Californian punk band Bad Religion warned us some seventeen years ago. "A placard reads The end of the days / Jacaranda boughs are bending in the haze". Climate emergency is becoming real before our very eyes – through fire, water and wind. A year before the pandemic, while half a continent was burning thirty thousand kilometers away, the worst storm in years hit the catalan central coast and all but stopped our collective lives for a week; and even the most optimist of predictions assume those as regular events in the midst of a civilizational climate threat.
In his latest book, Fossil Capital (Capitán Swing, 2021), researcher and activist – amongst other things - Andreas Malm traces the burning of fossil fuel as the origin for both the current climate emergency and the past and present tendencies of capitalist accumulation. He sits down with VIA Empresa to chat about long-term solutions, climate activism and the the role of the state in an ecological transition.
How does the usage of fossile fuels and its link to some sort of originary accumulation lead to the current iteration of capitalism?
The historical investigation in Fossil Capital is an attempt to answer the question of how we got caught up in this mess and how we were set on this path to begin with. We looked into the early 19th century british industry when you had that moment of shift from traditional – what we would today call renewable – energy sources, water, into steampower. That sort of widespread adoption of steampower set capitalist economies on a path of growing combustional fossil fuels, and it’s this path that we’re still on. It’s been a spyral of more and more coal, and oil, and gas, in more parts of the world; expanding. That has to stop.
That doesn’t mean the situation is the same as the one in the 19th century. Now, it’s more a case of the large companies in the business of fossil fuels doing everything to continue to expand while what we need to do is to stop these companies.
How does this relation work today, with the new core concepts of neoliberal capitalism?
The tragedy here is that we have the largest crisis in the history of humanity, and we need a social force that can intervene in society and change it. The force that could historically do that was the organized working class, but it’s weaker than ever, and therefore is harder than ever to change society. This means that the recomposition of the working class would be great news, but deindustrialization has taken a very heavy toll on it as a coherent social force.
"The recomposition of the working class would be great news, but deindustrialization has taken a very heavy toll on it as a coherent social force"
Does the end of the availability of fossil fuels change the perspectives of growth in modern capitalism?
The end of fossile fuels because they run out is a very distant prospect. The talk about peak oil around 2007 was completely misplaced. The problem is not that fossil fuels are running out, the problem is that companies want to take out as much of them as possible, and if they succeed the planet will burn.
In a context of companies that are close to too big to fail, what’s the pathway to breaking this up?
The private coal, oil and gas companies should be nationalized. I don’t think we can have private property in fossile fuels. We can’t leave it to market actors to take up oil and gas and coal and make a profit. That needs to come to an end. Companies that are already state-owned – we know there’s quite a lot of them – they need to have new guidelines and instructions from their governments to discontinue fossile fuel production and do something else, such as cleaning up the mess that they have created.
This is a very tall order, a big challenge, because we’re talking about extremely powerful companies with a great amount of capital. But all these companies (enumera) they cannot continue to exist as fossile fuel producers. They can, and should, be taken over by states, put under public control, and transformed into public utilities for cleaning up the atmosphere, for instance. And I think this ideas of nationalization of the fossile fuels industry are coming into the discussion, the discourse. Something like the recent court calling in the Netherlands telling Shell that they should cut down emissions by 40% by 2030 points towards that soultion. If that veredict is upheld and implemented, you have the state telling companies what to do, which is exactly what’s needed.
Are there market solutions to the climate emergency?
I dont think that we can say that ending fossil fuels, and having some other clear steps to fixing the climate crisis, will necessarily bring to an end all market relations. It would definitely mean would be a far, far greater degree of public control into what goes on in the economies. Far more state intervention, regulation, ownership, investment... But that is not to say that you can have other kind of market spheres.
The important thing is not to say that we know in advance exactly what society is going to look like. Rather, we need to raise basic demands, and make sure these demands are met. And just by raising very simple demands, like ‘no more new fossil fuel investment’, we come into conflict with entrenched, powerful interests that want to go on with new investments in those fields. We have a conflict there, and we need to win. And if we do win, we will set in motion process where there will be perhaps other kinds of conflicts. And this process might take us beyond the capitalist mode of production into something else.
You have repeteadly stated that public ownership does not necessarily lead to a better usage of those resources. What moves should be made to pressure states into not only nationalization, but a paradigm shift?
I don’t think there’s one strategy, I think there should be whole range of strategies from the climate movement to establish this pressure, including from workers themselves. You can imagine workers in some of these industries demanding their conversion. This hasn’t happened extensively, although I just came from France and there is a case of a trade union in an oil refinery owned by Total demanding that it be converted into something completely different – so instead of contributing to the destruction of the planet it could perhaps help rehabilitate the atmosphere.
I have comrades in the auto industry in sweden arguing that we could produce something else in the car factories, for they are incredibly versatile industrial apparatuses that could easily shift. We saw that during the pandemic, when car factories started producing equipment for hospitals instead. You could have car factories shifting to producing trains, or tramways, or wind turbines, or something that’s needed for the transition.
