Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Perspectives on Fossil Capital
The connection between increasing atmospheric carbon levels and industrial capitalism has been impossible to deny since means to measure and graph the relationship were developed. Of course, the connection to industrial capitalism is exactly what has led a nontrivial number of people to develop an intense personal commitment to either deny there is global warming or else deny that it is significant. Then there are others who insist that global warming is a necessary price to pay for "growth" and that somehow "no one" can have enough economically unless industrial capitalism continues. This genuinely doesn't make sense, because no system can grow infinitely, let alone the implication that who counts as "someone" by their logic is a very small number of people. We have stubborn evidence that like it or not, by design industrial capitalism cannot distribute the necessities of life to everyone, and the logic of its rules demand that no participant ever stop exploiting as hard as possible and hoarding the profits. The demand is that everyone who succeeds must do so by thoroughly pillaging everyone else that they can. Meanwhile, the "FIRE" sector, finance, insurance, and real estate, are almost wholly disconnected from real world controls. They are so disconnected that the finance segment could almost be sent off to run its computerized casino in the corner of a room while leaving the rest of the economy untouched right now. Meanwhile, there are multiple scholars and activists endeavouring to explain how carbon became such a terrifying proxy for the devouring tendencies of capitalism. Of course, this is one of the details we most need to understand in order to change the crash course humans seem to be on courtesy of a tiny proportion of control-obsessed men. A recent book contributing to this understanding is Andreas Malm's 2016 book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Although Malm's book contributes to understanding the grim dynamics of "destroy the world" industrial capitalism, and provides a welcome analysis that debunks assumptions about the adoption of steam engines in industrial Britain, it is gravely injured by some startling problems.
Cover of Andreas Malm's 2016 book, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming.
Before getting into an exploration of Malm's text, it is important to better understand its origins. The manuscript began as his doctoral dissertation in human ecology at Lund University, completed in 2014. 797 pages in dissertation form, it appears to have gone almost directly from final academic requirement document to printed book. While this is admirable from a turn around time perspective, the rush appears to have significantly impacted the editorial process. At times the narrative loses coherence, and the two sections of "Marxist ABCs" should have been relegated to an appendix rather than interrupting the main through line of Malm's argument. Malm is at his best and strongest when he digs into the historical sources and scientific data, synthesizing them to help him check whether the usual assumed narrative of english industrialization is actually true. Far from the occasional sneer by newspaper critics that Malm yearns for some sort of imaginary green past, Malm is very clear in his parallel analyses of coal and water powered engines that industrial capitalism is hard on the land and the people under conditions of heavy exploitation. It is easy to misread Malm as writing elegiacally, precisely the problem created by the de facto decision not to rearrange the text to better present its content. Unlike at Lund University, where in his oral examination Malm could guide his audience through any difficulties, this book needs to stand on its own. For interested readers who may not be able to look at the book themselves as yet, Malm has also published an article that provides an executive summary – so excellent in fact, that I will return to it again at the end of this essay. Meanwhile, as a graduate student myself, I can't help but wonder if somehow his updated manuscript version with corrections somehow never got to Verso.
Due to the parts of the book that did not hold together from my perspective as a reader, I did some more investigating to learn more about this field of "human ecology" at Lund University. Perhaps they did not hold together for me reading from a historian's perspective because the intellectual framework of the field is different and taken as something the reader will already be familiar with. That would be consistent with the book's origins and minimal editing for publication. According to the university's site, this is the definition of human ecology:
Human Ecology is the study of human-environmental relations in different cultural contexts. Case studies and theoretical perspectives are derived primarily from anthropology, geography, sociology, history, and ecological economics. An intention is to understand human-environmental relations in modern, Western society as a cultural phenomenon and as a global problem of power and distribution. The education in Human Ecology discusses cultural and political aspects of sustainability. It provides a comprehensive and theoretically profound understanding of the interaction between humans and the rest of nature in different periods and different parts of the world.
