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From fossil capitalism to energy democracy?

Originally published: The Bullet - The Socialist Project by William K. Carrol (March 3, 2020)   | 

As the 21st Century’s second decade opens, the increasingly severe symptoms of climate change comprise a pivot in the struggle for hegemony, globally and within national formations. With the highest per capital carbon emissions among the G20 states, Canada is a climate laggard and, in some respects, a first-world petro-state (Nikiforuk 2010), organized as a regime of obstruction (the title of an edited collection to be published this May, Carroll 2020d). Building on hegemonic relations installed during successive eras of capitalism, this regime is constituted through modalities of power that protect revenue streams issuing from carbon extraction, processing and transport while bolstering popular support for an accumulation strategy in which fossil capital figures as a leading fraction. The regime incorporates a panoply of hegemonic practices at different scales, reaching into civil and political society, and into Indigenous communities whose land claims and worldviews challenge state-mandated property rights.

Earth Boot This article draws upon a six-year collaborative investigation, centred on the case of Canada (Carroll and Daub 2018; Carroll 2020d). I highlight some of our findings on the modalities through which fossil capital’s economic and political-cultural power is exercised at different scales, and consider how a project of energy democracy might catalyze the formation of an alternative historical bloc, opening onto eco-socialism.

Modalities of Corporate Power

A Gramscian perspective distinguishes two dialectically constituted faces of contemporary corporate power–the economic and the political-cultural. Following Urry (1981), Figure 1 (below) schematizes these as a distinctive architecture comprised of three overlapping fields: state, civil society and economy. Although these are differentiated, they are not separate. Corporate power’s economic face is coterminous with the entire process of capital accumulation, yet it entails distinct modalities. Operational power, the power of management, flows through chains of command but is also wielded along commodity chains, from resource extraction, through transport and processing to consumption. In Canada, bitumen represents four-fifth of extractable oil, and five large companies control most of the action, with two additional firms dominating the continental pipeline infrastructure (Hussey et al 2020). Strategic power, the power to set business strategies, involves control of the corporation itself, often by owning the largest bloc of shares. Our mapping of share ownership of leading Canada-based fossil-capital corporations reveals a confluence of Canadian capitalist ownership–via families and financial institutions–and foreign ownership via transnational corporations and asset managers. These ownership relations are arrayed in a network of many weak ties (smaller institutional holdings) and a few dozen large holdings that confer strategic control upon their corporate or personal owners. The concentration of fossil capital and of its ownership/control represents a massive centralization of economic power in the hands of private investors accountable only to themselves (Carroll and Huijzer 2020). Finally, allocative power stems from the control of credit, the money-capital on which large corporations depend. This power, which accrues to financial institutions of all sorts (banks, life insurers, asset managers, hedge funds etc.), is crucial in expanding or retooling operations, launching takeover bids or coping with cash squeezes during crises (Carroll and Sapinski 2018). Canada’s financial sector is dominated by five big banks, each of which enables the accumulation of fossil capital and appropriates a portion of the surplus, through loans and share ownership, sometimes accompanied by interlocking directorates (ibid). The Rainforest Action Network has identified all five of Canada’s big banks as international leaders in funding fossil capital. These economic modalities are integrated within a complex circuitry in which capital metamorphoses across the productive, commercial and financial forms initially identified by Marx (1967).

Figure 1. Modalities of corporate power (from Carroll and Sapinski 2018:101).

Figure 1. Modalities of corporate power (from Carroll and Sapinski 2018:101).

Hegemonic power refers to how consent is organized and maintained, from the visceral level of everyday life to the top tiers of state and inter-governmental institutions. Within political and civil society corporate power is exercised by capital’s organic intellectuals, including corporate capitalists as ‘business leaders’. Such experts can be found on the directorates of leading corporations, where they integrate the corporate elite by serving on multiple boards. The elite’s cohesiveness is an important modality of hegemony, as it enables corporate capital to reach a consensus on long-term goals and vision, and on that basis, to speak politically with a single voice, and lead.

Network-analytic findings make this clear. The dense core of the fossil-capital elite is centred in Calgary, host to most Canadian fossil-capital firms, many of which share directors, creating a tight local network. The Calgary-based core, in turn, is part of a regionalized national network, as fossil companies share directors with financial institutions based mainly in Toronto, and with other major Canadian corporations. The Canadian national network is embedded in a transnational elite network that includes European, Asian and US-based corporations (Carroll 2020a).

