A Review of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital by Matthew T. Huber


Wim Carton

Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies



This essay reviews Matthew Huber’s Lifeblood in the context of recent debates on the political economy of climate change. I argue that Huber’s focus on the role of oil in the subsumption of life holds important lessons for how Marxist scholars conceptualise the social relations of fossil-fuel capitalism. Most importantly perhaps, the book invites us to broaden our horizons beyond the generalities of capitalist production, and to take seriously the energy-specific cultural dependencies on historically-cultivated but naturalised consumerist practices and ideas.


Lifeblood – fossil capital – climate change – subsumption of life – consumption – generality

Matthew T. Huber, (2013) Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

It has long been held that Marxists devote a disproportionate degree of attention to the sphere of production in their analysis, thereby to some extent marginalising discussions on consumption, exchange and distribution. In a contribution to this journal a few years ago, David Harvey traces this tendency to the analytical framework that Marx borrowed from classical political economy.[1] Like Ricardo and Smith, Marx distinguishes between four levels (or ‘moments’) of analysis: universality (the metabolic relation to nature), generality (social production), particularity (exchange and distribution), and singularity (consumption).[2] Within this framework, Harvey argues, the task of political economy has primarily been to understand the law-like processes operating at the level of generality (i.e. social production), while for example the analysis of consumption patterns, as a singularity, is seen to belong mostly outside of economic enquiry. Though Marx in the Grundrisse explicitly criticises this assumption, highlighting instead the organic and dialectical relationship between production and capitalism’s ‘other moments’, in writing Capital he nevertheless ‘sticks as closely as he can to the bourgeois conception of a law-like level of generality – of production – and excludes the “accidental” and social particularities of distribution and exchange and even more so the chaotic singularities of consumption from his political-economic enquiries’.[3] Harvey notes that this counterintuitive choice, whatever Marx’s reasons for it may have been, is not without consequence, preventing as it does a thorough engagement with the actual processes of history as they develop through the interplay of universal, general, particular and singular processes. Still, according to Harvey, the task of contemporary Marxists grappling with the combined socioeconomic and ecological questions of our time should therefore be to bring these ‘other moments’ of capitalism back to the centre of enquiry.

Some scholars have tried to do exactly this, suggesting theoretical synergies that promise to facilitate the research agenda that Harvey lays out. Brett Christophers, for example,[4] makes the case for a constructive dialogue between Marxist political economy and techno-cultural conceptualisations of performativity in order to deepen the analysis of market exchange. In this book-review/essay, I want to argue that Harvey’s call to take seriously capitalism’s ‘other moments’ is particularly pertinent with respect to our current environmental predicament, and that Matthew Huber’s Lifeblood (2013) illustrates both the necessity and added value of adopting such an approach to the political economy of climate change. While it is admittedly not the book’s primary focus (see below), Lifeblood indirectly speaks to a by-now established interest among Marxist scholars in the capitalist dynamics that drive environmental change.[5] This literature reflects a continued attempt to explore the relationship (and in some cases, entirely collapse the difference) between the universality of ecological processes and the generality of capitalist production, as witnessed, for example, in ongoing debates on the place of nature in the labour theory of value.[6] In line with Harvey’s observation, however, attempts to integrate an analysis of distribution, exchange and consumption into these understandings of environmental change are much scarcer. Marxist and Marxism-inspired scrutiny of the dynamics of climate change, for example, is often primarily focused on the processes of fossil-fuel extraction and production. From there it is only a small step to situating the need for change itself in the sphere of production (i.e. the fossil-fuel industry) and to apportioning blame for inadequate emission reductions primarily to the relatively small but politically-powerful elite (‘Big Oil’) that reaps the direct monetary benefits from continuation of the fossil-fuel bonanza. Confronted with mainstream and apolitical ideas on the need for ‘greener’ consumerism, the debate on climate change then easily breaks down into a false dichotomy between the rendering-responsible of individual consumers, on the one hand, and confronting fossil capital, represented by the economic interests of Big Oil, on the other. Radical voices evidently come down in favour of the latter. Andreas Malm, for example, concludes Fossil Capital with an attack on the ‘we-view’ of climate-change responsibility, which sees humanity as a whole as the culprit, making each and every one of us individually responsible for making more sustainable choices in our everyday lives.[7] Similarly, Naomi Klein attributes most of the blame for ongoing emissions to corporate greed and Big Oil’s manufacturing of climate-change denial,[8] and therefore situates the solution in a confrontation with fossil-fuel industrial interests through movement-building and direct action.

