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How Coal Brought Us Democracy, and Oil Ended It: Lessons from the New Book “Carbon Democracy”

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Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller

Long before politicians mewled helplessly about the power of “Big Oil”, carbon-based fuels were shaping our very political, legal, intellectual, and physical structures. It was, for instance, coal miners who brought us the right to vote. Israel’s founding had a lot to do with British fears of Palestinian labor unrest in coastal energy complexes. And the European Community was a post-WWII experiment to switch that continent to oil, a task begun before World War I by British conservatives to defeat their domestic political opponents.  Glass-Steagall crimped financial flows, partially at the behest of the oil industry. In fact, you can’t understand modern democratic or third world political structures without understanding energy, and particularly, coal and oil. That’s the contention of Tim Mitchell’s new book, Carbon Democracy Political Power in the Age of Oil, a history of the relationship between carbon-based fueling sources and modern political systems. It’s a book that tackles a really big subject, in a sweeping but readable fashion, and after reading it, it’s hard to imagine thinking about political power the same way again.

Everything in our politics flows through dense carbon-based energy sources, and has for three to four hundred years.  For instance, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a pivotal moment in America’s strategic outlook. America, a global hegemon whose empire was weakening, seized the second largest oil deposits in the world as a way of preventing its economic and political decline. Was there any precedent for this kind of action? As it turns out, yes. The last declining global hegemon, Great Britain, also engaged in a brutal and highly controversial British occupation of Iraq, in the 1920s, pressed aggressively by the well-known British conservative, Winston Churchill. Churchill supported this occupation not just because he wanted Iraq’s oil, but because he wanted to defeat democratic forces – particularly militant coal miner unions – at home. Churchill and conservative elites running through British history (most recently Margaret Thatcher) understood that as long as the British power grid, and more importantly the military, was dependent on radical coal miners, his left-leaning labor opponents would be able to demand higher wages, social insurance, voting rights, and a share of the economic gains of the British economy. He preferred to have the British economy running on oil, so he sought imperial strategies to ensure access to resources without being reliant on his political opponents. Globally, in fact, the switch from coal to oil was a fight about labor.

The use of coal and oil in the context of industrialization has always been about who has the power to profit from the surplus these energy forms produce, but until now, no one has pulled the various historical details together into a historical narrative laying bare the fascinating power dynamics behind the rise of Western political systems and their relationship with energy. Carbon Democracy is an examination of our civilization’s 400 hundred year use of carbon-based energy fueling sources, and the political systems that grew up intertwined with them. Rather than presenting energy and democracy as separate things, like a battery and a device, Mitchell discusses the political architecture of the Western world and the developing world as inherently tied to fueling sources. The thesis is that elites have always sought to maximize not the amount of energy they could extract and use, but the profit stream from those energy sources. They struggled to ensure they would be able to burn carbon and profit, without having to rely on the people who extract and burned it for them. Carbon-based fuels thus cannot be understood except in the context of labor, imperialism and democracy.

This book is a response to David Yergen’s The Prize: The Epic Question for Oil, Money, and Power, a classic story of hardy entrepreneurs taking huge risks to find oil in the most remote places. Yergen’s narrative centers on oil scarcity, and its contributions to economic growth in a capitalist framework. Oil is, to Yergen, the prize, solving the key problem of how to supply enough energy for a modern consumer society with a flexible and inexpensive fuel source.

In Carbon Democracy, Mitchell has a counterintuitive take on oil, one that after awhile, makes much more sense than what Yergen argues. Mitchell points out that the problem of oil has never, until recently, been that it is a scarce commodity, but that it is a surplus commodity. We had too much of it. And the central problem that this created was now how to find more of it, but how to ensure that oil cartels profiting from high oil prices could make sure that very few new oil finds, especially from the massive fields in the Middle East, came online. Far from a hardy band of entrepreneurs searching for more oil, the story of oil is one of parasitic cartels manipulating governments and inventing concepts like mandates, self-determination, and national security to ensure they could retain high profits selling a widely available commodity. But Mitchell takes the story much deeper than Yergen did, because Yergen’s book is fundamentally a fairy tale that skirts over questions of labor and colonialism.

Mitchell goes back before the widespread use of oil, to the industrialization of England and England’s use of carbon-based fuels, like forests, peat, and coal. Industrialization demanded two seemingly contradictory factors – huge new tracts of land to grow industrial raw materials like cotton and high energy food crops like sugar, and far more centralized urban centers for manufacturing. What happened, of course, is that England simply acquired colonies with large land tracts overseas, using slave labor to harvest necessary commodities, while becoming an urban society in its core areas. Eventually, England began using coal to fuel its economy, leading to substantial economic growth and imperial strength. Coal, though, presented a challenge to the governing elites, since the characteristics of coal, with its labor intensive extraction methods, were quite vulnerable to strikes. Coal was hard to transport, and miners operated underground in a collaborative manner. Once on the surface, coal had to be moved by fixed networks of trains. There were multiple bottlenecks here, and in the late 19th century, for the first time, the energy system of the industrialized world was reliant on workers who could withhold their labor and block a key resource. This translated directly into political power.

As Mitchell put it, “Coal miners played a leading role in contesting work regimes and the private powers of employers in the labour activism and political mobilisation of the 1880s and onward. Between 1881 and 1905, coal miners in the United States went on strike at a rate of about three times the average for workers in all major industries, and at double the rate of the next-highest industry, tobacco manufacturing.” The coal industry was the key radicalizing force in bringing democracy to the Western world. For instance, in the United States in the 1930s, the radical Congress of Industrial Organizations, which is now the CIO part of the AFL-CIO, was founded by John Lewis, of the militant United Mine Workers. The rise of labor militancy in the coal mines had global political significance.  “Between the 1880s and the interwar decades, workers in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America used their new powers over energy flows to acquire or extend the right to vote and, more importantly, the right to form labour unions, to create political organizations, and to take collective action including strikes.”

World War I, which was the first war fought with opposing armies both using the applied force of a dense carbon-based fuel, was both incredibly bloody and important in terms of bringing strength to labor. Workers had leverage, because they fueled military forces, in particular the British Navy. Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a type of coal that both packed full of energy and quick to heat, by far the best fuel for coal-powered battleships (Updated). But these miners had been engaged in a wave of strikes and unrest from 1910-1914, which led Winston Churchill, then in charge of the admiralty, to switch the navy to oil. Whereas Britain had very small discovered deposits of oil (large discoveries in the North Sea would come much later), oil had different physical characteristics than coal. It could be drilled, and easily shipped through pipelines and oil tankers, thus rendering it far less vulnerable to labor slowdowns and sabotage. Churchill, in switching away from coal, was in effect trading dependence on Welsh labor and his left-wing political opponents at home for dependence on corporate cartels operating in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, Britain occupied Iraq in a brutal and controversial period during the 1920s, foreshadowing America’s later actions in the region.

And oil companies operated not to maximize production, but to sabotage it. Mitchell wrote, “The companies had learned from Standard Oil that it was easier to control the means of transportation. Building railways and pipelines required negotiating rights from the government, which typically granted the further right to prevent the establishing of competing lines. After obtaining the rights, the aim was usually to delay construction, but without losing the right. Iraq became the key place to sabotage the production of oil. It would retain that role through much of the twentieth century, and reacquire it in a different way in the twenty-first century.”

It is here that Carbon Democracy truly shines. Mitchell has reinterpreted the creation of much of our democratic apparatus, from labor laws to minimum wages to the right to vote to resistance to imperialism, as the struggle between different types of carbon-based fuels and the various characteristics of the labor required to extract and use them. Oil and how it flows is modern democracy.  Even the creation of modern economics, he shows, the notion of the “economy” itself, is a function of coal and oil. The first massive collections of government statistics, Mitchell points out, were attempts to quantify coal reserves. And in the early 20th century, there were two different conceptions of economics, one by economists like Thorsten Veblen that focused on the scarcity of resources, and the other by those who ultimately became neoclassical and Keynesian, which assumed infinite resources. The latter ended up winning, because the massive surplus of oil allowed for industrial agriculture to solve our food supply issues, and petrochemicals to provide a virtually infinite array of material shapes and sizes for any number of uses.

In the 1930s, Keynes essentially invented the concept of the “economy”, as a sphere where political choices should not intrude. This created the period of “managed democracy”, which lasted until the 1970s. Oil was the fuel sources that created this pseudo-democratic system, which involved strict financial controls to stop oil speculators from driving the price of oil down and crimping oil company profits. Glass-Steagall and the strict financial laws set up in the Depression, as it turns out, had at their core the protection of the oil industry (political scientist Tom Ferguson echoes this interpretation in his work). Similarly, the unraveling of this system because of higher oil demand in the 1970s led the neoliberals to gradually break this system of financial regulation.