Complementing elite integration is the reach of corporate power into the public sphere, shaping the institutions, agendas, policies, discourses and values that add up to an entire way of life. Vis-à-vis civil society, it includes, among other hegemonic practices:

  • business leadership through business councils, industry groups, policy-planning organizations, etc. (Carroll, Graham, Lang, McCartney and Yunker 2020),
  • public-relations and corporate social responsibility initiatives,
  • the framing of news and other media content to privilege business interests and the corporate organization of communications media, whose goal of profit maximization trumps the public interest.

Corporate funding of civil-society organizations is itself an expression of allocative power reaching into and colonizing the public sphere. Funds accumulated as capital are selectively directed, often through private foundations, to initiatives aligned with corporate business, including policy-planning groups, political parties, lobbies and industry groups, universities and research centres, community organizations and astro-turf advocacy groups such as Canada’s Energy Citizens, a creature of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) (ibid.).

Corporate power reaches into the state through hegemonic practices that include:

  • intensive and sustained lobbying (in 2017 alone, CAPP averaged more than three meetings each week with top federal officials (Graham, Carroll and Chen 2020);
  • regulatory capture (Canada’s National Energy Board rubber-stamped industry proposals for years, leading a 2017 investigative panel to relay concerns that the NEB had been “‘captured’ by the oil and gas industry, with many Board members who come from the industry that the NEB regulates…” (McCarthy 2017);
  • revolving doors, through which capital’s business leaders and organic intellectuals become political leaders and vice versa.

A final aspect of corporate reach into political society aligns corporations with the repressive arm of the state. When hegemony fails–when dissent becomes well organized and potentially effective–the state turns to more repressive means of social control. Vis-à-vis fossil capital, this began to happen under the Harper regime (2006-2015), as coalitions of Indigenous, environmental and social-justice activists resisted proposed pipelines such as Northern Gateway and Keystone XL. The state response was to partner with fossil-fuel corporations, to protect ‘strategic infrastructure’ (Crosby and Monaghan 2018). Although the Trudeau government softened the legal language in 2017, the same pattern continues, most recently in repression of the Wet’suwet’en Nation and allies (Brown and Bracken 2020), reminding us that although hegemony is ethico-political, its persuasive efforts are armored with coercion.

Accumulation Strategies, Hegemonic Projects, Historical Blocs

In a Gramscian perspective, power grounded in practices of capital accumulation and power resident in political and cultural practices are dialectically related. To the extent that they cohere into a way of life they form the institutional and ideological foundations of an historical bloc. Across the Global North during the post-war boom era, the reciprocally-reinforcing complex of fordist consumer capitalism (accumulation strategy) and Keynesian Welfare State (hegemonic project) came to comprise an expansive historical bloc that included organized labour. This bloc began to unravel in the stagflation of the 1970s. It gave way to a more transnationalized neoliberal paradigm. Favouring financial capital and the asset-owning middle class (Van der Pijl and Yurchenko 2014), the neoliberal bloc expelled organized labour, and with it, the politics of class compromise. Neoliberalism narrowed the hegemonic bloc, expelling organized labour and shrinking the middle class, and ultimately created a bubble of over-accumulated fictitious capital (Durand 2017), which burst in the autumn of 2008. Yet with the failure of any alternative to gain popular traction, neoliberalism has limped along while right-wing populism gains ground, with authoritarian and neo-fascist leadership now installed in Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, the U.S. and elsewhere–raising challenges for transnational neoliberalism’s open borders and ‘rule of law’. Drawing from our collaborative project and related endeavors, we can unpack how the hegemony of fossil capital works within a multi-scalar regime of obstruction, extending from the everyday to the global (see Table 1). In everyday life, Matthew Huber (2013) has explored how the hegemony of fossil capital was cemented in post-war America, with the rise of suburbanized consumerism. Within this assemblage, the individual experiences automobility as empowering and liberating, and the single detached house as a domain of personal sovereignty. The long-range result has been to constrain politics within narrow limits “focused on the family, private property, and anticollectivist sentiments” (Huber 2013, 79)–the stock-and-trade of neoliberalism.

