In this interview, professor of human ecology Andreas Malm takes his reflections on fossil capitalism a step further to make a direct connection between the Green surge recently witnessed in some European countries and the electoral victories of far-right populist forces. For him, Greens must use this opportunity to push their fight for climate justice side-by-side with movements on the street.
In his renowned book Fossil Capital (Verso, 2016), Andreas Malm provided an analysis of climate change that connects the reality of fossil-fuelled economies to the structure and ideology of capitalism. According to his argument, steam power was attractive in 19th-century England because it offered better control over labour than previously more widespread water mills did. Malm shows how the triumph of coal-fired engines ever since has hampered the spread of renewable energy. Contesting the concept of the “Anthropocene”, rather than humankind as a whole, he highlights the destructive force of capitalist commodity production, driven by the interests of a minority of financiers and industrialists. His work has been praised by voices such as Naomi Klein and has inspired climate justice movements such as Germany’s Ende Gelände.
Green European Journal: What are the most important lessons of Fossil Capital?
Andreas Malm: I have to acknowledge that there is a gap between the historical analysis outlined in my book and the strategic orientation of both the climate movement and policymakers. Fossil Capital studies the historical moment when British capitalists shifted away from waterpower towards steam power, and since I was interested in the historical process, the book itself is almost entirely focused on the demand side: it looks at the manufacturers who demanded coal rather than those who supplied it to them. Today’s climate movement has, for very good reason, focused on the supply side: it targets capital that profits from the production of fossil fuels, and it has also begun to target fossil capital in a broader sense – for instance in recent mobilisations against the auto industry.
I am trying to compensate somewhat for the lack of supply focus in my more recent work (such as that with the Zetkin Collective, a group of scholars, activists and students at Lund University working on the political ecology of the far right), by trying to understand “primitive fossil capital” – by which I mean the fossil fuel industry: suppliers of coal, oil and gas. The links between these industries and far-right forces are very close, as can be seen in Poland, Norway, Brazil, the US, and in many other countries too.
What is the role of fossil fuels in far-right thinking?
As a historian and a history nerd, I am obsessed with the ways classical Fascists thought about fossil fuels and their technology. Just think of the most well-known cases: the Italian futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was one of the key ideologists of Italian Fascism and a major source of inspiration for Benito Mussolini. His work was about the admiration for the car, the aeroplane, and the combustion engine. He was obsessed with speed and the burning of materials. You can find similarities in the thinking of German proto-Fascists as well, for example in the work of Ernst Jünger.
In Italy, Germany, and many other countries, far-right forces position themselves as the shock troops of fossil capital.
Both the Italian Fascist and the German Nazi governments were extremely supportive of those technologies and presided over major technical breakthroughs. For instance, the first highways exclusively devoted to car traffic were built in Italy in the very first years of the Mussolini regime. The highway or the expressway – a road only for cars – is basically a fascist concept. One of the first things the Nazis did when they came to power was to scrap all speed limits on the highway. But neither of these two fossil-fuel-obsessed countries – neither Italy nor Germany – had any oil reserves, which had a great influence on their geopolitical thinking.
How well known is this aspect of Fascism?
Both of these regimes have been exhaustively researched, but it is only now, in times of the climate crisis, that the fossil dimension of these regimes becomes visible. When people think of the relationship between Nazism and ecology, immediately they think about blood and soil, romanticism and the “völkisch” agenda, because this aspect has been in the spotlight. From an ecological point of view, however, it has been far more important to see the Fascist drive to develop fossil-fuel technologies and infrastructure as fast as possible.
This knowledge becomes particularly interesting when you see what the far right is doing right now. In Italy, Germany, and many other countries, far-right forces position themselves as the shock troops of fossil capital and are the ones fighting most aggressively to continue business as usual.
Many Conservatives and far-right populists claim that caring for the environment is a conservative value that they are well suited to uphold. Is this claim compatible with their stance on fossil fuels?
The far right has always been proficient in inconsistency. Hitler and other Nazis could say one day that they are all in favour of the German worker and the next that they are going to smash all trade unions and reinstate discipline in workplaces. Contradictory messages have always been part of the appeal of the far right and allow them to unite disparate groups in a nationalist project. Nationalism is by definition a political project that seeks to transcend things like class divisions. To bring people from different classes together, you have to say contradictory things, which makes it hard to keep all your promises.
Does that still hold today?
Yes, but when it comes to the environment, the far right today in Europe and beyond mainly supports maximum resource extraction and fossil fuel production and consumption. That is the general line. Under Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in Brazil or the Donald Trump administration in the US, it is the only line.
