'Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power' Book Review: Steve Coll Demonstrates Why Corporations Are Not People


"Merchants have no country," Thomas Jefferson once remarked, a statement as true in his time — an era of globetrotting, royally-chartered, joint-stock corporations like the British East India Company with their own armies and their own foreign policies — as it is true today. The core lesson to be taken from Steven Coll's detailed and evenhanded account is just how accurate the above quote can be.

Exxon executives might take some umbrage at Jefferson's remark, patriotic Americans as they generally consider themselves to be, but would probably admit its veracity. Exxon is about as American as any international corporation will likely ever be in the 21 century — most of its executives, headquarters, shareholders, and origins are all firmly rooted in America. Exxon's trademark swagger stems from its corporate DNA; what became Exxon came out of the trust-busting breakup of John Rockefeller's Standard Oil in 1911, which occupied much the same domineering position during the 1800s as Exxon does a century later. 

However, as is detailed time and again in this book, ExxonMobil (after the 1999 merger of the two massive companies) continues a long-established historical tradition as an immensely powerful corporation that views itself as a sovereign entity beholden only to stockholders. It views itself as more empire than mere company. 

First and foremost, ExxonMobil is a for-profit corporation, dedicated to returns on investment and ever-greater efficiency. Secondly, ExxonMobil is a profit-seeking company looking for present and future sources of great revenue. Thirdly … see a pattern? ExxonMobil exemplifies what is both contemporary in debates about capitalism and what is perhaps as old as the idea of capitalistic corporations with shareholders. Most simply put, it is a corporation determined to be as profitable as possible. Rather than sneer at ExxonMobil's market share or the petroleum products that are its business, leftists would do well to remember ExxonMobil has nothing about the "little guy" or against America or the environment. It is not ruthless. If the company saw shutting down all of its drilling rigs and oil refineries as profitable, it would do so. Rational self-interest is at the heart of ExxonMobil company culture. Rationality and ruthlessness are not synonyms.  

Similarly, those who favor right-wing narratives would be wise to remember that ExxonMobil has little enough regard for America. The link between ExxonMobil and America is a marriage of convenience. ExxonMobil should not be tied up in ideas of national pride or identity, or even energy independence. In fact, "energy independence" for the United States is mostly an abstraction rather than a viable possibility (this will most likely remain true despite advances in hydraulic fracturing in the last several years).         

Recalling former CEO Lee Raymond's words as quoted in Chapter 3, "I'm not a U.S. company and I don't make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S." 

ExxonMobil's self-interest entailed opposing the ethanol subsidies the company's political friends supported (one executive referred to ethanol as "moonshine"); it meant staying as far away as possible from the U.S.-led 2003 military intervention in Iraq, which ExxonMobil thought irrational and unwise; it meant opposing as well the outright privatization of Iraqi oil because only a state-run company would have the resources to finance much-needed improvements and negotiate lasting contracts with Western companies. Sometimes this self-interest meant ExxonMobil would prop up despotic leaders in places like Chad and Equatorial Guinea, as well as anti-American rulers in places like Venezuela.     

In one of the book's most interesting sections, self-interest during the 1990s meant Exxon felt compelled to fund anti-climate change research. Later, once wholly denying the possibility of manmade global warming was no longer an option, ExxonMobil began to prepare for a future that would include some form of carbon taxation (this has yet to play out).

Steve Coll's account of ExxonMobil's recent history also relates how commerce and diplomacy are often hand in glove. Coll recounts how the George W. Bush administration attempted to use potential Exxon contracts in Russia as a means of diplomacy, hoping to improve post-Cold War relations with Russia. In a moment of revealing differences, Russian President Putin wanted President Bush to simply order Exxon around. After all, this was how business operated in Russia; the state had absolute authority and Putin would have had no qualms about issuing instructions to business executives.

When Putin expressed frustration and asked why he couldn't lean on ExxonMobil in the same way to further the Bush administration's political goals, as recounted in Chapter 12, President Bush responded, "nobody tells those guys what to do."   

A very true statement, it appears.