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Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It 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. Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called “the economy” and the promise of its infinite growth. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East. In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order. In making the production of energy the central force shaping the democratic age, Carbon Democracy rethinks the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the place of the Middle East in our common world.


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Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It 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. Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called “the economy” and the promise of its infinite growth. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East. In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order. In making the production of energy the central force shaping the democratic age, Carbon Democracy rethinks the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the place of the Middle East in our common world.

30 review for Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

  1. 4 out of 5

    Uuu Ooo Bbb

    The book has some valuable and interesting observations about the history of fossil fuel economy and the middle east. It has some important flaws as well. It gives carbon energy too much importance in the history, and achieves that by omitting what doesn't fit it's narrative from the discussion. The examples here would be importance of colonialism, slave trade and plantation economy as the economic base of early capitalist economy, the contemporary existence of millions of people in slums across The book has some valuable and interesting observations about the history of fossil fuel economy and the middle east. It has some important flaws as well. It gives carbon energy too much importance in the history, and achieves that by omitting what doesn't fit it's narrative from the discussion. The examples here would be importance of colonialism, slave trade and plantation economy as the economic base of early capitalist economy, the contemporary existence of millions of people in slums across the world, in high density urban environments which are neither determined nor benefiting from carbon energy flows, the lack of discussion of coal mining and other resource mining outside the west and explanation why that did not lead to emergence of mass working class democracy like it did in the West. The narrative is centered on the West and the USA. The bulk of the book is concerned with the Middle East but it's mostly discussed as an area where the western governments and corporation compete, where Western ideas play out, it barely ever appears as the subject on it's own. Even in the chapter on emergence of sovereign Arab states, there are many more Western politicians discussed than Arab. The Palestinian independence never appears as an issue on it's own, only as a factor in destabilising local politics and ensuring oil shortage. The 1973 Arab war only exists as a factor in development of American militarism. The result is an view on the history of the Middle East that is often insightful and eye opening, but fragmented and subordinated to the history of the West.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    The Middle East unveils the true nature of capitalism, but falls short of democracy [Through my ratings, reviews and edits I'm providing intellectual property and labor to Amazon.com Inc., listed on Nasdaq, which fully owns Goodreads.com and in 2013 posted revenues for $74 billion and $274 million profits. Intellectual property and labor require compensation. Amazon.com Inc. is also requested to provide assurance that its employees and contractors' work conditions meet the highest health and saf The Middle East unveils the true nature of capitalism, but falls short of democracy [Through my ratings, reviews and edits I'm providing intellectual property and labor to Amazon.com Inc., listed on Nasdaq, which fully owns Goodreads.com and in 2013 posted revenues for $74 billion and $274 million profits. Intellectual property and labor require compensation. Amazon.com Inc. is also requested to provide assurance that its employees and contractors' work conditions meet the highest health and safety standards at all the company's sites.] Mitchell offers what he knows about the history of the Middle East, the oil business, and economics as a discipline, to interpret the history of the West - and a thing called capitalism for want of better terms - since the mid-nineteenth century. The result is brilliant, almost encyclopedic, of a philosophical quality - and blew me away. The book is not an organic whole though, but a collection of philosphical fragments or “archaeologies”, in the sense of Michel Foucault – as Nick has pointed out – stitched together as if this were a standard university publisher's book. The most revealing archaeologies (to me) are those dedicated to - the examination of the linkage between the organisation of the coal industry in Great Britain and the success of workers' claims - the quest for oil in the Middle East as a mechanism for “producing scarcity” and for maximising rents from existing oil fields - the analysis of the evolution of trade union relations in the US - the Marshall Plan, as the US-engineered switch of the European economy to oil dependence and US-style union relations - the birth of “the economy” as a technocratic device aimed at controlling politics and any “excess of democracy”, and money as a veil between politics and the nuts and bolts of our societies - the Bretton Woods monetary system as the companion to the newly engineered oil dependence of Western economies - the 1973 oil crisis as the mother of all manufactured crises to come - the long-term maintainance of unresolved conflicts as a strategy of planned instability in the Middle East. But what really struck me above all as the revelation of a truly stable feature of the West and capitalism is the carefully unburied notion that “development” has always meant, and will always mean, “separate development”, i.e. the idea that no equal footing is acceptable – ever – between the West and the rest. This notion has an explanatory power that beats the explanatory potential of any of the other masterfully researched archaeologies. The West is determined to kick away the ladder (in the sense of Ha Joon Chang) and is prepared to do whatever illogical actions to maintain an unequal status quo. I do not think though that this book says much about democracy and its future. And it is unable to do so because it fails to incorporate “in the equation” two variables that to me are absolutely critical: state and consumption. State defined – like in a videogame – as that thing that provides roads, railways, schools, hospitals, law courts, armies, police, electricity grids and much other infrastructure that is liable to sabotage, so that the government can be blackmailed by the protesting workers into yielding to their claims. Consumption as energy turned into wellbeing (liable to sabotage too), equal access to which is the goal of all the protests. Failing to notice that as oil companies delayed the construction of railways in Iraq at the beginning of the last century they were not so much manufacturing scarcity but delaying the advent of a state in the modern sense and consumption for all, is a glaring weakness of the book. The coal workers in Great Britain lived in an electrified world, where mobility and the mechanized production of goods that workers had the possibility to consume was made possible by the sudden availabiliy of coal-fired power. Railways and the electricity grid had been built by an efficient state, and could be sabotaged. Mitchell has a glimpse of the importance of access to carbon-based consumption and the development of state infrastructure for the formation of democracy when he mentions the demonstrations of the Electrical Utility Workers Union in Iraq in 2010, protesting because people had only intermittent electricity supply to their houses. Says Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi, leader of the union: “If people are desperate enough, the government believes they'll accept anything to get electricity, including privatization”. (Sherwood Ross, Union-busting in Iraq, Counterpunch, 19 October 2010). In 2012 the situation of the grid had not improved. This is a contemporary example of how the “separate development” programme is still alive and kicking a century later in Iraq and how the maintenance of a non-state (or rogue state) is key to the prevention of development (and therefore democracy). In marxist terms, Mitchell repeats that capitalism is weak, and does not possess a logic of its own. To the contrary, the book explains very well that the logic of separate development - both across and within societies, in the form of inequality - is its guiding force and strength, along with a fundamental hatred of democracy that other forces in society attempt to counter.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    This book is well worth reading, though I still question the amount of emphasis placed on energy as *the* basis of democracy/capitalism. Mitchell nevertheless makes a strong argument for the influence of oil companies and associated representational-disciplinary entities on destruction of labor and creation of a "limitless resource" economic representation while at the same time limiting production of oil so as to retain profits. Mitchell is a Foucauldian complement to David Harvey's Marxism, in This book is well worth reading, though I still question the amount of emphasis placed on energy as *the* basis of democracy/capitalism. Mitchell nevertheless makes a strong argument for the influence of oil companies and associated representational-disciplinary entities on destruction of labor and creation of a "limitless resource" economic representation while at the same time limiting production of oil so as to retain profits. Mitchell is a Foucauldian complement to David Harvey's Marxism, in that both offer coherent sets of specifics (Aramco, Eisenhower and others for Mitchell; Lewis Powell and others for Harvey; and the right-wing think tanks for both) in support of their arguments. As a result, though their basic epistemological perspectives are quite divergent, both Mitchell in this book and Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism provide important narratives about the individuals and groups that support, represent and seek to underpin corporate exploitation. Mitchell's approach to Foucauldian analysis is also much more informed by Latour's anthropological (actor-network) notions than for example the more discursive micro-disciplinary approaches of Deleuze and Guattari, Gibson-Graham and even James Ferguson (Anti-Politics Machine and Global Shadows) or Tania Murray Li (The Will to Improve). Discourse/representation and governmenality are more closely associated with violence than micro-structures of self-discipline. Thus, there is more space for resistance. In addition, there is more space to discuss collective organization of labor.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bart