Table 1: The regime of obstruction at different scales
ScaleKey Instances
Everyday LifeFossil-fueled consumer capitalism as a way of life: the privatized geography of automobility and suburbanization
Local communityCivic privatism/boosterism and hegemonic community economic identity: “The oil industry is us”; Indigenous ambivalence
InstitutionsEntrenchment of fossil interests in institutions of knowledge production, etc.: petro-universities and state-subsidized R&D
Sub-nationalAlberta as petro-state, fossil boosterism in extractive and sacrifice zones
NationalContention around the ‘national interest’, through elite policy-planning and online extractivist populist networks
TransnationalGlobal governance and transnational policy-planning to manage crisis and maintain fossil-capital predominance

Emily Eaton and Simon Enoch’s (2020) ethnographic research shows how fossil corporations have instilled a ‘hegemonic community economic identity’ in small-town Saskatchewan as citizens embrace the frames and narratives of the petroleum industry. In these instances, a fossil-capitalist world view is deeply lodged in identity and community, as the allocative power of corporations funding local amenities combines with the discursive power of industry-propagated frames. Communities come to see their fate and industry’s fate as inextricably linked and they rise to the defense of companies against threats posed by climate-activist ‘outsiders’.

In Canada, some local communities are Indigenous, and their strong claims to land and self-governance have always troubled a hegemonic bloc based in settler colonialism. Genocidal policies succeeded for many decades in marginalizing and silencing Indigenous voices, but have bequeathed a legacy of injustice that demands reparation. Resurgent Indigenous politics speaks in an ethico-political voice, defending Mother Earth and championing buen vivir with an appealing alternative vision. Yet as Clifford Atleo (2020) argues, Indigenous struggles for self-determination coexist, ambivalently, with capitalism’s powerful capacities to invade “every corner of the earth and our imaginations.” As some Indigenous leaders have accommodated the logic of neoliberal capitalism within a contradictory consciousness, one version of self-determination now envisages Indigenous peoples as sovereign participants in a capitalist way of life, garnering the benefits of resource extraction within “a despiritualized world understood simply as a business opportunity” (Coburn and Atleo 2016: 190). This meshes with the Canadian state and capitalist class’s interest in winning permanent consent to capitalist development on Indigenous land. The struggle for hearts and minds is no less salient for Indigenous peoples than for non-Indigenous.

At subnational scale, we encounter a diversity of scenarios within specific regions and institutions, shaped by the uneven spatial distribution of carbon resources. In extractive and sacrifice zones, fossil boosterism tends to prevail, with good-news narratives displacing dissent and critique. At first blush, British Columbia, currently governed by a social-democratic/green alliance that has opposed expansion of a bitumen pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, might appear as a ‘climate leader’. Yet the ongoing capitalization of massive methane reserves in BC’s northeast suggests otherwise, as does the captured status of the BC Oil and Gas Commission, which rubber-stamps new fossil-capital projects (Daub, Ejeckam, Graham and Yunker, 2020). In Alberta, hegemonic reach extends to an industrial-scientific complex which subsidizes corporate profitability by lowering production costs as it also transfuses market values into the public sphere (Carroll, Graham and Yunker 2018 Adkin 2020).

At national scale, the struggle for hearts and minds is condensed into contention around the ‘national interest’. Here we can discern a shift from the hard-denialism of Harper to a Trudeau regime that acknowledges fossil capital’s central role in the climate crisis while denying the need to decarbonize energy systems at a pace commensurate with what we know from climate science. As a hegemonic intervention, this ‘new denialism’ (Daub, Blue, Rajewicz and Yunker 2020) advocates technological and market-based fixes that buy time for continuing to ramp-up carbon extraction while creating new profit-making opportunities, both for fossil capital and for a subordinate but growing renewables sector. The strategic gambit is to win a measure of popular support while neutralizing opposition. The Trudeau government’s 2016 announcement of a Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, nine days after approving two major pipeline projects (one of which the federal government now owns), is exemplary (Linnitt 2016). But with climate-denialist governments installed in Alberta and Ontario, the Framework has been unraveling. Its challenges reveal how entrenched fossil capital interests are within the federated Canadian polity, and how low-tax, light-regulation neoliberalism deepens those trenches.

Of course, the practices that maintain a wider historical bloc for fossil capitalism extend beyond the state-capital nexus. Board interlocks enable carbon-sector reach into knowledge-producing domains of civil society, in an elite network that is centred in Alberta yet linked to the central-Canadian corporate elite through hegemonic capitalist organizations that include business councils, think tanks and industry associations. The many threads of elite communication and collaboration in civil society enable the fossil-capital elite to advance its profit-driven concerns as in the national interest, “obstructing the kinds of changes that could decarbonize our ecological footprint in a timely manner, but that also threaten corporate profits and control of economic decisions” (Carroll, Graham, Lang, McCartney and Yunker 2020).

