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Issue 34, January 1999

Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller, Sr.

By Ron Chernow, Little Brown, 1998, 25
Reviewed by Mike Watkinson

THE US WRITER Mark Twain singled out the 1849 gold rush as 'the watershed event that sanctified a new money worship and debased the country's founding ideals'.

With John D Rockefeller it was nothing so shallow. As a young bookkeeper he was enthralled by a $4,000 banker's draft his employer had received. "I stared at it with open eyes and mouth", he recalled. "Many times during the day did I open the safe to gaze longingly at the note". The author of Titan comments: "In this story, one can almost feel the erotic charge that the banknote aroused in the boy".

Here we have a portrait of the class enemy, a man who through companies such as Standard Oil - dubbed 'The Octopus' - pioneered the forms capitalism adopted in the United States and beyond.

Unfortunately Chernow's book just chronicles the life of JDR. With the subject neither 'demonised or canonised', it pays scant attention to how this individual came to mesh with his times and become an instrument of history.

Rockefeller was lucky on a whole number of scores, firstly, not to get killed in the civil war. He hired a substitute to do his fighting - and presumably his dying. Then his basic start-up capital was handed to him direct by his father, a charlatan medicine-man who sold 'cancer remedies'.

The civil war made JDR. He amassed a fortune in Cleveland trading with the union, and was then perfectly placed to exploit the reconstruction boom, a period a banker described as one when it was "easy to grow rich... (with) economic marauders... too busy making money to be overly concerned with tradition".

In 1863 JRD developed 'a little side issue'- oil refining. Once again he was helped by the fact that oil was first pumped in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The field's compactness, plus JDR's geographical proximity, allowed him to exploit the domestic and export opportunities of kerosene as the heating-and-lighting fuel of the masses.

The by-product, petrol, which only overtook kerosene sales in 1910, was actually thrown into the river such that the waters of the Cuyahoga burst into flames whenever ships dropped hot coals overboard. Cleveland itself became so polluted that Rockefeller's effluent "tainted the beer and soured the milk".

  Trotsky wrote that the worst thing about capitalism was not the obscene wealth and privileges of the rich, but that to retain them they plunge everyone else into periodic penury. JDR was the personification of this. While he ultimately donated millions to recipients and projects he deemed to be deserving, in the words of a Rockefeller critic Chernow quotes, this merely helped to 'fumigate his fortune'.

He took a harsh and uncompromising line against unions, and many working class families threatened unruly children with the 'bogeyman Rockefeller'. He was also prepared to bribe whoever it took, from state legislators to federal senators. He formed trusts, preferring 'co-operation' to deal with the 'chaotic conditions' engendered by the business cycle. Long before the oil-producers' cartel OPEC, he was restricting oil production, buying up and closing down rivals, or having companies compete for a contract, only to discover that the 'Octopus' owned both!

As Chernow comments, "after the civil war, the most significant revolt against free-market capitalism came not from reformers or zealous ideologues but from businessmen who couldn't control the maddening fluctuations of the market place... Rockefeller and other industrial captains conspired to kill off competitive capitalism in favour of a new monopoly capitalism". Rockefeller "sounded more like Karl Marx" when he rounded on the vagaries of the business cycle - naturally he wanted to see it tamed not for the general good but for his 'general good'.

Twain - a friend of the Rockefeller clan - also said that the real miracle of the loaves and fishes was not creating food for five thousand, but that twelve people could deliver it and live to tell the tale! The billionaires may have laughed, but the conjuring of that feast is an even greater modern parable than they realised.

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