By Sam King and Max Lane
This is the second article in a debate with Allen Myers over whether it is possible to force Australian capitalism to reduce its carbon emissions.
It was a genuine surprise to read the nature of the ‘arguments’ presented by Allen Myers in his reply to our article “Can Australian Capitalism be Forced to Quit Coal?”. The article, critiqued an analysis presented in the journal Marxist Left Review by Sarah Garnham of the centrality of fossil fuels to capitalism. It was written to answer the question of what should be the strategic perspective and demands of the now emerging climate action movement.
This movement is still nascent. There is no stable ongoing movement organisation or coalitions, with formations coming and going, or hibernating and then emerging, depending on the situation. But there are enough campaign initiatives to indicate that there is the potential for a larger and more powerful movement. Many polls indicate a majority of the population are concerned about global warming and most support moving to renewable energy.
Our article argued for the following series of demands to be adopted:
1. 100% renewable electricity by 2030
2. No new fossil fuel projects
3. Phase out coal mining and exports by 2030
4. Jobs guarantee with no loss in pay for all coal and fossil fuel workers
5. Start the electrification of transport
6. Complete the electrification of industry
The basic slogan we suggest is – CLOSE DOWN THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY – START NOW, NO DELAY!
We argued that demands relating to a change in energy source away from coal are both technically and economically feasible at the present time. We argue also that some steps – still insufficient – are already being taken in this direction. We put the case that these demands could be won if there was a mass movement that was stronger and bigger. Winning these demands would, as Myers also notes, “delay the impact of some of the problems” being caused by the use of fossil fuels. We argue that while building a movement aimed at winning these demands, there would be the need to continue to patiently explain that winning these demands will not be enough to stop global warming definitively, it is only buying time. To definitively bring an end to the threat to our habitat, we will have to get rid of the main obstacle to completing ALL the reforms we need – namely, there is the need to get rid of capitalism. Socialists will need to do everything they can to win a hearing for their arguments for socialism at every opportunity, including within the movement.
Myers claims we argue that socialists should not raise the view in the movement that capitalism is incapable of solving the environmental crisis: in fact we argue the exact opposite stating: “socialists should continue to explain that capitalism is the problem and needs to end. We should keep doing that and do more of it. But do it well”. Arguing for socialism whenever we can win a hearing should not stop us also arguing the case that it is possible to win these demands through mass movement struggle now.
Constantly presenting all the evidence and arguments that these demands are winnable – if there is mass pressure which will force change (i.e. reforms) even while still under capitalist rule – is a necessary part of the serious work needed to build an effective climate action movement. Any group or individuals committing to building such a movement need to commit to, or at least, support the carrying out of this specific work. Our Red Ant article was a contribution to presenting that evidence and arguments while critiquing the MLR articles that clearly argue such demands are not winnable under capitalist rule.n It is not sufficient for socialists to declare support for the demands of protests without presenting arguments supporting those demands or explaining the possibilities of winning them. Such “support” is even less useful if it is accompanied from the very beginning by arguments that winning those demands is impossible.
It is not clear what are the purposes of Myers “arguments”. Myers agrees with our proposition that winning these reforms may buy time by “delaying the impact of some of the problems”. On the other hand – defending the MLR articles’ overall conclusions – he seems to want to say that winning meaningful reforms is not possible in any case. The arguments we present showing the feasibility of abandoning coal as a source of the generation of energy are described by him merely as “certainly useful in arguing with anyone who is inclined to accept the capitalist sophistries”. Another way to put this is that these arguments would certainly be useful to convince more people that these reforms are feasible and that they should join the movement and fight for them. But this does not appear to be what Myers is most interested in.
His real purpose seems to be to convince us that we are on a reformist path, that we are relegating the struggle for socialism to the domain of abstract propaganda. Well certainly, we do think that the organised far left in Australia is still at a propaganda stage. However, propaganda (the work of patient explanation of issues) is never effective if carried out at an abstract level. Our article tries to be very concrete in explaining that a strong mass movement could feasibly force the capitalists to agree to significant concessions that are worthwhile and necessary to fight for.
The revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is the final outcome of a process of increasing working-class consciousness, self-confidence and unity in action. Propaganda and agitation alone cannot bring about the necessary transformation of mass consciousness. Direct experience of success in mass struggles is essential, in this case, mass struggle to win demands that will delay some of the impacts of global warming, buying time for the work of building the more powerful peoples’ movements needed to move towards the overthrow of capitalism and the safeguarding of the planet.
