Understanding capitalism’s use of fossil fuels to control labor puts us in a better position to fight it
“HOW did we get caught up in this mess?” asks Andreas Malm, a historian at Sweden’s Lund University, getting quickly to the crux of it in the opening pages of his forthcoming Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. The subtitle captures the gist of the problem and his answer, one common-sense enough to any assorted number of observers: this mess—the climate crisis—began with fossil fuels. Malm doesn’t waste time staking out the more specific space of his inquiry. By the end of the brisk eighteen-page intro, a reader has in hand Malm’s starting assumptions, central terms of inquiry, general methodologies, and broad-stroke understanding of timeline and stakes. In sum: we need history if we are to respond to the climate crisis with a clear-eyed sense of obstacles and stakes. We need to be able to account for the most foundational ways in which today’s weather “is [the] product of yesterday’s emissions.” “This tempest is eminently temporal,” he writes; and thus primed, off we go.
Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming
Paperback, 496 pages
Central to this history is the emergence of the fossil economy, “an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels.” By now this describes most economies, of course, and global capital is working hard to strong-arm those it doesn’t into the fold; the backdrop of the climate crisis is an economic momentum that will burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels if left to its own devices. Fossil Capital argues that this dependence was born in the particularities with which 19th century Britain switched out water power in favor of coal and steam; not, as other histories would have it, the first moment a human struck two stones together to make fire, nor during any of the many previous historical periods of subsistence-level coal and oil use, nor as a magical simultaneity to the eighteenth-century invention of the steam engine. A materialist, Malm opposes any history that treats the rise of fossil fuels as natural or inevitable. His account is about labor and the contingencies that allowed fossil fuels to emerge as an indispensable tool in capital’s struggles to control it. In one of the book’s most evocative asides, Malm points out that though the English word power describes both energy currents and hierarchical structures between people, there’s no similar drift in French, Spanish, or German, the languages of other centers of capitalist development. “Why” he asks, “did the two poles collapse into one in English?”
THOUGH the steam engine is often treated as a straightforward metonym for the Industrial Revolution, Malm argues that its adoption was far from given. It entered into a British economic landscape already being remade by factories and mechanization. Water-powered cotton mills were driving down the time and cost of textile production, generating unheard-of profits, and owners were investing those profits back into mills, stoking further cycles of mechanization and growth. Malm doesn’t analyze the ways colonialism intersected with British industrialization, but it’s the obvious background to this moment: the cotton boom was being underwritten with the land, bodies, labor, and raw materials stolen through colonialist expansion and the slave trade.
In the years following the 1784 patenting of the steam engine, James Watt and his business partner, Matthew Boulton, targeted the increasingly powerful mill owners, knowing their approval would be crucial to the machine’s success. But they didn’t approve, at least not at first. Most of the engine’s first adopters found it decidedly inferior to water power. Steam engines required frequent repair, sometimes exploded, and had an unreliable lifespan; waterwheel technology was time-tested, and a good iron wheel might last one hundred years. Coal “vomit[ed] forth smoke, polluting earth and air for miles around,” in the words of one engineer; water didn’t. And most importantly, water was free whereas coal was expensive. Watt and Boulton themselves kept waterwheels at their business ventures well into the nineteenth century, epitomizing the general trend. For years, mill owners stayed uninterested in steam.
By 1825, their disinterest began to wane. That year the Combination Laws, which outlawed strikes and unions, were repealed. Workers responded with a fierce series of uprisings, including Lancashire’s in 1826, the Swing Riots of 1830, the South Wales rebellion of 1831, 1831–32’s Reform Crisis, 1832–34’s sustained unionism, and the Chartist push from 1838–42. “The [working] population…is hourly increasing in strength and breadth,” reported journalist William Cooke Taylor. “There are mighty energies slumbering in those masses.” The year 1825 also saw the first in a crippling run of panic-recession cycles (set off in part by overproduction in cotton, aided by easy credit and financial speculation) that lasted into the late ’40s. Beset by increasingly militant worker demands as profits plummeted, British industry spent those two decades perpetually terrified.
Cotton was no exception. Spinners sat in a particular position of strength: In 1825, the job was highly skilled and an excellent chokepoint for disruptive work stoppages. Even weavers, who by and large worked from their homes and were too fragmented a force to really organize, became a headache. Far from the surveillance of a factory, they delivered cloth late and pinched thread to sell on the black market to supplement their bare wages. What ten years before was a nuisance became, in an era of economic depression, an intolerable drain on an owner’s resources.
So those owners turned to mechanical solutions to help control workers and rescue profits, and it was amidst this pushback that steam power took irrevocable hold. Again, though, this round of mechanization needn’t have implied a turn to coal. Since the late 1700s, mill owners had made continual improvements to waterpower technologies (multiple-wheel set-ups, new techniques for building aqueducts and reservoirs, self-regulating sluices); by the 1830s (the years coal first accounted for a majority of Britain’s energy usage), engineers were finding further ways to maximize those technologies through planned communities and resource-sharing arrangements, and government and private backers were funding the experiments at high-profile test sites—including, poetically, James Watts’ hometown.