Okay, here we have a definition that hits the stylish high notes of interdisciplinarity and developing "world system" type research, but also sounds alarmingly ambitious. On looking further into the history of the program, this department began as a subunit and then travelled with its host department from the faculty of science, to the faculty of humanities, and then finally to the faculty social science. This is quite an odyssey, and is a marker of how hard it is for interdisciplinary approaches to get off the ground and stay there. The end result is that this field is at minimum 60 years old, and demands the type of result that we would tend to expect from a working group who bring together a synthesis of their interleaving lines of research. For his part, Malm is now busy with research and teaching that falls more along those lines as an associate senior lecturer at Lund University's department of Human Geography.
Overall, Malm's book was well received, with many reviews in venues identified with "left" and "Marxist" politics, and in environmentalism-focussed publications. The usual suspects include a long and fair handed review at the Jacobin, and somewhat belated reviews at Counterpunch and the London School of Economics. There are a range of frustrated reviews as well from people who insist either that global warming is nonsense or that life outside of industrial capitalism is impossible. It's actually a bit surprising that so few people have engaged with the book more deeply on "the left" or even from a relatively neutral position in terms of the "right-left" divide. After all, it includes an intriguing examination of the difficult balance capitalists strive for between their drive to control their own operations absolutely while cooperating together just enough to fend off challenges from labour. This examination is not unsympathetic, either. Malm doesn't simply dismiss this as evidence of psychopathology or plain meanness. He is clear that regardless of the specifics of the factory owner, the pressure to act in certain ways is systemic. At times he indulges in rather starting emotive statements, characterizing a young man educated in an Ashworth company school who later led a strike as "a viper nourished in the Ashworth bosom." For those who want a better understanding of machine fetishism, he pursues a discussion that is useful for the questions it leaves the reader to think through and explore. He challenges narratives of "the anthropocine" and the tendency to blame poor people for existing and supposedly irresponsibly driving population growth and therefore atmospheric carbon levels. So far I have not encountered any examples of right wing reviewers taking rhetorical advantage of this, but no doubt this is because they are on average sympathetic with claims that certain people are "breeding irresponsibly" and therefore the real cause of environmental trouble. I found myself with many sections marked that gave me pause as they were by turns strange and frustrating, a selection of which are taken up below. In the quotes, regular italics are my emphasis. bold italics are Malm's.
The fossil economy has the character of a totality, a distinguishable entity: a socio-ecological structure, in which a certain economic process and a certain form of energy are welded together. It has some identity over time; contrary to the axioms of methodological individualism, the embryonic individual is suspended in its fluid. A person born today in Britain or China enters a preexisting fossil economy, which has long assumed an existence of its own and confronts the newborn as an objective fact. It possess real causal powers – most notably the power to alter the climate conditions on planet Earth, but this only as a function of its power to direct human conduct. A factory manager will be pressured to obtain energy by plugging into the current from the nearest coal-fired powerplant rather than building her own waterwheel. The company owner will send her commodities to the world market on cargo vessels, rather than sailing ships. A cashier may have little choice but to commute to the supermarket in a car – she certainly won't ride a horse – and if she wants to go on vacation, she will encounter intense advertising for flying as a transportation option.
This comes right out of the first establishing pages of the book, and they are quite surprising. Of course, the reference to Marx's concept of a totality into which a person is born and lives their lives is no surprise at all. It is perhaps overdetermined that many human ecologists will engage with it and use it in some way, precisely because it brings together the very elements that their discipline is intended to study as a whole. I was emphatically surprised to see an author applying a historical materialist analysis who starts out by promptly using a mystifying description of this totality's supposed powers. To be generous, perhaps his point is that "the totality" is not separate from human action, and that the outcomes of so many complex interconnections are difficult to predict in specifics. In the 1990s, we might have gotten a reference to chaos theory, and the point that small changes can trigger surprisingly far reaching effects. However, this is probably more of a stylistic niggle. In any case, it is worth wondering if in some contexts "human ecology" is how an academic department gets to study Karl Marx's ideas without admitting that is what they are going to do. After all, "human ecology" was founded in the 1960s, with the long pall of the cold war and "anti-communist" hysteria still hanging low. Let's consider a representation of Karl Marx's notion of "the totality" as derived from Grundrisse presented by David Harvey during his 2020 series of lectures at The Peoples' Forum on that text. Here we have all the elements mentioned in the definition of human ecology above via the cycle of "production and destruction of human nature and culture" and "production, reproduction, and destruction of space and nature." With human nature and culture, we catch the anthropology, geography, sociology, and even history elements. History turns up again in the consideration of space and nature, alongside ecology. Both tie back to economics, as illustrated by the flow diagram within the larger circle. It is not absolutely necessary to understand this to engage with the book, but it definitely can help.
