How capital took on labour and gave us climate change in 400 pages

 

Back in 1989 when I was a student, I took a “course”, as they were called then, entitled Political Sociology. I took it because the other options were over-subscribed. I don’t know whether it was because I was not favoured that particular year and simply did not make the cut for other courses, or whether someone unbeknownst to me, concluded that Political Sociology was just what I needed. If the latter is correct, whoever it was, thank you. Without it I would not/never have read Stuart Clegg’s phenomenal book, Framworks of Power (left). There were 10 weeks of seminars (no lectures) and, each week, I or one of my peers would lead a chapter. Under normal circumstances, this would have been quite straightforward, but this book is tough going. Really tough going. Each chapter, I recall, took about 7 or 8 hours to get anywhere near understanding. Clegg was mischievous, he knew how difficult he had written it. He knew that students like myself would be required to read it. It is that requirement that meant that one had to persevere. The seminar leader was uncompromising on that, thankfully. The rewards for completion and assimilation were immense.

And so it is with Andreas Malm’s, Fossil Capital (right). This book takes no hostages. Its 400 pages are some of the most uncompromising prose. Malm is not in a hurry; and the reader is not invited to be in a hurry either. To be so would result in a less-than satisfactory outcome. It lends itself to being the subject of a “course” with 10 weeks of study. I am not sure that happens anymore. Malm’s book is basically in three parts. The first section is a history of the machinery that delivered the industrial revolution in Britain. The machinery was powered by coal (steam generation) – the reasons for that “prime mover” makes up 250 of the 400 pages. The second section is philosophical – Malm applies an essentially Marxist analysis (about 80 pages) to get to the nub of the cause. The third section is Malm conceding a certain pessimism about the future; about humanity’s ability to get out of this mess. Verso, the publisher, was, apparently, committed to the project. They must have because had they not been, an editor would have cut by a third, if not more. That would have been a shame because the detail, often repeated, assists with the final analysis.

Prime Movers in the industrial revolution – water or steam

The detail is awesome. Malm’s account of the work of Robert Thom’s water projects, the pinnacle of which was

Greenock Cut sluice building

the Greenock Reservoir and its 6-mile long acqueduct (the Cut). Much space is given over to Thom and his projects in order to demonstrate how water as a “prime mover” – with imaginative and skilled civil engineers at the helm – could have provided all of the power needed by the textile industry. That was not the purpose of the Greenock reservoir, but the engineering that delivered water to the town could also deliver water to mills, turning wheels to power spinners inside factories. In fact, the Greenock project offered 1666hp as a basis for a “vibrant” – probably sustainable – cotton industry around the town. (It was calculated that mills could share this power, each with 50hp – the average from steam at that time was 29hp.) The potential was never realised and the reasons clear.

First, flowing water was a shared resource. It was a commons – it could not be owned, only managed. The mill owners simply could not co-operate to provide the necessary investment and also self-regulate. Some sites were better than others; the less-well served sites would require other users to regulate their own consumption to maximise the utility of the resource on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. Plans for developing the River Irwell in Lancashire ultimately foundered here. Other schemes were unable to get parliamentary approval not least because cotton industrialists were well represented in the House of Commons.

Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, Cheshire

Second, labour militancy and mobility. On the latter, water mills were located along river courses outside of main towns and cities, such as Manchester. In order fully to attract and maintain a workforce, mill owners had to provide additional resources such as housing, education, leisure and places of worship. There are exemplars – Richard Arkwright’s so-called colony in Cromford, Derbyshire and Finlay’s in Catrine, Ayrshire, for example. Colonies had their issues, but they provided sanitary conditions for employees and their families. The benevolence was not always appreciated and workers often “absented” themselves which resulted in owners taking on “unfree” workers – nothing short of slave labour, that was dispensed with after 10 years’ of indentured service. The apprentices were recruited from the age of 12 and often came from workhouses. The colonies also bred labour militancy – wages were going down and work rates increasing. In March 1830 there was a definitive and violent strike in Arkwright’s New Eagely Mill.

The Apprentice House, Quarry Bank Mill

Where capital is not mobile, it is not optimised. Whilst coal needed for the steam engines that drove the spinning machines was expensive relative to water, it was mobile. It could be deployed in major towns and cities relinquishing the need for additional “colony” investment. It could be controlled and managed by individuals – the owners themselves. Labour was also eminently more controllable. With no colony commitments, costs were managed. Coal was expensive to transport so mills and mines were often co-located (e.g. Wigan, Oldham, Ashton).

Steam engine,_Nortonthorpe Mills, Scissett

Come the legal curtailment of the the working day in the Factory Acts of 1833 and 1844, whilst consistently violated by mill owners, eventually capital substituted machines for labour and intensified the work of those remaining (easier to do with steam than water). Though this new intensity often led to steam engines exploding! Resistance was inevitable and the targets were the steam engines (whose plugs were pulled releasing the water) and the coal mines. The resistance movement is usually remembered as that of the Chartists seeking representation (of men) in the Parliament. From 7 August 1842 increasing numbers marched through the mill towns pulling the plugs on steam engines (seemingly more damage than that was done to mills). There was little resistance.

The ability of strikers to maintain their action was, however, tempered by two factors: hunger and the intervention of the state. The army was deployed on 14 August in the mill towns enabling the mill owners to re-insert the plugs and restart their engines. Malm notes that some 15000 “[S]trike leaders and Chartist agitators were nabbed in batches” (p235). Perpetrators were imprisoned, some were transported (to foreign colonies); meanwhile, damaging or sabotaging coal mines was made a capital offence leading to the execution of textile workers.

