In his forthcoming book Robert Vitalis takes apart an ideological construction that he calls “Oilcraft,” a set of deeply-held, pervasive beliefs about the world, together with the actions these vivid truths license—op eds and classified memoranda, documentaries, classroom lectures, naval patrols and calls at port, journal articles, podcasts, press conferences, and protests, to name a few. Oilcraft is the close kin not of statecraft or the art of diplomacy, but witchcraft, a kind of magical thinking on the part of many, diplomats included, about a commodity bought and sold on the New York Mercantile Exchange and elsewhere. The same as copper, coal, rubber, palm oil, tin, and so on, all of which were once imagined as vital too. Oilcraft is about the reasoning that makes notions of oil-as-power unquestionably true, taken for granted, and Vitalis’ own claim suspect, jarring, or risable. If you are unhappy with the witchcraft analogy, then think instead in terms of “doctrinal verities,” to borrow a phrase from the linguist Noam Chomsky, who insists that it is the United States need to “control” Iraqi oil resources drove the war in 2003.
In his keynote for the Conference on Energy and the Left, Vitalis proposes to recover the 1920s progressive era left’s critiques of today’s commonsense beliefs about scarcity and conflict. The roots of oilcraft are found in nineteenth century social Darwinism, neo-mercantilism, and geographical determinism, which, together with scientific racism, are all impossible to disentangle from the imperialism of that era. The beliefs have a long half-life. Oilcraft’s debunkers today, who are likely unaware of the earlier refutations of the imagined laws of resource imperialism, are found primarily on the right, not the left, and promoted by the CATO Institute rather than the Open Society Foundation, Institute for Policy Studies and the Nation Institute. Today’s Anglo-American left appears wholly under its spell.