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Neither Promethean nor Primitivist: A Response to Andreas Malm

Anthony Galluzzo30 June 2016

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In May, Andreas Malm appeared at Verso's Brooklyn office for a panel discussion on Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming with Aaron Jakes, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Anthony Galluzzo, whose contribution we present below.  

(James Eckford Lauder, James Watt and the Steam Engine: The Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, 1855. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital represents a much needed intervention in a series of recent, oftentimes irrelevant, and sometimes irresponsible debates on the Marxisant left, about a properly socialist response to anthropogenic climate change. These debates see-saw between two, superficially antithetical, poles. On the hand, we find fatalist catastrophism exemplified by geographer Nigel Clark,  who contends that climate change is ultimately rooted in an innate and immutable human proclivity for combustion, originating with homo erectus. Human beings are “fire apes" or self-igniting Prometheuses, according to this iteration of Anthropocene theory. In other words, here is an ideologically over-determined myth that conveniently effaces the specifically capitalist origin and character of the climate crisis.

On the other hand, we have the techno-magical fantasies of various futurist currents, ranging from the accelerationists to the so-called eco-modernists, who see in the global ecological crisis either as a logistical problem to be corrected by some technological deus ex machina — geoengineering or atmospheric reconstitution — or an opportunity for human beings to assume a position of god-like control over the planet.

It was these fantasies, and the hold they exert on many segments of the self-identified left today, that at least initially spurred my own engagement with eco-socialism and its prospects over a year ago; the recent publication of both Malm’s work and Jason Moore’s Capitalism In The Web of Life — in addition to Michael Löwy's underappreciated Eco-Socialist Manifesto — offers some hope for a revivified eco-socialist, and specifically eco-Marxist, movement. The heretofore imaginary green left so vilified by eco-modernists is hopefully materializing. 

Malm — in contesting the dominant historiographical paradigm for understanding the English industrial revolution and the transition from an “organic” to a “mineral” economy — highlights the fundamental continuities between the anthropocene-pessimistic and accelerationist-optimistic approaches to ecological crisis. Both of these positions find their prototype in the Godwin/Malthus debate of the 1790s — one exemplary argument between early bourgeois political economy and the utopian socialism that often overlapped with that political economy, despite their superficial opposition. And despite some selective invocations of Marx and Marxist Prometheanism, often larded with the same few lines from the 1848 Manifesto, social relations — class conflict and labor power — are nowhere to be found in recent narratives of the so-called Anthropocene, in which fire, technology, and/or innate human propensities are elevated to the quasi-mythical driving forces of history, uniting the discovery of fire with Watt’s 1784 invention of the steam engine and today’s warming world in one teleological arc.

Against these myths, Malm reconfigures the history of the industrial revolution and anthropogenic climate change in terms of social relations, capitalist imperatives, and class conflict. Malm highlights the central role played by water power during the early course of the English Industrial Revolution, and the extent to which it was labor — specifically labor unrest and early English industrial capitalists’ consequent need for a cheap, reliable, and more easily disciplined labor force — that initially precipitated the shift to coal and a “self-sustaining” fossil capitalism. Malm offers this account as an alternative to what he calls the Malthusian-Ricardian model.

Malthus, and his friend David Ricardo, argued for population and resource constraints, based on the limits of an organic economy, at exactly the moment that the steam engine and the widespread adoption of fossil energy, in the form of coal, enabled self-sustaining growth, rendering that paradigm obsolete. Malthus of course stressed the power of natural necessity — scarcity and struggle — to compel human accomplishment, against the universal luxury supposedly proffered by eighteenth century perfectibilists, like William Godwin. Godwin fused a radical critique of what we would call oppressive and exploitative social relations — encompassing state power, marriage, and private property — with a Promethean fantasy of reason through which human beings will inevitably overcome every obstacle and limitation, including our own mortality.