Diagram of the totality from Marx's Grundrisse
, presented by David Harvey
during the 2020 edition of his online reading course for the text.
Where things begin to ring a bit strangely in a more substantive way is in the second half of the paragraph. Remarkably, the default factory manager, the default company owner is female. Not only that, but somehow the span of choice available to a factory manager or a company owner are presented as comparable to those available to a cashier, also female. That cashier remarkably enough, is somehow going to have the cash to fly away on a vacation. This gave me real pause. Here are apparently destructive decisions, and in that case, the default human is female? This is in defiance of the actual facts of who in fact owns the majority of factories and companies, and that as David Harvey notes, a significant and growing majority of the proletariat today is women engaged in sweated factory labour. But maybe this is just random chance, one of the potential outcomes of eschewing "he-man" pseudogenerics. So it seems until we meet the following passage, just three pages later.
Here might lie a better reason to revisit the Industrial Revolution. If the fossil economy is a train that never stops but always accelerates, even when approaching a precipice, the task is to pull the brake (or maybe jump off) in time, and if there is a driver who seeks to keep this from happening, she has probably been seated in the locomotive for some time: we need to know who she is and how she works (or perhaps it is an automatic engine, a driverless construction – but the need would be the same). The interests that once put the train in motion may still be driving it.
The trope of "woman controlled by technology or else making dire mistakes because not controlled by technology enough" is not hard to find wherever the anti-woman propaganda story of the judaeo-christian fall is taken as a cultural given. Here is a driver who is a fool or out of control, and female. This is the introductory chapter that we are reading from here, the chapter that sets up the framing of the book. These metaphors are going to shape the reception of the text on a go forward basis. They may not be conscious choices on Malm's part, at least based on the evidence adduced so far, but they make a strong impression. Consider page 27, in which Homo sapiens becomes universally female now that "she" can meddle with "the earth system" itself. Anyone familiar with the story of Pandora and the infamous jar of evils she was programmed to open may be hearing some echoes now as well.
Given that carbon dioxide acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature on earth[sic], and given that the temperature sets the climatic conditions in which all life on earth exists, the magnitude of the rise – from 285 ppm as late as the mid-nineteenth century to the current 400 plus – upgrades Homo sapiens into a geological agent. She now tinkers with some of the most fundamental variables of the earth system.
Depending on the circumstances in which a specimen of Homo sapiens is born, then her imprint on the atmosphere may vary by several orders of magnitude. No other creatures on earth – think of the beaver, the bonobo, a species of zooplankton or cyanobacterium – exhibit anything like a similar disparity in environmental impact. Surely, something is unique about humans.
Then for approximately one hundred pages after each of these widely separated quotes, the second is deep into the second part, Malm is busy setting out his evidence and analysis of the transition from water power to steam engines. In those sections, he follows the pronoun and wording choices of his sources, as a scholar rightly does when presenting someone else's viewpoints. When it comes time to present his specific points about the implications of the increasing use of factories and machinery in production of cotton goods, quite suddenly we are back to these tropes of the technologically controlled or dangerously out of control female.
But the factory system also required 'many workpeople' – with [John] Farey [consultant and writer on factory technology in the nineteenth century] – of a rather peculiar training. A weaver, smith or farmer working in his own home, shop or field maintained a pace of his own choosing and performed moments of production as his own skills instructed him. In the factory, the labourer 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 overlookers, who enforced compliance with the rules laid down; the hands – as they were so tellingly known – should know how to exert consistent effort, respect tools as the property of others, bow to strangers, work in a closely contained crowd.