Flowing through the narrative is the question of imperialism and neo-imperialism. A variety of ideological mechanisms, such as the self-determination ostensibly preached by Woodrow Wilson, were in fact ways for Western oil consuming states to control and slow the flow of oil from poorer but oil rich countries. Mitchell shows how Palestinian strikes at oil installations in the late 1930s led Britain to support a Jewish state in the area, and how American mining engineers helped craft the apartheid regime in South Africa. At the same time, aggressive left-wing parties in the British parliament sought to combat imperialism, because they understood that imperialism abroad was meant to break the power of British labor – in particular coal mining – at home. Mitchell pays particular attention to the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles and the period of negotiations after World War II to set up an international management framework. The League of Nations, he writes, “was to be an economic mechanism to replace, not war between states, but its taproot – the conflict over material resources.”

In addition to what would become the World Bank and IMF, Keynes wanted to establish an international body to manage commodities, including and especially oil. While no institution was ever set up to do this, a framework of national security and “the Cold War” managed to keep Middle Eastern and Russian offline for a long period of time. In addition, the oil companies used public relations to encourage a high oil consumption lifestyle in the United States, so as to keep the price of oil as high as possible. In Europe, Mitchell encourages a revised view of the Marshall plan, as a joint European and American elite plan to break European labor power. It’s a particularly interesting way to interpret the rise of the European Union, one deeply at odds with thinkers like George Soros who see the EU as a success of far sighted visionaries who sought to to build an “open society”. Mitchell cites American intervention in post-WWII European economic and political arrangements as evidence.

Three years later, after rapid inflation caused real wages to collapse, coal miners joined a series of strikes demanding that the government increase pay levels or extend food rations… Rather than yield to these claims, France and other European governments turned to the United States. Keen to promote their new corporate management model abroad (and to have Washington subsidise their exports), American industrialists used a fear of the popularity of Communist parties in Western Europe to win support for postwar aid to Europe. ‘The Communists are rendering us a great service’, commented the future French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France. ‘Because we have a “Communist danger” the Americans are making a tremendous effort to help us….The European Coal and Steel Community, established as a first step towards the political union of Europe, reduced competition in the coal industry and supported the mechanisation of production, with funds provided to alleviate the effects of the resulting pit closures and unemployment. The United States helped finance the programme, which reduced the ability of coal miners to carry out effective strikes by rapidly reducing their numbers and facilitating the supply of coal across national borders. The third element was the most extensive. The US funded initiatives to convert Europe’s energy system from one based largely on coal to one increasingly dependent on oil.

Thus, the European Community, which is currently in the thrall of a monetary crisis, was created out of a fierce political battle over oil, coal, profits and labor. And now, with the Cold War over and the European infrastructure dependent on labor-immune oil, the welfare states of the Eurozone are being destroyed. Carbon Democracy, as a historical narrative, explains why this is not a an anomaly. Chucking labor and social insurance overboard is a feature, not a bug, of the European experiment. Only by understanding the relationship of Europe to coal and oil does this become apparent, and can we cast aside quaint notions of democracy that ignore realpolitik.

The ultimate conclusion of the book is that a climate crisis, and peak oil, are putting our deeply held political arrangements in a period of uncertainty and crisis. Once you’ve gone on this journey through time, and you understand Mitchell’s narrative that our very intellectual horizons are dominated by oil as a surplus and infinite commodity, it becomes hard to conclude that our cultures will look remotely similar to what they look like today in just a few years. Against this sweeping narrative, our current political debates seem incredibly tiny, almost irrelevant. We have, as it turns out, been living in a land of fairy tales about how our society works, because we’ve been ignoring what powers it, oil, and what drives that commodity. The pipelines, the wells, the financial channels, these construct our physical society, as well as the intellectual environment in which we conceive of and organize our social relations.

I have only one reservation about Mitchell’s work. This book utterly blew me away. But because it did, because it sits so far outside of the orthodox sources of information I understand, it’s extremely difficult to incorporate it into contemporary political rhetoric. Most of the time, when I read a book on politics, though the information may be new, especially when the book contains a well-reported story, the influences come from a fairly standard set of ideas. For instance, I really loved Neil Barofsky’s book Bailout, because it was his observations on working the levers of power in Washington. And though the information in it was new, the book was a response to Tim Geithner’s worldview. We are mostly familiar with the various economic and legal ideas to which Barofsky referred, and so we can understand the political implications of what he’s saying. The book presented new information, but in a framework that was familiar, an extension of arguments I already understood. Carbon Democracy does not do this. Indeed, it could not. It introduces ideas and concepts that will need new political rhetoric before it can be absorbed by the public and policymakers. These ideas are desperately important, because they persuasively explain why our social arrangements are the way they are. I suspect that those who run our oil companies, and perhaps our banks, would instantly understand what Mitchell is saying, and find it almost obvious. The rest of us, though, will have to wake up from our dreamscape of democracy before truly recognizing what Carbon Democracy has put right in front of us.

UPDATE: I made an inadvertent error in this review by saying that steam coal was the best kind of fuel for battleships. This is not what Mitchell writes, and it isn’t what I meant. The intent was to argue that the supply of a particular kind of fuel best suited for a coal-powered British navy was dependent on militant coal miners, not to assert that coal was a more energy-dense fuel type than oil. In other words, what I meant to write, and what Mitchell argued, was that steam coal was the best kind of fuel for coal-powered battleships.  I have modified the text to reflect this. Here’s the passage from the book (h/t commenter KM).

“The south Wales coal strikes that had launched the Great Unrest were a particular threat to the navy. The Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a hybrid grade of fuel combining the high calorific value of anthracite with an ability to generate heat quickly, making those fields the only source of fuel for coal-fired battleships. At the Admiralty, Churchill immediately set up the Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines, to examine switching the Royal Navy’s ships from coal-and oil-fired steam engines to internal combustion engines dependent on oil. The political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking. It provided another incentive for the decision to abandon coal in favour of oil, and the consequent change in policy towards Anglo-Persian. In committing the Royal Navy to a new source of energy, the government was making itself vulnerable to the monopolistic powers of the oil companies. At the same time, it was freeing itself from the political claims of the coal miners.”

(footnote 45: “… Similar unrest among a different group of coal miners had shaped Admiralty planning a decade earlier. In 1903, the Commission on Fuel Oil had recommended only a partial switch from coal to oil, partly because the Great Pennsylvania Coal Strike of 1902, a turning point in American labour struggles, had caused a domestic switch to oil and a reduction in US oil exports, raising Admiralty concerns about the security of supply….”

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103 comments

  1. Aaron Layman

    Great review! Can’t wait to read the book. This makes perfect sense when we stop and consider this is all a bubble of perception management by an elite status quo.

  2. dearieme

    “1920s … Churchill… his left-leaning labor opponents would be able to demand higher wages, social insurance, voting rights…” What utter dross. “social insurance” was introduced in Britain before WWI, and what more voting rights could coal miners demand in the 20s? Double votes for miners perhaps? Remove the female franchise?

    1. Foppe

      Sorry, but what kind of “social insurance” are you talking about, and how do you know if it’s the same level as the one matt’s referencing?
      Similarly, I would merely point out that univ. female suffrage was only introduced in 1928 in the UK; before that, only women >30yo, who met certain minimum property quals (which are unlikely to have been attainable for, say, the miners’ wives, who would’ve profited from their also having voting rights, for fairly obvious reasons) could vote.

      1. dearieme

        “what kind of “social insurance” are you talking about
        The obvious sort – unemployment insurance and old age pension.

        He’s talking rubbish and you know he is.

        1. Christophe

          Dearieme, telling other people what they know is a fool’s errand. Stick to revealing your own biases and prejudices by expressing your opinions, which you seem to imagine are universal. No, Dear, we are not all fixated on demonizing economic benefits and entitlements, despite what the Tea Party may claim.

          You’re talking rubbish and you probably don’t know you are.

      2. Roland

        Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) played an important role in the introduction of some social welfare measures in Britain:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Insurance_Act_1911

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People's_Budget

        Note that the battle over the Budget helped break the power of the House of Lords, too.