There is one point Myers makes, and which he emphasises, with which we totally agree, although the implications which he seems to be drawing are disturbing. He writes:
Paradoxically, the fact that there is a large and growing movement trying to arrest the causes of climate change may make it more difficult for the capitalist class to abandon coal. The great majority of the movement would correctly see that as their victory, and victories have a way of encouraging the victors to see themselves as having the power to win further demands. There must be a good number of oil company executives and shareholders who fear that, after coal, the climate movement will be coming after them (some of them might also have shares in coal companies).
Yes, it is true that the capitalist class hates real democracy, the power of the classes they exploit – and the prospect of being defeated will naturally spur them on to resist. And so? Because capitalists will resist, that automatically makes a victory impossible? We shouldn’t struggle if it looks like our class enemy will fight back? Isn’t this the defeatist sentiment?
There is a final phase to Myers’ expression of concern that we may be becoming reformists. Myers writes: “ .. they conclude, we should put aside or play down that aspect of socialist politics and just fight for reforms that might be won if we build a sufficient mass movement.” We do not conclude anything of the sort of course and, from what Myers later writes, he also knows that this is so. What is needed, he argues, is a party. He writes: “. I have never heard or read anything from either of them that contradicts it [that a party is needed.]” And he ends his piece with a plea which reveals that he suspects that indeed we have not changed our positions on this question: “Are we to have still another left organisation that sees its raison d’etre as advancing a political view or views that in reality do not require a separate organisation for their defence?”
This is no doubt the crux of the question – is a separate organisation needed? Myers correctly identifies one question where there is a clear disagreement between Lane and King and Socialist Alternative – a disagreement which Myers shares – namely on the question of imperialism – a question that he describes as “crucial”, that is decisive or critical in the success or failure of something. He confirms that this view on imperialism “differs from that of the majority of SA members.”
But this statement by Myers is totally inadequate in capturing the full nature of this situation. It is not just that a majority (probably 90%) of SA members hold opinions which happen to be different. Whatever differences with and criticisms of SA we may have, we know for sure that they are a serious organisation of committed comrades. It is not just an organisation of people who have opinions. They see their main role as a propaganda group (at this stage) and have set themselves the task of propagating their own views on imperialism (and on all questions) and to recruit and integrate members on this basis also. This is what any serious revolutionary party would do: defend and try to win people to their ideas. Is it truly the case, as Myers asserts, that the understanding of the “crucial” question of imperialism we share with him, requires no organised defence in a situation where there is an organised effort to convince people that this understanding of things is wrong?
When members of the RSP joined SA, there was an agreement that RSP members would have the right to continue to argue for our different positions, inside and outside SA. This agreement provided the basis for a hope (for us at least) that discussion might open up on issues such as imperialism, among others. King, for example, had an article critical of SA’s positions on imperialism published in MLR. But seven years after the fusion, no such discussions have started. It should be stated clearly that this has not been because of any suppression of such discussion: SA has kept to its agreement about the right to express different views, including publicly. (Although King’s MLR article mentioned above is now preceded by an introductory paragraph clearly aimed at discouraging people to read it.) It is just that SA members are not interested in such a discussion: they are confident in the analysis they currently hold and see no need for such a discussion within SA. Their priority is convincing others of their views – which would be the priority of any serious group of people confident of their views. We disagree with Myers that there is no need for an organised defence of the ideas that we hold. Within our resources, we will do the best we can on this.
The principal goal of Myers’ article seems to have been around the question of socialist organising. However, his attempt to portray our perspective as reformist has also caused him to make mistakes about coal in Australia. A response cannot be complete without some commentary on this.
Can Australian Capitalism be forced to Quit Coal?
The crux of the argumentation in MLR is that capitalism cannot be made to stop destroying the environment and therefore all schemes to solve the ecological crisis by reforming capitalism – such as some sort of Green New Deal – ultimately cannot work. The only thing that can resolve the environmental crisis is socialism. We agree with this very general statement. But argue that on its own, it is not adequate to orient socialists about how to build the climate movement today.
The specific guidance provided by the two articles for what we should be doing today stems from their argument that fossil fuels are part of the “DNA” of Australian capitalism which, therefore, cannot be forced to grant any significant concessions to movements fighting to end fossil fuel consumption. As Garnham puts it
“Andreas Malm provides a detailed look at how fossil fuels became the dominant energy method and how they are now unbreakably melded with the DNA of capitalism… any growth under capitalism involves the growth of the fossil fuel industry. This has been true since the early 1800s, hence Malm’s suggested general law: “Where capital goes, emissions will immediately follow. The stronger global capital has become the more rampant the growth of CO2 emissions”
We’ll look at Malm’s new “general law” below. However, obviously, when the largest socialist group argues within the climate movement that nothing meaningful can be won, this will have a significant impact on the movement’s orientation. If reforms that meaningfully reduce carbon emissions can’t be granted under capitalism – then what is the purpose and goals of the mass movement?
