In Blowout, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow plumbs the toxic influence of the oil and gasoline industries on the economies and governments of Russia, the United States and other countries.
Energy companies free of constraints can be harmful to your homeland’s economic and civic health, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia just might be Exhibit Number One.
Here’s a country of 145 million people with an economy smaller than that of Italy (around 60 million). Untainted national elections don’t exist. Putin flunkies boss major newspapers and broadcasters. All the better for oil and gas companies.
Under Putin-style dictators, it’s clearer whom to bribe; and uppity civic activists who value their lives are less likely to speak out against filthy air and water. What’s more, who cares if average citizens don’t share the wealth in a major way? Or if the authoritarians focus on extractive industries at the expense of more sustainable economic development benefiting all—or the fight against climate change? Those are among the major points that emerged as I read Maddow’s book and related writings from others.
Clearly, although the extents of the outrages vary, this isn’t just a Russian phenomenon. Take Equatorial Guinea, where most people live in poverty while, thousands of miles away, the dictator’s son could splurge $700,000 on a boat rental to impress a rap-star date. Then there’s Oklahoma; the local fracking moguls bullied the state seismologist and tried to cover up the connection between their industry and the spike in the number of earthquakes. Also, it goes without saying that oil and gas interests here in the United States have been among the foes of campaign finance reform and solar and wind power.
Maddow’s Blowout book impresses me as more of a follow-up on earlier exposes than as original reporting on Big Oil and Gas, and she could have explored the campaign-donation issue and some other topics more thoroughly, but it’s still a good, compelling read—full of Maddow’s entertaining snark to help you get through the scary subject matter. For the most part, Blowout masterfully connects the dots. It’s the oil, stupid! And the gas, too.
Oil and gas gushers inspired Blowout’s title. Maddow’s metaphor especially sums up Russia’s many energy-related woes. Washington talked of free-market capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Instead, free of adequate regulations and enforcement, a kleptocracy seized control of state-owned and formerly state-owned companies. Putin and his sidekick Igor Sechin turbocharged the process in the energy industries and elsewhere. More gushing of cash for the favored! “For my friends, everything,” was Putin’s motto in effect. “For my enemies, the law.” Phony tax evasion and embezzlement charges were among the specialties of the Putin crowd.
When accomplished Russian business people managed energy companies well, Putin’s thieves stole the fruits of their labor. The result was less efficiency, less productivity, less innovation. None other than Morgan Stanley promoted investment in Rosneft, the Putin-controlled energy corporation, after it miraculously swallowed a larger competitor. ExxonMobile executives had earlier cozied up with the other Russian company but ended up focusing instead on Putin and friends.
Alas, a little complication transpired: Russia ripped off a chunk of Ukraine. International economic sanctions ensued against the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, thwarting the Putin-ExxonMobile dream of American know-how and investment revving up Russian energy output.
Needless to say, the sanctions enraged Putin, who saw Rosneft and other energy companies not just as a way to enrich his circle and retain power, but also to help restore Russia to the glory of the old Soviet Union. Europe and even the United States would thirst for Russian oil, no? Anxious to see the sanctions killed off, Putin used social media, Wikileaks and other means to try to manipulate our 2016 elections. Hatred of Hillary Clinton, the likely winner, was far from the only reason.
An obvious question, broached by an Amazon reviewer of the Maddow book, arises. How could sociopaths fare so well in government offices and corporate suites in energy companies and elsewhere? It’s one thing to tell how Putin and others pulled the levers to get their way. It’s another to unravel the root reasons of why they succeeded.
Surely, Ms. Maddow, more than a few nonsociopaths had to go along. My own theory is that sociopaths rise and remain in power because, while lacking empathy, they somehow can win over corporate boards or read the mass mind at election time. Plenty of sociopaths stay out of prison, and even the worst can come with their own positives. The masses often go for glamor and showmanship. Putin obliges, complete with images of him bare-chested on horses. Trump, the orange-skinned reality show alum, is our carnival-barker-in-chief. Both conjure up memories of their respective nations at the peak of their power.
The energy business itself has been the territory of colorful crooks and conmen almost from the start, despite protestations to the contrary; and nostalgia can be powerful snake oil. Even if bribed and blackmailed by the Russians, Trump is drawn to Putin as a kindred spirit, a fellow liar, sociopath and control-freak who likewise sees democracy as an inconvenience to the extractive industries.
Here’s something else that the two men share, as I myself see it—alliances with religious fundamentalists. The Trump Foundation has donated to the Rev. Franklin Graham, for example, and eagerly courted the right-to-life faithful with the appointments of right-wing judges, while Putin, of all people, has aligned himself with the “family”-minded Russian Orthodox church. Isn’t it a paradox—to be in favor of “life” and families while encouraging the growth of fossil fuels: the cause of so many pollution-related deaths, not to mention the damage from climate change? Oil and gas, of course, do have their biblical side. Has not the Almighty favored both countries with their presence? Far be it for the faithful to question this divine design.
While I wish Maddow had deeply delved into the fundamentalist angle in an energy-industry context and more thoroughly explored the campaign-finance horrors from Big Oil and Big Gas, let me emphasize my overall enthusiasm for Blowout. If you wonder whether Maddow’s story-telling gifts on MSNBC have found their way to print, too, the answer is a decided “yes.” She deftly weaves back and forth between Oklahoma, Moscow and the other crime scenes and teases you with intriguing minor facts that pave the way for her to make her major points.
This is Maddow’s second book, by the way, the first being Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, telling how the executive branch nudged us into wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I haven’t read it, but, given the energy industry’s importance in American foreign policy over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the same characters show up at the expense of openness and democracy.
Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, And The Richest, Most Destructive Industry On Earth. Hardcover, audiobook and ebook formals. 406 pages. Published by the Crown imprint of Penguin Random House. Available locally or through online stores.
Image credit: By Terry Ballard from Merrick, New York, USA – Book, CC BY 2.0.