Now wait, here is Malm setting things out just as I noted above, the labourers are default female, and that is what I just said they are. The manufacturer is male, and perhaps though not necessarily, his overlookers too, is male, as we should expect. Except that now, we are not in a scenario where the wide span of industrial capitalism is under consideration, but the specific beginnings of switching to machines run by a "prime mover," an engine. This early on, the majority of factory workers were still male, and women and children were brought on later in an effort to drive up levels of profit by taking advantage of the social license to pay them wages far below those of men. But even if this were not the case, how is it that suddenly when the worker is at home, the worker is male and deciding what to do (even if oddly, his skill is instructing him), but then becomes default female when a machine "prime mover" determines the task and the pace? This is another trope, of the worker feminized by being subjected to machinery. This trope is so powerful in tech culture that when men systematically drove pioneering female programmers out of the industry through the 1960s, they produced a hyper-masculine, body-hating culture. Worse yet, there is still more where this came from.
Each worker then represented a living investment. A commodity purchased by more than one wage payment, her presence hinged on the fixed capital of houses, gardens, shops and chapels as well as considerable efforts to inculcate skills and a minimum of discipline in her person. But a worker might depart.
This continues with Malm's summary of Katrina Honeyman's discussion of factory owners pillaging orphanages for children to indenture into labouring for effectively no wages for periods up to nine or ten years. "The boys and girls themselves had no say in the agreements, of course, as soon as a child was in the hands of a parish, she could be dispatched if the overseer so wished, and once the transfer had been sealed, she would be the de facto possession of her new master." He goes on to briefly describe how girls could end up indentured as factory labour through "potentially half" of their working lives, emphasizing that they would get practically no pay. It remains completely undiscussed that this is also the time of those girls' lives when they would be most able and likely to bear children. This seems hardly to be ignored in the context of a discussion of the desperation parishes had for making some use of "surplus population."
A material, a machine, a prime mover can become private property. The individual might need them like she needs her own lungs but they are outside of her body, caught by others in a net, versatile and off limits, and so she may have no choice but to go via a master to access them: she is snared in property relations.
Malm never stops to give thought to the fact that in Britain, women and children were officially property of men under British law. Children of their fathers, boys until their age of majority, girls until they married, grown women until they married. Married girls and women were officially property of their husbands. In default of a living or competent father, another male relative could be assigned his role by the state. They didn't have to be brought in to property relations when they were treated as property in the first place. This formulation draws its original sting in the nineteenth century for the men who read and heard it from the very fact that most men if they were not Black or otherwise racialized were not slaves and therefore not property. Having ignored this, Malm's analysis on pages 280-281 and 309-310 rides on the edge of laughable because we are still dealing with developments in that very century. This is crazy making, because he simply never cleans up or acknowledges this, in an otherwise useful and instructive analysis. This is the case even though he has a wonderful opening for it on page 119, one that would allow him to briefly outline the ways in which capitalists drew on gender stereotypes to gauge what they sort of supervisory labour they would accept, and why and how they decided to take up and treat women, girls, boys, and men as labourers.
Ironically, the same spatiotemporal profile of coal that made it dearer than water also made it more appropriate for capital. Having been brought into the marketplace by means of human labour, pieces of the stock circulated in physical freedom, available for combustion in absolute, indeed necessary detachment from other burners. Here the private property of cotton manufacturers found a source of energy congenial to its logic: piecemeal, splintered, amenable to concentration and accumulation, divisible. 'In short, a motive power that in many respects was indeed a welcome gift of nature attended by a lack of independence in use and management,' and to make matters worst, it cost, in [L.] Hunter's trenchant formulation, 'emotional energy from which steam-power users were entirely free.' With this, we are very far indeed from the consummate rationality imputed to British industrialists by David Landes and innumerable other scholars. Drainage of emotional energy as a factor in the choice of steam power – clearly the more expensive option? Not what should be expectd of enlightened entrepreneurs.
This is non-trivial, and readers familiar with volume one of Das Kapital or who have at least watched David Harvey's lecture series "Reading Marx's Capital Volume 1" will prick up their ears at this. A key feature of capitalism is how it separates the person doing the labour that produces and distributes commodities from those who ultimately buy and use the commodities. Ideally, we are kept ignorant of the farm workers doused in pesticide so that they won't lose work time while the monocrop is defended against hungry insects and opportunistic infections, or the hundreds of women shackled to sewing machines either literally or figuratively by demands they forgo bathroom breaks. The factory owners and other capitalists don't want to see any of this either. They especially don't want to risk feeling guilty or like they should do anything to change the workers' conditions, because that would keep them from maximizing profits. As Malm notes, they also didn't want the emotional labour of working with other capitalists, skilled workers needed to manage their precious machines, or learning to understand those machines. They no more wanted to put energy into using the machines than the people.
