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Cracking earth in Cape Town, South Africa

Channel the panic into political action

Originally published: junge Welt (April 21 2018)

The following interview with Andreas Malm, which covers the impotence of postmodernism in face of climate change and capital’s role in the destruction of nature, has been translated from German by Christian Stache. The translation is not the responsibility of junge Welt.

In your recently released book The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, you scrutinize mainly three related postmodernist approaches of nature, society and their interrelation with regard to climate change. Can you sum up the basic traits and messages of constructionism, hybridism and new materialism in this respect?
Andreas Malm

Andreas Malm

Constructionism about nature says, in short, that nature is a human construction. It is either a product of our way of thinking and talking about nature or actually, materially built by humans. In both cases, it is our own doing. New materialism is a school of thinking about things, matter, all sorts of material stuff, including what we normally refer to as ‘nature’. Its core idea is that matter has agency—that a cloud or a microbe or a plastic bag can have strivings and goals just as much as humans. Both constructionism and new materialism seek, in their distinctive ways, to collapse the distinction between the social and the natural and portray them as essentially one and the same thing. Hence they are two versions of hybridism—a general understanding of the relation between nature and society that seeks to deny any difference between the two.

You criticize these accounts and above all Bruno Latour, one of the co-founders of actor network theory, harshly for giving up the theoretical tools to understand climate change and struggle against ecological destruction. You actually call climate change the litmus test for those concepts. What does climate change tell us about these en vogue social sciences?

Constructionism makes inexplicable the many natural laws and relations that are activated through fossil fuel combustion and constitute the problem of global warming – the latter could hardly exist as a problem if it were not for the workings of external, independent, non-human nature. Take for instance the fact that ice melts above 0 degree. This is not something humans have constructed. It’s an eternal physical fact, which plays a very significant role in the unfolding of the effects of fossil fuel combustion. New materialism, on the other hand, attributes a wholly unrealistic capacity to things. No piece of coal, no tree, no spade or drill has dug up and burnt fossil fuels—only humans have, and only humans are possessed with the agency required to do so.

As for Latour, he has a hand in both of these currents—having long promoted the idea of natural science as a social construction and that of things as agents—as well as in several other ideas that simply obfuscatethe processes of climate change. And yet he and his associates are enormously influential in Western academy.

In The Progress of This Storm, you bring forward the thesis that the appearance of these postmodernist ideologies correlate with the paralysis of the dismantled left and the rise of climate denialism, famously represented by the populist right in the Western World like the Trumpists in the U.S. or the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. How do you interpret the simultaneity of these developments?

I would hesitate to draw links between postmodernist ideas in the academy and the rise and rise and rise of the far right. The latter has other drivers. It is, however, truly remarkable that the parties most successful in Europe at the present moment either takes the Trump position on climate change—explicitly denying the science, or casting doubt on and belittling it; rejecting renewable energy initiatives; championing fossil fuels—or are just indifferent to the issue. How is this possible in the year 2018, when global warming is more disastrously dangerous than ever before? How can these parties surge all over the continent, from Italy to Sweden? It’s a pathology future Europeans, historians and lay people, will marvel at.

I believe that we need to conduct much more precise and comprehensive analyses of this political force: the far right that attacks immigrants with one hand and digs up coal and oil with the other. All signs are that it will continue to set the agenda for European (not to speak of American) politics in the near future, but we have barely begun to understand the logic of the combination of xenophobia/Islamophobia and climate denialism/fossil fuel chauvinism. The magnitude of this threat – including for any kind of sensible climate politics—can hardly be exaggerated. From now on, progress on climate change demands progress in the anti-fascist struggle.

Against the social constructionist zeitgeist among scholars and left activists, you defend a dialectical differentiation of nature and society within a socialist climate realism and you plead for less of Latour, more of Lenin. Why is it necessary to uphold a historical materialist notion of nature and society and what can we learn from Lenin to understand and confront climate change?

A historical materialism that takes seriously both the processes of nature and society and examines their intertwinement—ever more destructive under capitalism—has the greatest potential to illuminate our condition.  More particularly, it can account for the dynamics of capital accumulation, the engine of global warming over the past two centuries. To grasp the damage it does, on the other hand, we need a realist understanding of nature—a bit of scientific socialism, if you will. Lenin is the thinker and practitioner of urgent intervention par excellence. If you read his text, The impending catastrophe and how to combat it, from 1917 you get a good summary of the challenges we face: there is a catastrophe coming—everyone knows it (in Lenin’s case a famine; in our climate breakdown)—the ruling classes are incapable of implementing measures to stave itoff, and so progressives need to exercise power—not trying to change the world without taking power, but taking power so as to save the world, if the cliché is allowed. Anyone worried about climate change should read Lenin from 1917.

The Progress of This Storm is an intervention in predominantly epistemological discourses. Instead, your award-winning book Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming published in 2016 is a social historical investigation of the origins of climate change. Your eco-Operaist narrative leads to the insights that climate change originates in the capitalist production relations and the class struggles in mid 19th century Britain. Can you outline the connection between the establishment of capitalism, the victory of the British capitalist class back then and the galloping destruction of the climate system today?