Elite networks are complemented by what Gunster et al. (2020) term online networks of extractivist populism constituting a petrobloc “oriented around neoliberal extractivism, ecoskepticism and transnational ‘market fundamentalist’ epistemic communities” (Neubauer 2017: iii). Extractivist populism portrays ‘ordinary people’ as victims of liberal elites who impose their values upon everyone else (Gunster and Saurette 2014). In constructing a pro-fossil ‘national interest’ based partly in anti-elite resentment, online extractivist communities combine conventional pro-business tropes (e.g., jobs vs environment, opposition to state regulation) with more innovative discourses to construct accessible, appealing and easily shared legitimating narratives and frames. Online ‘echo chambers’ insulate industry supporters from the wider world, accentuating the public sphere’s fragmentation and impeding public conversations crucial to democracy.

co2 Elite networks also shape an historical bloc at transnational scale. Space does not allow in-depth discussion; however, my own research (Carroll 2020c) shows that the segment of the global corporate elite network centred upon fossil capital is divided between a large, integrated community of mainly American corporations, a smaller Franco-German-Canadian configuration and a third, loosely-knit, diverse community in which British capital predominates. Fossil capital continues to occupy a central position in the American corporate community, as it does in Canada.

Still, changes are afoot, with China and Europe (and sub-nationally, states such as California) opening space for renewables in the energy mix while financial institutions divest from the dirtiest fossil fuels, including Alberta’s Tar Sands (McSheffrey 2017). This brings us to climate capitalism, an emergent accumulation strategy which “seeks to redirect investments from fossil energy to renewable energy generation so as to foster an ecological modernization of production and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” (Sapinski 2015: 268; Adkin 2017). The promise of climate capitalism is to shepherd world capitalism to a safe landing without disrupting its essential nucleus in capitalist relations of production.

The Trudeau government’s climate action plan melds fossil capitalism with climate capitalism: a robust ‘sell-out’ of bitumen (Bush 2018), while global demand still exists, combined with a gentle program of state support for renewables and other mitigation efforts. But time is not on this venture’s side, as the costs of renewables already undercut carbon. More generally, however, climate capitalism faces two big challenges: 1/ its pace of change is too slow, compared to the realities of the climate emergency and 2/ capital’s growth imperative practically precludes a shrinking footprint.

Climate capitalism fits the Gramscian notion of passive revolution quite well. Deployed in an organic crisis, when bourgeois hegemony has weakened, passive revolution is “a strategy which allows the bourgeoisie to reorganize its dominance politically and economically” (Sassoon 1982: 134). Within Climate-Capitalism rhetoric, Justin Trudeau’s mantra, to ‘grow the middle class’, invokes the reassuringly familiar desire for more of the same (material goods and services), while ‘clean growth’ provides the means to that regnant end. In the struggle for hegemony, Climate Capitalism

  • offers a system-affirming response to the climate crisis which tugs at consumerist hearts and technocratic minds, averts the need for any leap into unknown territory, and seems to carry minimal costs;
  • promises to reconfigure the forces of production to avert runaway climate change, yet protects the relations of production which form the nucleus of a now-global, class-dominated way of life; and
  • portends a molecular shift in the historical bloc, as fossil capital enters managed decline while renewable energy substitutes (and associated workforces) develop under the control of big capital.

As Gramscian scholars have suggested, to counter a passive revolution one must conduct an anti-passive revolution: a war of position which extends popular-democratic and class struggles “so as to mobilize ever-wider sections of the population for democratic reforms” (Simon, 1982: 49; Sassoon 1982).

Energy Democracy as Non-Reformist Reform

Energy democracy neatly condenses the double power shift, from fossil-fuel power to renewables and from corporate oligarchy to democratic control of economic decisions. A feasible and just alternative to the non-democratic organization of fossil capitalism and Climate Capitalism, energy democracy’s three overarching goals–“resisting the fossil-fuel-dominant energy agenda while reclaiming and democratically restructuring energy regimes” (Burke and Stephens 2017: 35)–inform a strategy that connects the dots between divestment initiatives, First Nations protectors, anti-fracking protests, community solar projects, etc. (ibid: 45). There is evidence that such a bloc is emerging. Leading NGOs have recently formed an international Energy Democracy alliance and an open space for participating groups. In this light we can revisit key instances in fossil-capital hegemony, with an eye toward the forms energy democracy might take at different scales (see Table 2).

