From Green Fields to Narrating Nothingness: Neoliberal Logic and the Move Away from Environmental Responsibility in Enron's Rhetoric and Visual Style

By Benke, Gavin | American Studies, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

From Green Fields to Narrating Nothingness: Neoliberal Logic and the Move Away from Environmental Responsibility in Enron's Rhetoric and Visual Style


Benke, Gavin, American Studies


In March 2001, Fortune magazine published a critical article about the energy giant Enron. The article's author, Bethany McLean, wrote that the company's business had become so "mind-numbingly complex" that it was almost impossible to explain what it did.1 Among other complaints, McLean noted the company's use of "vague, grandiose terms like the 'financialization of energy'" to describe its business activities.2 At the time, Enron was widely regarded as a success story in the business press and such a rebuke was rare. However, when the company declared bankruptcy that December after revelations of accounting fraud, the Fortune piece turned out to be prescient. Books, films, magazine articles, jokes, plays, and musicals about this complex business quickly permeated the popular cultural landscape, echoing McLean's point that Enron's use of language failed to explain its complicated business practices.

It may seem odd that outrage over Enron came in the form of a critique of language. However, this criticism highlights how crucial language was to En- ron's fortunes. Toward the end of the 1990s, Enron's managers touted this lack of specificity as evidence of the company's greatness. Enron's fuzzy language communicated more than McLean's complaint implied. Explaining what the company did may have been hard, but Enron had not lacked a consistent mes- sage during these years. According to Enron's marketing literature from the late 1990s, the deregulation of a number of industries in the United States was critical to the nation's prosperity. In criticizing Enron's use of language, McLean was striking at the ways in which Enron attempted to shape the business climate in the Unites States.

Interestingly, Enron's public identity had not always rested on abstract im- agery. The vague language and complicated business practices were the result of a longer, and stunning, transformation the company had undergone over the course of the 1990s. The dramatic nature of Enron's shift in representation be- comes clear when considering its former corporate image. Though now largely forgotten, environmental responsibility was once the core of Enron's corporate identity. Until 1997, Ken Lay, Enron's chairman and chief executive officer (CEO), explicitly shaped his company's image and operations to appeal to widespread concern about the environment in the United States.

Examining the evolution of Enron's image-making practices lays bare some of neoliberalism's most troubling qualities. Neoliberalism is the term scholars have given to a political-economic philosophy that emerged in the 1970s and became dominant during the 1980s and 1990s. Advocates of neoliberalism regard free trade and unregulated markets as the sources of numerous social goods, in- cluding democratic, individual freedom and material abundance.3 The neoliberal market is both metaphorical and real. As scholars including David Harvey and Gretta Krippner have noted, the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by the central place that financial services and financial markets have come to occupy in the global economy.4 Manfred Steger and Ravi Roy have noted that neoliberalism is advanced through policy actions such as deregulation, trade lib- eralization, and privatization, but corporate managers have long been among the philosophy's most vocal and influential champions, often trumpeting its utopian promises.5 Both popular and scholarly critics such as Thomas Frank and historian Eric Guthey have called attention to the visually thrilling style corporations ad- opted during the 1990s and have deconstructed dubious neoliberal claims about democracy.6 The evolution of Enron's marketing efforts dramatized the fate of environmental stewardship in an economic system that prioritizes free markets and the logic of finance. As public liberal critic Naomi Klein has pointed out, some consumer product companies in the 1990s traded on an explicitly envi- ronmentally friendly image in pursuit of profits. …

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