        As for oil and battleships, Churchill played a role there, but it had little to do with breaking strikes in the coalfields. Oil-burning dreadnoughts had important advantages over coal-burners (higher speed, longer range, quicker refuelling, smaller crew). Britain lay down an important class of oil-burning dreadnoughts (the “Queen Elizabeth” class) as part of the arms race with Germany prior to the Great War. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in the Asquith cabinet at that time. But the British actually went back to coal-burners with the next group of dreadnoughts (“Revenge” class) because they worried about the adequacy of oil supplies in wartime.

        The British interest in oil supplies in the Mideast originally resulted from the dreadnought race, rather than from a desire to break the coal miners.

        Not that Churchill loved miners or labour unions. He often advocated extreme measures against strikers. Churchill advocated social welfare mostly because of his desire to safeguard the political stability of Britain and husband its strength for war against the Empire’s rivals. Any socialism on Churchill’s part was mostly nationalist in intention.

  3. Watt4Bob

    From the perspective of the Big Oil companies, all the world’s oil is their oil, and they intend to extract and use the world’s oil in accordance with a plan, and according to a schedule that is not common knowledge.

    As the posted noted, Iraq’s oil has mostly been left in the ground in order to support prices which also allows for pacification of their partners in this scheme the authoritarian governments that rule the oil producing states in the middle east and elsewhere.

    We’re supposedly ‘surprised’ by new oil fields being ‘discovered’ but this isn’t the case, Big Oil knows where the oil is, they simply intend to exploit the world’s oil, which they consider to be ‘theirs’, in the most profitable, and strategic sequence.

    This most likely means exhausting the rest of the worlds resources before ‘discovering’ what has been described as the possibly the world’s largest oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico for instance.

    BTW, It’s a very interesting fact that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan tout a pipeline intended to support the exploitation of Canada’s Alberta tar sands as contributing to America’s energy independence, when it’s common knowledge that the pipeline is actually necessary to deliver oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast for convenient export to foreign markets.

    BTW2, BP was born in 1908 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., coincidently the English and Americans had just decided in concert, to build their respective Navy’s warships based on oil power rather than coal, with greater range and speed in mind.

    Anglo-Persian would become BP in 1954, the biggest supplier to the western alliance’s militaries.

  4. Deloss

    This is gibberish, Matt Stoller, and I’m not even sure what political viewpoint to assign it to. “Anarchy” and “idiocy” come to mind. I strongly disagree with your characterization of Winston Churchill as a “conservative elite.” He was on the outs with the “elites” for so long that Hitler, whom he despised, took over most of Europe, despite his minority struggles to oppose that lunatic, with the support of the “elites.” You are familiar with the events of Munich? And who took what position about it?

    The “elites” admired Hitler, (because he was clearly anti-Bolshevik–they glossed over his less attractive qualities, which everybody now acknowledges). Churchill was ruled off the BBC and has his newspaper columns canceled because he was not of the same opinion as the “elites.”

    I’m surprised you didn’t bring in Tonypandy. Tsk, tsk.

    It is frivolous, I know, to take issue with you over something that happened 90+ years ago. But how can you expect to be trusted on any point, if you are so frivolously wrong about Winston Churchill?

    Yves’ blog is respected because it does not generally tolerate sloppy thinking, and sloppy thinking is what you have perpetrated.

    1. aieee my soul

      Nice work with the vituperative criticism having nothing whatever to do with the guy’s point (beauty kick save, there, too, acknowledging complete irrelevance!) But please don’t put your website up there any more. Looking at it made my soul die. Holy shit, you got a boring job.

      1. LeonovaBalletRusse

        ams, It’s not “the point” but “the method” that is at issue. Sloppy (or propagandistic) thinking makes for sloppy (or propagandistic) writing.

        Jus what is the purpose of this review, overt and covert?

    2. Rutger

      WTF by what retarded definition is having been in charge of the admiralty in the, at the time, largest imperial power of the world not being a member of the elite?

      1. Valissa

        There are many categories, levels and types of elites… there is not realy one unified group THE ELITE, though many tend to speak as if that was true.

          1. digi_owl

            Most anyone with an authoritarian bend was for Hitler as long as he was chasing commies and bootstrapping the German economy back into shape. But then he started going on the warpath, annexing nations here, invading there, and the end result was basically the bootstrap of ww1 all over again with mutual defense treaties and such coming into effect.

    3. gonzomarx

      a 30 second Wiki all it takes to demolish this straw man.

      just a few of the posts Churchill held during this time.

      Home Secretary 19 February 1910 – 24 October 1911
      Chancellor of the Exchequer (during general strike)6 November 1924 – 4 June 1929
      First Lord of the Admiralty In October 1911 – May 1915

      and finally born into the freaken Dukes of Marlborough,a branch of the noble Spencer (of lady Diana fame)family

    4. Yves Smith

      I happen to be a Churchill buff (I’ve read the Martin Gilbert biography, the two volume Manchester biography, many of Churchill’s own works and even have some contemporary books on him, one a 1933 book called “The Tragedy of Winston Churchill”).

      You could not be more wrong. Churchill believed deeply in the aristocracy and the Empire. He was involved in strike-breaking as Home Secretary (although he countermanded a request to use troops) and was firmly opposed to women’s suffrage. However, he did support measures to improve wages, but this was not out of egalitarianism, but that better fed lower classes would produce stronger adults (and better soliders). He saw the increase in height of lower class men a generation later as a personal accomplishment.

    5. john steppling

      “Mr Mbeki quoted a passage from The River War, Churchill’s account of Kitchener’s campaign in Sudan, which described shortcomings in “Mohammedanism” – Islam.

      It said: “Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

      “The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

      “A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.” —-” “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” (To the Peel Commission 1937)….and more churchill….”
      This story has been recounted by British historian Andrew Roberts, both in the April 8 London Times and in an article in the April 9 issue of the weekly The Spectator, the latter on the theme of “Churchill’s life-long antipathy to colored people.” Roberts has completed a book, Eminent Churchillians, which will be published in July. His writings are among a spate of works now being previewed or released in Britain, that are challenging the mythologized image of Winston Churchill that has been carefully cultivated over the past decades, as the great defender of “western freedoms” against Adolf Hitler and, later, against the communist menace.

      Whatever might be the final verdict on Churchill’s role in the 1940s, and whatever might be the ultimate motives of Roberts and other authors in presenting their findings, the reality that emerges from their research among various archives and documents, is that Winston Churchill was a racist degenerate, who supported the sterilization of “inferior” races, eugenics measures to defend the “British race,” and the establishment of apartheid in South Africa to separate the races, among other atrocities.”–Churchill, for the record was an avowed racist and colonialist. A reactionary royalist and indeed, partner of the elites.

  5. alex

    “Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a type of coal that both packed full of energy and quick to heat, by far the best fuel for battleships. But these miners had been engaged in a wave of strikes and unrest from 1910-1914, which led Winston Churchill, then in charge of the admiralty, to switch the navy to oil.”

    Talk about creating “facts” to support your hypothesis. Fuel oil has higher energy density than coal, both in terms of MJ/liter and MJ/kg.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_density

    Hence oil fueled ships have a longer range than coal fueled ships. They can also be refueled at sea from “oilers”, while coal fueled ships have to be refilled in port. That necessitates numerous coaling stations (e.g. the Falklands) which have to be established and defended all over the world to support a global navy.

    Furthermore oil fueled ships emit much less smoke than coal fired ones, which is important to reducing the visibility of warships at long distances (especially before radar).

    All the major navies switched from coal to oil before WWI. Were they all in on Churchill’s plot to weaken the power of Welsh coal miners?

    If I can figure this out in 5 minutes on the Internet, what does that say about the “facts” in rest of this book? It sounds like a classic case of an author seeing everything through the lens of his pet hypothesis.

    1. KM

      Nicely done. From, you know, the actual book:

      “The south Wales coal strikes that had launched the Great Unrest were a particular threat to the navy. The Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a hybrid grade of fuel combining the high calorific value of anthracite with an ability to generate heat quickly, making those fields the only source of fuel for coal-fired battleships. At the Admiralty, Churchill immediately set up the Royal Commission on Fuel and Engines, to examine switching the Royal Navy’s ships from coal-and oil-fired steam engines to internal combustion engines dependent on oil. The political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking. It provided another incentive for the decision to abandon coal in favour of oil, and the consequent change in policy towards Anglo-Persian. In committing the Royal Navy to a new source of energy, the government was making itself vulnerable to the monopolistic powers of the oil companies. At the same time, it was freeing itself from the political claims of the coal miners.”

      (footnote 45: “… Similar unrest among a different group of coal miners had shaped Admiralty planning a decade earlier. In 1903, the Commission on Fuel Oil had recommended only a partial switch from coal to oil, partly because the Great Pennsylvania Coal Strike of 1902, a turning point in American labour struggles, had caused a domestic switch to oil and a reduction in US oil exports, raising Admiralty concerns about the security of supply….”