Explaining why steam

Andreas Malm

Malm’s logic circuits are never opaque. When one finally reaches (p255) his analysis chapters, there are no great surprises. What is a surprise – though I have no idea why I am surprised – is the lengths that he goes to to eliminate independent variables as causes of steam/fossil over water as industry’s prime mover. It is clear already that Malm points the finger at capital’s control over labour. Malm, however, has to deal with the arguments from others such that coal was a means for humans to realise the natural inclination towards growth and overcoming a dependence on nature for life. He refers to this as the Rickardian-Malthusian explanation. Growth using fossil fuels was always latent, it just needed the right moment to flourish, goes the argument. He concludes that this is rather circular: “The shift to fossil fuels is explained by the impossibility of self-sustaining growth without them, the onset of self-sustaining growth by the shift to fossil fuels.” (p259) Step-by-step Malm takes away competing theories leaving one only: capital. At the heart of capital is ownership – property rights, rentierism. The crown privatised land and minerals below it in the 1570s – the so-called Elizabethen leap – leading to further enclosure of the commons. Granting of mineral rights lead to the commodification of coal.

Comparative advantage – globalisation of capital

Environmental Kuznets Curve

The Kuznets Curve (right) posits that as populations get richer, pollution – and greenhouse gas emissions – declines. Whilst the initial growth is dirty when incomes are low, the environment is cleaned up as incomes grow. Malm points out, however, that the Kuznets curve is only “true” if capital is static. The rising incomes are geographically specific. However, capital moves usually as Foreign Direct Investment. Generally it moves to where incomes are low (drawing on comparative advantage). An element of the comparative advantage, argues Malm, is carbon emissions. Firms relocate their dirtiest activities to countries with low incomes in order to externalise their emissions. Those emissions are then not counted against emissions for the firm’s host country or the consumer’s. Significantly, Malm writes: “In 2001, China entered the WTO, dismantled the remaining barriers to investment, abolished restrictions on foreign ownership, relaxed requirements on local cooperation and, in general, flung the gates wide open: then the real explosion began.” (p331). The western world externalised CO2 emissions to China in exchange for unimaginable growth in GDP. The Kuznets Curve is reversed. Rising incomes lead to fresh waves of capital mobility and more environmental degradation geographically dispersed.

Fossil fuels always win out against renewables

In 2006 Shell sold its solar subsidiary. By 2013 BP had exited the solar business, too. The margins were insignificant and the electrical energy generated were too cheap to make the necessary profits. For as long as oil had a market price, company boards look to focus on maximising earnings, not contributing to climate change mitigation – which is perhaps what the solar industry had become. Oil and coal still have healthy market prices for a number of reasons: when countries like China are looking to industrialise fast, they turn to coal to produce the electricity for the factories. Not to renewables. Coal and oil are commodities. They are tradable and they themselves have an exchange value in the chain or flow of production. They are commodity inputs that add value and require considerable capital deployed on which numerous other stakeholders benefit – from banks, pension funds and other industrialists. Moreover, the assets are long-lived. Coal-fired power stations coming on line now will produce electricity for 50 years or so; and for some of that time, they will produce electricity at high margins once the debt has been serviced.

Those with vested interests in fossil fuels do not necessarily deny human-induced climate change, rather they advocate a technical solution rather than a social and structural one. Bill Gates (right), notes Malm, is one of the biggest global investors in geoengineering research. He owns shares in a venture that seeks to put sulphates into the higher atmosphere to reflect away the sun and cool the planet. This technology has dramatic side-effects and has to be administered yearly. Sulphates “deplete the ozone layer, upset precipitation patterns, possibly shut down the Asian monsoon, disrupt photosynthetic productivity, whiten the sky, tinker with the balance between day and night as well as winter and summer, contribute to thousands of air pollution deaths per year…lower the efficiency of solar panels by diluting the sunlight”. (p387) Other geoengineering options include carbon capture and something to do with mirrors!

That leads to a further challenge – and it is the same problem that besets attempts at carbon mitigation; namely, global coordination. Humanity simply cannot do it. The current incumbent of the Whitehouse sees the world in zero-sum terms: winner takes all. No politician is willing or able to countenance the structural changes necessary to bring about the scale of change needed. I write this whilst in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown in the UK. The UK Government was not even willing to join with EU member states to procure PPE for health service workers, let alone coordinate global climate mitigation. Indeed, the pandemic has shown us only too well how incapable the international community is to work for some kind of global good that does not confer advantage, and that facilitates a transfer of wealth from the rich to poorer, even if such a transfer is it own interests (rich countries, that is). Consumers, too, are complicit, especially those of us in those rich countries. Are we prepared to consume less, or are we, too, looking for the technological fix that enables business-as-usual? We seem to be prepared to wait and see what Bill Gates comes up with. There’s a 10-week course in there somewhere.

Pictures:

Greenock Cut: Dave souza

Quarry Bank Mill:  Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)

Apprentice House: Peter Fuller

Steam Engine: Chris Allen / Steam engine, Nortonthorpe Mills, Scissett

Andreas Malm: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/292496.Andreas_Malm

Environmental Kuznets Curve: Kjeffreytaylor

Bill Gates: DFID – UK Department for International Development

 

1 comment so far

  1. Clare Forder on

    Excellent read!


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