Fossil Capital

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* Book: Andreas Malm. Fossil Capital. Verso, 2016


winner of the 2016 prestigious Isaac Deutscher prize.



Andreas Malm's brilliant book Fossil Capital suggests that the origin of the current climate crisis can be found in the coupling of fossil fuels with capitalism in 19th century industrial Britain. More provocatively he argues that the choice of coal to power early industrial capitalism was a conscious, rather than inevitable decision. This choice and the resultant consequence of global warming, were made in order to undermine and challenge working class resistance to early 19th century capitalism. In the 21st century with temperatures continuing to rise and 2016 once again the hottest year on record by some margin, the issue of an alternative to Fossil Capital is more urgent than ever." (email)


"The more we know about the catastrophic implications of climate change, the more fossil fuels we burn. How did we end up in this mess?

In this masterful new history, Andreas Malm claims it all began in Britain with the rise of steam power. But why did manufacturers turn from traditional sources of power, notably water mills, to an engine fired by coal? Contrary to established views, steam offered neither cheaper nor more abundant energy—but rather superior control of subordinate labour. Animated by fossil fuels, capital could concentrate production at the most profitable sites and during the most convenient hours, as it continues to do today. Sweeping from nineteenth-century Manchester to the emissions explosion in China, from the original triumph of coal to the stalled shift to renewables, this study hones in on the burning heart of capital and demonstrates, in unprecedented depth, that turning down the heat will mean a radical overthrow of the current economic order."


The Book's Hypothesis

John Tomaney:

"Growing interest in the use of steam power for industry occurred following the waves of industrial militancy during the crisis of overproduction in the 1820s. Ure promoted mechanisation to liberate production from reliance on the worker. The self-acting mule was developed to be driven by steam power. As spinning was mechanised, weaving remained a scattered cottage industry powered by low-cost animate power – workers – who masters found hard to discipline. The invention of the steam-driven power loom allowed the creation of the ‘combined factory’: a new generation of mills that integrated the production process under one roof, thereby ending the role of the unruly cottage weavers. Steam power was therefore a critical manifestation of class power.

The orthodoxy assumes the shift from water to coal reflected a growing scarcity of usable water and the falling cost of coal as fuel: that is, it was the outcome of ‘market forces’. But Malm’s evidence suggests there was neither a shortage of water nor was it more expensive than steam or less technologically advanced. Steam engines in this period required costly coal and were unreliable, being prone to disastrous breakdowns. Water was defeated in the battle with steam by two factors. First, the management of water power required cooperation between competing millowners. A feasible system of reservoirs on the River Irwell that would guarantee dependable low-cost water supplies to Manchester was rejected by millowners. Steam engines, although more expensive, could be operated independently. Second, steam freed millowners from settlements in upper river valleys and allowed production to be concentrated in towns with large supplies of labour. Small remote settlements, such as Arkwright’s Cromford, provided their own labour problems, requiring large investments by millowners in expensive physical and social infrastructure, such as schools, chapels and housing.

The emergence of the fully integrated factory required large concentrations of workers, while towns attracted labourers because of the availability of unskilled jobs. In towns, generic infrastructure could be supplied speculatively. Housing workers was no longer the responsibility of the millowner. Towns expressed ‘spatial crystallisations of the wage relation’ (148) and steam was adopted because of its ‘mobility in space’ (156). The rapid growth of Manchester, ‘Cottonopolis’, gave expression to these developments. For the first time in history, machine and energy source – the engine and the mine – were separated, allowing the concentration of factories in large towns. ‘The flow was stationary and the stock on the move’ (164). This generated working-class resistance, notably in the form of the 1842 General Strike, which saw attacks on mills and mines with the cry of ‘Stop the Smoke’. Carbon emissions were linked to the entrenchment of capitalist social relations, hence ‘fossil capital’.

With this evidence, Malm offers a reformulation of Marxist theory. The production of surplus value is still central to capital accumulation because labour power creates anthropogenic products, but the transformation of fossils fuels into carbon dioxide is intrinsically linked to capital accumulation. Malm extends Marx’s notion of a distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labour to the realm of nature to emphasise the way it is subordinated to the production of surplus value. This is a version of Marxism in which an analysis of the production of space is foregrounded, with Henri Lefebvre, Michael Storper and others mobilised in the argument. It is a productionist account which is dismissive of the role of mass consumption as the cause of carbon emissions." (


Luke Neal:

"Fossil Capital explores the crisis posed by climate change by looking at the origins of capital’s dependence on fossil fuels. It is a significant contribution and sound introduction to Marxist ecological thought. Above all the book demonstrates how capital accumulation and the global climate have a deep and inseparable relationship, and in particular that the history of the working class is an environmental one.