      1. alex

        “The political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking.”

        Undoubtedly – along with many, many other factors. Does the book make any attempt to weight these factors? Can you refute my main point, that it is factually wrong to say that on the technical merits coal is better than oil for fueling warships? Do you think concern about Welsh coalminers strikes may have been just a little counterbalanced by the strategic disadvantages of switching from a domestically available fuel source to one that had to be imported from thousands of miles away? How about the simple fact that oil was more expensive than coal? And does the book make any mention that the temporary nationalization of the coal industry in WWI (long a Labour goal actually) meant there were no labour problems in the mines during the war? Lastly, does the book attempt to explain why not just the British, but every major navy made the switch from coal to oil before WWI?

        The “political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking” as a primary explanation for the switch from coal to oil is a classic example of selective citing or emphasis of facts to support the author’s pet theory.

        1. KM

          Your initial comment completely misrepresented Mitchell’s actual arguments; they demonstrated that you did not even know what those arguments were; and the facts you cited in it did not undermine, or even address, what Mitchell was claiming one whit. My single quote from the book demonstrated that in many different ways. You can try to distract and widen the goalposts all you want, but you were simply wrong, in rather spectacular fashion, and you should man up and admit it.

          Remember this? “If I can figure this out in 5 minutes on the Internet, what does that say about the “facts” in rest of this book?” Right.

          “‘The political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking.’ Undoubtedly – along with many, many other factors. Does the book make any attempt to weight these factors?”

          No, though it does discuss several. Why should it need to weight them? Mitchell never tries to claim that Welsh coalminers were the overriding consideration, and none of his arguments hinge on any such claim.

          “Can you refute my main point, that it is factually wrong to say that on the technical merits coal is better than oil for fueling warships?”

          Please tell me why on earth I would need to. After all, Mitchell makes no such claim. The passage I cited, by contrast, makes a very different one. Part of the reason for citing the passage was to show that nothing you were saying about technical merits, etc., was the least bit relevant to Mitchell’s actual argument.

          “Do you think concern about Welsh coalminers strikes may have been just a little counterbalanced by the strategic disadvantages of switching from a domestically available fuel source to one that had to be imported from thousands of miles away? How about the simple fact that oil was more expensive than coal?”

          You seem quite adept at undermining your own arguments. After all, if the “counter-balancing” considerations were quite powerful, that would at least prima facie seem to lend more, not less, credence to the importance of the worries about coal-miners at home, about the waves of domestic social unrest their striking initiated and inspired, and about the power of the new forces of organised labour more generally.

          “And does the book make any mention that the temporary nationalization of the coal industry in WWI (long a Labour goal actually) meant there were no labour problems in the mines during the war?”

          What does that have to do with anything? Which of Mitchell’s arguments is it supposed to undermine, exactly? (The nationalisation took place, after all, towards the end of the war.) I will note that if anything, it too would appear to support the claim that labour unrest in the coal mines was a major concern of the government.

          “Lastly, does the book attempt to explain why not just the British, but every major navy made the switch from coal to oil before WWI?”

          South Wales was responsible for over 25% of world coal exports at the time. Moreover, every major power was enduring substantial unrest, activism and militancy on the part of labour during the period prior to and through the world war. And once again, Mitchell never claims that coal miners’ unrest was the single decisive element in the shift, either in Britain or anywhere else.

          “The “political unrest in the Welsh coalfields influence Admiralty thinking” as a primary explanation for the switch from coal to oil is a classic example of selective citing or emphasis of facts to support the author’s pet theory.”

          He nowhere claims that it’s the “primary explanation” for the switch; in fact, he quite explicitly calls it “another reason” and “another incentive”, and only argues that it “influenced” Admiralty thinking (not that, e.g., it “determined” it).

          Since you clearly have no idea what Mitchell is arguing, I recommend that you Read. The. Book. before trying to make authoritative-sounding debunkings.

          1. alex

            “Your initial comment completely misrepresented Mitchell’s actual arguments”

            My initial comment was about facts, which have to be established before arguments can mean anything. Once more, very simply spelled out: does Mitchell claim, as the review does, that coal is technically superior to oil for warships? Does he even address this fundamental issue, without which any discussion of this issue is nonsense?

            ‘Remember this? “If I can figure this out in 5 minutes on the Internet, what does that say about the “facts” in rest of this book?’

            Yes, and you’ve done nothing to refute it. You’ve merely diverted attention from it as though it was irrelevant to the question. If, as you claim, his “arguments” don’t consider it an important factor, then his arguments about why the Royal Navy switched from coal to oil are worthless.

            “Why should it need to weight them?”

            You’re joking, right? People making decisions tend to weight the pros and cons. For example, someone is considering jumping off of a cliff. Pro: nice view on the way down. Con: it’ll kill me. Would you weight those factors if making a personal decision, or call the argument a draw?

            I’ve another reason the Royal Navy switched from coal to oil: it made it easier to keep those navy whites clean. But I’m not weighting this argument.

            “Mitchell never tries to claim that Welsh coalminers were the overriding consideration, and none of his arguments hinge on any such claim.”

            So what’s his point, that certain officials in the British government didn’t like coalminers striking? Wow, there’s an original insight.

            “Can you refute my main point, that it is factually wrong to say that on the technical merits coal is better than oil for fueling warships?”

            Please tell me why on earth I would need to [refute that oil is better than coal]”

            Uh, maybe because it is a key point, if not the key point, in navies switching from coal to oil?

            “Part of the reason for citing the passage was to show that nothing you were saying about technical merits, etc., was the least bit relevant to Mitchell’s actual argument.”

            Really? And here I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt that the passage was a selective cite.

            “You seem quite adept at undermining your own arguments. After all, if the “counter-balancing” considerations were quite powerful, that would at least prima facie seem to lend more, not less, credence to the importance of the worries about coal-miners at home”

            Oh sure, if you completely disregard the technical issues and assume that Churchill and Admiral of the Fleet Fisher were willing to sacrifice the navy, their country and their careers for the sake of crushing Welsh coal miners. Alternatively you could come to the same conclusion as any historian interested in something other than their agenda, that Churchill and Fisher felt that the technical superiority of oil outweighed the disadvantages of supply and cost. And of course it made it easier to keep those navy whites sparkling.

            “He nowhere claims that it’s the “primary explanation” for the switch; in fact, he quite explicitly calls it “another reason” and “another incentive”, and only argues that it “influenced” Admiralty thinking (not that, e.g., it “determined” it).”

            And for good measure, puts no weight on how much it may have influenced Admiralty thinking. In other words, he said nothing of any consequence.

            “Read. The. Book.”

            Why? There is nothing to recommend it. The review describes a book that’s factually challenged, and despite my repeated requests, you as a defender of it have said nothing about whether the fundamental error of claiming that coal is technically superior to oil for warships is a mistake in the book or just the review.

        2. KM

          “My initial comment was about facts, which have to be established before arguments can mean anything. Once more, very simply spelled out: does Mitchell claim, as the review does, that coal is technically superior to oil for warships? Does he even address this fundamental issue, without which any discussion of this issue is nonsense?”

          You can twist and turn all you like, but it doesn’t change what you initially wrote, which anybody can go and read for themselves. Your original post assumed that what Stoller had written about Welsh coal being “by far the best fuel for battleships” was Mitchell’s own argument, then sneered: “Talk about creating ‘facts’ to support your hypothesis…. If I can figure this out in 5 minutes on the Internet, what does that say about the ‘facts’ in the rest of the book?”

          But Mitchell “created” no facts, and what you could “figure out in 5 minutes on the Internet” provided no support whatsoever for your attempt to smear “the ‘facts’ in the rest of this book”. Again, since you claim to be interested in *facts* and not arguments, I challenge you to find a single *fact* that Mitchell invented or got wrong.

          “Once more, very simply spelled out: does Mitchell claim, as the review does, that coal is technically superior to oil for warships?”

          Your attempts to pretend that I haven’t answered this question several times already are starting to verge on the obnoxious. HE DOES NOT MAKE THIS CLAIM. That’s a simple, brute fact. Some more facts: you assumed he *did* make the claim in your original post, you attacked the book based on that false assumption, and claimed that if he got that basic fact wrong, the rest of the facts in the book were probably suspect, too; and if Mitchell did not make that claim, then your claims that he made a *factual* error are utterly, demonstrably WRONG. That is — if you actually care about FACTS, like you claim to do.

