The excellent podcast Electric Politics recently played host to Dr. Timothy Mitchell who was there to discuss Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Amongst other things, his book provides a novel and provocative interpretation of modern political history with the primacy of energy source in its view. The near universal reliance on coal, he argues, heavily labor-intensive coal, furnished the concentrated, politically-organizable heft for democratizing challenges from below, for effective demands for a broader spreading of general prosperity. Likewise, it was coal, with its natural, similarly labor-intensive ally, rail that gave workers a potential choke-hold over nation-states and their militaries, and lent working classes their most formidable weapon – the general strike.
Oil, both by nature and by design, has served opposing political, social and economic tendencies. If you are looking for the enemies of the working classes (and, indeed, liberal democracy or democracy of any sort), look no further than the oil seas of Arabia and the internal combustion engine. Like host George Kenney, I’ll pass on the Derrida, but Mitchell’s ideas (and the podcast) are well worth your 53 minutes.
The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called “the economy” and the promise of its infinite growth.
Why so few cheerful songs about coal mining?
The Blackleg Miner by Steeleye Span