Reading Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy in the USSR


Carbon Socialism? A view from the “Second World” of Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2011) 

Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy is one of the most influential of recent works that realigns how we understand international relations, ideologies, material and political infrastructures, and energy resources as interconnected in history and in the present. Mitchell is a political theorist and historian at Columbia University who specializes in, among other things, the politics of the Middle East and the construction of modern energy networks. His latest book is a response to the prolific literature in political science on the so-called resource curse; the theory that posits the incompatibility between large reserves of oil and gas, on the one hand, and economic growth and democracy, on the other. He argues that if we shift our gaze from the rents that oil money generates and examine instead how oil is produced, distributed and used, a rather different picture comes into focus. Put another way, if we stop looking at oil money and actually look at oil, a set of connections — or an apparatus as he terms it — between our carbon-based societies and the political machinery of modern governance becomes clear.

Mitchell traces how this apparatus of connections and networks — the underlying infrastructure of carbon production — was built and, in turn, how these networks have been translated into different forms of power. He ties the rise of democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the power gained by labor through the production networks of coal. He asserts that, “The flow and concentration of energy made it possible to connect the demands of miners to those of others” and that coal strikes “became effective…because of the flows of carbon that connected chambers beneath the ground to every factory, office, home or means of transportation that depended on steam or electric power” (p. 21). The infrastructure of oil production, on the other hand, was set up “to evade the demands of organized labor” (p. 5) that coal production fostered, thus sharply curtailing opportunities for a democratic politics in the twentieth century. Democracy, Mitchell argues, is therefore a form of politics organized for the production and consumption of carbon energy. This intertwinement of energy and politics once created the possibility for modern democracy under a coal-based economy, and now shapes its limits under an oil-based one.

Mitchell explores the relationship between democracy and oil, but the implications of his argument(s) are not confined to industrialized western democracies. The growth and changes brought about by fossil fuels are, he argues, felt on a global scale.  For scholars of Eurasia this begs the question, where do the Soviet Union and other socialist states fit into the narrative of Carbon Democracy? In many important ways these states were outside of the system Mitchell describes. Can his ideas about the connections between democratic politics (or lack thereof) and carbon energy networks tell us anything about the connections between socialism and its energy networks? Or about command economies? What are the implications of his arguments for Soviet history?

On a personal level, this is a timely and welcome book. My dissertation in-progress, Baku at All Costs: The Politics of Oil in the New Soviet State, follows the connections between oil politics and state-building in the early Soviet Union. By looking, as Mitchell urges, not at the actual monetary gains that oil produces, but at the material and political connections it facilitates, the narrative of early Soviet history shifts. While official diplomatic recognition was elusive in the 1920s, the Soviet Union was not as isolated diplomatically or economically as most accounts suggest. The Bolshevik leadership was keenly aware of the existing value — and even more of the potential value — of oil not just as a source of energy and hard currency, but just as importantly as a tool of international politics and domestic infrastructural reconstruction. The leadership of the new state used the lure of oil profits to good effect against the British by reasserting influence over northern Persia — a traditional stronghold of Russian power — through the joint stock company Kevir-Khurian, Ltd, an oil-prospecting venture. The Bolsheviks established the company to prevent British access to potential oil deposits in northern Persia, to solidify the Soviets’ foothold in the region and to give them a voice in the Majlis (Persian Parliament) by lobbying for increased prerogative for the joint-stock venture. They successfully achieved these political goals under the guise of this oil company. These strategic successes have been dismissed in the scholarship because the company failed to turn a profit, but this was only ever a tangential aim of the enterprise. The Kevir-Khurian episode speaks to the need to move beyond the question of commercial viability to explore how networks of people and material are generative of new political and physical infrastructures in light of Mitchell’s argument that constricting the flow of oil was a vital mechanism of power in the twentieth century. The Soviet policy of using oil as an unofficial conduit for foreign policy, as I found in my own research, was likely not isolated to relations with Persia and deserves further attention from historians of the Soviet Union and Inner Asia.