          “Does he even address this fundamental issue, without which any discussion of this issue is nonsense?”

          That is an entirely different question — and that’s why I stated that you were widening the goalposts in order to divert attention from your initial false accusation. Your first post NEVER made the argument that Mitchell SHOULD have CONSIDERED the fact that oil is technically superior to coal when trying to explain the Navy’s shift from coal to oil. (Go read it again if you think otherwise.) Your post simply asserted that Mitchell had said that coal was technically superior to oil — when he didn’t say anything of the kind — and tried to slime all the rest of the facts in Mitchell’s book by showing that coal was technically inferior to oil.

          Now, AFTER I refuted — simply, directly refuted — your claim that Mitchell had argued that coal was superior to oil, you turn around and try to muddy the waters and cover up your original mistake by saying that Mitchell’s argument about why the Navy shifted to oil is suspect because it doesn’t take into account the fact that oil is technically superior to coal. Now unlike your original argument, this one isn’t obviously unreasonable (though if you actually know what Mitchell’s broader arguments are, and why he’s actually citing the Navy example in this context, it becomes much less persuasive). But that is entirely separate from the original point I was responding to.

          “Yes, and you’ve done nothing to refute it. You’ve merely diverted attention from it as though it was irrelevant to the question. ”

          Utterly false, as I’ve just pointed out. Nice projection, though.

          “You’re joking, right? People making decisions tend to weight the pros and cons. For example, someone is considering jumping off of a cliff. Pro: nice view on the way down. Con: it’ll kill me. Would you weight those factors if making a personal decision, or call the argument a draw?”

          You seem to be confusing Mitchell with the Royal Navy. What exactly is the “decision” that *Mitchell* is facing here?

          Mitchell isn’t writing a book trying to explain why the Royal Navy decided to ramp up a switch from coal to oil-based combustion engines. If he were, it would be reasonable to expect him to evaluate all of the relevant factors and decide which ones were central.

          Instead, he’s citing the Navy’s switch as one of many examples of how the broader shift in industrial society from coal to oil as primary energy source had both significant socio-political causes and significant socio-political consequences. For THAT purpose, all he needs to do is to show that concerns about the “Great Unrest” initiated by coal miners’ ongoing agitation against their employers and government since the 1880s — agitation that inspired unrest by railway workers, dockers, and the working class more generally throughout British (and indeed European and North American) society during that period, were one important (and hitherto unappreciated) factor in generating the Navy’s decision to move to oil.

          (Britain and the U.S. were the first two navies to move so far in that direction, and the others ended up following suit. So focusing on those two examples, as Mitchell does, is entirely appropriate.)

          And in fact Mitchell does show that these concerns were important, citing (for example) Churchill’s actions, speeches and similar evidence to this end.

          Perhaps purely technical reasons were the dominant consideration underlying the Navy’s switch to oil (though one might be somewhat sceptical — e.g. considering there was no race, no particular sign of urgency, among European navies to develop oil-fuelled warships at the time). But even if that is so, it simply doesn’t negate the impact that socio-political considerations had. Decisions are almost always made for a large number of reasons. Mitchell’s point in (rather briefly) discussing this one example is to show it as part of a larger trend, a wider concern with social stability, trade unionism, the growing power of labour, etc., that played an important role in prompting the global shift towards oil. Even more important for Mitchell’s purposes, however, are the socio-political *consequences* of this shift.

          Which also addresses the silliness of this:

          ““Mitchell never tries to claim that Welsh coalminers were the overriding consideration, and none of his arguments hinge on any such claim.”
          So what’s his point, that certain officials in the British government didn’t like coalminers striking? Wow, there’s an original insight.”

          Sure, that’s his insight.

          “The review describes a book that’s factually challenged”

          Repeating something doesn’t make it so. Particularly given the failure to demonstrate a single factual inaccuracy in the book.

          “you as a defender of it have said nothing about whether the fundamental error of claiming that coal is technically superior to oil for warships is a mistake in the book or just the review”

          And that, like I’ve said, is just a straight-up lie.

        3. russell1200

          I am a little of a naval enthusiast. The Dreadnought started the British oil binge in 1904. Which predates the strikes noted, although I am sure there were earlier strikes.

          The Dreadnought also conincides with successful efforts at massively increasing the long range accuracy of ships guns. So ships wouldn’t just get close and blast away.

          Speed was extremely important in this type of engagement, and even the general public would have had a surprising awareness of this. Janes Fighting Ships is an outgrowth of miniature naval rules that used to have the public renting out gymnasiums and playing out fleet battles.

          So it was an extreme age of technocratic perfection over practicallity. Granted there were battles where just this combination of speed and big gun range was decisive, but not with the outright certainty.

          Churchill, and Admiral Fisher did all sorts of similarly foolish things which had nothing to do with oil. Fisher is the one who pushed for development of the submarine after all.

    2. Mark P.

      Alex is correct: oil has far higher energy density than coal, both in terms of MJ/liter and MJ/kg.

      You really can’t run military tanks and even efficient cars on coal. Moreover, British Admiralty chief Jackie Fisher had been pushing the Royal Navy’s move to oil way before WWI; Churchill only became Fisher’s ally in this.

      The book’s claims sound interesting and make sense to some degree, but the readiness to exaggerate reveals a disdain and ignorance regarding actual scientific and historical truths that is, alas, a little too typical of these over-simplifying political analyses. Whether from left or right.

      1. KM

        [Beats head against wall.]

        Alex may be perfectly correct about oil’s higher density than coal. That is *completely and utterly irrelevant*, since Mitchell simply does not make the claim that coal is more efficient than oil. He says absolutely nothing about relative efficiency of different energy sources. And on this, Alex is dead wrong, and demonstrably so.

        Read the quote I provided. Then go take a look at the relevant pages on Google Books, if you’d like.

        “Moreover, British Admiralty chief Jackie Fisher had been pushing the Royal Navy’s move to oil way before WWI; Churchill only became Fisher’s ally in this.”

        So? Does this somehow demonstrate that the Navy’s decision to shift the entire fleet to internal combustion engines dependent on oil had nothing to do with problems with organised coal labour and “The Great Unrest” more generally?

        “… the readiness to exaggerate reveals a disdain and ignorance regarding actual scientific and historical truths that is, alas, a little too typical of these over-simplifying political analyses”

        Alas, you need to read books before making authoritative pronouncements on their alleged exaggerations. To see, you know, whether they actually make them.

        1. Mark P.

          I made no claims to having read Mitchell’s book, which might be interesting. Only Stoller’s review — which makes claims like “Carbon-based fuels … cannot be understood except in the context of labor, imperialism and democracy.”

          No. Back in the real world, there are no coal-powered aircraft, trucks, tanks, etc. Class warfare analyses — however neat and even substantiatable they may be– are secondary to irrelevant next to that single central fact: oil’s energy-density, portability and convenience for use have been vastly superior to coal and almost everything else we’ve had available.

          If you took Stoller’s representation of Mitchell’s argument to a site like The Oil Drum, which has its own monomaniacal simplifying explanation for everything in Peak Oil, they’d laugh at it as scientifically illiterate and point out what I have — that, first and last, it’s about oil’s energy-density.

          They’d be right.

          Almost at the very beginning, for example, the Fischer-Tropsch method of coal liquefaction was developed to turn coal into gasoline-like liquid fuel. Again, first and last, it’s the energy density.

    3. Carol Sterritt

      Oil was so plentiful, back at the turn of the Twentieth Century, that no one knew what to do with its surplus. For instance, people drilling for water in Pennsylvania ended up with oil instead.

      This was not a nefarious and diabolical plot to cause the two modern day wars against the people of Iraq. Or to create gas shortages in the USA. Perhaps if Henry Ford had had the clairvoyant tendencies of a Nostradamus, he wouldn’t have signed off on having his cars run on it. But he was an inventor, not a psychic.

      Meanwhile, the current day situation with the coal companies is enough to make anyone even slightly concerned about the environment ill. Entire mountainsides blown up. Sludge piles as large as foothills sitting with their dangerous waste right above grammar schools. (The slightest flood could bring one of these monstrosities down on the school below.) And only 300 to 400 people involved in reclaiming each and every coal field. Plus none of the coal fields will last more than another 10 years, despite the ability of the coal industry to implode every living eco-system around the coal, which includes hillsides, forests, meadows and lakes, in a quest to capture every last ounce of the stuff.

