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…. The passing of empire.

The dank and musty allure of 19th century opium dens beckoned to those weak of will and lustful for escape. An opioid fuel of sorts, nature’s stock for an addiction that consumed its adherents in exchange for a state of nonchalant bliss, a temporary reprieve from the thousand paper cuts of life.

Experienced practioners knew to employ the buddy system, in advance soliciting a disinterested friend to come collect the user after 12 hours or so, sternly instructed to ignore any pleas to the contrary, and to extract the user from the den and the throes of opioid delirium, forcibly if necessary. Failure to do so might mean the will for a voluntary exit could well evaporate after a few days, and any exit might be feet first in a pine box.

An early example of the addictive effects of nature’s stock upon humans.

Amid much fanfare and production, the scientists of our society engage us in cultural clashes where arguments pertaining to climate change rage on, point and counterpoint, endless minutiae and technical details debated and argued. Advocates and denialists in full combat, in a battle of data against superstition that has lasted the ages and will never resolve.

Exactly as the instigators intended.

What is missing from these credentialed technical arguments are more basic questions, such as Why? Or How?

Why did our culture take up an addiction to fossil fuels, and How did this happen?

Human ecology professor, Andreas Malm has taken to addressing these two overarching questions in his book “Fossil Capital” which I shall review here.

“Fossil Capital” deviates from the typical climate change discussion as he strives to understand the onset and dependency of fossil fuels from a Marxist perspective. I must admit I was somewhat skeptical, orthodox Marxism is notoriously lax in addressing the largest threat to our planet, seemingly content to lather about in worker exploitation and revolts that never seem to happen.

However, the author reminds us that the core construct of Marx’s magnum opus is based on the philosophy of social relations, if anything, Capital shows us the dialectic relationship between capital, the political economy, and society at large. It shows us how capitalist property relations impacts workers, and how workers impact capital, leading ultimately to Malm’s staggering conclusion- that our addiction to fossil fuels, the resulting present day climate impact, and the onset and general adoption of fossil fuels was not due to technology, not due to scarcity of existing organic resources, and importantly, not due to intrinsic and supposedly dormant human tendencies to plunder the planet.

With academic rigor, Andreas Malm answers the Why and How, as he traces the onset of fossil fuels into general usage, and in so doing discovers that a very small group of men in a very small part of the world, belonging to an even smaller class of participants, are wholly, totally, and irrefutably responsible.

Malm finds that those responsible belong to the Capitalist class of 19th century England.

He explains this by animating Marx’s discoveries of property relations and the laws of motion of Capitalist production. He takes the dry, tedious text of Marx and shows how it fits chapter and verse with the 19th century ascension of the Industrial Revolution.

Fortunately for Malm, 19th century England is one of the most thoroughly documented periods and he find much empirical support for his thesis. The records are quite clear, voluminous data is available for parsing and analysis and he takes full advantage to make his case.

“Fossil Capital” starts with a debunking of the two prevailing mainstream theories as to how we evolved into a fossil fuel economy. The first, the so-called “Elizabethan leap” contains the more common bourgeoisie understanding of how 16th Europe migrated from burning wood for heat and cooking, to the use of coal. The superficial explanation is that wood was a declining resource experiencing scarcity in England and Continental Europe, and the migration to coal was an entirely natural progression to a more dense and efficient energy source.

There are a couple of problems with this, not the least of which is that coal did not make any significant inroads into energy consumption (in England anyway) until the late 18th century, so there is the small matter of a 200 year discrepancy.

But Malm considers even this to be a red herring, he suggests that the use of either wood or coal for heating and cooking purposes (the dominant uses in this time period) is really not a very interesting story, in his words this is a “proto-fossil fuel” economy, the real story begins when these fuels are used for purposes other than cooking and heating.

As all of this late 18th century stuff was taking place in England, to supplement the superficial, the theories of Ricardo, Malthus, and our dear friend Adam Smith all get roped into contributing to this explanation. Ricardo, as he posits that the available land for photosynthesis (the main vehicle for organic fuel production) is insufficient to support an exponential expansion of energy in the soon to occur industrial revolution. Malthus, with his converging and exponential population growth, needs to preserve at least some arable land for food instead of fuel production, and of course, Smith for his division of labor theories.

The author calls this first explanation the “Ricardo-Malthusian” theory, which seeks to explain the evolutionary and entirely “necessary” conversion from wood to coal because of insufficient land mass, and a geometrically expanding population with arithmetically expanding food production. As the organic economy of pre-industrial England is in effect dependent on plants (photosynthesis) for energy production, these arguments might make some sense.

A review of the historical data reveals some troubling problems with the Ricardo-Malthusian explanation. First of all, the use of organic fuels such as wood for cooking and heating cannot explain the explosion of energy expansion in 19th century England. Between 1800 and 1870 the population of England grew by 160%, yet energy consumption grew by some 4,000%.