Of course, there is also the green nationalist minority current with some parties, activists, and a group of skilled environmentalists that recognises the ecological crisis and its magnitude. They claim that they see the climate breaking down and that the solution is a mix of a national, conservative love for nature, the closing of borders, and a move towards national autarky. This position has become hegemonic on the French far right, for example.
Although there are some well-founded reasons for optimism, the tenacity of denial should not be underestimated. Many people wish to believe that this crisis does not exist.
But so far, this kind of green nationalism has never translated into any actual policies that would address the climate crisis at its roots. Let us take Germany: a party that takes climate change seriously would have to propose the immediate closure of mines and the almost complete dismantling of the car industry. I do not see any nationalists that are even hypothetically capable of coming up with such a political position, because it would force them to clash with various significant capitalist interests. It would also be very hard for them to sell this point of view to their constituencies, which tend to be people that are fond of their cars and support coal miners. [read more on the AfD and the carbon divide] This makes it very difficult for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to move away from climate denialism – even if it faces some internal criticism for it.
Moreover, even if the AfD were to move away from climate denialism and switch to green nationalism at some point – which is to some extent consistent with the faction represented by Björn Höcke – that would not have the potential to drive meaningful measures for mitigating climate change. This kind of green nationalism often blames immigrants for the climate crisis – something the French far-right party Rassemblement National (National Rally) is known for – could potentially have appeal to some voters, but the arguments behind it are just as poor as those for climate denial, and can be easily disproven. [read more on climate nationalism] All in all, it’s clear that the far right does not have a credible answer to the climate crisis whether it recognises it or not.
The rise of populism coincides with a Green surge in Europe. Are these two phenomena connected?
In Europe today, people are choosing between two main narratives: one group says that our way of life is endangered by Muslim immigrants and refugees, while the other one says that our lives are in danger of becoming miserable – or potentially coming to an end – because of global warming. This is the political choice that divides the landscape in Europe, and with mass mobilisations like Fridays for Future some countries have seen a serious weakening of the far right. In the Swiss federal elections in October 2019, the Greens surged (the Swiss Greens and the Green Liberals got 21 per cent all together), while the far right (although it is still the strongest force) lost a significant share of its voters. That trend is driven by the fact that people are concerned about the climate crisis, and the far right has no credible answer to it.
But, although there are some well-founded reasons for optimism, the tenacity of denial should not be underestimated. Many people wish to believe that this crisis does not exist. 10 or 15 years ago, no one expected that there would be a surge in electoral support for parties that explicitly deny climate change in Europe. Average temperatures have increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, climate disasters happen every week around the world, and, still, the climate-denialist Vox party managed to become the third largest party in the November elections in Spain. This is fundamentally irrational, and it cautions us against anticipating that Europeans will behave rationally in the next few years.
What would be your suggestion to the Greens? What should they do in this situation?
Greens across Europe should ally themselves as closely as they can to climate movements outside of Parliament – and start thinking about how they can live up to the expectations from the streets, and the ways to convert popular pressure into actual legislation. This is a great challenge because we are up against some extremely strong forces that have to be defeated very quickly, in face of an immediate threat. That can never happen only by strictly parliamentary activities and electoral support. The balance of forces in society will have to be shifted so dramatically that it requires considerable social muscle to achieve that.
The example of the Swedish Greens illustrates that quite well. In 2014, one of their main campaign promises was to accept more asylum seekers and shut down the Swedish state-owned energy company Vattenfall’s lignite mines in Germany. But once they got into government, they made a deal with their major coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, not to close down the mines as they had promised. Instead, they were sold to the Czech company EPH that wanted to start a lignite renaissance in Central Europe. The promise about refugees was also broken when the borders were closed in 2015. So that is an example of how poorly the Greens can perform in power.
Greens across Europe should ally themselves as closely as they can to climate movements outside of Parliament.
There was, another, very different case recently when a company called Swedegas wanted to construct a series of liquid natural gas terminals in Gothenburg. Many Ende-Gelände-type civil disobedience actions followed, and the Minister of Environment, the Green Party’s Isabella Lövin, announced that the government will not grant Swedegas the licence to construct these terminals. She explicitly said that this decision was due to all the recent mobilisations.
My conclusion would be that, back in 2014-2016, the Greens’ connections to the movement were not close enough and nor was the dynamic in the streets strong enough to allow them to push their case in their negotiations with the Social Democrats. This time, however, the Social Democrats had to give in.
The lesson here for the Greens – not just in Sweden, but across Europe – should be that if we want to make progress, we need to make sure that there are strong social movements outside of Parliament and that the political representatives of the Greens are on good terms with them.
For a review of Fossil Capital, as well as other important works of green thinking from the last few years, see the book review section of our latest edition.