3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.14 | Simp­son PDF


Carbon Democracy: Historicizing Friction?

Mitchell, Tim­o­thy. Car­bon Democ­ra­cy: Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the Age of Oil. Lon­don: Ver­so, 2011. 278 pp. $33.50 CAN. ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-745-0.

Book review by Mark Simpson

Ezra Lev­ant, the fore­most pro­po­nent of the idea of eth­i­cal oil, depicts Alberta’s bitu­men indus­try in utopi­an terms: “the oil sands are proof of the great good for­tune that a huge amount of ener­gy, in the right hands, can deliv­er to a stag­ger­ing num­ber of peo­ple” (224-5). Levant’s account encap­su­lates and epit­o­mizes the nar­ra­tives of social and petro­cul­tur­al smooth­ness that under­pin pre­vail­ing defens­es of bitu­men extrac­tion in the con­tem­po­rary moment. Smooth oil and smooth soci­ety enable one anoth­er, to the enrich­ment of all, now and for­ev­er – or so the sto­ry goes.

Tim­o­thy Mitchell’s Car­bon Democ­ra­cy man­ages, among its many brac­ing inter­ven­tions,  to demol­ish the smooth oil sto­ry. Over the course of an intro­duc­tion, eight chap­ters, and a con­clu­sion, the book his­tori­cizes and cri­tiques the aims and ends, ori­gins and out­comes, of smooth oil’s nar­ra­tives. In so doing, it affords new and inci­sive insight into modernity’s pol­i­tics of mobility.

But what if,” Mitchell won­ders, “democ­ra­cies are not car­bon copies but car­bon-based? What if they are tied in spe­cif­ic ways to the his­to­ry of car­bon fuels? Can we fol­low the car­bon itself, the oil, so as to con­nect the prob­lem afflict­ing oil-pro­duc­ing states to oth­er lim­its of democ­ra­cy?” (5-6). His project’s key con­cept, car­bon democ­ra­cy, issues from these ques­tions. Ren­der­ing inex­tri­ca­ble ener­gy from pol­i­tics as modes of pow­er, it pre­sup­pos­es democ­ra­cy in two sens­es: “ways of mak­ing effec­tive claims for a more just and egal­i­tar­i­an com­mon world,” or else “a means of lim­it­ing claims for greater equal­i­ty and jus­tice by divid­ing up the com­mon world” (9). Mitchell con­nects the first of these sens­es to coal, the fuel source that petro­le­um would come to sup­plant. Coal mat­ters to his argu­ment in the sig­nif­i­cance it holds for cap­i­tal­ist indus­try and demo­c­ra­t­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty togeth­er. Since access to coal – the pre­em­i­nent form of ener­gy in mid- to late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry indus­tri­al life – hinged on the labor pow­er and tech­ni­cal exper­tise of min­ers, their abil­i­ty to dis­rupt the extrac­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the resource afford­ed them tremen­dous lever­age in demand­ing and assert­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic rights. Such vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, intol­er­a­ble to the sov­er­eign pow­ers of indus­tri­al moder­ni­ty, was as Mitchell makes clear a prime spur in the shift away from coal toward petroleum—and so toward democ­ra­cy in his sec­ond sense. From the out­set, the oil net­work was a dis­tend­ed one, with refine­ment occur­ring far from the scene of extrac­tion, and dis­tri­b­u­tion man­aged by pipeline and tanker more than by rail. Against the mod­el of coal, in oth­er words, oil pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion dis­placed and dimin­ished the agency of workers—and there­by the ener­gy vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of the rul­ing order. Con­comi­tant­ly, oil exper­tise became increas­ing­ly the province of the engi­neer and the econ­o­mist, com­ple­men­tary fig­ures whose com­bined knowl­edge could serve to com­pli­cate the mean­ings of petro­car­bon fuels, and so occlude mass or every­day under­stand­ings of them. Thus ren­dered a near­ly mag­i­cal resource, oil could sup­ply the name, in social nar­ra­tive or ide­ol­o­gy, for demo­c­ra­t­ic free­dom, abun­dance, and oppor­tu­ni­ty, yet also under­mine, in social prac­tice, the very con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for mass demo­c­ra­t­ic life.