Evidently, there is much in these critiques that is justified and important. A depoliticised focus on the individual consumer as the impetus for change does warrant strong criticism, and yes, as Malm correctly points out,[9] the distribution of responsibility for climate change is tremendously unequal, which makes the lavish high-carbon lifestyles of global elites a prime and necessary target for political action. Nevertheless, is the need to understand and confront the deep dependence on fossil energy served by an exclusive focus on the corporate greed of fossil-fuel capitalists? Can we explain why progress on emission reductions is so agonisingly slow without tackling the countless ways in which economic and political power is reproduced and legitimised outside the sphere of production? Harvey’s call to take seriously how capitalist social relations are entrenched in ‘political subjectivities and the aesthetic, cultural and political preferences of individuals’[10] suggests that we cannot, and that scholars studying the political economy of climate change need to start seeing consumption, together with questions of distribution and exchange, as a necessary part of their enquiry – as an analytical focus that intersects with, rather than necessarily contradicts, attention to the socio-ecological relations of carbon-intensive production processes.

Enter Lifeblood, Huber’s account of the US cultural politics of oil under twentieth-century capitalism. As noted above, this insightful book holds important lessons for debates on the political economy of climate change, even though it is not primarily concerned with climate change or indeed with any of the other environmental concerns that the ongoing economic dependence on oil raises. Essentially, Lifeblood takes the reader on a journey through the twentieth century to narrate the history of American oil dependence and the intertwined cultural, political and economic dimensions of this condition. Huber’s ambition is set out clearly from the start, namely to complement the dominant focus on the ‘big historical forces’ that shape the history of energy use – he mentions global capital, oil kingdoms, geopolitics, finance – with an account of the ‘ordinariness’ of oil as the lifeblood of contemporary capitalism. Oil, Huber makes clear, is first and foremost the stuff that ties the everyday and often banal practices of people’s lives together. To understand the deep US dependence on oil we therefore need to ‘follow social relations, politics, and struggles over how life is lived … far beyond the wells, pipelines, and refineries immediately stained with oil’s toxic residues’ (p. xii). This approach puts the everyday practices of oil consumption at the centre of attention and highlights how these entrenched practices serve to naturalise, justify and reproduce a historically and ecologically specific mode of capital accumulation. As such the book’s focus on ‘the cultural politics of capital’ rightly highlights the crucial but easily forgotten ways in which capitalist power and hegemony operate through cultural forms, everyday consumer practices, and the creation of capitalist meanings, identities and subjectivities centred around particular energy regimes. While Huber’s focus is on the US, in which context his conclusions seem particularly pertinent, it is easy to see how the same argument could, to varying degrees, be applied to other parts of the world as well.

The crux of Huber’sthis argument revolves around the role of oil in the subsumption of everyday life, or what can be described as the increasing dependence on energy-intense commodity relations in the sphere of reproduction. In parallel with how fossil fuels have enabled a deeper subsumption of labour by submitting workers to the requirements of ever-more autonomous machinery in the production process,[11] Huber describes how oil came to play a central role in the commodified satisfaction of everyday needs and the filling of leisure time, thereby strengthening the hegemonic power of capital over life more generally. It did this in part by fuelling particular conceptions of self-determination, freedom and individualism, for example by fostering the idea of an ‘American way of life’ centred around suburban living, individual home ownership and private mobility. Following Foucault, Huber terms this conception ‘entrepreneurial life’. Oil’s ability to ‘saturate the landscape of suburban social reproduction – from gasoline-fired automobility to vinyl-sided homes and petroleum-based food commodities’ (p. 64) thus essentially provided a material basis for ‘the imaginary of an individuated condition, or “life”, that is improvable solely by one’s own effort and entrepreneurial capacities’ (p. 64). The car-centred geographies of suburban America, which were made possible only because of access to cheap and abundant petroleum products, similarly enabled ‘an individuated command over space’ (p. x) that in turn provided fertile ground for neoliberal ideas of freedom ‘composed of atomized individual choosers’ (p. 163). Lifeblood in this way continuously moves back and forth between the material and discursive dimensions of oil consumption as cultural politics. While at times it is not fully clear whether the focus is on one or the other, or both, the overall argument is powerfully made and clearly establishes how material practices of oil consumption/production and an emergent neoliberal discourse reinforced one another, enabling and then consolidating a deeply entrenched cultural dependence on oil.

