<< zurück / back

Emre Uckardesler (Carleton University, Canada)

Understanding Oil Beyond the Violence -of Politics and Concepts-



In this text I will briefly reflect upon oil. My reflections will mainly be along such questions as what oil reminds us, how different scholars approach to this black liquid thing called oil, and how what is usually called “international politics of oil” and the issue of “international politics” are understood. The basic motive behind this exercise is not only criticize some primary methodological and normative standpoints but also to develop some other standpoints from which we would be able to think beyond ‘oil’; a standpoint which is not bewitched from the ‘importance’ of this commodity, but also one which make sense of the social relations behind it.[1]


Perhaps hardly any other commodity than oil could be so forcefully associated with violence and violent politics. Oil is not simply a part of our ultra-mobile life but it appears even to determine the fates of nations and states for so long. For some the 20th century politics are first and foremost politics of oil. Indeed, while reading about oil and (international) politics of oil, one of the things that struck us becomes that it seems impossible to speak and write about oil and oil related issues with a mild temperament. Everybody feels obliged to first mention how dependent we are on oil, how important it is in many fields of our lives and, to put it simply, how nothing our civilization is without it. Then, usually comes a depiction of the ‘oil game’ that is sometimes diplomatic sometimes military, but always very dangerous and big. It is true that the “importance” of oil could not be denied but it is equally true that unless such an enchantment is overcome we can hardly think about what might be behind oil; nor could we imagine beyond it - which is indeed a truly vital question. Therefore, this paper argues that the best way to overcome this ‘violence’ is possible by conceptualizing ‘oil politics’ and ‘realism’” as commodity fetishisms in which relations between people turn into relations between things. Only such a conceptualization can provide necessary tools to overcome the violence of oil and oil politics, politically and scholarly.

I think it would not be too wrong to argue that oil draws out “the realist” inside us whether “we” is the leading scholar of international politics or the man on the street. The possibility of oil shortage makes even the most liberal minded middleman or the activist member of the trade union worried at best, angry at worst. It could easily turn many of us into supporters of interventions or economic sanctions.  It is usually not the far-reaching consequences like that the price of plastic bowl may get higher, but the immediate likelihood that we will have to pay more for gasoline, have to wait longer at the queue in the gas station, or the personal usage of the cars will be restricted- apocalypse now! In this regard, while there is a material connection between cars and gasoline, there is an ideological connection between automobility and our perception of oil. And like all ideological constructions this is neither a connection entirely without “justification” (your car can not go without gasoline), nor does it reflect the “reality” or at least other possibilities, (you can go there by bus). Perhaps one could plausibly argue that in the discursive constitution of automobility the fear of immobility plays a great role.[2]

It must be no coincidence that in most of the popular science-fictions and dysutopias the world after the nuclear war is a place where people fight and kill each other for a drop of gasoline. (Though, they still race their cars and motorbikes when they come together). Isn’t it ironical that on the one hand thanks to the abundance of oil, together with other commodities, modern man is thought to be staying away from the state of nature while for the realist scholar the same oil becomes one of the themes through which international arena is depicted as the Hobbesian field of constant struggle?



            One of the things I wanted to stress in above lines was that fascination with oil is such a common and powerful phenomena. In most of accounts what one may call “international politics oil”, then, fascination with oil becomes weirdly mixed with a strong preoccupation with states, geopolitics, diplomacy, and demand and supply curves. A strange cocktail of ‘realism’ and ‘economism’ become apparent. This is noteworthy because in hardly any other analysis we see that the belief in the determinacy of demand and supply is put together within a nexus of (allegedly) non- economic relations. The end result, then, is not “political economy” (at least not the one what I understand from it) but such a conclusion, which indeed explains nothing, like that of Klare who writes: “…the politics of oil security, the dynamics of demand and supply, and the constraints of geography- will play a significant role in determining the likelihood and location of future conflict over oil. Each is sufficient in its own right to raise the specter of bloodshed, but it is the combination of all three that produces the high risk of war”  (Klare: 2001, 49).

In assessing such ‘realist’ accounts, then, what matters most for me is not whether authors’ predictions have become verified by the real life, as in the analysis of Klare (2001) who ‘successfully’ foresaw the military conflict we see nowadays in the Middle East, or they have been proven wrong as in the case of Morse (1999: 14, 19) who wrote that military confrontation was highly unlikely. This really does not matter much because they both, indeed subscribe to the same categories of analysis, operate at the same levels of abstraction, but only arrive at different conclusions. To speculate, maybe one of them is more inclined to stress the benefits of military action, while another is not. Even such an “individual” component might have played a role in their different conclusions because, for example by Klare, we are repeatedly reminded of the tough realities of oil politics more with individual reflection and speculation than substance. “The conflict over oil will erupt in the years ahead is almost a foregone conclusion. Just how much violence, at what levels of intensity, and at which locations, cannot be determined. Ultimately the frequency and character of warfare…” (Klare, 2001: 29).

            It is ironical that the publicly expressed concerns of civil/military bureaucrats and politicians become the categories of analysis of the scholar of international politics. In this respect, it is not surprising that most analyses of international politics of oil are not more telling than press releases of governments. Or, BP Amaco Statistics suddenly become indisputable objective figures showing where the whole state of affairs is unfolding to. Furthermore, in some cases, once such a position is taken, the analyst could loose his entire interpretive and critical outlook. In other words, expressed concerns of governments become not only scholarly categories of analysis but also scholar’s own concerns.      

