In 2008, Alain Deneault had a book published, with Delphine Abadie and William Sacher, Noir Canada : pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique (Écosociété), for which the Canadian mining company brought a lawsuit against the authors and their publisher that lasted over three years.
In 2017, Alain Deneault « did it again » and looked at the multinational Total(1). Interview with the author. 

Kairos: In 2008, you published « Noir Canada: pillage, corruption et criminalité en Afrique », which quickly put you and your publisher Ecosociété in a legal procedure that lasted three years and ended with an out-of-court settlement, the book being withdrawn from sale. You have published a book on Total, a multinational that ranks among the 25 most important economic powers, has a network of more than 900 companies, is present in more than 130 countries, and indulges in authoritarian regimes such as Qatar, corrupt ones such as Congo-Brazzaville, and ecocidal ones such as Canada and Nigeria. What makes you want to do it again? 

Alain Deneault: I’m surprised to see how certain powers in research institutions are almost never studied. I was interested in entering the twenty-first century and, through this case of Total, in thinking of multinationals not as companies linked to sectors of activity, but as private powers and sovereignties capable of imposing themselves on history independently of the States that are supposed to supervise them. 

If you take the example of Total, to reduce it to the status of a French oil company would be a misunderstanding. We are talking about 934 consolidated companies, active in 130 countries, in a very large number of sectors. It is a body capable of influencing the historical course of things in the manner of a power that is not accountable to a state or identifiable with a state, but which satisfies a stateless shareholder base. In this respect, Total is not a French company, or if you like, it is only 28% French. 72% of Total’s shares are mainly held by institutional investors who may be Qatari, Belgian, Canadian, Chinese, American, British, Swedish and others. That’s how you have to look at the multinationals, not only Total, I cite it as a textbook case, but we can also think of Monsanto, Microsoft, Boeing, Danone and so on. 

You begin your book with the founding of Total’s unconstitutional ancestor, the Compagnie française des pétroles in 1924. At that time, France was lagging behind the other oil behemoths and wanted to become autonomous in terms of supply, but this would come at the cost of losing all decision-making power over Total on fundamental issues, because the latter was linked to a consortium of oil companies in the Middle East called the Iraq Petroleum Company. This cartel has been given a custom-made state to conduct their business in sovereignty… 

In fact, multinationals, especially in the field of energy, can be seen as creatures that are gradually freeing themselves from their creator. They are Frankensteins. Around the First World War, before for the British, and after for the French (because they are always one war behind the British and the Americans), we understand that the supply of oil is absolutely crucial if we want to win a war. Entities are appearing that will not only not be controlled by the States that created them, only wanting to ensure access to production, but that will gradually set themselves up as powers. They will delimit areas of exploitation, share access to resources and set prices according to a cartel logic. It is by setting itself up as a power capable of determining the conditions under which the indispensable commodity of oil is sold globally that the multinationals, the first of which are energy companies, have been established. And it is in this context that, during the Second World War, for example, Standard Oil did not hesitate to sell as much oil to the Nazis as to the Allies. 

Setting up as a power implies establishing a power relationship with the States that no longer proceeds only from lobbying, but from a new type of diplomacy. It is within the framework of these power relationships that states are signing free trade agreements and multiple bilateral agreements that provide for the creation of dispute settlement mechanisms between states and multinationals. They are also the reason for the emergence of processes with diplomatic content, such as at the 2015 climate conference in Paris, where we see multinationals signing declarations on the same level as states. This is because the latter now allow them to present themselves as sovereigns, bearers of « the solution » rather than as the problem. On a broader level, the relationship between the French Republic and Total is symbiotic, while at the same time Total is breaking away from the Republic to defend only the interests of a shareholder base that is stateless. 

One wonders what justice can do in the face of this. In your book, you said:  » We are left to wonder whether Total was able to do this legally, since there is often no authority capable of ruling on whether it acted illegally here or there « . We can’t even tell if what she is doing is legal… 

Multinationals generate a legal regime of their own that has little to do with that of the States, while at the same time locking them in. They have a relationship with the law that is, strictly speaking, more sadistic. The characters of the Marquis de Sade constantly profess very explicitly the superior reasons that announce the coming abuses. It is never a question of questioning their will but the idea of a superior principle to which they would simply be led to obey. This is how the law of the market works. It is the law of business, which will be presented as such, by presenting it as the equal of the law of gravity. It is a law that is backed by an idea of human nature and has a kind of cosmic value that prevails over the very course of the world. The horde of « economists » at the service of these powers never ceases to hypostasize their bunch of theories. It is the law of trade, of globalization, and States are led to conform their small legal systems to this great law. If they don’t recognize the ins and outs of this great law of commerce, they will be the losers. This is clearly what Patrick Pouyanné, the current CEO of Total, says. That’swhat’s extraordinary about globalization, it’s no longer a problem of capitalism and non-capitalism … » (this is his way of stating the left-right axis)  » … there are indeed always differences, there are liberals and non-liberals … » (That’s his political culture)  » … but in the end it’s not that anymore. We all live in a common system, so those who want to break away from it are bound to lose out… « (which means that the left/right political debate is obsolete). The time when we even thought about capitalism is over, the time when we took a stand on liberalism is over. Total will say,  » We don’t do politics, we do geopolitics.  » We frame the global context in which decisions in the Republic are made, no matter who is there. Whether it is Tsipras or Trump, Exxon Valdez, Goldman Sachs and a certain number of agribusiness interests will be brought to bear to ensure that a certain number of principles are respected; the rest will be a matter of the syndrome of the small difference that interested Sigmund Freud. 

