Oil, soil, toil and trouble
- Resources for reform: oil and neoliberalism in Argentina By Elana Shever
“True sovereignty means taking back what is ours.” This was a slogan sported on posters that went up in Buenos Aires in April 2012 on the day Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner announced the controversial re-nationalisation of YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales), the country’s one time state-run oil company. Barely twenty years after they had first been sold on Wall Street, 51% of the YPF shares were to be brought back under state control. The slogan also resonated closely with another divisive political issue, namely, the Malvinas/Falkland Islands dispute in which oil has played an increasingly central role with Argentina publicly condemning the “theft” of its natural resources. These events highlighted once more the complex material and symbolic role oil has played in defining Argentine nationalism and neoliberalism (neoliberalismo) ever since the first Patagonian wells were drilled in the first decade of the twentieth century.
History, it seems, is already writing a sequel to Resources for Reform, a book that reveals how contemporary Argentine politics, despite the “nationalist” surface, does not aim at reversing earlier neoliberal reforms. In particular, Shever examines the fallout of the privatisation of Argentina’s oil sector in the 1990s. Her argument runs as follows. First, from the start of national oil production, oil was conceived as the stuff that would “propel the nation forward”, as an early YPF advertisement put it. YPF, founded in 1922 as the first state-owned oil company outside the Soviet Union, embodied the “conviction that state control of oil is essential for the well-being of the country and its citizenry” (p.10). Argentine “petroleum nationalism” (Solberg 1979) fused oil – as fuel, revenue source, and source of development – with the nation’s body mediated and enabled by infrastructures running on oil. This state of affairs is also responsible for the considerable ambivalence with which the privatisation of the industry sector has been observed. Second, petroleum nationalism and neoliberalismo go hand in hand. Although “’[n]eoliberalismo’ was a dirty word in Argentina” (p.130) at the time of Shever’s fieldwork, official “nationalist” policy and individual behaviour have continued to reflect a neoliberal logic. Recent events that could readily be interpreted as critical of neoliberalism writ large, including popular protest directed against global oil multinationals operating in Argentina or indeed the re-nationalisation of YPF, do not actually offer any alternative. Third, and partly as a consequence, neoliberalism and affect are not contradictory forces in contemporary Argentina. Without doubt, the slow move towards privatisation since the dictatorship in the 1980s was extremely painful for many. Yet it reworked, rather than destroyed, forms of national belonging and affective affiliation, expressed through notions of kinship, which had been nurtured by the Peronist national project.
Resources for Reform opens with a multi-layered account of a boycott of Shell and Exxon (elaborated in Chapter 3), which drives this point home. Despite an official campaign to halt spiralling inflation, in 2005, Shell and Exxon decided to increase prices at their Argentine petrol stations to stay on top of global oil prices. In response, the government successfully called for a boycott. Demonstrations were held in Buenos Aires largely involving people too poor to afford either private vehicles or even propane-fuelled stoves. Nonetheless, as Shever argues, their actions asserted that as citizens they had a right to consume petroleum products. What brand of fuel to buy – YPF-Repsol rather than Shell or Exxon – had become a way of expressing national belonging. In an important sense, participants in the boycott confirmed the market as the site where democracy and community could be enacted. Hardly an anti-neoliberal demand. Shever is not unsympathetic to Argentines’ plight. She wants her readers to grasp how, despite their vocal critique of certain negative aspects of neoliberalismo, Argentines have become implicated in its production. All the while, they confirm, and give new purpose to, a language of kinship, to filial sentiments, and practices of citizenship and of class. This is no easy tale of acceptance or resistance, but of complicity and of neoliberalisation rendered ethnographically.
Shever deftly weds historical analysis with individual life narratives, and ethnographic observation with theoretical discussion. Fieldwork was carried out in Plaza Huincul and Cutral Có, YPF’s twin company towns in Patagonia, and in Goldendas, a shantytown in the Dock Sud industrial area on the outskirts of Buenos Aires – localities that couldn’t be any more different but that are also “intertwined spaces of oil and habitation” (p.27). This double ethnographic focus allows Shever to demonstrate, on the one hand, how employees and former employees of YPF, the so-called YPFianos, dealt with and contested the company’s privatization and its aftershocks. On the other hand, she scrutinizes the local life of the oil multinational Shell through the ways it is encountered by oil consumers and the putative beneficiaries of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. She thus reveals the multiple linkages between these different “sites that have been carved out, and isolated as much as connected, through the development of the petroleum industry” (p.27).
The first half of the book deals with the adaptive efforts and the creative re-mobilisation of existing resources, specifically those of filial sentiment. In 1991, when YPF Estatal became YPF-Repsol, 43,000 YPFianos were laid off. These were people who had devoted their whole life’s energy to the company and built their families enabled by YPF’s paternalism (housing, amenities, secure employment, etc.). With no real alternative, many of them accepted the company’s double-edged offer to re-form themselves into emprendimientos. In these start-up businesses, former YPFianos would do the exact work for the company they had done previously but now through subcontracting agreements. Many emprendimientos quickly collapsed under the immense pressure of insufficient management skills and debts. Even those that survived struggled with the task of having to cultivate an independent and risk-taking comportment and a spirit of entrepreneurialism. Intriguingly, the affective ties of YPF kinship – an outcome of the company’s paternalistic strategies as well as the isolation of company-town life and “frontier capitalism” – apparently constituted a key factor that made some of the emprendimientos cope better than others.
