‘No abundance can relieve his famine: his throat is parched with burning thirst, and, justly, he is tortured by the hateful gold’

Geopolitics

Image result for oil field

The tenet that ‘oil undermines democratisation’ is a speculative myth, however due to its easily digestible nature it has a wide scope in the media despite dubious analytical evidence. The resource myth is like that of the myth of King Midas, most literature in the area has made calamitous flaws but still argues its case in the media and academia. Many scholars argue a red herring, for ‘correlation does not equal causation’[2]. I argue an ‘overarching meta-narrative’[3] concept such as the ‘resource curse’ does not help academic study; it is a far too simplified concept that denies polysemous areas of political spectrum analysis. Oil has many varied affects on different societies and nations; a ‘one-size fits all’ theory of oil wealth’s affect on a nation’s democracy is both absurd and facile. Thusly I argue that oil does not undermine democracy, and that in fact it can have positive democratic effects or often diminutive outcomes on polities. Factors other than oil-wealth are more important as to why countries fail to democratise, whether socio-historical, institutional, political or economical.

As a beginning of the refutation of the posited ‘oil/anti-democratisation’ link one should look at the historical development of resource rich western nations, such as Norway, Canada and the United Kingdom, all were economically stimulated by oil abundance. This positive economic development led to continued democratic development[4] thus in a historical perspective the oil/anti-democratisation link makes little sense, it is only relevant to developing nations which do not already have in existence democracy[5]. Little weight is placed in pro oil/autocracy literature of the idea of ‘path dependence’[6]; the patent issue appears to not be the oil, ‘but the political and economic system that predated it’[7]. Existing state structure and institutions are vital to democratic support and survival; combined with the will of the populace. New oil-states ‘…have not gone through the process of extracting taxes from a reluctant population, granting rights in return’[8] and thus popular democratic will is not sacrosanct. Thus without will from the people and state, and the means with which to educate and enact democracy, oil-wealthy states will not democratise, therefore it is arguable that poor state-structure can restrict democracy to a degree that renders oil wealth inconsequential.

Alternative explanations are superior to the correlation between oil-states and lack of democracy; ‘historical institutionalism’ argues that ‘variations in political developments are rooted during a “critical juncture” in history’[9]. This revisionism also brings into disrepute one of the key causal mechanisms Ross argues, that of the ‘rentier state’. A historical reading of nations such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia shows that, these nations were never democratic. Kuwait’s economy ‘before oil was based on pearls’[10], although there was a rent paying merchant class who remunerated almost all the taxes, democracy was never formed. Thus there is logical fallacy in believing its sudden oil riches would change this path, when historically the entire state-structure is geared towards autocratic power in the hands of the few, with low taxes and low populace representation. With these foundations democratisation is unlikely with or without oil wealth.

Rentier states as Ross argues are ‘oil-rich regimes which use low taxes and patronage to relieve pressures for more democracy’[11], today Kuwait and Saudi Arabia do have low taxes, with citizens given oil money rather than democratic power, however as their history has shown there has never been democracy. Ross’s argument that the rentier effect hinders democracy is flawed, he relates correlative evidence into a causal mechanism, and places too little weight on the obvious concept that ‘regime type is causally posterior to oil discovery’[12]. Ross even agrees in a footnote that when historical characteristics are incorporated using ‘statistical fixed effects, the impact of oil-dependence on regime type disappears’[13]. The rentier effect may have some consequences on democratic ‘accountability’ but Ross’ and many other academics literature fails to truly examine the reasons for the rentier effect. A key cause for the effect is existing state-structure; the oil-wealth is a secondary inference, thus emphasising the spurious link between oil-rents and lack of democratisation.

Oil-rents are ‘not a robust factor behind lack of democracy’[14] in Middle-Eastern countries; emphasizing another problematic question of the pro oil/authoritarianism literature. There are issues with their statistical analysis, such as the issue of measuring ‘oil-rents’, whether total oil-wealth rents or yearly rents, the use of either giving very varied and contradictory results. A similar issue is the problem of trying to measure democracy, or quality of democracy, problems have arisen in studies on how to accurately measure ‘freedom’ for example. Ross uses his own inadequate measurements such as ‘landline telephones per person’, and utilises Freedom House’s dubious yearly statistics. The statistical use of ‘oil-dependence rather than oil-abundance’[15]  by oil-exports divided by GDP has methodological flaws for it denies domestic sales and does not provide statistically sound results. An improved causal variable was used in ‘oil-rent per capita’; however regression based fixed-effect models do not generate statistically important results without historical factors, instead academic inference is used to infer a linear model favouring anti-democratic state traits. When in reality statistical results are much more spatial and anomalous with a difficult to read non-linear vectorisation[16].

