Turning the tide of oil in US and world politics

By Dan La Botz

October 22, 2010 -- The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico represents the latest in a series of atrocities committed by petroleum companies against the environment and against humanity. Yet, terrible and tragic as the BP spill is, it is merely a marginal event in the long and sordid history of the oil companies in US and world history. The petroleum companies have been at the centre of US politics for a hundred years, determining its domestic agenda, its environmental policy and its foreign policy. To be a US politician was to be baptised in oil. To be an admiral or a general was to be a warrior around the globe for the petroleum industry.

Foreign policy

By the 1920s, with the rise of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, and the conversion of the US Navy from coal to oil, petroleum became the most sought after commodity in the world. Oil became a strategic commodity, a necessity of modern life and modern warfare. From that time on, the oil corporations moved to the centre of US politics. President Warren G. Harding’s cabinet was known as the “oil gang”, and the cabinet-level corruption involved in the attempt of private parties and corporations to get at the navy oil reserves led to the Teapot Dome scandal, for which Harding’s administration is best remembered.

The US victory in World War II, as much a victory over the declining British and French empires as it was over Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, allowed the United States to displace England and France as the dominant power in the Middle East. The United States became the imperial power shaping and ultimately deciding the affairs in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. When Mohammad Mosaddegh became prime mnister of Iran, promising to nationalise BP, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill organised a CIA coup that overthrew Mosaddegh. The coup, organised by Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, was the most notorious example of oil, US politics and imperialism in that era.

The US government’s foreign policy since then—whether in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia or Latin America—has largely been driven by the desire to control oil, oil pipelines, and the strategic geopolitical points which make it possible to dominate the world’s petroleum centres. The two US wars in Iraq have been principally driven by oil, though, of course, oil wars also expand into regional wars with more complicated motivations and goals within complex international relationships. None of which should keep us from recognising that [control of oil supplies] stands at the centre of foreign policy.

Domestic policy: the car

The development of the mass production of the automobile by Henry Ford in 1914, powered by Rockefeller’s Standard Oil gasoline (and that of half a dozen other major oil companies), transformed the US economy. The old coal-iron-railroad complex at the centre of 19th century capitalism moved into the background and the steel-rubber-glass-electrical-petroleum constellation pushed into the foreground. The automobile corporations and the oil industry worked to destroy the street cars [trams] and inter-urban transportation systems and created instead a national highway system. The Protestant ethic of acquisitive individualism found perfect expression in the purchase of a car, which became identified with personal freedom and self-expression, from the possibility of moving to the suburbs to sex in the backseat.

After World War II, Eisenhower and US Congress created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways—the Interstates—using the taxpayers’ money to provide the infrastructure of the automobile-petroleum industry. The costs of the internal combustion engine became clear by the 1960s: about 40,000 killed in collisions every year; environmental damage caused by hydrocarbon fuels; occupational health problems for workers who drive cars and trucks, work in warehouses, or have other long-term exposures to automobile fuels and exhaust.

Yet the Big Three auto companies—GM, Ford and Chrysler—and the Seven Sisters oil companies—Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil Company of New York (now ExxonMobil); Standard Oil of California, Gulf Oil and Texaco (now Chevron); Royal Dutch Shell; and Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP)—proved too powerful to resist. Oil fairly dripped from the US Congress, and Congress members, their palms greased and their machines well lubricated, voted for cars and gasoline over public transportation and public health.

Turning back the tide of oil

The United States' progressive social and labour movements since the early 1900s fought back against the oil industry and its influence on US economy, society and politics. Ida Tarbell, the teacher and journalist, wrote about the oil trusts for McClure’s Magazine and then produced her great The History of Standard Oil (1904), in which she recounted the vicious business practices through which John D. Rockefeller had built the Standard Oil company into a powerful monopoly corporation. And Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, also wrote the novel Oil, published in 1927, based on the Union Oil Company. It was a fictional account of the Teapot Dome scandal.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) can be said to have inaugurated the modern environmental movement. Her pioneering book described the way that pesticides entered into our water and soil, our plants and animals, and into our own food. Though she doesn’t discuss the petroleum industry, petroleum products formed the basis for the post-war industry of synthetic pesticides. Later, environmentalists would go directly after the oil companies for the pollution involved in every phase of the industry from exploration and perforation, to pumping and refining, to combustion and exhaust.

During the period of the 1960s and 1970s, Tony Mazzocchi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), played a central role in fighting the oil companies, not only over wages, benefits and conditions, but also over health and safety and environmental issues. Mazzocchi, his union and other labour allies, were the moving force behind the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970. He also chaired the New York City Earth Day in that same year and was a founder of Labor for Peace two years later. In 1996, Mazzocchi went on to organise the US Labor Party, believing that workers could not rely on the Republicans and Democrats and needed their own party.

Continuing the fight, providing an alternative

Today, we in the Socialist Party continue the fight to bring the US oil companies under control. While we certainly support greater regulation of this industry—both economic regulation and regulation of all aspects of production and distribution—we recognise that oil is both too valuable and too dangerous to be allowed to continue in private hands. We need to make oil and our other national resources part of our national legacy, the collective property of the American people, not the private property of wealthy investors. At the same time, we need to begin to dramatically reduce the role of oil in our national economy, turning from coal and petroleum with their dangerous hydrocarbons, to solar energy, wind and hydrothermal alternatives.

Turning back the oil tide will involve education, organisation and class struggle. We need to continue to be an active part of the environmental movement that has played a leading role in opposing the oil industry. At the same time, we need to develop a program to speak to coal and oil workers about the need to transform the industries in which they work, while taking steps to protect their jobs and futures.

While supporting reforms and regulation, we need, as socialists, to be raising the idea of the socialisation of oil within the context of a national economic plan and a democratic socialist society.

The oil and the petroleum industry’s profits stand at the centre of the US economy, society and polity. We need to push the oil industry aside and put working people and their needs—for jobs, health care, education and social well being at the centre. We can do it by building the movements against war, to save the environment and to create a full-employment economy that pays a living wage. We need a political expression of that movement, a working people’s party as an alternative to the corporate parties. And we can do it with your help and commitment to social change and democracy.

[This article first appeared at the Socialist Party (USA)'s Socialist Webzine, and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Dan La Botz is the SP (USA) candidate for the Senate in Ohio. Find out more about the campaign at danlabotz.com.]