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.”


  • The Arab Uprisings Five Years On: A Reading List

    Five years ago the Middle East and North Africa was electrified by unprecedented popular protests that heralded the start of the Arab Spring. Beginning in Tunisia popular movements swept regimes from power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and threatened to overthrow ruling elites across the region. Tragically, the Arab Spring has since become mired in counterrevolution and civil war with the extraordinary violence of the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the escalating refugee crisis, and the establishment of a new dictatorship in Egypt emblematic of the profound challenges facing the people of the region. As tumultuous events continue to unfold we present Verso's reading list of key titles addressing the developing situation in the Middle East.

    Continue Reading

  • Andreas Malm: searching for the origins of the fossil economy

    As part of our series looking critically at climate change and the ongoing COP21 talks in Paris we have an exclusive extract from Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital. In it, Malm outlines his distinctive approach to the contemporary fossil economy by looking back to its contingent origins during the Industrial Revolution. It is only through this, Malm argues, that we can truly understand the crisis we are in today.

    Continue Reading

  • Steffen Böhm: The Paris Climate Talks and other Events of Carbon Fetishism

    As part of our series looking critically at climate change and the ongoing COP21 talks in Paris, Steffen Böhm, Professor in Management and Sustainability at the University of Essex, argues that the limits of the current negotations result from the current "carbon fetishism", in which even emissions are commodified in an event to maintain the economic status quo.

    While many people are still hopeful that the current UN climate talks in Paris will produce a strong, path-defining agreement, experts have already warned that the carbon-cutting commitments submitted by countries in the run-up to Paris fall far short of what is required to prevent global warming beyond the 2 degrees mark. To make matters worse, the US has already unilaterally declared that any Paris deal won’t be legally binding.

    Continue Reading

Other books by Timothy Mitchell