Image result for oil field

Causality between oil-rents and authoritarianism is much more likely to do with the existing state-structure, society and institutions, for historical variables disallow the filament of crude-oil’s ‘rentier effect’. Rents may allow a state to continue its trajectory as an anti-democratic regime however in general ‘past regime type is a strong predictor modern regime type’[17]. Similarly with oil rents there is a ‘non-linear effect, countries at the extreme have high inertia’[18] for regime change to both democracy and authoritarianism.

As a case study to highlight that the rentier effect needs an integral historical perspective and how many countries do not fit the rentier model, Latin America is an interesting case. There is more evidence in Latin America that the rentier effect actually positively effects democracy. In countries with a ‘propensity for democracy’ the ‘oil-rents are associated with democracy, not authoritarianism’[19]. This is due to Latin Americas interesting historical development, and is shown in nations such as Venezuela and Mexico. Studies of rentier states in Latin America ‘contradict theories that link resource rents only to authoritarianism’[20], thus it appears that through the rentier effect oil does arguably not undermine democratisation, and can even support and aid it. Rentier states debatably would continue to have the power in the hands of a few, where the state has always been authoritarian, whether or not there is oil dependence. It seems in terms of Latin American rentier states oil-rents breed democracy, but only if there is democratic will, as per Venezuela, which ‘transitioned to democracy at the height of its oil wealth’[21]. Conversely oil rents breed autocracy where will for autocracy is strongest as in Saudi Arabia. It appears nevertheless this is a loose correlation as many nations transitioned to democracy after oil-booms such as Chile and Mexico which are now both relatively successful democracies. Case studies illustrate that there is no simple oil-rents equals less democracy link.

Another of Ross’ professed causal mechanisms is the repression effect, through which I will highlight the importance of regionalism to regime type. The repression effect is the theory that authoritarianism can be sustained through oil wealth as it enables regimes to spend more on security and repression forces. However this again is an overly simplified causal mechanism, authoritarian regimes are inherently going to be repressive, and they would achieve this repression through other means if oil wealth were not available. One can see this in many repressive countries which lack oil resources, such as Sudan which still has low oil revenue[22]. In terms of the maintenance of authoritarian states and the lack of democratisation the repression effect mechanism is very weak.

South America as a regional case study is useful for showing how the repression effect is a poor causal mechanism, several South American countries democratised from repressive regimes to democracies during oil-fuelled economic booms. Venezuela was rid of repressive dictator Jiménez on the 23rd January 1958 despite an oppressive-rentier state of 50/50 profits between oil companies and state emerging in 1941[23]. Similarly Brazil transitioned away from their military government, in March 15, 1985 to a representative democracy. This was during a repressive military government and during huge oil boom through Petrobras in the early 80’s[24].

A superior reason for the repression oil/anti-democratisation link is that ‘political regime outcomes may be interdependent’[25], studies on the oil/anti-democratisation link fail to take into account regional geographical and societal factors. This is the case in the Middle-East; there is measurable ‘geographic clustering of regime types, even where resource endowments vary’[26]. Geographic proximity,facilitates the transmission of ideas, appropriateness, and comparability’[27] which could diffuse either democracy or authoritarianism[28]. Thus oil’s effect on authoritarian regimes lack of democratisation is questionable, with the repression effect being mostly negligible, conversely factors such as the lack of ‘democratic diffusion’[29] appear more likely as to why oil-rich states repress and fail to democratise.

For the Middle-East, oil resources appear to not affect the overtly repressive undemocratic nature of many of the Gulf States, and other Persian nations such as Iran. Another explanation must be found,  which I would argue again would be a states pre-oil political nature, however socio-political diffusion influence also plays a key role, for ‘democratic ideas spread across borders’[30], however without social-genesis of these ideas across a region many states will inevitably end up repressive and undemocratic despite increased oil profits.

