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

October 9, 2012

The previous post discussed how the switch from coal to oil in the West served to weaken the power of workers to impose their radical egalitarian claims. The characteristics of oil limited workers’ capacity to disrupt the flow of energy while at the same time substantiating a new promise: an endless economic growth based on a limitless reservoirs of petroleum. The making of the economy in the West was intertwined with the making of the Cold War in other regions. In this way western governments in collusion with oil companies were able to set the conditions under which the oil of others was to be traded and bartered. This state of affairs was undone in the following decades as oil-producing countries in the Middle East carved a space of independence in the management of their resources. This increased autonomy however resulted into a closure of the democratic space both in the West and Middle East. This happened at a time when Middle East was being increasingly militarized: the oil complex was in fact increasingly colluding with the weapon industry.

Sabotage and Strikes. During the 1950s and 1960s the democratic claims in the West were countered with new mechanisms. This happened as the international oil companies’ grip over oil flows in the Middle East was weakened.  

In the Middle East: Sabotaging its Way to Autonomy. During the 1950s and 1960s political movements in the Middle East were successful in taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of the petroleum networks. By sabotaging or stopping altogether the pipelines, refineries and distribution networks, those political movements assembled a machinery of action which allowed them to wrest control of their oil from the dominant Anglo-American cartel. These new governments used the same techniques utilized by workers to impose claims for mass democracy. Once they gained their power however they were able to safeguard it against egalitarian demands from below. The means for the protection of their status were provided by the oil, more specifically the profit from oil. As petrodollars were flowing to the regimes of the Middle East, the US had to find a way for the dollars to flow back so to ensure a balance of payment. Weapons represented a good which could be purchased by the Middle Eastern regimes from American companies without any limitation. New regimes found thus better equipped themselves against attempts of popular revolt. The militarization of the oil states in the Middle East, despite ineffective in some instances, implied that popular protests were met with increased violence (p. 162).

In the West: Strikes and the Container. These two decades saw the end of massive strike in Europe which were replaced by targeted and systematic stoppage of production. This was accompanied by the engineering of paralysis in the one sector where the flow of material was going through: transportation (p. 153). These more radical forms of protests were effectively challenged by one innovation: the container and the ability to transport resource across the globe with a limited role of the workforce. Outsourcing was the phantom used to scare workers into compliance for less egalitarian claims.

The Crisis That Never Happened and An Excess of Democracy.

Middle East: Who Is to Blame for Increasing Oil Prices? The oil exporting countries organized themselves into a cartel which could arrange for a limited flow of oil to the rest of the world. The birth of OPEC ushered cycles of militarization, conflict and energy wars. The first of these wars was the 1973 energy crisis. The energy crisis was triggered by the October 1973 war and it had two immediate tangible effects: an increase in oil prices which benefited both oil producing countries and Western oil companies; and an increased militarization of the regimes in the Middle East to address the latent insecurity in the region (p.186). Both these effects were linked to decisions made in Washington: the rise in oil price was an arm used by the oil producing countries to harm-twist the US into resolving the Palestinian issue; the increase in weapons delivered to Middle Eastern regime was cheered by policy makers in DC to perpetuate a state of insecurity so that the Palestinian issue could not be solved. As Mitchell puts it “the crisis cemented the new relations between oil-producing countries and the United States, based on the selling of arms” (p.187). More strikingly since then the relation between petrodollar and weapondollar was consolidated: as another oil expert Michael Watts explains “for every 1% change in oil revenues, there was, three years later, a 3,3% increase in arms imports.

West: Excess of Democracy and the Market. The 1973-1974 energy crisis paved the way for the elaboration of new modes of government, using the machinery of the market. The crisis undermined the possibility of a limitless growth of the economy and therefore called for new forms for governing democratic claims: the crisis was in fact for many the failure of governments suffering of an excess of democracy. Oil companies participated in creating this new politics of the “limits to the growth” by forecasting, for the first time since its discovery, the end of oil (p. 189). The impossibility of governments to regulate the depletion of mineral resources signaled for many the failure of the democratic governance as designed after World War II. If countries were to use carefully their resources and particularly their oil the consumption of oil were the be left to the supply and demand: the market would rule from now on (p.194). A matter of public concern such as the depletion of source of energy shifted from being the subject of democratic methods of governing to a subject of private regulation to be decided by those market agents (read oil companies) whose technology would set the best pace of extraction and depletion of oil. A crisis in the management of oil spilled into the management of the public good in the West. The result was a further reduction of the space for radical democratic claims.

The Dictator and The Democrat. For many the industrial democracies of the West stands in stark opposition to the oil-producing autocratic regimes of the Middle East. Carbon Democracy sheds light on the fallacy to put democracy and dictatorship in two compartments. The making and unmaking of radical forms of democratization in the West was linked to the flow of oil from the Middle East. To be sure, oil reduced the space for imposing political claims to mass democracy. It did so by reducing workers’ capacity of sabotaging the access to energy. At the same time however, it made possible another form of democracy, as a “mean of regulating population through the provision of their welfare”.  In this light, requests for redistribution were countered with a promise to limitless growth powered by an endless reservoir of oil. Mechanisms of control of oil in the Middle East were coupled with mechanism of control of more radical democratic claims in the West. Mitchell has the merit to illustrate how both mechanisms of control were intertwined and how they influenced each other. The war in Iraq today is the last chapter of the fraught relationship between Western democracies and the oil producing countries in the Middle East. It exemplifies the distortion and weaknesses of a system whose fundaments were laid with the creation of OPEC and privatization of the weapon trade. This system of oil was punctuated on militarization and destabilization of oil producing countries. The byproduct was the closure of the space for democracy in the Middle East. The lesson to keep in mind then is that the making and unmaking of democracy in both the West and Middle East was determined by their mutual interaction. This interaction was axed around one resource: oil.

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