Monday, March 05, 2012

Brief Summary Note on Carbon Democracy

Add another title to the short list of books that are essential reading with respect to our current situation: Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2011). I wrote previously that I had some minor issues with how Mitchell used the term democracy; those issues recurred, mainly in the concluding chapter, but they do not take away from the book's overall value. This won't be a review, but just a brief note on some aspects of the book.

Mitchell explains how the development of the coal industry, and the dependence on the energy derived from coal, enabled a novel democratization of politics. Coal miners and other workers were able to make their demands heard and attended to because they were in (literal, physical) positions to have effects on the flow of energy, a flow which, in numerous ways, could be interrupted. The subsequent turn to oil was in response to this democratization. First, oil was pursued as a successor to coal, in part to disable workers' existing power with respect to coal. Second, it was physically organized in such a fashion as to make interruptions more difficult.

Then we are treated to a brief history of the Middle East, in the context of the development of oil. Some of this history is not strictly speaking new to me, but its reorganization within a narrative focusing specifically on oil is extremely helpful. Lots of things begin to make a lot more sense. For example, the so-called "oil crisis" of 1973-74, which, far from being a nefarious Arab plot to profit off our dependency on oil, emerges as a crisis staged by the oil companies and the United States government, ultimately allowing for the transformation of the political landscape, towards what has become known as Neoliberalism. I'd already understood something of this history, thanks to the Midnight Notes Collective, but Mitchell's two chapters on the period are essential reading.

Perhaps the most fascinating portion of the book is Mitchell's account of the development of the object of study known as "the economy", which he argues came into being only in the mid-20th century. Rather than a political economy which took notice of the possible exhaustion of natural resources, and their costs, we now had a "science of money":
its object was not the material forces and resources of nature and human labour, but a new space that was opened up between nature on one side and human society and culture on the other—the not-quite-natural, not-quite-social space that came to be called 'the economy'.
The conception of which "depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies". Some of this might seem fairly innocuous, especially in my all-too-brief summary, but in fact, this conception became self-reinforcing and has had all kinds of implications on how we understand our world and act politically within it:
Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. The horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organizing expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called 'the economy'. Innovations in methods of calculation, the use of money, the measurement of transactions, and the compiling of national statistics made it possible to imagine the central object of politics as an object that could expand without any form of ultimate material constraint.
Those of us who live in the Western so-called "democracies" have been taught to expect limitless growth. We have this dangerous expectation, still, in part because many of us have experienced the period in question as "a time of plenty". Worse, our sense of the economy, as somehow outside of nature, as outside politics, has helped narrow our sense of what a democratic politics might look like, has contributed to our incredibly debased notions of democracy as about certain kinds of limited participation (manufactured consent) and certain kinds of institutions.

I may have much more to say about this book in future posts (it covers a lot more territory than what I've sketched above), but suffice it to say that I recommend it highly.

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