Academics also highlight the ‘modernisation effect’ as a causal mechanism for oil hindering democratisation, the argument being that ‘dependence on commodity exports retards social and cultural changes necessary for democracy’[31]. However this again is a reprehensible explanation for the lack of democratisation in many developing states. Even if Lipset’s defined ‘modernisation’ occurs in these pre-oil repressive nations, there is a difference between economic ‘modernisation’ and political ‘modernisation’. It is vital that there is political legitimacy for the flourishing of democracy. It is important to differentiate the two ideas, as they are not mutually exclusive, something which many academics of the pro-curse camp fail to recognise.

Regionalism is important to regime type, something the studies by Barro, Wantchekon and Ross fail to take into account. They generally find that ‘authoritarian regimes have lasted longer in countries with oil wealth’[32], however it is due to existing repressive state structure that the repression remains, albeit with more economic modernisation and wealth from oil. Modernisation theory is interesting as one would think that economic development would lead to societal development, taxation and thus a wish for representation; however I would argue modernization theory in the context of oil states is far to inefficient to be an effective theory. Instead I would argue the reason many oil-rich states fail to democratise through modernisation theory is due to ‘endogenous resource reliance’[33]. Nations with a low state-capacity, through ineffective institutions which lack revenue will, ‘heavily discount the future’[34] and utilise less costly revenue sources such as oil, to the detriment of a proper industrialised and varied economy. Accordingly this denies proper development of institutions and thus democracy. This reversal of the causal arrow from the oil revenue itself to the state’s capacity is a simple one which shows stronger in evidence in terms of oil-nations.

Most of the strongest democracies in the world even in Africa have a well grounded tradition of democracy, such as with Botswana, which had its democratic tradition before major resource discoveries, despite its proximity to The Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the least democratic yet resource rich nations. This is an interesting case in point for both countries are resource rich and yet only one has democratised. It is arguable the reason for this being its ‘structured and powerful institutions in place predating’[35] independence, rather than its resource dependence. In Botswana’s case this would be the framework left by British rule post independence in June 1964[36].

Image result for oil slickTo conclude, oil does not hinder democratisation, ‘heterogeneity of a country experiences and institutional structures of governance account for regime variance, not resource endowment per se’[37]. It can be argued pro-oil curse literature suffers from an omitted variable bias, with the models interpreting oil correlation, as causation. Weak state-capacity jointly determines both ‘dependence on natural resources and persistent authoritarianism’[38]. The hypothesis associating oil-abundance with less democracy is weak when statistics include historically relevant variables. Socio-historical factors and institutional structures are what cause today’s variation in political regimes around the world, the forces for future democratization are in the ‘heterogeneity of nations’[39]. Thus it is with policy reform and societal reform that institutions can be improved in oil-rich states and non oil-rich states alike allowing for democratic transition.

The oil/anti-democratisation link can be understood to be a ‘red-herring’[40]. One can infer from simplified evidence as Ross did, that oil must negatively affect democratisation due to ineffective causal reasons, this however is overly simplified. It is not so much the oil itself that proverbially plagues Midas, but the cognition of the significance of oil. It is no surprise that the prevalence of the ‘resource curse’ is so great in the press; for it is an attractive quotable simplified way for people to look at the reasons why countries haven’t democratised. Other factors are a more sublime explanation; for lack of democratisation is a much deeper and more complex problem, where social, anthropological, historical, and economic factors all engage an imperative role. However it appears for the media that it is much easier to look to oil and shout ‘bogeyman’[41], whereas in actuality nations are not un-democratically ‘tortured by the hateful “black” gold’.