In the end though, Malm passes this consideration by in order to delve into the development of so-called "factory discipline." Again, this is obviously relevant. He observes from his sources that no matter how badly off potential workers were, if the factory was effectively equivalent to the workhouse but for the fact that they could at least leave when they chose, they often chose not to enter or to stay. This was a matter of raw survival, in that the destitute in particular had to find a way to avoid having their desperation used to exploit them to death. They had many, many reasons for this, not least of which were those entailed to their religion. Ruth Richardson thoroughly explored this in her 1988 book, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. In this era, the majority of Britons grew up in a christian faith that taught them if their bodies were not buried complete, they would not be resurrected when eventually their saviour returned to Earth. For a time dying in a workhouse meant a person's corpse was sent for dissection in the medical schools, which never had enough cadavers. Such dissections ended in the complete destruction of the body. We should also bear in mind that most early industrial machinery had none of the safety guards and affordances that even today still don't prevent all maimings and other types of injury.
There are other times that Malm seems to miss surprising details, or characterizes factory owners in ways that leave the reader wondering what is going on. For instance, he describes James McConnell as a "prominent Manchester spinner" of the company long known as McConnell & Kennedy. This gave me pause, because Malm is discussing an instance in which two hundred indentured girls turn out to be far harder for McConnell's overseers to manage than he expected, and worse yet from his perspective he couldn't do anything about it. This begs the question of who James McConnell was, who hardly seems to have been a spinner himself. In this case, Grace's Guide to British Industrial History clarifies matters. He started out as one of three workmen who apprenticed by implication as "mule-spinners," that is, men trained to run and repair the machinery known as spinning mules. Rather than do this themselves, they soon pooled their money to buy machines and rent garrets in order to delegate the actual machine minding to others and make a tidy profit.
Just in case we were getting the impression that the trope of the disobedient female is only invoked by Malm, however unconsciously, I should provide another illustrative quote where his sources are the culprits. Though it must also be noted, he doesn't do much with the broad hints they give him about certain "ideological pathways" that he is using this section of his discussion to segue to.
What, then, were the ideological pathways that made machine fetishism pass by water and run into steam? (This is but another way of posing the question of transition.) The very same bourgeois values incorporated in automatic machines were found in engines but not in [water] wheels. When discussing the 'theory of the motion of rivers' in his System of Mechanical Philosophy in 1822, Watt's confidante John Robison claimed that the engineers still had not learned to master the force of water. It refused to bend to their wills. 'Nature,' he contended, 'shows her independence with respect to our notions, and always faithful to the laws which are enjoined, and of which we are ignorant, she never fails to thwart our views, to disconcert our projects, and render useless all our efforts." A startling view of nature in general and water in particular, with a revealing gendered language, this statement made it perfectly clear why the British bourgeoisie could not stand the flow in the end: it possessed an autonomous mechanical power, conforming to the laws written by her own sovereign nature, over which the masters could exert no stable control. The parallelism with human labour is striking.
Just over twenty pages later, Malm passes by another opportunity to pull together these threads when he quotes an 1841 labour newspaper explaining how women were drawn into the growing maw of steam powered capitalism via coal mining. But then, this is the trouble with refusing to face up to the fact that the contradictions between "labour and capital" are not merely about "capital" finding it impossible to get rid of labour all together, just push people further away and out of sight. Malm never discusses the grinding social contradictions between British cultural notions of gender stereotyped labour and the demands of capitalists seeking to maximize their profits at all costs on the backs of the poor regardless of stereotype except insofar as they seemed to assure them of a docile workforce.
