Review: Petrotyranny

John Bacher; eds. Shirley Farlinger and Derek Paul. Toronto: Science for Peace, Dundurn Press 2000

By Meir Amor (reviewer) | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

Aristotle argued that a well balanced, moderate and stable political system can be achieved only if a large middle class exists within it, for the people in the middle will avoid the excesses of both the rich and the poor. This group, the propertied middle class, also was the backbone of Aristotle's notions of constitutional government and the rule of law. John Bacher's arguments fit this model, showing a positive relationship between a broad-based, tax-paying populace and the accountability and democratic nature of a political system. Democracies are stable, moderate, relatively peaceful, and tend to resolve their disputes nonviolently.

That is exactly what John Bacher is arguing in his incisive book. If a political elite of a society is "freed" from the populace's demands and gaze, if it is armored with an independent and easy source of wealth, it will be also "liberated" from the restrictions of the rule of law and it will tend to develop a fundamentalist ideology. Democratic tendencies will tend to disappear; excesses will become the rule of the day, and social strife and war will dominate society's horizons. Bacher's arguments imply that the stability and governability of democracies, their respect for human rights and social diversity, and their tendency to resolve conflicts nonviolently, are rooted partly in their political economy. Likewise, fundamentalism, belligerency, and corruption, the characteristics of oil-producing countries, are also rooted in their political economy.


Bacher's theory is simple and original. He claims that there is a strong empirical relationship between oil resources, political dictatorship, war, and ideological fundamentalism. He identifies this combination of processes as "petrotyranny." This parsimonious concept provides provocative insights.

The petrotyranny concept is especially insightful when Bacher compares it with either Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis or with Robert Kaplan's argument about "African animism" (transformed lately into the "Pagan Ethos"). Bacher argues that these "spiritual cultures" are not the main reasons for the lack of freedom or the threat to democracy. Instead of focusing on ideological clashes or reverting to some obscure codes of ethics, Bacher argues that ideologies, wars and politics have their roots not only in material interest (in this case, oil) but also have tremendous material consequences for the environment. The most important lesson of Bacher's book is that war and peace, democracy and dictatorship, have consequences to the welfare of our planet.


Bacher argues that the ecological catastrophe we are facing is rooted in our reckless use of fossil fuels. He portrays motorized culture, centered as it is around the car, as the main factor in our abuse of the environment. If this is so, we also bear the responsibility for an indirect contribution when we acquiesce to a political situation in which oil wealth is used to support dictatorships, foster subjugation of people, and provoke wars. Hence, again, material interests explain the dynamics of the world's war-mongering tycoons. We are contributing to the degradation of our natural environment. Bacher claims that instability and human rights abuses as well as the lack of democracy are rooted in oil politics. And both reckless democratic practices and political dictatorships can be changed if an environmentally conscious analysis is adopted. The difference is that while a democratic system may facilitate such a transition nonviolently, petrotyranny will exacerbate the motorized culture of war against nature and human beings. Democratic peace therefore is the goal and the tool with which green forces can combat petrotyrannies and environmental degradation.

To read Bacher's insightful book you need a good world atlas. Bacher's empirical investigation literally covers the world. He moves from remote tiny island democracies in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to mighty mainland dictatorships in Africa, South East Asia, and the Caucasus, dealing with the whole spectrum. This not only covers the areas where oil is produced and is related to dictatorships, but also shows the relationship between oilless countries and democracies. This tour de force was a real challenge to my well-entrenched stereotypes about democracy, war, progress, development, and the environment. For example, he demonstrates not only the political differences among countries that have oil and those that are oilless, but also the different socio-political and environmental dynamics within regions of the same oil-producing country. Thus his analysis of various regions of the Indian subcontinent and their different social politics provides an empirical and historical verification of his thesis.

Bacher's comparative survey constitutes the body of the book. He analyzes various parts of the world and their political history with regard to oil and oil politics. Bacher ably presents the Middle East and its politics, Africa and its intractable wars, India's encounter with oil politics, Asia and its tumultuous experiences with the black gold. He even ventures into the history of the socialist Soviet experiment, to the social changes that occurred in the Soviet Union and brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of the current Russian Federation. And he sheds light on this complex history using his oil lenses. Latin America's tribulations are presented, as well as Europe's dependence on oil, which ironically contributed to its emergence as a green bastion of liberty. This presentation demonstrates that he is aware of differences among oil-producing countries and can explain them plausibly.

The hardest case to explain, however, is the United States and its relations to oil politics. Here some of his premises need to be qualified, but he is reluctant to do so. Despite its dubious role in world politics and especially in oil politics, the United States of America is portrayed as a paragon of liberty. However, Aristotle's analysis is not easily applicable to the American government when it covers the whole world's canvas. In order to portray the role of the United States accurately, one needs to discuss worldwide inequality as a social fact. Bacher's Petrotyranny does not do that.


