Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil provokes a rethinking of the relations between the human and non-human world, democracy and fuel, reality and representation, and the great divergence between East and West. Mitchell, a political theorist and scholar of contemporary political economy, discusses all of these themes within his well-researched analysis of the roles of political actors and fossil fuels in both creating opportunities and setting limits for democratic rule.
Mitchell begins his analysis by contrasting the political machinery erected by coal, and by oil. In focusing on the material composition of the fossil fuel in question, the nuanced examination is well-grounded in reality.1 The mode of governance required to use coal as a fuel involved large number of workers who mined underneath the ground, without any direct managerial supervision. Due to the solid nature and heavy weight of coal, industrialized centers were located near mines while other cities depended on railways to have coal delivered from point of production to consumption. This concentration of energy created the possibility of a general strike, an opportunity for workers to organize and mobilize against exploitation. 2 Oil, on the other hand, mandated a much different assembly of the sociotechnical world. It needed workers above the ground who relied on machinery to pump out the oil. Being fluid, it could easily be transported to established industrial centers through pipelines and sea routes. Geographically, coal as a fuel moved on a dendritic network, which workers could use to create choke points. Oil, on the other hand, moved along a grid pattern – "like an electricity network, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns." This gave oil companies enormous power to circumvent labor laws, won through decades of struggles, by registering their vessels under "flags of convenience."3 Ultimately, Mitchell concludes, coal created the mechanism through which the workers’ voices came to be heard, while oil dismantled that very "political machine."
Another major problem explored in the book is how objects of calculation, like the economy and the environment, are formulated, by whom, for what purposes, and how they can develop a life of their own. This is a continuation from Mitchell’s earlier works on the knowledge of experts. The purported role of experts was to create a closed system with an internal logic that was supposed to represent an external reality. In actuality, experts molded reality to fit their representative models. Mitchell explains how during the 1940s, an apparently limitless and cheap fuel, oil, created the opportunity for generating economic theories that had no external limits. Before the abundance of oil, economic theories were conscious of the limits of nature, whereas in the period of oil abundance, the economy was theorized as a separate sphere of existence freed from politics and nature. As Mitchell puts it, "the birth of the economy, based upon oil, made possible a form of politics that was dematerialized and de-natured."4
Subsequently, in the 1970s, experts again played a central role in creating a new object of calculation – the environment and the energy crisis. Mitchell asserts that the oil crisis of 1973 to 1974, generated by the unraveling of the political order that subjugated the oil-producing nations in the Middle East under western control, created the impetus for the neoliberal turn in economics. "As these modes of managing democratic politics weakened," Mitchell writes, "The crisis of 1973–74 was to pave the way for the elaboration of new modes of government, using the new machinery of ‘the market.’"5 The oil crisis was linked to the so-called single energy crisis by the oil companies, who with the help of Nixon administration, actively disrupted the possibilities of developing alternative fuel sources. They created a "system of ‘sabotage’ to other forms of fuel. They were to be linked together, through corporate ownership, government administration, news reporting and scholarship, as a single issue facing a collective predicament: the energy crisis."6 This change of focus to the energy crisis played a pivotal role in the creation of the environmental movement, which challenged the mainstream political worldview from the cornucopia view of nature to the limits to growth, to protecting the environment from the economy.7 As Mitchell concludes in the book’s final chapter, this conflict has only escalated, with new issues of climate change and peak oil posing challenges to political action.
A final thematic component of the book, and perhaps most relevant to current events, is concerned with the geopolitical relationship of the United States, and the western world it shaped, with the Middle-Eastern world it dominated. After Middle Eastern countries liberated themselves from the direct control of Western oil companies and formed OPEC, a new type of center-periphery relationship was formed. Mitchell explains how western political forces created this new political age of "McJihad" – "an age in which the mechanisms of what we call capitalism appear to operate, in certain critical instances, only by adopting the social force and moral authority of conservative Islamic movements."8 This subverts the "McWorld" versus "Jihad" binary popularized by Benjamin Barber, the political theorist and scholar, demonstrating that the two were in fact mutually constitutive. According to Mitchell, this age was created by the systematic repression of the secular and nationalist forces in the Middle East struggling for democracy by forming political coalitions between the western powers and local religious extremist groups. The Cold War provided further justification for this grouping, as it was seen, in the words of a CIA agent, as "a moral alliance between Christians and Muslims against the common threat of communism."9 This also created a mechanism for circling petro-dollars back to the United States through arms trade with the Middle East in the name of security.10 Ultimately, the results were that autocracies were created and sustained through the will of the democracies.
At its core, Carbon Democracy chronicles how the maneuvers of the present and machinations of the past have created certain trajectories for the future. How these trajectories are traversed, or transcended, will ultimately be decided by our collective efforts to create a new political machine for democratic struggle. The end result will determine if we rendezvous with the four horsemen of the apocalypse – conquest, war, famine, and death – or instead, as one hopes, with the four stewards of sustainability: cultural empathy, social solidarity, environmental protection, and economic equity.
1 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013), 12.
2 Ibid., 23.
3 Ibid., 38.
4 Ibid., 235.
5 Ibid., 177.
6 Ibid., 179.
7 Ibid., 188.
8 Ibid., 203.
9 Ibid., 212.
10 Ibid., 214.