less tackling global climate change. It is the historic mission of the class of collective producers, the proletariat, to overthrow capitalist rule, which can only be accomplished if the workers are mobilized in opposition to their class enemy, not least the Democrats. Successful socialist revolutions in the U.S. and around the world will enable the international planning necessary to mitigate climate change and its effects while laying the basis for a global society of full equality for all based on abundance, not generalized want. Then, for the first time, humanity will enter the realm of freedom from the struggle for existence.