    If only I could have read this book 40 years ago! This is certainly one of the best books I've read on history, economics, ecology or politics. Forty years ago when I was a student of the philosophy of economics, I was stymied. I could not find any solid foundation for economics, and the Sioux medicine man Lame Deer seemed to have it right in summarizing the "green frog-skin world" of the American dollar as an illusion. But this illusion clearly had immense power over the whole world, and I thoug If only I could have read this book 40 years ago! This is certainly one of the best books I've read on history, economics, ecology or politics. Forty years ago when I was a student of the philosophy of economics, I was stymied. I could not find any solid foundation for economics, and the Sioux medicine man Lame Deer seemed to have it right in summarizing the "green frog-skin world" of the American dollar as an illusion. But this illusion clearly had immense power over the whole world, and I thought even an illusion must have some foundation in reality, something that gave the illusion its power. But nothing I read or thought could explain the remarkable strength and staying power of the illusion of the American economy, and I eventually gave up on economics and tried to put the riddle out of my mind. Carbon Democracy offers a detailed explanation of this and many other riddles. For the first time in my historical studies, I read about the origin of the concept of "the economy", in the years shortly before my birth. "The economy", Timothy Mitchell explains, was based on the sudden abundance of fossil-fuel energy, a resource that was seen as so nearly infinite that there was no need to even account for its gradual depletion. Instead, "the economy" became a system of money flows which could grow infinitely, unhindered by the sort of physical limits encountered in what humans used to consider reality. In the halycon days of the fossil-fuel fiesta, the workings of "the economy" could be calculated as purely mathematical flows of numbers, aka dollars, which became completely detached from any physical foundation. Just a couple of generations later, of course, the infinite supply of oil has proven to be mythical. Today a society and empire that ran on an abundant but finite energy nears collapse. Meanwhile the esteemed profession of economics, which pretended that the society ran on pure disembodied dollars, blew itself up spectacularly in the sub-prime loans bubble, and is now performing equally well partway through the subprime resource bubble of shale gas, shale oil and diluted bitumen. Carbon Democracy is not an easy read. The history is detailed and well documented. Sometimes the language is highly abstract, particularly when discussing the almost perfectly abstract "science of economics". Nevertheless the story Mitchell tells is refreshingly down to earth and thoroughly rooted in the realities of geology, technology, and human interaction. It is a slow read, simply because Mitchell re-writes so much of the history of the last 200 years. To cop a phrase from Marx, rather than turning economics upside down, Mitchell sets economics on its feet.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Yates Buckley

    A historical review of fossil fuel economics and politics, which for the most part presents a complex system of relationships and stakeholders (not to mention exploitative mechanics). For me, the interesting core of the book is near the end where considerations that look at how post carbon economy may not be as compatible with democratic governance as is commonly thought. Also the relationship between authority in religion and globalisation and how this may come to crisis. Curious reframing of man A historical review of fossil fuel economics and politics, which for the most part presents a complex system of relationships and stakeholders (not to mention exploitative mechanics). For me, the interesting core of the book is near the end where considerations that look at how post carbon economy may not be as compatible with democratic governance as is commonly thought. Also the relationship between authority in religion and globalisation and how this may come to crisis. Curious reframing of many commonly held perspectives. In a nutshell the exploitation of “inexpensive” energy drived a bubble around the western economies and a global democratic system and environmental damage. Now we may have to pay a price for this which will drive different politics.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    Mitchell seeks to show how the actual physical infrastructure of oil - the coal mines in the 19th and early 20th centuries; oil pumps, pipes and ships, influenced the development of modern democracy and capitalism. Although a lot of his argument focuses on oil in the Middle East, I think his argument is strongest in its first portion, where he shows how the methods of coal mining in England - with independent teams of miners working in pairs hauling coal to a rail infrastructure with just a few Mitchell seeks to show how the actual physical infrastructure of oil - the coal mines in the 19th and early 20th centuries; oil pumps, pipes and ships, influenced the development of modern democracy and capitalism. Although a lot of his argument focuses on oil in the Middle East, I think his argument is strongest in its first portion, where he shows how the methods of coal mining in England - with independent teams of miners working in pairs hauling coal to a rail infrastructure with just a few "choke points" in the caes of a strike - created conditions that helped lead to 20th century labor organization and with it, the modern form of democracy.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kai

    really compelling, especially the early chapters that examine how oil became more politically useful than coal. the manufacturing of the energy crisis was also meticulously examined. the conclusion and afterword were strangely soft and left me wanting more. nonetheless, this book will become a standard for geographers and anyone interested in oil, energy, and the infrastructure of capitalist politics.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Presents a very well-made argument for considering the emergence of hydrocarbon fuel sources and the fight for control of those resources as central to the rise of the urbanization, the modern welfare state, the political violence of the 20th century, and the contemporary globalized market economy.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Leif

    It is nearly impossible to understand contemporary world-political systems without investigating into the relationship between democracies, energy capitalism, and governmentality's powers – as Mitchell does here so well. Please, read this. It is nearly impossible to understand contemporary world-political systems without investigating into the relationship between democracies, energy capitalism, and governmentality's powers – as Mitchell does here so well. Please, read this.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jesse Gwilliam

    A strong case for a materialist recount of the politics of the 20th century and the origins to our neoliberal hegemonic theory in economics. Mitchell starts by formulating the importance that congealed energy, such as coal, is part of a long process through which solar energy's constant beating down on the Earth in an ostensibly infinite manner is concentratedly stored. This access to the concentrated energy within coal allowed for a dramatic change in society. Now, what was once a diffuse and v A strong case for a materialist recount of the politics of the 20th century and the origins to our neoliberal hegemonic theory in economics. Mitchell starts by formulating the importance that congealed energy, such as coal, is part of a long process through which solar energy's constant beating down on the Earth in an ostensibly infinite manner is concentratedly stored. This access to the concentrated energy within coal allowed for a dramatic change in society. Now, what was once a diffuse and very difficult to capture thing could be easily exploited allowing for the industrial era to begin. With the discovery of concentrated energy within fossil fuels, politics began to be centered around this energy. Mitchell takes a materialist approach to the formation of politics in the 20th century. He claims that democracy did not arise from some ideal virtuous goodness of the people in some enlightenment type turn. Rather, in the dark and dirty caverns of coal mines where workers were extremely agent, and dangerously unsupervised did democracy begin to become a powerful political force. In the bowels of the earth where the working people toiled retrieving the life force of the world's largest empire did democracy come to life. In these tight quarters and lacking effective authority to discipline the workers realized their own strength. And here Mitchell notes does it become effective for the world to be run on oil rather than coal. With oil, there lacked the geographic concentration of agent workers to be able to halt the global system of energy that the world now ran on. Mitchell has a powerful knowledge of the Middle East and proves he did his research into the complex topic of oil and presents novel interpretations to many mainstream portrayals of MENA region politics and the obvious "resource curse". In agreement with the critique that perhaps Mitchell takes a "carboncentric" view to the development of the global world, he provides great evidence for his argument, and he contends in the conclusion that he does not intend to create the image of some deterministic result of carbon politics in the Neoliberal order. And indeed his tracking of the economic turn to neoliberal economics is an intriguing argument and is worth the reread to understand if not the reason for the strength of neoliberal theory, then atleast a powerful contributing factor. I would recommend this book to most as it is very accessible. And paints an interesting argument that could help explain our current world.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Melissa McHugh