A focus on energy networks can furthermore tell us something new about the debates over whether to allow foreign concessions on Soviet territory in the 1920s. In particular, revisiting concessions policy reveals the choices the leadership believed they faced and why they made the decisions they did. I found that the energy sector was accorded special status in the formation of the concessions policies, and energy issues shaped Soviet attitudes concerning the USSR’s engagement with the outside world in the state’s formative years. Domestically, the concession debates were not only about loans and debts; they were also about how the Soviet Union would structure its energy system. The necessity of reconstructing the coal and oil industries forced the Soviet Union to consider the significance of the infrastructure it inherited from the tsarist system in Baku (Azerbaijan) and the Donbas (Ukraine). This assessment led to some significant changes in the physical landscape of the oil fields in Baku. For example, when the Bolsheviks nationalized the oil industry they eliminated the patchwork system of individual plots and consolidated the fields into large individually administered units, thus allowing Soviet geologists and engineers to restructure the process of drilling and refining. In other instances, geographical and physical realities forced them to construct policies around existing infrastructure networks, such as in the case of the pipelines and rail-lines that began in Baku on the Caspian Sea and terminated in Batumi on the Black Sea (the access point to outside markets). In the 1920s, the placement of refineries, pipelines, workers’ barracks — in short, the entire built infrastructure of the oil industry — was re-conceptualized and contested. As a consequence, the Soviet oil industry was rebuilt with the political purpose of tying regional centers of production such as Baku to Russia proper through the movement of refineries and distribution points from Azerbaijan to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Meanwhile, Soviet diplomats played the oil majors off one another and were able (until 1928) successfully to frustrate the attempts of Shell, Standard and Anglo-Persian to create an oil cartel and reestablish monopolies.

Mitchell’s study also raises interesting questions for late imperial Russian history. He argues that the structure of the oil industry in Baku resembled more closely the infrastructure of coal and that this contributed to the success of Baku’s labor strikes in the early twentieth century (pp. 32-36). Further research may fruitfully explore further the role of what Mitchell dubs “narrow points of passage” — railway connections, waterways, etc. — in the successes and failures of political opposition movements and the tsarist government alike. Baku is well known as a main stop on the Bolshevik underground: it was a transport hub to the rest of the empire for people, money, weapons, newspapers, and ideas. During the uprisings of 1904-1905 and the revolutionary period following World War I, the Bolsheviks understood the necessity of having the regional railway, telegraph, and dockworkers on their side. What would a retelling of the long revolutionary period of 1905-1924 look like if we turned our attention to the role of these networks and reinserted into the story the oil, itself, and the physical infrastructure created for its extraction, processing, storage and mobility? What happened to these links in the 1920s and 1930s? How did the Bolsheviks use them once they were in power? Did they dismantle them, as my research suggests that in some cases they did? What are the implications of this for a history of “carbon socialism”?

In two significant ways, the Soviet oil story diverges from the one Mitchell tells. First, the incentives of the Soviet coal and oil trusts/ministries differed fundamentally from those of Shell, Exxon, or BP because the Soviet trusts were directly subordinate to the interests of the USSR as defined by state planning committees and political decision-makers. Second, the competition the trusts faced was internal, from other Soviet industries, rather than from foreign oil companies or nation states, and that competition was based on an economy of allocation, not profit-making. This means that historians of the Soviet Union need to ask different questions about the relationship between oil production and forms of governance, particularly in the period after World War II. Soviet involvement in energy politics, both at home and abroad, was driven by a different dynamic than the one defined through the interaction of the oil majors and the producing and consuming states. The Soviet oil industry was run by geologists, engineers, and planners, not businessmen and financial specialists. Regardless, the Soviet Union constructed a vast energy infrastructure that poured ever greater resources into carbon-based energy production. Turning our attention to the consequences of what Mitchell calls “the apparatus of connections” and “narrow points of passage” in the energy system, and asking how and why these were built and rebuilt the way they were, can help us see something new about how socialism was constructed materially and politically under a command economy.

Significantly, Mitchell emphasizes that forms of energy do not determine political outcomes. In other words, coal does not automatically produce democracy, nor does oil necessarily produce authoritarian politics (or “managed-democracy” in a Russia-oriented parlance). These outcomes were contingent historical processes and this is one of the many reasons that Carbon Democracy is compelling and relevant for historians, particularly of the Soviet Union and other socialist states. Analyzing the underlying infrastructure of energy systems will help us understand with greater complexity their role in social and political processes in all three “worlds” of the twentieth century.

Sara Brinegar
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Image: Carbon Democracy, Verso Books.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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