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The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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NOV 2020 Issue
Field Notes

Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency

Andreas Malm
Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency
(Verso, 2020)

One of the garrotes which economic historian Andreas Malm applied to liberal historiography of the British industrial revolution in his Fossil Capital (2016) was his dismissal of the idea that capitalists shifted from abundant waterpower to steam secured through coal because the latter was cheaper. Not so. The problem was that sluices and other intricacies of water-driven power required capitalist cooperation and placing mills near streams. Coal allowed for capitalists to act independently of each other and to install factories close to workers concentrated in cities. In his study of technology, Malm showed the folly of analytically cleaving capitalist social relations from the physical instruments of production. Technology was not and is never socially innocent. In capitalism, distinct elements interlock into a socio-technical machine of domination, tremendously empowered in speed and scope by the power condensed in black blocks of coal and black pools of oil. Malm baptized this social system “fossil capitalism” and identified it as marking a new era in social affairs.

Malm’s new book on how to resolve the climate crisis, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency (2020), is likewise not shy in specifically naming fossil capitalism as humanity’s antagonist. He shows how global warming, a product of capitalism, makes the system uniquely and comprehensively destructive. Malm uses the COVID-19 pandemic to think about the emergency mobilization of state capacity in response to anthropogenic CO2 emissions. But his preferred historical analogy is with war communism, Lenin’s policy at the dusk of the second decade of the 20th century to deal with interlocking crises of invasion, hunger, poverty, and self-defense after the Russian Revolution.

Malm starts with a comparative sociology of state-level responses to COVID-19 and policy concerning the climate. Why has the state (or the states of the capitalist core), he asks, been so quick and effective in containing COVID-19 and so slow and inept in dealing with climate change? Simple: victims of COVID-19 were, or were slated to be, older, wealthier white people, whereas the first victims of the Capitalocene are people of color in the Third World. Governments in the First World decided to sacrifice the well-being of the capitalist economy for elderly and potentially younger cohorts: “One may regard this moment as bringing out the best in modern bourgeoisie democracy.” That reaction showed people’s willingness to accept emergency action, even while it also showed the inability of the capitalist state to effectively go to the roots of the health emergency: deforestation, zoonotic spillover, accelerated incubation of viruses, animal-human transmission, and other etiologies of the current crisis.

It must first be said that this is a remarkably sanguine, not to say surreal, account of the wealthy world’s response to COVID-19. Malm rightly notes that the core states partially displaced the risk constituency for the virus away from the wealthier, white upper and upper-middle classes, to the US lower class, where death rates and racial disparities in deaths have been enormous—although, he does not mention that death in old age homes has been stratospheric and, in Britain, linked to do-not-resuscitate orders. He does not acknowledge, however, that the “lockdown” response has been the worst of both worlds, doing little to really suppress the virus. (Look to Kerala, Vietnam, Cuba, and China for how to do that.) At the same time, despite critical direct income payments in the earlier period of the virus, the state response has massively impoverished huge swathes of the working class. Food lines snake around city blocks and down highways, while mental health is shattering. In the Third World, from the Philippines to Tunisia to India, the shock has been even worse, with populations in slums and cities alike complaining correctly that the state/capitalist response is murdering them with hunger as surely as the virus may have murdered them with sickness. Whether this may be regarded as “bringing out the best in modern bourgeoisie democracy” probably depends on how cynical one is about modern bourgeois democracy.

As for the well-being of the capitalist economy, central bank responses have re-inflated the stock market, while the US and UK have done more or less the bare minimum to service the social needs of the poor. Meanwhile, different sectors of capital war with one another, with the legacy physical domestic production and parts of the physical service economy reeling, and shopkeepers eviscerated. We are witnessing an epochal, and possibly permanent, shift in power, as the remainder of the skilled, pensioned labor force in the North, including workers for airlines and other hi-tech manufacturing, is furloughed and precarious work for Amazon soars, alongside the threat to gut hundreds of thousands of employees and socialized wealth embodied in the United States Postal Service. The “new” Silicon Valley overlords have nimbly used the very partial lockdowns which they supported to accumulate wealth beyond dreams. Malm’s notion that “the system has never been more prostrate” as people are largely poorer, and wealth is largely more concentrated than before the virus, does not reflect reality.