    4. Paul Jurczak

      Thank you, I was going to comment on this issue, but you already did it quite nicely. The switch from coal to oil was dictated by availability of new superior technologies in transportation domain (ship propulsion, car/truck and airplane). Churchill could only marginally delay or accelerate this trend as the First Lord of the Admiralty. The official policy of British Empire at this time was to maintain naval superiority over any other navy and this required using the best technology available. As a side note: Churchill was instrumental in development of naval aviation and the tank while at Admiralty (1911-1915). Both of these new weapons are post-coal technologies.

  6. Mcmike

    It is certainly well documented that the US took on the post war role of crushing unions and populist movements around the globe with gusto. Prefering crime syndicates and bloody dictators to pesky left wingers and their demands for a seat at the table

  7. JCE

    “And in the early 20th century, there were two different conceptions of economics, one by economists like Thorsten Veblen that focused on the scarcity of resources, and the other by those who ultimately became neoclassical and Keynesian, which assumed infinite resources.”

    That’s just totally, utterly wrong. Neoclassical economics assumes infinite resources!?!?! it’s the complete opposite! the notion of scarcity is the centerpiece, the keystone of neoclassical economics. it is always there, center stage, even when sometimes it is not the most relevant factor

    as Deloss says in his comment:
    “But how can you expect to be trusted on any point, if you are so frivolously wrong …”

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      JCE, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen focused on the liabilities of the Sucker Play pitched to American Marks (“You to can live like an aristo” — just sign right here for indentured servitude at “work” and your wife’s slavery at home). This led to the Cash Cow for Finance: Mind-controlled “consumers” Keeping Up with the Joneses in perpetuity. It worked!

      This program worked in tandem with relentless “Royal” propaganda from “across the pond” reminding Americans of the glamour they were missing, while the Rhodes Scholarship and University of Chicago teams preached the British Imperial faith in every classroom and boardroom, as the kids read The Encyclopedia Britannica to keep their education on the right track.

      This was masterful propaganda, creating “desire for the impossible dream” in the hearts, mind, and wallets of American Marks everywhere. And Rockefeller’s University of Chicago served the .01% best. Here’s how:

      “MISINFORMING A NATION” by Willard Huntington Wright (New York, B.W. Huebsch, MCMXVII).

  8. jabre

    One of the themes of the blogs which are skeptical of the claims of *Anthropogenic* (man-made) Global Warming (AGW) is that the label of their skepticism being driven by ‘big oil’ interests is not true. They propose that the AGW hype and EPA carbon emission standards are supported by big oil to drive coal-based fuels out of the energy market.

    1. The Rage

      That doesn’t accept the fact the biggest “skeptics” is financed by oil leaning producing countries just beyond the coal producers. Skepticism has been outed.

  9. KM

    Very happy to see Tim Mitchell’s work being discussed here. Just an extremely sharp guy. And a very careful researcher, whatever the impressions of fools who have an instant opinion about a book they haven’t read.

    Phil Mirowski, David Graeber, now Tim Mitchell … one of the many things that draws me to NC is the high quality of many of the academics who get air time around these parts.

    1. alex

      “fools who have an instant opinion about a book they haven’t read”

      Funny how glaring errors that people notice right away makes those people skeptical of the quality of the book. I suppose one should read every book just to ensure that one is not being hasty in deciding it’s not worth reading. What’s Ann Coulter published lately?

      1. KM

        Funny how people can find glaring errors in a book without even looking at it to find those errors.

        Good one on the Coulter comparison. Clever.

        1. alex

          “without even looking at it to find those errors”

          So you’re saying that Stoller’s review is grossly inaccurate in citing some “facts” from the book? In that case I’ll have to reconsider. Otherwise points like my

          “Good one on the Coulter comparison. Clever.”

          Nothing clever about it. Can you recommend any Coulter books worth reading? Have you looked at them all?

          1. KM

            The review does make certain mistakes on points of detail and interpretation. But how would you, or any of the discerning critics above, even know that?

            Boy, what a ringing defence of your Coulter comparison. Never mind the fact that even before being exposed to a given Coulter volume, I actually know — from more, incidentally, than just second-hand opinion — more than I care to know about Coulter, her beliefs, her “arguments” and argument style, her writings, and her research and citation skills. Unlike what you and said critics previously knew about Mitchell and his work, which is to say, nothing.

            But let’s make this simple so that we don’t need to waste one another’s time further. You select your favourite among the “errors” picked out so confidently by our self-styled fact-checkers above. Then leave it to me to take it apart, and show exactly what has been proven by our armchair critics.

          2. alex

            “The review does make certain mistakes on points of detail”

            Is claiming that coal is technically superior to oil for fueling warships an error in the review or in the book? And do you consider that a mere “detail”? The technical superiority of oil caused a major turning point in ship design, greatly influenced WWI, and had strategic implications right up to the present day. It’s no “detail”. Getting that wrong is like saying the French might have won at Agincourt if they’d had better airpower.

            “even before being exposed to a given Coulter volume, I actually know — from more, incidentally, than just second-hand opinion — more than I care to know about Coulter, her beliefs, her “arguments” and argument style, her writings, and her research and citation skills [yada yada yada]“.

            In short, you haven’t looked at all her books. According to your reasoning, that means you have no right to criticize them.

            “Unlike what you and said critics previously knew about Mitchell and his work, which is to say, nothing.”

            Ah, the great Tim Mitchell. Nope, never heard of him. Pardon my ignorance but the world is filled with self-important but poor authors writing bad books. I need some way to filter them out so I can read a few good ones. Reviews are one way. Either this review is bad or the book is bad (i.e. contains important factual errors). Which is it?

            “Then leave it to me to take it apart, and show exactly what has been proven by our armchair critics.”

            You already failed to refute (or even really address) my 9:28 post, so I’ll let you pick the next criticism to “take apart”.

          3. KM

            You’re quite the piece of work.

            “Is claiming that coal is technically superior to oil for fueling warships an error in the review or in the book?”

            An error in the review. But of course I’ve already debunked that particular debunking of yours above.

            “In short, you haven’t looked at all her books. According to your reasoning, that means you have no right to criticize them.”

            Clearly you have reading comprehension issues. Try re-reading my sentence slowly. No, I haven’t looked at all her books. But unlike you in this situation, I wouldn’t be totally unjustified in mocking Coulter based on one review of one of her books that I hadn’t read. And that’s precisely because I, like most people who follow U.S. politics, have actually heard of Coulter and know something about what she’s all about, what kinds of arguments she makes, and how shoddy her research in general is.

            You, on the other hand, know nothing about Mitchell by your own admission. So you have no prior basis whatsoever for confidently assuming you know what Mitchell is arguing and for ridiculing those arguments without actually taking a gander at the book itself.

            “Ah, the great Tim Mitchell.”

            Grow up. I never said or implied that you should have heard of him. What I was saying is that if you hadn’t, maybe you should exercise a bit of caution before pontificating on what you imagine is his lousy research.

            “Either this review is bad or the book is bad (i.e. contains important factual errors). Which is it?”

            Don’t pretend like *I’m* the one trying to evade *your* arguments. In my previous post, I said very clearly that the review reads a few things into Mitchell’s argument that aren’t there. If you’re so confident the book contains important factual errors, then you might want to actually produce one.

            “You already failed to refute (or even really address) my 9:28 post”

            Republicans seem to believe that if you can assert something with enough confidence, it becomes the truth. I both addressed and refuted your post, directly and decisively. If you need me to explain to you, slowly, just how the quote I provided from Mitchell’s book completely undermines your post in multiple different ways, I will be happy to oblige.

          4. alex

            “You’re quite the piece of work.”

            Thank you.

            “An error in the review.”

            Mirabile dictu, an answer! Thank you! (and I won’t complain about how many hours it took you to answer that simple key question).

            Ok, then the review is garbage. I withdraw much of my criticism of Mitchell. However, by your description, I still have no idea why anyone would spend time reading the book. According to you the author mentions possible factors in key historical decisions without any comment on how important they may or may not be. What’s the point?

            “In my previous post, I said very clearly that the review reads a few things into Mitchell’s argument that aren’t there.”

            Without mentioning a single specific example. That’s both useful and convincing.

            “Republicans seem to believe that if you can assert something with enough confidence, it becomes the truth.”

            Next time I see a known Republican, I’ll ask if they agree.

            “I both addressed and refuted your post, directly and decisively.”

            Oh please, don’t flatter yourself. You took hours to answer my simple and clear question about whether the error was in the book or the review. Before that you wiggled around the issue by saying that it was irrelevant to Mitchell’s arguments. So you’ve convinced me that, unlike the reviewer, Mitchell may not be factually challenged. However you’ve also convinced me that he doesn’t examine this key historical issue in any useful or meaningful way. Again, what’s the point? Some government officials don’t like strikes? Oil affects geopolitics? Such great insights.