The choice between steam and water power was made, crucially, as cotton barons also weighed the relative benefits of urban and rural factories. That decision proved less simple than it might seem, too. On one level, rural spaces insulated owners from growing labor unrest; workforces were isolated, and the damage when they rebelled more contained. But those workforces were also less expendable than in cities, where owners had large labor pools to draw from. And the incentives rural mill owners devised to retain workers—nice houses, cows and gardens, schools—meant they had more sunk capital than urban owners. When workers went on strikes that broke machines, shattered windows, or damaged roads, rural operators bore the entire cost. Such costs made water power more and more untenable.
As industry gravitated towards urban set-ups, coal allowed capitalists to remake space to even better suit their needs. They could throw up dense clusters of factories that didn’t need to be located along prime stretches of river. Coal further maintained its edge as swelling unions forced labor law reforms that included a ten-hour workday. Water-powered mills were at the mercy of irregular flows that could stop production for hours. Traditionally workers were forced to make up the time later that night or on another day; this practice became illegal under the new laws, which specified exactly when workdays could start and end. Coal could be counted upon to produce a steady stream of energy, and its intensity was more manipulable, allowing owners to maintain (and raise) production rates within the shortened workday. In this way, Malm argues, coal gave capital an unprecedented ability to remake not only space, but time according to its needs—and in the process became an inextricable part of the way it grows. Power became dual: Power became capital’s ability to leverage fossil fuels to manage unruly workers while constantly seeking out new profit; power became fossil capital.
FOSSIL Capital spends 330 of its 400 pages documenting Britain’s emergence as a fossil economy, its thesis being that this is the first step in understanding today’s spiraling cycles of growth and emissions. And fair enough: in the 1830s, as coal was becoming irrevocably tied to British capitalist expansion, Britain emitted eighty percent of the world’s carbon. But a lot happened to allow for British hegemony, and a lot has happened since then. Other countries—most notable to the history of climate change, the United States—developed their own fossil economies as coal changed the face of naval warfare and became intertwined with imperialist projects. Later, the physicalities of oil extraction proved better for managing workers and sparked a capitalist war to control global oil supplies that enlisted Western governments and militaries while setting the template for the “development” of other states, and more recently, new fracking techniques unleashed a natural gas boom that has further expanded and complicated global fossil economics. Half of CO2 emissions between 1751–2010 were produced after 1986 in an exponential growth spiral that saw post-2000 emissions triple those from the 1990s; this took place, furthermore, in an era of hyper-mobile capital far beyond the scope of anything nineteenth-century British capitalists might have dreamed. Fossil Capital doesn’t promise a comprehensive history of fossil fuels, nor of the evolution of global capitalism, but it does promise a theory of fossil capital that can be applied beyond the nineteenth-century British context. To that end, Malm spends 35 of his last 70 pages sketching some key dynamics connected to the emergence of China’s fossil economy.
The choice of example is obviously not random. China became the world’s top extractor of fossil fuels and the top carbon emitter in 2004 and 2006 respectively. During those years, some researchers estimate that nearly half China’s emissions were linked to manufactured exports, the majority of which were being traded in the West. Many of the ensuing debates about who should be held responsible for such “emissions embodied in trade” (EETs) have focused on consumption in an approach that, in Malm’s words,
view[s]…the Western consumer as an absolute sovereign who sends CO2 packing to other parts of the world, presumably by standing in front of shelves and picking cheap Chinese commodities rather than expensive domestic ones, the owners of the means of production being passive, neutral, and out of sight.
Malm takes particular issue with the approach when it fails to differentiate between the lifestyles, habits, and array of consumption options afforded rich and working-class consumers. Against this mode of analysis, he attempts to trace the machinations of fossil capital in China.
Globalized fossil capital is first and foremost defined by the ability to move across national borders at will to find what it needs. In industry—the sector is still percentage-wise most responsible for worldwide carbon pollution and, accordingly, Malm’s focus throughout—that means cheap, pliable workforces and reliable access to fossil fuels plus the infrastructure to find, transport, and process them. China joined the WTO and removed most of its remaining barriers to foreign investment in 2001. Around the same time, the Chinese government deregulated coalmines and invested heavily in transmission lines and transportation to the coastal cities where foreign factories liked to set up shop; by 2007, it began importing huge amounts of coal and oil to keep up with demand. It also put down nascent unionism among workers streaming from rural areas into the industrializing cities. Transnational corporations (TNCs) promptly flocked there, sparked competition between Chinese cities to build bigger and better infrastructural incentives, and soon accounted for somewhere between fifty and seventy percent of the export economy helping drive the emissions spike. In short, Malm asserts, China became the world’s biggest carbon emitter just as “globally mobile capital seized upon it as its workshop.”
