Malm's "Fossil Capital": mired in slurry

Submitted by AWL on 1 June, 2021 - 2:45 Author: Paul Vernadsky
Industry and nature

Andreas Malm’s writings on climate change have been widely lauded across the left in recent years, including in Solidarity (Zack Muddle, 588, 14 April 2021). In my view, Malm is a charlatan, a pretentious poseur, who sows confusion on Marxism and climate change politics. This became clear with his book Fossil Capital (2016) and has worsened subsequently.

Fossil Capital

Britain was the first industrial capitalist state. Climate scientists estimate that Britain accounted for 80% of global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion in 1825 and 62% in 1850. Therefore accelerating fossil fuel use, which later led to climate change, started with British capitalism.

Malm’s book Fossil Capital (2016) is mostly a stylised narrative of steam power in mid-nineteenth century Britain, furnished with a “Marxist” gloss. Much of it is drawn from the work of existing historians. The bulk of the text describes the views of British cotton manufacturing capitalists and the bourgeois economists who articulated their interests at the time.

The book focuses closely on the demand for steam power by British cotton manufacturers, who thereby indirectly gave rise to a sharp increase in coal use — and thus the take-off in greenhouse gas emissions. Malm foregrounds the displacement of water power by steam engines in the mid-1800s. He maintains that steam power “gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful, even and efficient”.

Ultimately, Malm borrows from autonomism the argument that these capitalists adopted steam power primarily because it strengthened their control over labour. This insight adds little. After all, textile workers in steam-powered factories as well as coal miners soon proved their militancy.

Individual cotton capitalists adopted steam power in their mills because they thought it would be more profitable. Many transformed the labour process, making manufacturing exceptionally lucrative for them. Other capitalists saw these profits and joined the frenzy. There was no controlling capitalist mind making a deliberate turn to steam power; some individual capitalists tried and failed. Capitalist profiteering and competition explain the adoption of steam power from fossil fuels well enough.

Malm does not generalise too far. He accepts that “the astounding growth of the global economy and population witnessed over the past two centuries would not have been possible without fossil fuels” and that “the watercourses available on the British Isles could not have powered all their industries” to the late twentieth century. He acknowledges that water power damaged the environment through extensive reservoirs and exploited workers, including through forced labour. There was no renewable energy road within early capitalist development.

Malm reinterprets the wave of working class protests during the 1830s and 1840s, notably the Chartists’ 1842 general strike. He states that these struggles were “collective bargaining by rioting against the fossil economy” and reads into some Chartists “what we might call a proto-environmentalist component of the critique of steam”. However this is contradicted by his admission that “by no stretch of the imagination can they be regarded as a revolt against steam power: this was an uprising for decent living standards and political power”.

At the beginning of the book, Malm accepts that global warming is “the unintended by-product par excellence”. The significance of climate change was not understood by anyone in the nineteenth century. Yet he overburdens the origins of fossil fuel use for current politics. Malm writes as if current concerns about fossil fuel use and climate change can be read back into early nineteenth century British capitalism. His wider generalisations are fundamentally flawed. In particular Malm’s interpretation of Marxism and his views on the present climate politics are dangerous snares.

Maligning Marxism

Malm’s treatment of Marxism in Fossil Capital is probably the most galling aspect of his oeuvre. Some of his comments in chapters 12 and 13 are simply petty. He wrote: “Nothing indicates any apprehensions on his part [Engels] or that Marx about the noxious effects of the gas [carbon dioxide].” So, Marx and Engels did not have our current understanding of anthropogenic climate change. But neither did any of their contemporaries. Marx and Engels certainly thought the climate was important and commented on its interaction with human society. They made the link between capitalism and environmental degradation. Marx and Engels paid careful attention to the physical sciences of their time and integrated this knowledge into their politics. They were bound by their era, missed some key issues, and made mistakes. But to criticise them for failing to anticipate climate change is simply anachronistic.

Malm constructs a caricature of supposed “productive forces determinism”, which he believes afflicted Marx and Engels, as well as other classical Marxists from Kautsky to Plekhanov, from Lenin to Trotsky. Ironically, given his emphasis on coal, steam and machines, Malm could easily be read as committing precisely such a fallacy.

Malm insists that production relations take primacy over the productive forces. He revives a sterile, decades-old debate, mostly between Stalinists, akin to whether the chicken or egg came first. Malm turns an analytical distinction into an historical fetish. He achieves this caricature by narrowing his conception of the productive forces to technology. He name-checks a range of “authorities” in support his view, among others Maoism, autonomism and Althusser.

It is well known that Marx wrote in his early work The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The hand-mill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” This sounds like technological determinism. But this is a distortion, because at this stage Marx had barely even developed a conception of social relations of production, from what he had previously called “the forms of intercourse”.

Marx explicitly corrected the point in Capital, volume 1 (1867), when wrote: “The steam-engine itself did not give rise to any industrial revolution. It was, on the contrary, the invention of machines that made a revolution in the form of steam-engines necessary.” Malm is well aware of this, since he quotes the passage in his book. However he presses on with his reconfiguration:

Relations of production —> productive forces —> human and extra-human nature

“This is the line to follow, if we are to reach a theory of capitalist destabilisation of climate.”

Malm puffs this up as a great innovation, but there is little real theoretical advance. Capitalism (and indeed Stalinist social formations) generate relations of production that employ fossil fuel energy and technologies, which in turn damage the climate. Few Marxists today — or indeed liberal climate activists — would object.

Mangling political economy

Malm borrows freely from Marxist idiom, but ends up distorting Marxist political economy. First, Malm defines the “fossil economy” as “an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide”. This seems like a tautology and not specific to capitalism. Malm frames matters in terms of the consumption of use values, rather than particular modes of exploitation and production.

