Towards Fossil Fascism?
In White Skin, Black Fuel, Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective interrogate the far right's role in climate crisis. Malm and the Collective make the sweeping claim that fascists have always loved fossil fuels. From its racist and imperialist roots to its far-reaching implications for the future, fossil fuels sit at the center of political debate and social crisis. Ecofascism and continuing use of fossil fuels derails visions of a livable future. Malm and the Collective draw on theoretical writings, anecdotes from climate activists and analysis of transnational politics to craft a must-read book to better understand how to fight fossil fascism through collective struggle.
One could envision several kinds of crises inducing fossil fascism. Imagine that, at some point in the future – and considering the state of things, it cannot be too distant – a campaign for radical emissions cuts gains momentum. It puts on the agenda of some advanced capitalist country reductions of 5 or 10 per cent per year. Oil wells and coal mines are marked out for immediate closure. A motion banning the construction of any additional infrastructure – not one more pipeline, not one more digger – is endorsed by a group of parliamentarians swiftly growing towards a majority. There is talk of prohibiting the still-lucrative export of liquified fossil gas already at the start of next year. A committee has drawn up a road map for the complete cessation of fossil fuel burning in electricity generation as well as transport; all sectors of the economy are to be subjected to the annual quotas, CEOs held legally responsible for compliance, overconsumers sanctioned with penalties and leakages plugged, so as to reach – no missed targets this time – zero emissions within less than two decades. Commensurate preparations are underway for scaling up renewable energy production and zero-carbon solutions as all-encompassing and, among some layers, wildly popular substitutes. The realities of global warming have caught up with the polity, its material foundations slated for extreme makeover: here is a mitigation crisis.
For some fractions of the capitalist class, this is a life-threatening situation. Primitive fossil capital is about to be liquidated, with no ability to reinvent itself for another life in the fossil-free economy: coal mines cannot produce wind. The assets buried in the seams will be irretrievable. Mouth-watering business opportunities, fixed capital of mammoth size, an entire department of accumulation will be forever gone. Now dawns the existential crisis this class fraction has dreaded since at least the 1980s, mixed up with a structural crisis for other capital, all the more convulsive for having been postponed for so long: there will be little more than a dozen years to complete the transition, under the rigorous guidance of the state. The prime capitalist prerogative – control over the privately owned means of production – can no longer be considered untouchable. The structural crisis could grow into threats to the life of wider segments of capital too.
But imagine there is also, in this moment of truth, a force on the far right picking up its own momentum. It sees the world in other colours. It recommends no action; it refuses to believe the hype; it rather wishes to attend to the health of the ultra-nation. It is fully available for a quid pro quo with the establishment and points its finger at some other group that ought to be removed from the body politic. In this scenario, we can imagine primitive fossil capital operating as the elite force of the dominant class, stepping forth to strike a deal with the far right – through funding, negotiating a coalition, siding with sympathetic elements within the repressive state apparatus or some other act of hiring – so as to protect itself from the existential and fossil capital in general from the structural crisis. The rest can be left to the imagination.
Such a scenario would seem to be most likely in a country with extensive fossil fuel extraction and some tradition of ethnonationalism. The US comes to mind, as does Germany, Poland and Norway, to which we might add Australia, Canada, Russia and perhaps other producing countries too. But we might also think of social formations where primitive fossil capital is less ponderous than the fraction presiding over agribusiness or the meat industry, whose very existence would likewise be in peril on the day real mitigation begins. Here it would also be a matter of ending entire lines of business that collide with the imperatives of climate stabilisation: just as gas reserves would have to be left untouched, trees would have to be left standing, deforestation turned into its opposite for the long haul.1 Nor should we discount fossil capital in general. Owners of the car industry in Hungary or Austria or Germany could face huge losses, even if they have a better chance of surviving a mitigation crisis. So far, there is little to suggest that these dominant classes would be prepared to give up their existence or undergo the required transmutation at the drop of a hat; they look rather more inclined to defend their crassest interests by any means necessary.