Socialist Alternative does give a clear answer to this question – fight for socialism and join SA to do so. While that argument may be successful at getting new recruits for SA, it is based on a false premise that capitalism can’t be forced to grant any reforms. It will disorient and weaken the climate movement by pulling it away from winnable reforms and encouraging activists to concede battles before they even take place.
Building the socialist movement on the basis of such a false and misleading position, even if successful in the short term, cannot bring long term strength. It prevents those involved from leading the climate movement to any victories and would cause them to hinder it and develop a parasitic relationship to it. It also mistrains socialist activists by getting them accustomed to the practice of espousing and defending wrong and unreal positions.
Socialist alternative’s justification for this position was made in the two MLR articles. Garnham’s article states this position clearly not only in relation to fossil fuels in general but also in relation to coal which she claims “is, under capitalism, intractable”.
However, Garnham’s article does not provide any detailed justification for either argument besides a lengthy quotation from Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s book (below).
It is the other article, “Fuelled by coal: Piercing the mirage of a sustainable capitalist Australia” by Catarina Da Silva that attempts to prove that coal and other fossil fuels are irreplaceable in Australian capitalism. It might be possible to make a sensible argument that Australian capitalism cannot give up all fossil fuels. However, the way Da Silva attempts to do this is by arguing, of all things, that the oldest and most technically antiquated fossil fuel, coal is here to stay. Thus her article is an extended defence of a completely indefensible premise, one which is contradicted by mountains of available evidence as we showed.
Da Silva inevitably makes a large number of very bad errors. In particular, arguing that renewables are unviable, she relies heavily on completely outdated materials especially an
Australian Energy Resource Assessment published in 2010 and an Australian Parliamentary research paper from 2008. Using up to date material did not suit the argument the author was trying to make, even if it was and remains abundantly and freely available online, as we showed. As Giles Parkinson comments,
“The fact that wind and solar offer the cheapest source of bulk generation has been known for some time. Solar prices have plunged more than 90 per cent over the past decade, and wind by around 60 per cent. The two leading expert bodies in Australia – the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator – have made this abundantly clear: Even with storage, wind and solar offer the cheapest option for dispatchable power, and battery storage costs continue to fall”
The big problem of treating coal, oil and gas as identical
The other key way that Da Silva makes this argument is by conflating coal with other fossil fuels, or even sometimes fossil fuels and the entire mining and mineral sector and arguing that these are indispensable to capitalism as a whole (and by implication so is coal alone).1
The distinction is crucial. Even if it is the case that capitalism cannot give up other fossil fuels, or not completely, coal represents 40% of global emissions! It is the largest single driver of climate change. If it can be replaced by renewables under capitalism that is something the climate movement needs to understand and understand well.
Notably, Myers does not state he agrees with Da Silva that coal is indispensable to Australian capitalism. He also concedes that he does agree with one of the central counter arguments: that it’s no longer generally profitable for capitalists to invest in coal-fired power.
“The Red Ant article makes a very good case that, if you had a few tens or hundreds of millions available for capitalist investment, putting it into coal mines or coal-fired power would be generally a worse idea than many other possible investments.”
In attempting to defend the MLR articles he is therefore forced to try to change what the debate is about.
He argues that Red Ant misinterprets MLR. According to Myers MLR doesn’t really argue capitalism cannot give up coal. He says they actually “treat coal as emblematic of Australian capitalism’s environmental destructiveness” in general.
So apparently the word “coal” no longer means “coal” but environmental destruction in general.
This is clearly false. Da Silva’s article is called “Fuelled by coal: Piercing the mirage of a sustainable capitalist Australia”. It concludes,
“The purpose of this article has been to outline how coal is embedded in the economic and political structures of Australia. The fact that Australia has vast coal resources has shaped its history and present, both as a highly valuable export industry as well as the development and delivery of energy supply. This vital economic role has given coal vast influence over Australian politics, and the state in Australia has a long record of supporting the coal and mining industries in a variety of ways. In line with this both conservative and Labor governments, at state and federal level, do everything in their power to ensure that conditions are conducive and attractive to coal investment.
“It follows that to challenge the coal industry in Australia will require fighting for a society that values people and the planet more than profit – a socialist society. The alternative to such a society is simply a world that continues to burn. This means that while socialists should support every movement that wishes to challenge the coal and broader fossil fuel industries, we need to build the forces of explicitly anti-capitalist and revolutionary organisations. This is the key task of those today who truly wish to end the coal industry, and all of the fossil fuel industries that are sending us hurtling towards environmental disaster.”
