Political Power In The Ages of Coal and Oil

I just started reading the book “Carbon Democracy” by Timothy Mitchell1. In the first chapter of the book he gives a fascinating overview of how the use of energy on new scales, first coal and then oil, changed ways of life and allowed “new mass politics”. This new politics he argues was not just a product of the new energy systems, but was assembled by people through the new energy systems. In this article I will briefly summarise his argument from the first chapter of the book.

The age of coal

To understand this process Mitchell provides an overview of the changes during the switch to coal based energy systems. Our main source of energy has for a long time been replenishable solar radiation but was instead being replaced by buried solar energy, i.e. coal and oil. Coal has of course been exploited by humans for a long time, but this was limited as at certain point the extraction process would use more energy than what was gained. This changed when steam power allowed to replace human, animal and water power. To use this steam power however, iron was needed for pumps and mining equipment. Iron was originally rather difficult to manufacture but was made easier by the use of coke to improve the smelting process. Another contributing factor then was the building of steam railways which allowed to carry coal efficiently. All these changes he says caused energy supply to start to increase at an exponential scale.

This exponential increase in energy supply changed human relations in both time and space. In time because the energy stored that would otherwise take long time to get, could not be extracted immediately. And in space because the new energy source also removed the need for large areas of land (for wood). This shift to coal underlies what is then sometimes called the “great divergence” of Western Europe with some other parts of the world. As Mitchell explains the huge amount of energy was of no use of course if it couldn’t be put to work. So even greater amount of lands were required to produce solar based materials which could be processed using this newly extracted energy. And the production of these materials was done though colonialism in other parts of the world outside of Europe.

These colonial arrangements secured the extensive, solar-based production used to supply agricultural goods in quantities that allowed the development of intensive, coal-based mass production in the towns and cities of Europe. (p. 17)

During this period representative governments in Western Europe were reserved to those who owned property. And this change to coal based energy systems also initiated upheavals against the exclusion of the majority in public life and inequalities from industrialisation, and new political parties and movements began to emerge. It may then seem paradoxical this period could be marked as both an age of democratisation and the age of empires (and colonies).

To understand why the rise of coal produced democracy at some sites and colonial domination at others, we must look more closely at the way the flow of fossil energy could be employed to organise successful collective demands. (p.18)

The new carbon energy supplies were concentrated in a small amount of sites which led to the creation of the apparatus of energy supply and new democratic politics. This apparatus also benefited from mutual reinforcing interactions between coal, steam technology, and iron and steel. And at the sites specialised bodies of workers were positioned and concentrated at certain positions which allowed to form new forms of political power, i.e. labour activism and the political mobilisation. This is because working in the coal mines created “unusually autonomous places and methods of work” (p20). And so while usually the rise of mass democracy is attributed to new political consciousness that emerged, Mitchell argues that the miners actually gained power to force to listen to already existing demands because linkages of coal miner to other parts in industrial production. Sabotage became a hot topic during this period:

(…) the new word ‘sabotage’ had been adopted in English, initially to describe an industrial action by French railwaymen, but then to refer to the slow-down, the work-to-rule and other means of interrupting the normal functioning of a critical process (p. 22)

The coordination of various forms of sabotage enabled a new political instrument, the general strike. This powerful method of the general strike was feared by the large industrial employers and made them draw up defensive strategies.

More than a mere social movement, this socio-technical agency was put to work for a series of democratic claims whose gradual implementation radically reduced the precariousness of life in industrial societies. (p. 27)

The age of oil

The relations between labor forces and energy flows would begin to be restructured after the second World War. In the United States governments and industry started to promote the “new science of industrial management”, and this American model was also transported to Europe through the Marshall Plan.

(…) the Marshall Plan, sought to engineer a political order in Europe built on a new relationship between organised labour and large industrial enterprises, similar to the order America was pioneering at home. (p. 29)

Reorganisation of labor through the plan consisted of three major elements: it promoted US-style industrial management, it forced economic integration for European governments, and consisted of initiatives to convert EU coal based energy system to one dependent on oil.

This move from coal to oil also caused other changes because compared to coal, the production of oil however required another apparatus and a smaller workforce. And this smaller workforce was also structured quite different compared to coal. The workforce also remained above ground under supervision of managers, the transport could also be done with less human labor, and oil could be moved more easily between continents using oil tankers instead of trains.

These changes in the way forms of fossil energy were extracted, transported and used made energy networks less vulnerable to the political claims of those whose labour kept them running. Unlike the movement of coal, the flow of oil could not readily be assembled into a machine that enabled large numbers of people to exercise novel forms of political power. (p. 38-39)

Some of these changes in the energy apparatus also meant that for the companies in the oil industry it was not possible to avoid competition with other companies. Because oil was much more easily transportable with oil tankers, this also means that cheaper oil could always come from elsewhere. So the goal of the companies changed to raise prices by restricting output to have shortages. And to achieve these shortages, the oil companies put themselves in control of obligatory passage points.

One could think of this development as the formation of what has been called a ‘technological zone’ – a set of coordinated but widely dispersed regulations, calculative arrangements, infrastructures and technical procedures that render certain objects or flows governable (p. 40)

The outcome of this is that both the countries that depended on the production of oil and those that depended on its use were changed in the political claims they could make. The production of oil therefore involved “producing both energy and the forms of life that were increasingly dependent on that energy”. (p. 42)


  1. Mitchell, T. (2011). Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso Books. [return]