Next, these theories were applied after the fact, using a modern interpretation (within the last century) to explain what is now a self evident problem, but this is less than convincing as no one in 19th century Britain sat down with quill and ink and forecast the energy demands of the forthcoming industrial revolution, concluding that we must switch to a coal economy toute de suite.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Malm finds no evidence of scarcity of either arable land for wood production, or of wood as a commodity as seen by market forces, e.g. there were no price spikes in this time period that would indicate a shortage, or of pending scarcity. Now there are plenty of papers and scholarly opinions that conclude that large scale shortages were present in this time period, but Malm disagrees.

Malm theorizes with some justification, that if there were resource limits to organic energy production (wood) in this time period there would be at least some price anomalies- he found none.

What then? What could be the cause for a several thousand percent increase in energy consumption- and a paradigm shift away from an organic energy economy to one wholly sustained by fossil fuels?

The genesis can be found in James Watt’s 1784 patent of the steam engine.

Knowledge of the nature of the phase change of water when boiled, and the resulting energy release had been known for centuries. What Watt had done with his steam engine patents was to harness this effect in a self contained boiler, converting steam pressure into smooth, rotative motion. This system converted the choppy, erratic motion of a steam piston into a spinning wheel, which could then be used to power other machines through belt drive connections.

Machines which would soon be called “means of production”.

With twice the BTU’s and half the volumetric density of wood, coal was the perfect fuel to propel the steam engine into mainstream use. In the period of 1800-1870, the vast majority of all coal burned was used to power steam engines, and the largest use of steam engines was in the production of cotton.

And here is where it gets really interesting.

In 19th century in Britain, the economy was all about the production of cotton. By 1870, cotton accounted for nearly 40% of the UK GDP. So cotton was a big deal, not just in sheer numbers, but in the rapid adoption of Capitalist modes of production in the industrial scale up of this commodity. In 1780, it took approximately 600 man hours to process a single bale of cotton, with the invention of the cotton gin (1793), this dropped to around 12 man hours per bale. Adding to the efficiencies, the spinning jenny (1764) and Richard Arkwright’s water frame (1768) which was designed to be powered by water flow- all represented an ushering in of a crude form of machine age- centered around cotton production.

Significantly, the main competitive fuel to coal in the early 19th century was water power. It wasn’t even close, by far water power was the first choice of any and all sources of rotative power. The reasons were simple and compelling- it did not cost anything to run. Water flow was free. Any fuel that burned, be it wood or coal, had a cost associated with it and factory owners did not want to pay when water was readily available and free for the taking.

Water was clean, reusable, quiet, and put forth no emissions. And it was cheap. So why then would anyone want to abandon this cheap and abundant energy source and switch to the dirtier, and far more expensive coal?

Well initially anyway, no one did. But as the production of cotton began to scale, and as Britain shed its mercantilist mode of production for Capitalist tendencies, issues of property and social relations began to rear their ugly heads.

Another consideration was that the use of water flow was by its very nature collective. No one owns the water, and if other mill owners shared the same water source for their own mills, which was common, there could be a conflict between users of the same resource.

So as Malm describes it, the problems began to originate from the spatial attributes of the water mills, they were by necessity located near water sources, which meant that they were generally not near urban centers, and generally located in rural or countryside locations. So it became difficult to attract and keep labor at these semi-remote locations. There was little external infrastructure, often no towns or support resources for life, however short it might be, outside of the factory mills. And retaining labor once so located was also difficult as they might just run off, converting to a ruthless and grueling factory pace of 16-18 hours days, 6 days a week was a difficult adjustment from an agrarian lifestyle which marked the previous way of life.

So the ascendant Industrial revolution began to experience labor strife, it was to become acute, perhaps more acute than any time in modern history, as large numbers of people migrated from agrarian lifestyles to a wage labor supported factory life- they did not make the change with open arms.

The mill owners quickly came up with a brilliant solution as the realties of Capitalist property relations began to settle in. It seemed that the local orphanages were full to brimming with abandoned and runaway children from all walks of life, and surely, the mill owners would be doing all a tremendous favor to “rescue” these misfits and delinquents from their stultifying existence, unshackling them for a vigorous and meditative visit to the British countryside, where they might partake in fresh air and healthy exercise.

For around 20 years.

Ever the social liberals, the headmasters of the orphanages insisted that room and board be offered to each child, and perhaps an hour per week of study so as to insure that some level of education be maintained.

Other than that, they were happy to see them go.



To support this newfound labor pool, the Capitalist mill owners often had to construct at their own expense a compound, buildings to house workers, eating halls, etc. in effect all the necessities of a labor camp.