Could it be stated more clealy? The word “coal” in the title, article and conclusion refers to coal – i.e. the black rock made of carbon.
We’re sure Myers read the MLR before writing his defence of it but it’s not clear that he read it well:
“I don’t think the MLR writers would disagree with King and Lane’s argument that coal is a declining investment prospect for capitalists, and I don’t disagree with it.”
Really? MLR argues “to challenge the coal industry in Australia will require fighting for a society that values people and the planet more than profit – a socialist society”. Following Malm, it is presented as part of capitalism’s “DNA”.
On the other hand, if it is no longer generally profitable to invest in it then coal’s days are numbered. These are two completely contradictory premises. How does Myers bring them together? By adopting the same conflation introduced in MLR. He says,
“The real question is, what will it take to force Australian capitalism to abandon its current dependence on coal and other fossil fuels in time to prevent disaster?”
This is an odd “real” question in an article that is ostensibly a response to ours. We don’t take a position on whether or not it is possible to eradicate fossil fuels in general under capitalism, nor whether or not reductions in carbon can be forced in time to prevent disaster. These are probably unanswerable questions and can provide no concrete orientation for those wanting to build a mass movement. Will the carbon already in the atmosphere bring “disaster”. Is it already? Such a vague question is designed to be unanswerable.
We attempt to prove with detailed evidence that significant and worthwhile emissions reductions are possible under capitalism. First and foremost among these is the radical reduction and eradication of coal – the worst emitter – and that such reforms to capitalism, therefore, should be fought for.
Myers answers his own question by adopting the same confusing conflation as the MLR. He references “the mammoth costs” of replacing fossil fuels in general – though he makes no attempt to detail this.
To defend this position is of course much easier and Myers quotes Garnham on aviation, shipping, plastics, military and so on – none of which use coal:
“… it is impossible for another commodity to replace fossil fuels by stealth. Their replacement as an energy source will require a deliberate and comprehensive conversion of a vast array of processes. Just to name a few: international shipping, aviation, plastics, fertilisers, and concrete production would have to be radically restructured or rendered obsolete to effectively phase out fossil fuels use. Capitalists will never embark on such a mammoth shift willingly, the disruption would simply be too great. Additionally, the militaries of the major powers, which are responsible for substantial carbon emissions, could not be transitioned without a substantial weakening of their fighting capacity.”
“The kind of massive government investment in clean energy that is required could be funded only by serious taxation (immediately or to repay borrowing) on a scale that would be difficult to impose entirely on the non-exploiting classes, although the capitalists would certainly try to do so. And this involves considerably more than ‘new power infrastructure and plant’.”
But these quotations highlight the reason it is inaccurate and extremely disorienting analytically to treat coal identically with other fossil fuels. It has different prospects and different profitability because it is a different material with different uses to oil and gas.
Presumably Myers does not think that Airbus and Boeing’s planes refuel at coaling stations, or that coal is necessary for the production of plastics. Coal is primarily used for one major industrial process – electricity generation. For example, 92% of the coal consumed in the United States is for electricity.
In electricity generation, you can replace one energy source for another, “by stealth” as Garnham puts it, without changing the thing that it is giving power too. Electricity produced by wind, solar, hydro, coal gas or oil is all just electricity of an identical type. Comrade Garnham does not need to replace her toaster when it is powered by the wind, just as the capitalists do not need to replace their factories.
That is the reason why capitalism has already made more headway in the use of renewables for the production of electricity than in other uses, such as transport. In transport, by contrast, to change the fuel source requires also changing the engine (and usually installing a battery) on every vehicle. Transport, in other words, is yet to be electrified. But most things already are. So phasing out oil – the principle transport fuel – has different prospects, possible timelines and necessary conditions compared to phasing out coal. So does gas.
This is why it is so problematic to group them all as a single category and ignore the differences. Treating these very different things as being the same obscures our ability to develop a clear picture of what is really happening in energy production – something crucial for building a mass movement which has a central aim of changing the way energy is produced. Yet that conflation is the central argument of Myers and the MLR.
Is there really capitalist unity around Coal?
The only argument Myers makes specifically around coal is not based in the economics of energy production – but on his assessment of the Australian parliament:
“It is hardly a secret that the Australian bourgeoisie’s alternating parties of government have done nothing that would seriously challenge the ability of the capitalists concerned to go on mining and burning coal for many decades, and that a significant proportion of the parliamentary Coalition and ALP are even in favour of new mines and coal-fired power.”