"If we win, we will set in motion process, where there will be other kinds of conflicts, that might take us beyond the capitalist mode of production"
How do you view the cooperation between the climate movement and the institutions?
I think the Sanders project and the Corbyn project in the UK were very promising, but they both lost. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try again. There’s no strategy that has led us to victory, so we can’t say that because those candidacies lost we should not go for this again. You can have electoral breakthroughs that can come into a productive relation with social movements and lead to steps in the right direction.
In some of your previous work you talk about a project of ‘War ecologic communism’. Could you elaborate on that?
The idea of war communism, as sketched very roughly in my previous book, is outlined in dialogue with the analogy of the Second World War – very common in climate discussions, at least in the anglophone sphere. The idea is that just as the US government focused all efforts on defeating Hitler during the war, converting all industrian production into manufacturing military equipment; we could do the same now. We should focus on defeating the threat of total climate catastrophe and convert production to that end.
It is a useful analogy, but it has some weaknesses; one being that the wartime movilisation in the US during WWII did not aim to deposing an important fraction of the dominant class. Instead, the car companies that were temporarily ordered to produce other goods gained from the war, and knew that the would gain from an expansion of US power. What we have today is a situation where we are facing a deepening emergency and we have very centrally position capitalist class interest commited to continuing with business as usual. Our period has some more similarities with the war communism situation where, in Russia, after one disaster after another, they needed to make fundamental changes in property relations, nationalize certain industries, take them over and use their productive capacities to satisfy some of the basic needs in society.
This is not to say that the period of war communism in Russia was some sort of model society, but it serves as a metaphor for this situation, were you have a deepening emergency, and you need a state to go in and harness the productive capacities of society to deal with that emergency in a radical fashion that might very well include emergency nationalizations.
This would be a big shock to the very organisation of what the means of capitalism look like. Do you think a shock this big could be a spark to a new mode of production?
Possibly. You can imagine this kind of scenarios playing out. The best resource I have to think about this issue is a novel called The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. It shows how the ecological transition, if it happens in this century, will be messy, and turbulent, and full of contradictions; but it’s likely to take us away from capitalism as we’ve known it and beyond, into something as a new mode of production. That’s going to be an incredibly multifaceted process, full of antagonysms.
It will be different from capitalism as we know it and also from the traditional socialist project.
Yes, yes, absolutely. The economic situation is so different from when classical socialsim emerged, so it’s obviously going to be very different. There is no working class movement with working class parties like the one where was in the early 20th century, and the whole global dynamic would be different. The greatest difference might be that the social upheavals that happened back then had nothing to do with a global ecological crisis.
There is no class movement like before, but do you think climate activism needs an ecologist subject? Something like a climate working class?
This is maybe the greatest and hardest question of all: who is the subject of this transition. A climate working class sounds great, but I don’t see exactly what that would be. We’ve spoken about conversion, but generally fossil fuel industry workers have an interest in keeping their jobs and mantaining their companies. They are not becoming a climate subject in that sense. That’s quite difficult to see.
A climate subject in the global north could be based on knowledge about the climate crisis; the experience of climate impact; solidarity with people on the global south... Or it could potentially be based on material interest such as job security linked to a climate transition. It’s not impossible that these factors will become more effective in the years ahead and something like a climate subject could coalesce out of them.
Does the climate movement need to insert the climate crisis into the struggles against other sources of inequality?
Yes, absolutely. The climate struggle cannot win by being only a climate struggle, it has to join all the other social struggles. Without that there is no future.
You don’t generally agree with techno-utopian readings of technology. What’s then the role of technology, as a productive force, in this change?
I’m against the kind of techno-optimist currents that that is just applauding technological development, but I’m also against the position that modern technology as such is the problem. Some technologies are really bad, and should be done away with, but others, we need – such as renewable energies or devices dedicated to cleaning up the atmosphere. We need to be aware of the extreme dangers of some types of technology, but not have a blanket rejection of technological modernity as such. If we want to restore stable climate, we need some of the more advanced technologies to acomplish that.
"The climate struggle has to join all the other social struggles. Without that there is no future."
You have been very vocal against the notion of Anthropocene. How so? How can it be linked with eco-reactionary tendencies?
My critique of anthropocene is that the idea that humanity as such is the problem tends to imply that the problem is the number of humans on the planet. That can lead to the next step being the idea that the ecological crisis is being driven by overpopulation and high fertility rates in the global south, and the next step could be that we need fewer people in poor countries. That is a very dangerous path and could constitute a link to ecological fascism. The problem with anthropocene is not the term itself, but that narrative that suggests that all humans are the cause for this crisis.
I prefer the narrative associated with the term capitalocene, which is an investment of hope in the possibility for humanity to be different. If you say that the problem is not humanity as such, but a specific way of organizing our relations to the rest of nature through capital, you mantain the hope that we could organize ourselves in a different way.