So, I am not sure how to take the story Malm tells. More than anything, it is a missed chance to tell a beautifully anti-Eurocentric tale of the success of states other than the US in dealing crisply with the virus. “Missed” may misstate it: Malm actually seems perturbed that Iran and China reacted more effectively to the virus than did the EU and the US. (It would be okay, actually, to learn from the non-Western world.)

The missed moment is, unfortunately, symptomatic, which brings us to war communism and ecological Leninism. It would have been useful here to acknowledge that it has been outside Western Europe and the United States that Leninism has taken root on a mass basis. Malm certainly knows this. For he does know his Lenin and applies his learning with grim resoluteness. He praises Lenin’s decision to stop the war, get grain supplies under control, and nationalize banks. He wishes to repeat the crashing hammer blows of state power in order to get things done. And what is to be done is very clear: “Everybody knows what measures need to be taken.” Comprehensive planning and rationing and requisitioning. Cutting off production chains running into tropical forests. Reforesting and rewilding clear-cut areas. Mandating global veganism. Nationalizing all companies extracting or distributing fossil fuels and turning them into CO2 direct-air capture utilities—“the central transitional demand.” Creating vast expanses where humans do not tread. The substitutes for current forms of energy “are in no need of elaboration.”

Before discussing some of these ideas, some of which in fact do need a lot of elaboration, and some of which might incite us to wonder who is the “everybody” whom Malm ventriloquizes, one other issue which arises is: who is to do all this stuff anyway, and how? The answer to that comes in well-packaged aphorisms: ecological Leninism turns “the crises of symptoms into crises of the causes.” The capitalist state, which is what we have, cannot do any of these things. So “popular pressure” is required. In this way, state power as the fulcrum of transformation marks out ecological Leninism. Today, however, it can only be a “lodestar of principles,” not a party affiliation, since there are no actual Leninist formations capable of seizing power, and the few that remain—unnamed by Malm—“show overt signs of infirmity.” So, let’s gather into a bouquet a bloom of experimental politics: ecological Blanquism, Trotskyism, Luxemburgism, etc., and get stuff done.

Now, I have to object to this way of going about things. These are two main problems: what Malm proposes doing, and who he proposes to do it. The two are connected, or disconnected, or misconnected, because once you start asking people what exactly they want, the steely sure universalism of everyone knowing and agreeing on what is to be done may quickly be revealed as an optical illusion, which in reality is the perspective of a very particular and narrow slice of metropolitan Marxism.

It is, after all, only from a myopic perspective that one would forge an ecological Leninism purely in hypothetical and textual terms, by joining the founding fathers (and one mother) of Marxism with ecology into a series of chimerical radical ideologies. Why does ecological revolution, or the eco-socialism of the poor, have to reside in the realm of the hypothetical?

One thumbs in vain through this book for any mention of the people who are not hypothetical, who are struggling in small, desperate, sincere, and hopeful ways for a better world. On this big, beautiful, desperate, poor, devastated planet are there no social forces which meet Malm’s standards for the subject or agent of ecological revolution or ecological Leninism? Forest-dwellers, small peasants, the rural proletariat, the lumpenproletariat do not appear. Where is Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo), decapitated by a US-backed coup but resurging hydra-like thanks to stunning self-organized peasant and Indigenous self-defense and popular mobilization? It was the MAS, by the way, which helped, through its complex relations with popular movements, put the question of ecological debt on the world political stage. For that matter, if the Leninist label is important, note that explicitly Leninist movements are fighting against US-backed regimes in the Philippines and India.