Truth be told, Malm has a miserable time when it comes to ideology. He takes as given that it is simply obvious why capitalists do what they do, and so like Marx, Gramsci, and many other philosophers and political scientists, Malm tries to answer the question of "why do subaltern classes resign themselves to their fate or even consent to it explicitly? Or, how are the predominant relations of production reproduced?" That Malm is caught up in this question is utterly mystifying, because he has just spent over two hundred and fifty pages documenting multiple layers of violence that forces labour to participate in capitalism. Not just overt violence in the form of beatings and imprisonment, but economic coercion, deliberate break up of families and use of mass schooling to indoctrinate the stolen children, criminalization of gathering and communication, and the absolute monopolization of wide-ranging deadly force. None of this would have been needed or deployed if the ostensibly accepting subalterns were not resisting constantly and at all times, even in the most unpromising of conditions. The real question is actually why capitalists are so determined to go to any lengths whatsoever to apply this violence even when it is ruinously expensive, and even when it breaks the distance that is intended to help them avoid any sense of community or obligation with workers. Not just why, but also how capitalists are able to maintain against all manner of direct evidence the belief that they are licensed to behave in this way, that they may take on the earthly equivalent of divine or monarchial powers, and how they successfully win over the bourgeois elements of the population to become and remain their enforcers. Instead, Malm wanders off into repeating a decontextualized paragraph from Louis Althusser.
While I very much appreciate finally learning the proper meaning of "interpellate" – it is an unfortunately pretentious synonym for "call on someone" the drop here is made all the more obvious by Malm's attempt to paraphrase Althusser's idea with his own example. Here is Althusser, in which he is making observations about an individual under the influence of a specific ideology:
The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which 'depend' the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on.
Now let's have a look at Malm's version.
A person holding a political ideology in the ordinary sense of the term might join a demonstration or attend an assembly to express her convictions, but in the Ideological State Apparatus, it is the practical act that generates the ideological affiliation. A Catholic does not go to mass because she is a believing Catholic; rather, the acts of going to mass, moving her lips in prayer, kneeling down and confessing her sins constitute her as a Catholic: material rituals summon the ideological subject into being.
Now we have not just pronoun trouble, but something the rides on the edge of patch writing, a mistake that less experienced or rushed writers can slip into if they are not careful when paraphrasing. I stated earlier that Malm followed the wording of his sources when paraphrasing, but this is clearly not at least for his political theorists. To make matters worse, he follows up with an example of the "Ideological State Apparatus (ISA)" of Victorian England taken from Stephen Mosley's Chimney of the World, the cult of the domestic coal fire. The difficulty is not with the selection but with the quote of Mosley's quote. First, Malm refers to L.M. Budgen as if it is impossible to know who that person could be, and then does not state clearly whether the emphasis in the quote is his, Mosley's, or in the original. By this point in my reading, I was annoyed enough to track down this reference and see what I could learn about L.M. Budgen. After all, even James McConnell got a better description than this author, and the position of a commentator on an ISA is more than a little relevant.
Like thousands of other nineteenth century books, Live Coals or Faces From the Fire has been digitized and is hosted on the Internet Archive, alongside two other works by the same author. Those other works include the three volume series Episodes of Insect Life and March Winds and April Showers. These were all written under the pen name of Acheta Domestica or just Acheta, by L.M. Budgen, female author and Member of the Entomological Society. She was not exactly obscure in her own day, as she notes in the introduction to the second volume of Episodes of Insect Life that she wrote more by request. Furthermore, she illustrated her volumes herself. An online exhibition curated by Brigham Young University, Victorian Illustrators: From Sketch to Print notes that Lovell Reeve was "a prominent science publisher" of the time and that Acheta domestica is the scientific name for the house cricket. Which means we have a woman working around the constraints on female participation in scientific writing in part by combining what we would now call sentimentalist works with more scientific ones, all released with a prominent publishing firm. It is an unhappy coincidence that Budgen turns out to be a woman, as well as that it is not so difficult to find some basic details about her via ten minutes of search engine queries.
When it comes down to it, this is a shocking failure of research hygiene. Besides incomplete and unclear footnoting, there is shaky paraphrasing and failure to cross check original sources. All of this is quite apart from the invocations of various female stereotypes embedded in western cultural tropes that can only be there deliberately. They are salted through the text too consistently for it to be otherwise. Taking a generous interpretation, perhaps this is because Malm actually planned to make this an overt line of discussion that would have reached a key development point as he dove into Althusser's notion of Ideological State Apparatuses. But as it stands we are unlikely to ever know, which is truly sad, because it takes away from this last quote. It could be wonderful, if ham-fisted, except that it reads like another possible instance of patch writing in an attempt to extend Marx's point made in Chapter 7 of Volume 1 of Das Kapital about the difference between animals and humans in terms of their intellectual relationship with their labour.
