The Nature of Capitalism

  • Troy Vettese

The ruling class will never give up fossil fuel, because it's key to their power over workers.

An oil spill in Dalian, China in 2010. Peter Ma / Flickr

Climate change is already here and it is dreadful, as a slew of correlated severe droughts, wildfires, floods, cyclones, and invading species can attest. Yet carbon emissions have to peak in four years and thereafter quickly decline to nil by 2040 if there is to be any chance of containing the catastrophe to a mere two degrees of warming. Even this is an arbitrary unscientific target that would still invite a fair degree of destruction. Moreover, carbon dioxide pollution is but one of a long litany of environmental threats, from the mass death of coral reefs due to industrial agriculture’s nitrogenous runoff, to an empty ocean where all marine life, even krill, have been hunted to remnant maroons.

Already, startlingly, seafaring ships have a greater total mass than all of the world’s fish. The ocean is big, so depleted species rarely disappear entirely, but this is emphatically not the case for terrestrial plants and animals, half of which are expected to be extinguished by the century’s end. Most of them are dying for a much more mundane reason than climate change; humans are conquering ever more habitat, transforming wilderness into suburbs, mines, mono-crop plantations, and pasture. These are the intertwined environmental crises that the Left lacks a framework to understand, let alone offer solutions. On the whole, Marxists have studied nature halfheartedly, producing a smattering of mostly second-rate works.

This is finally starting to change. Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital is a weighty tome, sprawling centuries and disciplines to arrive at a unique reconceptualization of the relationship between nature, capitalism, and Marxism.

The tome’s breadth makes a pithy summary impossible, but Malm’s gimlet eye is manifest early on. Within the book’s first pages he dismisses the trendy topic of “climate history” — the study of how previous civilizations dealt with erratic climates —arguing that scholars should search “not for climate in history, but for history in climate. Data on factory legislation or free-trade policy should be brought to bear on rainfall and ice, rather than the other way around.”

Fossil Capital presents climate change as a historical problem specific to industrial capitalism, which for Malm originates in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. This is ambitious. Malm, a young scholar, nonetheless succeeds, intervening decisively in almost every academic debate on the period. Why did the industrial revolution happen? Why in Britain? Why in the eighteenth century? Why did it run on coal? Malm provides persuasive answers through an adept application of a Marxist framework, and in doing so, rends to ribbons the field’s predominantly neoclassical economic literature.

Another academic fad savaged by Malm is the “anthropocene” — the notion that the current geological era is defined by collective humanity’s interference with global natural processes. Malm sees the term as an attempt to blame the poor and powerless for the mess that the rich and wasteful alone have created. He argues that from the very beginning industrialization was forced upon the majority of the population by a minority of capitalists. Indeed, the working class revolted frequently during the first half of the nineteenth century to fight the broadening and deepening of the factory system. Workers — children, men, and women — protested the mechanization of production and the degradation of life by unionizing, smashing machines, striking, demonstrating, and rioting.

A point often ignored by neoclassical economic historians is that no one wanted to work in the early factories. Capitalists resorted to forcibly conscripting the poor, the incarcerated, and the forsaken. Abandoned children were forced to toil late into the night without pay. An early example of businessmen’s penchant for euphemisms, these enslaved orphans were rebranded as “apprentices.”

After an industrial workforce was coerced into existence through dispossession, the lower classes’ life expectancy fell to levels not seen since the Black Death and average height declined. Simply put, it is not “humanity” — the collective “we” — that is to blame; it is capital.

In rejecting the simplistic notion of the anthropocene, Malm opens up space for an alternative narrative of how capitalism and nature are historically intertwined. Contra other scholars of capitalism, Malm argues that the capitalist epoch only truly began once capitalism harnessed what Karl Marx called the “forces of nature”— massive stocks or flows of energy. It was waterpower — not coal — that allowed specifically capitalist technologies to emerge for the first time. According to Marx,

The spinning machine was not really complete until a large number of such machines, a reunion of such machines, received their motion from water. Unlike the tool, the machine represents “dead labour” that becomes “alive” when connected to an energy source, oppressing the living worker by embodying her lost skill and dictating the pace of her work. The organisation and combination of labour resting on the machinery first becomes complete.

Capitalism first ran on renewable energy.

The turn to coal came later. Malm argues, however, that historians have misread this transition. Most assume that the main constraint on industrial production had been a shortage of wood, a bottleneck relieved by coal. This makes no sense at all, as charcoal was not used in early factories — they ran overwhelmingly on waterpower. Northern England and Scotland were lucky to have many small rivers with an even flow, perfect for water-wheels.

Yet even when the transition to coal began in earnest in the 1830s, a vast majority of hydropower remained untapped. Nor was hydropower expensive relative to coal; indeed, it was cheaper for another four decades. Neither was it deficient in terms of power. As late as the 1840s the mammoth “Hercules” water wheels produced twice as much horsepower as the largest contemporary steam engines in Manchester. So, why did coal triumph?

