U.S. Energy and Politics through a Russian Lens
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”
It will likely take years—and much forensic accounting—before we understand the extent and shape of the connections between state/corporate actors in Russia and Donald Trump’s business empire, presidential campaign, and administration. But we do not need to wait to notice that some emergent intersections between energy and politics in the United States are usefully apprehended through a Russian lens.
Consider, for instance, the contours of the state/corporate alliances already in view. The early assembly of Donald Trump’s administration and cabinet laid bare the extent to which U.S. politics remains infused by carbon politics: a former head of ExxonMobil as secretary of state; a former governor of oil-rich Texas as secretary of energy; an energy-sector ally and climate change denier from no less oil-saturated Oklahoma as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and others. Trump’s campaign, too, relied on the promotion of coal production, both as an industry and as shorthand for working-class American life.
The prominence of energy interests on the national stage is not particularly striking against the backdrop of U.S. corporate, political, and campaign history. What is new is the primary and coordinating role that consumption has come to play. At the center of the U.S. state apparatus now stands not a representative of industrial, productive capital but a representative (indeed, a clan of them) of speculative real estate, luxury consumption, debt financing, media spectacle, and casino capitalism—all of it obviously transnational, all of it ostentatious about the massive inequalities it displays and exacerbates. The United States has been a consumption-driven society for decades, but the Trump era should focus our attention on the extent to which increasingly risky and speculative practices have been necessary to sustain those levels of consumption—and how closely they have been tied to the political sphere at the highest levels.
Consumption trends have also been closely linked to the energy sector in recent years, not least because the early twenty-first century commodity boom generated a pressing need to spend, invest, or otherwise recirculate the world’s windfall oil and gas profits. Real estate and luxury consumption—Trump specialties—have been major destinations for this accumulated oil money. There is a lesson here for U.S. citizens, a lesson that Russians of all social stations learned years ago: energy politics and economics are just as much about broad consumption patterns as they are about production and corporate profits.
If one were to look for a silver lining in the Trump presidency, then, it might well be that the current configuration of the U.S. state apparatus makes uncommonly clear how consumption practices of all sorts—not just oft-discussed gasoline prices and car sizes—stand at the fuzzy intersections of politics and energy, state and corporation.
This lesson emerged from a specific history. Soviet-style socialism was focused on production rather than consumption—pervasive shortages and long lines for consumer goods being the most visible result. In the 1990s, capitalist-style consumption rapidly became central to “the transition” in the region because it was so new and unfamiliar. In both eras, consumption was politicized: as a domain of resistance under socialism and as a register in which the ensuing political transformations were debated. In Russia, the 2000s then layered an oil boom and the associated deluge of money on top of these dynamics, linking consumption, politics, and energy in public consciousness in ways that have often remained hidden from view in U.S. politics and political discourse. If one were to look for a silver lining in the Trump presidency, then, it might well be that the current configuration of the U.S. state apparatus makes uncommonly clear how consumption practices of all sorts—not just oft-discussed gasoline prices and car sizes—stand at the fuzzy intersections of politics and energy, state and corporation.
Consider, too, the sites at which energy politics are engaged as such. The twentieth-century history of large-scale political mobilization against energy corporations in the United States is a history of responses to coastal oil spills: Santa Barbara in 1969, the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Images of oil-drenched seabirds from these spills have been etched in the U.S. imagination, visual spurs for successive waves of environmental consciousness and mobilization. Against this backdrop, the massive, Native-led mobilization against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016—which bridged the end of the Obama presidency and the beginning of the Trump presidency and threw their different energy politics into stark relief—is a noteworthy departure in the U.S. context, especially as it unfolded in tandem with protests directed against another pipeline, the Keystone XL.
Like consumption practices, pipelines and their transformations (or lack thereof) have been central to the politics of post-Soviet Russia, from Native Siberian reindeer herders’ negotiations over pipeline routes with the parastatal Gazprom to often fraught gas contracts between Russia and Europe, and from community struggles with environmental impacts along pipelines in the Caucasus to the ways in which pipes of all shapes and sizes materialize corporate, state, and environmental politics. In the United States, it may be that increased awareness of the racial and human health politics of crumbling infrastructure (such the Flint, Michigan water crisis) has helped to drive this new attention to pipes and pipelines as sites of politics. If that is the case, then the many post-Soviet experiences with pipelines—and the material legacies and transformations of Soviet infrastructure more broadly—provide an even larger set of interlocutors for the astonishing coalition assembled by the Water Protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
To trace connections between U.S. politics and global flows of energy and capital is, of course, nothing new for anthropologists and historians—not to mention corporate and state officials around the world. But our understandings of those transnational connections have for too long been focused on the Middle East or, to a lesser extent, Latin America. The sudden visibility and resonances of Russian energy politics in the United States should prompt us to rethink and expand those familiar vectors of analysis.