The Texas Oilagarchs vs. Democracy & Socialism, At Home and Abroad

When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and triggered floods that caused widespread devastation in Houston, certain responses to the catastrophe stand out. The right wing governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott, called for evacuations but did not provide any kind of plan or assistance for the evacuees on the part of the state(although he did deploy ICE agents and state troopers to all the major roads out of Houston to patrol for undocumented immigrants trying to flee the storm). In spite of Texas being one of the global centers of oil production, people desperately fleeing the storm by car were subjected to price gouging by opportunistic gas companies…except Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state, which offered free gas to the refugees.

Why is it, that in spite of having the second largest concentration of Latino voters in the country, and  every major city besides Fort Worth consistently voting Democratic in national elections, does Texas have an internationally known reputation of being a powerhouse of right wing, racist, anti working class politics? And why did socialist Venezuela, a country being attacked with crippling sanctions and threats of war by the Trump administration, do more to reach out and assist the victims of Hurricane Harvey than many Texas and US leaders?

The reason: The models for how society’s wealth and political power is controlled and distributed is radically different in Venezuela from Texas.

Let us first look at Texas.

One major factor in this distortion is the conquest of state power in Texas by the corporate oil giants and their footsoldiers in the Republican party. The consequences for workers rights, popular government and the environment have been disastrous. This is nowhere more apparent than in the city of Houston.

Ironically, Houston owes its status as a major city to another hurricane 117 years years ago in 1900 that leveled the city of Galveston,at that time the largest city in Texas) and killed between six and twelve thousand  people. Prior to the age of oil, the economy of Texas was primarily based on raising cattle and cotton and exporting it through Galveston, its largest port. When Galveston was destroyed by the storm, it never really recovered.  Many business investors were frightened off, and another city, Houston, was able to pull ahead in population and wealth. Houston had the added advantage of a resource Galveston lacked: oil.

In 1901, a vast reserve of oil was discovered near Houston, and the city received one boost after another to its development. Chevron, Standard Oil, Mobil, and many other big names in petroleum made their fortunes there. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that the so-called ‘Oil Age’, in which petroleum became central to the functioning of the global economy, began in Texas. During World War II, the need for rubber and other petroleum based chemicals for the war industry made chemical factories another major city industry. Houston became the 4th largest city in the United States as a result of two developments in the 1970’s: the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which drove up the price of oil dramatically and increased the demand for domestically produced oil; and the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt in the Midwest, which attracted workers elsewhere in the country to the one major city that saw a net increase in industrial jobs in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Houston’s so called model of development in effect amounts to uncontrolled urban sprawl, unhampered by anything resembling planning or regulation, lest it interfere with the prerogatives of the ‘free market’ and private profit. In this sense, Houston is possibly the ‘purest’ capitalist major city in the United States. For one thing, Houston is the largest city in the United States with no zoning laws whatsoever, which means that housing can be built right next to chemical plants and toxic waste dumps. The lack of building regulations(or the simple ignoring of the few that do exist) have led to unscrupulous and greedy property developers paving over prairie regions that served as natural buffers against storm surges, which contributed to the catastrophe we recently saw in Harvey. The property landlords have even had the nerve to demand their rent from flooded homes in the aftermath of the latest hurricane! In addition, Texas being a “right to work” state means its unions are broken unions and workers’ rights and safety get no hearing in Houston’s urban development. The ‘low property values’ that Houston politicians boast about as an asset of the city’s neo liberal development model are mostly due to the largely undocumented and exploited workforce that dominates construction muscle there. Of Houston’s 2.3 million residents, 600,000 are undocumented.

Houston is a microcosm of the state of Texas as a whole, which is locked under the control of oil and gas giants who callously play with the safety and well being of working people for the sake of short term profits. The nail in the coffin of Big Oil’s conquest of power over the state of Texas was the infamous ‘redistricting’ of Texan congressional districts in 2003 under the purview of Republican House Majority Whip Tom Delay. He set up a front organization known as TRMPAC (Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee), throughwhich hundreds of thousands of dollars were funnelled into key state legislature races to get the votes passed for his redistricting plans, much of the money coming from oil interests. , it rendered the largest Latino and white liberal constituencies in Texas weak and politically toothless. Austin, the geographic center of the Texas left, was hacked into six different congressional districts, with city residents being a minority in each one.  Despite whites’ share of the Texas vote declining from 52 to 45 percent between 2000 and 2010, whites are still the majority in 70 percent of Texas congressional districts. The district also has a class bias- the congressional districts over-represent the suburbs and rural areas where petit bourgeois (small capitalists and agricultural business owners) predominate, while under-representing the largely Latino working class in the city centers of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin.

In 2003, More than 50 Democratic state legislators were so mortified by this death blow to their party that they fled to Oklahoma in order to sabotage the passage of the redistricting bill, and Rick Perry had to deploy state troopers across the border to bring them back. It took two special sessions to ram this corporate coup through. Prior to the redistricting bill, Texas Democrats held 17 seats to the Republicans 15. Today, it is 25 Republicans to 11 Democrats. Thanks to the redistricting, the speaker of the Texas House in 2004 became a Republican after that position had been held by a Democrat for 130 years, ever since Reconstruction.

