Refined politics: Petroleum products, neoliberalism, and the ecology of entrepreneurial Life

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13 Scopus citations


Oil is often thought of as a sole commodity with singular powers to shape geopolitics, economic development, and environmental change. Yet the complex hydrocarbon assemblage of crude oil is only commodified through the refining process, which produces a multiplicity of products (e.g. gasoline, heating oil, petrochemicals). In this paper, I argue that petroleum products provide the supplementary materiality for a neoliberal cultural politics of "life." In the first section, drawing from Gramsci and Foucault, I argue that the popular basis of neoliberal hegemony is rooted in a cultural politics of "entrepreneurial life" that accompanied increasing suburbanization, single-family homeownership and widespread automobility in the post-World War II United States. By the 1970s, masses of white suburban homeowners buttressed the "rightward turn" in American politics based around an "ideology of hostile privatism" and the demonization of taxes and wealth redistribution. In the next section, I suggest that this geography of life is rooted in the history of refineries and their search for multiple marketable outlets for petroleum by-products. Increasingly, the petroleum industry sought to actively remind the public that their lives were saturated with petroleum products. In the last section, I examine a film produced by the American Petroleum Institute titled Fuel-Less, a parody of the film Clueless. In the film, the main character, Crystal, is forced to discover what her life would be like without petroleum products. Crystal is taken to an oil well and refinery to learn about how crude oil becomes the multiple products she uses in her life. As she learns to appreciate oil, she develops a neoliberal form of environmental responsibility focussed upon volunteerist actions like recycling. The overall lesson is both the unavoidability of oil in everyday life and that privatized actors (consumers and capital) can all "pitch in" to create a sustainable future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-312
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of American Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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