The faces of the oil company change. Corporate discourses and aesthetics go out of style. The price of crude goes up and down. State politics shift this way and that way. Social movements rise and fall. Yet much endures.
I have not been back to Dock Sud to see who is now representing Shell to the thousands of impoverished people who still live in the shadows of its oil refineries. With the lack of communication infrastructure in shanty settlements, I have lost track of my friends in the settlement I call Goldendas. I do not know if the Sunshine Center still stands. What I do know is that corporations are no less powerful than they were when I wrote this article seven years ago. Yet their power is no more secure. Numerous corporations, especially ones in the extractive industries, have tried to restrain unruly neighbors while projecting a benevolent motive, and likewise numerous social movements have developed environmental justice campaigns to challenge them. There has not been a significant shift in this power dynamic.
In my book Resources for Reform: Oil and Neoliberalism In Argentina, I amplified this article in several ways. First, I provide greater historical, political and social context for Shell’s relationship with the residents of Dock Sud. The book situates both Shell’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaign and the social movement FUNDA’s activism within the history of the oil industry in Argentina, the development of Argentine neoliberalismo, the shift from state-led to corporate-led development in Latin America, and the increasing globalization and consolidation of the oil industry worldwide.
Second, I argue that the multiple political, economic and social disparities in Dock Sud between the corporate enclave and the shanty settlements are closely tied to Argentina’s experiment with neoliberal state and economic restructuring. The privatization of the state oil company, along with almost every other state enterprise and numerous state services, dramatically increased inequality. A country that had prided itself on having the largest middle class in Latin America became polarized between the wealthy and the poor. Masses of citizens drew on the country’s history of labor and social movements to oppose this change. However, these efforts often came only after it was too late and the nation’s oil and many other resources already had been sold.
Third, I place FUNDA’s environmental justice campaign against Shell within the context of shifting meanings and practices of citizenship in Argentina. I illustrate how changes in how private oil companies related to its neighbors were closely linked to changes in how the Argentine state related to its citizens. The shift in both cases was away from paternalism and toward promoting individual responsibility, communal self-sufficiency and institutional autonomy. Shell’s CSR campaign in Dock Sud attempted to “empower” citizens to deal with problems themselves and expect less support from the company, just as the neoliberal restructuring of the Argentine state dismantled the economic rights of citizenship.
In place of paternal care, Shell representatives tried to create a mutually sympathetic friendship between the company and “the community.” In contrast, FUNDA worked to reclaim citizenship as a life-long relationship of obligation and care. Its members argued that dignified employment, healthcare and a clean environment were citizenship rights. They refused to distinguish environmental issues from political, economic and social ones. More startlingly, FUNDA asserted that transnational corporations had as much of an obligation to fulfill these citizenship rights as did the Argentine state.
Today, Argentina shows up less frequently in the international news, at least in the economic and political sections, than it did in the decade following the political-economic collapse of 2001. Yet the problems indexed by the dramatic events of the turn of the twenty-first century have not disappeared. The country has experienced a long series of economic crises, including food and fuel shortages. Street protests by piquetero and other social movements have continued. Shell, now Royal Dutch Shell, ended the Creating Bonds program in Argentina, and has largely replaced the discourse of CSR with the discourse of “sustainability” around the world. The company periodically threatens to sell off its refineries in Dock Sud, while becoming more involved in exploration and extraction in Argentina in recent years. Shell is clearly not leaving the country any time soon.
There is some evidence that the relationship between the state and private oil companies is changing. First, the national government re-created a national oil company in 2012. Yet it is important to recognize that this did not constitute a return to the nationalized industry of the past (Shever 2012). The new state oil company and the other new state enterprises are very different from their predecessors in size, organization, financial structure and ability to shape their respective economic sectors. Second, in 2016, top officials in the national Energy Ministry were accused of acting in ways that illegally benefitted the private oil companies that they previously worked for, rather than working for the nation as a whole. Their actions were far from surprising, but what was novel was that a federal judge began investigating them. The investigation is ongoing as of this writing.
As I express on the last page of Resources for Reform, I hope that seeing how the actions of powerful corporations like Shell are the result continuation of contingent historical processes helps us to imagine and forge a different future.
Shever, Elana. Resources for Reform: Oil and Neoliberalism in Argentina. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
—. When the State Takes Stock. The Huffington Post, June 4, 2012.