The British capitalist class invented a fateful formula for victory in the class struggle: deploy as much fossil-fuelled machinery as possible to defeat workers, keep them in check and maximise production. All sorts of working-class advances were met by mechanisation and automation: vast bodies of dead labour rolled out to defeat the living, with the power drawn from the steam-engine. Because that engine was fuelled by fossil energy, it was not bound to particular spots in the landscape—the main drawback of water-power—and so could be placed wherever workers were most plentiful, cheap and disciplined. That formula was subsequently exported around the world. Capitalists from the U.S. to Japan adopted it, and after the crisis in the relation between labour and capital in the 1970s and 80s, it was put in practice in China and other parts of Asia, where it touched of the largest explosion of CO2 emissions in history.

There is a still ongoing debate in natural and social sciences if we are living in a new geological era established by humans, and if so, how to call it. Following your analysis in Fossil Capital, you define the contemporary phase as the Capitalocene. What does the term mean and why did you choose it?

I think capital is a more precise designation of the prime mover of this geological epoch than humanity, as in the standard ‘Anthropocene’. It’s not humans in general that have created and upheld the fossil economy—it is precisely capital, from the early nineteenth century until today. The term Capitalocene has gained some currency among activists and radical scholars lately, but I do not expect it to reach anything like the acceptance of Anthropocene, for obvious reasons: it implies that we need to rid this earth of capital.

I should add, however, that I don’t think the most important thing is what word you use, what name and term for the current geological epoch you favour—what matters is whether you point to humanity in general or identify capital in particular as the force of destruction. I know many comrades who do the latter while still using the term Anthropocene, and that’s fine with me.

Despite of all green talk, international agreements and the promotion of green technologies, there is no question that the fossilist capital faction has maintained its economic predominance and its political influence on the state apparatuses in the imperialist countries. But at first sight, it seems at least conceivable that capitalist business-as-usual can be run on renewable energies as well. You doubt this vision. Why do you think, is it impossible for capitalists to make profits with the sun and winds?

I don’t exclude the scenario of a capitalist mode of production running on renewable energies. That mode existed before steam-power and might conceivable do so again. If it’s something we have learned from the past century, it is that we should never declare that capitalism is on its way out, because it cannot overcome this or that challenge—it has proven an infinitely flexible system with a thousand and one lives!

There do, however, seem to be certain obstacles to a transition to renewable energy. One of them is that the production of solar and wind does not have the same astounding profit potentials as the extraction of coal or gas or oil. The latter fuels require investment and labour, but no one can work so that the sun shines or the wind blows. Such fuels always come for free. There is no fuel to sell in these lines of business, nothing to profit from, in the way you can discover an oil field and dig up the fuel and make money from selling it. It still appears that the potentials for profit are of another magnitude in the fossil fuel sector and this certainly accounts for the tenacity with which fossil fuel corporations defend their lines of business: perhaps the greatest and most dangerous force for decades of inertia. A real transition would demand that these corporations are, to put it simply, liquidated. That is nowhere on the cards yet. As long as it’s not, this planet will continue to heat up rapidly.

Referring to Adorno, you classify climate change as one of the retrogressions in the historical development of capitalism in line with Auschwitz. What brings you to this conclusion?

One shouldn’t make too much of this analogy, but I do think global warming can have a structural position in our analysis of contemporary capitalism reminiscent of that of Auschwitz in Adorno’s: as the logical endpoint, the culmination of regressive tendencies, the summing up of all the victories of the capitalist class in one universal mega-disaster.

If climate change is such a threat, particularly to the proletarian masses in the global periphery, one stumbles upon the warnings of some leftists against stoking panic or catastrophism. However, you encourage your readers: Dare to feel the panic. In what respect is panic a good adviser?

Panic is the rational reaction to the state of the art of climate science. It strikes me that adherents of bourgeois optimism—think of Stephen Pinker, for instance—like to think of themselves as custodians of enlightenment and reason, while the basic premise of their optimism is in fact scientific illiteracy, in the crucial fields of climate and other types of environmental change. If you actually believe in climate science as a rational endeavour and take its findings to heart, panic is the only reasonable emotional response. On its own it won’t make a difference. It has to be combined with a confidence in the possibility of collective struggle to break with business-as-usual. This is the real challenge: to channel the panic many of us feel into a commensurate level of political action.

In an interview with a Swedish newspaper, you lately called yourself an Armchair Activist. This has not always been the case. You have been a political activist yourself with boots on the ground for quite a long time. You lived in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, for example, working in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Do you see a common thread in the struggles for Palestinian liberation and ecological justice?

I lived in the West Bank for half a year in 1999 and spent a lot of time there between 1996 and 2004—perhaps a little more than a year in total. Yes, I definitely see a common thread between the two struggles, as I have tried to lay outin an article called The Walls of the Tank: On Palestinian Resistance. The analogies are almost two many to mention. My own perception is that both struggles confront overwhelming forces that one day have to be stopped and reversed – truly reversed, as in negative emissions and the right of return, to undo some of the damage that has been done. The climate struggle and the Palestinian struggle both cling to the hope of a sea change, even though the enemy has, so far, never ceased to be victorious and some losses are already irreversible.

If your analysis of the postmodern impotence in face of climate change and of the destructive power of Fossil Capital is correct and if the liberation of nature is a global class demand, as you proclaim, what is to be done?

The most immediate task is, I think, to develop an agenda for working-class politics that is also one for a transition to a zero-carbon economy: ideas such as climate jobs, just transition, shortened working-days and similar demands that can kill two birds with one stone. The next time capitalism hits the fan, the Left has to be prepared to advance the material interests of the working-class with projects that can accomplish a rapid shift to renewable energies. The only alternative will be the far right.


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