In everyday life, politically-inflected lifestyle changes and informal networks that reject fossil-fueled consumerism can foster changes in ‘common sense’ that extricate people from the doxa of fossil-fueled consumerism and enlarge the popular base for energy democracy. Within local communities, decarbonization and decommodification of public transit can have a broader impact, as can practices such as community gardening that promote alternatives to carboniferous industrial agriculture. Indigenous resistance to colonization, closely associated with Indigenous resurgence (Coburn and Atleo 2016), propels Aboriginal communities into leadership, in alliance with environmental and other movements, in a principled politics of decolonization and democratization reaching beyond local communities. Corporatized institutions such as universities can be reclaimed as public services, as can science and technology.

Table 2: Fossil Capitalism and Energy Democracy at Different Scales
ScaleInstances of fossil-capital hegemonyPractices of energy democracy
Everyday lifeFossil-fueled consumer capitalism as a way of life, automobility as freedomPolitically-inflected lifestyle changes; informal local and online discussion
Local communityCivic privatism/boosterism; Indigenous ambivalenceFree public transit, principled alliance politics of decolonization and democratization, subsidiarity
InstitutionsEntrenchment of fossil interests in institutions of knowledge production, etc.Reclaiming public institutions, divestment, science and technology for the people
Sub-nationalFossil boosterism in extractive and sacrifice zonesReclaim Alberta, Iron and Earth
NationalContention over the ‘national interest’, through elite policy-planning and online extractivist populist networksLeap, RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs)
TransnationalGlobal governance and transnational policy-planningTrade Unions for Energy Democracy, Indigenous Environmental Network

At sub-national scale, grassroots groups like Reclaim Alberta are calling for a just transition that heals the Earth from fossil capital’s notorious externalities, while Iron and Earth, led by Tar Sands workers, has created “a platform to engage in renewable energy development issues, and to empower us to advocate for an energy future we can be proud of creating.” Across Canada, Leap, both the Manifesto and the movement it has spawned, is a significant intervention in re-defining the national interest, which explicitly uses an energy democracy frame. RAVEN, an Indigenous-led initiative, provides material support in legal struggles over the integrity of traditional lands and cultures. In 2019 an important initiative took shape through community-based discussions feeding into a bottom-up process to define “what a Green New Deal should look like, to identify commonalities, and to start developing specific proposals.” Transnationally, hegemonic global governance is countered by networks from below that include the Indigenous Environmental Network and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

The challenge is to articulate these progressive forces into a coherent bloc that includes energy-sector workers, for whom a just transition must foster ‘upward-leveling relationships’ so that as fossil energy is decommissioned displaced workers find comparable positions in a rapidly expanding renewable energy sector (Abramsky 2010: 657). Such formation requires dialogical engagement through communicative democracy, to undo the exclusionary practices that relegate some voices to the margins and that replicate, within the left, the logic of hierarchy (Carroll 2015: 666). Yet to encompass a deep transformation the bloc must extend beyond energy democracy per se. In view of the foundational relationship in Canada between colonialism and capitalism, decarbonization and democratization must be conjoined with decolonization, enhancing capacities for Indigenous self-determination. By the same token, the close symbiosis of energy and finance means that a robust energy democracy must bring the financial sector itself under democratic control. Much the same can be said about the need to undo hegemonic corporate power within communications media, to ‘remake media’ along democratic lines (Hackett and Carroll 2006).

For André Gorz (1967), non-reformist reforms are steps toward system change, which avoid co-optation by disturbing the capitalist status quo in ways that build popular power. Energy democracy is in this sense a bundle of targeted, non-reformist reforms, an ‘entry project’ (Brie 2010) that can open space for democratization and decolonization of economic, political and cultural life. In such a transformation, corporate power would give way to popular power and participatory planning in production and allocation, to environmental stewardship and authentic reconciliation, to public communication and inclusive community development. To address the modalities of corporate power that sustain capitalist hegemony, energy democracy needs to be developed in concert with other non-reformist reforms in the workplace, in finance and in cultural production, in a war of position that adds up to a project of democratic eco-socialism (cf. Baer 2019; Candieas 2013; Löwy 2018), incorporating, within an expansive historical bloc, those struggling for economic, climate and gender justice and against racism and ongoing colonization.

The case of Canada illuminates substantive and strategic issues that resonate more widely throughout the Global North and, arguably, the world. The urgent struggle for a world beyond fossil capital may be the leading edge of convergent movements to create a socially just and ecologically vibrant world beyond capital. •

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