Neoliberalism and the Culture of Extractive Industry

Steacy EastonYork University

Thinking about neoliberalism and place, or the recent economic system and place, in relationship to resource extraction, the more I am convinced that our current economy is a kind of shangri la. In a neoliberal context, extractive industry reduces a place to its resources: the life-span of a place is tied directly to the supply of that place’s extractable resources. But even then, in the financialized political economies that have dominated the neoliberal period, there is a sense in which the most material of commodities—oil, wheat, potatoes—exist mostly as abstractions: the idea of wheat, or the potential of future potatoes.[1] With oil, there is an idea that the concept of oil will never run out, so actual oil won’t either. When the oil starts to run out before the idea of oil does, when the wells run dry before you have divested from the concept of the well, serious problems ensue. If a place goes on existing beyond its extractive heyday, it is only as an idea. A kind of weaponized nostalgia, where the dynamic history of a place can be memeified or sold off for tourists, turns places into saleable simulacra. In the midst of these dynamics, labour, in particular, is de-humanized and easily forgotten. 

Neoliberal extractive industry, if it can be called that, has a cultural history. Of course, there is a radical history of folk songs in the North American west, one characterized literally by news telling via vernacular and oral tradition. Many of these songs have not been recorded or sung, or alternatively have been “caught” in folk revival of the 1960s, reducing the tradition to the abstract or the interpersonal, with exceptions like Guthrie’s “Deportee”, about the 1948 crash that killed 32 agricultural workers who were being returned back to Mexico. Tim Z. Hernandez gave them all of their names in their exquisitely researched book All They Will Call You.[2] Too often, though, songs mirror the de-humanization of labour and the unmooring from place that attends neoliberalism.[3] Remembering and returning these stories to the land must be done by people with a historico-personal attachments and memories that are not crowded with the abstractions or the nostalgia of the picturesque. 

I am borrowing from Ian McKay and Robin Bates’s study of Nova Scotia “tourism/history” here. “As elsewhere,” they write, “the use of primitive otherness in tourism and in politics had nothing to do with preserving alternative traditions in a cultural world increasingly homogenized by mass consumption and mass communications. In a bitter irony, while Nova Scotia appeared more Gaelic every year, Gaelic–whose survival in Nova Scotia supposedly distinguished the province from other locales–was fast disappearing.”[4] I am not convinced that the material of resource economies and the immaterial of language can be directly correlated, but this phenomenon where an idea of a place conquers the actual place is real, and not just in Nova Scotia. Addressing this issue, if handled badly, can lead to a patronizing attempt to see working class culture as pure, like Alan Lomax refusing to record Tin Pan Alley songs. To make an accurate record of a culture is not to note that information flows more freely under the auspices of neo-liberalism. Rather, rejecting the false dichotomy between artificial and real is a way of moving past both a certain ahistorical pastoralism that appears on some lefts and the characteristic perspective of neoliberal post-ideologues, who assume even a cosmopolitan urbanity is without a tight locality.[5]

It is worth further considering Cape Breton, which has been used as a kind of romantic, mist filled, holiday location, depicting charm in such a way that people are expected to perform it for tourists, especially in the folk music. There are few songs about how people actually negotiate desire, economic stability, the work necessary on the rigs, the personal history of resource extraction, and the fear of what happens when it all runs out. However, there are occasional exceptions. For example, Mike McKenna Jr., from Cape Breton, has written and performed a song called “Die in the West.” Though it is often about the long history of displaced labour, it could be within a tradition of sailor songs. It wends those traditions and histories into a cautionary tale of neoliberal practices. 

McKenna’s song is about bodies, specific landscapes, atomized labour, and about not being sure what to do next. He talks about the plane ride from Fort McMurray, where his “pockets are rich, but his body is poor,” and the song moves from those consequences.  The company pays for “his flight to come home,” but the money is not enough. Some of what he misses—the sea, the breeze off the Moira—does invoke a little nostalgia. But the chorus acknowledges that it all only lasts “as long as there is oil.” There is a distinct possibility that the oil will run out, and only the person who has a concrete relationship to the land knows the consequences of their labour. The song is about choosing this kind of labour—detached from geography, from his own localities, from his own lover, and his own family—even though he knows that the oil will run out. There is a kind of perverse mirroring of systems here: the worker knows that the oil is running out, that fossil capital is pretending it won’t, and that both are trying to pile up as much as they can before it’s all gone.[6] I wonder if neoliberalism is the phrase we use, sometimes optimistically, sometimes catastrophically, to name this process of banking up resources before the whole world collapses. 

Continuing the song, McKenna sings about his grandfather, a coal miner, who “spent half his life underground, his lungs were so black that he may as well drowned.” This is the kind of detail, the line of bodies battered by capitalism, which becomes lost in the abstraction and forgetting that, if an enduring feature of capitalism, seems enhanced by neoliberalism. The song ends with worries over making enough money “while the oil sands last” so that he can afford to die: “I hope I can save enough money to rest when the time comes to cross my arms over my chest.” 

To end on a more personal note, I grew up out west, around people from the east coast who tried to make some money before they were going to return back to raise kids. My grandparents were farmers, my mom left the farm, and I moved to Toronto. There was a rhyming in how the east coast oil fellows talked about the boom-and-bust cycles and how the farmers talked about bumper crops and lean years. I write freelance, where there is also a rhyme: the years you get the grant and the years you don’t. The fish ran out, the oil rain out, and it’s very difficult to get paid to write. There are local details to this—illiquid capital, case studies of all kinds of mismanagement—and structural details as well, the ones that critics of neoliberalism often note. Artists like McKenna note how fragile and insecure contemporary life is, how the dissolution of the real economy and the dissolution of the land are matched. In this sense, they help to correct the slide into abstraction that defines neoliberal markets and culture alike. 

Any utopian scheme, any co-op, or any back-to-the-land experiment in collective living is too expensive or precarious to sustain. The resources don’t exist, having been accumulated and hoarded by people wilier or wealthier than we are. The question is how to care about the local, how to preserve what is left, and how to be antagonistic to capital without letting those concerns become platitudinous or nihilistic but, instead, conducive of something more. 

Steacy Easton is a writer and artist who grew up in Edmonton and is now living in Hamilton. They are currently a PhD student at York University in Critical Disability Studies. 

[1] Of course, the abstraction of commodities is not unique to recent history, even if it has been accelerated lately. On abstraction and commodity markets in capitalist development, one of the best historical sources is William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991). 

[2] Tim Z Hernandez, All They Will Call You (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2018).

[3] I am especially thinking of songs written by Nashville songwriters, who talk of back woods, hollers, back roads, and so on, without naming where these landscapes might be. The paradigmatic example is Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” with its abstract metaphors of desire and geography.

[4] Ian McKay and Robin Bates, In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia(Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 295. 

[5] My thinking here is informed by two Mike Davis essays about Las Vegas. See “Class Struggle in Oz” and “The Racial Cauldron,” in Hal K. Rothman and Mike Davis, eds., The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 176-184 and 260-267.

[6] Speaking of fossil capital, for a major historico-theoretical treatment of our relationship to fossil fuel, see Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016). 

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