You say that the relationship with laws is sadistic… It goes further than that, when ELF starts to take an interest in Africa, this historical component of today’s Total proceeds, along with the French Republic, to write the laws of countries to which they simply offer a surface independence… They speak in Orwellian terms of self-determination, independence, elections… But all this is just a show in the end, and we can only think about geopolitics by integrating these multinationals into this thinking. 

In the history of oil companies in the 20th century, two types of states have emerged… States that are allies of the industry, mainly the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, later Belgium with Petrofina… And states that will eventually be called « legal envelopes », i.e. subordinate states founded strictly to satisfy the legislative framework needs of the industry. After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire having been on the side of the Germans, the United Kingdom undertook to dismantle the components of the Empire to create Iraq. This country has existed from the outset only to provide a legal framework for the investments of the cartel that is developing there. It is no longer the states that supervise the oil industry, it is the oil industry supported by its allied states that give themselves tailor-made states. That’s the UK, France is still behind the UK. And what does it do? It imitated London after the Second World War by dismantling its African colonial empire when it wanted to free itself from the cartels in which the French oil company was involved. Elf then appeared in the context of what would be called Françafrique. Paris in turn creates legal envelopes; this time they are in Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and to a lesser extent Cameroon and Chad; the heads of state supported by France give strictly « ethnic » legitimacy to the policies always blown up by the Élysée. This will allow Elf to position itself in an advantageous way according to closed circuits that allow it to be autarkic in its appetite for exploitation of an oil field. 

At the time, there were secret agreements between France and African countries where they could intervene… The documents were not dated, they put the date at the time of the intervention. Now the right pretext is the war on terrorism. Especially in Mali. When we talk about terrorism, no media mentions the issue of oil, multinationals and their hidden interests… 

It is understood that Operation Serval and all of France’s military mobilization in Africa in recent years are motivated in particular, not exclusively, by geostrategic issues. Think in particular of the deposits that Total is coveting in a region that borders on Mali and Mauritania. In any case, the question is still being asked, it is being asked in relation to Syria, it is being asked in relation to Ukraine, it is being asked in relation to Libya, and the media have an incredible responsibility in this area, i.e. they are making us completely illiterate in terms of reading and analyzing conflicts as soon as they do not place the issue of resources, their transportation, their distribution, at the center of the explanations… We are always told about conflicts as if we were watching some Star Wars episode. It is as if we are always faced with forces, clans, purely ideological or spiritual biases, or in any case with defenders of entities that are not linked to interests. We are not talking about the gas and oil pipelines, the fields, the concessions, the sites, the positions of the military bases, the infrastructures that are irreducibly involved in the conflicts. Sometimes there can be tensions between communities, but when it comes to war, it is because there is often more than just tension… I’m not going to teach people in Belgium that there can be tensions between communities, but that doesn’t mean we’re at war with each other. When we are at war, it is because we are mobilized by actors who have very specific interests and who are concerned with the control of resources in relation to oligarchic interests. If we are not able to mobilize this grammar to think about conflicts, we remain intellectually children, we remain intellectually incapable of decoding the reasons for this or that mobilization and operation in history. 

Zigmunt Bauman said that the Holocaust was not an accident of history, but was specific to modernity. Hasn’t the new totalitarianism, the one that allows the survival of the capitalist order, reached its apotheosis with its most worthy representatives, the devastating and criminal multinationals like Total, which have powers that no dictator would ever have imagined? 

It is also necessary to see in what way. There are reasons why I referred to the expression totalitarianism … We are in the presence of a company called the Compagnie française de pétrole (CFP). In 1954, it acquired several companies in the field of distribution, selling gasoline at the pump in various countries. To make itself known, the expression « Compagnie française de pétrole » is not very striking… So, the PSC is looking for a brand name, it will be Total, and it puts this name on its products. It is 1954, Hannah Arendt is writing on totalitarianism and in the middle of the 20th century. Total… It is called Total because the French oil company knows it is behind the big ones, but it does not want to be seen as a small French company that dabbles in its own corner with a small share of the French market. It also wants to be total. It is all the logic of the cartel to which it belongs that its name betrays. 

