The last two decades have witnessed an extraordinary surge in radical scholarship on oil. Starting with Timothy Mitchell’s path-breaking work on the transition from coal to oil and its part in the emergence of ‘carbon democracy’, a series of important contributions have sought to weave oil more fully into the narration of 20th-century capitalism.footnote1 Scholars have retold the story of oil from the perspective of anticolonial protagonists in Latin America and the Middle East, situating these against the broader backdrop of the Bandung moment.footnote2 Other work has critically interrogated the putative claims of ‘oil security’ and supply scarcity that have long underpinned traditional accounts of us oil expansionism.footnote3 Alongside this historical revisionism, a rich set of ecological-Marxist accounts have sought to integrate oil more systematically into the rhythms of accumulation, profitability crises and uneven global development—an analytical shift that bears directly on the challenges of climate change and the energy transition.footnote4 This literature has significantly widened the conceptual purview of oil; from debates around finance and neoliberalism to discussions of contemporary aesthetic and cultural forms, oil can now be found as a core analytical referent.footnote5

Common to all this new work is the attempt to situate oil as part of the actual making of social categories and patterns of political and economic power. As such, this literature upends many of the traditional tropes that have governed thinking about it, including notions of ‘peak oil’, oil as geopolitical ‘prize’ or oil as a ‘curse’ that inevitably damns resource-rich countries in the South to a future of bloated and parasitic Rentierism.footnote6 These longstanding certitudes served to animate oil with some sort of determinative and semi-mystical power; in their place, attention has been refocused on the social relations in which oil is embedded and that give particular meaning to it as a commodity. There is, in other words, a strong echo of Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism in contemporary writing about oil—an attempt to see oil’s power as deriving not from some ‘thing-like’ nature, but rather arising through its co-constitution with the relations of capitalism itself.

Nonetheless, there is a palpable absence in this expansive, revisionist reworking of our thinking about oil. Almost without exception, this scholarship treats it solely as an energy source or transport fuel—disregarding completely the other aspect of oil’s mid-20th century emergence as the dominant fossil fuel: the birth of a world composed of plastics and other synthetic products derived from petroleum.footnote7 From the 1950s onwards, a wide array of naturally derived substances—wood, glass, paper, natural rubber, natural fertilizers, soaps, cotton, wool and metals—were systematically displaced by plastics, synthetic fibres, detergents and other petroleum-based chemicals. This ‘petrochemical’ revolution enabled the syntheticization of what had previously been encountered and appropriated only within the domain of nature; the very substance of daily life was transformed, alchemy-like, into various derivatives of petroleum. Here is oil not as energy source, but as feedstock, the literal raw material of commodity production itself.footnote8

The making of a synthetic world is a missing piece in understanding the place of oil in contemporary capitalism.footnote9 It is a story that begins in the early 20th century with the growth of the chemical industry in Germany and the us, subsequently moving through the rise of fascism and two World Wars that pitted Germany’s coal-based chemical giants against their weaker us counterparts. By the end of the Second World War, the us emerges as the dominant global chemical power. Its dominance, however, is premised on a chemical revolution that takes place during the War itself—the shift towards the use of oil and gas as the main chemical feedstock, rather than coal. This shift was deeply synergistic with oil’s rise as the world’s primary fuel, and with the emergence of the us as the hegemon of the new oil-centred world order. The new petrochemical industry also carried distinctive and radical implications that fundamentally transformed the nature of post-war capitalism itself—qualitatively increasing the scale and scope of available consumer goods, cheapening the cost of industrial production and enabling huge increases in productivity through labour-saving technologies. The commodification and massification of social life, including the rapid ascendancy of industries such as tv advertising, were in good part based upon the new synthetic products derived from petroleum. All of this was inseparable from continuous scientific and technological innovation, which in turn drove the restructuring of state–business relations and far-reaching changes to industrial organization and the corporate form.

The narrative that follows focuses predominantly on these historical lineaments of our synthetic world. The weight of this history, however, sits elephant-like within the ecological crisis of the present. Petrochemicals are the means through which oil has become woven into the very fabric of our social existence, yet this ubiquity has made them almost invisible to our everyday consciousness. This fact was noted recently by the Executive Director of the International Energy Association, Fatih Birol, who described petrochemicals as ‘one of the key “blind spots” of the energy system’, poorly understood even by energy professionals.footnote10 Today, petrochemicals are decisive for the future trajectory of fossil-fuel use: they will almost certainly form one of the fastest-growing sources of demand for oil over the next two decades, and there exists no viable alternative to petroleum as a material feedstock—the basic raw material—for synthetic production. In reducing the problem of oil to simply the question of finding an alternative source of energy and transport fuel, we implicitly confirm the invisibility of petrochemicals. We remake our synthetic world as something natural. As such, foregrounding the story of petrochemicals not only opens an entirely new vista to understanding the intertwined histories of oil and capitalism, it points directly to the necessity and challenges of moving beyond both.

There was little indication in the early 1900s of the sweeping transformations that would be ushered in by the petrochemical revolution just fifty years later. At the turn of the century, the chemical industry was largely focused around dye-stuffs, utilizing coal as the main precursor for chemical production. Globally, the industry was dominated by Germany’s Big Three chemical companies—basf, Bayer and Hoechst—who, in 1916, established the ig Farben (igf) cartel in order to coordinate research and divide up European and international markets.footnote11 At that time, the German chemical industry was vastly superior to that of the us or any other European country. Germany supplied around 90 per cent of the world’s synthetic dyes up until the First World War. The us dye industry consisted of only seven firms in 1913, employing a mere 528 people with a product value of $2.4 million; in comparison, the German industry was worth $65 million and employed 16,000 people. German dominance was backed through an aggressive policy of overseas patent protection; one 1912 survey estimated that 70 per cent of all us patents granted on synthetic organic chemicals were actually German-owned.footnote12

The First World War—sometimes described as the chemists’ war—would provoke significant changes to chemical production and provide a powerful impetus to the growth of the industry. In Germany, igf played a central role in the war effort, pioneering the development of poison-gas weapons (utilizing by-products of the dye industry) and synthetic nitrates for the manufacture of explosives and fertilizers.footnote13 Despite Germany’s defeat and the crushing terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, igf’s component companies remained intact and continued to be recognized as world leaders in chemical research and production after the War. In 1925, the cartel was formally reorganized as a single entity, becoming the largest corporation in Europe and the most important chemical company in the world.footnote14