Are we headed toward a more autocratic or democratic future? There’s no hard and fast answer; the outcome may vary by region. However, recent history does offer some useful clues.
In his recent and important book Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell argues that modern democracy owes a lot to coal. Not only did coal fuel the railroads, which knitted large regions together, but striking coal miners were able to bring nations to a standstill, so their demands for unions, pensions, and better working conditions played a significant role in the creation of the modern welfare state. It was no mere whim that led Margaret Thatcher to crush the coal industry in Britain; she saw its demise as the indispensable precondition to neoliberalism’s triumph.
Coal was replaced, as a primary energy source, by oil. Mitchell suggests that oil offered industrial countries a path to reducing internal political pressures. Its production relied less on working-class miners and more upon university-trained geologists and engineers. Also, oil is traded globally, so that its production is influenced more by geopolitics and less by local labor strikes. “[P]oliticians saw the control of oil overseas as a means of weakening democratic forces at home,” according to Mitchell, and so it is no accident that by the late 20th century the welfare state was in retreat and oil wars in the Middle East had become almost routine. The problem of “excess democracy,” which reliance upon coal inevitably brought with it, has been successfully resolved, not surprisingly by still more teams of university-trained experts—economists, public relations professionals, war planners, political consultants, marketers, and pollsters. We have organized our political life around a new organism—“the economy”—which is expected to grow in perpetuity, or, in more practical terms, as long as the supply of oil continues to increase.
The suppression of democratic urges under an energy regime dominated by oil is also explored in Andrew Nikiforuk’s brilliant new book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. The energy in oil effectively replaces human labor; as a result, each North American enjoys the services of roughly 150 “energy slaves.” But, according to Nikiforuk, that means that burning oil makes us slave masters—and slave masters all tend to mimic the same attitudes and behaviors, including contempt, arrogance, and impunity. As power addicts, we become both less sociable and easier to manipulate.
In the early 21st century, carbon democracy is ebbing, and so is the global oil regime hatched in the late 20th century. Domestic U.S. oil production based on fracking reduces the relative dominance of the Middle East petro-states, but to the advantage of Wall Street—which supplies the creative financing for speculative and marginally profitable domestic drilling. America’s oil wars have largely failed to establish and maintain the kind of order in the Middle East and Central Asia that was sought. High oil prices send dollars cascading toward energy producers, but starve the economy as a whole, and this eventually reduces petroleum demand. Governance systems appear to be incapable of solving or even seriously addressing looming financial, environmental, and resource issues, and “democracy” persists primarily in a highly diluted solution whose primary constituents are money, hype, and expert-driven opinion management.
In short, the 20th century governance system is itself fracturing. So what comes next?
As the fracking boom inevitably fails due to financial and geological constraints, a new energy regime will inevitably arise. It will almost surely be one mainly characterized by scarcity, but it will also eventually be dominated by renewable energy sources—whether solar panels or firewood. That effectively throws the door open to a range of governance possibilities. As mobility declines, smaller and more local governance systems will be more durable than empires and continent-spanning nation states. But will surviving regional and local governments end up looking like anarchist collectives or warlord compounds? Recent democratic innovations pioneered or implemented in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement hold out more than a glimmer of hope for the former.
Anthropologist David Graeber argues
that the failure of centralized governmental institutions can open the way for democratic self-organization; as evidence, he cites his own experience doing doctoral research in Madagascar villages where the state had ceased collecting taxes and providing police protection. Collecting revenues and enforcing laws are the most basic functions of government; thus these communities were effectively left to govern and provide for themselves. According to Graeber, they
did surprisingly well. “[T]he people had come up with ingenious expedients of how to deal with the fact that there was still technically a government, it was just really far away. Part of the idea was never to put the authorities in a situation where they lost face, or where they had to prove that they were in charge. They were incredibly nice to [government officials] if they didn’t try to exercise power, and made things as difficult as possible if they did. The course of least resistance was [for the authorities] to go along with the charade.”
Journalism professor Greg Downey, commenting on Graeber’s ideas
, notes, “I saw something very similar in camps of the Movimento Sem Terra (the MST or ‘Landless Movement’) in Brazil. Roadside shanty camps attracted former sharecroppers, poor farmers whose small plots were drowned out by hydroelectric projects, and other refugees from severe restructuring in agriculture toward large-scale corporate farming.” These farmers were victims, but they were by no means helpless. “Activists and religious leaders were helping these communities to set up their own governments, make collective decisions, and eventually occupy sprawling ranches. . . . The MST leveraged the land occupations to demand that the Brazilian government adhere to the country’s constitution, which called for agrarian reform, especially of large holdings that were the fruits of fraud.
. . . [C]ommunity-based groups, even cooperatives formed by people with very little education, developed greater and greater ability to run their own lives when the state was not around. They elected their own officials, held marathon community meetings in which every member voted (even children), and, when they eventually gained land, often became thriving, tight-knit communities.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of ten books. He serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.