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When The Democrat and the Dictator Sleep in the Same Bed Part I

October 3, 2012

In June 2012 journalist Robert Fisk reported alleged behind-closed-doors negotiations between the big powers about a solution to the Syrian standoff. The talk revolved around a quid-pro-quo: western powers would have agreed to leave Assad in place; in exchange they would have secured oil routes from the Arabian Peninsula through Syria. This would have lessened the Russia’s power to switch off the energy tap to Europe. The politics of the West are dependent, today as in the past, on an undemocratic Middle East. In his book Carbon Democracy professor Timothy Mitchell explores how the making, un-making and the sustainability of industrial democracies of the West was connected to oil-producing countries of the Middle East. It does so by reflecting about one fundamental dimension of such interaction: oil. This is the first of two posts which will look at how oil in the Middle East built or un-built over time democratic claims both in the West and in the Middle East.

Mechanism of Goodwill: Manufacturing Consent. A previous post sketched how the rise of mass democracies in the West in the 19th century was linked to machinery of action that workers crafted out the flow of fossil energy. The capacity to interrupt and disrupt the flow of the fossil fuel (i.e. coal) which power a country was decisive to bend the ruling oligarchies into listening to their claims to mass democracies. In the period between the two world wars oligarchies in the West engineered a new mechanism which could ensure the flow of oil from the Middle East so that less democratic forms of government in the West could be sustained. They did so because oil was seen as an effective mean to weaken democratic claims (see here why).

In the Middle East. This new mechanism of control of the colonies was called self-determination and it was an idea geared to manufacture the consent of the governed (mainly in the colonies) to give away their oil under conditions dictated by others.  This mechanism of control could be summarized in the formula “rule subjects races through their chiefs” (p.87). The case of Iraq is paradigmatic: Britain put in power a narrow elite headed by a foreign emir who agreed to concede the right to exploration, development and extraction of Iraqi oil to a consortium of British and American oil companies (under the banner IPC). It did so without gaining a share in the ownership in the consortium: any attempt to influence and monitor IPC’s operations by the Iraqi government remained  in the realm of wishful thinking.

Mechanisms of Democracy Management: Fuel Economy and Cold War.

In the West: Oil and The Making of the Economy. The availability of low cost oil contributed to the emergence of new object of politics in the West which limited the space for radical democratic claims – the economy.   The economy was defined as a sum of every instance of money changing hands. Because of this feature, the economy, whose borders coincided with those of the new nation states, could grow without getting physically bigger. Oil was at the basis of this limitless growth because of two of its attributes: a declining cost and its apparent inexhaustibility due to abundance and transportability.  From now on radical democratic claims were countered with the promise that the boat would rise for everybody because economic growth was limitless. The new object of politics called economy was in fact used to carve out areas of the common good from the democratic debate to be under the judgment of economic experts (see here on this). In Mitchell’s words “ economics provided a method of setting limits to democratic practice, and maintaining them” (p. 124).  The credibility of such promise hinged upon a flow of low cost carbon energy. How as this flow to be ensured?

In the Middle East: Cold War. The short answer is Cold War. This framework served to maintain the capacity to decide the terms and conditions under which the oil of other could be traded and bartered.  Western oil companies were in fact able to justify the preservation of  forms of control over the petroleum of others: it was a matter of national security, so they said. The lack of democracy in the Middle East was matched by the management of democratic practices in the West.

The next post will look at how oil and oil crisis in the Middle East further closed the spaces for the advancement of egalitarian claims both in the oil producing Middle East and the industrialized oil-consuming West.


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