With democracy thwarted in Texas, the oilagarchs have used Texas a launchpad for national power. The George W Bush administration, which gave billions of dollars in tax breaks to the oil industry, waged wars in the Middle East to ensure continued US control of the region’s oil wealth, and sabotaged the Kyoto Protocol, which was incubated in Texas where George W Bush served as governor from 1995 to 2000. The current Trump administration, whose Energy Secretary is Rick Perry, has also been marinated in contributions from the oil industry. Big Oil gave 11 million dollars to Rick Perry’s three successful runs for Texas Governor in 2002, 2006, and 2010. His Democratic opponent in the first election, Tony Sanchez, was himself an oilman, so whatever the outcome Big Oil would be in power. Right before he became Trump’s Energy Secretary, Perry was on the board of directors of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

But the most obvious of Big Oil’s contributions to the current Trump administration is Rex Tillerson, current Secretary of State and former CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. No longer content with hiding behind bribed puppets, it appears the US capitalist oligarchy is increasingly moving toward running the state directly, epitomized by Donald Trump himself.

Thousands of miles to the south of Texas, a very different model of oil fueled development, for the benefit of the poor and the working class, has taken place in Venezuela. Starting in 1999, the socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’(named after the liberator of Venezuela Simon Bolivar) led by Hugo Chavez nationalized the country’s vast oil reserves and used the revenue for mass programs of housing, healthcare and education for the nation’s black, brown and indigenous poor. In a little over a decade, Venezuela was utterly transformed. Poverty overall was reduced by 50%, while extreme poverty was reduced by 70%. Great gains in health, education, literacy, food independence and political power were made for the poor and oppressed peoples denied their rights for centuries. Encouraged by Venezuela’s example, leftist and left of center governments swept to power electorally across Latin America between 2000 and 2010.

However,  oil is a curse as well as a blessing, even when a society tries to harness its wealth for progressive purposes. The fall of global oil prices from 2014 onwards (that was in large part due to Saudi Arabia selling oil cheaply in order to curry favor with the US by harming  Venezuela, Russia and Iran), has caused great hardship to Venezuela’s working class, drying up the revenue for the state’s social programs, a bedrock of its popular support. This gave confidence to Venezuela’s deposed bourgeois elite that they could re conquer state power. A campaign of hoarding and destroying billions of dollars worth of food supplies by Venezuela’s elite intensified, in effect saying to the Venezuelan poor, “vote against socialism, or starve.”  The counter-revolutionaries were able to use the demoralization of the Chavista base to win control of the National Assembly in December 2015. With Brazil and Argentina also falling under the control of far right neo-liberals allied with Washington and the IMF, it seemed like the days of the ascendant Latin American left were over.

But the Bolivarian Revolution fought back. Nicholas Maduro, Chavez’s successor, responded by encouraging workers to seize idle factories to restart production and set up state run food distribution centers (CLAPS) to distribute food to those suffering from food shortages. Instead of using crises to trample democracy, as US oligarchs have, he used it to expand it. In contrast to what happened in Texas where the constitution and legislature was manipulated for the white and wealthy, Maduro and his allies began elections for a new Constituent Assembly to replace the existing National Assembly. What is remarkable about this deliberative body is that it is rigged in favor of the working class and poor. In the  face of a campaign of terrorism, lynchings of black people, and thuggish violence from right wing mobs that killed over 100 people in 2 months, 8 million Venezuelans showed up to vote for this law making body.

In August, the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente de Venezuela(ANC), officially took powers away from the capitalist dominated National Assembly. Of the 545 seats, 79 are reserved for workers in specific sectors such as public administration, service sector, industry, construction, transportation, and the oil industry. 8 are for campesinos and fishermen, 24 for students, 5 for the disabled. The business class has to be content with only 5 seats. This is what Lenin meant by ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the rule of the exploited majority over the opulent few- in other words, democracy in substance not just in words.

Rex Tillerson more than anyone in the Trump administration has a personal stake in crushing Venezuela’s democratic socialist experiment. As CEO of ExxonMobil he had 10 billion in assets in Venezuela nationalized by Chavez in 2007. He sued Venezuela for compensation, and after a decade long legal battle the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (a World Bank court) ruled in favor of Venezuela! The fact that this vast wealth, in a world of dwindling petroleum resources, will be under the control of the country’s workers and farmers simply rubs salt into the wounds.

Determined to take by foul means what they cannot by fair, Tillerson and his allies in the Trump administration have resorted to tightening sanctions and threats of direct US military action. In spite of this, the Bolivarian Republic donated 5 million dollars to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arrazea declared “Let’s not allow war or threats to be imposed, but instead let’s impose solidarity. We will always be with the people of the United States and the peoples of the world in difficult times”.

In the actions of the volunteers on the ground in Hurricane Harvey, including many antifa and Black Lives Matter activists risking their safety to help those the callous state government refuses to, we see what that kind of world based on solidarity looks like. A century ago Rosa Luxemburg  said the choice facing humanity was socialism or barbarism. In the 21st century it is even more stark: socialism and solidarity, or drowning.