Carbon Democracy: Unfinished Business

April 5, 2022

Bob Johnson

Some books break the paradigm. The good ones do more than that. They also re-orient our work around the right questions. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy is such a book. Even a decade later we still have not adequately answered the challenges it posed to us.

Mitchell’s book was serendipitous. Its publication coincided with the first Petrocultures Conference in Alberta, Canada in 2011, arguably the first English-speaking event to institutionalize what was later to be called the 'energy humanities.' Before that confluence, the energy humanities, which today grows like Borlaug’s dwarf wheat, was nowhere to be found. For instance, when I first developed a seminar in US energy history back in 2007, all roads led back either to historian David Nye, who helped develop the social history of energy, or to Vaclav Smil’s techno-social histories of energy. These precursors were, however, mostly histories of technology rather than histories of society, except in a thin manner. A few other books like Jean-Paul Deléage, et al’s, In Servitude of Power were there to wrestle with, but not much else. When Mitchell’s book came out, the most abundant scholarship on energy in the social sciences and humanities concerned a narrow range of topics focused on energy policy, labor histories of coal mining, and business histories surrounding petroleum. Deep sociological analyses tended to be focused on regional studies like Brian Black’s Petrolia (2003), which dealt with the birth of oil in Pennsylvania, or Myrna Santiago’s The Ecology of Oil (2006), which turned to the exploitation of the Mexican Huasteca. As for cultural analyses, these were even scarcer, scattered among smaller studies focused on tropes of electricity, smog, and coal mining in literature and art. 

In such a context, Mitchell’s book was an important coalescing text that brought into concourse a number of tenuously imbricated concerns. And when it did, it made a splash. Not only did popular leftist journals review this rich book, but it was also reviewed widely across anthropology, political science, labor history, literary criticism, social theory, geography, international literature, and regional studies of the Middle East and Canada. For a dense academic text, which The Guardian called “not exactly a festive read,” it now appears in over 2000 citations ranging from Bruno Latour’s highly theoretical books on climate epistemology to popular political articles concerned with life “After Carbon Democracy.” With so much ink spilled, I want to simply highlight two lessons that I don’t believe we've fully absorbed from Mitchell’s book. 

Materializing Ideology and Representation 

First, Mitchell asked us to come back down to earth – or, as Marx would have put it, “to revolt against the rule of thoughts,” “walk away from phantoms,” “chimeras,” “dogmas,” and no longer “bow down before [our own] creations.” More specifically, Mitchell told us that the concepts central to modern political economy – the terms democratization and capitalism – were not transparent or universal concepts as liberal internationalists and neoliberals would have us believe. They were not Hegelian ideals that could be tapped into and transported across time and space but instead dirty material projects which were, he said, “the outcome of particular ways of engineering political relations out of flows of energy.” Famously, Mitchell asked: “what if democracies are not carbon copies, but carbon-based” (Mitchell 2011, 5). We are all familiar with his history of how the social and natural architecture of coal, prior to strip mining, enabled millions of coal miners in western democracies to disrupt the flow of carbon at critical chokepoints. He explained that that was because the earlier coal regime had both certain material attributes, like physical bulkiness and human-intensive mining practices, that required the cooperation of millions of workers in western states, and certain social attributes, like its centrality to a functioning industrial economy, which allowed those workers to force democratic concessions from western governments. On the flip side, Mitchell explained how the shift to oil, which changed that logic, altered the global dynamics of industrial capitalism and democracy.

Anglo-Persian Oil Company workers, 1908. Public Domain.

Specifically, he illustrated how an oligarchy from the West, backed by their own governments and allied with puppet regimes and elites in the Middle East, engineered out of oil a very different type of energy architecture that created artificially protected markets and secured transnational pipelines and shipping lanes that did not empower but rather disabled colonial subjects. A key facet of Mitchell's argument concerned the physicality of this new liquid energy source that, unlike coal, allowed capital to circumvent the potential leverage that domestic and foreign workers might have had to turn the spigot off in the Middle East to advance their own democratic claims. Mitchell’s argument marked in this respect a radical re-materialization of politics and economy.  

Mitchell asked us to come back down to earth...His argument marked a radical re-materialization of politics and economy.

At the ten-year mark, I would suggest that we still only rarely deal in the viscosity that Mitchell said sits behind the possibilities of our political projects and our political critiques. Too often, we are still tossing around facile terms like capitalism, socialism, and democracy as though these are ready-made and self-evident concepts that don’t require the type of conscious unpacking of the material and political engineering behind them that enable current intransigencies and that empower whatever alternative possibilities we have. We often rail against capital and neoliberal regimes, but what actual choke points exist today in an era of surface mines, fracking permits, and mile-long coal trains that are available to us to re-democratize our polities?  

Transnationalizing Politics 

Second, Mitchell gave us a deeper materialization of world systems theory. Carbon Democracy made it virtually impossible to think about western democracies, ideologies, standards of living, and even labor practices independent of the global realpolitik of energy extraction and distribution. After Carbon Democracy, we could no longer treat western culture as though it stood apart from the energy engineering projects that had been systematically made through backroom alliances of governments and corporate interests, whether in the Middle East, Russia, or Nigeria – dependencies so deep that even liberal western governments refuse to condemn things like the state-ordered killing of journalists in the Middle East. In this respect, Mitchell’s work advances a different meaning to Marx’s materialism, a new type of materialism now tied to oil, gas, and coal regimes and yet that still urges us to understand, as Marx did 170 years ago, that any social democratic project can only be addressed ultimately at the international level. Carbon Democracy showed us that international arms deals, global currencies, and economic securities hinge on a disturbing global political economy of energy that still pacifies and sabotages the advancements and possibilities of social democratic politics, whether in the Middle East or Russia, or in Europe and North America.  

John Butler Talks with Two Men While Oil Well Fire Burns in Background, Friendswood, Texas, 1938. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Of course, we all know today – during a time when SARS-COV-2 continues to circulate across the globe – that no cause is merely national, that all of our causes are intertwined. Yet, with only some rare exceptions, the frameworks we have in the energy humanities for thinking through this problem still come up shy in theorizing how the globalized imbrication of energy flows works to impede or propel the possibility of social democratic politics here, there, or anywhere. A decade later, we might now need to ask with more vigor: What does it mean for the chance of a progressive politics in the EU that its lifeblood is tied directly to the crude oil, natural gas, and repressive politics of Putin’s Russia? What does it mean for social-democratic projects in the US that the expansion of chemical fracking in this century-binging nation has now made it a net energy exporter of fossil fuels? And what does it mean when the material health of western democracies that are baptized in oil provide ideological cover for civil war, for political repression, and for the willful forgetting of all of these oil autocracies in peripheral states like Kazakhstan where the Chevrons and ExxonMobils of the world still prop up, pump by pump, global poverty and the anti-democratic tradition?  

Or perhaps we might simply ask: what can the energy humanities do with all the new permutations of these material facts that Mitchell has left us to sort through? 

Bob Johnson is author of Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy and Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture. He serves as Professor of History and Director of the Honors Fellows for Social Change at National University in San Diego.

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