Forum on Fossil Capital Part 3: Malm’s Fossil Capital and Green Social Movements

12 Min Read

July 14, 2023

Broadly speaking, we can attribute the continuing relevance of Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital to, first, its sharp elucidation of the early stages of the carbon economy we find ourselves today struggling to quit; and, second, the conversation this history prompts regarding the type of political agency necessary to transition from “stock power” (fossil fuels) to what Malm calls “the flow” (wind, water, etc.). This possible transition, of course, is at the heart of environmental and climate politics today, and the severity of this challenge necessitates clear-headed analysis of both the carbon economy and the governmental apparatus of the state. In this short piece, I will look briefly at these two elements of the book’s continuing relevance: its analysis of the origination of fossil capital as an economic system and what this analysis might portend for contemporary, eco-political social movements.

Fossil Capital delivers a profound reformulation of the reasons for steam power’s ascendency in the first half of the nineteenth century in England and consequently reconfigures our understanding of how CO2 emissions became wedded to economic growth. First, contrary to dominant historical narratives, Malm meticulously describes how, at the time of the shift, water power was neither becoming scarce nor more expensive, thus forcing the cotton industry into a rational economic decision to shift to steam. Quite the opposite, actually. Despite the fact that coal remained more expensive in those early decades, the cotton industry shifted to it anyway. Put simply, the cotton magnates were looking to stick it to the worker. That is, the relations of production were the central cause for the shift to coal as the “prime mover,” rather than a Malthusian shortage of resources, or of flow energy. 

Essentially, Malm flips the script of technological determinism: steam did not beget capital, as Marx suggested, but rather, capital begot steam. He points out, in addition, that steam power did not create the growing factory towns in Northern England and Scotland but, rather, the increasing labour pools already existing in those towns led the industry to build its steam powered factories in Glasgow, Manchester, and so on.1 This tells us that cotton industry capitalists selected coal powered steam plants in response–not solely, but in significant measure–because it allowed them to weaken labor power and union organizing. This key insight reverberates through Malm’s critique of the existent historical narratives that have essentialized the turn to steam power as some sort of natural development of human society. Instead, we must recognize that water power created early industrial capitalism, and then cotton capitalists chose steam to expand their power over workers.2 

The above history, and the fuller elaboration of fossil capital as a conceptual framework, raise serious questions about the viability of a successful transition beyond our current carbon-based economy. As Malm states, since “the entire logic of neoliberalism runs counter to the basic requirements of the transition,” then “the purpose of an inquiry in the climatic destructivity of capitalist property relations can only be a realistic assessment of the obstacles to the transition [back to green, or flow, energy].”3 This might fairly prompt readers to ask: can a capitalist economy be a sustainable economy? This question outstrips the scope of this short piece, of course; however, via a turn to Fossil Capital’s discussion of social movement organizing, I will try to address at least one layer of this query here.

To briefly consider the political agency of green social movements in this context, I find it useful to place Malm’s work in conversation with Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy. Indeed, Malm himself calls Mitchell’s book the “most important work on the modern history of [the primitive accumulation of fossil capital].”4 Mitchell’s book elucidates fossil capital’s twentieth-century turn to oil as the economic prime mover and this transition’s fundamental imbrication with western institutions of democratic government. A dialectical consideration of “fossil capital” and “carbon democracy” might, I suggest, help us to interrogate the evolving relations between carbon power, capitalism and the state. The central issue to address, in the space remaining, is how these concepts might help reformulate green social movements’ understanding of the power structure they are up against. In so doing, we will find that the choice between targeting activism toward the state or transnational corporations (as if these are two discrete options) is perhaps less consequential than it at first appears, because the climate change movement is actually confronting a type of joint power.

Mitchell’s notion of carbon democracy, at its conceptual core, prompts us to recognize the contemporary democratic western nation-state and fossil capital as essentially inseparable, and this in turn alters our understanding of political power and historical change. Rather than two distinct power sources in varying degrees of interrelation, we must recognize their co-development throughout the Industrial and Information Revolutions as one complex story of interconnectivity and, possibly, inextricability.5 The state and the fossil fuel industry work symbiotically, Mitchell explains, to control the flows of carbon and capital in such a way as to perpetuate themselves and prove the principle of unlimited growth (or perpetual surplus value) at all costs. Thus, carbon democracy is a mutually beneficial and relational system of power and profit, with life-threatening results for vast majorities of human and nonhuman communities.   

Understanding this dual structure of power, clarified by Mitchell, helps to illuminate Malm’s concerns regarding the effectiveness of contemporary climate activism. In Fossil Capital’s penultimate chapter, Malm argues that the logic of global fossil capital is central to increasing CO2 emissions, and thus capital itself must be challenged.6 Profit margins are, to no one’s surprise, a central issue. He explains, “the profile of the flow [particularly wind and solar power] does not allow for anything as lucrative as the primitive accumulation of fossil capital.”7 Elsewhere, Malm pithily summarizes the problem in a characteristically cheeky manner: “Capital doesn’t eat because someone is hungry: capital always eats.”8 And after providing the data displaying that when “global capital moves, increased emissions flow” he finally finds himself asking, given these dire circumstances: why no rebellion?9 One response that he ponders in some detail focuses on the mainstream environmental movement: he argues the climate movement focuses too much on the consumer and needs to more urgently train its sights upon the capitalist producers.10 He makes the case that the current economic system will not transition away from stock power unless forced to do so; and thus, provides a prime target for activism. 

The central issue then becomes that of political agency, or the whereabouts of that oft-sought people’s rebellion and its most appropriate target. Allowing the concept of carbon democracy to inform an analysis of Fossil Capital highlights the immense challenge a social movement faces whenever it looks to take on fossil capital directly and/or seeks to prod and gather the forces of the existent western democratic system to take on the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Maybe we find Malm looking around and asking, “why no rebellion?” in part because of the way social movement organizing still needs to fully grapple with what it means to appeal to a state–to compel it to do battle with the fossil fuel industry–that is itself not just “captured by carbon capital,” but fundamentally imbricated with the carbon economy (at its core and from its very conception). Therefore, we might first need to ask: what kinds of democratic practices can propel us beyond carbon democracy? And then, what does democracy look like without fossil capital?

Andrew M. Rose is an Assistant Professor of English at Christopher Newport University. His recent book, entitled Material Insurgency: Towards a Distributed Environmental Politics, explores posthuman forms of eco-social movement organizing in U.S. environmental campaigns, fiction texts, and nonfiction.

Part 1: Self-Sustaining, Self-Devouring Growth by Jennifer Wenzel

Part 2: The Ideology of Fossil Capital by Daniel Worden

Part 4: From Steam Fetishism to Solar Fetishism by Imre Szeman


  1. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London, 2016), 162.
  2. Ibid., 257.
  3. Ibid., 382-83.
  4. Ibid., 365.
  5. Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London, 2013), 252.
  6. Malm, Fossil Capital, 355
  7. Ibid., 372.
  8. Ibid., 326.
  9. Ibid., 353.
  10. Ibid., 361-66
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