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Should the left build an alternative energy commons?

By Patricia S. Mann - Climate and Capitalism, September 12, 2017

What could ignite a massive grassroots struggle to replace our fossil fueled capitalist system with a sustainable and just postcapitalist system? According to Marx and Engels historical materialist analysis in The German Ideology, a radical theory, and the revolutionary practices it supports must originate in the historical and material conditions of daily life, and specifically in the lived contradictions of daily life.[1] Such an analysis in the 19th Century supported their theory of a revolutionary proletariat and workplace struggles seeking to seize control of existing means of production.

However, a 21st Century application of historical materialist methodology supports a new theory of mass struggle, grounded in some very different lived contradictions in the daily lives of 21st Century fossil fuel users and abusers. As well as in new technologies capable of addressing these lived contradictions.

Contemporary Marxist theorists readily acknowledge some 21st C developments in capitalism. Sam Gindin suggests that contemporary capitalism rests on three legs: neoliberalism, financialization, globalization.[2] I would simply add that contemporary capitalism can only be comprehended if we recognize that it rests uneasily on a fourth leg, as well, catastrophic, fossil fuel-based climate change.

A Marx-inspired anticapitalist Left acknowledges climate change as the preeminent contradiction of capitalism today. (Capitalism will end, in either a catastrophic climactic 6th extinction, or in our last minute achievement of a sustainable post-capitalist society.) This Marx-inspired Left also embraces new technologies enabling a grass-roots politics of microproduction and sharing of renewable energy.

This microproduction and sharing of renewable energy should become the foundational dynamic of a global struggle for a post-capitalist commons, a sustainable energy-based post-capitalist commons.

Emphasizing the many sources of cheap renewable energy – not just sun and wind, but also hydro, geothermal heat, biomass, ocean waves and tides – Jeremy Rifkin maintains that with minimal capital investments in individual homes and local buildings, current technology could enable millions of people globally to become microproducers of renewable energy at “near zero marginal cost.”[3] Moreover, it will be a simple matter for microproducers of renewable energy to connect with others over an energy internet, creating local, regional, ultimately global networks of energy producers and consumers, sharing sustainable energy produced at minimal cost within the networks of energy producers and consumers.

Rifkin argues that these new technologies of renewable energy production, in combination with technologies of internet communication create the basis for a paradigm shift. Our contemporary system of capital-intensive, centralized, profit-generating fossil fuel energy production and distribution can be replaced by networks of individual microproducers and sharers of renewable energy. Rifkin’s analysis highlights democratizing, collaborative features of a decentralized, peer-to-peer, laterally scaled, renewable energy network of microproducers and consumers, supportive of a post-capitalist commons.

However, without a mass movement, without a Marx-inspired anticapitalist politics, seeking to develop a renewable energy commons off-the-capitalist-grid, these new technologies of renewable energy, and the internet grids for sharing it, will simply be absorbed by capitalism, commercially enclosed by capitalist energy grids. Transforming capitalism rather than displacing it.

Without a replacement strategy and a mass struggle to create and maintain an alternative grid, there is every reason to think the new technologies of green energy microproduction will simply contribute to a new form of what Jason Moore has called “cheap energy,” providing capitalism with a much-needed new source of surplus value.[4] And subsumed within a profit and growth based dynamics of global capitalism, these new technologies will not enable us to avoid catastrophic climate change. – Bechtel, typically the first in line for government subsidized corporate investments, has already made a huge investment in solar energy in the Mojave Dessert.[5]

There is no time to be lost. Capitalist commercial enclosure of this new sustainable energy commons will be rapid, at some not so distant point in time.

Towards a Post-Capitalist Energy Commons and Beyond

By contrast with the 19th Century Marxist vision of a workplace-based proletariat, the potential participants in this new struggle are energy users, whether in workplaces or homes, agrarian fields, urban streets, or social media. And this new struggle for a sustainable post-capitalist energy network of production and sharing must develop globally from the outset, as cataclysmic climate destruction, and indeed, a 6th Extinction, is rapidly ravaging the oceans, the continents, and the atmosphere of the global South and the global North, alike.[6]

While the Marxist vision presumed a violent seizure of existing capitalist means of production by the proletariat, this new revolution on behalf of renewable energy and sustainable relationships is about displacing and replacing current fossil fuel-based modes of capitalist production, and consumption.

The transformative goal of this micropolitical form of global struggle lies in enabling a worldwide expansion of renewable energy microproduction and sharing. And in creating a renewable energy grid capable of fueling sustainable agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, all off-of-any-capitalist grid. Networks of renewable energy microproduction will have the goal of displacing fossil fuel-based corporate energy firms, while preparing the way for also displacing and replacing other forms of capitalist enterprise as unsustainable.

What would the Left be taking on with leadership, advocacy and support of such a global movement? The first challenge would be one of education, formulating and communicating a political pedagogy regarding the meaning and significance of participating in the microproduction and sharing of renewable energy over peer-to-peer internet networks, while abandoning the capitalist marketplace for fossil fuel-based energy, as well as alternative energy marketplace options.

The potentially transformative feature of the microproduction of renewable energy is that it is born, de novo, through the actions of an individual or group of individuals installing, for example, a solar panel, harnessing energy directly from the sun, outside of the capitalist system of markets and commercial enclosure. An individual who installs a solar panel, harnessing solar energy for her own use, or for the use of others with whom she may choose to share it, has contributed to a new energy commons.