    Timothy Mitchell’s book attempted to deconstruct the idea of democracy as it applied to the world in the twentieth century, specifically how countries that depended on carbon as an essential resource (coal, then oil) used the idea and concept of democracy to control that resource. He began his argument with the nineteenth century in Britain and the importance of coal to the rise of working-class demands for political rights before moving to an analysis of the development of the oil industry in Timothy Mitchell’s book attempted to deconstruct the idea of democracy as it applied to the world in the twentieth century, specifically how countries that depended on carbon as an essential resource (coal, then oil) used the idea and concept of democracy to control that resource. He began his argument with the nineteenth century in Britain and the importance of coal to the rise of working-class demands for political rights before moving to an analysis of the development of the oil industry in the Middle East and the uncertain future the industry faces today. Mitchell argued that the fight to dominate this resource did more to shape the twentieth century than almost any other factor, and that the United States, as well as other Western countries, twisted the idea of democracy to fit their demands for oil. This book takes on way too many topics over too long a period to be succinctly and well argued in two hundred and sixty-seven pages. Mitchell took on not only the rise of the working class demands of the nineteenth century, but two world wars, the creation of the post-war order, and the crisis (conjured or not) of the 1970. The relationship between either coal and oil in any of these topics could have constituted a volume of research of their own. Because Mitchell attempted all of them, none of these topics are given any space to breathe. As a result, his analysis is superficial at best, and often, skewed to make his point. There is no doubt that coal and steam engines fundamentally changed the British world, creating conditions for the first Industrial Revolution, but to suggest that it is this development that accounts for the rise of the working class ignores all the foundation laid by earlier generations. Great Britain’s evolution in the area of representation is unique in the developed world—over a long period of three hundred years, they reformed their own government and relocated power from aristocracy to the common people without a civil war, without organized violence. It had taken those things to wrest control from the monarchy (half a century of turmoil in the English Civil War, the Restoration of 1660, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688). After 1688, however, Parliament fought an internal battle to keep the power for themselves. They fought against the idea of representation, against the idea that the power in the country flowed from the people who put them into office (at least in the commons). For Parliament, sovereignty was theirs. It was not given to them. By the end of the eighteenth century, common men who lacked the right to vote were vociferously arguing that the power came from them, and they deserved parliamentary reform. When studying British history, it is incredibly reductive to simply point to the Industrial Revolution as the pivotal turning point that led to the demand for political rights and mass politics in the nineteenth century. Yes, steam engines created the conditions for factories and increased the rate of urbanization that been happening more slowly over time, but it is a mistake to give so much of the credit of the working-class consciousness to industrial capacity because all that did was create low-paying jobs and poverty on a larger scale. A more influential development was the trading revolution a century earlier. By the mid-eighteenth century, Great Britain had become a trading power, and it was merchants who benefited first. Rich merchants and traders acquired a new way of life with new paths to education and new opportunities. Some merchants married into the aristocracy, some were given titles of their own, and still others stayed common and agitated for something they did not yet have—representation in Parliaments. The boroughs of Parliament had not kept up with increase and many larger cities went unrepresented while uninhabited places had two representatives. This was the key to demanding political rights because once merchants began demanding their share, those who worked for them began to think of themselves as deserving as well. In Mitchell’s own words, the importance of coal was not felt until the end of the eighteenth century, but political conscious already existed. The French Revolution did not just happen in France—it transformed the Western world, and Britain had already been thrust into ideas of representation and equality thanks to writings of the American War for Independence. It would be easy to for many to say that Mitchell was talking about the Western world, and Britain’s unique position makes it the exception, not the rule. But that doesn’t hold up either. The political consciousness he pointed still begins in the eighteenth century with merchants in France and members of the Third Estate. The Industrial Revolution didn’t come to France for another century, but by 1789, the Third Estate was already demanding political power. Those ideas traveled throughout the Western world, laying the crucial foundation for the transformation of class and power that happened in the period Mitchel analyzed. The Industrial Revolution increased the rate and amplified those demands, but I think it’s a mistake to simply say that it “enabled new forms of mass politics” without talking about those mass politics in more depth. (14) That was the major weakness of this book—it began with a flawed premise of the importance of coal and then carried that thread throughout his analysis of modern history. Coal and oil have an important relationship to democracy, one that deserves to be studied and analyzed, but to divorce those commodities from the world in which they were traded, mined, and developed left this book without any depth or lasting value.

  12. 4 out of 5

    مصطفى قاسم

    Way to look at the history specially the history of the middle east from the presepective of Oil. I believe history of the middle east is very complex and we cannot study it from one prospective. However, oil is an outstanding source of energy with it's abundance in the middle east alot of forces fight for it. With their fighting the middle east was shaped in the way we see it now. As oil for Western countries was a blessing it was a curse for the middle east. Countries could not develop a syste Way to look at the history specially the history of the middle east from the presepective of Oil. I believe history of the middle east is very complex and we cannot study it from one prospective. However, oil is an outstanding source of energy with it's abundance in the middle east alot of forces fight for it. With their fighting the middle east was shaped in the way we see it now. As oil for Western countries was a blessing it was a curse for the middle east. Countries could not develop a system that could harvest the benefits of the oil for the sake of its citizens. Meanwhile USA, Britain and France established regimes in the middle east that only ensures the flow of oil to them. The book also highlights the role of Oil in the dominance of dollars and how the current economic system is based on cheap oil and unlimited growth. As usual the Islamists were used by external powers to spoil any democratic transition. The books briefly gone through that. It happened and will happen and looks like they will never learn. The best part in my opinion was the part of history during the first decades in the 20th century and how the state of Israel was formed as an agent and then strengthed to help maintaining the global order. Also highlights the Ottoman empire ambitious to conquer this oil which helps now to understand the fight for the new energy source (natural gas) in the east mediterranean sea. I sea that for a central ahead we will be cursed for wars in the middle east until the era of Oil and natural gas is over and switch to sustainable energy occurs. I really recommend this book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Westward Woess

    An interesting alternate history to the twentieth century, centring on fossil fuels as its main actor.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joe Bambridge

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Seeking to explore the emergence of what Mitchell calls ‘Carbon Democracy’, this book is both more ambitious and less refined than Rule by Experts, which remains Mitchell’s most important work. Still, like in Rule by Experts, Mitchell successfully puts forward a wholly new way of understanding major themes: democracy, the economy, the environment. Eschewing all forms of simple determinism, Mitchell reveals the intricate techno-scientific networks linking democracy and growth in the ‘West’ and co Seeking to explore the emergence of what Mitchell calls ‘Carbon Democracy’, this book is both more ambitious and less refined than Rule by Experts, which remains Mitchell’s most important work. Still, like in Rule by Experts, Mitchell successfully puts forward a wholly new way of understanding major themes: democracy, the economy, the environment. Eschewing all forms of simple determinism, Mitchell reveals the intricate techno-scientific networks linking democracy and growth in the ‘West’ and colonialism, religious conservatism, and poverty in the Middle East since the end of the 19th century. In this way, Mitchell challenges critical approaches to capitalism which have granted it a lamentable but single logic, and instead shows that there is little logic in a system built on tenuous ‘science’ and even more tenuous alliances. Most importantly, Mitchell argues that the uncertainty brought about by the end of an era of abundant oil, challenged by both scarcity and climate change, opens up new space for reimagining the distinctions between society and nature and between different forms of knowledge- distinctions which were born out of the natural properties, technologies, and methods of calculation of the oil age.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bassett

