Matthew Huber, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Forces of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
“The American way of life” — is there another phrase that sounds so innocuous yet is so fraught? To most Americans, and admirers of the United States abroad, the four words evoke naught but virtue, the “values” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that make the United States the envy of the world, for better and for worse. To critics fond of scare quotes, the term is more likely to mean runaway consumption, particularly as regards car culture, and blissful (or even willful) ignorance of the perils.
But everyone seems to agree that all is not well with “the American way of life.” Devotees feel more than a few twinges of anxiety because their “values” face so many “threats” from foes foreign and domestic. Naysayers have worries of their own, often that the vaunted “way of life” is so “unsustainable” that certain collapse awaits.
The dissonance of the phrase’s competing connotations has been loud indeed in the 13 years since the hijackings and mass murders of September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush led that evening’s speech to the nation by intoning: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom, came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” On the other side, comedian Bill Maher and others decried the yen for combustion engines that traps the US in a co-dependent relationship with the Middle East. When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden, Maher chided Americans in a bestselling book released in 2002.
The irony, as Matthew Huber shows in this dense but brilliant study, is that Bush himself spoke of America’s “addiction to oil.” It is de rigueur, indeed, for major American politicians to hawk plans for achieving “energy independence,” so as to wean the country off of Middle Eastern crude. Their promises are empty, as this magazine has pointed out (perhaps ad nauseam), because US entanglement in the Middle East is rooted in geopolitics as well as gas prices. In Washington’s calculus, oil is a strategic commodity first and a commercial one second.
Huber is a geographer, in the David Harvey sense, and his great contribution is to situate the “addiction to oil” in cultural history as well as political economy. His crucial insight in this respect is that, in the mid-twentieth century, such moral-philosophical notions as “freedom” and even “life” acquired a material valence made possible by cheap oil and personal automobiles. One is “free,” one “has a life,” to the extent that one is able to burn fossil fuels and enjoy the attendant consumer comforts. To quote a tagline in Gulf Oil ads of the 2000s: “Life…one mile at a time.”
How, Huber asks, did oil become thus “equated with life itself”? A big part of the answer, of course, is the acquisitive drive of capital, particularly the petrochemical and automotive industries. In their advertising, the oil and car companies spun a web of connections between fossil fuel consumption, symbols of status and measures of contentment. Progress was not limited to the spheres of freight transport and individual mobility. “M Is for Mother,” read the most prominent text block in a 1957 Shell Oil “alphabet of good things about petroleum.” The elastic bands in machine-washable undergarments, the fuel to ferry the kids to school, the leisure to dance the night away with the husband — all of these markers of middle-class habitus are blessings of buried sunshine. “Eventually,” Huber notes, “the home itself was built with plastic.”
But the real victory of oil in contemporary America is ideological. As sold by Motor City and Madison Avenue, petroleum products promised a personal utopia, not a collective one. By privatizing the benefits of oil, the forces of capital encouraged not only suburban sprawl and car-borne recreation but also the reification of the American consumer as the rugged individual of the new frontier. Huber calls it “entrepreneurial life” — the idea that oil could liberate contemporary humankind from work. By grounding his analysis in the Marxian tradition, Huber manages to make this case with a minimum of moralism. Where Marx foresaw a “realm of freedom” birthed by “democratic control of society’s productive powers,” the American ruling class of the twentieth century envisioned a separate domain of emancipation in every carport. In the American subconscious, oil is thus equated with “life” not just in the guise of material satisfaction but also in the sense of psychic wellbeing. The implications of this argument are sobering indeed, and go a long way toward explaining the durability of “the American way of life” as an instrument of politics, electoral and otherwise.
Huber’s editors should have pushed him much harder to leaven the heavy prose of his dissertation for publication in book form. And they definitely should have told him that his case was strong enough not to italicize as many as five words per page for emphasis. These annoyances notwithstanding, Lifeblood is an original and profoundly unsettling interpretation of fascinating archival material.
Students of US Middle East policy have long been familiar, as they should be, with the standard political and political-economic explanations for the anti-democratic impulse lurking underneath Washington’s latter-day Wilsonian rhetoric. The networks of power and profit remain essential to understanding this phenomenon. But today’s generation can find richer answers elsewhere, in such works as Lifeblood, Tim Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, Melani McAlister’s Epic Encounters, Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom, Toby Jones’ excursus of “energy security” and Amy Kaplan’s highly anticipated cultural history of American representations of Israel. Cultural history is filling in many of the blanks in the canon.
If only — if only — the reasons for the serial malfeasance of the US the Middle East could be reduced to the influence of various lobbies.