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Prominent political theorist Mitchell discusses oil/democracy dynamic at AUC

At a recent two-part lecture at the American University in Cairo (AUC), British political theorist Timothy Mitchell revisits traditional dynamics between oil and democracy in the Middle East

Mohammed Saad , Monday 22 Apr 2013
Timothy Mitchell
Prominent Political theorist, Timothy Mitchell, while lecturing on Carbon Democracy at the American University in Cairo (Photo: Ayman Hafez)
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British political theorist Timothy Mitchell has rethought the traditional relationship between oil and democracy, providing fresh analysis on the emergence of the so-called 'economy' in two lectures he delivered in Cairo during his recent visit to Egypt. His talk was based on his recent book, 'Carbon Democracy,' in which he reflects on the relationship between oil and democracy by analysing the materialistic nature of oil and its production process.

Mitchell gave his two lectures at the American University in Cairo (AUC) premises in Tahrir Square and New Cairo on 16 and 17 April. Khaled Fahmy, chairman of AUC's history department, presented Mitchell to his audience and chaired the discussions that followed the two talks.

Fahmy introduced Mitchell as a major western thinker who makes use of the works of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard to question major terms, such as 'colonialism' and 'modernism.' Fahmy asserted that Mitchell had "enormous influence" on contemporary writing on the Egyptian state's modern history.

"Mitchell's first book, 'Colonising Egypt,' had a major impact on me; it literally changed my life. I was doing my archival research when I read his book, which made me dismiss all the work I had been doing for eight months and take a different course in my research," said Fahmy. "Mitchell is always concerned with reconfiguring things in a way that makes us able to pose new questions."

Mitchell started his lecture by distancing himself from the traditional relationship between oil and democracy, which views oil as "bad" for democracy because revenues thereof enable authoritarian regimes to postpone democratic reform by distributing part of the revenue to the people.

Mitchell said that jumping from the materialistic nature of oil to money reflected a concept of democracy as a set of principles and procedures that could be applied everywhere and transferred by the necessary experts to apply the same set of procedures in every country. For Mitchell, principles and procedures are important, but what's more important in democracy is how to make people listen to what you want.

"We have to reflect on the relation between oil and democracy through analysing the materialistic nature of oil, not by jumping into its revenues. We have to reflect on how oil is produced and consumed. Oil has been used as a de-democratisation force in many places in the Arab world, thus we have to analyse this nature in the light of the larger history of the forms of energy and the relation between these forms of energy and democracy," Mitchell expounded.

In doing so, the author went back about 100 years in time to make a comparison between the nature and circumstances of producing coal and oil.

According to Mitchell, coal led to industrial democracy in many cases, as it was related to the emergence of mass political movements led by coal workers, while oil was used against democracy. To explain this, Mitchell reflected on the physical nature of both resources.

"Coal was used as a sole and main source of energy. Producers had to send men underground for coalmining and it was transferred by railways. These circumstances created a vulnerable production system, which allowed workers to easily shut down the whole energy system of a country by launching a strike. Western governments realised that and started democratic reforms to ease the pressures. They gave the workers the right to vote, unionise and so on," Mitchell explained.

But that was not the case with oil – not because oil workers did not launch strikes or struggle. Workers in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran struggled to obtain their democratic rights, but they failed – because oil is liquid.

Because oil is liquid, workers are not required to go underground. It travels around the world in pipelines, and can't be obstructed unlike the railways. In short, oil reduced the vulnerability of governments to popular demands, and it has been used as a de-democratization force.

This is only some of the analysis in Mitchell's book and, according to him, oil production brings other vulnerabilities.

"Oil is a global industry where multinational companies first find its interests. This is not because companies like Rockefeller or Halliburton want to invest and develop poor countries, but because they discovered that some countries can produce oil at cheaper cost. And as a consequence, cheaper prices, like in Gulf countries, ensure the oil and bigger revenue flows," he said.

Before the 1950s, oil producers used to drill for oil and not extract it. But after that date, the policy changed to the opposite, to maximise the production of oil and build a consumption system fully based on carbon energy.

Here, Mitchell shifted into economy, presenting his new notion of 'Economentality,' astonishing his audience when he said that up until the 1940s, the word economy had no existence. Then he related the emergence of the so-called 'economy' as a science and the maximisation of oil production.

"With the 20th century, new forms of governments emerged with a new set of financial and fiscal forms; central banks were established and economy started to count non-material things. Economy lost its material reference," Mitchell said.

The invention of economy in the 20th century does not mean that people did not count things before it – but they used to count properties, wealth and real estate. But with the advent of the economy, a whole new set of calculations were devised to calculate money cycles and gross national production. In short, economy no longer counts materialistic things.

"With the economy, we had a magical device that could grow in an unlimited way because it lost its material reference – and this became the dominant discourse on economy," Mitchell said.

Mitchell says that the democratic fight to change national constitutions that took place in the 20th century was important, but that these constitutions would have been changed by the economy even if these fights did not take place, as economy became the ruling factor of governments.

From the 1950s until the early 1970s, the economy did not worry much about the cost of oil or fear that it would run out. It excluded factors both of scarcity and cost – but things changed dramatically in 1973 with the huge rise in oil prices.

At that time, oil revenues accumulated enormously, with the oil producing countries becoming unable to buy more things with the dollars it had accrued, while the western countries sought to invent a new money machine to restore its dollars.

The new machine was the arms trade, a thing that Gulf countries can buy but can't use. Western governments brought a new security discourse to the Middle East to allow it to sell arms and make oil manufacturing countries accumulate arms instead of dollars.

At The end of his lecture, Mitchell drew a map of the Arab world and divided it into three parts to highlight the status of the Arab Spring countries in relation to oil.

The first division includes the non-oil countries, such as Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Jordan. The second includes the big oil producers: the Gulf States and Algeria. The third includes countries that produce oil, but which depend on revenue from other products, such as Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, which exactly coincide with the Arab Spring countries.

The countries of the third division were badly affected by the rise of oil prices between 2001 and 2008, which doubled twice during this period. This led to a decline in oil revenue and in turn made governments impose new taxes, leading to declining living conditions for their people.

"My book doesn't say that if you tell me which kind of energy your country is using I'll tell you what kind of democracy you'll get. Things don’t happen that way, since democracy isn't a standard set of principles and procedures that can be applied exactly the same in every country," said Mitchell. "But democracy is related to the history of every country."

Mitchell is head of the department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies at New York City's Columbia University. He specialises in the political economy of the Middle East, the political role of economics, the politics of large-scale technical systems, and the place of colonialism in the making of modernity.

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