    The first third of this book was compiled by a research assistant. It lacks a narrative for this section, and instead pulls the reader through the shifting oil holdings in the middle east in lists disguised as paragraphs. Furthermore, the argument that coal extraction enabled worker strikes and then that this equates democratic engagement has something very wrong with it. Following this, he argues that oil transported in pipes evades the striking worker's ability to strangle output, and this sti The first third of this book was compiled by a research assistant. It lacks a narrative for this section, and instead pulls the reader through the shifting oil holdings in the middle east in lists disguised as paragraphs. Furthermore, the argument that coal extraction enabled worker strikes and then that this equates democratic engagement has something very wrong with it. Following this, he argues that oil transported in pipes evades the striking worker's ability to strangle output, and this stifles democratic engagement. he doesn't say what he means by democracy. If democracy is just striking, then maybe oil stifles it – but if its an electoral process or an ideology then it is hard to see how energy systems relate to it from this book. Moreover, I believe there are problems with the internal logic of the book in part because the book fails to account for coal and oil energy systems overlapping and what implication that has for energy vs democracy. Frustratingly he does not account for any sort of democratic temporality – what i mean is the book doesn't tie democracy to a place and time, it just uses the word democracy to describe something that the author thinks but doesn't tell the reader. The most condemning factor, however, is that workers never held the reigns of power and striking did not change power relations, thus it did not increase democratic fortunes, but temporary bargaining positions of a political bloc of workers. It is implausible that their wages or interests relate to democracy.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    Most of this book is a general history of US / Western involvement in the Middle East. At some point in each chapter the author suggests that it's all about oil but many of the links were not clear or convincing to me. Still, I gained some very valuable insights in the history of geopolitics, the dynamics and trends of the oil and energy industries. This could have been a 5-star book for me if it had focused more on the actual topic. Most of this book is a general history of US / Western involvement in the Middle East. At some point in each chapter the author suggests that it's all about oil but many of the links were not clear or convincing to me. Still, I gained some very valuable insights in the history of geopolitics, the dynamics and trends of the oil and energy industries. This could have been a 5-star book for me if it had focused more on the actual topic.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ferhat Culfaz

    Nice overview of coal and then oil and mining stocks interaction with governments around the world. Quite a bleak book but good all round coverage. The conclusion and afterward has a great analysis on peak oil, and global warming, as well as technical aspects for extracting unconventional forms of oil.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sherif MohyEldeen

    An excellent book of how both carbon and oil can shape the way of governance in societies.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Nicolien

