Petroleum Commons

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Essay: The Petroleum Commons. George Caffentzis.



"the “struggle over oil” has been largely seen as a struggle between oil companies and governments, since its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century. However, over the last fifteen years, there has been a major shift in the physiognomy of the protagonists of the oil struggle. National governments and huge energy conglomerates no longer dominate the scene. The new protagonists include: “peoples” like the Ijaws, the Ogoni, the Chiapanecos, the U’wa, the Cofan, the Secoyas, the Huaorani, the people of Ache (Sumatra); border-transcending social movements under the star of Islam and subscribing to “Islamic economics”; elements of the UN system like the World Bank, claiming to provide the “global governance” of the “global commons.” These peoples, movements and global entities have entered the struggle for the control of oil production, legitimizing themselves with a new (and at the same time quite archaic) conception of property: common property.

Why is the notion of a petroleum common emerging now, and what are its consequences for the oil industry?

There are three levels of claims to petroleum as a common property, correlating with three kinds of allied communities that are now taking shape, for there is no common property without a community that regulates its use:

• First, some local communities most directly affected by the extraction of petroleum claim to own and regulate the petroleum under their territory as a common.

• Second, Islamic economists claim for the Islamic community of believers, from Morocco to Indonesia, and its representative, the 21st century Caliphate in formation, ownership of and the right to regulate the huge petroleum fields beneath the vast territory corresponding to the countries of the ummah.

• Third, UN officials claim for the “coming global community” the right to regulate the so-called global commons: air, water, land, minerals (including petroleum) and “nous” (knowledge and information). This imagined global community is to be represented by the dizzying array of “angels” that make up the UN system, from NGO activists to UN environmentalist bureaucrats to World Bank “green” advisors.

All these claims and their legitimizing discourse are displacing, with different results, the monopoly hold of governments and corporations over the ownership and regulation of the planet’s petroleum. There is much that is shared by these different conceptions of the petroleum commons, but they are also often in conflict." (


The above is also the 14th chapter of:

  • No Blood For Oil! Energy, Class Struggle, and War, 1998-2004

This is an ebook containing many of George Caffentzis' recent writings on capitalism, oil, class struggle, and war.

All chapters via