By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, May 15, 2018
Swedish writer Andreas Malm’s 2016 book Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso Books) has earned much deserving praise from left-wing ecologists. John Bellamy Foster calls it a “masterpiece”. Mike Davis explains that the book shows “it has been the logic of capital … not technology or even industrialism per se that has driven global warming.” Naomi Klein calls it “the definitive deep history on how our economic system created the climate crisis.”
In a review published in Climate and Capitalism in July 2016, UK writer Luke Neal explains, “Above all, the book demonstrates how capital accumulation and the global climate have a deep and inseparable relationship, and in particular that the history of the working class is an environmental one.”
At the outset of the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Britain, the rising capitalist class had options for how to power its expanding industrial production. Animal draught and water and wind power were already in use in small-scale agricultural and handicraft production. Gravity-driven water power, further strengthened by engineering works, had considerable potential to power the expanding, capitalist Industrial Revolution. But one new source stood out and conquered following its invention in the late 1700s: the steam-powered engine. Fossil Capital explains, to use the words of Luke Neal, that the steam engine triumphed because it allowed a “consolidation of power over the labor process”.
“Steam power”, Neal writes, “also ‘had the prime advantage of overcoming the barriers to procurement not of energy, but of labor’ in its ability to adapt to the urban environment, thereby ‘relieving us’, as J.R. McCulloch referred to his class, ‘from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed mills to be placed in the centre of a population trained to industrious habits.’ ”
“Ultimately the transition to steam power offered capital the ability to discipline labor through relocation to settings with a high surplus population, enabling it to seek out the most profitable pools of labor power, to level down wages, and to enforce an accelerated and regular industrial output.”
Malm thus locates the origin and rise of fossil-fuel-powered capitalism in the class struggle between worker and capitalist.
The key to the early triumph of the steam engine was the use of coal to power it. Coal was abundant or relatively easily available in Britain and in other countries soon to embark on industrialization. Decades later, another fossil fuel—oil—as well as electrification continued the ascendance of machine power in industrial and agricultural production.
Capitalism is a system of generalized commodity production for sale and exchange on a market. In the course of the production and sales cycle, the capitalist seeks to realize a monetary surplus from putting to work the labour power he/she has purchased to transform and add value to raw inputs.
The capitalist competes for market share with his contemporaries. This competition shapes the pace and scope of capitalist production. But the capitalist also faces another form of ‘competition’, this one of even greater consequence. That comes in the form of the struggle by the capitalists against their paid labour force over the share of the surplus value created in production. Factory workers, agriculturalists (farm workers and peasant farmers) and other producers of social wealth are naturally inclined to combine their social force and wage common struggles to improve their individual and social status. In response, the capitalist employs all the means at his or her disposal to thwart the struggles for common improvement. There arises a compelling incentive for capitalists to acquire as much control over the production process as possible. They assert the right to hire and fire; to relocate production to areas of the globe where the power of the working classes is lower; to seek new, cheaper sources of raw materials; etc. Capitalist dominance is strengthened by the ascendance of machine power over labour power (financial and other considerations permitting).
Malm writes in the first chapter of his book, “Natural scientists have so far interpreted global warming as a phenomenon in nature; the point, however, is to trace its human origins. Only thus can we retain at least a hypothetical possibility of changing course.”
Another recent book also published in 2016 and also analysing the rise of capitalism and the ascendance of fossil-fuel powered industry and agriculture is Ian Angus’ Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press).
In a 2016 interview describing the book and its origins, Angus explains how central fossil fuels became to the rise of capitalism. “Fossil fuels are not an overlay that can be peeled away from capitalism, leaving the system intact,” he explained. “They are embedded in every aspect of the system, in every industry, and there is no prospect of that changing short of an unprecedented global economic collapse.
“We know that if fossil fuels continue to be burned the result will be environmentally catastrophic. A small minority of the world’s population might survive and even prosper, but most will experience a radical deterioration in their conditions of life. And that’s the best outcome…”
But a threadbare ecosocialist strategy
In his book cover praise for Fossil Capital, author and Marxist theoretician John Bellamy Foster, an editor of Monthly Review, calls the book a “political-economic-ecological manifesto”. That is, unfortunately, a stretch.
The final three chapters of the book turn to the present global warming calamity facing humanity. They reveal all the limitations of ecosocialism doctrine to which Malm adheres.
Malm writes “How could a transition… be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date… American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030… By 2050, the entire world economy—manufacturing, transportation, heating, everything—would run on renewable energy, roughly 90 per cent of which the sun and wind would provide.”