    “When most energy was derived from widely dispersed renewable sources, a significant part of the population was involved in the work of generating and transporting energy, in small amounts. With the large-scale use of fossil fuels, and especially following the advent of electricity in the 1880s, a large majority of people in industrialized countries became consumers of energy generated by others, and most work involved the handling or supervision of processes that were driven by energy from else “When most energy was derived from widely dispersed renewable sources, a significant part of the population was involved in the work of generating and transporting energy, in small amounts. With the large-scale use of fossil fuels, and especially following the advent of electricity in the 1880s, a large majority of people in industrialized countries became consumers of energy generated by others, and most work involved the handling or supervision of processes that were driven by energy from elsewhere. A much smaller part of the population now handled the production and distribution of energy, and they handled it in huge quantities. […] Their position and concentration gave them opportunities, at certain moments, to forge a new kind of political power. The power derived not just from the organisations they formed, the ideas they began to share or the political alliances they built, but from the extraordinary quantities of carbon energy that could be used to assemble political agency, by employing the ability to slow, disrupt or cut off its supply.” (p. 19) “The rise of mass democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness. (…) What was missing was not consciousness, not a repertoire of demands, but an effective way of forcing the powerful to listen to those demands.” (p. 21) “Foot-dragging and other forms of worker protest were nothing new. But the term ‘sabotage’ reflected the discovery that a relatively minor malfunction, mistiming or interruption, introduced at the right place and moment, could now have widespread effects.” (p. 22-23) “As workers in industrialised regions fought for a more egalitarian life, the democracy they began to achieve was always liable to slip from providing a means of making effective egalitarian claims to offering a means of regulating populations through the provision of their welfare. Between the 1880s and the interwar decades, workers in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America used their new powers over energy flows to acquire or extend the right to vote and, more importantly, the right to form labour unions, to create political organisations, and to take collective action including strikes. In most cases, these changes enabled mass-based parties to win power for the first time.” (p. 26) “Oil is easier to produce than coal, requires smaller workforce per quantity of energy produced. Oil pipelines as a way to reduce possibility for workers/saboteurs to interrupt flow of energy (less vulnerable than railways that carried coal). Transport by sea provides more flexibility in timing and routes. These changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labour kept them running.” (p. 39) “Petroleum companies were never strong enough to monopolise the flow or stoppage of oil by themselves. They needed outside help, both military and financial. To draw on the resources of well-armed states and government treasuries, Western oil companies began to describe their control of overseas oil as an ‘imperial’ interest of the state, or in later language as a ‘strategic’ interest, and thus somehow beneficial to the public well-being.” (p. 45) “In committing the Royal Navy to a new source of energy, the government was making itself vulnerable to the monopolistic powers of the oil companies. At the same time, it was freeing itself from the political claims of the coal miners.” (p. 63) “The mechanisation that harnessed fossil fuels did not reduce the use of human labour. By connecting human combat to much greater stores of energy, machines created new powers of action, greatly extending the physical limits of human and animal power.” (p. 66) “A handful of industrialised states in the global north had brought much of the world under the control of imperial government. The resources that made modern imperialism possible had also given groups of organised workers in industrialised regions an unusual power to make successful political claims, thanks to their novel ability to shut down the supply of energy. The new call for self-determination seemed at first to be a way of generalising this ability to make effective democratic claims to people in other parts of the world. In practice, however, it did something different. The doctrines and devices of self-determination turned an apparently democratic impulse into a set of universal claims that circulated rapidly around the world, but also very thinly. At the same time, the mechanism of self-determination could be used to defeat the kinds of democratic claims being successfully advanced in Europe. [...] The principle of self-rule was not, therefore, in contradiction with the idea of empire. On the contrary, the need for self-government could provide, paradoxically, a new justification for overseas settlement and control, because only the European presence in colonised territories made a form of self-rule possible.” (p. 68 & 71) “The government statement echoed Labour’s list of war aims, but translated them into a new vocabulary, one that transformed the democratisation of trans-national relations into the principle of ‘self-determination.’ [...] [S]elf-determination would be a process of recognising (and in practice, of helping constitute) forms of local despotism through which imperial control would continue to operate.” (p. 79 & 80) “Postwar imperialism needed a mechanism of goodwill – a machinery for producing the consent of the governed. (...) Although imperial power depended on the frequent use of armed violence, and trading ports and other strategic footholds were often seized by force, its expansion had typically proceeded by a method of infiltration and the gradual usurpation of command. This required the preservation of local forms of authority and legal order, even as they were being undermined from within. (...) The most common method of controlling territories without incurring the degree of opposition and expense that came with immediate annexation had come to be called ‘protecting’ them. (...) The agreements acknowledged the authority of the local ruler, who in turn ceded part of that authority to the imperial power, often including control over the country’s external trade or natural resources.” (p. 89 – 90) “The mechanisms of consent enabled imperial powers to deal with two forms of opposition: first, the partial sovereignty acknowledged in the signing of treaties allowed local elites to present themselves as nationalists, weakening more populist opposition. (...) Second, the mandate framework provided a method for Britain to weaken its own domestic pressure to democratise foreign policy (...), on the grounds that it was acting not as an imperial power but on a mandate from the League. A further advantage of ‘self-determination’ was that the world could now be grasped in terms of political identities that were determined by race or ethnicity, a flexible concept that could refer to language, religion, shared history or, most often, simple geographical demarcation. Since no population was ethnically homogenous, this created the possibility of identifying or shaping groups as ‘minorities.’ The imperial power could then claim the duty to protect them as an endangered fragment of the population.” (p. 99) “The training of subject races in self-government represented only one half of the mandate that imperial powers could now claim. Alongside their ‘moral obligations to the subject races’ (...), the mandatory power claimed a set of ‘material obligations.’ These were obligations not to civilise native forms of rule, but rather to ensure that natives were ruled in the interests of civilisation.” (p. 100) “The shaping of Western democratic politics from the 1930s onwards was carried out in part through the application of new kinds of economic expertise: the development and deployment of Keynesian economic knowledge; its expansion into different areas of policy and debate, including colonial administration; its increasingly technical nature; and the efforts to claim an increasing variety of topics as subject to determination not by democratic debate but by economic planning and knowhow.” (p. 124) “The emergent national economy was dependent upon a ‘nationalisation’ of political and administrative power – the emergence of large-scale, techno-scientific governmental practices based upon the vastly expanded administrative machinery of post-1930s national governments. It also contributed to the making of these nationalised machineries of government, in which economics superseded law as the technical language of administrative power.” (p. 137) “The conceptualisation of the economy as a process of monetary circulation defined the main feature of the new object: it could expand without getting physically bigger.” (p. 139) “The economics of growth of the 1950s and 1960s could conceive of long-run growth as something unrestrained by the availability of energy. Moreover, the costs of air pollution, environmental disaster, climate change and the other negative consequences of using fossil fuels were not deducted from the measurement of GNP. Since the measurement of the economy made no distinction between beneficial and harmful costs, the increased expenditure required to deal with the damage caused by fossil fuels appeared as an addition rather than an impediment to growth.” (p. 140) “If oil played a key role in the making of ‘the economy,’ it also shaped the project that would challenge it, and later provide a rival method of governing democratic politics: the ‘market’ of neoliberalism. (...) Neoliberalism proposed an alternative ordering of knowledge, expertise and political technology – the political apparatus that it named ‘the market.’” (p.141) “In the postwar period, democratic politics was transformed not only by the switch to oil, but by the development of two new methods of governing democracies, both made possible by the growing use of energy from oil. One of these was an arrangement for managing the value of money and limiting the power of financial speculation (...) The other new mode of governing democracies was the manufacture of ‘the economy’ – an object whose experts began to displace democratic debate and whose mechanisms set limits to egalitarian demands.” (p. 143) “As the control of oil became the focus of popular political forces, it led to their undoing. The power of sabotage – the capacity to block or slow the flow of oil, a capacity that had previously been monopolised largely by the international oil companies – would be organised not by the workers who operated the oil industry, but by the state.” (p. 145) “The container did more than reorganise relations of control at the narrow point where dockworkers could exercise power. Combined with the cheap oil of the 1960s, it made possible the moving of manufacturing overseas. (...) Industrial labour could now be threatened with lower costs and unemployment, caused by outsourcing production to Japan and other countries with less unionised, lower-paid workforces.” (p. 154) “... [O]il and weapons (...) fit together in a particular way: one was enormously useful, the other importantly useless. As the producer states gradually forced the major oil companies to share with them more of the profits from oil, increasing quantities of sterling and dollars flowed to the Middle East. To maintain the balance of payments and the viability of the international financial system, Britain and the United States needed a mechanism for these currency flows to be returned. (...) Arms were particularly suited to this task of financial recycling, for their acquisition was not limited by their usefulness. The dovetailing of the production of petroleum and the manufacture of arms made oil and militarism increasingly interdependent. [...] The purchase of most goods, whether consumable materials like food and clothing or more durable items such as cars or industrial machinery, sooner or later reaches a limit where, in practical terms, no more of the commodity can be used and further acquisition is impossible to justify. (...) Weapons, on the other hand, could be purchased to be stored up rather than used, and came with their own forms of justification. Under the appropriate doctrines of security, ever-larger acquisitions could be rationalised on the grounds that they would make the need to use them less likely. (...) Arms, therefore, could be purchased in quantities unlimited by any practical need or capacity to consume.” (p. 155 – 156) “The work of transforming the superfluous consumption of weaponry on a gargantuan scale into necessity was performed by a new rhetoric of insecurity, and by a series of US actions to produce or sustain the required experience of instability and uncertainty.” (p. 158) “[T]he arms sales also militarised the oil states, with continuing consequences for local populations.” (p. 162) “In defeating efforts to resolve the Palestine question, the war also helped to maintain the Middle East as a zone of insecurity. (...) The crisis cemented the new relations between oil-producing countries and the United States, based on the selling of arms. (...) The flow of weapons, and related opportunities in construction, consulting, military assistance and banking, now depended on new levels of militarism. It also depended on a US policy of prolonging and exacerbating local conflicts in the Middle East, and on an increasingly disjunctive relationship with Salafist forms of Islam that had helped defend the mid-twentieth-century oil order against nationalist and popular pressures in the region.” (p. 187) “The argument that hydrocarbons were a relatively scarce and irreplaceable part of ‘the energy mix’ indicates an important aspect of the new politics of energy. In making it possible to connect the price of oil to that of other forms of fuel and power, discussions of the energy system could link the price of oil to the new politics of the environment.” (p. 190) “In recent decades, the problem of oil and democracy has come to be associated increasingly with the question of Islam. [...] ... [T]he conservative political morality offered by certain forms of Islam is not some enduring feature of the religion that rulers adopt at their own convenience. Its usefulness reflects the fact that moral conservatism expresses the views of powerful social and political movements. Political regimes enter into uneasy alliances with these movements, depending on a force they do not directly control.” (p.202) “None of the three conflicts discussed here was initiated by the United States. In each case there was an existing conflict or international dispute in which local parties were willing to resort to force. (...) The role of the United States, however, was ... distinguished by the breadth of its involvement in the use of violence across the Middle East, the scale of its financial commitment to providing the means for carrying it out, and its increasing reliance on long-running conflict as a normal instrument of politics. (...) The perpetuation of conflict was a symptom of the relative weakness of the United States, given its imperial ambitions. Unable to establish its hegemony over many parts of the region, or even to control it by force, it fell back upon protracted warfare as the next best means of weakening those local powers that refused to accept its authority.” (p. 220) “Neoliberal policies have always been intended to weaken democratic and egalitarian politics by moving control from public representatives to the private forces of the market.” (p. 224) “Democratic government, as we know, depends on the power to interrupt critical flows, whether of energy or revenue. The difficulty for the citizens of oil states is how to build that power when the state’s revenue comes not from the productive life of the general populations, but almost entirely from a single source: the revenues from the export of oil.” (p. 226) “Since the oil industry was never strong enough to create a political order on its own, it was obliged to collaborate with other political forces, social energies, forms of violence and powers of attachment. Across the Middle East, there were various forces available. But each of these allies had its own purposes, which were never guaranteed to coincide with the need to secure the scarcity of oil. (...) ‘McJihad’ is a term that describes this deficiency of capitalism. The word refers not to a contradiction between the logic of capitalism and the other forces and ideas it encounters, but rather to the absence of such a logic. The political violence the United States, not alone but more than any other actor, has promoted, funded and prolonged across so many parts of the Middle East over recent decades is the persistent symptom of this absence.” (p. 230) “These projects and the arguments that support them indicate not that forms of energy determine modes of politics, but that energy is a field of technical uncertainty rather than determinism, and that the building of solutions to future energy needs is also the building of new forms of collective life.” (p. 238) “AS the kinds of controversies we face clearly show, our world is an entanglement of technical, natural and human elements. Any technical apparatus or social process combines different kinds of materials and forces, involving various combinations of human cognition, mechanical power, chance, stored memory, self-acting mechanisms, organic matter and more. In introducing technical innovations, or using energy in novel ways, or developing alternative sources of power, we are not subjecting ‘society’ to some new external influence, or conversely using social forces to alter an external reality called ‘nature.’ We are reorganising socio-technical worlds, in which what we call social, natural and technical processes are present at every point. These entanglements, however, are not recognised in our theories or collective life, which continue to divide the world according to the conventional divisions between fields of specialist knowledge. There is a natural world studied by the various branches of natural science, and a social world analysed by the social sciences. Debates about human-induced climate change, the depletion of non-renewable resources, or any other question, create political uncertainty not so much because they reach the limits of technical and scientific knowledge, but because of the way they breach this conventional distinction between society and nature. They cannot be settled by experts alone, because they involve questions not only about the nature of the world – the arena traditionally monopolised by scientific and technical expertise – but also about the nature of the collective.” (p. 239) “Although in many areas we have abandoned the naïve conception of the natural world, in the case of oil the nature-society divide continues to be maintained. The government of technical uncertainty about the future of oil is performed by maintaining the calculative space of economics. [...] Economists acquire their strength from their command of these representations. They do not deal with the material world, which is objective but too large to represent; nor do they deal with culture and society, which appear subjective and insubstantial. They master the system of representations that they have erected to govern relations between the two. As a question of representation, the problem of oil supplies belongs, as the oil economists say, ‘above ground, not below ground.’ In other words, it is a question of human choice and technical ingenuity, not of the objective facts of nature. (p. 246)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gregory