Pushing back against fossil-fuel fetishism, Huber stresses that none of this is a natural development arising from some power inherent to oil itself. While biophysical properties played an indisputable part in enabling oil’s successes, it was only its gradual exploitation by socio-economic actors that propelled it to the centre of twentieth-century capitalist development. As the material basis for the reorganisation of socio-ecological space, oil ‘merely’ provided an opportune substratum for the exercise of political and economic power. Lifeblood thus traces discourses that align freedom and individualism with car ownership, suburban living and oil-powered consumerism, to the active promotion of such ideas by oil companies in the 1950s, the search for solutions to the US overproduction crisis, and the creation of ‘new subjectivities’ through policies such as Fordism and the New Deal. Huber admittedly spends more time outlining these conditions and political-economic drivers behind the subsumption of life than tracing the exact dynamics through which they end up conditioning people’s lives as fully internalised ideas, which leaves some of the steps underlying his argument implicit. The political implications are nevertheless clear. When oil became the ecological basis for the subsumption of life, it helped to ‘quarant[ine] politics and agency, in the realm of “life” – home, family, and consumption’ (p. 22) and in this way led attention away from demands for freedom and self-determination in the labour process:

[S]omewhere along the way, Marx’s admittedly modernist conception of capital laying a progressive history for emancipatory futures got short-circuited through a kind of reconstruction of a fragmented geography of wage workers as free proprietors whose ‘freedom’ and ‘ownership’ were wholly relegated to the means of social reproduction – specifically the mass dispersal of single-family homes, each with a parcel of land. The real subsumption of life under capital replaces free proprietorship of productive tools and conditions of labor with a world of freedom away from work – a ‘life’ imagined as free despite its reliance upon and subjection to the whim of commodity relations. (p. 79.)

Here, then, we immediately also find the beginnings of an alternative explanation for the enormous inertia of fossil-fuel energy systems, despite overwhelming evidence for their detrimental environmental impacts. As Huber repeatedly notes, it is this deeply ingrained (i.e. historically-cultivated but naturalised) association with ideas of freedom and private ownership that gives oil its social power and makes it exceedingly difficult to get rid of. This provides a political challenge that is far more profound than the scrapping of energy infrastructures or the decarbonisation of the built environment. An assault on (cheap) oil essentially becomes an assault on the emancipation from work, albeit a commodified and neoliberal conception of such, that laborers have carved out in the sphere of reproduction. Huber shows precisely this in his analysis of the 1970s energy crisis, when rising prices and oil shortages became seen as a direct threat to the ‘American way of life’, causing social and economic unrest and setting in motion a range of processes to ensure oil-powered everyday life would continue as usual.

It is really only towards the end of the book that Huber explicitly draws out some of the implications of his argument for climate-change mitigation and the prospects for a renewable energy transition, and even then only briefly. He stops short of placing environmental concerns at the centre of his narrative, even though a fully-fledged extension of his analysis into the political economy of climate change seems logical and perhaps even necessary given the often-divisive nature of the debate. Despite this, Huber offers some welcome insights on the climate question. He argues that if workers have become largely dependent on carbon-intensive commodities for the reproduction of daily life, then it is only logical that they stand to lose from attempts to decarbonise the economy through, for example, increased fuel prices, carbon taxes or outright bans on carbon-intensive practices. It is therefore also logical that they will tend to oppose such policies, which, as Huber notes, de facto puts in question the ability of ‘democracy’ (his quotation-marks) to solve problems like climate change. Huber at one point pitches this impasse as a conflict between workers and ‘environmental technocrats who believe strongly that the only way to a green future is to raise the prices of energy-intensive commodities’ (p. 149), but from the rest of the book one gets a sense that the problem is more substantial than that. For example, if we acknowledge that climate-change mitigation is incompatible with continued (let alone expanded) air travel – as we should – then the conflict is not between workers and particular environmental policies but, more seriously, between the hard facts of climate science and the cultural associations that people make between their annual holiday to far-away destinations and expressions of freedom away from work. Essentially, the subsumption of everyday life here makes labourers complicit in the reproduction of fossil capital, a dynamic that follows from consumption’s placement at the intersection of the (commodified) fulfilment of daily needs and expressions of identity, on the one hand, and the realisation of surplus value on the other. While obviously this dynamic plays out under highly unequal power relations, and through the hegemony of neoliberal ideology, this does not diminish the uncomfortable fact that continued emissions are embedded in more than the corporate gluttony of a small capitalist elite alone.