If she consciously chooses to share any excess energy she produces with others over a sustainable energy internet network, remaining outside of the commercial net-metering grid in her community, she may be deemed to be “commoning,” entering into a system for preserving and sharing common natural resources outside of the capitalist marketplace.[7]

The Left could tell a dramatic political narrative about this creation of a new energy commons for the sustainable reproduction of everyday life; and its potential significance both in combating climate change directly, and also in challenging capitalism’s system of profit and growth-driven climate destruction.

The second challenge for the Left in creating such a revolutionary global movement would be the very practical one of supporting a massive, rapid proliferation of renewable energy microproduction and distribution networks. In the global South, weak power grids and inadequate infrastructure have created a chronic lack of sufficient electricity, while infrastructure investments under neoliberalism primarily advance transnational corporate extractive goals.

A Left sustainability movement promoting the microproduction of renewable energy, as well as peer-to-peer energy sharing networks, would address both daily needs for energy, as well as desires to participate in a global movement to save our dying planet.[8]

In the global North, where fossil fuel-based energy grids are sufficient for energy needs, a mass movement for renewable energy microproduction and sharing off-of-any-capitalist-energy grid could immediately gain support from millions of people welcoming the opportunity to finally act constructively, with real hopes of transforming the system. As anxious, resigned users and abusers of fossil fuel in a culture offering no real alternatives, how many of us would readily contribute our efforts to a movement with the goal, and the actual possibility of creating a sustainable post-capitalist political economy?

Millennial fatalism, Marxist fatalism, all of our tendencies towards resignation regarding a shared future of catastrophic climate change are the result of an unchallenged neoliberal capitalist narrative of progress requiring the destruction of global environments. With the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Marxist left lost its confidence in an alternative political economic narrative, and its will to oppose neoliberal capitalism, at a crucially terrible moment.

But if the painful, alienating acceptance of cataclysmic climate change has been created by a belief that there is no alternative to our current fossil-fueled path to destruction, then the hope and possibility of contributing to a sustainable political economy will motivate activism in some high proportion of affected persons of all ages. The solidarity of individuals engaged in microproduction and sharing of renewable energy would be realized insofar as those individuals would be empowered to save their earth from climactic catastrophe only through these collaborative, off-the-capitalist-grid, global energy networks.

The third challenge for the Marx-inspired Left in attempting to create a global sustainability movement through ‘off-the-capitalist-grid’ microproduction and sharing of renewable energy would be, of course, to defend the movement against opposition.

An anticapitalist energy commons would directly challenge capitalist profit expectations in developed markets in the United States and elsewhere. An “off-the-capitalist-grid” movement would be denounced as contrary to the public interest, as dangerous and subversive to the national interest, as soon as local electricity companies and national or transnational fossil fuel-based corporations became aware of its existence.

It would become subject to an array of new laws and regulations imposing fines, fees, taxes on “off-the-capitalist-grid” microproduction and sharing networks. While microproduction and sharing of renewable energy is inherently nonviolent, we may confidently predict that energy corporations, and governments reliant upon them, will resort to legal and extralegal, frequently violent, means of opposition to these post-capitalist networks of renewable energy production and distribution.

Energy commoning will be defined as a subversive, even terrorist activity; state forces of repression and suppression will seek to destroy it.[9]

This is where the unifying strength of a mass movement with a comprehensive overarching plan for a post-capitalist replacement strategy becomes important and necessary. The praxis-based solidarity of renewable energy networks would necessarily be supplemented by legal and political forms of struggle in support of these emerging off-the-capitalist-grid energy networks. A revitalized, Marx-inspired Left could coordinate a vast array of newly aligned grassroots climate and economic justice movements, all contributing to a post-capitalist transition, anchored within an emerging renewable energy commons.

To Conclude

I offer a foundational, barebones vision of a Marx-inspired global struggle for postcapitalist sustainability; but I am confident that it is a theoretically, and existentially warranted proposal. Climate justice activists have taken up a variety of local struggles, but they lack the overarching plan for mass action that would be possible if a renewed Marx-inspired Left were to commit itself to a global struggle for postcapitalist climate justice.[10]

Patricia S. Mann taught philosophy at the City University of New York and Hofstra University, and did immigration litigation in New York City. She is the author of Micro-Politics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era.


[1] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976).

[2] Sam Gindin, “Unmaking Global Capitalism: Nine Things to Know About Organizing in the Belly of the Beast,” Jacobin, Issue 14, 2014.

[3] Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 19, 69, 81; Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).

[4] Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, (London: Verso, 2015).

[5] Sally Denton, The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2016), 296-7.

[6] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (New York: Henry Holt, 2014).

[7] Peter Linebaugh, citing Tacitus, as well as Marx, emphasizes that ‘commoning’ has a long history as an activity of sharing equally in lands and other resources. The Magna Carta Manifesto, (Berkeley: University of California, 2008), 278-80.

[8] While a postcapitalist transition will necessarily involve a reduction in wasteful forms of production and consumption, military weaponry, for example, any struggle for a just and sustainable society must at the same time address a need for more electricity in the global South. See Ian Angus, A Redder Shade of Green, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2017), 161.

[9] Global Witness documented 185 killings of land and environmental defenders in 16 countries in 2015, the actual death toll probably far higher, as people resisted oil and mineral extraction, land grabs by agribusiness, logging and other mega-development projects. “On Dangerous Ground.” June 20, 2016.

[10] See Patricia S. Mann, “On the Precipice with Naomi Klein, Karl Marx, and the Pope: Towards a Postcapitalist Energy Commons and Beyond,” Radical Philosophy Review, Vol.19, No.3 (2016), 621-52, for a more extended analysis.

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