Forged From Coal: How Fossil Fuels Shaped Western Democracy

With great power comes great power.

Headframe at a coal mine in Ibbenbüren, Germany. Photo by Clemens van Lay on Unsplash

“[A] great inert mass […] see current history and the tangled maze of world movements with dim, bewildered eyes, and are the inevitable dupes of the able organised interests who can lure, or scare, or drive them into any convenient course”: This is how English imperial critic John Atkinson Hobson described his fellow British citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, a moment that would later be known as the end of the First Industrial Revolution, the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution (if you agree with Jeremy Rifkin’s taxonomy), and the beginning of the end of the largest territorial empire in human history.

In a way, the world Hobson lived in 120 years ago seems very similar to the one we live in today, as we appear to be once again in the final stages of an economic era marked by social inequality and oligarchic power structures operating on a global scale. It would be tempting to conclude advanced economies inevitably breed inequality, were it not for the fact the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also included periods of relative social justice. Clearly, in certain conditions economic progress and democratisation can go hand in hand. What, then, are these conditions, and can we expect them to be met in the next stage of economic development? One possible answer has to do, quite literally, with power.

The First Industrial Revolution

Photo by Adam Bignell on Unsplash

The presence of a civic culture is often seen as the main condition for democratisation. But according to political theorist and historian Timothy Mitchell, the opposite is the case: He shows that democratisation “has often been a battle against these attitudes” as cultured elites tend to claim authority over the common people who allegedly are not sufficiently equipped to speak for themselves. The oligarchic representative governments of nineteenth-century Europe were a result of this battle, and they were not replaced by democracy before a part of the general population had acquired the power to make it so. This power, Mitchell argues, was forged not from culture, but from coal.

The First Industrial Revolution had introduced a new economic infrastructure powered by coal. This fuel, like all fossil fuels, has a much higher energy density than the renewable one most widely used before industrialisation – wood – and in the newly invented steam engine it enabled the production of the immense quantities of power required to run industrial factories and locomotives. Moreover, coal fields accessible to humans were not as widely distributed as forests but concentrated in a few locations, mainly in Europe and North America, where large-scale mining operations as well as water and railway transport systems were set up in the 1800s to harvest and supply energy in exponentially increasing amounts.

This infrastructure not only massively empowered the British Empire, which developed it first, other European countries and the United States relative to other regions of the world, but also the specialised workers such as miners, boatsmen and stokers upon whom it depended. They became powerful in the literal sense of the word as they operated the end points where the raw material for industrial power production was produced and delivered, as well as the choke points and narrow channels along which it was distributed. In other words, they controlled the flows of energy throughout the new industrial machine – and collectively, they could interrupt them to make effective political demands.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, coal miners in particular had discovered strikes and sabotage as a means of translating carbon energy into political power. From the 1870s onward, this played a pivotal role in institutionalising new forms of collective action such as labour unions and political parties under the legal orders of representative governments, and therefore in Western democratisation. Modern democracy, in this view, can be defined rather unromantically as Carbon Democracy, “a form of politics whose mechanisms on multiple levels involve the processes of producing and using carbon energy” as opposed to a direct result of cultural progress.

The Imperial Machine

Slaves cutting the sugar cane on the Island of Antigua, 1823. Image by British Library on Unsplash

The line Mitchell draws from democratisation to carbon energy does not end there. Paradoxically, it continues directly to the undemocratic practice of imperialism. Rather than mutually exclusive, Mitchell considers democracy and conquest inextricably linked due to the material requirements of the First Industrial Revolution: At the same time the surface demand of power supply plummeted due to the properties of coal, the accelerating increase in production capacity and population meant ever more land was needed to grow and manufacture industrial commodities and food. Soon, industrialised nations literally ran out of space and started looking beyond their borders to feed their economies. Obtaining required goods through trade proved to be impracticable, as non-industrial populations used most of their economic output to cover their own needs. Instead, these populations were expropriated by means of military and financial conquest, which also allowed the conquerors to keep them from industrialising themselves and increasing the global material demand even further.

Back with J. A. Hobson 120 years ago, when both democratisation and British imperialism were in full swing, we can find some indication Mitchell’s theory of Carbon Democracy may be accurate – not because Hobson believed in it, of course (he would be dead 70 years before Carbon Democracy’s publication and referred to the idea of advanced economies dependent on imperialism as a “popular delusion”), but because it offers a better explanation of his observations than the one he gave at the time.