So the barriers to defeating coal are purely political but not based in, as Malm and Garnham put it, in the “DNA” of the capitalist production system? And if the barriers are only political why should they be impossible to overcome even for a large mass movement?
But Myer’s presentation of the political situation is also highly unbalanced and, importantly, would be disorienting if it were adopted by anyone wishing to fight for political change on this question. Is it really true that the major parties are so united around the defence of coal?
That would be news to the Liberal and Labor politicians in South Australia and Tasmania where there is a bipartisan consensus for 100+ renewables (net renewable energy exports). State Labor in Victoria and Queensland have both set targets for 50% renewables by 2030. There is negligible coal-fired power in Western Australia and none in Tasmania or the Northern Territory. Of course, the Victorian and Queensland Labor targets are completely inadequate, but Myers thinks they couldn’t be pushed further?
The most interesting recent development is the NSW Government’s apparent acceptance of the need to support the development of renewables ahead of the progressive retirement of thermal coal power in the state. Announcing its major new Renewable Energy Zones, the Energy NSW website says, “These REZs will play a vital role in delivering affordable energy generation to help prepare the State for the expected retirement of thermal power stations over the coming decades.”
The renewable energy zones involve government support for the roll out of infrastructure to areas of especially high renewable energy production potential. They are to build solar, wind, batteries and other storage as well as sufficient transmission capacity. This combination of renewables plus storage means the output is “firmed” and can provide reliable capacity to the grid. I.e. they will do for the electricity grid, what Da Silva and Myers argue is too expensive for capital to contemplate.
The first REZ, the “Central-West Orana”, between Dubbo, Tamworth and Orange, sought expressions of interest for private companies to provide 3,000mw of generation capacity. It was over-subscribed 9 fold, with proposals totalling 27,000mw.
By contrast, the capitalist class in Australia wishes to build zero MW of new coal-fired capacity. It has not built a single coal-fired power station anywhere in the country for 13 years. The last one built – Kogan Creek in South East Queensland – is small at 750mw and among the most unreliable on the grid.
There is no capitalist class push for new coal unless you count Shine Energy, a “start-up” with a nominal market value of one thousand dolars. This is the “company” supposedly slated to build the Federal government’s “proposed” Collinsville power station. Shine has never built anything let alone a coal-fired power plant. In reality it is just a front in the political game of trying to wedge Queensland Labor on coal. Its business address is a suburban Brisbane post box shared with 12 other shelf company names. The proposal for Collinsville is not only opposed by the Queensland Labor Government it is now also opposed by the Queensland Liberal National Party.
The second NSW REZ, in the New England region, will offer a massive 8,000mw of generation. These are big numbers. The two REZ will be bigger than the combined nameplate capacity of all five coal-fired power stations in NSW, and much higher than their actual capacity, let alone their reliable output.
In addition, the NSW government in July announced funding for four big batteries with a total capacity of 2,200mw. There is a further six large scale storage projects in “development” in NSW. There is much more that could be said or read, not only about NSW but also Queensland, South Australia and Victoria just for the period since we published our article in February.
The conservative NSW energy minister Matt Kean told the Energy Insiders podcast:
“…last summer, every day there was a hot day I’d have to go out embarrassedly (asking people) to turn off their air conditioners, not because of the renewables in the system, but because the existing coal-fired generators that we have relied on for so long.
“Did it work when we needed them to work? Lidell has a nameplate capacity of about 1,600 megawatts on a good day. I can only rely on about half of that capacity being generated out of the system. So what we need to do is focus on ensuring that we replace existing generators when they come to the end of their lives with technology that will provide that cheap, reliable energy.
“And we know from the work of the CSIRO and AEMO (the Australian Energy Market Operator) that the cheapest form of reliable electricity today is a combination of wind, solar, batteries and pumped hydro.
“The benefit of those technologies [is] that they’re not only cheap and reliable, they’re also cleaner. And as we head towards a low carbon global economy, we have an opportunity to get ahead of the pack, set ourselves up to be a major player in that space with low cost, reliable, clean electricity as we head towards net-zero emissions.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is only one way to go, and that is to modernise the grid, deliver cheap, reliable energy and set ourselves up to be an energy and economic superpower in a low carbon economy.”
Reading that interview reveals that Myers’ characterisation of the major parties as uniformly pro-coal is completely inadequate. No doubt, Kean, his fellow conservatives and the ALP, not to mention the coal bosses, will try to continue exporting black coal as long as possible. However, forcing them to transition the Australian electricity grid to renewables sooner rather than later will be a big step towards wiping out exports too. This is because the technology trends of the rich countries like Australia are the path that poor countries follow.
