Review: Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil by Timothy Mitchell

Mitchell, Timothy (2011), Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London and New York: Verso).

In Carbon Democracy the political scientist and historian of the Middle East, Timothy Mitchell, challenges the widespread view that political systems are primarily shaped by attitudes and ideas. As the title of the book indicates, his focus is on “political power.” More specifically, he is interested in “political agency” (8) in the “socio-technical worlds” (8) that characterize the age of oil. Although the general focus on power reverberates with his earlier work on colonial Egypt, the emphasis in Carbon Democracy is less on the reality effects of modern forms of power than it is on the possibilities for political action in and through the historically specific networks of carbon energy that emerged since the late nineteenth century.This unconventional history of democracy is also a critical reflection on democratization efforts which conceptualize democracy as if it were a “carbon copy of itself” (2). The Verso published book is itself a political intervention insofar as it exposes problematic politics in the name of democracy and identifies possibilities for the exertion of political agency, the ultimate goal of which is to “re-democratise the forms of democracy” (240) that came with coal and oil.However, while Mitchell’s approach is original and rich in historical detail, there is little empirical evidence in support of his argument that the transition from coal to oil weakened workers’ political agency as a consequence of the material properties of oil and the nature of its supply networks. The “fluidity” and “flow” we associate with oil he takes for granted and turns them into metonymic devices of analysis rather than an object of historical and ethnographic investigation.

The chronologically organized book analyzes the political possibilities and limits of workers, companies, experts, and governments since the advent of massive coal extraction in the 1870s until today. As Mitchell explains in the introduction, both the possibilities and the limits of political agency were historically shaped by the “different ways of organising the flow and concentration of energy” as well as the “arrangements of people, finance, expertise and violence that were assembled in relationship to the distribution and control of energy” (8). He argues that the “dendritic” (38) nature of coal networks in Europe relieved the need for a strong class consciousness as a precondition for democratization because it provided miners with a “socio-technical agency” (27) that was grounded in the very materiality of coal and the network through which it was moved. With the systematic reorganization of energy supply from coal to oil, he argues, Europe’s left was weakened at the same time as new infrastructures of oil extraction in the Middle East proved more resistant to workers’ claims. Oil, due to the “different physical and chemical form of the carbon it contains” (36), could travel through an entirely different network. This network, Mitchell explains, required a smaller workforce, it span across seas, and it “had the properties of a grid” (38). It was more flexible and less vulnerable to political claims of workers at the same time as it gave companies more control over the resource. In keeping with the vocabulary of socio-technical worlds and agency, he ends chapter one with the observation that oil altered “the mechanics of democracy” (42).

In what follows, however, Mitchell does not offer a historical analysis of these mechanics over time as the reader might expect. Chapter two investigates more closely how in the early twentieth century sabotage (47), concessions (55), a discourse of “imperial interest” (59), and cartel formation (61) figured as company strategies to secure capital flows from Britain to the Middle East. Interestingly, Mitchell recounts that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company struggled to bring its oil onto the market because the “crude was found to contain high levels of sulphur, whose smell, along with the film it produced on glass when burned, made the oil unsuitable for use as kerosene for illumination” (59). However, rather than exploring this matter further, Mitchell mentions it in passing and immediately goes on to explain that the solution was to represent and sell the crude as a promise to fuel the Royal Navy (60). The reader learns relatively little about sulphur or the technologies of refinement and more about the politics of representation which secured capital flows from Britain to the Middle East. The “fluidity and relative lightness of oil” (37), rather than being an object of investigation, provides the general lens through which he looks at the broader political processes involved in the extraction of oil.

Perhaps inadvertently chapters three and four attest more to the relative lightness of political technologies and the fluidity of political processes than they do to the properties of oil. Chapter three explores how around the First World War the principle of “self-determination” served public diplomacy to consolidate “forms of local despotism” (80) in the Middle East and to secure access to oil and other resources. Mitchell’s point in this chapter is that the idea of democracy as a “carbon copy of itself” which “moves easily from place to place” (2) had a predecessor in the idea of self-determination during the colonial quest for oil. Chapter four shows that self-determination ultimately translated into consent to foreign occupation. And we learn that allowances played an important role in securing consent (94-5). It does not become clear, however, in what ways the politics around oil extraction differ from politics of resource extraction more broadly. Instead, Mitchell’s account is reminiscent of anthropological studies of indirect rule in contexts where oil was not necessarily at stake. A sub-section compellingly titled “Material Obligations” explains how the “doctrine of development” further stabilized the exploitation of the colonies in the name of civilization (100-101). Mitchell’s emphasis, however, is again less on the materiality of politics than on the politics around materials. What these chapters seem to suggest is that the political strategies around materials bear themselves some of the presumed properties of oil.

One of Mitchell’s most compelling claims is that “the infrastructure of oil” was also “the infrastructure of political protest” (103). But his explanation of why workers’ political agency on Middle Eastern oil plants and along pipelines was weaker than that of Europe’s coal workers does not scrutinize the infrastructure itself. Instead, he tells us more about companies’ use of “machine guns and armoured cars” (104) to fight strikes, British and U.S. support of Zionism as well as CIA involvement in the overthrow of governments (104-5). We also learn about strategies of racial segregation to “inhibit labour organising and political action” (106, see also p. 35). And in chapter seven Mitchell offers an analysis of how the energy crisis in the early 1970s was entwined with the U.S. efforts to prevent solutions to the Palestine question. But throughout these chapters we learn surprisingly little about why the material properties of oil and its infrastructures matter.

Only when referring to the French sociologist, Serge Mallet, in chapter six do we learn about a “new method of making political claims” that emerged in French refineries after “the era of the mass strike was over” (152). The reader learns that minor interventions based on an increased technical knowledge could now cause major complications. Yet, this discussion of Mallet’s interesting insights is restricted to four paragraphs and is kept at a rather general level (152-153). Instead of probing deeper into the connection between material properties of oil, its infrastructure, and the possibilities of political protest Mitchell recurs to the metonym of fluidity and restates his claim that to the advantage of companies oil enabled “more fluid processes” (154) compared to coal and thus enabled the circumvention of protest. He immediately moves on to analyze the institutionalized flows of oil and weapons, the latter of which figures prominently in his analysis of counterinsurgency. The metonym of fluidity thus tends to black-box empirical evidence for his theoretical claim that political power is related to the material properties of oil.

Although the strength of Carbon Democracy might not lie in its analysis of the materiality of politics, it provides a critical stimulus for political action by identifying possible sites of intervention. As Mitchell observes, the abundance of carbon energy in the form of oil was a crucial factor for the emergence of a new science of “prices and flows of money” (131) which saw “long-run growth as something unrestrained by the availability of energy” (140). As long as energy politics remains in the hands of economists the organizing principle of limitless growth will shape our political systems. The point which is well taken and important for political action is that political agency will depend not on an appeal to human rights and collective futures alone but must encompass a critical engagement with “the economic management of political uncertainty” (252). Since it is precisely the “gap between the declining quantity of known oil and the expanding quantity of unknown, yet-to-be-discovered oil” which creates “a space to be governed by economic calculation” (251), political agency will have to take the form of solid economic proofs that “the rate at which oil can flow … has reached a plateau” (252) and that therefore the decreasing pace and increasing cost and risk of high tech extraction will require economists to rethink the “fuel economy.” Somewhat unexpectedly but nonetheless convincingly, the book thus ends with the suggestion that political agency resides once more with the power of representation. Mitchell’s analysis thus invites us to consider strategic alliances across fields of expertise.