Bibliography

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  6. Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede. All international politics is local: The diffusion of conflict, integration, and democratization. University of Michigan Press, 2002.
  7. Hausmann, R and R. Rigobon, 2002. An Alternative Interpretation of the ‘Resource Curse’: Theory and Policy Implications. NBER Working Paper Series, WP 9424, Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research.
  8. Hertog, S., 2010. Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats: Oil and the State in Saudi Arabia. Cornell University Press. P 156.
  9. Horiuchi, Yusaku, and Schwarmin Waglé. “100 Years of Oil: Did it Depress Democracy and Sustain Autocracy?.” annual meeting of the APSA 2008 Annual Meeting, http://www. allacademic. com/meta/p280339_ index. html. 2008.
  10. Inglehart, Ronald. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  11. Jensen, N. and L. Wantchekon, 2004. Resource wealth and political regimes in Africa. Comparative Political Studies 37: 816-841.
  12. Karl, T. 1997. The paradox of plenty: Oil booms and petro-states. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  13. Karl, Terry Lynn. “Petroleum and political pacts: the transition to democracy in Venezuela.” Latin American Research Review1 (1987): 63-94.
  14. Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. American Political Science Review 53 (1):69-105.
  15. Luong, Pauline Jones, and Erika Weinthal. Oil is not a curse: Ownership structure and institutions in soviet successor states. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  16. Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition (1979) published. Manchester University Press, 1984 p34. Translation – small narratives.
  17. Mehlum, H., K. Moene and R. Torvik, 2006. Institutions and the resource curse. Economic Journal 116: 1-20.
  18. Menaldo, Victor. The Myth of the Resource Curse: the endogeneity of resource reliance University of Washington – seminar series, 2009.
  19. Noland, Marcus, 2008, “Explaining Middle Eastern Political Authoritarianism I: The Level of Democracy,” Review of Middle East Economics and Finance 4, no. 1
  20. Obi, Cyril. “Oil and development in Africa: some lessons from the oil factor in Nigeria for the Sudan.” Oil Development in Africa: Lessons for Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies Report 8 (2007).
  21. Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D. Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Page ix–xi. – Ross actually concludes with reference to Midas’ ‘resource grief’.
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  28. Ross, M.L., 2001a. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics 53, 325-361.
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  31. Samatar, Abdi Ismail. An African miracle: State and class leadership and colonial legacy in Botswana development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.
  32. Schubert, Samuel R. “Revisiting the oil curse: are oil rich nations really doomed to autocracy and inequality?.” (2006): 1-16
  33. Smith, Benjamin. “Oil wealth and regime survival in the developing world, 1960–1999.” American Journal of Political Science2 (2004): 232-246.
  34. Teorell, Jan – Determinants of Democratization: Explaining Regime Change in the World, 1972–2006. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. p.220
  35. Torvik, R., 2002. Natural resources rent seeking and welfare, Journal of Development Economics 67: 455-70.
  36. Trebilcock, M.J., Prado, M.M., 2011. What Makes Poor Countries Poor?: Institutional Determinants of Development. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  37. Tsui, Kevin. “More oil, less democracy?: theory and evidence from crude oil discoveries.” University of Chicago, Nov 11 (2005).
  38. Van den Bergh, CJM, Jeroen and Nijkamp, Peter. Optimal Growth, Coordination and Sustainability in the Spatial Economy. No. 97-104/3. Tinbergen Institute, 1997.
  39. Zalik, A., 2004. The Niger Delta: “petro violence” and “partnership development”. Review of African Political Economy 101: 401-424.

[1] Ovid, Metamorphoses. Trans. A.D.Melville. Oxford: Oxford University-Press, 1986. Page ix–xi. – Ross actually concludes with reference to Midas’ ‘resource-grief’.

[2] Menaldo, Victor. The Myth of the Resource Curse: the endogeneity of resource reliance University of Washington – seminar-series, 2009. P.7.

[3] Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition (1979) published. Manchester University-Press, 1984 p34.

[4] Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some social requisites of democracy: Economic development and political legitimacy.” The American Political Science-Review (1959): 69-105. The more well-to-do a nation, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy.”

[5] Tsui, Kevin. “More oil, less democracy?: theory and evidence from crude-oil discoveries.” University of Chicago, Nov 11 (2005). P.90.

[6] Schubert, Samuel R. “Revisiting the oil curse: are oil-rich nations really doomed to autocracy and inequality?” Development 64-70. (2006): p6.

[7] Schubert, “Revisiting the oil-curse” (2006): p4.

[8] Judis, John B. “Blood for Oil”. The New Republic, March-31-2003. P.4.

