Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” is a fascinating read both for its social commentary on the greed of big business and its relation to the working classes, and for its exploration of the main character’s transformation from boy to man. It covers the development of the oil fields of Southern California in the early 20th century, the corruption that came with it, and where those events fit in with what was going on in the greater world. Through 21st century eyes, one can not help but consider that at the time of its writing the Great Depression was about to happen and World War II was still more than a decade away. Sinclair accurately predicts the next war and some of its likely reasons.
To be sure, Sinclair paints Socialism, and to some extent Communism, in a positive light and demonstrates that unrestrained Capitalism is oppressive and exploitative. The revolution and new government in Russia was young at the time of his writing, and many of its horrors committed in the name of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat were not well known. Sinclair falls into the trap of having some of the characters associated with the political system with which he agrees be too good, and those otherwise aligned be too bad. That being said, this book was worth the read. As if one needed any further confirmation, it left me with the sense that Ecclesiastes is likely the truest book of Scripture. The nature of man changes only ever so slightly over time, and there is nothing new under the sun.
As our hero – J. Arnold Ross, Jr. (“Bunny”) – is coming of age, there is a moment of clarity about how the little choices in life could have an enormous impact on the individual. “Yes, life was strange—and cruel. You lived in the little narrow circle of your own consciousness, and, as people said, what you didn’t know didn’t hurt you.” As a young man he idolized his father, an emerging player in the oil industry who had worked his way up from being a mule driver and storekeeper. His father was a good man, but the bigger he got the more he had to compromise and “play the game” to keep on going. Bunny, unlike his father, is all the time curious about the people he is meeting and is trying to broaden that narrow circle of his own consciousness.
As Bunny enters college and begins to meet new people, the tension that makes up the bulk of “Oil!” begins to become apparent. He is living the life of the privileged class where money is no hindrance to one’s desires, and yet he finds himself more in sympathy with the working class that is struggling to obtain safe labor conditions and a living wage. Those who expect him to be the dutiful son and oil heir do as much as they can to keep him from straying from that course, while all the time according a mild tolerance of his eccentric views. Sinclair at one point highlights the difficulty of a person in search of a philosophy who encounters “true believers” when Bunny goes to see Paul who as returned from the Soviet Union and has become a Communist: “[H]is sober face was shining with a light of fanaticism—the same thing which his brother Eli called the glory of the Lord! Dad would have said there were two of them, equally crazy; but it didn’t seem that way to Bunny, who mocked Eli’s god, but believed in Paul’s….” Paul’s evangelist brother Eli has used the masses to great profit, just like the other capitalists; and just like many today who with parasitic attachment to the emotions of others feed off of their wealth.
With Paul’s death after a beating by a mob of “patriots” who attacked a gathering of “reds,” Eli pronounced that Paul had had a deathbed conversion to Christ and announced it on his radio program.
Yes, Bunny suspected it was a lie; but he could not prove it; and even if he could, what then? The radio is a one-sided institution; you can listen, but you cannot answer back. In that lies its enormous usefulness to the capitalist system. The householder sits at home and takes what is handed to him, like an infant being fed through a tube. It is a basis upon which to build the greatest slave empire in history.
Of course, one-way media is the tool of any philosophy and was used skillfully by the Communists throughout the 20th century and certainly continues to be used that way in many countries today. In the United States, one could argue that the interests that control media are those of Consumerism and the power structure of two (and no more than two!) political parties. The goal is the same, to feed us like infants to want and desire exactly what those who have the power and money are selling so that we buy in, participate, hand over the fruits of our labor, and don’t cause trouble. Not much has changed.
In a scene near the end of the book, Paul the Communist is in a hospital room, unconscious from the beating with a lead pipe he had received at the hands of a patriot. In an attempt to heal him it was imperative that he not move. But in his unconscious state he began to flail his arms:
He fought with maniacal fury, and there was Bunny, holding down one arm and Gregor the other, with Ruth and Rachel each clinging to one foot, while the nurse came running with a straight jacket. So with much labor they tied him fast. He would make terrific efforts; his face would turn purple, and the cords would stand out in his neck; but the system had got him, he could not escape.
Meanwhile, from the open window came the sounds of the radio broadcast of drunken revelers at a grand hotel ballroom celebrating the election of a President, bought and paid for by the oil and other business interests of the nation.
Not much changes.