The question of why capitalism is still overwhelmingly wedded to fossil fuel consumption is approached in two ways: by investigating the original transition to fossil fuels, then asking what the nature of their interrelation with accumulation suggests about the prospect of a sufficient transition to renewable energy. Malm proposes a rereading of the eclipse of water by steam power in the period 1825-1850, arguing that the defeat of the British working class movement was a key moment in the emergence of fossil fuels as the “general lever for surplus value production”. The consequences of the transition – the compulsion to accumulate capital through relative surplus value (the speeding up of production by technical means) – illuminate the difficulties of a going beyond fossil fuel-based capitalism in the present day; while the workers’ movement’s original confrontation with steam offers our movement much to aspire to.

The first trial of Watt’s double-rotating engine in the cotton industry ended poorly, principally due to the costs of the machinery and its fuel compared to the naturally-occurring power of rivers and waterfalls.[2] For a technology with these attributes to court mass popularity, the conditions in industry could only have been such that mill owners prioritized concerns for control over the labor process above the cost of mechanization. Mill owners sought solutions to the industrial crisis in 1825, which compounded the recurring lapses of wages beneath the cost of subsistence. In this setting embezzlement was rife and labor militancy was fermenting. But wage rises were “out of the question”, other than where mass strikes forced employers into concession, endangering profits and deepening the crisis further. In this setting a shift to the power loom was a preventative investment against theft; for cotton capital as a whole, it achieved the consolidation of power over the labor process. Steam power also “had the prime advantage of overcoming the barriers to procurement not of energy, but of labor”[4] in its ability to adapt to the urban environment,thereby “relieving us,” as J.R. McCulloch referred to his class, “from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed mills to be placed in the centre of a population trained to industrious habits”.[5] The proximity of factories to populous towns moreover freed the capitalist from the care and responsibility for child laborers – an advantageous development as many capitalists puzzled over how the coercive apprentice system instilled“no desire to perform labor” among its young participants.

In Marx’s view, machinery is “is a power inimical to [the worker], and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital”. It was a crucial tool which the mill owners employed to stymie the labor unrest which “threatened to drive the infant factory system into crisis”.

Ultimately the transition to steam power offered capital the ability to discipline labor through relocation to settings with a high surplus population, enabling it to seek out the most profitable pools of labor power, to level down wages, and to enforce an accelerated and regular industrial output. This presentation of the transition as a formof crisis resolution in response to workers’ agitation offers a key insight as to why capital has continued to fuel climate change. The general adoption of high pressure steam power in British cotton production after 1850 entailed the increasing dependence of economic growth upon a steady expansion in coal supply.[8] In a competitive market this translated to “grow by burning or die”.[9] Malm suggests that this developed to the extent that fossil fuels became “the general lever for surplus-value production”.[10] Thus a significant part of the climate crisis with which we are confronted today was itself the infant of crisis conditions. Capital’s response in that instance was to subject labour to the rhythm of machines – an approach maintained throughout its history.

Malm tentatively highlights the environmentalist dimensions to worker resistance to the imposition of machinery, and in particular the 1842 general strike. “There is a current of unsuccessful opposition to steam running all the way from the Albion Mill to the late nineteenth century, waiting to be uncovered”; its literature bore “the persistent imagery of belching smoke and consuming fire, noxious atmosphere and receding nature, extinct vegetation and unbearable heat – ‘the people looked parboiled.’” But capitalists’ opposition to legislation to limit pollution and the unbearable climate of the factories was successful. Manufacturers commonly claimed the quantity of smoke in Manchester was a barometer of its prosperity.[12] The effect of the Ten Hours Act (1847) was limited by speeding up the machines through higher pressure. Indeed, according to von Tunzelmann, the Ten Hours Act was “probably the most important determinant’ of the rise of high-pressure steam and, by extension, the final victory of the engine in the cotton industry (and beyond)”.[13] This illuminates how relative surplus value is a response compelled by labor insurgency in its struggle against capital. It was a technological and organisational fix to the crisis presented by militant labor, a victory for capital on the back of a military intervention against the attempts at insurrection. The working class movement took decades to recover from this defeat – with its environmental concerns largely suppressed until the work of avant-garde writers such as William Morris.