  10. Lambert Strether

    Awesome. Every word a gem.

    * * *

    I wonder why our elites chose* fracking instead of solar. Surely solar is even more “labor immune” than fracking?

    NOTE * And how I would love to see Dick Cheny’s energy plan from ten years ago.

    1. Bert_S

      From what I can tell, so far solar has been immune from positive cost/benefit analysis from independant sources.

      I recall the Bush/Cheney “energy tour”. There was the Hydrogen Economy and some conservation side things like “white roofs”, electronic ballasts, and insulation.

      Coulda been why they decided to invade Iraq.

      1. Bert_S

        There was also some attempt to get the populace to say the word “nuclear” again, but in a good way, of course.

      2. Art Eclectic

        Solar has been immune because of a deep seated want for control and independence. I spend a lot of time working with the general public on energy and energy conservation. What people want is off the grid. They want control of their energy source and solar is the best option they’ve got. Wind isn’t reliable enough in most areas nor on a per parcel generation basis. Solar is the only thing that fits the wants of John Q Public to not have his critical energy needs filled by entities that literally have him by the short hairs.

        No energy, no lights, heat, transportation. Energy is the ultimate control mechanism for a first world population.

    2. F. Beard

      I’d say that solar does not YET make economic sense for most applications. Yet Nature uses solar successfully so it’s only a matter of time till humans can too.

      Yet I don’t see Nature using wind energy much so I’s say the prognosis for windmills is dim.

      And lest someone say that Nature does not use nuclear energy, there is some evidence that it does – some bacteria and fungi seem to thrive in high radiation environments.

      1. F. Beard

        Oh, and coal, oil and natural gas are essentially stored solar energy so to be against hydrocarbons is essentially to be against solar energy, no?

  11. GS

    Churchill was a Liberal when he implemented the conversion of the Royal Navy from oil to coal. It’s a poorly researched book.

    1. Neo Helvetian

      Are you equating the classical British liberalism of Churchill (Darwinist capitalism, free trade, and empire) with the modern American concept of liberalism (pro-labor, New Deal, and peace – OK, what used to be considered liberal in the US)?

  12. Bert_S

    From what I can tell, so far solar has been immune from positive cost/benefit analysis from independant sources.

    1. Valissa

      One positive benefit of solar energy…. silly cartoons….

      Science art imitates life http://chrismaddencartoons.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/solar-panel-sunflower-cartoon-cjmadden.gif?w=630

      OMG, look what it’s doing to the polar bears! http://www.toonpool.com/user/589/files/solar_bear_90875.jpg

      And now for something completely different http://www.toonpool.com/user/4146/files/solar_powered_pollution_472505.jpg

      Isn’t that special http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/mfl/lowres/mfln556l.jpg

      Unexpected side effects http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/gck/lowres/gckn125l.jpg

  13. steve from virginia

    Thanks for the review, I will put it on the next Amazon list. I suspect it does not go far enough (one industry/fuel source vs. another industry/fuel source instead of the conflict of industry vs. non-industry).

    Non-industrial regimes are where labor resides. Craft regimes are the post-fossil fuel future or there is no future at all.

  14. JEHR

    I really have a hard time believing that democracy developed in the way described in this review although it is not hard to believe that big oil and big finance will surely welcome the demise of democracy (as they are working to undermine it right now.)

  15. F. Beard

    All this emphasis on labor is misguided, imo. One would think that working in a coal mine is some kind of privilege?

    But if meaningful work is a psychological necessity (and it appears to be) then why not allow people to create their own jobs with a combination of land reform (so people can have family farms) plus a Basic Income Guarantee so they won’t starve there?

    In other words, lack of work isn’t the problem but a maldistribution of land and income is. And how did such a maldistribution occur? Wasn’t it the banks who drove people off their family farms?

  16. Pelham

    Breathtaking. I’m buying the book as well.

    As you say, it’s pretty new stuff but makes compelling sense as you describe it. The one thing I recognized — and that helped make the rest ring true — was the bit about Britain switching from coal to oil for its navy around WWI. The reasoning behind the move supposedly had something to do with oil being a much more efficient and compact fuel source that would allow the British navy to extend its reach to defend the far-flung empire. But the coal/labor reasoning makes just as much sense and maybe more in the broader sweep of history described in this book.

    One important lesson for me, though, is on the labor question. Though coal is reviled above all other energy sources these days on the environmental left, I think we need to humbly acknowledge the heritage and the bravery of our coal-mining union brethren in building the only true elements, however fleeting, of the democracy that we struggle to retain a shred of today.

    Finally, on the European Union: I spent a number of years in Europe a while back and had a chance to read quite a bit about the EU and absorb what ordinary Europeans thought of it. The short answer is, not much. Over those years and since I’ve come to the conclusion that the EU and its principal institutions (the Council of Ministers and European Commission — the Parliament is virtually powerless) is a way for European elites to achieve the kind of distant, opaque, unaccountable form of “democracy” that we have in Washington. Exactly who and what was driving it, I couldn’t say. This book, it appears, provides some answers.

    1. Susan the other

      because oil is not a question of scarcity but one of control, the politics will eventually have a reckoning

  17. kevinearick

    Roosevelt was no more a friend to labor yesterday than obama is today. capital simply grows the middle class as necessary to maintain the status quo, until it can’t, when biodiversity responds. Labor prepares accordingly.

    labor has no friends in government. funny, how capital has taught the middle class to use the label redneck.

    1. kevinearick

      Labor has had run-ins with capital throughout history. coal is just one of many. nature is the reason labor is dominated by males and the middle class is dominated by females. capital simply exploits the battery, incrementally, until it can’t, when nature reboots.

  18. kevinearick

    Mandela tookk over when, his family is doing what, and the gold miners are living in filth why?

    So the monetarists can accumulate “wealth” sitting on their a-, and pay government workers to protect and serve the status quo?

    And now that the noose grows tight, these robots actually think words are going to change anything?

  19. Max424

    Ben is coming with QE III!

    Who gives a fuck?

    QE III –hell, all monetary/financial policy/trickery– is to Peak Oil, as a pigeon is to a supercell of full-loaded B-52 Stratofortresses.

    Fully-loaded. As in, they’re not carrying conventional TNT droppings, but several thousand megatons of atomic death.

    Matt, my suggestion: Place a chart above your computer. Draw a bell curve on it. In the meaty part of the bell curve write the words, oil and civilization. At the apex of the curve, write the year, 2005.

    Look at the chart twice a day (or more, if you can summon the courage) for three weeks. If haven’t had a life-changing intellectual epiphany at the end of that time, I will walk around Central Park, naked, for two hours (or until I get arrested), carrying a placard that says, “I Hate Liberals Even Though I’ve Never Met One!”

  20. chuck martel

    Everybody would be a lot better off with the option of coal-powered automobiles. Service stations could have bins of coal next to the petrol pumps with little shovels chained to them for filling the coal bin in the car. A scale under the bin would indicate how much coal had been removed, just like the meters on the pumps. And even if a minority of drivers actually bought and used coal, its mere presence would keep the cost of the petrol down.

    Chances are most people would still be burning coal in their kitchen ranges and heaters as well if only the evil oil companies hadn’t been able to take over the energy business and ruin the lives of the coal miners.

  21. Matt

    The shift from coal to oil as the dominant fuel for transportation would seem to me, as an engineer, to have much more to do with oil having a higher energy density, burning cleaner, and allowing for quicker acceleration performance. (Kind of like we will switch from oil to electric if someone ever solves the first of those three issues for electric vehicles)

    1. alex

      Seems like that to me too, but what fun is it talking about those silly technical details that determine history when you can talk about conspiracies to destroy democracy?

  22. The Dork of Cork

    If you consider a typical city during the 17th, 18th and early 19th century… lets say my lilliputian town of Cork which went so far as doing some trade with the west Indies for Sugar and some such….with bankers making money from the slave arbitrage.
    In the case of this famous ship it was Mules going out and Sugar coming back…with less crew.
    http://www.collinspress.ie/the-ship-of-seven-murders-en.html

    But it traded with other similar towns (butter was the big export from my town) …so they generally traded goods which orbited their own hinterland and so each town was a self contained unit more or less.
    So Energy came from each hinterland , food was the primary energy source of course (oats for Horses etc etc)

    But coal began to change all that (although it was a much more static energy source in comparison to oil)
    The energy inputs came from outside the cities hinterlands for the first time , thus power ,political power was transfered to more dominant nation states which controlled this fossil fuel.
    In Corks case coal was used to transport food energy in the late 19th century from its hinterland to coal intensive consuming areas and more far reaching colonies.