Huber’s argument in this way holds some (shrouded) lessons for critical voices in the climate-change debate. Framing the climate problem as a matter of greedy oil companies (Big Oil) sabotaging progress on decarbonisation can only ever be part of a fuller explanation for why emissions are not falling as quickly as they should. To place the dominant focus on such narratives is to fail to appreciate the convoluted ways through which the hegemony of fossil capital operates, including the promotion and reproduction of cultural norms and ideas about ‘freedom, security, national pride, and life itself’ (p. 6). Critical scholars thus also need to engage with the geographies of everyday life that enable, reproduce and continuously legitimise the further extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, not out of consumer ignorance or extravagance but simply because access to abundant and cheap energy has for many people become a matter of survival under neoliberal capitalism. Or as Huber puts it,

the failure of the US political system to respond to the challenges of petro-capitalism – war, climate change, and ecological crisis – is more complicated than the simple role of ‘Big Oil’ in corrupting policy makers. It is about a specific regime of capitalism – a regime rooted deeply in the entire architecture of twentieth-century American capital accumulation – that has become structured around a cultural politics of entrepreneurial life. (p. 152.)

If environmentalists ignore these cultural dimensions to fossil-fuel dependence and fail to provide an answer ‘to the populist clamoring for cheap energy for life itself’, Huber adds, ‘the opposition is in danger of at best feeling remote or distant from everyday experience and at worst being completely ignored’ (p. 166). Huber’s analysis therewith sets the scene for a more nuanced, complicated and probably more-uncomfortable account of the environmental crisis that capitalism is currently facing, reframing the problem as a historically developed socio-economic and cultural dependence. This situates the obstacles to alternative energy futures not just in the entrenched denialism of Big Oil, but also in the extent to which progressive voices are able to liberate the cultural values, ideas and material practices that shape everyday life from the grip of oil-infused consumerism.

Towards the end of his essay on Marx’s method in Capital, Harvey makes a similar argument. He suggests that if we see consumerism, and the political subjectivities that attach to it, as a particular reflection of capitalist hegemony, then revolutionary change, including the change necessary to solve climate change, demands that we confront and overcome ‘the fierce attachments of powerful political constituencies to suburban lifestyles and cultural habits’.[12] It demands, in other words, that we first see consumerism for what it is, not just the aggregate of individual lifestyle choices but a cultural pillar of capitalist hegemony, and secondly that we recognise the need to confront these cultural norms and habits with as much political determination and perseverance as we rightly expend on the critique of and political confrontation with fossil-fuel extraction and production. Recent attention, including by Marxists, to the need for a ‘just transition’ (and some of the discussions occurring in the context of a proposed Green New Deal) offers some inspiration for this task. Challenging unsustainable consumer cultures from this perspective is just one more way to chip away at the political legitimacy that fossil capital enjoys by virtue of its grip on the reproduction of everyday life. Reflecting the understanding that ‘actual history demands an approach to an unfolding (even immanent?) dynamic totality in which generalities, particularities and singularities are in perpetual interaction’,[13] a reappraisal of the political ecology of fossil-fuel dependent reproductive relations sets the stage for a more comprehensive critique of fossil capital. Huber’s book spells out in detail the logic and necessity of this approach for the history of oil in the US, and as such provides the beginning of a response to the challenge that Harvey lays out. Lifeblood in this way makes an important contribution towards a fuller understanding of the obstacles we face in the transition to alternative energy futures, and of how to overcome them. Hopefully others will pick up where the book leaves off.


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[1] See Harvey 2012.

[2] Marx 1977.

[3] Harvey 2012, p. 10.

[4] Christophers 2014.

[5] Boyd, Prudham and Schurman 2001; Carton, Jönsson and Bustos 2017; Clark and York 2005; Foster 1999; Foster, Clark and York 2010; Malm 2016; Moore 2011, 2017.

[6] See, for example, Kenney-Lazar and Kay 2017.

[7] Malm 2016.

[8] Klein 2014.

[9] See Malm 2016.

[10] Harvey 2012, p. 23.

[11] See, for example, Malm 2016.

[12] Harvey 2012, p. 23.

[13] Harvey 2012, p. 12.