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.
Governments can no longer afford to compensate the victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis, or rebuild infrastructure. The tax revenues just aren’t there. So they’re selling insurance bonds to private investors. In an article recently published by Le Monde Diplomatique, the opening paragraphs of which we publish here, Razmig Keucheyan charts the horrendous new developments of finance capitalism.
Last November, super-typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people, damaging or destroying 1.5m homes and causing $13bn damage. Three months later, insurance brokers Munich Re and Willis Re, accompanied by representatives of the UN international strategy for disaster reduction (UNISDR), presented a new financial product to members of the Philippine senate: it was intended to make up for the supposed deficiencies of state provision against major climate-related disasters. The Philippines risk and insurance scheme for municipalities (PRISM) is a high-yield security that municipalities would offer to private investors (1), who would receive an attractive rate of interest, subsidised by the state, but would lose their investment in the event of a disaster of a given scale and severity.
Today on Democracy Now! James Marriott, co-author of The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London, Timothy Mitchell, author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, and Anna Galkina, campaigner with London-based arts, human rights, and environmental justice organization Platform London, discussed the Azerbaijan elections, political unrest in Egypt, oil pipelines and their impact on political systems and populations at home and abroad.
As tumultuous events in Egypt unfold at speed, with former President Morsi currently in custody, we present Verso's updated reading list of key titles and articles addressing the challenges facing Egypt and the Middle East.
Seamus Milne considers the current situation in Egypt in the context of the Arab Spring and its historical precedents in the "Spring of Nations" of 1848 in his latest article for the Guardian. His latest book, The Revenge of History, follows the events of the Arab Spring as they unfold, as well as providing a rich geopolitical context for the uprisings.
The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt
Edited by Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing
The account of how it all began, this collection of reports from the region details the causes that underpinned the revolution before it amassed in scale. Starting with the eighteen days of protest in the lead up to Mubarak’s resignation, it is a first hand account of the collective dissent of workers, anti-war activists and campaigners for social change.
Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt
by Hazem Kandil
When the military turned against Mubarak, so too did the revolt, from outbursts of protest to full on revolution. Hazem Kandil challenges the siding of the military with the people, instead documenting the power struggle between the three components of Egypt’s authoritarian regime: the military, the security services, and the political apparatus. Analysing what it means for Egypt to transition from military to police state, Kandil looks toward future revolution.
In an article in the Guardian on the recent events in Egypt, Kandil explains why liberal western critics can't simply say: "I told you so."
You can also read an interview with Kandil in New Left Review on the Egyptian revoution.