Expert Capital: Houston and the Making of a Service Empire traces the rise of Houston, Texas, as a global city in the half-century following World War II, arguing that Houston’s business elite, particularly those in oilfield services companies including Brown & Root, Schlumberger, and Hughes Tool, imagined and enacted a new vision of globalism. These executives sought to fashion a global vision that positioned the U.S. not as a center of manufacturing and production but as a white-collar headquarters offering expertise in logistics, engineering, and management to the world. Tracing the both the material developments that established Houston as a global center of petrochemical services and the emerging cultural vision that imagined the U.S. as a global service headquarters, I chart the promotion, contestation, and negotiation of what I call “service globalism” at home and abroad. This project argues that service globalism has been a crucial but understudied means of articulating the U.S. role in the world.
With its focus on Texas and particularly on Houston, this project argues that the postwar Sunbelt, dominated by service industries, was instrumental in charting a new cultural understanding of the U.S. role in the world. This was particularly true in the Gulf South, a region long dominated by industries based in natural resource extraction, transportation, and circulation. After World War II, the Gulf South transitioned from a colonial outpost to the headquarters of industries operating across the globe. As work grew increasingly globalized in the second half of the twentieth century, and as industrial jobs moved overseas, the vision of globalism pioneered in Houston helped to ease the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In the Rust Belt, deindustrialization was experienced as the decline of American empire, but in the Sunbelt, service globalism provided a new rationale for continuing American power in the age of the shipping container, offshore oil rigs, and the multinational corporation.
As a petrochemical powerhouse, a powerful port city, and a crossroads between the U.S. South and West, Houston is both an atypical and a prototypical example of broader trends. The city’s exceptional relationship with oil provides a particularly potent example of a pattern of development that this dissertation argues unfolded in many Sunbelt cities. Houston’s trajectory, from a city oriented around extraction and circulation to the headquarters of a global services industry, demonstrates that Sunbelt cities forged the path toward the globalized, service-oriented economy dominant since the 1970s, a path that Northeastern and Midwestern cities subsequently followed. Moreover, this project argues that the construction of a Sunbelt service economy was necessarily a transnational process. On a material level, the service industries established in Houston – including shipping, contracting, logistics, and consulting – originated as global operations invested in making sense of international economic exchange in a post-World War II, decolonizing world. With previous transnational supply chains disrupted by war and by the establishment of new independent states in the global South, providing services linked Houston businesses to world markets without requiring them to control oil extraction or refining directly. Culturally, Houston’s model of globalism provided a vision of American global power that diverged markedly from the vision dominant in the U.S. until the 1970s. Whereas the most common vision of American global power in the postwar years emphasized the U.S. as an industrial producer whose commodities and high standard of living would be exported around the world, this project argues that Houston’s business elite forged an alternative vision based on exporting service and expertise and importing commodities and raw materials, a different globalism that would come to dominate American culture and politics in the 1970s.
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore (chair)
Mary Ting Yi Lui
Jenifer Van Vleck