Power to the People (part 2)

Part 1

Andreas Malm’s lack of enthusiasm for cliometrics is a striking example of the historiographical unfashionability of Fossil Capital that I’m exploring in these two posts. He writes: “the inability to explain the transition [to steam] has been partly rooted in the obsession with counting nowadays so characteristic of the discipline of economic history” (p. 94). There are cultural and social factors that can’t be reduced to numbers, he says. He’s right, of course, and—again—he explores some of those factors brilliantly. But his thesis also involves a specific economic claim, where more “counting” would be welcome. 

Malm argues that in the key decades, (1) water was cheaper than coal as a prime mover in cotton manufacture, but (2) the cost of establishing and provisioning mill colonies made production by water more expensive overall than using coal/steam mills in the towns where the masters could hire and fire at will among an abundant supply of labour. Malm not only has some numbers to back up part 1, but also has quotations showing that people who were in a position to know regarded water’s relative cheapness as a settled fact. Fine. But part 2 is trickier. Malm’s story sounds plausible in itself. It’s made more plausible by the very fact that there was a switch to steam. But it’s the sort of assertion that can be reduced to mere numbers, and, by and large, he doesn’t provide them.

Fossil Capital nearly always describes the riparian factory colonies as if they were simply an expense the mill-owner had to bear. That can’t be right. How far did the workers’ rents (or salary reductions in lieu of rent) repay the cost of colony construction? Did any of the “colony idealists” (p. 156) actually turn a profit as landlords? Conversely, Malm says little to nothing about the extra cost of urban rents and rates. How much did it actually cost to build and maintain a factory in the middle of Manchester, as compared to the fields behind Greenock? More fundamentally, how much did labour actually cost at the Lions of Catrine? And how did those wages compare to those in Manchester—were they indeed higher, and if so, by how much?

Answering those questions fully would take an enormous amount of work, and the result might well be to confirm Malm’s theory, while no doubt adding various temporal and regional nuances. Still, I think that important parts of his thesis could be either substantiated or falsified by the “counting so characteristic of economic history,” and it would have been interesting to see at least a few more numbers.

Another set of issues has to do with Malm’s tight concentration on the cotton factories themselves. His analysis more or less begins at the point when the raw fibres enter the factory to be spun and ends at the moment the cloth comes off the loom. That gets him right to the heart of the matter, perhaps, but it contrasts sharply with modern inquiries into the “consumer revolution” and the “industrious revolution.” Malm’s operatives do have agency, but only really in extremis: when they’re striking, absconding, or smashing up a mill colony. The crucially important decisions that early nineteenth-century workers made as consumers and as parents responsible for the period’s swelling population are left in the shadows.

One result is that Malm tends to see steam as winning out over water-power because it better expresses or conforms to some essence of capitalist production (much though he criticises “transhistorical” thinking in others, as we’ll see). There’s a more prosaic reality: steam out-competed water in the particular marketplace that prevailed in Britain in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It’s true that that was a capitalist marketplace. But the strongest analysis would examine both how steam-powered production met the demands of a historically specific market for cotton (its size, the purchasing power of its buyers, changing fashions, the relative proportions of the domestic and export market, etc.) and the capitalist identity of that market.

Malm’s most important interlocutor in Fossil Capital as a whole is EA Wrigley. The book’s previous reviewers haven’t really addressed this fact, but for Malm himself it seems central. His goal is to rebut what he says is Wrigley’s currently hegemonic account of coal’s place in the Industrial Revolution: the “Ricardian–Malthusian” theory, as he calls it. In what Wrigley calls the “organic economy,” access to energy and resources is constrained fundamentally by the availability of land; all activities that rely on wood fuel or food must compete for a slice of the same pie. The switch to coal made otherwise unthinkable quantities of energy available to Britain’s economy.

Going back to Energy and the English Industrial Revolution in the wake of Fossil Capital, the picture that Wrigley draws does look very blurry. His crucial summative sentences can sound frustratingly nonspecific and hypothetical when compared to Malm’s electric narrative of the changing politics of energy: “the discovery of a way of meeting the energy needs of an economy from [coal] … was the decisive step in ensuring that its growth would not be halted by the changes induced by its earlier successes” (Wrigley, p. 100). The other side of the coin is that Wrigley’s perspective is much wider, and much more grounded in statistical data.

Here’s something you don’t read in Fossil Capital. According to Wrigley, using figures supplied by Paul Warde, the total annual English and Welsh consumption of water power in the 1750s can be estimated at 1300 terajoules. In the 1800s—after the 1780s’ water-powered boom in textile manufacturing of which Malm makes a great deal—it was 1100 terajoules. That means that consumption per capita in the 1750s was 198 megajoules, and that by the 1800s it had plunged to 111 megajoules, a lower figure than for the mid-sixteenth century (162 megajoules). Why? I don’t know: it’s not my field. (Even Wrigley says that “in the early expansion of the textile industries … mechanical energy came largely from the human arm and the water wheel,” p. 101). But there’s a story to be told here that Malm doesn’t tell.

In contrast, England and Wales were using an estimated 140,810 terajoules of coal power p.a. in the 1750s, and 408,680 terajoules in the 1800s. Malm would say that the vast majority of those 408,680 terajoules aren’t important to his account, because they were being used for domestic heating and in industrial sectors that were modernising far less rapidly than the textile industry. Nonetheless, the strikingly small and rapidly declining share of total English energy production represented by water power is worth noting.

