Malm’s “Fossil Capital”

Capital is Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism. Capitalism is a mode of production, a historical social system (as were primitive communism, the slave states of Greece and Rome and feudalism). After primitive communism, society divided into social classes. Class societies are composed of (1) an economy, based on the relationship of the owners of the means of production to the direct producers (e.g. slave-owner to slave, feudal lord to peasant, capitalist to wage-worker); (2) a reproductive unit (e.g. clan, nuclear family); and (3) a state, which maintains the system in interests of the ruling class. Historical Materialism is Marx’s theory about the origin and development of modes of production. Let us begin with a sketch of that theory.

It begins with human needs: subsistence (i.e. food, clothing, shelter) and reproduction (i.e. the rearing of children). Every mode of production must provide for them. It is also subject to the environment (e.g. climate, the availability of water, raw materials, fertility of the soil, etc.), which, together with human needs, provide the meeting between society and nature, the Labor Process.

The Labor Process is conceived in terms of the architectural metaphor of base and superstructure. Upon an economic base arises the superstructure of the state, family and other social institutions. The base (i.e. economy) is composed of the relations of production and subject to the forces of production.

The forces of production are composed of the means of production (i.e. technology, raw materials) and labor power (i.e. human strength, knowledge and skills). The relations of production connect human beings to the forces of production: this determines the class structure of society. This structure is viewed dynamically as the class struggle between the ruling class (i.e. those who control the means of production) and the working class (i.e. the direct producers) over the social surplus (i.e. food reserves, etc.). The development of the productive forces – particularly the discovery of new technologies and sources of energy – is the primary cause of the rise and fall of historical modes of production. To Marx’s political-economic model, Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital, has added an ecological dimension: a Marxist Theory of Climate.

Like Marx, Malm’s model is Britain, which he considers the creator of fossil capitalism and, therefore, the homeland of Global Warming. A fossil economy is “…one of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide (p. 11).” The fossil economy, the main cause of Global Warming, first appeared in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

Coal, first among fossil fuels, had been used before the fossil economy for centuries for heating homes. Malm calls this the proto-fossil economy,”…one in which: (1) a coal industry has developed, with underground mines and regular trade; (2) coal has become the major source of heat in the public sphere; (3) coal has penetrated industry as a heat provider; (4) domestic consumption is predominate; (5) impressive rates of growth in coal consumption is achieved during the phases of substitution, without any self-sustaining economic growth being predicated on fossil fuels (p. 52).” As Britain is our model of fossil capitalism, so the manufacture of cotton is the “…key industry of the British economy (p. 68).”

The transition to fossil capitalism was the product of a revolution in power: in both its scientific and social meanings. In Marx’s model, these are represented by the forces and relations of production. In cotton manufacture, the forces of production were provided by (1) labor-power (i.e. human capacities, knowledge and skills); (2) machines (Arkwright’s mill, Watt’s steam engine, the self-acting mule, the power loom); (3) energy (i.e. human, animal, water, coal); and (4) raw materials (i.e. cotton, plant dyes, etc.). The relations of production consisted of the means by which the capitalist class controlled the working class. Fossil capitalism was, consequently, a system of power over both nature and human beings. Let us examine its history.

The factory system was initiated in 1772 with Arkwright’s cotton spinning mill at Cromford. Its machines were powered by the water of a stream, and manufactured cotton for clothing, a basic human need. Cotton thread was spun in machines in a fraction of the time taken by the spinning wheel. The factory began with 300 workers, and as the years passed and more mills were built, rose to as many as 1150. The rate of profit was as high as 50%, so that the owners accumulated colossal wealth.

“…A novel logic of self-fueling expansion was implanted in the British economy…ceaseless improvements in productivity, high rates of profit, reinvestment of profits and thereby – output multiplying – continuous accumulation of industrial capital. Self-sustaining growth had arrived. It took another half a century or so before it seized hold of the British economy in its entirety (p. 47)”.

