“Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil” A conversation with Timothy Mitchell

Timothy Mitchell is Professor and Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.

He discussed his new book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, describing how oil dependency shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy.



“Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil” – A Conversation with Timothy Mitchell

Timothy Mitchell, professor and chair of the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University delivered remarks on his new book, “Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.” His talk focused on the relationship between fossil fuels. Specifically, Mitchell asserted how coal created the possibility of modern democracy, while oil is now limiting and in many ways hindering modern democracy. Fossil fuels could also be connected to the Arab Spring. For instance, he argued that one could draw a map of the Middle East by oil revenue and based on whether this revenue was rising or declining would manifest in a map of the Arab Spring.

Mitchell asked why democracy and fossil fuels have always been seen as mutually exclusive entities. He asserted that carbon energy and modern democratic politics are intrinsically tied together. Consequently, as strains on the availability of carbon energy continue to rise, so will pressures on democracy. According to his research, new discoveries of oil cannot keep up with demand. Three million barrels per day are needed just to keep production levels at bay. In a historical context, more than half of the oil consumed in the last 150 years has been burned in the three decades since 1980. As oil deposits become more costly and more difficult to access, the amount of energy and money needed to extract oil will inevitably continue to reduce the supply.

Initially, carbon energy and democracy developed and rose together. Industrial regions were situated near the few large stores of coal reserves, and labor movements organized around the rights of coal miners, for instance, who played a leading role in challenging power dynamics between the state and its citizens. In 1926, the General Strike took place when workers were able to exploit the vulnerability brought on by Britain’s dependence on coal. However, as industrialized states gradually shifted from a reliance on coal to a reliance on oil, so shifted the state’s power dynamics. Mitchell cited an example from 1945 during a strike at a Standard Oil refinery in Michigan, where corporate America accepted the existence of unions but granted them very limited roles. In essence, workers were denied a democratic role in the workplace. This corporate model was exported to Europe through the Marshall Plan after World War II and undermined the power of the left in Western Europe, as Europe shifted from coal to oil.

Why does energy type matter? According to Mitchell, there are a few reasons for these differences: oil, as opposed to coal, requires a smaller workforce; oil extraction is done by workers on the surface as opposed to coal, and therefore they are under constant supervision; oil transport through the use of pipelines and oil tankers eliminated the need for railway energy transport; and lastly, oil could be easily shipped across oceans as opposed to coal, creating a world market that essentially outsourced energy production. Because Western states no longer needed to rely on extraction from their own limited deposits and workforce, they were granted with a lot greater flexibility. The power of organized labor was limited because they could no longer take advantage of the state’s vulnerability as they did during the era of a reliance on coal.

Even for oil producers, the shift to an increasingly globalized market was not necessarily a positive development, at least initially. Because oil could be transported easily, petroleum companies were much more vulnerable to foreign competition. In fact, many oil companies sought to prevent the development of oil in the Middle East out of fear of foreign competition. The desire to keep Middle East production low led to an apparatus of “peacetime national security,” whereby U.S. oil companies convinced the government to grant Saudi Arabia Lend-Lease loans to compensate them for not producing oil. This marked the start of a relationship by which Saudi collaboration in restricting the flow of oil was organized as though it were a system for “protecting” the oil against others. The United States also restricted available energy by cultivating a culture of high carbon energy consumption. When the first U.S. Secretary of Defense noted in 1948 that without Middle Eastern oil, car companies would need to create smaller engines, car manufacturers responded by rolling out the 6-cylinder and then the V8 engine. While European manufacturers created four, two, and even one cylinder engines, American society’s new carbon-addiction ensured that the oil supply remained scarce enough so as not to impede on the profits of the oil companies.

Mitchell asserted that as the United States came to grips with the rise in foreign carbon energy sources, U.S. companies began to focus on producing a market fit for oil consumption, where oil became, as Mitchell put it, an “adjunct” industry. As an analogy, he described the way companies like Apple outsource the construction of their devices while developing the products that use these devices in the United States. Other changes that occurred as a result of oil affected the world economy, particularly after the Bretton Woods conference. According to Mitchell, oil contributed to the concept of the economy as an object of politics, something that, like oil, could seemingly grow without limits. As this economy grew and as oil consumption increase, this marriage created demand for something that the United States was particularly adept at producing: weapons, the new partner of oil. As a result of the Nixon Doctrine, there was a new justification for arms sales as a means of arming groups and states that sought to contain the spread of communism. Mitchell described how this partnership was based on the idea that weapons, like oil, could seemingly never be used up.

Mitchell concluded his presentation with the assertion that a lot of hard work went into creating U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The possibilities of the spread of democracy depend on how the world deals with the passing of the age of oil. With this passing, how can the United States convince oligarchs to still depend on it?