Woodpeckers work on the excavation of wood. The[sic] bills are their tools. Striking their sharp-nosed hammers with a signature mechanical sound, they can bore mouth-sized holes into tree trunks, like shafts for mining ants and termites, beetles and their grubs. Because the tools are at one with the bodies of the birds, they cannot be concentrated. No master woodpecker can collect bills and pile them up on a central site and tell the other members of the population, their faces strangely flat, to submit to his command and get access to the tools they need to break through the bark or refuse and starve in freedom: for this reason, if for no other, property relations among woodpeckers are impossible. Their equipment for metabolism cannot be distributed between owners and non-owners, nor can it be collectively be controlled by a commune.
Marx is originally arguing that since animals and insects have no capacity to imagine the product of their labour and then carry out, therefore this makes humans superior to them as labourers. Furthermore, he is pointing out that the human capacity to imagine some task and carry it out also makes it possible to alienate the labour entailed by the task. For his part, Malm apparently wants to make an analogous argument about tools and machines precisely because of the role of separating workers from access to means of making a living by keeping away the tools. His attempted analogy and extension doesn't work, however quirky and absurd the image of flat-faced woodpeckers lining up to pick up their beaks may be. It is not terribly necessary either. It is hard to understand why he felt the need to make it, as the book hardly needs padding.
I have written elsewhere about how intrusive north american editing practice for publication can be, including giving some thought as to the reasons for that. In the case of preparing a thesis or dissertation for academic defence and then publishing, significant editing are not unlikely steps, nor are they accurately described as intrusive. In the former, the editing is about the all-important research hygiene, taking care that all the footnotes and references are present and accounted for. They must be checked for clarity too. This earlier stage is generally also where we catch episodes of accidental patch writing, usually missed by writers when they have dropped in a quote or bit of text from a source to work from and then forgot to complete either its removal or clean up and citation. When shifting from academic audience to general public, then revisions need to happen to provide framework information people can't be widely assumed to have, while dropping material that a graduate student needs to show familiarity with but does not otherwise need to be present. As I noted earlier, the text may also need restructuring because of the different purposes and requirements of an academic thesis versus a more general book. All of which leads me to think that the rush to publish pushed the editors at Verso into a position where they had no time to help Malm ready his manuscript for prime time. The difficult choice between a popular and an academic press often hinges on this. The result is a book with extraordinary potential that couldn't stretch as far as it might have, but is still significant and one that many people will find worth spending some time with.
Before closing, let us return to Malm's paper published in the journal Historical Materialism in 2013, "The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry." The contrast between this focussed, carefully argued paper and the eventual book is startling. Marx' explanations of surplus and relative surplus value are presented briefly and with admirable clarity as Malm explains how he proposes to extend them based on the observations made since the late nineteenth century. He doesn't give us the answer before setting out the question in this article either, he spends pages considering generally accepted explanations and the evidence that disproves them, then goes into why he thinks the better explanation for the shift in Britain from water to steam power lies in social factors rather than technical ones, just as he does in the book. He also makes two brief and telling statements that certainly demand future expansion with citations and other types of corroboration, although the claims he makes in them are not contentious. The reason the demand is there is precisely because he has identified social factors as not merely important but causal for a shift to fossil fuels in the British and successor industrial economies. Here are those two statements.
In order to construct a viable factory at Cromford, where the swift streams of the Derwent could power his water-frames, Richard Arkwright had to collect operatives from towns and conjure up a whole village, establishing not only the first full-fledged factory, but also the blueprint for the factory colony, to be copied along the rivers of northern Britain. Once collected, the operatives – primarily young women – had to be accommodated in houses built for the purpose.
Three or four decades later, the towns of Lancashire and Scotland were brimming with the 'population trained to industrious habits' of which [John] McCulloch [a late nineteenth century economist] spoke: young men but preferably women, born in a world of mills, resigned to bells and managers in a way country folk would rarely if ever be.