In Hobson’s eyes, imperialism was entirely avoidable as its root cause was “not industrial progress […] but mal-distribution of consuming power”, that is, income inequality. This led to pathological overproduction and underconsumption, which in turn caused the economic elites to look for new opportunities to invest surplus capital and open up new markets abroad. They created these opportunities by using their influence on politics and the press to sway public opinion in favour of imperialist expansion. Imperialism was profitable especially for the financial sector, as it was publicly financed, enabled the floating of new companies and caused volatility in the stock market.

However accurate Hobson’s analysis of capital flows in the British Empire may have been, he did not offer a convincing explanation as to why they were dependent on an imperialist, protectionist foreign policy. He admitted himself that investing in and trading with other countries does not require conquering them, and that leaving them to other imperialist, protectionist nations does not remove one’s own opportunities for investment and trade. The fact the foreign policies of the time directly contradicted this logic was shrugged off by him as a result of the ineptitude of nationalist leaders who thought it “reasonable that […] we should take the same means” as rival nations and were “convinced that only by such separate increments [of territorial acquisitions] can the aggregate of our trade grow”. Hobson even alleged the same ineptitude was the reason the United States “suddenly broke through a conservative policy, strongly held by both political parties, bound up with every popular instinct and tradition, and flung itself into a rapid imperial career” during its unprecedented economic expansion.

By looking at the matter from a purely financial and ideological perspective, Hobson neglected colonial territories’ immense material value, most of which could only be accessed by means of expropriation and suppression of industrialisation efforts. This is not to say, of course, that finance was without influence; it rather seems more adequate to look at it not as “the governor of the imperial engine” but as another mode of invasion. Hobson inadvertently admitted the same in quoting Italian economist Achille Loria, who equated the appointment of financial commissions in debtor countries to “guard the fate of […] invested capital” to conquest.

The Second Industrial Revolution

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

With the Second Industrial Revolution, oil replaced coal as the primary raw material for powering the economy. Once again, the ways in which this raw material could be produced and distributed required erecting a new infrastructure to supply energy for economic activity: Oil is pumped by small workforces in remote locations from where, thanks to its liquid form, it can be transported to its target destinations in very large quantities and by different means. According to Mitchell, these means of transport function like an electricity grid where, when one path is closed, there is always another one to take – unlike the canals and railways along which coal was distributed in the First Industrial Revolution. Oil tankers, for example, are frequently diverted to different destinations when they are already at sea, and they often leave port before their destinations have been determined at all. Oil pipelines, on the other hand, are rigid but have been designed specifically to avoid human interference.

These properties and the fact oil production and transport frequently take place or are intentionally placed outside democratic jurisdiction, Mitchell asserts, severely diminished workers’ ability to make effective political claims by interrupting flows of energy. (Ironically, these flows were soon getting interrupted by the oil industry in its own interest, as it learned to use sabotage to produce scarcity and drive up the oil price.) The last major advance in the democratisation of work regimes in the United States was made after the Second World War, when national labour unions were established following a nation-wide strike across the oil, coal, electrical power, iron and steel, railway and automobile sectors. It was a concession made by industrialists to avoid the more sweeping changes proposed by the labour movement, and cemented much of the power relations between capital and labour in the Second Industrial Revolution. Other Western economies soon followed suit as the U. S. model was exported to post-war Europe as part of the Marshall Plan, along with the conversion from coal to oil.

The Third Industrial Revolution

A house in Nunspeet, the Netherlands. Photo by Margot Polinder on Unsplash

If democracy depends on carbon energy and imperialism, what does this mean for our present and future? Can today’s ‘data colonialism’ and the asymmetries of power it creates be considered another chapter in the same story? Will democracy disappear if we manage to transition to a zero-carbon economy in time to avert planetary collapse? Jeremy Rifkin argues in The Third Industrial Revolution digitisation combined with highly decentralised power production from renewable energies will itself have a democratising effect, as marginal costs decrease to near zero and more and more physical and digital products and services can be offered and shared for free outside the market. Large, vertically integrated corporations will be replaced by networks of cooperatives and small and mid-sized companies that collaborate flexibly and highly efficiently, thanks to a universally accessible data commons. In such a system of laterally distributed power, opportunities and risks would be shared relatively evenly, with no actor being able to interrupt energy flows for their own gain. But would it still be democratically governed? If yes, I am sure Timothy Mitchell would be happy to define democracy differently.

This article is based on the author’s essay originally published at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München.

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