Mitchell’s analy­sis man­ages to demon­strate, com­pelling­ly, the inti­mate inex­tri­ca­bil­i­ty not antin­o­my between author­i­tar­i­an oil states in the Mid­dle East and lib­er­al democ­ra­cies in Europe and North Amer­i­ca. In the age of oil, the for­mer con­sti­tute some­thing like the latter’s nec­es­sary sup­ple­ment – what Mitchell pith­ily terms “McJi­had” – as dynam­ics of the oil sys­tem fuel resilient kinds of impe­r­i­al con­trol while check­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic poten­tial­i­ty every­where. Petroculture’s car­bon democ­ra­cy impels the con­tin­u­ing sup­port, by Euroamer­i­can gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions, of repres­sive regimes glob­al­ly; the pro­duc­tive yet con­tra­dic­to­ry – or pro­duc­tive because con­tra­dic­to­ry? – asso­ci­a­tion of oil with plen­i­tude and cri­sis; the rise of an arms indus­try serv­ing chiefly to recy­cle petro-prof­it; and the inven­tion of “the mar­ket” as a mode of future-ori­ent­ed com­mon-sense hiv­ing off broad dimen­sions of social life from demo­c­ra­t­ic con­tes­ta­tion. As Mitchell makes clear, car­bon democ­ra­cy in the age of oil can­not do with­out the prob­lem­at­ic of abun­dance and scarci­ty – of petro-plen­i­tude and petro-pre­car­i­ous­ness – that it aggres­sive­ly puts into cir­cu­la­tion, and that it repeat­ed­ly (and increas­ing­ly) fails to be able to con­trol. Hence the uncer­tain­ty and anx­i­ety that, in the con­tem­po­rary moment, attend the loom­ing exhaus­tion of oil reserves: a whole biopo­lit­i­cal order, not just a form of fuel, is very much in play and at stake.

Mitchell’s study com­pounds its accom­plish­ment in the­o­riz­ing and his­tori­ciz­ing the dynam­ics of car­bon democ­ra­cy by refus­ing to pro­pose any straight­for­ward alter­na­tive or solu­tion to the pass­ing of the age of oil. That said, Car­bon Democ­ra­cy clear­ly empow­ers its read­ers, both by advanc­ing such a stim­u­lat­ing account of the inter­re­la­tion of ener­gy to pol­i­tics in the mod­ern era and by iden­ti­fy­ing, in the very uncer­tain­ty of the present moment, the con­di­tions of pos­si­bil­i­ty for new polit­i­cal poten­tial­i­ties to emerge. Any­one con­cerned with the geneal­o­gy and futu­ri­ty of ener­gy pol­i­tics – as for that mat­ter of demo­c­ra­t­ic ener­gies – needs to read this remark­able book.

Works cited

Lev­ant, Ezra. Eth­i­cal Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. Toron­to: McClel­land & Stew­art, 2010. Print.

Author Biography

Simp­son, Mark: Mark Simp­son is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish and Film Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta. His research takes up issues of mobil­i­ty, cir­cu­la­tion, and col­lec­tiv­i­ty in US cul­ture. He has pub­lished Traf­fick­ing Sub­jects: The Pol­i­tics of Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca with the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press (2005), and arti­cles and chap­ters in Eng­lish Stud­ies in Cana­da, Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Prose, Cul­tur­al Cri­tique, and the recent Oxford UP col­lec­tion US Pop­u­lar Print Cul­ture 1860-1920, among oth­er venues. Cur­rent projects include a study of post­card cul­ture cir­ca 1900, and a study of taxi­dermy and ani­mal conservation.

Simp­son, Mark: Mark Simp­son est pro­fesseur agrégé dans le départe­ment d’anglais et d’études ciné­matographiques à l’Université de l’Alberta. Ses recherch­es por­tent sur la mobil­ité, la cir­cu­la­tion, et la col­lec­tiv­ité dans la cul­ture état­suni­enne. Il a pub­lié le livre Traf­fick­ing Sub­jects: The Pol­i­tics of Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2005), ain­si que des arti­cles et des chapitres dans Eng­lish Stud­ies in Cana­da, Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Prose, Cul­tur­al Cri­tique, et plus récem­ment dans le recueil US Pop­u­lar Print Cul­ture 1860-1920 (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press). Ses pro­jets actuels com­pren­nent une étude de la cul­ture des cartes postales autour de 1900, ain­si qu’une étude de la taxi­der­mie et de la con­ser­va­tion animale.


Copy­right Mark Simp­son. This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.

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