But cotton manufacture had arisen on the basis of waterpower. James Watt enters the story, in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine. Its only viable fuel was coal, which was much more expensive that waterpower. The invention of the steam engine was followed by that of the self-acting mule, a machine for cotton spinning, and the power loom, one for weaving. “The self-acting mule was not only the first truly automatic machine, but also the first invention of the cotton industry to be geared, from its birth, to the steam engine as prime mover (p. 66).”

But cotton clothing had to be both spun into thread and woven into cloth. “The ‘power loom’ had been invented in 1784, refined over the following decades and demonstrated to be equal or superior to the handloom but consistently snubbed by manufacturers (p. 69).” The handloom, used by workers in cottages and cellars, continued to outnumber the power loom by almost four to one. The handloom weavers were the largest group of workers in any British industry.

“Because earnings after 1825 were so low as to frequently fall below subsistence levels, the handloom weavers were driven deeper into the survival strategy of embezzlement, which, in turn, caused mounting losses and ruinous competition among manufacturers…For an individual capitalist, the shift to power looms would then have been the safest insurance against theft; for cotton capital as a whole, it seems to have gone a long way in eradicating the black market and consolidating control over labour (p. 74).”

But protection against embezzlement was not the sole aim of the cotton manufacturers; if so, they could have simply brought workers together in sheds under the watchful eyes of foremen. Under the direction of the steam engine, on the other hand, workers could be forced to work at a steady pace dictated by the machine. And power looms produced at least three times more cloth per unit of time (p. 74).

“Just as in spinning, capitalist victory materialized through the mobilization of power: protection against embezzlement, regulation of the work rhythm, higher productivity, the exploitation of female and juvenile labour, larger profits or smaller losses, coalescence of the two great departments of cotton production to mechanical energy. For the handloom weavers, this was an extinction event (p. 76).”

The decision to use coal over water was also the result of cotton manufacturers inability to cooperate and employ planning in the division of the river’s waterpower (p. 118). They quarreled over the amount of water needed, the timing of its delivery, and its cost. Steam engines powered by coal, they believed, preserved their independence. And steam engines enhanced their mobility: they could be placed in populous cities and towns where workers were easily procured. Furthermore, 1851 was the beginning of urbanization. The census of that year for the first time recorded that the majority of the population lived in urban areas. By 1900, the metropolitan region of Manchester “…contained the largest concentration of human population on the planet (p. 145).” The period of the transition from water to steam coincided with the greatest burst in urbanization ever seen in Britain.

These populous towns became the sites for one of capitalism’s defining features, the factory system. “Power was essential to the factory system…because the ‘synchronization of a sequence of highly specialized machines could not be effected by manual power.’ It was the mechanical centrality of the non-human prime mover, its propulsion of an integrated process of production that set the factory apart (p. 127).”

“In the factory, the laborer had to conform to the motion of the central prime mover. She was under obligation to keep pace with it, carrying out the actions directed by its array of machines in unison with a whole team of operatives who had to begin, pause, restart and stop at signals. She must submit to the command of the manufacturer and his over-lookers, who enforced compliance with rules laid down (p. 128)…”

The factory system demanded factory discipline. It was repugnant to workers who had formally worked for themselves with their own tools. It was done in dark, dirty, cramped conditions, where the air was polluted. The machines emitted loud, frightening noise; and were dangerous to life and limb. It was regarded “…as a kind of prison (p. 120).” Factory discipline required habituation, which could only be the result of successive generations becoming gradually accustomed to this miserable life.

In the beginning, the cotton mills were dependent on the forced labor of the apprentice system. Orphan children in poorhouses, between the age of twelve to twenty-one, worked without remuneration for fourteen to fifteen hours a day. These penal colonies for children began to decline in 1820. Afterwards, it was rural families, who had migrated to the cities and towns, who worked in the mills. Immigration gave way to natural increase as the largest source of urban population growth. And coal, used for heating, encouraged urban growth. An industrial reserve army of the unemployed located in densely populated cities placed downward pressure on the wages of workers in factories.

