“Free trade” should be called “forced trade”

Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy says that our fossil fuel consumption has shaped the state of our democracies in ways poorly understood. A look at the role of the oil sector from colonialism until today sheds light on the impact. Craig Morris takes a look.

a mountain of damaged oil drums seen through a chain link fence

As oil resources entered the foreground, ‘forced trade’ became the norm. (Photo by John Messina via the US EPA, edited.)

This is part three of a series on democracy and energy; read parts one and two.

One big question in history is why Europe colonized the planet although, as late as the 1700s, China and India, for instance, had equally or more advanced civilizations. Mitchell explains that the dawn of the coal age in the UK necessitated colonialism.

With the invention of the steam engine fired with coal power, the energy the British could utilize easily outstripped locally available raw materials, such as textiles. Foreign countries then had to be forced to stop growing crops needed locally and focus on exports. Until then, trade had been practiced worldwide not as a means of making production more efficient, but as a way of getting materials (like porcelain and spices) you couldn’t make at home. Otherwise, trade was used to show peaceful intentions.

Europe invented capitalism long ago. Hernán Cortes’ men independently exploited native Americans to increase their own individual wealth (listen to “The Conquistadors and the Birth of the Modern World Economy”). China and India knew no such system; there, strategies still came from central authorities. In Europe, everyone who could and dared to was free to start enslaving natives for profit. Modern slavery marked the beginning of capitalism.

By the 1800s, coal power started to devour large quantities of cotton, sugar, etc. The coal age thus exponentially grew the slave business previously started by early capitalists. In the colonies, the focus was on getting the colonized to hand over their resources. “Private land ownership,” Mitchell explains, was “a method of local dispossession.” Landowners decided what crops were grown based not on what local communities needed, but on the best price that could be obtained in exports.

Colonized communities were forced to switch to export-based economies. During the potato famine in (colonized) Ireland, the country continued to export produce to the UK even as the Irish emigrated or starved. In China, the British forced the Chinese to allow them to sell opium in what has become known as the Opium Wars. “The modern, large-scale commercial corporation was invented precisely” to establish “oligopolies or exclusive territories of operation,” Mitchell explains. The business world still sees national (environmental, etc.) laws as impediments to “free” trade in this manner.

In comes America

European-style colonization didn’t sit so well the United States, however. After World War I, US President Wilson argued that the colonized should “have a say in choosing which Western power would govern them,” as Mitchell puts it. But independence was still out of the question. Egypt and Syria declared theirs in March 1920, but their right to do so was not recognized in the West, which claimed that the colonized still needed to be “developed.”

Thus, economic advancement became a precondition for democracy, thereby forcing the colonies to continue “trading” under terms dictated by the West. The colonized were not to be allowed “to deny their bounties to those who need them,” as the British Secretary of State for the colonies commented at the time.

As oil resources entered the foreground, the next step was to create “protectorates”– as though the colonized needed protecting. It was claimed that ethnic minorities needed protection, but often Western powers undermined agreements reached between local parties. To protect an oil pipeline in Palestine, Mitchell writes, “the British created of a force of armed Jewish settlers to assist with its defense… thereby creating the nucleus of the Zionist army that seized control of Palestine in 1948.” Likewise, “Washington was unable to prevent Iraq from reaching a settlement with the Kurds in 1970,” and the US government feared the “threat of stability in the Gulf,” Mitchell argues.

After World War II, the need to protect “strategic reserves” in the Cold War replaced the concept of protectorates as colonialism faded. The US used the Marshall Plan to finance oil infrastructure in Europe: “over 10% of {the} funds were used to procure oil, representing the largest single use of Marshall Plan money” and “making the oil companies among the largest beneficiaries of Marshall plan aid.” As Mitchell documents, the United States government was especially keen on transitioning to Europe from coal to oil, partly “to undermine the political power of Europe’s coal miners.”

As Europe settled into its post-colonial decades of peace, its prosperity was increasingly purchased with pushback against democracy both at home and in the Global South. In my next and last post on Mitchell’s book, I look into whether his historical reading has any relevance for the future. After all, the coal sector is increasingly automated – and hence, less vulnerable to sabotage by workers demanding better conditions.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. Seems fairly standard anti-colonialist fare. It’s a reasonable take on the cynicism and violence of many if not most European imperialists. What is hard to take is the rosy spectacles about the colonised societies. Pre-colonial Indian and Chinese businessmen and landowners were devoted to the “needs of local communities”? Really? Pre-Colombian Aztec Mexico and Inca Peru were highly aggressive and expansionist empires, in the former case to supply the victims for industrial-scale human sacrifices.

  2. Vishal says

    Well, pre colonial governments in India and China did not go to war with each other in order to obtain more coal or oil as compared to the western imperialists. Back then, their focus was more on territorial acquisition, assimilation of the local population into their empires and gaining control of important crafts and trades practiced by the locals.
    Britain, France and Netherlands never really cared of assimilating any of the locals and treating them as equals within their societies. The colonized countries were looted off of their resources. The common people except for the ruling princes/ kings and bureaucrats were treated like second class citizens or Untermenschen ( as the Nazis referred the Jews and the Slavs) .After liberating Egypt and some northern territories from the Ottoman empire, the Brits were indeed more focused on getting their hands on the oil fields on those regions.

    So objectively speaking, the author is correct in his claim and comparing pre colonial lifestyles and conflicts in Asia , China and Mexico to their post colonial and present state of affairs in my opinion is not appropriate.

    Please remember that this is not a baseless criticize Britain or other imperial powers, but just stating of mere facts from an objective stand point.

    Although, one must clearly point out that in India, there were some honest and good English/ Scottish and Irish officers doing their job and trying their best to do justice to their new homes, their policies and governing abilities were completely undermined by their overlords sitting in Delhi and London.

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