Friday, September 21, 2012

Carbon Democracy

Fascinating review of what looks to be another must have for the aspiring radical sociologist: Carbon Democracy by Tim Mitchell. From what I can gather, the book's thesis is that our energy sources had a huge impact on how modern political arrangements developed. Most people are cognizant of the fact that slavery, a remarkably durable institution originating almost at the very dawn of civilization, faded out as a legal source of labor only when energy slaves powered by fossil fuels became the primary source of wealth. But it turns out the widespread use of coal and the subsequent switch (more accurately, addition) of oil had profound results on how politics developed in the twentieth century.

Because coal is a labor-intensive commodity to mine and transport and was the vital fuel source which powered both domestic industry and military might, it was was vulnerable to strikes, and hence to the labor movement. Most worker concessions during the Paleotechnic regime came about as the result of coal strikes:
 Eventually, England began using coal to fuel its economy, leading to substantial economic growth and imperial strength. Coal, though, presented a challenge to the governing elites, since the characteristics of coal, with its labor intensive extraction methods, were quite vulnerable to strikes. Coal was hard to transport, and miners operated underground in a collaborative manner. Once on the surface, coal had to be moved by fixed networks of trains. There were multiple bottlenecks here, and in the late 19th century, for the first time, the energy system of the industrialized world was reliant on workers who could withhold their labor and block a key resource. This translated directly into political power.
The British elites figured that as long as they depended on domestic labor for their coal, that labor had a pretty potent weapon to use, and hence switched to oil based in the Middle East:
Whereas Britain had very small discovered deposits of oil (large discoveries in the North Sea would come much later), oil had different physical characteristics than coal. It could be drilled, and easily shipped through pipelines and oil tankers, thus rendering it far less vulnerable to labor slowdowns and sabotage. Churchill, in switching away from coal, was in effect trading dependence on Welsh labor and his left-wing political opponents at home for dependence on corporate cartels operating in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, Britain occupied Iraq in a brutal and controversial period during the 1920s, foreshadowing America’s later actions in the region.
And far from being a scarce commodity until recently, the problem was that it was too abundant, leading to efforts to restrict the supply and corner the market so as to maximize profits and political power:
Mitchell points out that the problem of oil has never, until recently, been that it is a scarce commodity, but that it is a surplus commodity. We had too much of it. And the central problem that this created was now how to find more of it, but how to ensure that oil cartels profiting from high oil prices could make sure that very few new oil finds, especially from the massive fields in the Middle East, came online. Far from a hardy band of entrepreneurs searching for more oil, the story of oil is one of parasitic cartels manipulating governments and inventing concepts like mandates, self-determination, and national security to ensure they could retain high profits selling a widely available commodity. Mitchell wrote, “The companies had learned from Standard Oil that it was easier to control the means of transportation. Building railways and pipelines required negotiating rights from the government, which typically granted the further right to prevent the establishing of competing lines. After obtaining the rights, the aim was usually to delay construction, but without losing the right. Iraq became the key place to sabotage the production of oil. It would retain that role through much of the twentieth century, and reacquire it in a different way in the twenty-first century.”
And much of the creation of the modern economy as something separate from the wider society is due to the use of coal and imported oil:
It is here that Carbon Democracy truly shines. Mitchell has reinterpreted the creation of much of our democratic apparatus, from labor laws to minimum wages to the right to vote to resistance to imperialism, as the struggle between different types of carbon-based fuels and the various characteristics of the labor required to extract and use them. Oil and how it flows is modern democracy.  Even the creation of modern economics, he shows, the notion of the “economy” itself, is a function of coal and oil. The first massive collections of government statistics, Mitchell points out, were attempts to quantify coal reserves. And in the early 20th century, there were two different conceptions of economics, one by economists like Thorsten Veblen that focused on the scarcity of resources, and the other by those who ultimately became neoclassical and Keynesian, which assumed infinite resources. The latter ended up winning, because the massive surplus of oil allowed for industrial agriculture to solve our food supply issues, and petrochemicals to provide a virtually infinite array of material shapes and sizes for any number of uses.

In the 1930s, Keynes essentially invented the concept of the “economy”, as a sphere where political choices should not intrude. This created the period of “managed democracy”, which lasted until the 1970s. Oil was the fuel sources that created this pseudo-democratic system, which involved strict financial controls to stop oil speculators from driving the price of oil down and crimping oil company profits. Glass-Steagall and the strict financial laws set up in the Depression, as it turns out, had at their core the protection of the oil industry (political scientist Tom Ferguson echoes this interpretation in his work). Similarly, the unraveling of this system because of higher oil demand in the 1970s led the neoliberals to gradually break this system of financial regulation.
Once the industrialized world became addicted to oil, it was time to break the back of labor:
In addition to what would become the World Bank and IMF, Keynes wanted to establish an international body to manage commodities, including and especially oil. While no institution was ever set up to do this, a framework of national security and “the Cold War” managed to keep Middle Eastern and Russian offline for a long period of time. In addition, the oil companies used public relations to encourage a high oil consumption lifestyle in the United States, so as to keep the price of oil as high as possible. In Europe, Mitchell encourages a revised view of the Marshall plan, as a joint European and American elite plan to break European labor power...Thus, the European Community, which is currently in the thrall of a monetary crisis, was created out of a fierce political battle over oil, coal, profits and labor. And now, with the Cold War over and the European infrastructure dependent on labor-immune oil, the welfare states of the Eurozone are being destroyed. Carbon Democracy, as a historical narrative, explains why this is not a an anomaly. Chucking labor and social insurance overboard is a feature, not a bug, of the European experiment. Only by understanding the relationship of Europe to coal and oil does this become apparent, and can we cast aside quaint notions of democracy that ignore realpolitik.
And now that conventional oil sources have peaked and begun their inexorable decline:
The ultimate conclusion of the book is that a climate crisis, and peak oil, are putting our deeply held political arrangements in a period of uncertainty and crisis. Once you’ve gone on this journey through time, and you understand Mitchell’s narrative that our very intellectual horizons are dominated by oil as a surplus and infinite commodity, it becomes hard to conclude that our cultures will look remotely similar to what they look like today in just a few years.
How Coal Brought Us Democracy And Oil Ended It: Lessons From The New Book "Carbon Democracy" (Naked Capitalism)

It also explains why the wind, water and peat powered Middle Ages was a time of political decentralization and local economies, and why there is so much resistance in certain quarters to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, etc. - they would lead once again to decentralization and local control of energy supplies. Nuclear would, of course, maintain centralization, which is why it is preferred over those other renewable sources.

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