Its activity concerns a cartel that unfolds on the scale of the whole as much by the territories that it touches as by the practices that it implements. So I was interested in Total’s totalitarianism. The political thinking of a firm that is otherwise very prolix; its CEOs and communication managers, in a continuous flow, comment on current events. As soon as I started to read again about this concept of totalitarianism, I came across political scientists like Benjamin Barber who say: be careful, totalitarianism is a serious word that must be reserved for very precise historical moments. It is not a word that can be used for all purposes, that can be abused, totalitarianism is suitable to name specific regimes such as Stalinism, Hitlerism and so on.. I take issue with the idea that such a word should only be applied to one historical situation. But I agree it goes without saying that we can’t confuse everything, so it seemed necessary to me to adjectivize it. For Stalinism, Hitlerism, Mussolini’s regime, Franco’s regime, these regimes with authoritarian leaders, I allowed myself to speak of a psychotic totalitarianism, referring to the psychoanalytical vocabulary to evoke a totalitarianism that refers to a very identifiable source of power, at least in its representation. With the oligopolistic totalitarianism of the large multinationals, whose name Total claims, we have instead moved on to a perverse totalitarianism that aims to ensure that the exercise of power passes to the level of its objective administration. That the exercise of power is in rules, passes in operational modalities that are even in the air of time so that a head of company says:  » That’s the law, that’s how it works, it’s not my fault. If I’m guilty of something, or if I’m responsible for something, you just have to prosecute me, there are laws that exist, what we do is legal…  »

We have dissociated the technicality of the law from basic morality, so just because something is clearly immoral in the eyes of everyone does not mean it is illegal. An industrial or commercial activity can still be legal, even if it shocks everyone: you can corrupt, you can massively pollute, you can make children work, you can control the markets, you can embezzle the tax authorities, you can rig elections, you can finance wars… It’s legal! Because it is not forbidden in such and such a country, because there is a legal vacuum, because there is a complicit State that covers us rather than punishing us, because there is a distinction between parent companies and subsidiaries, because, because, because… 

And so, this state of affairs allows business leaders to present themselves as subject to an order that they have worked out, that works a little bit by itself, and the leader, the president, the general manager of the company can die on the runway of an airport in Moscow, it will not change anything(2). The regime will continue to run and we will not be able to stop it. 

Total cannot survive without tax havens, but also without our poor dependence on the oil, do you agree? 

Indeed, these are two projects that I have been able to explore in other contexts. In fact, what interests me, beyond tax havens, are the legislations of convenience, that is to say this generic category which includes tax havens as well as free zones in the field of labor, free ports in the field of maritime transport, regulatory havens in the field of finance, insurance, stock market speculation or in other sectors: mines for example, patents or offshore platforms. What is interesting is to see today, if there are 80–90 legislations of convenience in the world, tax havens, regulatory havens, free zones, free ports… This is because each zone of convenience is like a store in a shopping mall or on a shopping street. That is to say that each legislation of convenience has its own competence to allow actors who are constrained somewhere in the world to create a subsidiary in this country where everything becomes possible. 

The problem today with globalization is that a director of a large company does not ask himself whether what he has in mind is legal or illegal, he asks himself where he can register his operation so that it becomes legal. And so the laws of convenience have become like a vast deception, a vast process aimed at legalizing what would pass at home, where one is active, as a misdeed. The law, the right, the frontier, the sovereignty of the state are worth nothing or weigh only on the middle class and on the proletarians, which amounts to much the same thing, the middle class being made up of proletarians with money. 

When we last met(3)When you start writing books, you tell me: « When you start writing books, it’s because the solution is deferred and you think that by writing you will come to something that can fulfill part of the solution… ». Our desire to write is also a bit of an admission of powerlessness? And when you read the book on Total, it’s also a bit like that, you say to yourself: « But what can you do except write or go and get farted at, but that wouldn’t do any good »… 

I am not yet advocating collective suicide. There are acts, gestures, not only writing, but militating, disobeying, interposing… that refer to a position that is both desperate and hopeful. We become politically involved the day we are faced with a problem for which we cannot find a solution. If there is a solution, we apply it and there is no more problem, we move on to the next question. There is politics from the moment it resists, from the moment it overcomes us, from the moment it is discouraging. And it’s when it’s discouraging that you need to show courage, you don’t show courage when a situation seems easy. It is because there is not always a ready-made solution that we write, think, gather, reflect, move and try different things. Knowing that even if there is no immediate solution, there are nevertheless by mediation beyond what our imagination is capable of conceiving, sequences, conjunctures, surprises, hazards that make that one day we will approach something that is of the order of the solution such as we could not even imagine it at the beginning. And it is by dint of intermediate positioning, mediation, acts of faith, professions of faith, attempts, trial and error that we advance and, as someone who was a master for me, François-Xavier Verschave, used to say, it is by the accumulation of failures, of leaflets that end up in the gutters, of books that go to the pound, of demonstrations that end up under the batons, It is by dint of moving and failing that we arrive at a certain number of victories, because the authorities are aware of the impact of all these advances and suddenly there will be universal health insurance, paid vacations, a certain number of rights in relation to safety at work, in relation to sexual minorities. It’s never the end of the road, it’s never finished, but it’s through attempts that we reach our goals and achieve some of them. 

Alain Deneault’s comments collected by Alexandre Penasse, in public debate at the Filigranes bookstore, March 23, 2017. Transcription recording : Sébastien Gillard. 

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