Skip to main content
review: non-fiction

In this April 9, 1989 file photo, crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez, top, swirls on the surface of Alaska's Prince William Sound near Naked Island.John Gaps III/The Associated Press

Once, in a nearby galaxy, there was a superpower corporation whose lawyers and lobbyists never lost and whose jowly chief executive officer decided the fate of nations while slurping popcorn in milk on the company jet. So complete was the bribe-greased, private-army, global reach of this force that the sun never set on its market share and its Texas headquarters was known deservedly as the Death Star.

Alas, Steve Coll has written no fairy tale, and his sweeping, ultimately numbing account of the past two decades of ExxonMobil is an emblem of our planet's all-too-non-fictional plight in several ways, most of them depressing. Private Empire is an apt title, evoking nostalgia for other terms applied to ExxonMobil's corporate ancestor, Standard Oil, plundering its imperious way at home and abroad with similar mentality and politics a century ago.

In a time when the White House and Supreme Court were made of sterner stuff, Teddy Roosevelt denounced in 1907 the "malefactors of great wealth," and in the same era Justice Louis Brandeis issued dire if vain warnings against the "absolutism" of big business "ravaging democracy." Informing them both had been the 1904 History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida Tarbell, the first to expose the ravening habits of an energy colossus dedicated to the profit of a few. We have lived in this deepening shadow for a long while.

All the more reason to welcome Coll bringing the darkness up to date, as it were, providing the latest map of the ExxonMobil domain after its 1999 merger. With a brigade of researchers other authors might envy, he has culled about 400 interviews and every clip and peep of the public record across an exotic vastness from Equatorial Guinea and Chad to Abu Dhabi, Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Venezuela, from Third World dirt dungeons, to marble inner sanctums of the Kremlin and Washington, to the glass-and-steel gilded seat of imperial power in Dallas that dictates to them all.

The empire deals in fossil fuels and outrage, arms and deploys private armies, spawns dictators and defrauds countries, denies science and deceives the public at will, savages its critics and enriches its flacks, litigates, advertises and politically anesthetizes planetary disasters into forgotten minor mishaps, and does it all with the highest corporate profits ever recorded, the mightiest lobby ever mounted, a compulsive secrecy and intrigue to make the Borgias blush, and an insouciant global rule, as one Obama adviser puts it, "firmly fixed in the 'no apologies, oil-is-here-to-stay mode.' "

It is a record and mentality without serious political challenge or even restraint, an omnipotence, an utter immunity, generation unto generation, as taken for granted as gasoline and greed. "Nobody," president George W. Bush said to the Indian prime minister in 2001, as if commenting on the weather, "tells these guys what to do."

Coll assembles the saga with the acclaimed reporter's eye for the small authenticities of landscape, mannerism, anecdote. The book holds the stunning and the infuriating with a matter-of-fact dispassion that seems for a time strangely phlegmatic, if not astonishing. We are privy to conversations of the mighty and to calculus high and low that confirm the worst suspicions by cool understatement – head shaking without a scream.

The sheer chronicling across the Earth is impressive, and even the chill, colourless renderings carry pathos for the people victimized, documenting once again that globalism's figurative and literal bloodbaths may be a cost of doing business but are not bloodless at home or abroad.

The author and his researchers are masterful at the encyclopedic, yet remind us that encyclopedias are inevitably summaries. Too often this is compilation without inner context, detail without meaningful depth. Missing in the turn-of-centuries world tour, for example, is even glancing insight into the sheer continuity of power enjoyed by Standard Oil/Exxon between Ida Tarbell and Steve Coll, a largely hidden dominance that drove Cold War interventions from Latin America to the Middle East, launched the political career of Richard Nixon and others, and shaped the American postwar bondage from its freeway economy to oligarchic politics.

There is a sense in which conventional journalism, however prolix and accomplished, is simply no longer up to the apotheosis of corporate power at its deeper layers, which is, after all, where Death Stars live. Ironically, some of this was shortage was foreshadowed in Coll's earlier prize-winning Ghost Wars, a celebrated tracking of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, while also (not to the prize jury's credit) a startlingly clichéd history of figures at the heart of the story: the Afghan revolutionary regime after 1978, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and especially the American Central Intelligence Agency operatives and other actors who were the main sources of his selective leaks.

After Private Empire, we are similarly without a more penetrating understanding of what has happened and why, and thus how it might be changed. Like all portraits of power, this is about culture, about people and ritual rather beyond clips and chronology. Who is this Lee (Iron Ass) Raymond, the banal company CEO said to resemble a bilious bullfrog, who drives so much of narrative yet emerges as little more than an ultimately enigmatic ladder-climber, taking home bulging files and elbowing his way to the throne of an emperor. But how, and why, and with whom? Who were they, the regime he made and that made him? And how can the pathology be addressed?

Beyond the interior reality of ExxonMobil, of course, is the United States that submits to it so supinely. Is there not something more interesting here – and perhaps availing in rescue – than a great democracy that died getting its next full tank of gas?

After 600 pages, we have few essential answers and only a daunting sense of complete dominance. Old Iron Ass rides off with a $400-million retirement, succeeded by a slicker regime of no less depredation, done to the soft tones of appealing young women of colour extolling in television ads the virtues of exploration, not to say exploitation. Readers may relish the demonization that comes when the curtain falls. But they will know scarcely more of why the show goes on so tragically, and why there will almost surely be another, even sadder book like this two decades from now.

Roger Morris is an award-winning historian whose forthcoming book is Between the Graves: America, Afghanistan and the Wages of Intervention.