As Bacher repeatedly says, oil is, first of all, the life essence of western economy. European and Japanese economics, for example, are completely dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Lack of oil would require a drastic transformation of social life throughout the world. However, oil is found in various areas of the world, including places dominated by Western states. Second, oil transformed into money is the facilitator of political tyrannies. Third, in order for tyrannies to emerge, tyrants need to buy their weapons from states that sell weaponry. Fourth, oil revenues are huge amounts of capital and in many cases these funds not only deepen the coffers of tyrants but also find their way back into the economic centers of the world as private investments. That is, oil revenues come back, as money paid for oil, to the centers whence they left . So the full business cycle should be describes as follows: oil - transformed into money - money transformed into weapons and investments. In short, money is back at its sources. This time however, it is accompanied with oil that runs the cars, heats the homes, and facilitates the economies of weapon-producing countries.

So several legitimate questions can be asked: What kind of domestic political structure would ensure the steady flow of oil from regions where oil is found the regions where oil is needed? What kinds of investments are being made out of oil revenues? Does a democracy that controls oil resources serve the interests of the economies that need the oil? In other words: Whose interests are the oil interests? Which is better for the economic interests of those who depend on oil for their economic survival - petrotyranny or a democratic system? Bacher should have asked these questions. Oil is a commodity. Oil wealth is not similar to money levied by feudal lords granting right of passage to travelers. It also differs from the modern trade in diamonds, gold, or narcotics. None of these three commodities is necessary to the survival of industrial world economies. Oil is a necessity. This is why oil is the most desired, but also the most dangerous, commodity.


Oil, supports the retention of colonialism, perpetuates neo-colonialism and imperialism, through direct control of oil resources, arms sales, or a combined economic, military, and political dominance. In all the cases of dictatorship and anti-democratic forces discussed by Bacher, he mentions, in passing, major powers' interests. That is, in all cases of dictatorship, one can detect the presence of Western oil companies and states, usually accompanied, rivaled, and/or shadowed by Chinese and Russian state interests. The control over oil resources is a sine qua non of all national and imperial interest. If the colonial era was characterized by possession of territories, neo-colonialism, and neo-imperialism seem to be characterized by struggle over oil resources. These are also oil politics, but in contrast to petrotyranny they point at world inequality. There are numerous examples in the book. I will present only a few.

Bacher discusses China's oil interests in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Sudan; US arms sales in the Middle East and its oil interests, the Royal Dutch Shell oil company's connection to Nigeria and its oil politics. The American oil companies Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco are accused of causing the "genocide of the Ogoni" people in Nigeria. With regard to American interests in Nigeria it is said that after a congressional investigation was set to investigate Chevron's role, the Democratic Congressman Dennis J. Kucinich wrote to the chair of the House International Relations Committee stating: "We believe there is growing evidence that the US oil companies are accepting extra-judicial killing and other human rights abuses as just another cost of doing business in Nigeria." This is said in regard to Ken Saro Wiwa's execution by the Nigerian government. French oil companies and interests appear in the context of Chad, Gabon, Rwanda, Niger and Congo (Brazzaville). It is claimed that "Much of the focus of French policy in Africa has been to secure control over oil." This policy is labeled as the "Paris's blood-for-oil invoices." France appears again with regard to Burma and a Canadian oil company appears in the politics of the Sudan.


But it is insufficient to describe the domestic relationships in oil producing countries. Since we are dealing with a special commodity, there is a need to go beyond the idiosyncratic nature of such societies and grasp the world picture that supplies the context of each and every petrotyranny. This might be a theoretical problem because many of the modern democratic societies that Bacher praises, for good reasons, are deeply involved in controlling the world's oil resources. Whether we have war for oil or war against terrorism is only one aspect of the question. Western and Eastern powers - especially the USA - are involved in dominating the oil resources of the world.

Therefore it is not enough to dismiss, as Bacher does, strategic experts' analyses just because of their ideological narrow-mindedness. American foreign policy is indeed moving between two strategic poles: power and material interests versus human rights advocacy and environmental preservation. However, the force of power and material interests shouldn't be discounted just because it does not fit into an ecological analysis. The American jury is still out with respect to motorized culture and gas emission. Judging by the latest developments on the world scene, the world seems far away from even a partial ban on oil-based motorization. Although Bacher's environmental awareness analysis is productive, it seems to me that petrotyranny as a political phenomenon needs to be addressed more comprehensively. Such an approach must take account of inequality among nations, states, and regions. In other words, petrotyranny is an important contribution to our understanding of the current wars and political struggles around the world, but it is only a point of departure. It cannot be the conclusion. Elucidating that necessity is Bacher's major contribution.

Reviewed by Meir Amor, who teaches sociology at Concordia University.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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