“…the ranks of urbanites swelled primarily with second generations: young boys and girls born and raised in towns with no personal memories of other forms of social existence (p. 146).” These subsequent generations of youth gradually became habituated to the gruesome factory world. The urban location also facilitated cotton manufacturer profitability by being near the markets for purchasing its materials and the sale of its products. “Once the process was set in motion, the synergies of labour supplies, markets, hubs of knowledge, shared infrastructure and other features of the nucleus tended to grow by themselves, further attracting new factories…Steam power was the sine qua non of this agglomeration (p. 158).”

“Once capitalist property relations were established in commodity production, capital and labour were locked in combat, inducing the former to unleash wave after wave of machines to subdue the latter (p. 199).” The advantage of the machine was to supersede human labor altogether, or to diminish its cost by substituting women and children for men, or ordinary laborers for skilled artisans. This general assault by capital on the working class brought the response of the Factory Movement of 1825-1850.

Its activity was centered on cotton manufacturing, and its chief goal was the ten-hour day. Locked out of the franchise, the working class sought the advocacy of sympathetic MPs, who introduced the Ten Hours Bill and later the Factory Acts. “…the British textile industry nevertheless changed forever: henceforth there would be a fixed normal working day (p. 188).” With this limit on the length of the working day, the manufacturer responded with greater intensity, or speedup. “…a shorter day would spur the mill-owner to drive the workers – hence the machinery, hence the engine – ‘at the utmost rate of speed’ (p. 188).”

The fossil economy saw its highest rate of growth between 1815 and 1830. With manufacturers presiding over the largest share of combustion, followed by proprietors of iron and steel works, by 1855 Britain had consummated the fossil economy.


Chapter 26, The Secret of Primitive Accumulation, is the final part of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. In it he describes the history of the capitalist mode of production, beginning with its “point of departure”, the process by which the working class was divorced from the means of production. To this history “…written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”, Malm, has, once again, added an ecological dimension.

“Primitive accumulation of fossil capital is the process by which capital is invested in the production of fossil fuels while at the same time dissolving the bond between the direct producers and the earth, fencing off nature as private property, dispossessing farmers, hunters, herders, fishermen and others hitherto independent of the market, contributing to the creation and expansion of capitalist property relations (p. 320).”

It began with coal. For the coal industry to emerge, the laws for the ownership of land and its contents had to be entirely rewritten. “…in 1566, eight years into Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a royal court excluded all mineral resources except gold and silver from the regale, or the ownership and control of the Crown. With a stroke of the pen, coal deposits were transformed into private property. (p. 322).” Mining rights could now be bought and sold by investors.

“Under customary law, tenant farmers were entitled to move cattle on commons, take wood and even coal for domestic use…after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, enclosures and expulsions were almost never inspired by riches underground, but after Elizabeth’s succession to the throne, such motives came to the fore. Lords would simply appropriate land where they suspected that minerals were buried (p. 323).”

This provoked desperate resistance on the part of the peasantry. By the end of the seventeenth century, exclusive private property to coal rich lands had been conclusively enforced, the customary tenants and commoners deprived of virtually all of their rights (p. 324).” “…ownership of the stock…came to be concentrated in the hands of the few…the rise of coal contributed to the eviction of tenants and the general decline of peasant proprietorship in England. In some regions, coal enclosures were paramount in divorcing the direct producers from the land (p.324).”

“’Only in Great Britain…were rights of the landowners to all minerals, except gold and silver, made absolute.’ That principle had no precedent or analogue anywhere else in the world (p. 325).”

“…this reinterpretation…allows us to flesh out a theory of the primitive accumulation of fossil capital…a process by 1) initiating the accumulation of capital through the provision of F (fuel) to the market 2) having its origins in the expropriation of the land and the conversion of the stock into private property and 3) spreading and consolidating capitalist property relations. It laid the foundation for the subsequent rise of the fossil economy (p.325).”

