Friday, 26 August 2016

Revealing how a resource-surfeited country has stayed democratic

Although it is popularly believed that Australia’s longstanding, stable democracy is simply a reflection of an advanced level of economic development, with age and reading about Australia’s unique ecology and observing its dreadful environmental record, I have come to believe that this generally-held hypothesis is entirely wrong.

As Gallup and Sachs (2000) discuss, countries in low latitudes have low incomes with a few natural-resource-rich exceptions, and almost all the poorest countries are tropical. Although Australia is more than half outside the geographical tropics, as Huston (2012) demonstrates, it is pedologically entirely tropical. In fact, Orians and Milewski (2007) demonstrate conclusively that all of Australia uniformly surpasses all other extant continents in oligotrophy, but there can exist no doubt Australia stands less distant ecologically from the tropics than it is from the Enriched World, simply because:
  1. Enriched World soils are distinctly more fertile on average than the soils of non-Australian humid tropical and arid outer tropical and subtropical landmasses
  2. Paleopedology (Retallack, 2001, p. 285) gives clear evidence that even the least fertile of the dominant Enriched World soil types were exceedingly rare until the great glaciations began five million year ago
Accepting Australia as a “natural-resource-rich exception” (à la Gallup and Sachs) remains the only logical conclusion.

When we study the other “natural-resource-rich exceptions” – New Caledonia, Brunei and the Arab Gulf States – popular conclusions about Australian democracy are in no way supported. Excluding New Caledonia, which remains a French colony, all these other nations remain absolute monarchies with no evidence of large-scale democratisation. Given that Australia is even poorer in nutrients and animal protein, and has a much wider range of natural resources than the Middle East – which aside from its dominance of world oil and phosphate rock reserves is extremely natural-resource-poor – it would be expected that the political power of its mineral industry would be greater.

However, today, looking for books on democracy and its evolution, I found Dietrich Rüschemeyer’s 1992 Capitalist Development and Democracy today and was impressed (if not to an extreme degree) at his analysis of how democratic and authoritarian regimes evolved in early twentieth-century Europe, the Western Hemisphere and Australia. Rüschemeyer gave a convincing argument that the presence of powerful large landholding classes in Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the American South precluded democracy prior to the “Green Revolution” shifting comparative advantage in agriculture to Australia and Africa. By contrast, northern Europe, Canada and New Zealand were able to maintain stable democracies under these conditions as they were almost entirely smallholding. Rüschemeyer views the only exceptions as Britain and a number of British colonies, including Australia and the British Caribbean islands. Rüschemeyer shows that large landowners in these cases did not control the state and could not enforce authoritarian regimes.

Given that many of the nations discussed by Rüschemeyer – New Zealand, Switzerland, all of Central America – are exceedingly natural-resource-poor, it is understandable that the political influence of mining capitalists would be irrelevant in most of the cases discussed by Rüschemeyer. However, I possess little doubt that a powerful class of mining capitalists would tend to be extremely hostile to democracy, because, by analogy with Mickey (2015, p. 10) we would expect capital-dependent mining elites to be even more hostile to democracy that labour-dependent landed elites. Since mineral resources are completely fixed in location underground, they are harder to move than farming operations, and much harder to move than industrial labour. Thus, a mining capitalist’s wealth should theoretically be more vulnerable to taxation from a politically embittered lower class than even a large landowner’s.

The history of the oil states of the Gulf and Brunei, and the erosion of popular participation in the United States during and after the “System of 1896” do perhaps support this conclusion. However, in the United States the role of mining elites in reforms such as personal registration, literacy tests and residential requirements is doubtful, with the exception of Arizona and New Mexico where mining elites undoubtedly restricted political participation until the 1970s by completely excluding Native Americans whose participation threatened mineowners’ interests. Nevertheless, it does seem highly logical that Australia’s powerful mining capitalist class would be hostile to democracy, and have desire to roll it back as its power increases via advances in lithophile metallurgy – lithophile metals being a natural resource Australia is rich in almost proportionately to its nutrient poverty, owing to the low solubility of most lithophile elements and that their extremely strong bonds with oxygen precluded preindustrial smelting. Nevertheless, such rollbacks have never occurred because of the conservatism of Australia’s working classes – substantially opposed even to a moderate “mining tax” – and the related fact that the mining capitalists do not have their wealth threatened by democracy and can substantially control democratically elected politicians.

However, if Australia had been unable to democratise before major interwar advances in lithophile metallurgy like the Kroll Process, there is no doubt it would remain firmly authoritarian even today. Under such circumstances, the mining elite would undoubtedly prefer an authoritarian regime to even Australia’s actual pliant democracy.


  • Retallack, Gregory John (2001); Soils of the Past: An Introduction to Paleopedology, ISBN 978-0-632-05376-6
  • Gallup, John Luke and Sachs, Jeffrey D.; ‘Agriculture, Climate, and Technology: Why are the Tropics Falling Behind?’; American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Volume 82, Issue 3, 1 August 2000, pages 731–737
  • Orians, Gordon H. and Milewski, Antoni V. (2007). ‘Ecology of Australia: the effects of nutrient-poor soils and intense fires’ Biological Reviews, 82 (3): pp. 393–423
  • Huston, Michael A.; ‘Precipitation, soils, NPP, and biodiversity: resurrection of Albrecht’s curve’; Ecological Monographs, 82(3), 2012, pp. 277–296
  • Micket, Robert (2015); Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America's Deep South, 1944-1972 (Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives); ISBN 978-0691133386