Against Kean, Berejiklian and every state government, the Federal Coalition Government is sabotaging the progress of the transition by, among other things, delaying the regulatory reforms necessary to improve the National Electricity Grid’s capacity to carry more renewables. This has become a key bottleneck and the reason the “pipeline” of planned new renewables production projects by private capital has declined over the last two years..
Unless that issue can be overcome, the large amount (2,000mw+) of new renewable capacity that came online over the last year, will not be so large next year. (Though the REZs and also QLD are aimed at providing grid infrastructure to secure continuing private capitalist investment.
In addition, the federal government is offering massive amounts of money to subsidise gas production (not coal, gas). Massive public subsidies are necessary because there is no prospect that unsubsidised gas can compete on price with renewables-plus-firming as the coal-fired power plants are progressively decommissioned. The National Covid-19 Commission – a Morrison government committee stacked with gas industry lobbyists – had to ask the federal government for six billion dollars in subsidies to fund a transcontinental gas pipeline from Western Australia (where gas is cheaper to produce) to the East Coast!
These are the two sides of the energy “policy paralysis” we referred to in our article in February. One section of the bourgeoisie and its political representatives wishes to continue or marginally accelerate the transition to renewables. (This was also reflected in the policies the ALP took to the last federal election). Another section and – in particular capitalist politicians that dominate the Coalition Federal Government – wish to slow and sabotage this transition as much as possible.
It is far from inevitable that the transcontinental gas pipeline or other policies for a “gas-led recovery” can or will be adopted by Morrison. If it is adopted, it will be far from inevitable that Morrison, Taylor and Canavan can defeat the mass opposition such an outrageous and blatant attack on the environment is guaranteed to provoke.
In his article, Myers objects to our argument that the division and paralysis within capitalist politics over the climate crisis “should also be the starting point from which we work out how to build the mass movement into one that can win.” But without a grounded and accurate analysis of the current state of bourgeois politics that has given rise to the climate movement, how is it possible to navigate a path for the movement that can maximise its potential gains both in terms of emissions reductions and also in re-building the fighting capacity of the working class?
Myers does concede that climate change might be “slightly slowed by the reforms that capitalism can be forced to accept”. So apparently it might be possible to force the capitalists to limit carbon emissions enough to slow climate change. If so, what reforms could Myers have in mind if not reductions of the oldest, dirtiest and least profitable of the fossil fuels, the one least crucial to other industrial processes such as plastic production – i.e. coal?
Dr Malm’s so called “General Formula of Fossil Capital”
Besides Da Silva’s argument’s – which we dealt with in detail in February – an additional justification for the coal-as-DNA position was given by glowing references to European leftist academic Andreas Malm and his 2016 book Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, published in London. Malm is quoted by Garnham and referenced by Da Silva. He is also given as reading for Socialist Alternative educational seminars.
Garnham misquotes Malm and gives wrong page references, though she still produces a very succinct and mostly accurate summary of the book:
“Andreas Malm provides a detailed look at how fossil fuels became the dominant energy method and how they are now unbreakably melded with the DNA of capitalism. Coal-fired steam was not initially the preferred energy source, but as production became larger scale and more capital and labor intensive, it became indispensable. Flowing water was not a commodity with an exchange value. It was not able to be reproduced nor stockpiled by private firms, making it far less compatible with the new capitalist mode of production. Coal on the other hand was easily able to be bought, extracted and sold. Coal was also spatially and temporally flexible in a way that was impossible for water. It allowed factories to be established near large labour sources in major cities and to be kept running regardless of weather, time of day or season. Very quickly, this energy source became a fundamentally unique commodity and one that is, under capitalism, intractable. Malm summarises it well: “The fossil fuel economy is the energy basis of bourgeois property relations”. While other materials become physically embodied in specific commodities – leather in boots, raw cotton in textiles, and so on – coal, oil, and gas are “utilized across the spectrum of commodity production as the material that sets it in physical motion. Fossil fuels are the general lever for surplus-value production”. This also means that any growth under capitalism involves the growth of the fossil fuel industry. This has been true since the early 1800s, hence Malm’s suggested general law: “Where capital goes, emissions will immediately follow. The stronger global capital has become the more rampant the growth of CO2 emissions”.
Notice, though, how Garnham slides between the past and present?
“Very quickly, this energy source became [around the 1830 and 1840s – ed] a fundamentally unique commodity and one that is [two centuries later – ed], under capitalism, intractable.” But this sliding through time faithfully follows Malm. He asserts without any direct argument, that the same is true today.