    As an environmental historian I was inspired to read this book after hearing it discussed by a panel on a fall episode of the Nature’s Past podcast. I thought I really need to read this book. In Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell shows how fossil fuel energy, particularly coal and petroleum, shaped definitions of democracy in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century. Mitchell’s analysis is built on a materialist foundation; the key players are the engineers, corporate leaders, and inte As an environmental historian I was inspired to read this book after hearing it discussed by a panel on a fall episode of the Nature’s Past podcast. I thought I really need to read this book. In Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell shows how fossil fuel energy, particularly coal and petroleum, shaped definitions of democracy in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century. Mitchell’s analysis is built on a materialist foundation; the key players are the engineers, corporate leaders, and international associations. Ideas and philosophy are mentioned mostly in the context of how they fit into his larger argument. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century workers learned to manipulate the flow of coal through its limited distribution system and leveraged this to gain concessions by organizing into unions, effective negotiating, and strikes. This culminated in the emergence of what might be described as the social welfare or social democratic state. Meanwhile, petroleum was becoming a rival source of energy, mostly for kerosene and home lighting. In the first decade of the twentieth century the earliest oil companies sought concessions in the Middle East, especially Iraq. The Ottoman Empire that ruled the area played each of these international competitors off again as they stalled and delayed. The German Berlin to Baghdad Railroad was constructed in the hope of transporting oil. World War I threw all this into disarray, but also confirmed the importance for petroleum as the navies of the world converted from coal to petroleum. After the war the victorious powers – France, Great Britain, and the USA – created a new order in the Middle East. President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty right to self-determination translated into native rulers signing over concessions to international oil companies in exchange for very minimal compensation. This system came to a crashing end after the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the human tragedy of World War II. Oil emerged from these catastrophes even more essential to western nations. Mitchell outlines in what was the most interesting chapter of the book for me, the process by which the concept of the economy emerged as a separate and discernible entity of public concern, how low fuel costs drove up the standard of living, the hunger for growth, and how attempts were made through international organizations and commissions to control oil production and distribution. The system, however, sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Governments subsidized economic growth and corporate stability largely through defense spending and arms sales, what Mitchel refers to as "Institutionalize Uselessness" and what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. Efforts to control and manipulate the politics of the Middle East also backfired. A new order, the third stage, came to fruition with the 1973 oil (or energy) crisis. Mitchell is skeptical of the traditional narrative that explains this event as the result of supply and demand, especially since the US had alternative sources of oil and production actually increased, not decreased. Instead, he argues, it was oil companies seeking greater profits allied with a government that come to rely on the non-settlement of the Palestinian question in Israel because the destabilization undergirded most of the arms sales to the region. The important change for democracy in the western nations is that supply and demand became the defining logic that underwrote all economic and social concerns. Industrial production shifted increasingly overseas. As unemployment and underemployment rose, wages decreased, and the hard won gains of the coal miners were lost by their grandchildren, as the neo-liberalism replaced social democracy. There is a final chapter on McJihad, as Mitchell calls it, but I honestly don't feel I got a good grasp of what he was saying. He seems to be arguing that the capital and Islamic fundamentalism are two forces of the same system, not two rival systems vying for control.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joseph

    This was an interesting read, but I feel like it failed to live up to its potential. A lot of the argument is quite scattered and leaps back and forth between discussions of oil and energy, imperialism, leftist political struggle, and the history of economic thought. Despite the heterogeneity of material, this could be a slog because Mitchell spends most of the book switching modes between just recounting historical details and reiterating the same taglines about how something is "democratic" or This was an interesting read, but I feel like it failed to live up to its potential. A lot of the argument is quite scattered and leaps back and forth between discussions of oil and energy, imperialism, leftist political struggle, and the history of economic thought. Despite the heterogeneity of material, this could be a slog because Mitchell spends most of the book switching modes between just recounting historical details and reiterating the same taglines about how something is "democratic" or "not democratic" and the idea that power organizes knowledge but is subject to resistance (not his idea but Foucault's). Interestingly although Mitchell is quick to criticize the liberal definition of democracy, he leaves the basic category of "democracy" uncontested and unexplored, along with the category of "ordinary people" who supposedly want democracy. (He does briefly mention a Labour Party plan for "democratizing" imperialism and compares their plan favorably to that of Woodrow Wilson, which to me seems a little credulous). What would it take to realize a real democracy, and how did its advocates articulate that idea? Mitchell does not go into enough detail here. Mitchell also claims to explore in this book the connection between fossil energy and democracy, but he does not really go much further than his claim that coal was "democratic" because it offered more opportunities for worker resistance but oil was not. The examples of coal workers striking in the late 19th century were quite persuasive. But also enormous shares of power generation are still dependent on coal, despite us now being in the "age of oil". Why hasn't our continued dependence on coal brought us more democracy? Surely more oil does not inherently make the continued use of coal less democratic. Mitchell also addresses the liberal poli sci literature on the "oil curse", seeming to waver between endorsing the thesis that oil has peculiar characteristics that make it conducive to "corruption" and authoritarianism and criticizing it on the grounds that the impacts of oil on "democracy" are determined by a complex interplay of power relations unfolding through history. Well fine. Mitchell says the widely divergent experiences of "oil states" outside the Middle East are evidence for this but does not discuss these histories in any measure of detail. He also does not address the fact that liberal political scientists also speak of a "resource curse" (also essentially an artifact of imperialism) which includes all forms of mineral extraction, including coal. Again I think the central issue here is that Mitchell is too interested in introducing new elements and complications to his narrative instead of fully developing his interpretation of how they transform over time (which would have made for a better genealogy). The book also would have benefited from a greater focus on the Middle East and its unique history and dynamics instead of primarily focusing on "the west" and its economists and coups. Overall though I feel like I got a lot out of this book despite it being somewhat frustrating. It has a lot of interesting narratives and tidbits despite its lack of development of many of them.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Michael Rynn

