Sunday, February 26, 2012

Notes on the early parts of Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy

After my recent post on technology and the classless society, Aaron Bady mentioned that he'd been reading Timothy Mitchell's latest book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, and that it addresses just the sorts of questions I was attempting to raise.

I'm reading it now, and it looks to be an excellent contribution to the discussion. Right away, early in the introduction, we read this:
The leading industrialized countries are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, traveling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. These ways of life are not sustainable, and they now face the twin crises that will end them [i.e., the exhaustion of fossil fuels themselves, and global warming/climate change].
On these twin crises, it does often feel as though, as Philip Goodchild puts it, "that little else is worth thinking about", even as "[t]he public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion", neither doing much thinking nor taking effective action. There are exceptions, of course; there always are. But a major part of the problem is who it is that is in position to take action, who constitutes that "public".

Anyway, I've as yet read only the introduction and chapter one in Carbon Democracy, but I want to jot down some thoughts that have occurred to me so far.

1. The very word democracy, as employed by Mitchell, throws me right away. I usually bristle when someone refers to the United States, or Britain, or France, or Israel, as "democracies". For me, this is because I define democracy a certain way, as a situation in which ordinary people have non-trivial say over important decisions affecting their actual lives. It is my contention that most people understand democracy similarly. So, I decided that Mitchell's use of the word democracy, at first, to refer to political entities of the West meant that I would need to adjust my reading against his usage. Happily, it turns out that Mitchell is not oblivious of this problem:
The term 'democracy' can have two kinds of meaning. It can refer to ways of making effective claims for a more just and egalitarian common world. Or it can refer to a mode of governing populations that employs popular consent as a means of limiting claims for greater equality and justice by dividing up the common world. Such limits are formed by acknowledging certain areas as matters of public concern subject to popular decision while establishing other fields to be administered under alternative methods of control. For example. governmental practice can demarcate a private sphere governed by rules of property, a natural world governed by laws of nature, or markets governed by principles of economics. Democratic struggles become a battle over the distribution of issues, attempting to establish as matters of public concern questions that others claim as private (such as the level of wages paid by employers), as belonging to nature (such as the exhaustion of natural resources or the composition of gases in the atmosphere), or as ruled by laws of the market (such as financial speculation). In the mid-twentieth century, this 'logic of distribution' began to designate a large new field of government whose rules set limits to alternative political claims: the field that became known as 'the economy'.
OK. This is very good. My definition of democracy is closer to the first one given above (I think his is too weak). The second definition is apparently the primary sense used in the book. Though I suspect it's the tension between the two that is carried through. In any event, this resolves some of my conflict.

2. This tension, or the difference between definitions of what democracy entails, leads to one of the points Mitchell makes early in his introduction, about American "experts on democracy" taking an abstract "idea" of democracy, and seeking to impose it on other countries, whether it be Iraq or wherever. Obviously, it seems to me, the extent to which Iraqis, or Afghans, or anyone else, yearns for a more democratic politics, this means that they want to have a say in their own lives; whereas, Western bureaucrats, and American experts in particular, simply want to drop institutions from the sky (after the bombs, naturally), institutions which are democratic only in terms of Mitchell's second definition. The last thing they want is for ordinary Iraqis to have any real say in their political-economic life (after all, they are trying to control the flow of oil). The same was true in the first place in those Western countries that currently have apparently democratic institutions:
The advocates of representative government had seen it not as a step towards democracy but as an oligarchic alternative to it, in which the power of government was reserved to those whose ownership of property (the control of land, but also of women, servants and slaves) gave them power over the point of passage for the revenues on which government depended, and qualified them to be concerned with public matters. […] In many cases, moreover, the rise of a centralized fiscal-military state in which representation justified the exercise of power coincided with the weakening of other, dispersed forms of participation and self-government that were sometimes more accountable to their constituents, such as the elected corporate bodies in England that governed universities, towns, companies and societies.
That is, the institutions would seek to isolate important decisions from popular influence or control. It occurs to me that, where once this was understood by advocates for representative government, it too often no longer is. Western planners do not now understand this distinction, nor do many white, educated liberals (or conservatives, certainly). To them, and all to often us, these institutions simply are democracy. To this extent, I can't help but think of such American-style experts as both evil and stupid. Graham Greene's "Quiet American" comes to mind. They don't have good intentions, but they both imagine they do and don't understand why they are perceived not to.

3. Mitchell also writes:
Since the new machinery of control operated partly by governing flows of oil, and the Middle East was becoming the main source of the world's oil, organizing the region under imperial control became important for the possibility of democracy as a mode of government in the West.
Another way of putting another generally unthinkable thought: our even very limited sense of democracy in the West, along with our modern way of life, is itself dependent on oppression abroad.

4. In chapter one, Mitchell writes this:
The rise of democracy is often attributed to the emergence of new forms of political consciousness. The autonomy enjoyed by coal miners lends itself to this kind of explanation. There is no need, however, to detour into questions of a shared culture or collective consciousness to understand the new forms of agency that miners helped assemble. The detour would be misleading, for it would imply that there was some shortage in earlier periods or other places of people demanding a less precarious life.

What was missing was not consciousness, not a repertoire of demands, but an effective way of forcing the powerful to listen to those demands. The flow and concentration of energy made it possible to connect the demands of miners to those of others, and to give their arguments a technical force that could not easily be ignored. Strikes became effective, not because of mining's isolation, but on the contrary because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power.
I'm happy to see the remarks on consciousness. I've always been troubled by the idea that modernity brought political consciousness to light, as if people haven't always been capable of hating authority and resisting it, in whatever small ways were available. Alas, technical capability is another thing entirely.

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