There were still more problems. Not all workers were children of course- most were not. Some of the labor classifications, such as spinners were highly skilled and these in-demand workers began to demand high wages. If a group of spinners left a mill, they could cripple production and the prospects for replacement staff was not good- given the remote locales of the water mills. As the water mills became more widespread throughout Britain, child labor also grew. Soon, the moral prospect of working young orphans 16 hours a day began to wear on society as a whole, and a bitter struggle for reformed labor laws ensued lasting throughout most of the first half of the 19th century. A brief listing:

-The Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819. Limited employment to children age 9 or older, children aged 9-12 could not work more than 12 hours per day.

– The Cotton Mills Regulation Act 1825. Limited work hours to 10 hours on Sat, added a one hour lunch break. The mill owners were having problems with inconsistent water flow, so they needed “make up” time, e.g. extra hours during the day when workers could be forced to work longer to make up for poor flow or equipment failures. This Act accommodated these conditions by imposing limits as to how many hours could be worked and how late they could be enforced, typically no later than 11:00 PM.

– Labor in Cotton Mills Act of 1831. Extended the 12 hour day limit to anyone under 18, no night work allowed for minor children.

– Numerous legislation passed between 1831-1867 essentially limiting children, and ultimately most adults to no more than 10 hours a day of work.

One might wonder why it took 50-60 years to resolve which seems like a simple issue of social justice, using children for indentured labor. The answer is twofold, first, the capitalist class put enormous pressure on British parliament to refrain from interfering with any regulations that might impede production, the “compromise” was a highly publicized effort to address the children, as the lawmakers understood that the optics of defending this egregious practice was not going to stand, so they made much of these paltry reliefs specific to child labor. The other reason was that of male suffrage. Incredibly, throughout the 19th century, men without property ownership simply could not vote. This held until the early 20th century, indeed until the 1918 Representation of the People act, which removed the restriction of property ownership and allowed all men (and some women) the right to vote.

All of these acts and legislations were bitterly opposed by the Capitalist class- but none more vigorously than the provision allowing mill owners to work extra hours if the water flow fell off during a production day, or if equipment broke. This provision allowed the mill owner to enforce a labor effort not just by the clock, but to make sure that this labor product could be productively deployed when all the conditions of production were operational- which they often weren’t. So if you were signed up for a 12-16 hour day, and water flow dropped off midday so as to deny production, you had to stay at the mill and make the time up when the water flow returned.

A typical workday might be 16 hours. And in this workday we are reminded of Marx’s principle of abstract surplus value, which says that the workday is organized to first cover the cost to reproduce the worker, then additional hours are used to provide surplus value to the Capitalist. That’s how we get to 16 hour days. 10 hours in this example to reproduce (cover costs) and 6 hours for surplus.

But when forced by regulations to limit the workday to 10 hours, with limited ability for make up time, we have a big problem as now we have to ask where does the surplus value come from?

And the answer is that it comes from intensification of production, e.g. with speeding up the machinery. This now gives us relative surplus value, so named as the surplus is now recovered by extending backward into the workday, by working faster we can reproduce the workers cost in 8 hours and get the same surplus as before in 10 hours total.

But we have to run the machines and the people faster to achieve this result.

And as it turns out, it is pretty easy to speed up a steam engine, not so much for a water wheel. And in fact according to Malm, the sum of these attributes outlines the fundamental reason for the shift to fossil fuels- they were infinitely more tolerant to the demands of the Capitalist class than renewable resources, even though they cost more.

Steam engines could be placed conveniently next to coal mines, or to even greater advantage in the middle of population centers where there was not scarcity of labor. If a crew of experienced spinners up and quit, a replacement crew could be assembled without too much trouble. Also, population centers did not need the infrastructure build out for living quarters for example, that the water mills needed, it already existed.

And this is exactly what happened, despite the more attractive cost model of renewable energy resources, the labor relations outcome was disastrous for the water mill owners and the shift to coal powered steam engines proved unstoppable. By 1840, the battle between water power and coal was largely over, coal fueled steam engines had made significant headway into the sphere of production. This however, was no panacea, labor revolts and labor strikes grew to epic proportions, as capitalists tried to lower wages, with roving bands of strikers marauding through the cities destroying the hated steam engines as Capitalist property owners reduced wages to increase profits.

In 1842 one of the largest strikes ever was assembled, involving some 500,000 striking workers. They took to destroying steam engines, many by pulling the plugs on the pressure vessel rendering the engines useless. The phrase “pulling the plug” is still in common use today and stems from this calamitous riot in Britain.

Soon after, intentionally damaging steam engines became a crime punishable by death in Britain.

Interestingly, the word ‘Power’ in the English language has two meanings, one meaning, the noun, describes ‘…the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events…’

The other usage is as a verb, “…..to supply (a device) with mechanical or electrical energy….’

In no other language does this word share this duality. This is instructive, as it became apparent that those that controlled the power, indeed had social power. We can still see evidence of this today in modern politics.