Why should coal technology from the 1900s remain “intractable”? The steam engines it powered have not. Other technologies have changed. Neither Garnham nor Malm’s book can answer this.
One principal explanation Malm’s book suggests is aptly summarised by Garnham above – and doesn’t make sense. He says that coal, oil, and gas are “utilized across the spectrum of commodity production as the material that sets it in physical motion. Fossil fuels are the general lever for surplus-value production” and therefore as Garnham summarises, “This also means that any growth under capitalism involves the growth of the fossil fuel industry”.
But this is just a fancy way of saying that fossil fuels are an energy source. Obviously bourgeois society, like any society, requires an energy source. And unlike, say, leather in shoes, this energy will not exactly be embodied in the commodities but imparted in making them. That is just as much the case for human and animal power under slavery as capitalism.
Nothing in any of that even suggests why any particular source(s) of energy cannot be substituted for another. Substitution has already occurred under capitalism, for example, with the transition from coal to oil in transport. Or coal to nuclear-powered electricity in France – which is a nuclear, not fossil fuel. Or Coal to Gas and renewables in the UK and the USA today.
Malm’s book provides an erudite, materialist analysis of the transition from water power to coal during the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production in Britain. In Malm’s view – and he makes a fairly compelling case – the transition to fossil fuels was necessary for the capitalist mode of production to come into being when it did. Principally this was because coal-fired steam engines could be set up anywhere and thus allowed the capitalists greater control over the commodity of labour-power than had been the case for water-powered production: it allowed them to break the resistance of labour.
Marx had already suggested this much in Capital Volume 1. were he noted that,
According to Gaskell, the steam-engine was from the very first an antagonist of human power, an antagonist that enabled the capitalist to tread under foot the growing claims of the workmen, who threatened the newly born factory system with a crisis. 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.
But Malm makes no argument for why this should remain the case today for fossil fuels against renewables. Does it? Why? A solar or wind farm is no more fixed in place than a modern coal-fired power station. If anything the opposite. Their electricity is equally easily transmitted as it goes on the same grid. Capitalist mine owners, like Fortesque, are starting to build solar and wind power right where they need it – next to remote mines.
Before attempting to apply his main thesis to the present, Malm goes on to re-write Marx’s reproduction schema’s in Capital as if it does apply. Though, so far as we can understand, his re-writing of Capital is just as meaningless and little substantiated as the statement, the “fossil fuel economy is the energy basis of bourgeois property relations”.
Malm simply adds the letter “F” (later “co2”) to Marx’s reproduction schemas to indicate that capitalist production… yes, requires energy (p288-9) which – according to Malm’s analysis of nineteenth century Britain – must be fossilised! The banality and irrelevance of restating Marx’s schema’s with an added “F” for fossil can be seen from the fact that the “F” could just as easily (and more accurately) stand for “fuel” not fossil. That substitution would make no difference to the schemas because they don’t actually say anything.
How do coal mines and gas fields give capital more control over labour today? Isn’t it more accurate to say that part of the problem in convincing working people to support the transition to renewables is that coal mines and gas fields provide some of the few high paying jobs that many working-class communities have access to. In fact, the principal reason why renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels is because they require less labour – almost none. Further, the bourgeois renewables advocates – besides perhaps some social democrats like Sanders – do not fight for high paying jobs in wind farms, solar and the like.
Having enunciated his update of Marx’s schemas, Malm does introduce one attempt to justify why it might be correct to do so. Under the heading “The Fossil Anarchy of Competition”, Malm argues that capital’s inherently competitive character prevents it from cooperating enough to introduce renewables which, he says, require a greater degree of cooperation than fossil fuels because they are supposedly fixed in space (i.e. you can only put a wind farm where it is often windy, etc.) and, unlike fossil fuels, are supposedly not available on demand. As Malm puts it “in capitalist relations competition is law” and this means all such cooperative schemes are doomed.
To justify this we are returned once more to the dawn of capitalism. Malm compares successful cooperative irrigation schemes in pre-capitalist Al Andalus with the failure of the British capitalists in the early nineteen hundreds to do the same. While Malm may have shown that co-operation in sharing water resources could not be repeated at the dawn of the capitalist mode of production due to the nature of competitive pressures that existed 200 years ago, we are still left wondering why this should apply today.
Malm presents no such argument. Instead, he finds some quotations that he thinks might add some weight to his argument. First, we are told that Marx once said in the Grundrisse that “competition ‘is nothing other than the inner nature of capital’ ” (p295). Presumably, Malm checked Grundrisse, and also in Capital itself, for some other quotations from Marx that could more satisfactorily reinforce his own claims. If so, he couldn’t find any. Instead he quotes Luxembourg:
“ ‘Everywhere that the bourgeoisie is at home,’ writes Rosa Luxembourg ‘free competition rules economic relations as their one and only law. This means the disappearance from the economy of any kind of plan or organization’: the form of bourgeoise economic ‘government is not despotism but anarchy’ ”.Malm, Fossil Capital, 2016, p296.