More broadly, where are the hundreds of millions of peasants assembled into the worldwide peasant confederation, La Via Campesina, which calls for agro-ecology to cool the planet, using the brilliant, well-founded, decentralized, low-tech people’s knowledge called by that name? Where are the world’s Indigenous people, who have put forth one plan after another, from the Anchorage Declaration to the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan well before the social democratic Green New Deal became the shorthand-du-jour for progressive climate politics? Where is the Red Nation’s Red Deal? Where, to look more locally, are Appalachian Green New Dealers with their own diagrams for the future against a past and present coated in coal dust and interrupted by shattered mountaintops? Where are the agro-foresters of the Savanna Institute and the African-inspired agro-ecologists of Soul Fire Farm?

What we have, then, in this book, is not so much a difficulty in locating any sort of subject of ecological Leninism as an erasure of the forces which could approximate it. In omitting such social forces, Malm also omits their demands, and their own sometimes-revolutionary horizons as they draw them with their own instruments. GNDs from the Democratic Party take the place of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, echoed by most of the planet’s peoples. The speculative technology of direct-air capture of CO2 replaces the proven technologies of animal and plant-assisted carbon drawdown, sowing carbon in roots, soil, and woody and herbaceous matter.

Bogglingly, the ecologically unsubstantiated request for global veganism, based on a fantasy ecology shorn of herbivores and grassland, replaces rising interest amongst US domestic ranchers in CO2-sowing and soil-improving regenerative management techniques, capable of making meat CO2-negative and increasing the capacity of the soil to resist temperature extremes and extreme rainfall events. And the apocalyptic dislocations entailed in compulsory global veganism—around 500 million people live in one way or another off pastoralism or other meat-consumption—do not merit notice, echoing centuries of Western intolerance of nomads.

There is, unfortunately, a pattern. Time and again, Malm’s recipes ignore the people, ignore our demands, and ignore how those demands enfold severe criticisms of the techno-fixes he embraces. Having disregarded really existing popular environmentalism, which has few, but not no states at its disposal, he likewise neglects to examine “low-tech” fixes for crises of climate and underdevelopment, fixes which bloom like wildflowers the world over.

The manifesto seems to take the climate crisis as the occasion for remaking the world as though it is a tabula rasa. Huge portions of the eco-modernist agenda are decanted into a Leninist container: direct-air carbon, capture, and storage, half-earth, and veganism, one liberal biologist pipedream after another, presented as though we can simply take over capitalist technology or socio-ecological planning and turn it to popular ends.

This is saddening as much as maddening. An older Malm knew very well that technology could never be socially innocent. A decision to settle on a specific technology was bound to the specific historical class war deploying that technology to a specific end.

Malm calls for utopianism. I agree. The desperate, beleaguered, proud, creative, and beguiling struggles I canvassed above have myriad ideas for making the world a better place. They do not have the clean simplicity, technological utopianism, and political starkness of Malm’s ecological Leninism. They do, though, have a different merit: they exist.

Any serious ecological Leninism would seek to take in hand, inspire, defend, lead, help organize, and consolidate those movements. Any plausible ecological Leninism would have to be built on existing strengths. But in entering conversation with the people in those movements, it would find ideas very different from the capitalist/red-eco-modernist smorgasbord lately on offer from London. It would find such people neither want nor believe in fantastical geo-engineering technology. It would find most of them want climate debt repayments. It would find they are interested in agriculture. It would find that some of them have tightly organized mass parties, eager for interlocutors, allies, and comrades in the metropolis.

To build with them rather than from heights too empyrean to even see them is the ant’s work of organizing. People who want a world with food, shelter, energy, good jobs, and the good life available to all on an Earth not in danger of collapse will need to work with the forces we have and the tools we have. They offer better odds than an ecological politics based on a god from the machine and a divine Leninism of the future.


Max Ajl

is a post-doctoral fellow at Wageningen University and a researcher at the Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment. His book, A People's Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto Press. @maxajl


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2020

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