Crude Power: Rethinking Oil and Politics: a lecture by Kaveh Ehsani
Oil-producing countries in the global South are most often characterized as suffering from a 'resource curse' or a 'paradox of plenty,' whereby the extraction and sale of a coveted natural resource on the global market directly or indirectly structures domestic politics and economics. This reification of oil as money (or as windfall ‘rent’) assumes that ‘oil’ produces a political and social sameness wherever it becomes a major component of a national economy.
My intention in this paper is twofold: First to trace the discursive process through which the understanding of oil’s impact on relations of power in producer countries has been reduced to its purely financial dimension. How and why were influential theories such as ‘the rentier state’ or ‘resource curse’ formulated since the 1970’s. Second, I will offer an alternative reading of the relationship between oil and politics by focusing on Iran’s modern social history, and conceptualize oil not merely as income accruing to the state or multinationals, but as a socially produced commodity that is materialized through a labor process and a political economy of contested cultural and institutional processes that are historically and geographically specific.
Kaveh Ehsani is assistant professor of International Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. In 2013 he is a research fellow at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam (IISH) working on a project on the social histories of labor in the Iranian oil industry. He is a member of the editorial collectives of Middle East Report (Merip) in Washington DC and Goftogu (Dialogue) in Tehran. His most recent publications include “Politics of Property” in The Rule of Law, Islam, and Constitutional Politics in Egypt and Iran, edited by Said Arjomand and Nathan Brown (2013, SUNY Press), “Belated Paternalism: The Crisis of Oil Workers’ Housing in Post-WW2 Abadan”, International Labor and Working Class History (2013, under review); “Authorian Rule and Development by Stages: Industrial Growth Poles, Development Planning, and their Social and Historical Footprint”, Mehrnameh (October 2012): 193-96 (in Persian