    Oil of course changes even these dynamics -the energy is so fluid and dynamic that it can remain outside the political control of Nation states , forcing them to become modern market states with no clear chain of command and no tether to anything of lasting substance.
    With consumption happening outside tradional borders in places such as the west Indies again….

    The banks have played this wage arbitrage game for a long long long time with even coal intensive China reaching domestic production capacity not because of a lack of coal but a lack of oil to transport this now overcapacity to market.

  23. The Dork of Cork

    The Current post 1986 “Big bang” trade system needed a few energy things to enter its sick solar system.

    First a dash for Gas (in the UK) and other European countries – this activity is not very capital intensive and so newly privatised utilties can make huge profits by being “competitive” (running down previous nation state core capital assets such as Nuke stations etc.

    The rise of Coal in 1990s China and EMU with its coal consumption entering a ballistic trajectory post Euro introduction , coincidence ? I don’t think so.

    Cheap oil to link bank credit feed Euro Pigs with the New China Syndrome building in the east.
    The financial system began to break down in 2007 as bankers capital could no longer make a return from this global energy / labour arbitrage and so they decided to not only shit in their euro nest but eat their Mother.

    There was of course a mini me version of this happening withen the eurosystem at this time – with the wage / energy deflation of the core needing to export credit / oil / gas to the periphery in order to make a arbitrage return.

    The Irish energy balance is probally the most extreme of the Pigs for good reason.

    1. LeonovaBalletRusse

      DofC, you’ve made it clear that extraction through arbitrage has been always the crux of profitable Capitalism, and Marx understood perfectly this “tragic flaw.”

  24. kevinearick

    So, according to the fed, capital, income is a function of asset value, hence the housing atm debt mismatch bubble, with all legacy inventory channels packed to blow more legacy capital expnsion, in the illusory greenspan/clinton/etc economy.

    how f-ing back assward is that?

    Income, not gold, is what you want, but what does a laborer know?

  25. michael hudson

    Mitchell is quite right. Contrary to “peak oil,” it is NOT a fossil fuel, but is geologically produced in a sphere all around the earth, cropping up almost anywhere one digs.
    Oil is like diamonds. everyone thinks diamonds are rare, but the genius of De Beers is keeping the supply limited. (Which is why they were accused of anti-trust laws in the US), so people think they are worth more than glass.
    The proof of his thesis is US support of Saudi Arabia in CURTAILING production to stabilize oil prices. I was with Continental Oil when they bought peabody (charging off the ENTIRE buyout price as DEPLETION ALLOWANCE and thus buying the firm for free, at taxpayer expense — that’s another story.)
    So this is indeed the key to the Near East/US geopolitical relationship these days. The only reason for surging oil production is to counter Russia’s balance of payments.
    what really is scarce is water — and fracking will increase its scarcity.

  26. JerseyJeffersonian

    I suspect that much of the heat without light that was on display in the comments above concerning the relative merits of coal vs. oil as a fuel for naval vessels may have arisen because of this sentence from the review:

    “Welsh coalfields produced steam coal, a type of coal that [was] both packed full of energy and quick to heat, by far the best fuel for battleships.”

    I would guess that the superiority of steam coal that made it “the best fuel for battleships” was relative to OTHER FORMS OF COAL, and not to oil. The sentence as written by Mr. Stoller does not make this clear at all, and gives rise to the view that the book’s author was claiming the superiority of coal OVER oil as a ship fuel. This is dubious, as the energy density of oil in comparison to that of coal is clear, no matter the quality of the coal.

    Under this reading, much of the subsequent back and forth proceeded from one ambiguous sentence.

    Another point to make: while Admiral Fletcher may very well have appreciated the superiority of oil to coal as a fuel for his naval vessels, it would be wise to remember that he also had an intrinsic interest in justifying the size and importance of the British navy. And what better way to do this than to expand its already substantial role in the defense of the British Isles than to have its navy also responsible for defending access to the very fuel that powered that navy. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone; you need a navy to control the freedom of the seas for British shipping across the far-flung British Empire, and NOW the very superiority of the navy required to assure this is dependent upon having a huge, and technically modern navy capable of defending its OWN ACCESS to the fuel that makes it technically modern. This assures that the navy will be well funded, and have a continuing central role in computations of national interest and spending priorities.

    Can you think of a successor imperial power that is informed by a similar logic regarding its military? Sure you can.

  27. digi_owl

    “In the 1930s, Keynes essentially invented the concept of the “economy”, as a sphere where political choices should not intrude.”

    I find this claim quite odd.

  28. whatabunchamorons

    Folks, The idea of a book is to make YOU think. To create your own new synthesis. You guys are arguing over a review, not the book itself. Even if there are factual errors in the book its thesis might in fact be true. Obviously, at least to me, some of the assertions of the politics of coal, and oil must be true- anything that involves money involves politics, and politics involves self-interest and corruption. Yes, Mitchell is dead wrong about energy output of oil vs. coal- so what. That makes his conclusions wrong? I for one am never sure I am right- even when I’m sure I am right- you should be too.

  29. wb

    And I find this claim ( by the renowned Michael Hudson, so knowledgeable of economic history, etc. ) startlingly bizarre, contentious, eccentric to say the least !

    “Mitchell is quite right. Contrary to “peak oil,” it is NOT a fossil fuel, but is geologically produced in a sphere all around the earth, cropping up almost anywhere one digs.”

    Surely, that statement defies the consensus amongst the scientific geologists, and is not supported by the/any evidence ?

    1. whatabunchamorons

      Read Thomas Gold’s “The Deep Hot Biosphere” for the evidence for oil’s origin. He is not quite a Nobel Prize winning scientist. The Russians knew of this and are now the #2 largest producer of oil in the world. He may not be right but he is most likely right. Oil is found in layers of rock below the layers at which fossils are found, not non-biogenic origin. Heat and pressure will create oil, just like diamonds-and from carbon I might add (with a little hydrogen thrown in).

      1. whatabunchamorons

        Oh, and by the way Gold says that oil is constantly being created undergroud due to the rotation of the rock layers underground at depth- there’s about as much oil underground as water in the oceans so probably won’t run out any time soon – if Gold and the Russians are right. Think about it. Also- if Mitchell, and also Carroll Quigley are correct, the oil companies do not want to discover too much oil-in order to keep the price of the commodity high. Quiqley’s point in “Tragedy and Hope” is that commodities tend to go to overproduction and therefore low prices. You know Quigley- the guy who coined the term “naked capitalism”?

        1. Nathanael

          This is utter, arrant nonsense.

          Oil is of course formed by heat and pressure in the depths of the earth — *ACTING ON DEAD ANIMAL AND PLANT MATERIAL*. Just like coal. Of course it is created continuously — like all rock! — but far, far too slowly for it to be considered “renewable” by human standards.

          1. Capoisright

            Do you even know what a hydrocarbon is? If you are at all familiar with science you would know that many conclusions change with time and politics.why don t you pick up a copy of Gold’s book and then form an opinion? Its too bad opinions are free. Intelligent people, when faced with a new idea seek to learn about it in case it might make them wiser.

  30. Mafer

    “The book presented new information, but in a framework that was familiar, an extension of arguments I already understood. Carbon Democracy does not do this. Indeed, it could not. It introduces ideas and concepts that will need new political rhetoric before it can be absorbed by the public and policymakers. These ideas are desperately important, because they persuasively explain why our social arrangements are the way they are. I suspect that those who run our oil companies, and perhaps our banks, would instantly understand what Mitchell is saying, and find it almost obvious.”

    It is not such a new paradigm. It is economic determinism, which is a vulgar simplification of the historical materialism of Karl Marx.

  31. Nathanael

    Solar power.

    Requires extremely concentrated factories with highly skilled workers, who can shut everything down by withholding labor.

    But once you’ve got the solar panels and wiring, you’re completely indepednent of “the system” until the panel breaks.

    What the hell sort of political economy results?

  32. Geojos

    Instead of buying the book, you can download abstracts of his thesis, and judge for yourself if you want to read the book and whether he is on to something. Just skimming the material, his ideas are innovative, makes you think, and he concovers a lot of interesting history. It is also clear he is a serious political theorist with a deep knowledge of the middle east. It is really worth while to read the abstracrts.

  33. Nat

    I’ve had to buy this book following this review. We do need to make deep connections between apparently random world events and social structures in order to have any hope of preparing for, and perhaps even shaping, what comes next.

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