It’s worth taking a moment to underline the dynamics at work in a scenario like this. Malm breaks the process into three phases: expansion, intensity, and integration. Expansion is any initial investment undertaken to build up energy grids, usually undertaken by state governments under pressure from TNCs that can easily take their capital elsewhere. Intensity refers to the fact that the nations with the most attractive workforces—i.e. poor countries—generally have less efficient energy grids, because their tax base limits what they can buy and build; hence foreign companies that follow cheap labor into poor countries generally increase emissions even if their production rates stay the same. And integration describes emissions related to the construction and operation of the trains, buses, trucks, planes, and cargo ships used to shuttle people and goods back and forth between various homes, factories, logistics hubs, and stores; not to mention the necessary highways, rails, airports, and so on.
These cycles tend to get locked into feedback loops that only deepen capital’s reliance on fossil fuels. And when labor mucks up those cycles, as it still sometimes manages to do, the workarounds generally involve more fossil fuels. When Chinese workers erupted in massive countrywide strikes in 2010, TNCs began looking to move their Chinese operations elsewhere. Many did, feeding emission cycles in these new labor markets. Others found that they’d developed carbon-intensive habits that couldn’t be quickly accommodated by more rudimentary energy grids. Slowed in their departures from China, they turned to robotics and new waves of mechanization, to similar and predictable effect: yet more emissions. Meanwhile, mainstream climate politics can’t find the courage to link carbon to capitalist growth, and hyper-mobile owners of the means of production stay passive, neutral, and out of sight.
“CAPITAL is not being endowed with a will and a mind, a cabal, an almighty conspiracy,” writes Malm. “It is a blind process of self-expansion…More often than not, the products are unintended.” Many experts in mitigation scenarios believe there’s still a window to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, albeit a very, very narrow one, in which a full transition to renewable energy would need to be reached in a matter of decades. The technology is available. The first and biggest obstacles to such a transition are the vested interests of fossil capital. Those interests grow physically and logistically more entrenched every day and are all the more dangerous for being ad-hoc. If it’s most profitable to manage workers across fragmented supply chains full of carbon-intensive redundancies, that’s what fossil capital will keep doing.
In Malm’s words, the timeline of the climate crisis both “compels revolutionaries to be a little pragmatic” and “obliges others to ponder revolutionary measures.” There isn’t time to build a world socialist order before tackling emissions, but there isn’t time to fritter away hoping market solutions will work, either—leaving, realistically, government planning to drag capitalists through a renewable transition. A successful planning agenda would need to be massive and comprehensive in a manner historically unprecedented save for World War II. It would have to (just for instance) maintain or take back public control of energy grids, end fossil fuel subsidies, set new taxes, establish public investment banks, direct research efforts, issue contracts, create jobs programs, build infrastructure that bundles power sources to create more reliable energy flows, sequester global fossil stock, regulate the financial industry, and set sharp emission reduction targets that acknowledge differential historical responsibility for climate change and actually get met. Most governmental bodies haven’t shown anything close to the political will necessary to do any of this; most are still actively abetting fossil capital’s continued expansion.
The ghost haunting this discussion, of course, is resistance. Malm acknowledges that no transition will materialize unless people force the political will for a renewable transition into being, but he leaves the specifics of how that fight should look to other critics. For inspiration, he raises the memory of the Plug Plot Riots, a fierce wave of 1842 work stoppages whose central act of sabotage was pulling out steam engines’ plugs to drain their water and halt production. “What is needed today, if not some global version of the Plug Plot Riots? Go and stop the smoke!” By his own analysis, though, “recent decades of globalization have…caused a structural debilitation of labor.” The 2010 Chinese work stoppages involved thousands of workers, resulted in wage hikes, and cost the companies involved a lot of money; they were effective, for a time. But fossil capital has better workarounds than it used to, and TNCs in China and elsewhere are busily enacting theirs as carbon-wastefully as is necessary to keep extending profits. In such a landscape, labor won’t do it alone. It will need to be joined by people hitting fossil capital on all fronts—through Blockadia-style direct actions; legal invocations of indigenous treaty rights; economic, racial, and gender justice work; divestment advocacy; fights to keep energy grids public; campaign finance reform pushes; fracktivism; etc—while articulating concrete platforms for a transition and pressuring governments to adopt them. The Canadian Leap Manifesto, for one example, lays out a full transition agenda that begins in indigenous communities and in those most devastated by fossil capital’s environmental destruction, and ends, through a program of wealth redistribution and infrastructural investment, with a carbon-free Canada by 2050.
To be sure, capital has workarounds for activists as well. In one high-profile example, Malm reports that though Keystone resistance has dragged the pipeline project out well past its planned rollout date, its investors have been quietly constructing a network of pipelines to snake from Alberta to each of the Canadian coasts to ensure tar-sands oil gets to market. It’s easy for resistance to seem pointless, fossil fuels inevitable, the future an unavoidable apocalypse. But that will be for later historians to decide for certain. In another evocative bit of etymology towards the end of Fossil Capital, Malm notes that apokalyptein, the Greek source for the English apocalypse, means to lift a veil. That strikes me as the only real option in the face of climate crisis: to keep resisting while keeping our eyes trained on the fossil capital that’s put us here, making sure it does anything but stay passive, neutral, and out of sight.