In the absence of multiple mitigation crises with a non-fascist outcome, in which all of the above and more is implemented, we are, on the other hand, certain to experience a proliferation of adaptation crises. Imagine that repeated climate shocks chip away at the material foundations of societies at a level far deeper than in the first two decades of this century: heatwaves five or ten degrees hotter; wildfires roaring through regions for months on end; food provisioning systems at breaking point; storms pushing the sea dozens of kilometres inland – here there is little need to exercise the faculty of the imagination. It is portended in the science. Adaptation crises would disrupt established stores and circuits of biophysical resources. Emergencies that put ‘peace, prosperity, functioning democracy, and domestic order’ to the test are not, after all, quite so improbable – they are literally in the pipeline, and it is with them scholars of fascism such as Eley and Snyder are concerned. The former worries what will happen when serious shortages set in. If things like inhabitable land and edible food become scarce, those still blessed with plenty are likely to guard it more jealously than ever and keep outsiders at bay: we can look forward to ‘fortress mentalities, idioms of politics organized by anxiety, gatedness as the emerging social paradigm’.2 The gates will be locked to keep ever more precious resources secure – a prognosis that has trailed climate projections for some time now.
On a planet with shrinking habitable areas, the reasoning continues, fortunate strata might not only want to hold on to what they’ve got, but also create buffers. Cara Daggett alerts us ‘to the possibility that climate change can catalyse fascist desires to secure a lebensraum, a living space, a household that is barricaded from the spectre of threatening others’.3 Snyder follows this train of thought all the way back into the concentration camps:
In a scenario of mass killing that resembled the Holocaust, leaders of a developed country might follow or induce panic about future shortages and act pre-emptively, specifying a human group as the source of an ecological problem, destroying other states by design or by accident. There need not be any compelling reason for concern about life and death, as the Nazi example shows, only a momentary conviction that dramatic action is needed to preserve a way of life.4
The people to be done away with could be Muslims, Jews, gays or any other group to which anxieties attach. Even if they have nothing to do with rising temperatures, an extreme crisis – or just the subjective sense of one – might make some blood boil: ‘No green politics will ever be as exciting as red blood on black earth.’ Snyder also thinks the Muslims of the Middle East could start blaming the Jews for cooking them and take it out on the state of Israel. Or, China might do in the 2030s what Germany did in the 1930s and strike out towards its own Lebensraum, colonise Africa or Russia and slay every Untermensch in its way.5
Here is a risk of being carried away. Snyder does let his imagination run freely, to the point of projecting his future climate Holocaust scenario back onto Nazism itself: now he portrays Hitler as an ecological warrior. The Führer followed ‘an urgent summon from the future (ecological panic)’. ‘In Hitler’s ecology, the planet was despoiled by the presence of Jews’, whose disappearance was ‘part of an ecological restoration’; contrary to received wisdom, ‘the struggle against the Jews was ecological, since it concerned not a specific racial enemy or territory but the conditions of life on earth.’6 These are some rather bizarre anachronisms that come with no substantiation. The Jews were nothing if not a specific racial enemy in the eyes of the Nazis, who did not speak in terms of ‘ecological restoration’ and never bothered about life on earth in general.7 When Snyder concludes his Black Earth with the assertion that ‘we share Hitler’s planet and several of his preoccupations’, he violates what must be the first rule for any such comparison: this time will be different, not the least because a climate crisis did not figure in the concatenation of disasters that linked the two World Wars. Even speculations about fascism rearing its head must be subject to analytical restraint.
1 See for example Troy Vettesse, ‘To Freeze the Thames: Natural Geoengineering and Biodiversity’, New Left Review series 2, no. 111 (2018): 63–86. Perhaps agri-fascism would be a more accurate moniker for this scenario in Brazil.
2 Eley, Nazism, 217. Emphasis in original. Cf. Eley, ‘Fascism’, 92–3.
3 Daggett, ‘Petro-masculinity’, 20.
4 Snyder, Black, 326.
5 Ibid., 328–35; quotation from 344.
6 Ibid., 323, 28, 8.
7 As pointed out by Jeffrey Herf in Michael Berenbaum and Jeffrey Herf,
‘Conflicting Perspectives on Snyder’s Black Earth’, Journal of Cold War Studies 19 (2017): 231–2.