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The role of oil in US capitalism

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"It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows – the Iraq war is largely about oil," Alan Greenspan, the arch-Republican ex-chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, admitted in his memoirs last year.
Issue 2088

“It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows – the Iraq war is largely about oil,” Alan Greenspan, the arch-Republican ex-chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, admitted in his memoirs last year.

Oil runs through the history of US capitalism and its efforts to dominate the world. It’s where its greatest business dynasty, the Rockefellers, made their money.

Today the Western oil super-majors and their local rivals still ride high at the top of the global corporate hierarchy.

The transformation of the Bush family from East Coast bankers into Texan oilmen – symbolized by George Bush, a Yale frat boy masquerading as a cowboy – demonstrates the attraction of Big Oil.

The Bushes jumped onto the bandwagon after the Second World War. But the dark roots of the US oil industry lie much earlier, in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th.

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, probes these roots. Anderson is a clever, individual director. The spilling of much blood for Iraq’s oil must have been in the background when he wrote and directed There Will Be Blood.

The central character, Daniel Plainview, brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is proud to be an oilman in California in the opening years of the last century, when the state accounted for 22 percent of world production.

The film is about his efforts to develop an oilfield around a dilapidated town in the southern Californian desert and to get the oil, once extracted, to the market. Plainview struggles to build a pipeline to the sea, which would allow him to bypass the railroads and their extortionate rates, which were set in collusion with the Rockefellers’ monopolistic Standard Oil Trust.


Two of the many powerful scenes in the film have Plainview confront Standard Oil. But he doesn’t underline his possessive individualism in the standard American way by appealing to divine justification.

On the contrary, Plainview can’t conceal his contempt for Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the ambitious young fundamentalist preacher with whom he spars throughout the film.

Perhaps in developing this tension between God and capitalism Anderson is interested in the contrast with contemporary figures such as Bush, for whom such a conflict would be unconceivable.

The film is inspired by Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil (1927). Plainview is based on a character whom Sinclair modelled on Edward Doheny.

Like Plainview, Doheny started off a mining prospector but switched to oil. By the 1920s his Pan American Petroleum was producing more crude oil than any of the successors to Standard Oil after the Trust was forced to dissolve itself in 1911.

Doheny was a central figure in the Teapot Dome scandal that ravaged the administration of President Warren Harding in 1922-4. Doheny admitted to a senate committee that he had sent his son with $100,000 in “a little black bag” to his old friend and sometime fellow prospector, secretary of the interior Albert Fall.

In exchange Fall leased oilfields to Doheny and another independent producer, Harry Sinclair.

Fall himself told another senate hearing how oil wells could drain all the oil out of a piece of land they surrounded. “If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake, and my straw reaches across the room, I’ll end up drinking your milkshake.”

This scam is pivotal to the climactic confrontation between Plainview and Sunday. But the Teapot Dome scandal and Doheny’s role in it don’t figure at all in There will be Blood. This highlights a real limitation in Anderson’s portrait of a driven individual, compelling as it undoubtedly is.

Sinclair’s book was part of a much larger political assault on Big Oil in the early decades of the 20th century. After the Iraq catastrophe, the time is surely ripe for another assault. But Anderson’s focus on personality drains the politics out of oil – something that should be impossible.


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