(Malm’s Fossil Capital is largely the story of the coal/steam engine epoch of capitalism. It would take another history on its scale and depth to bring us from coal to capitalism’s expansion into petroleum and natural gas. Malm recommends Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy. It suggests that the organized power of the working class – in mines, railroads, and docks – resulted in major coal strikes during the world wars. This caused the capitalists to invest in oil. “An important goal of the conversion to oil, was to permanently weaken the coal miners, whose ability to interrupt the flow of energy had given organized labour the power to demand the improvements to collective life that had democratized Europe’: a more tranquil source of energy would be oil from the middle Eastern deserts. Gushing from the ground, it could be pumped into the landscape by a relatively small workforce…thanks to its liquidity, the transport required less labour. From the mid-twentieth century, the fossil economy turned towards the Middle East as its new centre of gravity (p. 356)…”)


Imperialism is Lenin’s description of the “latest stage” of capitalism. Having begun in the late nineteenth century, it spread across the globe to create the world commodity market. But the capitalist mode of production, in the form of the large-scale factory, had been largely confined to Europe, the United Stated and Japan. The rest of the world was used as a source of raw materials, cheap labor, markets and investment. The advanced nations had partitioned the globe among themselves, closing one sphere of influence to the others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, it had been completely divided; so that further competition required its redivision. Imperialism’s chief characteristics are: (1) the centralization of production and distribution in monopoly corporations; (2) the export of capital; (3) the merging of firms with banks, as finance capital; and (4) the fusion of capital with the state. This economic competition, between blocs of nations-states, led to military competition; and this, in turn, to two world wars. Malm’s Fossil Capital adds an ecological dimension to our current imperialist, or “globalized” world economy.

“…we may propose a simple hypothesis for the era of globalized production. Globally mobile capital will relocate factories to situations where labour power is cheap and disciplined – where the rate of surplus-value promises to be largest – by means of new rounds of massive consumption of fossil energy (p. 333).”

“A transnational corporation (TNC) is a firm-specific asset, something it owns and can insert into the host country (p. 334).”

“…on a quest for optimum profitability, capital roams the earth more freely than ever before. Labour, on the other hand, remains relatively place-bound…’…labour forces must be sought out, fought with and , on occasion, abandoned by industry in its ceaseless process of evolution and restructuring (p. 334).”

“…as capital moves around, it will attach great weight to the national characteristics of the labour supply. It will look for cheap labour; places where labourers are easily procured. It will look for workers amenable to discipline, accustomed to high labour intensity and long working days: a population trained to industrious habits…It follows that industrial production will tend to move from nations with higher average incomes to those with lower ones – not in a complete evacuation from the former, but in a process of relative relocation (p. 335).”

States wanting to attract foreign direct investment must have such a disciplined workforce. Furthermore “…the arrival of foreign capital will stimulate enlargement of the infrastructure of the host country…first and foremost, power plants and electricity grids capable of delivering the indispensable energy (p. 336).


An historical explanation for the adoption of fossil capitalism demands that we distinguish ourselves from what Malm calls the “Anthropocene Narrative.” This is the view that “humanity” – not capitalism – is responsible for Global Warming. “It would, first of all, view self-sustaining growth as an emergent property of capitalist property relations rather than as an attribute of the human species (263)…” It was initiated by the owners of the capitalist means of production, and presupposed the institution of wage labor. “Steam won because it augmented the power of some over others…(it) was foisted upon the rest of society… by the power of the gun (p. 267).

Furthermore, in determining responsibility for Global Warming, we must also distinguish between the actions of some nations and classes, rather than others. It is the capitalist class and their trans-national corporations and banks that make the decisions to invest in the fossil economy. It is they who derive their wealth from it, and should be held responsible for Global Warming. “…as of 2000, the advanced capitalist countries or the ‘North’ composed 16.6 percent of the world’s population, but were responsible for 77.1 percent of the CO2 emitted since 1850 (p. 268).” The data suggests that this disparity between poor and rich nations’ environmental impact is only widening. So it can hardly be blamed on poor and working people, who have little choice whether or not they will participate in the economy as workers and consumers.


‘The Transition’ is the process whereby we replace fossil capitalism by an economy based on renewable energy. It will be the largest, most expensive project in human history. Some have likened it to the New Deal of the Great Depression, or the waging of World War II. It is imperative that we try to grasp the obstacles such a transition would encounter. In 2013, Fortune’s list of the 500 largest corporations of the world had Royal Dutch Shell in the lead, Exxon Mobil as number three, Sinopec as four, China National Petroleum five, BP six. And financial support from banks is essential. JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Barclays are the leading financers of fossil fuel projects.

