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Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital

Matthew T. Huber
Series: A Quadrant Book
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    If our oil addiction is so bad for us, why don't we kick the habit? Looking beyond the usual culprits-Big Oil, petro-states, and the strategists of empire-Lifeblood finds a deeper and more complex explanation in everyday practices of oil consumption in American culture. Those practices, Matthew T. Huber suggests, have in fact been instrumental in shaping the broader cultural politics of American capitalism. How did gasoline and countless other petroleum products become so central to our notions of the American way of life? Huber traces the answer from the 1930s through the oil shocks of the 1970s to our present predicament, revealing that oil's role in defining popular culture extends far beyond material connections between oil, suburbia, and automobility. He shows how oil powered a cultural politics of entrepreneurial life-the very American idea that life itself is a product of individual entrepreneurial capacities. In so doing he uses oil to retell American political history from the triumph of New Deal liberalism to the rise of the New Right, from oil's celebration as the lifeblood of postwar capitalism to increasing anxieties over oil addiction. Lifeblood rethinks debates surrounding energy and capitalism, neoliberalism and nature, and the importance of suburbanization in the rightward shift in American politics. Today, Huber tells us, as crises attributable to oil intensify, a populist clamoring for cheap energy has less to do with American excess than with the eroding conditions of life under neoliberalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8593-6
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. INTRODUCTION: Oil, Life, Politics
    (pp. vii-xxii)

    In the summer of 2008, the global price of oil skyrocketed to $147 per barrel, and in the United States, gasoline prices reached a historic peak of $4.11 per gallon. President George W. Bush was acting very much like an “addict” leader of the country he accused of being “addicted to oil” in 2006.¹ Bush made two visits to Saudi Arabia within five months to plead with the kingdom to open up its valves to lower oil prices.² Later in the summer, claiming to speak for “American families,”³ Bush attempted to lift a twenty-seven-year-old ban on offshore drilling on most...

  4. CHAPTER ONE The Power of Oil? Energy, Machines, and the Forces of Capital
    (pp. 1-26)

    As the previous statement indicates, oil is seen as a powerful thing. Because of its extremely useful biophysical properties, oil is endowedwith a kind of “magical” social, financial, and geopolitical power.¹ Those social actors who come to control oil are automatically accorded tremendous wealth and power. Historically, the discovery of oil promised instant generation of wealth and prosperity. “Big Oil” companies are imagined as wielding tremendous control to set prices, garner immense profits, and shape whole national energy and environmental policy programs.² As a former Shell executive put it, “oil breeds arrogance, because it’s so powerful.”³ Where national governments hold...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Refueling Capitalism: Depression, Oil, and the Making of “the American Way of Life”
    (pp. 27-60)

    In 1922, the chief executive of General Motors Alfred Sloan created a front company called National City Lines. In the recessionary early 1920s, Sloan feared the consumer market for automobiles was saturated and wanted to promote the transformation of urban public transit systems away from electric streetcars to diesel-fired internal combustion buses. In the mid-1930s, National City Lines was transformed into a holding company that included various corporate pillars of what might be called the auto–petroleum industrial complex—Firestone Tires, Phillips Petroleum, and Standard Oil of California.¹ Between the mid-1930s and late 1940s, National City Lines bought out the...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Fractionated Lives: Refineries and the Ecology of Entrepreneurial Life
    (pp. 61-96)

    As discussed in the previous chapter, class struggle in the 1930s secured greater power for industrial unions in most manufacturing industries, and this included the petroleum industry. But as early as the late 1950s, petroleum capital was limiting this power in the stage of the petroleum commodity chain most prone to labor strife—refineries. While the last chapter discussed the crises in balancing the geographies of crude oil extraction with intensive oil consumption, crude oil itself is not the prized “use value” of modern capitalism.¹ Only through the refining process does crude oil become transformed into a variety of “petroleum...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Shocked! “Energy Crisis,” Neoliberalism, and the Construction of an Apolitical Economy
    (pp. 97-128)

    The 1970s oil crisis was a “shock” in the wake of the postwar period of relative prosperity and suburban mass consumption. It would be difficult to find a landscape that represents the suburban boom of postwar American capitalism more than Levittown, Pennsylvania.¹ Constructed by the famous suburban developers Levitt and Sons, the development housed several white families—the attempt of a black family to move to the neighborhood in 1957 ignited a race riot²—whose mostly male breadwinners worked in a nearby U.S. Steel factory. Levittown was the expression in landscape form of the postwar class accord between capital and...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Pain at the Pump: Gas Prices, Life, and Death under Neoliberalism
    (pp. 129-154)

    The 1970s decade of shortages and perceived scarcity seemed to indicate the end of the era of petroleum profligacy. No one in the 1970s would have expected the subsequent collapse of energy prices and evaporation of popular concerns for energy conservation in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet by the mid-2000s, discourses of “oil crisis” returned. While the focus on scarcity and the imminence of “peak oil” resurfaced, the everyday geographies of oil crisis were not so much about limits, shortages, and lines for gasoline but rather the ordinary violence of the market expressed through rising prices. Those who could pay...

  9. CONCLUSION: Energizing Freedom
    (pp. 155-170)

    When I began thinking about a project on oil and “the American way of life,” I was fixated on the gas station, that central node of not only ecology and material exchange but ideology and politics. My first epiphany about the significance of the gas station to American politics took place around Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the spring of 2005 (I was on my way on the ultimate “escape to nature”: a canoe trip in the pristine Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario). It was a gas station with a simple title: Freedom (see Figure 27). This was a...

    (pp. 171-174)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 175-216)
    (pp. 217-246)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 247-254)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-255)