While allowing people to “adapt” to the new neoliberal regime, kinship sentiments also underpinned its contestation. One of the earliest mobilisations against the transformation of Argentina’s oil from a national into a financial asset was La Pueblada. Made up of former and still employed YPFianos, who referred to themselves collectively as piqueteros, La Pueblada rejected the prevailing avenues of representation through parties or unions, which had first become important under Peronism. Affective connections and solidarity between the piqueteros, partly an outcome of what had once been YPF kinship, nourished the demonstrations and roadblocks. Yet, as Shever asserts, La Pueblada was primarily “the public expression of the YPFianos’ desire to be included in the privatized public domain carved out by the private oil companies and the state that supported them” (92). It was not, in the first place, a movement arguing for a return to nationalisation of the oil industry.
The second half of Resources for Reform offers a compelling account of additional, and equally ambiguous, points of articulation for petroleum nationalism and neoliberalismo. From the boycotting of Shell and Exxon products in 2005 to the desired, if contentious, usage of propane-fuelled stoves in a soup kitchen and bakery in a Buenos Aires shantytown, Shever explains how oil is a politicised factor shaping everyone’s life, even the lives of those barely able to afford it. However, the kind of “consumer citizenship” at work, here, is not one of autonomous participants in a global market posited by neoliberal ideologies. Given the economic realities of people in Goldendas, their aspirations to consume hydrocarbon products can only be seen as those of classed subjects claiming national belonging.
The lives of Goldendas residents are further impacted by “oil” through the presence of Shell refineries nearby, discharging polluting and toxic substances into water streams and atmosphere. In an effort to deal with that situation, the multinational has developed new community programmes aimed to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility. These interactions are productive of their own kinds of affects, viewed ambivalently by the so-called beneficiaries. Shever’s account joins a growing literature in anthropology and beyond that sheds a critical light on CSR tactics. She throws into sharp relief the ways in which what ostensibly passes as “partnership” and support really amounts to a covering up of the underlying problems: “When Goldendas residents are told they should drink bottled water they cannot afford, they are taught that their health problems are caused by their poverty, not by the petrochemical complex’s pollution” (p.186).
Resources for Reform thus pinpoints a central paradox of the contemporary oil industry and of the extractive industries more broadly. At the same time that companies seek to disentangle themselves from responsibilities of care and from the contexts in which they operate, they have been obliged to foster new kinds of attachment and to monitor their practices in new ways. Shever shows us how these entanglements and disentanglements, attachments and detachments are experienced and negotiated by people on the ground. In doing so, she begins to sketch an ethnography of the corporate form, as it manifests itself across multiple sites. As Suzana Sawyer (2012) has recently noted, the corporation is probably one of the key players in the industry today and in contemporary capitalist regimes of accumulation, more generally, and deserves more anthropological attention. It’s a pity, therefore, that Resources for Reform addresses this theme explicitly only in its very last pages. What sort of thing is the corporation? How is it one and many at the same time? Should we conceive of its products as its material extensions? How does the consumption and valuation of these products offer yet more avenues for neoliberalism, state, and the nation to get caught up with each other? And how does the corporation seek to absorb and yet expulse the people who are accidentally drawn into its orbit of action? These are all questions articulated by Shever’s ethnography, but the reader is left to herself to do most of the extrapolation and theorisation.
Resources for Reform uncovers the persistent links between “oil, soil, toil, and trouble” in contemporary Argentina (this is also the title Shever’s partner suggested for the book, but that her editors unfortunately rejected). Despite oil’s pivotal role in moving international finance and indeed the earth’s atmosphere, few ethnographic monographs have made this substance their central focus. In this sense, Resources for Reform is important. Yet if there’s one shortcoming, it is that as an account of oil per se the book is circuitous, tracing oil’s presence in broad-based economic changes and in the ways in which its circulation is being controlled and fought over. Shever notes the elisions involved in these processes, that is, the assumption that the oil found in Argentinian subsoil is of a kind with the petroleum that people use to fuel their cars or to light their kerosene lamps, and that this is also the same as the oil that is drawn into the circuits of international financial speculation. But she does not dwell on the labours and procedures that make these elisions possible or, alternatively, on the diverse understandings of oil that are at play at any given time. How did YPFianos, in their day-to-day work, know and handle Argentine oil not in terms of company shares but indeed as a resource and a substance found in the Patagonian soil?
But this is a minor shortcoming and does not deflect from the strength of this wide-ranging ethnography. Resources for Reform is an exemplary, well written and very accessible account of a highly complex story encompassing poor and rich Argentines, hard-working industry labourers and people struggling to get by, as well as politicians, lawyers, international consultants, and corporate representatives who have all contributed, in one way or another, to tying Argentina’s oil industry more tightly into a global neoliberal regime.
Sawyer, S. 2012. “Commentary: The corporation, oil, and the financialization of risk.” American Ethnologist 39(4): 710-715.
Solber, K.E. 1979. Oil and nationalism in Argentina: A history. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
-  The Economist online, 16 April 2012. http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2012/04/argentinas-oil-industry ↩
-  See also Elana Shever’s analysis in the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elana-shever/argentina-repsol-oil_b_1478177.html ↩