Book Club

The Chair read for you Carbon Democracy, Political power in the age of oil fromTimothy Mitchell

Published on 16 July 2019

Based on considerable historical work, Carbon Democracy’s thesis is original and provocative: the impossibility of thinking about democracy without thinking about fossil fuels. Indeed, for Timothy Mitchell, Professor at Columbia University, it is through the ‘agencement’ (or ‘assemblage’) relating to these sources that modern democracy has evolved, both in terms of its promotion and its limitation. Thus, the author traces the story of this nexus democracy-fossils, from the 18th century to the present day, in Western and Middle East countries.

This saga begins by supporting the way in which democracy has been (re)built and disseminated in Europe through coal mining. The dynamism of this ‘democratic machine’ was the result of a combination of engines and humans, providing the latter with a sabotage capability. In fact, workers in the coal sector (miners, railway workers, dockworkers, etc.) had the means to block, slow down or divert the production-distribution flow of this energy, and they used it to get their democratic claims accepted.

Later, the reorganization of the relationships between work and energy was achieved through the increasing use of oil. It was in particular the Marshall Plan that boosted European integration through shared production of coal. The use of oil has been stimulated by various techniques, such as the introduction of an energy-intensive lifestyle or the diversification of petroleum-based products (particularly in agriculture and synthetic materials).

As oil mining is more automated than coal mining, workers’ sabotage capabilities have become more limited. In a way, oil companies have regained control over the sabotage technique, thus regaining control over the production-distribution chain. The purpose of these firms was not to develop new sources but to slow their development, in order to create and to maintain a scarcity of access to this energy, which was becoming economically vital for both countries exporters than importers.

From the 1960s onwards, the producing states of the Middle east forced these companies to distribute an increased share of their profits. To balance the payments and maintain financial stability, the United States (as well as some European countries) have recycled these petrodollars (the sterling, the franc) through the sale of weapons to producing countries. A rhetoric of insecurity has been developed to justify these exchanges. Perpetuating instability in the Middle East has allowed oil companies and Western governments, but also local governments protected by the latter, to maintain their political and energy power and to contain any democratic claim to the east and the west.

Also, the ‘oil shocks’ of the 1970s are reviewed in the light of collusion between oil companies and the US government to drive oil prices up. This trajectory has allowed the United States to ease pressure on the dollar, weaken the European and Japanese economies, to open new domestic hydrocarbon operations, and to continue the weapons trade. However, it was necessary to fight against the potential shift to alternative sources (natural gas, nuclear power) because their relative prices tended to be lower than oil prices. Oil companies have found a surprising solution to keep their product competitive: to impulse environmental movements, especially anti-nuclear.

Timothy Mitchell uses a Foucaldian conceptual framework mixed with actor-network theory, whose attention is focus on the governing techniques used by oil companies and public authorities. It also shows that the role of the hydrocarbon and armaments industries is fundamental in the progressive structuring of the globalized capitalist economy. In conclusion, the British historian notes that today political mobilization is much more focused on climate than on oil. For him, it would be wise to include the latter in a debate, a sociotechnical controversy. Finally, he considers that the combined resolution of the democratic shortcomings and the environmental perils is possible through the renewed reunion of democracy and technocracy.

Raphaël Olivier, Research Fellow on “The performativity of corporate carbon pricing”

[1] Mitchell, Timothy, (2013), Carbon Democracy, Political power in the age of oil, Verso, London, New York, 12£99.