The path of capital in spite of the scientific research into global warming reinforces Marxian value theory: “capital recognizes no boundary in nature… solely concerned with the expansion of abstract value, it can drain nature on biophysical resources without really noticing what is in there, its eyes firmly fixed higher”—on its profits.[14] Moreover Malm has transposed Marx’s argument on the organic composition of capital (the ratio of dead to living labor, increasing over time and producing a falling rate of profit) into a rising fossil composition of capital.[15] “[O]perating over the span of history,” the tendency of capital to reduce the portion of human labor relative to machinery “translates into a law of a rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere”.[16] These dynamics, plus those of relative surplus value, having been first properly expressed during the consummation of coal and the cotton trade, lay the contradictory foundations of global climate change, through the necessary production of CO2 as condition to surplus value. Part of the conditions to accumulation is the primitive accumulation of fossil fuels – “for capitalists to burn fossil fuels, there have to be other capitalists specialized in their production, and for the former to burn more, the latter have to deliver it in greater quantities, the two cycles ever intertwined”—which forms a permanent foundation for the fossil economy.

Malm polemicizes against the dominance of geography in Marxist thinking, but spatial contradictions are dominant in the tendencies he identifies, betraying this conviction. The transition to steam was dependent upon the reordering of nature to produce in a “unique form of spatiality” out of the tension between the mobility of the stock (coal) vis-à-vis the “stillness of the waterwheel”.[18] Likewise, as he traces the development of fossil capital into the present, the dynamic of relocation and mobility is central. For example, Chinese industrial militancy – steadily rising in confidence since 2010 – poses a threat to cheap labor power (pertinently China’s output counted for 55% of the global emissions figure between 2000 and 2006, and up to two thirds afterward).[19] Yet business owners were shocked at prospects of relocation due to poor fossil fuel infrastructure at alternative sites: Asian and sub-Saharan locations suffer from overburdened electricity grids, while to counter this the Vietnamese state “pledged to accommodate incoming capital – above all by establishing coal mines and coal-fired power plants” The basic tendency of capital to relocate in pursuit of cheap labor therefore increases carbon intensity. Indeed, “[s]preading factories across more Asian countries to safeguard against bolshiness would translate into more chimneys in more places, more fragmented–integrated production chains, more self-reinforcing spirals of accumulation…” On this basis Malm adds to Bev Silver’s observation that “where capital goes, labor-capital conflict shortly follows” by suggesting that “where capital goes emissions will immediately follow”.

Capital’s drive for mobility and flexibility paradoxically “ends up fixing capital ends up fixing it in ultra-heavy means of production and transportation” (power stations, factories, railways etc.), undermining further relocation, as capitalists are inclined to keep their sunk investments in operation for as long as possible.As David Harvey has noted, when“capitalists purchase fixed capital, they are obliged to use it until its value (however calculated) is fully retrieved”. This basic tendency behind the continued burning of fossil fuels stems from the geographic characteristics of fixed capital, and is exemplified in the fact that two-thirds of American power plants built since the 1890s still remain in use. Until labor challenges the movements inherent to capital accumulation, this is likely to remain the case." (

Benjamin Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel:

"Was a less destructive ecological regime ever possible in modern times? Is there a prospect of one today? Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital approaches these questions through a contrarian inquiry into the Industrial Revolution. Industrial capitalism effected for the first time the transition from an ‘organic’ or solar economy (in which plant life supplies power, in the direct form of firewood, or the indirect form of fodder for animals and food for human workers) to a fossil economy, defined by Malm as one predicated on ‘the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide’. In this shift, the British cotton industry played a leading role. Britain dwarfed the rest of the world in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels up to the middle of the 19th century, accounting for some 80 per cent in 1825 and more than 60 per cent a quarter of a century later. During this period, which wags have called ‘the Anglocene’, the steam engine formed the largest single consumer of coal. It was the cotton industry that first used steam as a prime mover, and as late as 1870 textile manufacturers operated more steam engines than any other sector of the economy.

