Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

How oil undermines democracy, and our ability to address the environmental crisis.

Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy.

Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. 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. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East.

In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order.

In making the production of energy the central force shaping the democratic age, Carbon Democracy rethinks the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the place of the Middle East in our common world.


  • “This study of the basis of modern democracy over the past century connects oil-producing states of the Middle East with industrial democracies of the West. Mitchell argues that carbon democracy in the West has been based on the assumption that unlimited oil will produce endless economic growth, and he concludes that this model cannot survive the exhaustion of these fuels and associated climate change. Tim Mitchell has written a remarkable book that deserves a wide audience.”
  • “A challenging, sophisticated, and important book.”
  • “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 ... This book utterly blew me away.”
  • “A remarkable account of the politics of oil and nation building in the Middle East.”


  • Timothy Mitchell on the Materialities of Political Economy and Colonial History

    In this interview with Jadaliyya, Timothy Mitchell discusses his ongoing thinking around questions of urban political economy and political theory. Mitchell also reflects on the role of public space during the Arab uprisings, issues of urban and rural informality, as well as the ways the "material turn" and close attention to the technical help us see colonialism in different ways. 

    Timothy Mitchell teaches at Columbia University. His books includeColonising Egypt, Rule of Experts, and Carbon Democracy. Watch the interview here
  • History Undergraduate Reading List: 50% off!

    All the books on this list are 50% off until Tuesday 8th September as part of our Back to University/Back to School sale. See all the books included in the sale here.

    The inevitable passing of summer is as good a reminder as any that while you may make your own history, you don't make it as you please. The books on our undergraduate history reading list below (all on sale at 50% off) offer even better ones.

    Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism
    Lineages of the Absolutist State 

    Both by Perry Anderson

    “A complex, beautifully interwoven account of Europe from the ancient Greeks to modern absolutist monarchies…Exhilarating.” – Guardian

    Continue Reading

  • Timothy Mitchell interview on Naomi Klein's blog This Changes Everything

    Patrick Robbins interviews Timothy Mitchell on his book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil:

    Another way of stating my argument about oil companies is to say that these were not companies set up to produce oil, they were companies set up to produce a return on investment. We should think of Exxon, BP, Shell etc. as financial machines, not energy companies. While it may seem like economic life today is dominated by the power of financial firms, the truth is that the history of energy has always been a history of finance.


    Read more here.

Other books by Timothy Mitchell