While contemporary scholars still read the Godwin/Malthus Debate as a simple conflict between progressive optimism and conservative pessimism, we can discern some peculiar continuities between the early Godwin of the 1793 Political Justice and Malthus, beyond a shared aversion to sex; both authors delineate recognizably biopolitical projects, for human improvement and population management, in left and right variants. Each of these variants obscures the social determinants of revolutionary movements and technological progress, in the case of Godwin, or, the historically specific and socially variable relationship between population, resources, and subsistence, on the part of Malthus. In both cases, techno-rational progress and natural necessity are respectively reified as forces separate from and superior to human beings

And it is these Malthusian assumptions that drive the dominant, technodeterminist historiography of the industrial revolution — exemplified in the work of E.A. Wrigley — which Malm documents and challenges throughout Fossil Capital. According to this standard story, eighteenth century English overpopulation, land exhaustion, and food scarcity necessitated the use of coal as an engine for growth, the invention of the steam engine in 1784, and its widespread adoption over the next century. Malthus’s force of necessity is here indistinguishable from its apparent antithesis — the Godwinian force of reason — spurring on the inevitable march of innovation, without any mention of how class conflict shaped these technological developments.

We can see this same teleological determinism in much present day Anthropocene discourse — some of whose exponents trace a direct line from the discovery of fire to the human transformation of the biosphere. Anthropocenesters similarly oscillate between a Godwinian-accelerationist pole (best represented by Mark Lynas, who wholeheartedly embraces the role of Victor Frankenstein in arguing we must assume our position as the God species and completely reengineer the planet we have remade in our own image) and a Malthusian-pessimist pole, according to which all we can do is “learn to die,” in the words of one prominent exponent.

Malm emphasizes the significance of historical time in theorizing and combating climate change in a way that is significant to these concerns. For Malm, “every conjuncture now combines relics and arrows, loops and postponements that stretch from the deepest past to the most distant future, via a now that is non-contemporaneous with itself.” Malm offers a model of combined and uneven temporality, whereby the warming effects of coal or oil burnt in the past misshape our collective present and future, due to the cumulative (and accumulative) nature of CO2 in the atmosphere, even if — for example — all carbon emissions were to suddenly halt. Global warming in this way materializes the weight of those dead generations and a specific tradition — fossil capitalism and its illusion of self-sustaining growth; an illusion with long term planetary consequences. And it is with this history, and its persistence in present and future, that any viable eco-socialist movement must contend.

Malm suggests that what we need now is eco-socialism in a Gothic register as opposed to our futurists’ science fictional fantasies of total automation and “decoupling” from nature altogether. Fossil Capital contributes to this project in offering an incisive critique of the mechanical Promethean narrative: the linear, self-sustaining, and teleological model of improvement that both capitalist and state socialist models of development share. Malm’s reconceptualization of the orthodox Marxist forces vs. relations of production dichotomy is, for me, even more significant for any sustainable eco-socialist project. This dichotomy underwrites “forces of production determinism” and the techno-utopianism for which “technology,” a monolithic force in need of unfettering, is the solution. As Malm demonstrates in his revisionist history of water power, the steam engine, and the shift to coal, technology is also a social relation; our technics inscribe both exploitation and appropriation (of cheap natures) in their various forms. An alternative — eco-socialist — set of social relations would necessarily entail a different technics 

Finally, we can discern in Fossil Capital the specter of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses On The Philosophy of History”; a point that Malm makes explicit in his coda on red-green activism, in which he enjoins his readers to pull the plug on the capitalist “motor of world history…in the little time that is left.” Like Michael Löwy, Malm identifies a Benjaminian, or decelerationist, program in disparate counter-systemic movements, encompassing the anti-fracking campaigns of the global north and the food sovereignty movements of the global south. What would a full scale decelerationist eco-socialism, neither Promethean nor primitivist, defined by a radically different set of social relations, technics, and temporality look like?

Anthony Galluzzo earned his PhD at UCLA, where he focused on late eighteenth century British and early American literature in addition to critical theory. He has held visiting professorships at the United States Military Academy at West Point and Colby College. He is currently a lecturer at NYU. His work on Godwinism, and the Godwin/Malthus Debates is part of a larger project that focuses on the relationship between early nineteenth century Euro-American utopianisms, political economy, and present day ecosocialism in the era of the Anthropocene.


Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming is out now from Verso

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