“Capitalists may meet in general assemblies to discuss all sorts of matters – including price fixing and union busting – but not to elect distributors with the right to regulate their use of resources. Here anarchy must prevail”.
Competition is indeed an immutable characteristic of capitalist property relations because capitalist property is privately owned. However, capital long ago outgrew the stage where it could be privately run. Marx had already noted this in Capital.
He argues that the formation of joint stock companies meant,
1) An enormous expansion of the scale of production and of enterprises, that was impossible for individual capitals. At the same time, enterprises that were formerly government enterprises, become public.See also Endnote 3
2) The capital, which in itself rests on a social mode of production and presupposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, is here directly endowed with the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) as distinct from private capital, and its undertakings assume the form of social undertakings as distinct from private undertakings. It is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.
The degree of cooperation and intimate interdependence of capital and capitalist states has increased continuously for 200 years. This parallels the increasing sophistication and scale of the production process – another immutable characteristic of the system.
When Malm switches on the light in his study, the energy that fills the room is brought to him via an electrical grid. Obviously capitalism’s electrical grids, road networks, railways, international pipelines, telegraphs, shipping schedules and any number of things show that nationwide and even international cooperation is an absolutely immutable feature of capitalism. Do Malm, Myers, Garnham and Da Silva imagine that a fossil-fuelled grid requires so much less cooperation than one powered by renewables?
To ignore the obvious extensive cooperation between capital and imagine that somehow capitalist competition negates that is not analysis remotely tied to the real world. The idea that capitalists can’t introduce many more renewables in 2020 because that would require too much cooperation is absurd in the extreme.
The problem, at least in transitioning away from coal, and also for making significant inroads into the electrification of transport and other reductions in carbon emissions, does not seem to be related to capitalism’s “DNA”.
Rather there is a political fight. This fight occurs on the terrain of the economic realities. For the nascent mass movement to engage in this fight effectively and apply its full weight to alter the outcome requires that movement have a firm grasp on both the economic terrain and also the political actors and forces involved.
Our articles have provided only a very small contribution to the ongoing work of developing such an understanding. It cannot be developed separately from active participation in that fight. What does seem clear is that starting from the premise that what may be the most central and immediate battle (the battle to phase out coal rapidly) cannot be won is the worst possible way both to fight and to learn how to fight.
1. In making these arguments the article latches onto various climate denier and fossil fuel industry talking points such as exaggerating the problem of recycling disused solar panels.
2. See for example https://redflag.org.au/systemchangeconf . The positive view of Malm follows the British SWP’s positive view. Amy Leather the joint national secretary of the SWP reviewed Malm’s book in 2017 making the same analysis that Garnham and Da Silva later repeat or attempt to substantiate: “Malm explores the possibilities for renewable energies, showing that the barriers to introducing them are not technical but because they come up against the limits of capitalism. The logical conclusion, the need to get rid of capitalism, and thus the need for revolutionary change, is impossible to ignore.”
3. the third point is that the “Transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, administrator of other people’s capital, and of the owner of capital into a mere owner, a mere money-capitalist. Even if the dividends which they receive include the interest and the profit of enterprise, i.e., the total profit (for the salary of the manager is, or should be, simply the wage of a specific type of skilled labour, whose price is regulated in the labour-market like that of any other labour), this total profit is henceforth received only in the form of interest, i.e., as mere compensation for owning capital that now is entirely divorced from the function in the actual process of reproduction, just as this function in the person of the manager is divorced from ownership of capital. Profit thus appears (no longer only that portion of it, the interest, which derives its justification from the profit of the borrower) as a mere appropriation of the surplus-labour of others, arising from the conversion of means of production into capital, i.e., from their alienation vis-à-vis the actual producer, from their antithesis as another’s property to every individual actually at work in production, from manager down to the last day-labourer. In stock companies the function is divorced from capital ownership, hence also labour is entirely divorced from ownership of means of production and surplus-labour. This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property. On the other hand, the stock company is a transition toward the conversion of all functions in the reproduction process which still remain linked with capitalist property, into mere functions of associated producers, into social functions”, See Capital Vol. 3 Ch. 27. This is the argument in capital that Lenin adopted in describing imperialism and monopoly capitalism as capitalism’s “highest stage of development”.