Tom Trevatt – On Drinking Milkshakes


The next K’ex lecture will be

On Drinking Milkshakes: Conditions of Freedom Under Petropower
Tom Trevatt

Thursday 25th May 2017
Room 137 RHB
Goldsmiths, University of London
Site Here Available Here

In the final scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, the fictitious oil tycoon Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, kills Paul Dano’s Pastor Eli Sunday with a bowling pin. As he is chasing the religious man around his bowling alley, Plainview menacingly tells Sunday that he “drinks his milkshake” invoking the action of an oil well as it sucks its precious crude from the earth, draining it dry. As a prescient image of predatory capitalism, the “long straw” of Plainview’s character that sucks the oil from the ground of Eli Sunday is instructive. In this paper I will make a twofold claim. Firstly, a certain imaginary of freedom is invoked with Plainview, the freedom to exploit others, that has been integrated into the conditions of the neoliberal conjecture as “individual freedom”. And secondly, that what the sucking dry represents is not so much greed, or the plain fact of accumulation, but, as the Capital as Power thesis has it, the accumulation of differential wealth and therefore differential power. Freedom (individual not collective freedom), thus, under these conditions is the expression of inequality.

Journalist Thomas L. Friedman has analysed the correlation between the price of oil and the amount of quantifiable “freedoms” enjoyed by citizens – freedom of the press, free speech, free and fair elections, rule of law, independent judiciary, independent political parties – to suggest that when the price rises, these freedoms are eroded. He calls this the First Law of Petropolitics. This inverse correlation understands freedom as given to citizens through the institution of law and state, and the condition of unfreedom to be an absence, or degradation, of these institutions. My claim is, that the logic of petropolitical neoliberalism insists upon the opposite; freedom to petropolitics is the freedom of the “straw”, to suck the earth dry, not the freedom of citizens to participate in public life protected from the predatory nature of contemporary capitalism. Thus Friedman’s law names the condition of our times, but with one vital lacunae; petropolitics places freedom on the other side of the equation, equating it with freedom to differentially accumulate. We are left with a perverse battle between two differing conceptions of freedom.

This paper will read the main claim in Nitzan and Bichler’s Capital as Power of differential capitalisation through the frame of a petropolitical understanding of exploitation as the underlying logic of neoliberal freedom. Where the “petropolitical” designates the condition of legitimated theft of commonly owned resources, that is accumulation via dispossession which underwrites the market capitalisation of the oil industry and is legitimated by the myth of individual freedom.  Further, it will suggest that the only freedom worth the name is collective or universal freedom, and we must reject claims to individual freedom as it has been mobilised by neoliberalism. This will be done by a precise understanding of the synthetic, dialectical nature of our relation to the collective or the universal through the work of Charles Sanders Peirce.

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Tom Trevatt is a London-based lecturer, writer and PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His work spans the geopolitical implications of the global oil trade, conditions of financialisation and the axioms of contemporary art. Recent work includes organising the Culture and Finance Capital series of lectures at Goldsmiths, essays in Speculative Aesthetics (Urbanomic, 2014) and On the Verge of Photography (ARTicle Press, 2013). He teaches in the Visual Cultures department and Politics department at Goldsmiths and in the Graphic Design department at UCA.


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