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Andreas Malm: Seeing Power as Power in the Fossil Economy

Andreas Malm15 November 2016

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We're very pleased to announce that Andreas Malm's Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming is the winner of this year's Deutscher Memorial Prize. The prize has been awarded annually since 1969, to the most innovative work of Marxist scholarship published in that year. Malm's book joins the illustrious list of previous winners including such classics of Marxist writing as G.A. Cohen's Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Barbara Taylor's Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, The Brenner Debate, and Robin Blackburn's The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800

To celebrate, we're bringing an exclusive extract from Fossil Capital on power in the Fossil Economy.

Coal miner in Xingtai, China, Wikimedia Commons 

The word “power” in the English language has a dual meaning: “power” as in a force of nature, a current of energy, a measure of work; “power” as in a relation between humans, an authority, a structure of domination. The conjunction is not as close in other major European languages. “Motive power” and “absolute power” are “fuerza motriz” and “poder absoluto” in Spanish — no apparent connection there — while French distinguishes between “énergie” and “courant” on the natural side of things and “puissance” and “pouvoir” on the social, roughly equivalent to Kraft/Strom and Macht/Gewalt in German (hence Atomkraft but Weltmacht). Why have the two poles collapsed into one in English? An inquiry into such comparative European etymology is outside the scope of this study: we can only note the intriguing fact.

Do the two meet in reality? In spite of the semantic confluence in the Anglophone world, thermodynamic and social power are nearly always treated as “distinct phenomena, a habit encouraged by the disciplinary structure of academic research,” as observed in one recent attempt to bridge the gap. Two authoritative works in the respective hemispheres exemplify the separation. In Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, Vaclav Smil offers an exact definition of power as “the rate of flow of energy,” or “W = J/s,” where J is joule, s is second and W the unit of power: Watt from James. Put differently, power is here understood as the rate at which work is done or energy transformed — and that is all there is to it, apparently, for in spite of the nominally transdisciplinary character of his work, Smil does not so much as notice that there is another meaning to the term, much less any actual movement between the two.

Turn to Steven Lukes’s sociological classic Power: A Radical View and the other eye is shut. Here the overlap between “horse power” and “power struggles” is mentioned merely to indicate the terminological chaos surrounding “power” in society: the nature of social power can only be distilled if cleansed of all associations with the mechanical phenomenon, in a first, essential act of analytical distinction. In the dozens of dissections of the concept filling Lukes’s pages, there is no hint at power being at once energetic and interpersonal, nor does he see any potential for plumbing the depths of social power by taking its mechanical base into account. The colloquial drift between the poles — reflexive, unnoticed and perfectly realistic — has its counterpart in a stern intellectual segregation. The English language might contain a basic truth from which scientific research has become estranged; in any case, it permits us to formulate a general hypothesis guiding the rest of this work: the power derived from fossil fuels was dual in meaning and nature from the very start. Steam as a form of superior power was just that. The two moments cannot be isolated from each other, since they constituted each other in a unity, the opposites interpenetrating throughout.

It is proven beyond all reasonable doubt that global warming does not have natural causes. Solar radiation, volcanic outgassing, endogenous variations in the carbon cycle, and other similar suspects have been decisively cleared of responsibility for the rise in temperatures, the root causes firmly passed to the social side of the equation. Once we cross that line, we immediately encounter power — indeed, this happens as soon as we use the term “fossil fuels.” They are, by definition, a materialisation of social relations. No piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel, and no humans have yet engaged in systematic large-scale extraction of either to satisfy subsistence needs: fossil fuels necessitate waged or forced labour — the power of some to direct the labour of others — as conditions of their very existence. If we take the message of climate science seriously, we should direct our attention to power in the dual sense, first of all in the process of labour. That is the point of contact between humans and the rest of nature, where biophysical resources pass into the circuits of social metabolism, where coal and oil and gas are extracted, transported, coupled to machines: burnt. The process is peopled. “As a primary agent of energy and matter transformation through the labor process,” writes environmental historian Stefania Barca, “workers are the primary interface between society and nature,” wielding and subject to power. That is the sphere where the fossil economy must have originated.

Neither environmental nor labour history has, for their own particular reasons, been very keen on connecting the dots of workers and the wider environment, class and climate. The same silence reigns in research on energy in the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, climate change as such remains primarily an object of natural science, recent spurts of interest in the social sciences notwithstanding. We are awash in data on the disastrous effects but comparatively poor on insights into the drivers. Or, to paraphrase Marx: most climate science still dwells in the noiseless atmosphere, where everything takes place on the surface, rather than entering the hidden abode of production, where fossil fuels are actually produced and consumed. Natural scientists have so far interpreted global warming as a phenomenon in nature; the point, however, is to trace its human origins. Only thus can we retain at least a hypothetical possibility of changing course.

Filed under: anthropocene, author-malm-andreas, energy, history, labour