[9] Horiuchi, Yusaku, and Schwarmin Waglé. “100 Years of Oil: Did it Depress Democracy and Sustain Autocracy?.” annual meeting of the APSA 2008 Annual Meeting, http://www. allacademic. com/meta/p280339_ Accessed 5/12/2012.

[10] Schubert, “Revisiting the oil curse” (2006): p5.

[11] Ross, M.L., 2001a. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics 53, p.330.

[12] Yusaku, Waglé. “100 Years of Oil” 2008. P.7.

[13] Ross, M.L., 2001a. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? p.344.

[14] Noland, Marcus, 2008, “Explaining Middle Eastern Political Authoritarianism I: The

Level of Democracy,” Review of Middle East Economics and Finance 4, no. 1. P.3.

[15] Brunnschweiler, C.N., 2007. Cursing the blessings? Natural resource abundance, institutions, and economic growth. World Development– forthcoming. P.12.

[16] Yusaku, Waglé. “100 Years of Oil” 2008. See graph p.8.

[17] Yusaku, Waglé. “100 Years of Oil” 2008. P.8.

[18] Ibid.^

[19] Dunning, Thad Stephen. Does oil promote democracy?: regime change in rentier-states. University of California,Berkeley, 2006. P.11.

[20] Dunning, Does oil promote democracy?: 2006. P12.

[21] Frankel, Jeffrey A. The natural resource curse: A survey. No. w15836. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010. P17.

[22] Obi, Cyril. “Oil and development in Africa: some lessons from the oil factor in Nigeria for the Sudan.” Oil-Development in Africa: Lessons for Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace-Agreement, Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies Report 8 (2007).

[23] Karl, Terry Lynn. “Petroleum and political pacts: the transition to democracy in Venezuela.” Latin American Research Review 22.1 (1987): p.78.

[24] Fishman, Andrew. Petroleum in Brazil: Petrobras, Petro-Sal, Legislative Changes & the Role of Foreign Investment. Working Paper, Center for Latin American Studies, George Washington University, 2010.

[25] Brooks, Sarah M. and Kurtz, Marcus J. Interdependence, Endogeneity, and Natural Resource Abundance: Rethinking the Political Resource Curse, Ohio State University – International Political Economy Society, 2012, p.3.

[26] Brooks, and Kurtz, ‘Interdependence’, 2012, p.5.

[27] Teorell, Jan – Determinants of Democratization: Explaining Regime Change in the World, 1972–2006. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. p.220

[28] Brinks, Daniel, and Michael Coppedge. “Diffusion Is No Illusion Neighbour Emulation in the Third Wave of Democracy.” Comparative Political-Studies 39.4 (2006): p473.

[29] Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, and Michael D. Ward. “Diffusion and the international context of democratization.” International-Organization 60.4 (2006): p.911.

[30] Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede. All international politics is local: The diffusion of conflict, integration, and democratization. University of Michigan-Press, 2002.

[31] Ross, M.L., 2001a. Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics 53, p.344.

[32] Smith, Benjamin. “Oil wealth and regime survival in the developing-world, 1960–1999.” American Journal of Political Science 48.2 (2004): p240.

[33] Van den Bergh, CJM, Jeroen and Nijkamp, Peter. Optimal Growth, Coordination and Sustainability in the Spatial Economy. No. 97-104/3. Tinbergen Institute, 1997.p.3.

[34] Menaldo, Victor. Presentation – The Myth of the Resource Curse: the endogeneity of resource reliance – University of Washington-Press. P.7.

[35] Schubert, “Revisiting the oil-curse” (2006): p.5.

[36] Samatar, Abdi Ismail. An African miracle: State and class leadership and colonial legacy in Botswana development. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.

[37] Yusaku, Waglé. “100 Years of Oil” 2008.

[38] Devine, Noah. Corruption loves company: the interactive effect of corruption and resources on economic growth. University of Missouri, 2012.

[39] Persson, Torsten, and Guido Tabellini. Democracy and development: The devil in the details. No.w11993. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2006.

[40] Brunnschweiler, Christa N., and Erwin H.Bulte. “The resource curse revisited and revised: A tale of paradoxes and red herrings.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management-55.3 (2008):248-264.

[41] Friedman, Thomas. “The first law of petropolitics.” Ecologist-London 36.6 (2006): p24.

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