The Political Power of Energy: A Review of Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy

[I wrote this book review for a scholarly publication a while back, but it holds even more relevance today. If you take any stock in George Santayana’s famous and often altered quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then this book should pique your interest with the high-tech world intersecting governance and influencing economy with ever increasing frequency.]

The power to vote, political participation, government by the people — these phrases surround the modern visualization of democracy. From these principles, the city-state of Athens, the Roman Republic, and England’s Parliament are governments, among others, that are typically considered the origins of democracy. Timothy Mitchell, however, in his book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, argues that this notion is wholly incorrect, that these early representative governments were “oligarchic alternative[s]” to democracy (17). Instead, Mitchell insists that mass democracy came from “a new kind of political power”, a power supplied by the sudden importance of coal (19). Because of coal (and the need to transport and process coal), workers could bring industry and society to a screeching halt. With workers able to “sabotage” coal, truly democratic politics finally appeared (22).

Carbon Democracy is not a study of “democracy and oil”, but of “democracy as oil” (5). Mitchell treats fossil fuels not as a commodity, but as an industrial complex interacting with social and technological components. This perspective guides Mitchell in his exploration of fossil fuels’ impact in current political systems. For example, the economy — “the central object of democratic politics in the West” — emerged as an abstraction, escaping the limits of the material universe (125). Oil, with its seemingly infinite supply, allowed for economy to “increase in size without any form of ultimate material constraint” by transitioning to a “system of monetary circulation” (143, 234). The evolution of the economy into the abstract separated politics and nature. In turn, the economy shaped a political dynamic in which “experts began to displace democratic debate and whose mechanisms set limits to egalitarian demands” (143). Dominion over oil, Mitchell suggests, is dominion over democracy.

Likewise, Mitchell argues that the infrastructure of oil — oil wells and pipelines, and also “oil agreements and oligarchies” — must not be seen as only a mechanism to ensure the supply and pricing of oil, but also as a manifestation of empire and political power (143). Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the prolonged campaign of oil firms to limit oil production and slow the development of the petroleum industry (in short, to build a American-European monopoly) also “impeded the ability… to build effective methods for advancing egalitarian political claims” in colonies throughout the world (86). Restrictions on oil production and development in these colonies resulted in populations unable to enjoy the wealth of their natural resources and unable to exercise political will through the power of sabotage. Europeans justified their control over colonies by claiming that colony populations were “in need of development”(83). Behind this rhetoric was the “need for materials unavailable in the industrial regions”, as well as the need for secure supplies of petroleum for transportation (85); these requirements of sustained empire were made clear by the industrialized warfare of World War I.

The rise of independent states in the Middle East changed the dynamics of democratic politics in those countries. Popular support and strength wrestled political influence away from European countries, allowing “local disputes and disruptions to be built into something more effective,” in service of “larger political purposes” (144). While these countries were constantly struggling to reduce the control of foreign oil firms (who legally owned large resource claims and infrastructure), this period resulted in “the growth of a more assertive Arab nationalism” (144). To rally government support for business and economic interests, foreign oil companies and government officials framed the importance of oil in terms of “strategic importance,” necessitated by the Cold War (122). In the 1970s, Middle Eastern countries (assembled into OPEC) fought to wrestle control of their oil fields away from foreign oil companies. Mitchell argues that, faced with “the loss of their control of [Middle Eastern] oilfields”, foreign oil companies sought methods of “generating a large increase in the price of oil”, which would facilitate petroleum development in alternate areas (170). By controlling and manipulating flows of oil and finance, these foreign firms were, according to Mitchell, able to engineer the 1973–1974 oil crisis.

An analysis of oil and politics would be incomplete without considering how oil interests have shaped contemporary politics of the Middle East, and on this topic, Mitchell explores the deficiency of capitalism to create its own political order to secure profits (230). Instead, the actions necessary to collect “rents on the world’s most profitable commodity” were always executed through the “political forces, social energies, forms of violence and powers of attachment” of others (230). In oil’s latest chapter, the international oil industry turned to McJihad, adopting the social and political energy of Islam to secure future profits by ensuring a scarcity of available oil. Oil companies fabricated the notion of national energy security, thereby securing government cooperation in their quest to control the supplies and flow of oil. Mitchell asserts that “the more closely a government is allied with Washington, the more Islamic its policies” (201); such countries publicly claim “an Islamic authority”, becoming more Islamic in “political rhetoric and modes of legitimation.” To Mitchell, the American occupation of Iraq, for example, has not been conducted with the intention of democratization (evidenced by the “brutality of America’s enormous military power”, American rule through “an unelected governing council”, and the retained “outlawing [of] independent labour unions in the public sector”) (224–225). While the United States turns to “conservative forces of tribal leaders and Islamist parties to help it keep control,” it has wrestled away the control of oil supplies and oil infrastructure necessary for Iraqis to demand democratic government and it has facilitated the rebuilding of the oil industry in the interests of international oil firms (226).

This final accusation represents perhaps the most contentious aspect of Carbon Democracy. The claims of collusion between the international oil industry and Western governments might strike some as conspiracy theory. Mitchell’s assertion that, in the 1950s, American labor rights activists were jailed not for a communist agenda, but for threatening to disrupt the functioning of the oil industry with strikes is one notably disputable claim. Criticisms of Mitchell’s work as conspiracy theory are grounded in his failure to explicitly establish the motivations behind government support of oil interests, particularly in a modern context.

Carbon Democracy especially shines in its construction of rich and detailed historical narratives to support Mitchell’s claims. Furthermore, the book contains its own overarching narrative; this narrative contextualizes and relates Mitchell’s individual arguments to his thematic statement of “democracy as oil.” Through its self-proclaimed goal of “follow[ing] closely a set of connections that were engineered over the course of a century or more between carbon fuels and certain kinds of democratic and undemocratic politics,” Carbon Democracy concludes that future energy technologies (by extension, technological and social futures) are in no way deterministic (252); a societal decision to utilize coal did not necessarily imply a political transition to democracy, just as renewable energy does not guarantee the continuation of democracy. With this in mind, two issues are likely to determine our energy future: the “problems of peak oil and climate breakdown” (233). In the exploration of these two issues, the “politics of calculation” are clear (235): peak oil is filled with imprecision and uncertainty, while climate change is a science which, while buffeted by political wills, survived with its legitimacy intact (234). These problems, connected but treated differently in public opinion and approach, will lead to politics different from those of today. With oil scarcity and climate change posing unique anti-democratic challenges, only through deep reflection of the political impacts of fossil fuels may we avoid our earlier pratfalls and achieve “more democratic futures” (254).