For more than a century, ever since Ida Minerva Tarbell published her exposé of the Standard Oil Company in McClure’s Magazine in 1903, oil has been one of the great subjects for muckraking American journalists. Much as the unconscious is for a Freudian, oil’s dark sludge seems the product of a subterranean world that stands in sharp contrast to the pretensions of the society saturated by it. We never see it, never think about it, have no idea where it comes from or how it comes to be—yet the sludge is ubiquitous, and all we do depends upon its power. We insist that we want independence, to spin energy out of the transparent elements of light and air, and yet it never really goes away. When everything else has been stripped away, it is what remains.
In Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Steve Coll—whose previous works of investigative reporting have covered subjects like American policy in Afghanistan and the history of the bin Laden family—joins the venerable tradition of Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. Here, he documents the political, economic and global power of ExxonMobil, the largest privately owned oil and gas company in the world. Coll frames his story as a narrative of corporate life in the post–cold war era. The choice may feel odd at first: despite the company’s wealth—it has quadrupled its profits in the years since the cold war’s end—oil seems old-fashioned, mired in the physical world. Coll compares it with Walmart and Google, those denizens of the postindustrial economy. In contrast to these, ExxonMobil drills “holes in the ground,” and so its operations are inevitably “linked to the control of physical territory.” In this way, he suggests a different view of the contemporary economy: beneath the glitz and seductions of the service sector runs a river of oil, sluicing through the bright weightlessness of our online dreams.
In Private Empire, Coll writes critically of ExxonMobil but tries to avoid a moralistic tone. Instead, his aim is to describe an energy company in an era of conflict, when it has to deal with the public relations challenges of such things as industrial disasters and political instability. His ExxonMobil is at once a giant and a company beset. Private Empire sprawls over almost 700 pages and makes extended visits to, among other places, Chad, Russia, Iraq and Equatorial Guinea. (Here, too, he’s in good company: Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, is more than 900 pages.) Private Empire has a cumulative force, for the portrait it provides of Exxon’s internal politics is a study in the culture of denial and the creation of a self-enclosed sphere of power. Yet the problem with Big Oil is no longer simply its monopoly status or its impact on political life. It is impossible these days to write about oil without writing about climate change, and here the model of a muckraking account of corporate power no longer feels sufficient, for the problem is one that cannot be externalized—it implicates us all.
ExxonMobil is descended from the original American oil giant, Standard Oil, which rose to prominence in the industry at the end of the nineteenth century. Its founder was John D. Rockefeller, a famously devout and penurious Baptist, who even as a child was single-mindedly focused on acquisition. Rockefeller built an energy giant through ruthless internal financial discipline and by brutally undercutting his competitors. Like the other robber barons, he had little interest in public opinion. The country’s factories needed his products, so he could afford to ignore the critics. Like social Darwinists then and now, he was confident in the ethics of wealth accumulation: “I believe the power to make money is a gift of God…. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”