Second, Malm defines “Fossil Capital” as “self-expanding value passing through the metamorphosis of fossil fuels into CO2”. This sounds very Marxological, but the “capital” Malm has spent most of the book describing is solely British cotton manufacturers, whose demand for steam power drove demand for coal. Malm barely discusses the economic and political power of coal capitalists, nor does he extend his argument to other fossil fuels in the book. Malm does not produce an indictment of capitalism in general — only a critique of a small, long-dead group of British capitalists.

Third, Malm inserts “Fossil Capital” into Marx’s circuit of capital, which is usually designed to explain the production of surplus value. Malm renders Marx more climate profound by amending the sequence of money — commodities (labour power and means of production) — production — (more) commodities — (more) money:

M — C (L + MP)… P… C’ — M’

Malm adds fossil fuels (F) and then CO2 emissions:

M — C (L + MP (F))[… CO2]… P… C’ — M’

It seems awry to impose solely material stocks of coal into the valorisation process — and Malm persistently conflates value and material flows. It looks slightly odd to foreground “Fossil Capital”, yet exclude other forms of capital that were central to the growth of emissions and the valorisation process.

The muddle is particularly acute, because Malm’s fossil energy/emissions additions are contingent, while Marx’s circuit expresses necessary relations under capitalism. Malm’s own account undermines his creation. At the beginning of British capitalism, water power dominated the textile industry. If inserted into his contrived circuit, it would not yield excess CO2 emissions. Similarly, advanced capitalism might in the abstract replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Again, if this were added to Malm’s contrived circuit, it would not yield additional CO2.

Malm wants to claim fossil fuels are integral to capitalism. The aim is laudable, but his presentation is artificial. The criticism is deflected, because neither Marx nor nineteenth century capitalists knew that fossil fuel substitution would produce emissions sufficient to alter the climate. The focus would be better placed on modern, advanced capitalism and its states, in an epoch when the risks of climate change are both known and becoming more tangible through extreme weather and other climate impacts.

Apology for Chinese capitalism

Malm spent three quarters of his book making an argument that British capitalists were the originators of climate change, through their instigation of the “fossil economy”. This is meant to be his intervention into the long-running climate change debate about “historic responsibility” for emissions. This is fine as a corrective to Westminster politicians, who boast of cutting emissions and the UK’s small global share, in order to duck the responsibility British capitalists and their state have for the mess we’re in.

However Malm’s Chapter 14 also reads as elaborate apologism, excusing the current Chinese ruling class for their own current and future liability for climate change. Malm writes rather more softly about rising emissions from the “People’s Republic of China”, whose name alone elides its exploitation and oppression of workers and peasants (never mind its environmental degradation). Malm states: “If Manchester was the ‘chimney of the world’ in the 1840s, the People’s Republic of China assumed that position in the early twenty-first century primarily because globally mobile capital seized upon it as its workshop.” He points to a spike in fossil fuel burning after China’s accession to the WTO in 2001, as well as the increased emissions from the export sector. Of course capitalism is a global system, and international capitalists bear heavy responsibility for the acceleration of greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades. But capitalism operates and rules through ruling classes and national states. Capitalists are located (unevenly) in place and space. Malm broaches no criticism of Chinese capitalists and their state, deflecting any criticism of them by pointing towards other capitalists — and to Western consumers — who are deemed more responsible. This is not Marxist climate geopolitics, but inverted “anti-imperialist” nationalism.

Authoritarian climate politics

After all his huffing and puffing about capitalism, Malm offers remarkably little by way of political remedies in this book. Malm is credited with describing the geological epoch not as the Anthropocene, but as the “Capitalocene”. This is a snappy phrase, but lacks substantiation. For all his rejection of the “undifferentiated ‘we’” implicit in the Anthropocene framing, Malm does not propose either an alternative mode of production or a different ruling class. There is little “system change” in his programme to tackle climate change. In the final chapter, he dismisses all talk of socialism. Malm wrote:

“It tightens the screws on Marxists as much as on everyone else. Any argument along the lines of ‘one solution, revolution’, or less abbreviated, ‘socialist property relations are necessary to combat climate change’ is now untenable. The experiences of the past two centuries indicate that socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve; any proposal to build it on a world scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable, but reckless.”

Similarly, Malm fails to identify any climate subject or agency, for all his critique of capitalism. In places, he appears to write-off the working class, at least in advanced capitalism. He stated: “The subjects most thoroughly constituted by fossil fuel use-values and therefore resistant to climate change mitigation are the richest consumers”. He appears to chastise “certain privileged segments of the working class”.

Instead, Malm looks to existing capitalist states to impose the necessary solutions. He flirts with geoscience, but backs away. His calls to action are coated with socialist referents. Malm laments that “in the Soviet Union, the five-year plans often missed their targets; we need plans that do not. There is no alternative: planning is ‘inevitable’”. He describes the vast global write-off of Fossil Capital as a “transitional demand”, but without working class agency it is an ultimatum. Malm garnishes calls for (bourgeois) state intervention with references to Trotsky on “war communism” and “harsh measures”. The net effect is an authoritarian climate politics, in which the same bourgeois states that have presided over successive decades of emissions growth will somehow put the situation right, if necessary, by imposing “solutions” on their populations by force. This is neither a programme for climate mitigation nor guide to mass political action. It is shallow left populism, dressed up with left wing phrases. Malm’s Fossil Capital miseducates climate activists and the labour movement. His framing is not the basis of a working-class-based climate movement.

• First of a series of articles on Malm. More on this debate here.

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