Introducing a Forum on Fossil Capital: Exploring Fossil Capital and the Path to a Post-Carbon Economy

12 Min Read

July 14, 2023

The short pieces collected here emerged from a roundtable on Andreas Malm’s seminal 2016 book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Fossil Capital offers a strong argument that the climate crisis is not a function of generalized human activity or processes but rather the outcome of capitalist social relations. In particular, Malm demonstrates that the rise of steam power as the engine of production in early nineteenth-century Great Britain was not the result of steam’s greater efficiency, and certainly not of coal’s cheapness compared to water and other prior drivers of manufacturing. Rather, he shows how the capitalists’ preference for steam was driven by the imperative of breaking workers’ power and effecting, in Marx’s terms, the “real subsumption of labour.” Beyond simply arguing, then, that our current moment should be apprehended as the Capitalocene rather than the Anthropocene, Malm effectively frames the rise of the fossil economy as the outgrowth of class struggle.

Each contributor to this conversation grapples with Malm’s insistence that a systemic, planetary turn to renewables is incompatible with capitalism. Interrogating the (literal) insularity of Malm’s book–which locates the origins of fossil capital in a self-contained Britain rather than the British empire–Jennifer Wenzel reads Malm’s book in counterpoint to Julie Livingston’s argument in her book, Self-Devouring Growth. In this framework, Wenzel insists on the unevenness of fossil capital’s effects across the North/South divide, and proposes that the sanctioned ignorance of global elites becomes impossible for those on the margins. Daniel Worden also takes up the ideological dimensions of the problem, reflecting on the cultural authorization of the fossil fuel economy. His piece offers a heuristic for distinguishing between fossil capital’s aesthetic forms and the forms of its alternatives. Andrew Rose homes in on Malm’s concern with the (relative) absence of organized rebellion against the social, political, and ecological devastations of fossil capital. Placing Malm’s analysis in dialogue with Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, Rose draws out the need for green social movements to rethink their appeal to democratic states and institutions, entities which are not simply captured by fossil fuel interests, but fundamentally and at their very origin an outgrowth of the carbon economy. Finally, Imre Szeman pushes back against Malm’s assertion that the struggle for a renewable energy system must be anti-capitalist in nature. Rather, he suggests, the difference between the earlier transition to carbon fuels and the current transition to solar rests in the intrusion of ethical and eschatological considerations into capitalist reckonings. Building from Malm’s discussion of “steam fetishism,” Szeman suggests the possibilities of “solar fetishism” as a twenty-first century bourgeois ideology that might (re)produce a solar capitalism. 

In these varied ways, all the contributors to this roundtable grapple with the scale of Malm’s analysis, which is at once its strength and limitation. In the spiral of our current moment, where the deadly dysfunction of (fossil) capital does nothing to deter its reproduction–indeed, in this moment where capital appears to feed on its own proliferating crises–where do we locate the cultural and political prospects for emerging the conditions of a post-carbon economy?

Eva Cherniavsky is the Andrew R. Hilen Professor of American Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in English at the University of Washington.

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

Part 2: The Ideology of Fossil Capital by Daniel Worden

Part 3: Malm's Fossil Capital and Green Social Movements by Andrew M. Rose

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

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