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Review

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

By Timothy Mitchell

November 8, 2013

Review By Jonathan Peyton

Carbon Democracy historicizes “the forms of democratic politics that carbon made possible” (233). Timothy Mitchell’s goal is nothing short of destabilizing two central intellectual and material pillars of modern western life: the sacrosanct institution of liberal democratic politics and the massive hydrocarbon economy that he suggests made it possible. At the crux of Mitchell’s argument is the assertion that the biophysical properties of oil and the materialities of its extraction, processing, and manipulation within the market distort the movements and development of democratic politics. Mitchell is looking for a “socio-technical understanding” of democratic potential, one that looks to “the imbroglios of the technical, the natural and the human” (239) to explain the development opportunities created by the convergence of energy and politics. He weaves the tricky concepts of scarcity, abundance, and expertise to show how the extra-territorial manipulations of oil production in the Middle East were and are intimately connected to the maintenance of liberal democracy, the success of the dogma of economic progress (“the principle of limitless growth,” as he calls it on 234), and the continued industrial vigour in the Global North.

It is this startling claim, coupled with his conviction that so-called modern societies will not survive the corollary climate effects of the depletion of hydrocarbon resources, that motivates the research and make it so relevant to contemporary concerns. The questions at the heart of Mitchell’s analysis echo for Canadians faced with the ambivalent tensions of our increasingly petro-centric economic and political lives. Stephen Harper’s 2006 claim that Canada is an “emerging energy superpower” should sit awkwardly with Mitchell’s analysis of the convergence of democratic politics and energy extraction which, when considered alongside the careful technocratic management of the economy, constitute a form of violence. Mitchell shows us the damage done by the suppression of dissent and the stifling of debate in the name of smooth hydrocarbon-based economic progress at both geographic ends of the hydrocarbon commodity chain.

To complicate matters, Canadian democratic futures must also contend with a legislative agenda that has sought to reformulate the environment as an altered object of politics, one that governs nature as a facilitator of extractive economies and regards the economy as the repository of this largesse. Carbon Democracy speaks usefully to the geopolitics of these tensions, though it is less attentive to the environment as an object of analysis. There are continuities with previous work as well. Mitchell eschews an increasingly conventional cause and effect, production and consumption, model of explanation in favour of a remarkable dissection of the creation of the economy as the mediator of progress and energy extraction.

There is local relevance as well. In British Columbia recently, the democratic culture has been shaped by debates around energy futures: prospective pipelines bisecting the province, envisioned LNG (liquid natural gas) terminals transforming the economy and ecology of the central coast, and planned mega-dams further altering the Peace River region. The dangers to a democratic politics are manifest through this attention to energy and development. Herein lies the most important contemporary contribution of Carbon Democracy: the mutually productive capacity of energy and democracy sets the terms of everyday life, in the process creating both the possibilities for and limits to action.

This book should be of interest to anyone working in the bourgeoning field of energy studies, and will appeal to students of geography, history, political science, and anthropology, and to those attuned to developments in critical geopolitics and political ecology more generally. Carbon Democracy never quite reaches the soaring analytical heights of Mitchell’s previous monographs (Colonising Egypt and Rule of Experts), but it does comment thoughtfully on the antecedent ambiguities surrounding governance, justice, and political participation in “petro-states,” as well as the corollary influences of the massive hydrocarbon economy on the social, economic, and political relationship in the Global North.

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
Timothy Mitchell
London: Verso, 2011, 278 pp. Photographs. $33.50 cloth