Book Review: Kochland – The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America

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Published: March 29, 2020 12:45 AM

The story of Ewings was the story of America’s elite, more importantly, the story of oil in the US and the rise of a new class.

The story starts with Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries, with focus on his second-eldest son, Charles, who would go on to expand the empire. The story starts with Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries, with focus on his second-eldest son, Charles, who would go on to expand the empire.

In 1978, a prime-time drama series, Dallas, portrayed the story of Ewings, a wealthy Texas family, which owned ranches and oil fields. This was also the time when the US had just recuperated from the 1973-74 oil shock. Americans had just come out of paying double or triple of what they used to pay for oil. The industry was reviled for its apathy, but there was something sacrosanct about how wealth was accumulated by these new-age tycoons. The show later became one of the longest-running prime-time series in the US. The story of Ewings was the story of America’s elite, more importantly, the story of oil in the US and the rise of a new class. The series had everything to keep viewers hooked—twisted plots, cliffhangers and deceit.

Kochland is no different than Dallas. There are plots and cliffhangers. But rather than the story of a family, Kochland is the story of America’s oil industry controlled by one group, one family. The Kochs may not be as extravagant as the Ewings—their business is more secretive and so are their ways—but this is one story America would love to know about. The interest in oil has waned over the last decade—Dallas relaunched in 2014 but was not nearly as successful as its previous version—and the Kochs, too, have moved beyond oil, but still hold relevance to American society. The 564-page book divided into 25 chapters shows the rise of Koch Industries and its patriarch and the fall of America’s climate activism aided by Koch.

Author Christopher Leonard uses interviews and studies to uncover how the Kochs built their empire and how that helped them gain political capital across the country, which later would be used to destroy America’s climate plans. The story starts with Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries, with focus on his second-eldest son, Charles, who would go on to expand the empire. It details how the management perfected a new philosophy inspired by the ideas of economist FA Hayek of a free-market economy, where the government was perceived as the villain. It also has details of the Senate investigation, which revealed that employees were being pushed to skim oil from tankers and enrich the company. But more important is the later phase of Charles’ life, where the once anti-establishment man came to control the establishment using think tanks, pressure groups and other tactics. More important, how one man and his company redefined the climate policy of a nation, veering it away from climate scepticism to science scepticism. This all, according to Leonard, starts from the 1991 conference, where Koch first made apparent his agenda on climate change, deeming it a hoax. The book is not just about the rise of the Kochs and their empire, but also tracks their ideology of a market-based management.

Leonard has done a commendable job of synthesising years of interviews into an interesting read with twists and turns. Like any investigative piece, each chapter starts with a historical background followed by details of investigation. There is no conclusion, but as you progress, you tend to uncover the sinister plot. At least, that is what the author wants you to believe. Although the book is based on hard evidence, there is a conspiracy theory feel to it. Charles is made to seem like an evil genius who represents everything that is wrong with America. But despite the generalisations, there are a lot of eye openers in the book. If you know the story of Kochs, there is nothing new that Leonard offers, except more evidence for their wrongdoing. If you don’t know them, the book is a good starting point for trying to understand their philosophy. The investigative style, at times, becomes too overbearing for the reader, but Leonard does well to shift plots often. Besides, not everything is focused on Koch; the author also sheds light on other employees who helped the Kochs move closer to their goal. Kochland is a good starting point to understanding business in America and the American economy. But the story is one that is oft-repeated around the world; just the name on the big tower keeps on changing. In Dallas, there is one episode called The Dream Season, which shows how things would have been ahead had there not been so much deceit and plots. I guess for America, the dream would have been no different. If not the Kochs, some other organisation or family group would have existed. Deceit would still have been known, just by another name.

Books details
Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America
Christopher Leonard
Simon & Schuster
Rs 699, Pp 564

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