Infoshop News – Review of the Tyranny of Oil

Infoshop News, December 2008

This review is appeared in a slightly modified version in BAAM Newsletter 15.

Antonia Juhasz’s second book, The Tyranny of Oil, is in some ways an exceptional work. Thoroughly researched and lucidly written, it is a comprehensive summary of the myriad ways in which the US oil industry has damaged our country and our planet. From the earliest days of the Standard Oil monopoly to the current war in Iraq, Juhasz shows how Big Oil has manipulated governments, destroyed communities, fouled the environment and held nations hostage in their never ending effort to achieve ever greater profits at our expense.

Along the way she points out how industry lobbyists buy tax breaks, subsidies and regulatory exemptions for their clients, how compliant government regulators allowed merger after merger between already huge oil companies, and how the resulting lack of competition allowed the industry to fix gas prices. Juhasz also exposes the machinations of oil companies in Iraq and the US military’s role as a goon squad for the industry. For good measure, she explains how refineries and oil spills are devastating the environment and lays bare the hypocrisy of corporate greenwashing campaigns.

Besides chronicling Big Oil’s crimes in the present, Juhasz delves into those of the past, with particular emphasis on Standard Oil’s monopoly at the turn of the last century. Chapter 1 is largely devoted to celebrating the efforts of populists and muckrakers like Ida Tarbell to resist and ultimately break up Standard Oil. Juhasz calls for a similar campaign today to break up Big Oil all over again. The problem with this idea of course, is that it didn’t work the first time. Even by the author’s own account the original breakup failed. Standard Oil’s offspring used the legalized bribery of campaign contributions and lobbying to soften the blow of the breakup and eventually reconstitute through mergers the oligopoly we see today. Even incomplete reform only became possible after the anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated pro-business president William McKinley, allowing the reformist Teddy Roosevelt to ascend to the Oval Office.

The Tyranny of Oil describes a textbook example of the way that money buys power in a capitalist system. Unfortunately, one would never know this just from reading the book. A visitor from Mars, if handed a copy as she stepped off her flying saucer, could read it and assume that the United States is a just, democratic society whose only major problem is that the oil business has managed to worm its way into the government. Obviously this is not the case. A collapsing economy, an exploding prison population, dying oceans and the systematic scapegoating of immigrants, gays and Arabs are only a few of the afflictions visited on us by the corporate parasites that infest our society. In the bigger picture, the oil industry is only one symptom of a pernicious and widespread disease.

This failure to place her work in a broader context allows Juhasz to perpetuate the fallacy that reformism works, that a system carefully crafted over the centuries to extract the maximum amount of wealth from the world’s peoples can ever concede more to its victims than is absolutely necessary to avoid destruction. If her readers were faced with the full panoply of horrors perpetrated by capitalism, remedies like voting for Obama and driving hybrids would look even more futile than they do already. This may be intentional on the author’s part. Juhasz not only glosses over Czolgosz’s contribution in a single sentence, but completely ignores more recent examples of effective resistance. For instance, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in Nigeria has shut down offshore drilling platforms, taken Royal Dutch Shell employees hostage and blown up several oil pipelines. Their efforts have reportedly reduced oil production in Nigeria by at least a fifth, yet Juhasz never mentions them. By contrast, she devotes several pages to a lawsuit brought by indigenous Ecuadorians against Texaco (now Chevron) that was filed in back in 1993. The plaintiffs have yet to see a penny, and it is not clear if they ever will. This kind of distortion raises the possibility that Juhasz deliberately slanted her story to favor nonviolent tactics regardless of their success.

In summary, The Tyranny of Oil is an outstanding exposé, but as a call to arms it falls far short of what is needed.

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