How the Oil Industry Has Failed Its Own Workers

IF YOU drove I-10 through West Texas ten years ago, you would find one or two pumpjacks and plains of dead grass. The sparse and unpopulated landscape was a product of the desolate economy, comprised mostly of activities like “Animal Production and Aquaculture,” “Truck Transportation,” and “Support Activities for Mining.” Ten percent of West Texans made minimum wage or less in 2010, and the rest earned little more. But by 2017, the picture looked radically different. Thanks to the rebirth of the oil industry, just three percent of West Texans made minimum wage or less––an unprecedented change in the class makeup of the region. GDP per capita rose by ten thousand dollars from 2010 to 2015––a kind of change that hadn’t occurred in the area for decades.

West Texas shows us that America’s new oil economy influences more than stock charts and geopolitics: it also impacts the livelihoods of the communities around oil fields. And yet, large oil and gas firms have remained largely oblivious to their workers’ conditions. The oil industry may bring short-term prosperity to its workers, but it drags its employees along as if oil would guarantee their futures—which it certainly will not. This is the reality of America’s corporate-centric energy policy. 

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Black Lives Matter

The Stanford Sphere fully supports the protests against police violence and structural racism  catalyzed by the unjust killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, as well as the killings of Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Metro Police Department and Tony McDade by the Tallahassee Police Department. As a publication devoted to furthering left-wing and progressive perspectives at Stanford, we are deeply indebted to America’s Black freedom movement and its legacy on the left—from the historical role of Black freedom fighters like Harry Haywood and William Patterson in organizing labor throughout the US across racial lines, to the work of groups like the Black Panther Party in showing the power of mutual aid to build a social movement. We stand in solidarity with the Black community, and we want to do all we can to help address the causes of that hurt.

This week, we have seen an upswell of action against the structural racism entrenched in the United States. And we have been heartened to see protests and solidarity all over the world, in the streets of London, Tokyo, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, and so many others. We hope that this moment of righteous anger and radical critique continues to grow until it cannot be ignored. We cannot let these protests falter or allow their radical demands to be co-opted by corporate entities that care only about profit. Instead, we must ensure that they become a long-term movement that can topple the oppressive structures under which Black Americans have suffered for centuries. 

To help build that movement, it is vital to take action to support these protests in the moment. If you are able to safely attend a physical protest in your area, we hope you can be there in solidarity. If you are not able to be physically present, we urge you to donate, as the writers of the Sphere have, to the following organizations:

And if you are new to thinking about police brutality, white supremacy, and the links between racism and capitalism, it may be useful to read the following guides, books, and essays:

    • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley and Malcolm X;
    • The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois;
    • Notes from a Native Son, by James Baldwin;
    • Women, Race, and Class, by Angela Davis;
    • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis;
    • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison;
    • Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore;
    • The Fateful Triangle, by Stuart Hall;
    • “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates;
    • The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale;
    • The Racial Contract, by Charles W. Mills;
    • Black Marxism, by Cedric Robinson;
    • Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, by Robin Kelley;
    • Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America, by Barbara Fields;
    • The 1619 Project, curated by Nikole Hannah-Jones;
    • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine.

Yet reading alone is not sufficient. Racism is a corrosive force—it warps our social relations in ways felt viscerally, in ways more immediate than what any book can teach. If you are not Black, consider how your own social circles are shaped by race: How often are you a minority in a room? How many of your Instagram photos are filled with people who look like you? How often do you encounter the police in your day-to-day life? Discuss what you learn and what you experience in this moment with your friends, your family, your neighbors. Use this moment of crisis and pain to build solidarity and empathy.

Capitalism in America has always been predicated on the exploitation of Black labor, and any attempt to break free from capitalism and build a better world must address the harms of anti-Black racism. In the same light, we must incorporate anti-capitalism into our efforts to fight racism. The Sphere remains committed to these goals.

Sphere Editorial Board

Image: George Floyd protests in San Francisco, by Mark Sebastian, Wikimedia Commons.

Parasite, or The Cozy Relationship Between the West and Korean Elites

AS AN INTERNATIONAL student from Korea, I had an extremely uncanny experience watching Bong Joon-ho’s award winning film Parasite (2019). Set in Seoul, South Korea, the film begins by depicting the daily struggles of the Kims, a low-income family that lives in basement apartments. Ki-woo, the college-aged son of the family, lands the opportunity to tutor a student from the affluent Park family. One by one, all of the Kims find cunning ways to get employed by the Parks and test the limits of how much the rich family can be exploited. Built-up tension and pressure to keep the fraud hidden culminate in an ending that captures the quintessence of class warfare. 

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Billionaires: Where Freedom Fails

AS I write this piece, there are 2,604 billionaires in the world. The 26 richest people in the world own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the entire population, and the richest person in the world, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, now holds over 128 billion dollars in wealth. To put this into perspective, Mr. Bezos could buy every team in the NFL and still have $36 billion left to spend, which would only make him the 28th richest man in the world. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimated that 8.6% of the world population lives with $1.90 a day—a salary so low that one would take 185 million years to acquire Mr. Bezos’ wealth. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are also 860 million people without access to electricity and 2.5 billion who lack access to improved sanitation. The difference between the richest and the poorest is, put plainly, shocking.

Some politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have reacted to this level of inequality by arguing that billionaires should not even exist in the first place. However, if you’re not a progressive, you likely disagree with what they have to say. But looking at the problem by focusing on freedom and power might change your perspective. While many have defended billionaires through economics, now is the time to bring a more political argument into the discussion.

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Editor’s Opening Statement, Vol. 3

THE LUXURIOUS quinceañera after a field trip to the slums. The bus packed just with women—all domestic workers—heading back from the rich part of town. The school employees who called us children “doctors” out of deference. You didn’t have to be particularly disadvantaged to find social injustice in Brazil. It was everywhere.

My leftism was born out of moral indignation. It felt immoral that I could get a tech internship at age 16 and make more money than half the country. It felt immoral that I was guaranteed a spot in college, while many paulistanos didn’t even know that the University of São Paulo existed. At some point, I realized that Brazilian society demanded radical wealth redistribution. And so, I became a socialist.

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