John D. Rockefeller and the Magnificent Bribe

To the extent that men have escaped the control of nature they must submit to the control of society. ~ Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

One hundred and sixty-four years ago yesterday, on July 8, 1839, a woman in upstate New York bore a son who would revolutionize not only the way in which almost all Americans and, indeed, many people all over the world lived their everyday lives, but who would also change, perhaps forever, the nature of government and people's relationship to it.

His name was John Davison Rockefeller, and his obituary in the New York Times the day after he died almost 98 years later said that he 'was the richest man in the world at the height of his active career. Starting his business life as a poor boy in an office, with little formal education and no capital except what he saved by strict economy out of meager earnings, he became the pioneer of efficient business organization and of the modern corporation, the most powerful capitalist of his age, and the greatest philanthropist and patron of higher education, scientific research and public health in the history of the world.'

His father was a farmer and they lived near a town that even today qualifies as rural. The family, of course, had no access to electricity and thus had no electric lights, no electric stove, no television or radio. They had no access to recorded music or to film, to either CDs or DVDs. They had no telephone or telegraph. They had no automobiles. Their home was heated by a stove, probably in the kitchen, that burned either coal or wood or, depending on circumstances, whatever happened to be available. Their lives, in short, were bounded by nature, not technology. They depended upon the food grown either on their farm or in the relatively immediate area. In fact, young Rockefeller's first business enterprise was selling turkeys. He learned early the importance of hard work, economy, and thrift ' qualities that would later serve him well. He once wrote of his upbringing that "I had a peculiar training in my home. I cannot remember when hard work was new or strange to me. We were taught to work, to save and to give. Ours seemed to be a business training from the beginning. We were encouraged to be self-reliant. I was taught to do as much business at the age of 10 or 11 as it was possible for me to do. I was sent over the hills to buy cordwood. I did not require the presence of anybody to enable me to secure good measure of good wood from the men who sold it. It was good training for me."

When he was 16, he got his first job as a clerk and assistant bookkeeper. Three years later, at the age of 19, he put up $2000 to form what his obituary called 'a commission business' with a partner ten years older than him ' half of it came from his savings, and the other half he borrowed from his father. It was the money that he made through this job that enabled him four years later, in 1862, to enter the oil business, and it was the oil business, of course, that made him his fabulous fortune. According to the Times obituary, 'it was estimated after Mr. Rockefeller retired from business that he had accumulated close to $1,500,000,000 out of the earnings of the Standard Oil trust and out of his other investments. This was probably the greatest amount of wealth that any private citizen had ever been able to accumulate by his own efforts.'

That fortune came to him, of course, because Rockefeller cheaply and efficiently provided a product that drastically changed the way people lived. Oil was in many ways the foundation of the nascent industrial civilization. It made possible a life that millions upon millions not only wanted but could literally afford to buy into. Among so many other things, it provided cheap, efficient heat, making it far easier and much more convenient to have a warm home. It helped pave the way for the mass distribution of electricity and the industrialization of America . It also provided some essential ingredients for that most important and indispensable aspect of industrial civilization, the automobile. In short, it not only powered but literally lubricated the coming of our modern society.

Primarily because of Rockefeller, oil became cheaply and widely available, and that undeniably helped make life in countless ways easier and more pleasant for millions of people. But, as always, we pay a price for such things ' a hidden price, one that goes far beyond the mere money that we spend ever day on gas, on oil, on electricity. Yes, we have many things that the Rockefeller family lacked when they lived about 20 miles from where I do today: hot and cold running water, indoor toilets, gas ovens, oil furnaces, telephones, televisions, automobiles, computers ' all convenient, all useful, certainly. But remember, too, that the Rockefeller home was not physically connected to any other home: no electric wires, no television cable, no water pipes, no gas lines. They did not have a paved road in front of their house that connected them with every other house not only in their town but also in their county, their state, their country. Our comforts, however, our ease of life, has forced a very literal and very real connection to millions of strangers, and its resultant need for some kind of ordered co-existence, upon us. What happens to an individual's liberty when he's dependent upon so many for so much? In 1839, the Rockefellers had ' and they paid for ' their way of life: their independence, their liberty, their freedom. What price do we pay in 2003 for our way of life, for our interdependence?

Think for a moment of the automobile. We tend to think only of the immediate costs to us: car payments, insurance fees, gasoline, maintenance, repairs. But as Mumford wrote in 1934, 'Had anyone asked in cold blood'whether this new form of transportation would be worth the yearly sacrifice of 30,000 lives in the United States alone, to say nothing of the injured and maimed, the answer would doubtless have been No' (p. 237). That annual cost, of course, is now almost twice what it was then. It's one of the hidden prices we pay for the speed and convenience of the automobile ' a price that we are apparently not only willing but eager to pay.

Another hidden cost, larger and potentially much more dangerous, that, again, we're apparently not only willing but eager to pay is the cost for this increasingly totalitarian government which questions and threatens not only our individual rights but individuality itself. Some of us may perhaps find the term 'totalitarian' a little harsh, but this objection comes to mind mostly because our concept of 'totalitarian' as Nazi- or Soviet-related is now somewhat dated. As Aldous Huxley wrote in a foreword to his Brave New World, 'There is, of course, no reason why the new totalitarianisms should resemble the old. Government by clubs and firing squads, by artificial famine, mass imprisonment and mass deportation, is not merely inhumane (nobody cares much about that nowadays); it is demonstrably inefficient and, in an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is the sin against the Holy Ghost. A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors, and school teachers.' Many, if not most, of us don't mind losing our rights as long as we're taken care of in some way ' as long as we remain fat and happy and entertained to distraction. As long as that happens, we will love our servitude. We will love Big Brother for the many things he provides us, for the ease and happiness he gives us. Can we have both this easy life and liberty? Or does freedom require toil, the possibility of failure, of pain, effort, suffering ' even death?

In his 1964 essay Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, Mumford said of modern life that 'the bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system, no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one's life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.'

Rockefeller, of course, could not have known, could not even have imagined, his part in this 'magnificent bribe.' He could not have known what the world would turn into partly as a result of his efforts to satisfy the desire of millions for an easier way of life. In fact, many of us even today fail (or refuse) to see this as a bribe ' to see the dangers and consequences of our eager, unquestioning acceptance of the technology that, in return for material comforts, gives the State such control and authority over us. But even as we decry the actions of this State, we have to examine ourselves, our minds and our souls, to determine to what extent we may be responsible for these actions. Only then will we have the intelligence ' and, more importantly, only then will we have the wisdom ' first to discern, and then to do, what desperately needs doing.

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Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.