60 pages 2 hours read

Timothy Mitchell

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


In the 2013 nonfiction book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, British political theorist Timothy Mitchell upends the traditional view on the relationship between carbon-based energy (primarily coal and oil) and democracy. Mitchell takes issue with previous accounts because they typically gloss over how workers, oil companies, imperial powers, the public, and carbon-energy producing countries create political relations out of the flows of and demand for energy. As a political scientist and historian, Mitchell reexamines decades of historical, economic, and scientific data to provide detailed accounts of how coal and oil workers played a key role in democratic struggles by exploiting the vulnerabilities of the socio-technical systems of coal and oil production and distribution, and how oil companies and government officials worked, often together, to undermine democracy and maintain instability in the Middle East.

This guide uses the 2013 Verso paperback edition for citations.

Please note: The author uses British English in the book. This guide uses American English, except with direct quotes from the book which maintain British English spelling and grammar.


In the Introduction, Mitchell denounces both traditional ideas of the “oil curse” and the inverse relationship between democracy and oil. In Chapter 1, Mitchell argues that following the flow of and demand for carbon-energy better explains this relationship, starting with coal and the rise of mass politics in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and the US. Increased coal consumption led to the development of modern cities and factories, and created specialized workers in cross-cutting industries (mining, railways, manufacturing). The sociotechnical system of coal production and distribution had several vulnerabilities, which workers were able to exploit for the first time in human history through strikes and sabotage. In doing so, they increased their political agency, fighting for better working conditions, voting rights, and higher wages. The first democratic struggles took place in coal mines, on railways, and in factories.

The switch in reliance from coal to oil radically altered the political power of workers (and thus the public more broadly). The differences between oil and coal extraction, transportation, and use affected oil’s potential to create a democratic society. Compared to coal, oil is a fluid and therefore easier to extract from the ground. It is also easier and cheaper to distribute, including by sea. These differences reduced both the number of workers involved in the production and distribution of the energy source and the workers’ political power.

In Chapter 2, Mitchell explores the origins of the oilfields in the Middle East. The conventional story is that heroic pioneers discovered oil in remote and empty parts of the region. Mitchell refutes this account by demonstrating that foreign oil companies and imperial powers knew oil existed in this part of the world before extraction began. Rival oil firms attempted to gain exclusive control over the oilfields so they could obstruct the development of local oil industries (a form of sabotage) and maintain control over all oil profits. Imperial government officials, with support from oil companies, used this industrial sabotage to convince the public of the vulnerability of the oil supply. In doing so, they countered the powers of those fighting for a more democratic form of governance because belief in the scarcity of resources leads to autocracy.

This opposition to democracy contributed to the beginning of World War I (WWI), which in turn led to the creation of the League of Nations, the mandate system, and the principle of self-determination, as Mitchell discusses in Chapter 3. Imperial powers at the time argued that these mechanisms would increase democracy around the world. Instead, Mitchell demonstrates that all three were undemocratic and aimed at keeping imperial powers in control over the Middle East (and elsewhere) by producing the so-called “consent of the governed.”   

In Chapter 4, Mitchell explores how Iraq and other parts of the Middle East responded to these new mechanisms for imperial rule post-WWI. Foreign oil companies used these same mechanisms to solidify their control of the region’s oil. Local government officials and oil workers throughout the region began to push back against oil companies using methods similar to coal workers (e.g., strikes and sabotage). Oil companies and their home countries responded with violence, including the use of weapons, racial segregation, and overthrowing governments, to suppress the dissent.

From Chapter 5, Mitchell traces the relationship between fossil fuels and the economy. Contrary to conventional economic theory, he states that the economy became a new object of governance beginning in the mid-20th century. Low-cost, seemingly abundant oil facilitated the shift to this new form of politics. The abundance of oil made possible this new way of governing since the global capitalist economy of that time was based on the idea of unlimited economic growth. Government now occurred at the level of the nation-state. Alongside the economy, there was also a new way to monitor the flow of money through an international financial agreement, known as the Bretton Woods Agreement. Oil underwrote this new international financial mechanism.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Mitchell discusses how, starting in the middle of the 20th century, governments came to power in the countries of the Middle East that began to loosen imperial control over their country’s oil supply (e.g., from the US, Britain, and France). These challenges, alongside transformations to control of the global money flow and the crisis of 1973-1974, showed that neither the concept of the economy or the international financial agreement worked. Economists turned to the market as an alternative form of government. This new form of government was another way that Western oil companies and their allies tried to retain control over oil and limit democracy.

Around this time, Western countries started to export large quantities of weapons to the Middle East. Since these countries were losing money as government officials in the region took control over the oil industry, they used weapons sales to recoup some of this loss. Mitchell argues that the abundance of weapons contributes to the ongoing instability seen today.

In Chapter 8, Mitchell expresses his belief that the US government’s support of political regimes in the Middle East explains why the tension between oil, democracy, and Islam endures. He coins the term “McJihad,” which refers to the collaboration between the US and government officials and conservative religious leaders in Middle Eastern countries to control the oilfields. Through military and financial support, the US helps prop up some of the most infamous autocratic leaders and prolongs conflict, all to keep its control over oil.

In the concluding chapter of Carbon Democracy, Mitchell discusses the contemporary limits of the modern political system based on carbon-energy. To him, the world faces two predicaments. The first is the exhaustion of current oilfields, and that it is becoming more difficult to replace this supply with new oil. The second predicament is the acceleration of climate change caused by humanity’s consumption of coal and oil. Mitchell underscores that current forms of political power are inadequate for dealing with either of these challenges. He also believes that oil companies and their allies continue to manipulate the public regarding the remaining oil supply and climate change.

By tracing the relationships between carbon energy, finance, expertise, violence, and democracy, Mitchell demonstrates that a post-carbon future might not necessarily be more democratic. He underscores that everyone must take part in social and political battles around energy to create a more democratic future for the global community. Failure to do so will mean that corrupt oil companies and government officials will continue to suppress more collective means of organizing political power.