The common assumption is that mill owners chose steam power over power from running water because it was more cost-effective, but Malm convincingly argues that ‘steam gained supremacy in spite of water being abundant, cheaper and at least as powerful.’ Coal must of course be laboriously mined and often transported by rail to reach factories; flowing water is available for free to any mill owner whose property abuts a stream. Steam power might nevertheless offer the better bargain if competition for access to riverine land raised rents. But in rainy Britain rivers were never used at anything like full capacity. Water remained cheaper than coal, per unit of horsepower, decades after the cotton industry switched from water mills strung along rivers to urban factories housing steam engines. Nor was steam mechanically superior at the time of the transition, which Malm places in the 1840s. Water wheels were at least twenty times more efficient at transmitting the energy of falling water to spinning jennies and looms than steam engines were at transforming the energy in coal into mechanical motion. What’s more, water power was smooth, and scalable. During the decisive decades ‘the largest cotton mills remained water-powered, often with tremendous wheels placed in pairs, triplets or even greater sets.’

Malm allows that the steam engine ultimately enabled the textile industry to turn out yards of cloth faster, and on a greater scale, than if mill owners had stuck with water power. But effects of the transition can’t double as its causes. What explains the preference for steam, in Malm’s view, is that the changing relations of production between mill owners and their employees occasioned changes in the forces of production. As the cotton industry expanded in the first half of the 19th century, the workforce of the water mills, at first drawn from local rural populations, came to consist of indentured apprentices. Young runaways or recruits from poorhouses were housed in barracks-like ‘colonies’ and compelled to work past the limits of physical endurance when the river ran full enough to drive a mill’s entire complement of machines. The arrangement imposed on capitalists the costs of housing and feeding a workforce of relatively inflexible size; mill-hands couldn’t be dismissed when looms sat idle without risking a labour shortfall later on. Too scarce locally for owners to sack and replace them casually, workers were prone to wildcat strikes, attempts at unionisation and acts of vandalism when they didn’t flee altogether. As an agent of the Poor Law Commission observed in 1836, ‘the incentive to industry and good conduct is lost, where the young person feels himself in state of bondage.’

The advantage of steam-powered factories over geographically isolated water mills was simply that they could be set up in towns. Unlike the captive and dependent workers of the water mills, the free urban proletariat bore the cost of its own upkeep. And because its numbers exceeded the requirements of capital, labourers liable to shiftlessness or militancy could be dismissed without endangering the supply of ready hands. Even the political gains of the labour movement favoured urban factories over rural colonies. The Ten Hours Bill fixed a new limit to the working day in 1847. Because rivers don’t run on command as steam engines can, ‘the more working hours were restricted – and the more such restrictions were anticipated – the larger the premium on an energy source unperturbed by the rhythm of the weather, or conversely: the shorter the working day, the more painful the cost of a wheel slowing or coming to a stop.’ A system of reservoir management like the one proposed for the River Irwell in the early 1830s might have ensured a steady flow of hydro-power to mill owners, but such schemes require a degree of co-ordination that typically eludes the mutually antagonistic capitalists in a given industry.

According to Malm’s general theory of ‘fossil capital’, industrial capitalism gave us the steam mill because flowing water’s fixity in space deprived capitalists of the crucial ability to locate production wherever labour was most plentiful and tractable. Steam ‘was adopted in spite of its massive drawbacks because of its mobility in space’, with the ‘spatiotemporal profile’ of coal – a compact and portable source of energy – allowing factory owners to operate wherever and whenever they pleased. Yet this very mobility in space is derived from the ‘immobile strata of concentrated energy’ that are fossil fuel deposits. Fossil fuels now persist, in the face of renewable alternatives, because of massive investments of capital in the fixed infrastructure of their production, refining and transportation. The transition to a post-carbon energy system that every rational person sees must be undertaken with all deliberate speed can’t occur without devaluing the assets, natural and built alike, of private and state-owned energy companies. Meanwhile, fossil energy is publicly subsidised at six times the rate of renewables. This subsidy to suicide is reason alone to doubt the possibility of any ecological capitalism. Malm’s remarkable book concludes with the heartening observation that ‘a global climate movement is gathering momentum’, but also the anxious question of whether it can ‘amass a social power larger than the enemy’s in the little time that is left’." (