I CAME face to face with the global ruling class last week. Along with others from the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, I was sitting in the annual general meeting of Britain's biggest corporation, BP. We became BP shareholders to protest at the company's role in Colombia. Alongside the protest, the event shattered the myths that supporters of capitalism push about how their system works.
Thousands of shareholders packed the Royal Albert Hall. On the platform were the directors, supposedly answerable to those shareholders.The meeting was about to vote on resolutions deciding company policy. This was Margaret Thatcher's shareholding democracy. Except it was all a sham. Those on the platform sat in identical grey suits, looking like old images of the ruling Politburo in the former Stalinist states of Eastern Europe. The similarities didn't end there.
BP chair Sir Peter Sutherland did most of the talking. He is a key member of the world ruling class. Sutherland started as attorney general in Ireland and then became a European commissioner. In the 1990s Sutherland was director general of the World Trade Organisation before moving to BP. He is also on the board of the multinational Ericsson and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
As if that was not enough, Sutherland is chair of one of the world's biggest financial outfits, Goldman Sachs International. Biographies of the others would read little different. This gang of real capitalists preside over a giant corporation with revenues of $174 billion a year and profits of over $4 billion a year. In the audience were altogether smaller fish, the bulk resolutely middle class and retired.
Overheard conversations picked up a retired shopkeeper, a former air force officer, and a couple of retired advertising salesmen. Imagine Daily Mail or Telegraph reading pensioners in the Home Counties with a neighbourhood watch sticker in the window and a few thousand in shares, and you wouldn't be far wrong. All had bought into the idea of the small shareholder and talked about 'our company'.
The different reality became clear when voting. Peter Sutherland called the first resolution. First he pointed out that some shareholders-the big pension funds, banks, other big corporations-were not attending the meeting. Instead they had already cast their votes. Suddenly above Sutherland's head on a giant screen came the figures.
Some 99.6 percent of votes had already been cast backing the board of directors. How small shareholders in the meeting voted didn't matter a jot. Resolution after resolution came and went in similar vein, 99.8 percent already backing the board before a single vote was cast in the room, 99.4, 98.7, and so on.
The big players had already decided casting block votes.The AGM was simply theatre to make middle class shareholders believe they had a stake in the system. Other realities also became clear during the day too. BP has rebranded itself 'Beyond Petroleum' and is 'greening' its image. This makeover is led by chief executive John Browne-on over $6 million.
He spelt out the truth. Production of oil and gas went up 55 percent last year. Oil and gas reserves went up 190 percent. There are major new oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico, Indonesia, Trinidad, the Caspian, and Angola. Beyond Petroleum? Well, BP shops on petrol station forecourts got a mention.