This is an important recognition: the world does not need fossil or radioactive fuels in order to power human civilization and oversee the survival of the other species with which we share the planet. But there is an insoluble scientific dilemma with the ‘renewable’ scenario, intertwined with an insoluble ecological and social dilemma. There is no such thing as ‘renewable’ energy. There is ‘more destructive’ and ‘less destructive’ energy, that’s all. Every energy output (production) requires resource and energy input. Solar and wind installations require huge inputs to build, maintain and eventually be replaced (or ‘renewed’, if you will). These inputs include steel, other metal manufactures (notably copper), plastics, chemicals, cement and complicated computer systems. The same goes for the climate- and wildlife-disrupting transmission and distribution networks required for the energy product to reach its final consumer. The whole process is continually operated and extended (‘renewed’).
The production and distribution networks are, of course, less damaging and onerous if the output expectation is kept to a small scale.
Climate change researcher Alexander Dunlap explains well in an important new essay the dilemma of grafting ‘renewable energies’ onto existing patterns of humongous, ecology-destroying production and consumption of energy. His essay is published on the blog of Verso Books on May 10, 2018 and is titled, End the ‘Green’ delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+‘. He is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Malm does inform his readers that the capitalist system has a built-in expansion dynamic that knows no human or ecological bounds. But he doesn’t account for that in his scenario of renewable energies replacing fossil fuel and nuclear energies. This reluctance to examine the claims of liberal and libertarian environmentalists is a common failing of ecosocialist writers.
Ecosocialism is a utopian doctrine that lacks a holistic view of the triple crisis facing humanity—global warming, yes, but also rising war and militarism and rising social inequities. Ecosocialism lacks a rigorous outlook for a future, ecological society. It lacks a political strategy, rooted in the reality of class struggle, for replacing capitalist destruction and disorder with a planned, social economy. I have described these failings in a large number of past articles (see, as examples, my articles of January 2018, October 2016 and September 2016).
Malm closes his book on a pessimistic note. He suggests in his concluding sentence that only a “miracle” can save humanity. That’s a thin thread on which to hang the fate of humankind. If, instead, we look at constituent elements of the admittedly herculean task of decelerating global warming and mitigating its consequences, a more optimistic outlook takes shape. Here is a sketch of some of the larger tasks at hand:
* Humans need to build the broadest political and social coalition in history in order to slow the freight train of rising, climate-warming emissions and eventually stop it altogether. Broad-based ecological coalitions must win political power and begin the process of constraining the deadly operation of capitalism’s expansionist law of value.
* An ecological government will transfer resources (social investment) out of the production and distribution of socially unnecessary and destructive ‘things’ and into the provision of all that is important to human development–health care, education, science and culture. Leisure time can be greatly enhanced.
* As part of this, huge resources will be required in the initial stages of societal transition to assist those people and countries who live in poverty or who will be affected by rising ocean levels, changing rainfall patterns, and other changes to climate.
* Food production will be localized to the maximum extent possible, while working in food production will move from its current, degraded and alienated status to a venerated occupation.
* Cities will be rebuilt along social lines, eliminating the dominance of the automobile and featuring housing projects built with public financing, the best of architectural and environmental science, and under strong community control.
But what about jobs and the people whose occupations will be disrupted by the massive societal transition that climate science demands? Precisely. There are no more rewarding and satisfying jobs imaginable than those that will lead us out of the world of militarism and war, global warming and rising social inequities that capitalism holds in store if we do not act decisively.
What Marx called the law of value is simply the theoretical explanation of how an equilibrium is established in capitalist society among various economic forces: the amount of commodities produced, the extent to which they are exchanged, how labour power is apportioned among different sectors of the economy, and the allotment of resources among these sectors. Understood in this way, the aim of Marx’s theory of value becomes clear. The concept enables us to grasp the structures of the capitalist system, as well its internal working, which–as demonstrated throughout the first chapter of Capital–are otherwise concealed from our eyes.
The book author then quotes Che Guevara. Che served as Cuba’s minister of industries, minister of finance and president of the National Bank before making his famous departure from Cuba in 1965 in order to advance the worldwide struggle against imperialism and for socialism:
In our view, communism is a phenomenon of consciousness and not solely a phenomenon of production. We cannot arrive at communism through the simple mechanical accumulation of quantities of goods made available to the people. By doing that, we would get somewhere, to be sure, to some peculiar form of socialism. But what Marx defined as communism–what is aspired to, in general, as communism–cannot be attained if [humans are] not conscious. That is, if [they] do not have a new consciousness toward society. The country of Bangladesh alone, for example, has a population of some 167 million. Much of its food-growing land will be inundated by rising oceans in the coming decades. The great rivers that water its agriculture will be reduced by the melting glaciers of the Himalayan Mountains while salt water ingress is already damaging its underground fresh water supplies. See: Homeless Bangladeshis flee before rising waters, by Kieran Cooke, Climate News Network, June 13, 2018.
Rising world inequality, by Michael Roberts (Marxist economist in the UK), published on his website, May 15, 2018
Has the world entered a sixth, great extinction era? If not, could capitalism soon take us there?, by Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Jan 24, 2018