Technology and Democracy: Contrasting Coal and Oil

The opening sentence of the 2011 book, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil by the historian Timothy Mitchell, reads “Fossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits.” Carbon democracy is “a certain kind of democratic politics.” He observes: “Countries that depend upon petroleum resources for a large part of their earnings from exports tend to be less democratic.” Mitchell wants to moor that democracy in the materiality of coal and oil, which Innis called “dirt economics.” He wants to keep his eye not simply on oil revenues, as most scholars have, but on oil itself.

Coal was the first fossil fuel. Economically, it enabled the Industrial Revolution of sustained exponential economic growth, and politically, mass politics and liberal democracy. The transportation of coal necessitated the development of canals and railways with further powerful spread effects. (You get a sense of the command of history, and particularly economic history, that Mitchell has; this is political economy at its best.) The demand for other goods from distant places led to colonization and imperialism which undermined democratic development at home and abroad. At the same time, however, the concentration of people in cities and factories facilitated the development of new forms of collective democratic action including, for example, trade unions, and notably coal miners with considerable autonomy working underground.

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