Those of us who try to keep up with things have piles of books on the key subjects of the day - "global warming", "end of oil", "neoliberalism" or "Islamic extremism". The books in each of these categories all have their particular cast of characters; storyline; prescriptions; and prejudices. But, like ships that pass in the night, they steer clear of (and rarely reference) one another.
I’ve just finished a rare book which aims to connect the dots between these categories – it’s Carbon Democracy – political power in the age of oil (2013) and a stunning bit of work whose provocative historical insights turn upside down many of our preconceptions
The use of coal and oil in the context of industrialization has always been about who has the power to profit from the surplus these energy forms produce, but until now, no one has pulled the various historical details together into a historical narrative laying bare the fascinating power dynamics behind the rise of Western political systems and their relationship with energy. Carbon Democracy is an examination of our civilization’s 400 hundred year use of carbon-based energy fueling sources, and the political systems that grew up intertwined with them. Rather than presenting energy and democracy as separate things, like a battery and a device, Mitchell discusses the political architecture of the Western world and the developing world as inherently tied to fuelling sources.
The thesis is that elites have always sought to maximize not the amount of energy they could extract and use, but the profit stream from those energy sources. They struggled to ensure they would be able to burn carbon and profit, without having to rely on the people who extract and burned it for them. Carbon-based fuels thus cannot be understood except in the context of labour, imperialism and democracy.
This book is a response to David Yergen’s The Prize: The Epic Question for Oil, Money, and Power, a classic story of hardy entrepreneurs taking huge risks to find oil in the most remote places. Yergen’s narrative centers on oil scarcity, and its contributions to economic growth in a capitalist framework. Oil is, to Yergen, the prize, solving the key problem of how to supply enough energy for a modern consumer society with a flexible and inexpensive fuel source.
In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell has a counterintuitive take on oil, one that after a while, makes much more sense than Yergen’s. Mitchell points out that the problem of oil has never, until recently, been that it is a scarce commodity, but that it is a surplus commodity. We had too much of it. And the central problem that this created was now how to find more of it, but how to ensure that oil cartels profiting from high oil prices could make sure that very few new oil finds, especially from the massive fields in the Middle East, came online.
Far from a hardy band of entrepreneurs searching for more oil, the story of oil is one of parasitic cartels manipulating governments and inventing concepts like mandates, self-determination, and national security to ensure they could retain high profits selling a widely available commodity. But Mitchell takes the story much deeper than Yergen did, because Yergen’s book is fundamentally a fairy tale that skirts over questions of labor and colonialism.
Mitchell goes back before the widespread use of oil, to the industrialization of England and England’s use of carbon-based fuels, like forests, peat, and coal. Industrialization demanded two seemingly contradictory factors – huge new tracts of land to grow industrial raw materials like cotton and high energy food crops like sugar, and far more centralized urban centres for manufacturing. What happened, of course, is that England simply acquired colonies with large land tracts overseas, using slave labour to harvest necessary commodities, while becoming an urban society in its core areas. Eventually, England began using coal to fuel its economy, leading to substantial economic growth and imperial strength.
Coal, though, presented a challenge to the governing elites, since the characteristics of coal, with its labour intensive extraction methods, were quite vulnerable to strikes. Coal was hard to transport, and miners operated underground in a collaborative manner. Once on the surface, coal had to be moved by fixed networks of trains. There were multiple bottlenecks here, and in the late 19th century, for the first time, the energy system of the industrialized world was reliant on workers who could withhold their labour and block a key resource. This translated directly into political power.
As Mitchell put it, “Coal miners played a leading role in contesting work regimes and the private powers of employers in the labour activism and political mobilisation of the 1880s and onward. Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry, tobacco manufacturing.” The coal industry was the key radicalizing force in bringing democracy to the Western world…….
Mitchell is a British born political scientist and student of the Arab world. He is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University having previously been Professor of Politics at New York University. When he arrived in the United States in 1977 to start a Ph.D. in Politics at Princeton, he was
"surprised to discover that the Politics Department at Princeton was teaching the same old positivism. I was interested in the politics of the Arab world, having traveled there several times, so I evaded political science by taking courses in Middle Eastern history and Arabic language and spent three of the next six years studying and researching in Cairo”.
He’s also the author of Rule of Experts – Egypt, technopolitics, modernity (2002) and it’s this background which helps give his study of “Carbon Democracy” such great originality…The book has an amazing historical sweep but gives us chapter and verse on aspects of the various turning points of the developments of coal and oil in Britain and America which tend to remain hidden from view in most accounts….. And what a wonderful title - "carbon democracy", with all its connotations of institutional aping...The excerpts are from the long review the blogsite “Naked Capitalism” gave the book in 2012
Flowing through the narrative is the question of imperialism and neo-imperialism. A variety of ideological mechanisms, such as the self-determination ostensibly preached by Woodrow Wilson, were in fact ways for Western oil consuming states to control and slow the flow of oil from poorer but oil rich countries.
Mitchell shows how Palestinian strikes at oil installations in the late 1930s led Britain to support a Jewish state in the area, and how American mining engineers helped craft the apartheid regime in South Africa.
At the same time, aggressive left-wing parties in the British parliament sought to combat imperialism, because they understood that imperialism abroad was meant to break the power of British labor – in particular coal mining – at home. Mitchell pays particular attention to the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles and the period of negotiations after World War II to set up an international management framework. The League of Nations, he writes, “was to be an economic mechanism to replace, not war between states, but its taproot – the conflict over material resources.”
In addition to what would become the World Bank and IMF, Keynes wanted to establish an international body to manage commodities, including and especially oil. While no institution was ever set up to do this, a framework of national security and “the Cold War” managed to keep Middle Eastern and Russian offline for a long period of time. In addition, the oil companies used public relations to encourage a high oil consumption lifestyle in the United States, so as to keep the price of oil as high as possible. In Europe, Mitchell encourages a revised view of the Marshall plan, as a joint European and American elite plan to break European labor power. It’s a particularly interesting way to interpret the rise of the European Union, one deeply at odds with thinkers like George Soros who see the EU as a success of far sighted visionaries who sought to to build an “open society”.
Mitchell cites American intervention in post-WWII European economic and political arrangements as evidence. Three years later, after rapid inflation caused real wages to collapse, coal miners joined a series of strikes demanding that the government increase pay levels or extend food rations… Rather than yield to these claims, France and other European governments turned to the United States. Keen to promote their new corporate management model abroad (and to have Washington subsidise their exports), American industrialists used a fear of the popularity of Communist parties in Western Europe to win support for postwar aid to Europe. ‘The Communists are rendering us a great service’, commented the future French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France. ‘Because we have a “Communist danger” the Americans are making a tremendous effort to help us….
The European Coal and Steel Community, established as a first step towards the political union of Europe, reduced competition in the coal industry and supported the mechanisation of production, with funds provided to alleviate the effects of the resulting pit closures and unemployment. The United States helped finance the programme, which reduced the ability of coal miners to carry out effective strikes by rapidly reducing their numbers and facilitating the supply of coal across national borders. The third element was the most extensive. The US funded initiatives to convert Europe’s energy system from one based largely on coal to one increasingly dependent on oil.