    A thorough consideration of oil as the missing link to modern economy. A very well told history of today's civilization predicaments, tied in to the story of coal, then oil. Has immediate relevance to what is happening now, and the general behaviour of human organizations that compete for scarce natural resources. During most of twentieth century, the oil resource wasn't scarce, and had low costs of production, so oil corporations, private or state, vied, and collaborated with each other to produc A thorough consideration of oil as the missing link to modern economy. A very well told history of today's civilization predicaments, tied in to the story of coal, then oil. Has immediate relevance to what is happening now, and the general behaviour of human organizations that compete for scarce natural resources. During most of twentieth century, the oil resource wasn't scarce, and had low costs of production, so oil corporations, private or state, vied, and collaborated with each other to produce artificial scarcity, in order to extract the maximum rents, from control of territory, quotas, refining and distribution. The notion of the modern economy and how it is said to work, depends on ignoring natural limits to oil extraction. Endless growth, and democratic governments, and national welfare systems, are assumed on the basis of the 'economy'. Oil corporations and states are dedicated to secrecy on the methods of calculating their reserves, to help economists obfuscate reality using their 'price' argument. Price and investment are controlled by statements of expected reserves and rates of extraction. The history of rates of extraction of oil has enabled statistical calculation of the expected path of oil production decline. Reclassification of oil sources has followed the platueau of extraction since 2005, but most of the oldest and biggest oil fields, making up around half of conventional oil production, are all in decline, 5% or more, every year. Global politics, militarisation, religious conflicts, climate change, war, refugees, are all signs of the denial of limits, and the threats to economic growth, and old orders of things that were all built, planned, invested in, based on control of benefits from previously limitless supplies of cheap oil. Renewable energy sources and politics of scarcity, bring us back to the real world, of nature, energy flows, material limits, and dealing with the consequences of climate change. Democratic processes, to me, now seem to be mostly about the plebian ability to gain a small share of vote and benefits, only from their ability to withold their essential roles in the production process. The nature of the oil industry seems to have always been against any expansion of democracy. Such great profits have enabled great political, industrial and military power, which has always wanted to, and vastly increased global oil dependence. Hence oil funding of climate change denial, the global Military Industrial complex, petro-dollars, arms-dollars, all part of the great financial rentier economy to benefit global elites, to build our fairy castle global civilization. Now it does not look like such a good idea, as we experience the consequences.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alise Miļūna

    Mitchell argues that Western democracy and Middle Eastern instability developed not because of particular ideas and cultures, but because of how workers, companies and politicians leveraged technical vulnerabilities in the physical foundations of power, and he uses history of the fossil fuel economy to prove it. Recommended if you like lasers: thematically narrow, but narratively dense accounts. Too dense to summarize, but some bits I would like to remember: i) When industrialization in W-Europe d Mitchell argues that Western democracy and Middle Eastern instability developed not because of particular ideas and cultures, but because of how workers, companies and politicians leveraged technical vulnerabilities in the physical foundations of power, and he uses history of the fossil fuel economy to prove it. Recommended if you like lasers: thematically narrow, but narratively dense accounts. Too dense to summarize, but some bits I would like to remember: i) When industrialization in W-Europe dependend on coal, it also depended on mining and transport by teams of workers, so strikes and sabotage were effective means to win more rights. Oil's transportability and location in colonialised territories allowed governments to limit democratic power in their countries. When democratic power in oil producer countries became an issue, it was quenched with doctrines of protectorates, separate development, self-determination (often, meaning replacement of foreign dictatorship with local dictatorship) and eventually, maintenance of conflict and political instability. ii) Oil companies built an oligopoly and maximised their profits by manufacturing scarcity (buying potential oil fields and restricting supply), positioning their business as a national strategic and security interest, creating and promoting lifestyles dependent on fossil energy, and throughout the process, working closely with the colonialist empire and later, national governments; ironically, a lot of oil wealth has been invested into neoliberal think tanks, promoting a free market that the oil industry never operated in. iii) Furthermore, oil production transferred expertise from workers to their managers and engineers while also requiring new expertise for exploration, political arrangements, international finance, PR, marketing of energy-intensive lifestyles etc. - so, oil companies ended up extremely well equipped to "define the nature of the crisis and promote a particular set of solutions.” (129) iv) Abundance of oil/energy in the 20th century helped shape a new economics of material limitlessness and infinite growth. v) Benjamin Barber's 'Jihad vs. McWorld' (capitalist globalisation vs. tribalistic opposition) framework is replaced by Mitchell with 'McJihad', where capitalism works "in certain critical instances, only by adopting the social force and moral authority of conservative Islamic movements" (203), as illustrated by several cases of oil companies and Western governments funding coups against democratic and secular leadership in the Middle East in order to maintain control over oil and/or financial flows. Missing: what has been happening in the rest of the world, voices from the ground, politics of 21st century energy transitions.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ethan Everhart