Of course, having being subscribed to different normative ideals makes a difference, but in terms of the inherent theoretical structure of analysis this difference may not be that effective. The similarities and differences between analyses of Gokay (2003) and Klare (2001) show this. While Gokay writes from a what can be called left-realist perspective, Klare is closer to a right-realism. At a more theoretical level, their differences could be seen as two approaches to the problem of “hegemonic stability”, diverging on the question of whether this hegemonic order would be  “coercive” or “benevolent”.[3] The fact that they differ in terms of their political orientations do not preclude them to draw the same conclusion: Military confrontation and conflict are unavoidable.

            A preoccupation with the politic-economic importance of Caspian oil is one of the emergent features of Gokay’s (2003) analysis. Yet, Morse (1999: 24) for example, is very cautious on the real importance of this region because he notes that the US government is overstating these reserves and the importance of the region. According to him, once the Gulf countries open themselves to foreign investments they could easily erase the interest the West have in the Caspian region (p.23). For the concerns of this paper it is not very important which interpretation is more accurate, but the common weaknesses of both interpretations.

It is also noteworthy that Morse (1999) who does not see the Caspian as a promising oil field shuns to expose the fact that the oil corporations deliberately pits one region to another. Morse (1999) has a very absurd, though not unusual, understanding of “politics” because politics for him is not ontologically a part of the nature of international oil game, but it gets involved from outside. To separate economy and politics, for him, is possible and viable but unfortunately “rather than keeping oil and politics on their separate tracks, the nations of the world have found ways to bind them together” (p.15). Or, “…the politics associated with pipeline development {in Caspian region} have slowed down the development of the hydrocarbon sector” (p.24). For especially Morse (1999) and Klare (2001), doing political economy is taking “the economy”, and “politics” as rather separate realms, then mixing (or rather laying one to another) them against the background of international politics. Indeed, establishing such an external connection between economy and politics and studying the “external” relations of states without including anything about the “internal” relations of them, which is another characteristic of both Morse and Klare, are manifest weaknesses of neo-realism in international relations. It is where the late 19th century neo-classical economics meets the 19th century European diplomacy.[4] In this context, from a political economy point of view, a more meaningful question would be whether it is really states (as individual actors) that gain from the international politics of oil? This may, then, lead to another set of questions about the underlying dynamics of so-called foreign policy. In other words, does the mystification of social relations at the global level behind oil cause both the reification of state as well as the reduction of the political economy of oil into a field of positivistically observable relations, e.g., international politics or international relations?

It is well-known that one of the academic constellations of fascination from the ‘state’ has been ‘realism’ in political science/international relations. As I noted above, oil too draws out “the realist” inside us whether “we” is the leading scholar of international politics or the man on the street. The academic fascination from the state and oil, I argue, is an example of what Marx called ‘violent abstraction’ that is the conceptual failure to comprehend the particular form social relations take. In other words, not only ‘politics of oil’ is violent, but also the primary ‘social scientific’ approaches to this violence mystify and violate our understanding of oil. Therefore, perhaps one of the best ways to overcome this violence is to conceptualize ‘oil politics’ and ‘realism’ itself as commodity fetishisms in which relations between people turn into relations between things. Only such a conceptualization can provide necessary tools to overcome the violence of oil and oil politics, politically and scholarly. In the remainder of my lecture I will briefly reflect about what commodity fetishism is and how we can conceptualize politics of oil as commodity fetishism. 


Works Cited:

Gokay, B. 2003. “The United States Against the World? Oil, Hegemony, and the Militarization  of Globalization”, in 11 September 2001, edited by B. Gokay and R. Walke. London: Frank Cass.

Guzinni, S. 1998. Realism in International Relations and International Political Economy: The Continuing Story of a Death Foretold, London: Routledge,

Klare, M. T. 2001. Resource wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, New York: Metropolitan Books.

Morse, E. 1999. “A New Political Economy of Oil?”, Journal of International Affairs, 53(1).


[1] I am deeply indebted to Matthew Paterson whose initial suggestion on ‘commodity fetish’ aspect of oil triggered my reflections on the topic. All shortcomings of this text belong to me, of course.

[2] While reading about politics of oil a number of scenes from popular culture come to my mind. The gas station or the auto dealer, for example. Unless you wind up forever working in there, these are great places where you can start to realize your ‘success story’. In 15 years you may be the owner of the station, or you can be a rich auto dealer. Automobile is frequently associated, in a variety of ways, to one’s economic mobility. It is not merely that you drive a more expensive car as you get richer but auto-centered businesses become means by which you can get richer.

[3] Especially the benevolence oriented approaches to hegemonic stability theory are those in which “realism” melts with “economism” at best: The international liberal order is defined as the public good. It is instructive that hegemonic stability theory was invented to make sense of the post-war politico-economic order in a time while Bretton Woods system was about to end.

[4] Guzinni (1998) argues that the evolution of realist thought in IR could best be understood as the attempt to translate the maxims of nineteenth century’s European diplomatic practice into more general laws of an American social science. In this context, most of the responses to the crisis of conventional realism have again become realist ones.