To solve this riddle, Malm draws on Marxist conceptions of “abstract” time and space. If “concrete” time and space are nature’s irregular rhythms and unique geography, then abstract time and space erases specificity. Capitalists provoked workers’ resistance by imposing the empty homogenous time of capitalism on top of the concrete time governing the rhythm of nature and people, one of the first causes of class struggle within industrial capitalism.

When rivers ran low and factories closed, bosses expected workers to return whenever there was sufficient water, demanding cruelly long hours late into the night. This is why the fight for the working day became the first and foremost demand of the young labor movement. Marx heralded the first restriction on the working day, the 1833 Factory Act, as “not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.”

Waterpower could only weakly realize capitalist powers of abstraction, and thus it was not a reliable weapon for capitalists to wield in a class war. “As long as capital is weak, it still itself relies on the crutches of past modes of production,” Marx observed. “As soon as it feels strong, it throws away the crutches, and moves in accordance with its own laws.”

Coal solved several early problems confronting capitalists. Instead of a factory owner acceding to a river’s mercurial flow and isolated location, coal allowed production to take place anywhere and anytime. This ability to abstract place and time trumped hydropower’s cheapness because it aided capitalists’ counterattacks against worker offensives. Factories with steam engines could be placed in towns, where unemployment and thuggish state violence weakened workers’ resistance to capital.

In contrast, water-powered factories set up in isolated river valleys could not call upon the state to restore order should workers riot. Furthermore, once legislation began to set limits on the working day, water-powered factories could not make up shortfalls if rivers ran low. Steam engines, in contrast, could run whenever and more engines could always be added to make more power available to workers, increasing their productivity despite shorter hours.

Malm also brilliantly answers the questions of why industrialization occurred in Britain when it did. Many historians consider the “Elizabethan Leap”—the vast increase in coal consumption in the sixteenth century — as central to any explanation of industrialization, even if the latter occurred almost two centuries later. Malm is unconvinced. Even if much cheaper than elsewhere, British coal was still more expensive than waterpower.

Nor was the Elizabethan Leap unique. Indeed, it “repeated an old exploit from a very distant land: there was nothing qualitatively novel about it from a world-historical viewpoint” being preceded by a similar burst in coal consumption in China half a millennium before. In both eleventh-century China and seventeenth-century England, coal was used only for heat and not for power, thus its application in industry was limited. Even early steam engines mattered little, for they could only power pistons, whose up and down motion was “good for pumping water but not much else.”

In Malm’s reformulation, the Elizabethan Leap mattered for creating a market for fossil fuel, which industrialists could then tap once they had forsaken hydropower for coal to humble the young labor movement.

In the last chapters of the book, Malm applies his insights into the relationship between capitalism and nature during the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. Why is capitalism seemingly allergic to renewable energy after its early brief flirtation? Malm’s framework makes this clear. The flows of energy from wind and the sun are tied to concrete place and time, reducing capitalism’s powers of abstraction.

Without fossil fuels capital cannot flee truculent workers, it can only produce when energy was available. Globe-trotting capital becomes leaden, vulnerable. The only way around this would be extensive co-operation to create schemes large enough to ensure a continuous supply — in short, central planning. This, of course, goes against the inherent anarchy of the market that fosters individual capitalists to pursue their self-interest.

This is not a new problem. Malm recalls a large-scale river diversion scheme on the River Irwell near Manchester in 1829, where a brilliant engineer showed how meticulous planning could redirect a river a great distance, bringing cheap and plentiful energy to the town at the bottom of the valley. Such techniques promised to extend the reign of water-power in industry deep into the nineteenth century, but the region’s industrialists could not agree on how to share the resource. It was easier for each to have his own steam-engine.

Fossil fuels tend towards individualism in the same way that renewables are perhaps inherently communal. Malm makes it clear that green capitalism is an oxymoron.

There’s also no fortune (yet) to be made in solar or wind. Big Oil invested considerable sums in green energy after 2000 (remember BP’s erstwhile motto “beyond petroleum”?). For a few years BP and Shell were the second- and third-largest manufacturers of solar panels, though before the end of the decade they had sold their stakes in that business.

The rout extends to many renewable energy firms that have recently withered or gone bankrupt. “From a peak in 2011 to the year of 2013,” Malm observes, “global investments in renewable energy fell by 23 percent. In Europe the figure was a stunning 44 percent (Malm’s emphasis).” This is because constant improvements drive down the price of renewables, squeezing profit margins. While the price of fossil fuels may now be low, at least their prices tend to follow a cycle of boom and bust, so Big Oil can bank on super-profits as a form of lucrative rent at least sometimes.

Economy, Ecology

While Malm’s contributions are welcome, it’s surprising they weren’t made sooner. Marx himself wrote frequently and perceptively on nature and energy, and many of Malm’s arguments can be found almost word for word in Marx’s scribblings a century and a half ago. The seer of Trier was also intensely curious about the relationship between water-wheels and early capitalism, and, like Malm, tried to estimate the ratio between steam and water power.

Amongst Marx’s papers, one can even find a rotative engine intricately drawn by his own hand. This is not to say that Malm has not done considerable intellectual labor — he has — but this shows that far from being bare, the Marxist tradition is rich in ecological thought and hopefully further works will appear as urgently as they are needed.