    from first read in 2014: This book took me a month, at least. Part of that was just how busy I am, but certainly also because of the book’s density. There is a lot of data, and Timothy Mitchell provides a lot of information, context, history, and statistics for his argument. At times it feels like sticking your head into a waterfall of information and trying to take it all in (or sometimes even trying to retain anything). But despite all of that, reading it was definitely a profound experience, a from first read in 2014: This book took me a month, at least. Part of that was just how busy I am, but certainly also because of the book’s density. There is a lot of data, and Timothy Mitchell provides a lot of information, context, history, and statistics for his argument. At times it feels like sticking your head into a waterfall of information and trying to take it all in (or sometimes even trying to retain anything). But despite all of that, reading it was definitely a profound experience, and it’s changed how I think about politics and economics in a way that few other individual works have done. I’m going to summarize the book as best I can, but if you care at all about politics, the economy, or twentieth century history, you should read this book because I’m not going to do it justice. The first part of the book lays out Mitchell’s thesis: energy, and specifically carbon, has been responsible for the political structure of the world since at least the Industrial Revolution. The invention of methods to extract and transport coal in large quantities allowed for urbanization (since huge groups of populations no longer had to live nearby their food sources) and the underpinnings of democracy, namely labor rights. This, Mitchell says, is due to the very nature of coal extraction: because managers and bosses are so far removed from the actual work that takes place within the mine, workers translate their autonomy into strikes and work stoppages. The same principle applies to transportation of this energy, since railways and other lines through which energy travels are susceptible to interruption by the workers at any point on the narrow, linear path of transportation. Coal emerged in part because of and as the cause of workers’ ability to bring society to a halt. “Democracy,” such as it was, emerged to give miners and workers enough of a say in their lives to not cause that halt. Oil changed this. Coal moves in “dendritic networks,” with a main channel that can be blocked. Oil, Mitchell explains, moves in something more like an electrical grid: if one channel is blocked, it can still make it to the other side through another part of the grid. Thus, strikes and stoppages become much less effective. Naturally, once governments and corporations figured this out, oil became the preferred carbon energy source. Mitchell’s argument perhaps overlooks a lot of other factors, especially considering the history of labor, but it makes sense that the methods of production like he talks about played at least a moderate part in the rise (and fall) of labor power. Next, Mitchell moves into the late nineteenth to twentieth centuries, where he spends most of the book’s time. He lays out the colonial history of the Middle East and the oil discoveries there. Apparently the popular narrative (I can’t confirm or deny because I haven’t read a ton about early oil discoveries there) was that of brave entrepreneurs taking risks to find a rare and powerful form of energy with which to build the Western world. That isn’t what happened. Oil wasn’t scarce; there were incredible, seemingly unimaginable quantities of it all over the world. The problem for governments and oil corporations wasn’t dealing with scarcity; it was manufacturing the scarcity. Companies worked with imperial powers to ensure a monopoly on oil, often exploiting ethnic tensions to ensure control over oil production. So after Western governments and corporations secured access to oil in the Middle East (more on that in a bit), they had to first create the demand for oil, then make sure they controlled the supply and could make a profit. For instance, the Marshall Plan after WWII was specifically designed to build an oil infrastructure in Europe, like the one being built in the US. (The US specifically used up its post-war prosperity to build suburbs and force people to make commuting an inescapable part of daily life.) Oil companies financed the development of car engines that used gasoline, up until then a waste product from the synthesis of kerosene from crude oil, then made US life impossible without one. Once everyone was used to oil in their daily lives, the companies played games with the price in order to ensure huge profits. What’s more, the abundance of cheap American-controlled oil cemented the US dollar as the backbone of the global economy. Then Mitchell goes into some more contextual history of how the entire idea of “the economy” emerged. The first instances in the West of governments collecting economic data was to quantify coal reserves, and since that point, the economy has come to refer to a realm somehow “separate” from daily life and especially politics. The economy quickly shifted, however, to the idea of infinite growth, even while ostensibly managing “scarcity.” The last third or so of the book lays out specifically what’s happened in the Middle East and South Asia in the last fifty or sixty years, attributing most of the political strife and turnover to the machinations of oil companies and the governments that love them. Between the CIA, oil companies’ own operatives, and blatant political maneuvering from the West, the constant lack of stable, democratic government is a natural consequence. The sale of arms and munitions is a perfect way to dispose of excess oil wealth (since there’s no “maximum” number of arms a group or state can accumulate), and various coups, revolutions, and assassinations were often planned and carried out in the interests of oil. It’s sobering and difficult to argue with, considering all of the evidence Mitchell brings to the table. This part specifically is what I’m doing the least amount of justice to, because he starts at the beginning and goes all the way up to 2013, and it is staggering to see it all laid out. "Three numbers shape this calculus [of energy dependence]," Mitchell writes in the afterword: two degrees Celsius - the target accepted in the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord as the mean global temperature rise below which the most dangerous effects of anthropogenic climate change might be avoided; 886 gigatons - the quantity of carbon dioxide humankind can place in the atmosphere between the year 2000 and mid-century and still have some chance of keeping below the two-degree target, a budget of which more than one third was used up in the first decade of the century, leaving just 565 gigatons to spend by 2050; and 2,795 gigatons - the carbon potential of the proven coal, oil and gas reserves owned by the world’s private and public companies and governments. This last figure is five times the size of the remaining carbon budget. Energy firms, which dominate the lists of the world’s largest corporations, suffer from a deepening dependency. They depend upon counting as a financial asset a reserve of fossil fuels of which four-fifths must stay buried and uncounted in the ground if we are serious about keeping the planet habitable. Reading this after the entire rest of the book wasn’t the most encouraging thing I’ve ever experienced. With how much of the 20th century has been shaped by the quest for profit from oil, how can we suddenly expect this to change? Mitchell has a few suggestions, which largely center on collective action. I agree that if anything is going to help, it has to be that. I’m just feeling particularly cynical, in part because of Mitchell’s masterful argument throughout the entire book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kurt

    I learned a lot from this, and it seems (at least from the perspective of a non-expert) to be incredibly well-researched! Topics I've found neglected in other discussions of the politics of energy include the labour histories of energy, the social construction of the economy in service of the energy industry and the careful half-calculations performed to ensure that oil appears scarce regardless of whether or not it actually is, among others. That being said, it can get dry and, at points, a lit I learned a lot from this, and it seems (at least from the perspective of a non-expert) to be incredibly well-researched! Topics I've found neglected in other discussions of the politics of energy include the labour histories of energy, the social construction of the economy in service of the energy industry and the careful half-calculations performed to ensure that oil appears scarce regardless of whether or not it actually is, among others. That being said, it can get dry and, at points, a little disorienting. I wonder a little about the intended audience: I, a person who knows only a bit about economics, struggled to understand a few of the more economically-focused parts of this book - but I suspect an economist would find the explanations of various economic processes boring, while they wouldn't do much to help a reader who knows nothing about economics at all. Anyway, I'm glad I read it at least!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Griffiths

    The central argument of the book relating to how fossil fuels have radically altered the nature of politics is a fascinating one and well argued in this book. At times this dipped a bit too deeply into economics arguments to totally hold my attention but overall paints a fascinating picture of the differences engendered in politics centred around coal and those created by oil. for anyone interested in the critical role that fossil fuels still play in geopolitics this is definitely worthy of your The central argument of the book relating to how fossil fuels have radically altered the nature of politics is a fascinating one and well argued in this book. At times this dipped a bit too deeply into economics arguments to totally hold my attention but overall paints a fascinating picture of the differences engendered in politics centred around coal and those created by oil. for anyone interested in the critical role that fossil fuels still play in geopolitics this is definitely worthy of your time.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    This book blew my mind. Coming from Mainland China, I'm almost allergic to socialist point of view. Always suspicions of "brainwashing" and "propaganda". I so don't want to believe this book. But it is so well researched and cited, i'd love to see some (equally well researched) counter argument if anyone can point me to the right direction. If Jane Mayer's "Dark Money" explained "How", this book explained "Why". This book blew my mind. Coming from Mainland China, I'm almost allergic to socialist point of view. Always suspicions of "brainwashing" and "propaganda". I so don't want to believe this book. But it is so well researched and cited, i'd love to see some (equally well researched) counter argument if anyone can point me to the right direction. If Jane Mayer's "Dark Money" explained "How", this book explained "Why".

  28. 4 out of 5

    Maisarah Abdul Kadir

    While the early pages of the history of energy in terms of industrialization of coal and subsequent unions and its dismantling was dry, although interesting, the subsequent chapters on oil and formation of oligarchies, organizations and national entities and its relation to global politics is nicely written. Although I disagree with the more modern analysis part of the book, time will only tell how the global movements of oil/energy will develop.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Subvert

    Only managed to read it half way through as I unexpectedly had to return the copy to a friend from whom I borrowed it. I want to buy my own copy now though as I found it really compelling and convincing with lots of new perspectives.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cana McGhee

    really love this book for its clear and consistent argument. equal parts creative and a tight condensing of so much earlier scholarship in energy/oil history. also provides helpful behind the scenes info about oil politics and economics globally.

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