It may well have had unfulfilled potential in the cotton industry specifically. But Wrigley’s relative lack of interest in water power becomes understandable when we realise that in the 1800s, it represented barely one five-hundredth of English and Welsh energy usage, declining to less than a thousandth by the 1850s.

There’s also a more important theoretical issue to tackle. Malm accuses Wrigley of taking capitalist attitudes for granted in his explanation of the origins of capitalist industrialisation. Wrigley’s theory, Malm says, “requires the invocation of a transhistorical factor … the impulse to growth”: Wrigley assumes that “a tendency to expansion was permanently present in pre-fossil economies, bottled up throughout history.” In other words, “the motivations characteristic of the agents of expansion in a fossil economy are ascribed to pre-fossil actors”; “impregnated with classical bourgeois economics, … Wrigley and his fellow historians presuppose a yearning for fossil energy” (pp. 258–59).

Whatever the merits of the rest of Malm’s attack on Wrigley, this central part of his critique makes no sense at all.

In the same pages, Malm explicitly endorses the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner on the origins of capitalism. They identify the birth of capitalism in the imposition of market imperatives in the English countryside in the sixteenth century. So on Malm’s own account, Wrigley isn’t assuming a “tendency to expansion” in all pre-fossil economies everywhere. He’s asserting that there was a tendency to expansion in an economy that had already been increasingly capitalist for two hundred years. In Wrigley, the motivations characteristic of the agents of expansion in a fossil capitalist economy are ascribed to pre-fossil capitalist actors: not an error, but a tautology.

We’ve come around, then, to the last of Fossil Capital’s problematically unfashionable qualities: its short temporal depth of field (a brilliant excursus on Tudor “coal enclosures” excepted). Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism is a powerful and illuminating book, but the thing I admire least about it is its smack of an inevitability thesis about the Industrial Revolution. For Meiksins Wood, sixteenth- to seventeenth-century changes in the southern English countryside seem to go an awfully long way to determining eighteenth- to nineteenth-century changes in the northern English cities (see especially Origin p. 143). And Malm relies on her work in that regard.

So to put it brutally, what Fossil Capital finally says about the origins of its titular phenomenon is: “only grant me the existence of a large urban proletariat , a class of capitalist industrialists, a developed coal industry, Watt’s engine, and (implicitly) slave-produced cotton and capitalist consumer demand structures, and I’ll explain to you … the origins of fossil capitalism!”

To say that is to identify the limits of Malm’s work. What he does inside those limits is another matter. Fossil Capital is a terrific book about the fascinating specifics of a crucial lynchpin in world history, the British cotton industry in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It deserves to be read very widely. But for all that, it doesn’t allow us to dispense with the work of predecessors like Wrigley or Kenneth Pomeranz—not on coal, and still less on crucially interlinked topics like the demographics of industrialization.

Now we’ve sifted through all this, we can look briefly at the issue that preoccupied the book’s other reviewers—its implications for the present day—in a new light. Times have changed since the book came out. Rex Tillerson, quoted here a couple of times as the CEO of ExxonMobil and repellent mouthpiece of hydrocarbon ideology, is now one of the world’s last best defences against a nuclear war starting next week. The coal era in Britain has come closer to its end. And Malm’s hostility to the word “Anthropocene” has grown to sound stale, or staler. (It’s the usual straw man stuff: “the leading Anthropocene theorists like to foreground excessive reproduction as the major perturbation of the biosphere,” etc. (pp. 26–32, 266–72, 389–92; qt. p. 268). Malm is notable as the originator of the word “Capitalocene,” though, and it’s also worth noting that he uses the word a little differently to Jason Moore, for whom the Capitalocene isn’t a geological concept: “capitalist time, biochemical time, meteorological time, geological time are being articulated in a novel whole,” Malm writes (p. 391), which is a good description of the predicament of the Anthropocene.)

Malm’s decision to take capitalism-as-such for granted before explaining the turn to a fossil fuel economy has significant theoretical implications. “Fossil capitalism,” in Malm’s hands, isn’t a distinct evolutionary strain of capitalism, with different laws of motion compared to some actual or hypothetical phenomenon called non-fossil capitalism. Instead, it’s a name for capitalism insofar as it’s fossil-fuelled, or for the subset of capitalism that relies on fossil fuels (a subset that today, obviously, is wholly dominant).

That suggests there’s nothing a priori inconceivable about a capitalism weaned off fossil fuels. “The communist tendency of the flow” (p. 379) is an extremely awkward fit with the spatiotemporal preferences of capital, but the two might not be absolutely impossible to reconcile. Hence, Malm’s policy prescriptions are closer to those of a Christian Parenti than to a call for bottom-up revolution.

Given the present acceleration of climate breakdown, “any argument along the lines of ‘one solution—revolution’ or, less abbreviated, ‘socialist property relations are necessary to combat climate change’ is now untenable” (p. 383). Instead, Malm argues for expert planning and international collaboration in pursuit of “our best hope … an immediate return to the flow” (p. 367) and a massive, rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. Popular democratic struggle “against the will of fossil capital and its representatives” (p. 385), even “some global edition of the Plug Plot Riots” (p. 394), is indispensable, but the transition that Malm hopes for would be executed by the governments of nation states.

That makes it more of a pity that Fossil Capital’s account of the state’s role in the first industrial revolution is so unduly limited. Theorising and historicising the relationship between fossil capital and the state could tell us a good deal about the present situation. Likewise the contrast between the British and the French experience: to what extent, if any, does that offer useful lessons for partisans of “the flow”? International collaboration must be central to any meaningful amelioration of the climate crisis, remote as even that limited goal might seem.