How Coal Bought Democracy and Oil Ended It

How Coal Bought Democracy and Oil Ended It

Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him at Long before politicians mewled helplessly about the power of “Big Oil”, carbon-based fuels were shaping our very political, legal, intellectual, and physical structures. It was, for instance, coal miners who brought us the right to vote. Israel’s founding had a lot to do with British fears of Palestinian labor unrest in coastal energy complexes. And the European Community was a post-WWII experiment to switch that continent to oil, a task begun before World War I by British conservatives to defeat their domestic political opponents. Glass-Steagall crimped financial flows, partially at the behest of the oil industry. In fact, you can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil. That’s the contention of Tim Mitchell’s new book, Carbon Democracy Political Power in the Age of Oil , a history of the relationship between carbon-based fueling sources and modern political systems. It’s a book that tackles a really big subject, in a sweeping but readable fashion, and after reading it, it’s hard to imagine thinking about political power the same way again. Everything in our politics flows through dense carbon-based energy sources, and has for three to four hundred years. For instance, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a pivotal moment in America’s strategic outlook. America, a global hegemon whose empire was weakening, seized the second largest oil deposits in the world as a way of preventing its economic and political decline. Was there any precedent for this kind of action? As it turns out, yes. The last declining global hegemon, Great Britain, also engaged in a brutal and highly controversial British occupation of Iraq, in the 1920s, pressed aggressively by the well-known British conservative, Winston Churchill. Churchill supported this occupation not just because he wanted Iraq’s oil, but because he wanted to defeat democratic forces – particularly militant coal miner unions – at home. Churchill and conservative elites running through British history (most recently Margaret Thatcher) understood that as long as the British power grid, and more importantly the military, was dependent on radical coal miners, his left-leaning labor opponents would be able to demand higher wages, social insurance, voting rights, and a share of the economic gains of the British economy. He preferred to have the British economy running on oil, so he sought imperial strategies to ensure access to resources without being reliant on his political opponents. Globally, in fact, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor. The use of coal and oil in the context of industrialization has always been about who has the power to profit from the surplus these energy forms produce, but until now, no one has pulled the various historical details together into a historical narrative laying bare the fascinating power dynamics behind the rise of Western political systems and their relationship with energy. Carbon Democracy is an examination of our civilization’s 400 hundred year use of carbon-based energy fueling sources, and the political systems that grew up intertwined with them. Rather than presenting energy and democracy as separate things, like a battery and a device, Mitchell discusses the political architecture of the Western world and the developing world as inherently tied to fueling sources. The thesis is that elites have always sought to maximize not the amount of energy they could extract and use, but the profit stream from those energy sources. They struggled to ensure they would be able to burn carbon and profit, without having to rely on the people who extract and burned it for them. Carbon-based fuels thus cannot be understood except in the context of labor, imperialism and democracy. This book is a response to David Yergen’s The Prize: The Epic Question for Oil, Money, and Power , a classic story of hardy entrepreneurs taking huge risks to find oil in the most remote places. Yergen’s narrative centers on oil scarcity, and its contributions to economic growth in a capitalist framework. Oil is, to Yergen, the prize, solving the key problem of how to supply enough energy for a modern consumer society with a flexible and inexpensive fuel source. In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell has a counterintuitive take on oil, one that after awhile, makes much more sense than what Yergen argues. 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. But Mitchell takes the story much deeper than Yergen did, because Yergen’s book is fundamentally a fairy tale that skirts over questions of labor and colonialism. Mitchell goes back before the widespread use of oil, to the industrialization of England and England’s use of carbon-based fuels, like forests, peat, and coal. Industrialization demanded two seemingly contradictory factors – huge new tracts of land to grow industrial raw materials like cotton and high energy food crops like sugar, and far more centralized urban centers for manufacturing. What happened, of course, is that England simply acquired colonies with large land tracts overseas, using slave labor to harvest necessary commodities, while becoming an urban society in its core areas. 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. As Mitchell put it, “Coal miners played a leading role in contesting work regimes and the private powers of employers in the labour activism and political mobilisation of the 1880s and onward. Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry, tobacco manufacturing.” The coal industry was the key radicalizing force in bringing democracy to the Western world. For instance, in the United States in the 1930s, the radical Congress of Industrial Organizations, which is now the CIO part of the AFL-CIO, was founded by John Lewis, of the militant United Mine Workers. The rise of labor militancy in the coal mines had global political significance. “Between the 1880s and the interwar decades, workers in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America used their new powers over energy flows to acquire or extend the right to vote and, more importantly, the right to form labour unions, to create political organizations, and to take collective action including strikes.” World War I, which was the first war fought with opposing armies both using the applied force of a dense carbon-based fuel, was both incredibly bloody and important in terms of bringing strength to labor. Workers had leverage, because they fueled military forces, in particular the British Navy. Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a type of coal that both packed full of energy and quick to heat, by far the best fuel for battleships. But these miners had been engaged in a wave of strikes and unrest from 1910-1914, which led Winston Churchill, then in charge of the admiralty, to switch the navy to oil. 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 coin


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