Zack Muddle (Solidarity 588) eulogises Andreas Malm’s book Fossil Capital (2016) as an original analysis of the climate crisis. I think Zack exaggerates Malm’s contribution, overgeneralises from it and ignores big flaws with Malm’s politics.
Malm’s central insight is that early nineteenth century English textile manufacturers adopted steam power from coal burning, when waterpower was a viable alternative. As Malm puts it, steam “gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful, even and efficient”. Malm argues that these capitalists adopted steam power primarily to reinforce their control over waged labour.
These capitalists were motivated by maximising their profits. Water power at the time had significant drawbacks, something Marx drew attention to in Capital, Volume 1 (1867). Marx also understood the role of technology. He wrote: “It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.”
The argument that class struggle shapes capitalist behaviour is commonplace. Perhaps Malm offers more. From Zack’s summary, this is utterly underwhelming.
But Zack makes a wild leap, overgeneralising Malm’s historically limited point into something much wider.
Zack states: “Huge dams and complex systems involving aqueducts could have provided reliable power, located along a wide range of waterways, still significantly cheaper than steam-power.”
This comes pretty close to arguing that capitalism could have developed on the basis of renewable energy. I don’t know if that was possible. I doubt it. But it is a speculative counterfactual, since English capitalism plainly did develop on the basis of fossil fuels.
Malm’s argument about water power in nineteenth century English textiles might be a special case, limited by time and place. Zack nowhere proves that existing renewable sources of power two centuries ago were substitutes for other capitalists in other industries and other states undergoing capitalist development, or for other damaging fossil fuels, such as oil and gas.
Zack’s argument smacks of backward-facing romanticism. But in the nineteenth century, the consequences of fossil fuel burning for climate change were not widely understood. At least until the middle of the twentieth century, climate change was the unintended consequence of capitalist development. Reading back responsibility for climate change to earlier periods seems anachronistic. It doesn’t help the fight for renewables today or our indictment of capitalism after the risks of climate change became clear (from at least the 1980s, if not before).
Zack also elides key problems with Malm’s wider politics. Malm was apparently once a journalist for the SAC syndicalist union newspaperArbetaren and a member of Socialistiska Partiet in Sweden. In recent years he has become a self-confessed academic “armchair activist”.
In 2017, Malm authored a long essay in Salvage magazine, The Walls of the Tank: On Palestinian Resistance. Malm gave explicit, revolting, uncritical support to the leaders of Hamas and its military wing, as well as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The article is replete with vomitous “left” anti-Semitic bile. And Malm suggests they are a model for climate activism.
Malm advertises this article on his academic website. Interviewed by junge Welt (April 2018), Malm heralds the Salvage piece and explicitly draws parallels between what he calls the Palestinian “resistance” and the fight for climate justice. This doesn’t mean everything he has written on climate change should be dismissed. His arguments on capitalism and fossil fuels should be evaluated on their merits. However those who elevate Malm cannot simply ignore these flaws.
Paul Vernadsky, south London