5 January 2015

Carbon-based democracy

The Statesman
05 Jan 2015

The use of coal has been known since ancient times. But its use was generally restricted to the areas where it was found, and to particular trades that required large quantities of processed heat, such as limestone-burning and metal-smithing. Shortage of wood, especially in Britain, led to a gradual increase in the use of coal as a general substitute for wood since the 16th century. The hydrocarbon age started when coal replaced wood and other biomass materials as the main source of commercial energy around 1850s.

Coal is a concentrated hydrocarbon fuel. It was more compact than wood and suited for large-scale industries. It accelerated industrial progress and the growth of cities. It also brought about far-reaching changes in the agrarian structure. Production on a mass scale required access to large new territories for growing crops both for supplying food on which the growth of cities and manufacturing depended and producing industrial raw materials. By freeing the land previously reserved as woodland for the supply of fuel, fossil energy contributed to this agrarian transformation.

Coal had fuelled the industrial age and catapulted Britain, the United States, Germany and other coal producing regions to emerge as strong powers. Cities and large-scale manufacturing units grew at a rapid pace. It was estimated that by 1860s, coal was providing energy to Britain ; to obtain energy from timber would have required four times the country’s area. The switchover to coal more than a century and a half ago enabled the concentration of population in cities, in part because it freed the urban population from the need for adjacent pastures and woods. 

Human settlements in dispersed forms till continued along the rivers, close to pastureland and within reach of large reserves of land set aside as woods for fuel.

Coal also changed social and political landscapes. Timothy Mitchell of Columbia University, New York, in his book, Carbon Democracy ~ Political Power in the Age of Oil has comprehensively exposed this aspect. The book is an excellent study. There is a widespread view that political systems are primarily shaped by attitudes and ideas. Expressing doubts about this view, 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. The coal industry, in which concentrated energy supply travelled in networks, offered workers a new kind of autonomy. Each step ~ mining, loading, transportation and ultimately consumption ~ was susceptible to delay and sabotage. In demanding better pay and allowances and working conditions, labour activists and trade union leaders achieved an egalitarian breakthrough by resorting to mining strikes. They used the threat to build the first mass democracies. 

Mitchell argued that the branching process of coal networks in Europe relieved the need for a strong class consciousness as a precondition for democratisation because it provided miners with a socio-technical agency that was grounded in the value of coal and the network through which it was moved. Large coal strikes could trigger wider mobilisations. They spread through interconnected industries of coal, such as mining, railways, dock workers and shipping. By the turn of the 20th century, the vulnerability of these connections made the general strike a new kind of weapon. Coal was also associated with labour militancy beyond the main centres of the industrialised world. The difficult fight against the resources of a labour movement that for a few decades could threaten a country’s carbon energy networks propelled the owners of large industrial firms and their political allies into accepting the forms of welfare democracy and universal suffrage.

If coal had actually helped shape modern democracy, oil has set some of its limits. With the systematic reorganisation of energy supply from coal to oil in the mid-twentieth century, the bargaining power of Europe’s coal miners and the entire labour class had weakened. Prior to the development of North Sea oil in the 1970s, the only significant oilfields in Europe were in the Carpathian basin extending from southern Poland to Romania. Oil production in the Middle East, that began around 1945 with a new infrastructure and management, proved more resistant to workers’ claims. Oil, due to its physical and chemical properties of carbon, can travel through an entirely different network. This network requires a smaller workforce, spans across seas and has the properties of a grid. Oil is easily transportable by tanker across continents. It is more flexible and less vulnerable to political claims of workers. It gives companies more control over resources and decision-making.

In the 1970s and 1980s, what the political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “third wave” of global democratisation saw formidable political changes in Latin America, parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually Eastern Europe. Freedom was on the march almost everywhere except for the Middle East. The immunity of Arab regimes to democratisation was so broad and seemingly so durable that it gave rise to a new literature, one seeking to explain not democratic change but authoritarian persistence. The Arab Spring, that had unleashed democratic movements, led to the overthrow of some dictators. The initial results of the tumult were indeed inspiring. The prospects for further democratisation, however, have dimmed.

Most countries in the Arab world have not jumped political tracks. Local, social and economic conditions for the region comprising the Middle East and North Africa are not ripe yet for the transition to democracy as vested interests in these countries are opposed to political reforms. The Arab countries that managed to topple their old regimes are, at the same time, facing great uncertainties. Of the seven countries in the Persian Gulf, only Yemen is a republic. It has large proven natural gas. The six other countries ~ Bahrain, Kuwait, UAR, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar ~ are either constitutional monarchies or absolute monarchies ruled by authoritarian regimes. These are all oil-producing countries. They derive the major part of their revenues from oil exports and foreign aid.

Relying heavily on such income streams allows these regimes to avoid taxing their populations significantly, thus removing a central source of popular demand for political participation. Oil wealth also allows the monarchies to fund their security forces lavishly and secure the loyalty of key domestic constituencies. The oil money, that accrues, as rent ensures stability and continuity of the authoritarian regimes. Oil money helps in buying off dissent by helping to establish social contracts, creating labour aristocracies, funding efficient institutions of political control and creating a class of loyalists who lend strong support to the incumbent regimes in exchange of state handouts. Oil revenue is also developmental. It modernises infrastructure that helps to bring about economic and social change without giving people any political voice.

The classical modernisation theory holds that democracy will follow when a society reaches a certain level of economic development. That is precisely what happened when coal acted as a multiplier and accelerator to bring about higher rate of economic growth in West European countries and the USA. Coal allowed the reorganisation of energy systems that made possible, in conjunction with other changes, the novel forms of collective life out of which the late-nineteenth century democracy and mass politics developed. However, when production of energy shifted to oil from the Middle East, the transformation provided opportunities to weaken rather than extend, both in the West and in the Middle East, the forms of carbon-based political mobilisation on which the emergence of industrial democracy depended.

The Middle East contains some two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves in a context where oil has become increasingly vital to the economy of the western world. Despite the developments of the last four years, certain structural and political factors will continue to block the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Today, the United States imports about 23 per cent of its crude oil and related products from the Gulf .For the foreseeable future, the United States has to continue to work with the authoritarian states to preserve its energy security. The hope that liberal democracy may flourish in these countries in the future should be balanced by the need to work with governments and societies as they exist today. The Arab Spring should not be regarded as a delayed regional onset of the third wave or even the harbinger of a fourth. That offers undue optimism. Oil has altered the mechanics and onward march of democracy. Even then in oil’s global hegemony, democracy will remain an active partner.

The writer is a former central civil service officer who retired from the Ministry of Defence

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