The Mitchell Effect

12 Min Read

April 11, 2022

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian who specializes in environmental economics, animal studies, and energy history. He is a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute and author, with Drew Pendergrass, of Half-Earth Socialism (Verso 2022), as well as numerous articles in academic and popular venues, including the Guardian, the New Statesman, Jacobin, N+1, Book Forum, and Boston Review.

Carbon Democracy is the magnum opus of an influential but idiosyncratic intellectual. Like Timothy Mitchell’s other works, Carbon Democracy is undisciplined in that it belongs to no obvious field by melding history, political science, environmental studies, and philosophy. Yet, at the same time it evinces a disciplined focus on a specific question: how is democracy shaped by the energy system that underlies it? To answer this, Mitchell coheres a new narrative of the twentieth century that centres the Middle East and follows how the great problem of the epoch—the overabundance of petroleum—was managed through the imperialist ‘mandate’ system, taming the working class, a wasteful suburban economy, and recycling oil wealth into dollars and guns. To suture his narrative together, Mitchell uses both recent theoretical innovations, such as Actor Network Theory (ANT), as well as concepts dredged deep from the sedimentary layers of scholarship, including Thorstein Veblen’s ‘sabotage’ and Henry Brailsford’s ‘economic structure’. This résumé, however, describes only the surface of Mitchell’s method. The purpose of this brief essay is to delve deeper into the generative but little understood inner workings of Mitchell’s method.

The separation of the surface and essence of Mitchell’s theorising is strange, as he himself is hardly shy in making methodological pronouncements. In Carbon Democracy, he dismisses much of the vast literature on the ‘oil curse’ for not being about ‘the oil but the oil money’ (Mitchell 2011). Mitchell’s object-oriented approach has catalysed the study of energy history, transforming it from a dry, technical sub-field into a radical and burgeoning field of study. He has made clear in ‘The Stage of Modernity’ that he considers Marxism too eurocentric and stadial; a critique he extends in Carbon Democracy, where he questions whether capital has a ‘logic’ if commerce and conservative Islam can birth the bastard social formation of ‘McJihad’. In this way, Carbon Democracy should be understood as an attempt to create an alternative framework for working-class history sans capital or class consciousness. Alas, while examining Mitchell’s relationship to Marxism is a worthy endeavour in itself, the task at hand is to understand the framework Mitchell relies on in Carbon Democracy and other works: ANT.

Mitchell’s object-oriented approach has catalysed the study of energy history, transforming it from a dry, technical sub-field into a radical and burgeoning field of study.

Although ANT is often assumed to be part of the critical humanities, its founders Bruno Latour and Michel Callon wear their conservatism on their sleeve. Latour despises Marxists (‘those modernists par excellence’) and compares the critical sociology of Pierre Bourdieu to conspiracy theories (Latour 2004). While Latour studies scientists, Callon focuses on economists, a group that he urges scholars to ‘stop criticizing’ (cited in Mirowski and Nik-Khah 2007). Indeed, Callon not only follows his own advice, but also uncritically borrows much from the neoliberal concept of the ‘Coase Theorem’ for his own approach of ‘framing’ (1998). It should come at no surprise then that in Do Economists Make Markets?, a Festschrift for Callon, several of the contributors studied neoliberal hobby-horses, including the FCC auctions of the 1990s and the privatisation of fisheries through ‘individual transferable quotas’. Yet, ANT’s inherent conservatism has less to do with the political proclivities of its founders than the philosophical principles upon which it is based. By assuming that an ‘assemblage’ distributes ‘agency’ between the human and non-human equally in a ‘flat’ network, it is rather difficult to get the theoretical leverage necessary to see how certain agents exploit others (Latour 2005). The implications of this non-hierarchical approach was apparent in the very first ANT text, ‘Unscrewing the Big Leviathan’ (Latour and Callon 1981), which sought to erase distinctions between ‘micro-actors’ and ‘macro-actors’—and thus the differences between individuals, corporations, and states. Andreas Malm catalogues some of the more recent theorising by the epigones of Callon and Latour in his anti-ANT polemic, The Progress of This Storm, such as Timothy Morton’s bizarre belief that responsibility for climate change is shared between humanity and petroleum, an inanimate resource that has ‘dark designs of its own’ (cited in Malm 2018).

In Mitchell’s hands, however, ANT becomes a subversive social science. While he carefully traces complex networks to study certain phenomena, such as a malaria epidemic in mid-twentieth century Egypt or the relationship between democracy and energy systems, Mitchell never analyses flat networks but ones with hierarchical depth. He is quite aware how changes in Britain’s energy system by the 1980s strengthened the position of the Tory government to the detriment of coal miners and, thus, democracy more broadly. Mitchell defies Callon’s dictum by subjecting economists to merciless scrutiny. In ‘The Properties of Markets’, an essay included in Callon’s Festschrift, Mitchell carefully shows how World Bank economists skew the results of their land-titling initiative in Lima to better fit their theories. In this way, he argues, economics is ‘performative’ in that it ‘makes its world’ through skulduggery rather than the elegance of its theory (Mitchell 2007). The reason why Mitchell has avoided imbibing ANT’s conservatism likely has to do with earlier training as a postcolonial scholar of the Middle East, where empire, war, and inequality are impossible to ignore. Notably, another commendable ‘left Latourian’ is Eyal Weizman, who studies colonial architecture in occupied Palestine (Noys 2014).

Now, in the decade since Carbon Democracy was first published, where does one go from here? While the project of the energy humanities is a crucial one and there are many cases ripe for Mitchell’s methods—especially the ongoing energy transition to ‘non-conventionals’ like fracked petroleum or Albertan bitumen—I wonder if the more profound legacy of the book will be sparking a revolution within ANT. Although few of the many ANT scholars have managed Mitchell’s feat of using Latour and Callon’s methods but keeping a critical edge, there is no reason why it could not be widely emulated. What would the academy look like if more scholars practised Mitchell’s irreverent form of ANT to study the conceptual ‘devices’ and material infrastructure that oppressive systems depend upon? Latour once wondered if ‘critique has run out of steam’, but Mitchell has shown how fruitfully critique could be applied to steam-power itself. Mitchell has avoided an open break with the Paris School, but his scholarly endeavour can only be carried on by succeeding scholars if they understand the methods that produce the ‘Mitchell effect’.

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