“Oil and gas fields, coal trains, pipelines, coal-carrying vessels, oil and LNG tankers, coal treatment plants, refineries, LNG terminals – counting in the tens of thousands, covering millions of kilometres – ‘constitute the world’s most extensive, and most costly, web of infrastructures (p. 358)…” Such a vast global write-off of capital would be unprecedented in scale.

Only states can be the vehicles for the transition. Only they have the power to tax, provide the funds and invest them according to a long-run plan. Only they can coordinate that plan with other states internationally, which will be essential to address Global Warming. “…states and their municipalities can have other goals than profit and are under no compulsion to expand like capital…they simply have to take charge of the transition if there is to be anything of the kind (p.381).”

Malm is pessimistic about the prospects for socialist revolution and the Climate Crisis. “Any argument along the lines of…’socialist property relations are necessary to combat climate change’ is now untenable. The experiences of the past two centuries indicate that socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve; any proposal to build it on a world scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable, but reckless. At this moment in time, the purpose of an inquiry into the climatic destructivity of capitalist property relations can only be a realistic assessment of the obstacles to the transition (p. 383).”

It has been estimated that a Green New Deal would take 20 to 40 years. Furthermore, it is unlikely that governments will undertake such a program – considering the recalcitrance of fossil capitalist corporations and banks – without the pressure of a mass social movement. What are the current prospects for a Green New Deal?

The defeat of Jeremy Corbin was a tragedy for Britain. He appreciated the gravity of the Climate Crisis, and would have initiated a Green New Deal. And it would have been historically apt that Britain, the creator of Fossil Capital and homeland of Global Warming, would have been the first to address the issue. Now the torch has been passed to Bernie Sanders in the United States. Unless Sanders (1) gets the nomination and (2) wins the presidency, there will not be a Green New Deal. The other Democratic candidates consider themselves on the side of capitalism; they will not put up the fight it will take to tame the recalcitrant fossil fuel corporations and banks. Otherwise, a socialist revolution will necessary. And what are its current prospects? Union density is at an all-time low. Organizations of the working class are few, small and not implanted in the workplace. Nevertheless, the Left must be prepared, both to pressure a Sanders’ presidency with a mass movement from below, and to build a third party and other organizations of the working class.

Since the 1950s, capitalism has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. It now has a decisive influence on our planet’s climate, one which has accelerated the earth’s evolution and led to today’s Global Climate Crisis. This crisis is the result of capitalism’s antagonistic relationship to the environment. A system based on the exploitation of labor for profit, it has treated the earth as a realm of unlimited economic growth. Its atmosphere, seas and land are no more than sources of wealth to be extracted; polluted oceans, forests and mountains of toxic waste, left behind. These ‘global commons’ are ‘enclosed’ by wealthy states’ transnational corporations. And climate change is the result, the ruin of the planet’s atmosphere, caused mainly by capitalism’s addiction to the burning of fossil fuels. Since the Industrial Revolution, its carbon emissions have been accumulating in the air, causing the average atmospheric temperature to rise in Global Warming. The level of carbon dioxide is now approaching a critical point – a ‘global rift’ – when the earth’s climate will spin irreversibly out of control. Today’s rate of climatic degradation puts the planet on a collision course to reach that catastrophe in the year 2035.

The advanced capitalist nations are most responsible for Global Warming; yet they are the ones least affected. The poor southern countries, the least responsible, are the most vulnerable of all. Already the victims of droughts, storms and floods – seven million climate refugees in the year 2019 alone – the climate crisis is only exacerbating the world’s existing obscene inequality. The Global Climate Crisis is now unfolding in a sequence of events that will lead to an apocalyptic vision: an island fortress of wealthy nations, surrounded by cyclopean walls, within an endless sea of refugee camps in which hundreds of millions suffer and die.

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