Public Ownership Needed to Stop Capitalist Energy Crisis

by Ben Desjarlais

This winter, working-class families across the world are acutely aware of the falling temperatures and rising costs of heating and other utilities. Households in the Northeastern U.S. are rationing high-cost heating oil to try to ensure they have enough for the winter. In the South, many fear the return of last winter’s sudden freeze that — due partly to deregulation and corporate negligence — led to rolling blackouts and infrastructure collapse which killed 246 people in Texas. A four-day blizzard over Christmas killed at least 37 people who froze to death after losing power. 

Workers’ concerns about the reliability of essential utilities are not limited to the winter months. The heatwaves last summer set records across the U.S. and around the world, with parts of the U.S. reaching over 130℉ during the height of the heatwave — well over the 108℉ threshold for a human being to survive outside. Demand for air conditioning — and electricity more broadly — is rising sharply as the climate changes, leading to blackouts as obsolete electric grids collapse under unprecedented (though not unpredictable) strain. Water systems are under similar stress. For millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, reliable access to electricity to heat homes during the winter and cool them during the summer is becoming the difference between life and death. 

Capitalists Privatize Basic Necessities

Vital utilities like electricity, gas, water, and internet have a long history of public, municipal development, ownership, and operation. The earliest electrical grids were run by small towns and rural communities: the kind of places that private companies today would consider unprofitable to serve. However, a series of New Deal reforms and corporate sleight-of-hand created a power supply landscape primarily composed of investor-owned, for-profit electric companies. After that, the energy crisis of the 1970s contributed to a deregulation spree in the 1980s and 1990s that helped private energy companies grow in scope and influence.

At the turn of the 19th century, the first instance of piped-in municipal water in the U.S. was introduced in Philadelphia, where citizens demanded clean water as a public good. Prior to this, workers died in the tens of thousands every year from diseases such as cholera, caused by dirty water. Nearly 10,000 public water systems were installed across the nation’s cities over the next century and spread to rural communities through New Deal projects and beyond. By the 1960s, the U.S. had over 20,000 water systems, 83% of which were publicly owned. 

However, these systems today suffer from another wave of privatization that followed the 2008 recession, which exacerbated the existing neglect of utility systems. Necessary upkeep required either federal or state funding — which has been slashed by both corporate parties — or by raising utility rates or municipal taxes, which is politically unpopular and puts an even greater strain on working people. When private companies promise convenient and low-cost utility management, cash-strapped towns and cities may feel they have no choice but to accept, even though privatization really means a decline in quality, increased costs, and less public oversight.

The Fight for Public Utilities Today 

The energy crisis in 2022 makes the need for public utilities clearer than ever. Even elements of the corporate media have pointed out the disconnect between the supply of oil and gas and their rising prices, accusing fossil fuel companies of profit-gouging. 

Capitalism created utility monopolies that provide worse service and charge higher prices than formerly public-run utilities. Telecommunications companies like Comcast and Charter together hold 47 million Americans under an absolute monopoly of Internet service while abandoning unprofitable rural communities. Under COVID-19, we see how crucial reliable Internet connections are for society. Many workers struggled to get their kids to and through remote classes, often with little or no assistance from underfunded school systems that could not provide these students with laptops or computers, let alone a reliable internet connection.

Utility companies and monopolies cut costs and boost profits in many ways, flouting regulations and using processes that damage the environment and human health alike. Oil and gas companies vent thousands of tons of methane into the atmosphere annually through abandoned and unmonitored private infrastructure. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in heating the atmosphere, and its release exacerbates asthma and respiratory diseases in those — often working-class and marginalized — communities affected by these companies. These greenhouse gasses also intensify the effects of climate change, which affects workers all over the world. 

Private electric companies delay and ignore critical repairs, leading to deadly infrastructure-failure disasters. In 2018, the Camp Fire in California burned over 150,000 acres of land after Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) allowed their electrical equipment to fall into disrepair. This occurred despite state inspectors alerting PG&E several times over several years leading up to the Camp Fire that repairs were necessary. Private water companies are driven by profit to use cheaper sources of water, overuse the available supply, and skimp on infrastructure maintenance (read further Mass Water Shortages Latest Capitalist Disaster). This same cost-cutting mindset infamously led officials in Flint, Michigan to shift the city’s water supply in 2014 to a cheaper, more corrosive source that leached lead from the water system’s outdated pipes into the drinking water.

Democratic Planning 

Public utilities like electricity, Internet, and clean water must be affordable, high quality, sustainably managed, and easily accessible to all working people, regardless of whether they live in an urban center or rural community. As long as these utilities are privately owned by massive corporations and monopolies, workers will continue to see essential services increase in cost and diminish in availability, reliability, and quality. The only way to ensure that we are able to cool our homes in the summer and heat them in the winter, to ensure that the water that comes out of our facet won’t kill us or make us sick or run out, and to ensure that we have access to communication networks necessary to function in modern society is to take the control of these utilities out of the hands of the capitalists, and put control in the hands of the working class that knows how to meet its own needs. 

As we enter the coldest months of the year, we must make the demand for public ownership of the companies that profit off of energy, water, transportation, internet, and other essential public utilities and infrastructure. Nationalizing these companies under public ownership, with elected, accountable boards to run them, could provide vital utilities and goods that working people need to survive, as well as begin a serious fight against climate change via a socialist Green New Deal. Such a program could provide millions of workers with good jobs upgrading utilities and infrastructure in order to mitigate climate change. 

Unions active in utility sectors must link up with working-class consumers and communities to build a movement for nationalizing these major companies, and sustainably running them as publicly owned entities to provide the best service possible for the lowest cost to consumers. The workers who make these industries run are some of the best positioned to fight for transforming them. Workers in these industries that are not unionized should be an immediate priority for the labor movement for unionization.  

Mass non-payment campaigns by consumers, organized in conjunction with the unions, could starve utility monopolies of profits while workers could ensure that essential services are still delivered to working-class communities that rely on them for survival. This could be paired with a mass campaign to put pressure on the government to nationalize essential industries and run them with democratic oversight by working-class people, who would decide how to run essential services to meet the needs of people and the planet. 

Image credit: Pöllö via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0