As we should expect, Malm is teasing his greater research project and indeed its eventual book form here by showing where he still has work to do and details to present. The bodies of detail left implicit and unaccounted for in his eventual 2016 opus are right here, ready to go. These two quotes provide excellent pointer stubs to follow up chapters. All this achieved without awkward padding or laboured analogies and repeated uncritical invocation of destructive tropes.
- Verso: London.
- Lund University Research Portal: Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power in the British Cotton Industry, c. 1825-1848, and the Roots of Global Warming.
Lund University Publications: Fossil Capital : The Rise of Steam-Power in the British Cotton Industry, c. 1825-1848, and the Roots of Global Warming.
- Malm, Andreas. 2013 "The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry," Historical Materialism 21(1): 15-68.
- Lund University Human Ecology Division.
- Lund University Department of Human Geography.
Lund University Department of Human Geography: History.
- Lund University Department of Human Geography: Andreas Malm.
- Jacobin Mag: The Nature of Capitalism by Troy Vettese, 24 october 2016.
Counterpunch: Malm's "Fossil Capital" by Mark Dickman, 13 march 2020.
London School of Economics Blog: Book Review: Fossil Capital by Rose Deller, 7 july 2017.
- Malm 2016, 141.
- Ibid, 12.
- The quickest and easiest way to see Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft) for yourself is to consult the Marxist Internet Archive. The editions digitized there is the Martin Nicolaus translation published by Penguin Books in association with New Left Review in 1973.
- This free online course remains available from David Harvey's website, as both a series of youtube videos and a podcast.
- Malm 2016, 269.
- Ibid 2016, 128.
- Please bear in mind that this is not changed by the constructive and genuinely funny linguistic exuberance evidenced by such documents as the jargon file in its Eric Raymond or independent text archive versions. To date I have not found a good treatment of the process of driving women from "IT" in the 1960s in the united states, but a not unreasonable sense of what they were up against can be seen in the british case in Marie Hicks' 2017 book Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost its Edge in Computing.
- Malm 2016, 130.
- Ibid, 131.
- Ibid, 280.
- Malm is quoting from page 116 of L. Hunter in A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930. Volume One: Waterpower in the Century of the Steam Engine (Charlottesville 1979). The emphasis is Malm's, not in the original.
- Also accessible on his website, in 2007 and 2019 editions.
- Malm 2016, 120. Malm also describes how this leads not just to worker deskilling so that they can be easily replaced, but managerial deskilling. The smarter the manager, the more likely he was to challenge his superior's policies, and he might be tempted away from the only goal that supervisor most wants met: more product in less time at the cost of the lowest amount of wages possible.
- Ibid, 128.
- Richardson, Ruth. 1988 Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Penguin Books: London.
- Grace's Guide to British Industrial History: McConnel and Kennedy.
- Curious readers may want to read the original source for this one, which is available on the Internet Archive in all four volumes. See:
Robison, John L. A System of Mechanical Philosophy. John Murray: London, 1822. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4.
- Malm 2016, 213.
- Ibid, 361-362.
- Unlike Malm, I can provide a full reference for this quote. I have drawn it from the Marxist Internet Archive's digitization of "On the Reproduction of the Conditions of Production," from Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster and published in English by Monthly Review Press in 1971.
- Malm 2016, 362.
- Mosley, Stephen. 2001 The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester. White Horse Press: Cambridge.
- Malm 2016, 363.
- Domestica, Acheta (Budgen, L.M.) Live Coals or Faces From the Fire. L. Reeve and Co.: London, 1867.
- Domestica, Acheta (Budgen, L.M.) Episodes of Insect Life. L. Reeve and Co.: London, 1849. Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.
- Domestica, Acheta (Budgen, L.M.) March Winds and April Showers: Being Notes and Notions On a Few Created Things. L. Reeve and Co.: London, 1854.
- Victorian Illustrators: From Sketch to Print, an exhibit from the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.
- Malm 2016, 279.
- Malm draws the term and reference to "social factors" from Robert G. Gordon. See Malm 2013, 27.
- Ibid, 35.
- Ibid, 38.