If Malm had been unkind to the Ricardo-Malthusian explanation for the onset of fossil fuels, he is not particularly generous to the more contemporary Anthropocene narrative. Malm’s objection with this movement is not necessarily to deny the labeling of this as an ecological epoch, rather, he takes issue with the notion that somehow man was intrinsically and irreversibly responsible as a species for the onset of fossil fuel usage and the resulting climate change.

He argues that early man’s mastery of fire does not necessarily implicate humans as destined to destroy the planet, he makes the rather succinct point that ownership of steam engines, and the resulting adoption of coal to feed these engines, was specific to a very small class of people, namely, wealthy white guys involved in the Capitalist mode of production. An average wage laborer did not own a steam engine in the 19th Century, why would she? The Capitalist class acted directly to divert an organic economy that was already successful and underway with renewable hydro power to an economy that relied on fossil fuels, specifically to avoid the untenable social relations present in using a collective energy resource like water power. The Capitalist must own not just the means of production, but the fuel sources as well.

Beyond this Malm ventures into some truly interesting commentary, he discusses in some detail the need for constant exponential expansion intrinsic to Capitalism, and makes a most interesting observation about this expansion from the perspective of fossil fuels.

To do this, he discusses the time honored theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which is the primary failure mechanism of Capitalism in orthodox Marxism. The rate of profit tends to fall, as the organic composition of constant capital to variable capital changes. In plain English, this means that as machines and automation replace people, the profits left for the Capitalist decline. This is because if labor is the source of all value, as labor content declines, so does surplus value.

But this “tendency” is not a hard and fast rule, there are ways that this “tendency” can be mitigated, indeed, the Capitalism of today goes to great pains to deflect these tendencies- largely through State interventions. However, we do know that as more machines are created to replace or accelerate human labor, more fossil fuels will be used to power them- just as it did in 19th century Britain.

Malm suggests that this energy consumption component of value production is a hard and fast rule- not a tendency, and that as the composition of constant Capital increases, the consumption of fossil fuels must also increase- exponentially. He expresses this as an increased carbon content per unit of production. This would suggest a death spiral related to fossil fuel use, unstoppable and with no known restraint under the laws of motion of a Capitalist economy.

To the notion that man as a species is intrinsically responsible and destined to destroy the planet, his view is that if we all are responsible, then no one is responsible. By this he suggests that if all are guilty, then no one can be deposed or held accountable.

And this narrative is starting to sound vaguely familiar, yes, blame the working class and the poor for societies woes, and for good measure be sure to inflict the greatest amount of retribution and payback amongst those least responsible.

This is a time honored strategy unique to class structure. A secondary outcome is the blaming of workers for global warming through consumption.

Malm makes a solid case using historical reconstruction and a Marxist framework to unveil the unity between energy and exploitation. He suggests that the need for exploitation within the Capitalist mode of production is largely the driver towards unfettered fossil fuel consumption. Another thrust, which he is covering in a new book, is the notion that the nexus to petroleum energy was in direct response to the crippling coal miner’s strikes.

So it is not surprising then that we see similar characteristics in our current bourgeoisie government in the persona of Trump. We see the ascension of energy moguls to the levers of power for exactly the same reasons, with exactly the same objectives that were there in 19th century Britain.

The current era Capitalist class is deeply concerned with the declining rate of profit, despite the mitigating influence of neo-liberal expansion. They reflexively return to tried and true restorative strategies, central to this is an expansion of fossil fuel production and simultaneous relaxation of regulations- of which we see abundant evidence that this is underway.

If there is an area of weakness in Malm’s work, it is in his explanation of why man is not acting in his own best interests. While I find his rejection of the culpability of man as a species gratifying, it is hard to connect the dots between the Plug Riots of 1842 and a similar modern day Black Friday mob descending like locusts on a Wal Mart sale. There really is no coherent explanation offered to connect the dots between these disparate behaviors, and it really is one of the more important questions of our time.

Perhaps a narrative that revolves around addiction, and its close companion denial is more appropriate.

Overall in his wrap up to include modern times, Malm is not hopeful for any relief from the fossil fuel madness or any meaningful redress to climate change. He points out that sunk capital costs in coal fired plants, refineries, and other capital intensive investments are unlikely to be unwound until they are fully amortized. Once paid for, there is little motivation to sunset them as after all, they are paid up and can then contribute to supra-profits. The modern day Capitalist class does not make these kind of massive investments without a priori policy assurances from the State- which they actively seek and receive.

In the end Malm accomplishes a great deal with his book, the approach of leaving aside pure science and using tools of sociology to examine causality is very effective. It will be interesting to see where he takes this thread in his upcoming book, continuing with a similar framework around petroleum fuels.

It is more likely that we will find coal a source of sunlight, than sunlight a competitor of coal.

William Stanley Jevons 1860