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Fighting fossil fascism for an eco-communist future

By The Zetkin Collective and Kai Heron - ROAR Mag, July 15, 2021

The West Coast of North America is, once again, on fire. Last month, Phoenix, Arizona, recorded temperatures of 46 degrees Celcius five days in a row. A new record. Every afternoon, the surface temperature of concrete and tarmac climbed to 82 degrees Celsius — hot enough to cause third-degree burns. In California and Texas, where temperatures were marginally lower, energy grid operators feared a prolonged heat wave would wreak havoc on energy infrastructure, forcing a repeat of last years’ rolling blackouts. For many dependent on air conditioning to stay cool in the sweltering heat, this would cause health complications or even death.

North America’s ongoing heatwave follows months of dry weather across the West Coast that have established the conditions for a summer of unprecedented water shortages, crop failures and wildfires. California and Arizona’s wildfire season started unusually early. One of Arizona’s first fires roared for four days, incinerating 27 square miles of countryside and forcing the evacuation of two townships. As this interview is prepared for publication, more than 60 wildfires are raging across the West Coast, some two times the size of Portland. As has become commonplace in the US, state officials are sending prisoners in to tackle the flames, paying them as little as $1.50 an hour.

Already this year Pakistan and Northern India have been wracked by temperatures reaching 52 degrees Celsius. While the small town of Lytton, 124 miles outside Vancouver, hit 49.6 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Meanwhile, Brazil has suffered under its worst drought in 100 years, sending food prices spiraling upwards. At these extremes, life as normal is suspended. People die. Ecosystems collapse. And out of the disarray, reactionary social forces make their move.

Through a toxic combination of long-established anti-immigrant and racializing tropes and a regressive denialist climate agenda, far-right parties and social movements are exercising increased influence across Europe and the Americas. The Zetkin Collective’s White Skin, Black Fuel: The Danger of Fossil Fascism charts the rise of these movements and ideas and, with an eye to the horizon, forecasts the emergence of “fossil fascism.”

Zetkin Collective member Andreas Malm’s most recent individually authored works How to Blow up a Pipeline and Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, were rapidly-written conjunctural analyses of our intersecting ecological, epidemiological and political predicaments. Both books sought to drive a red-and-green wedge into conversations about capitalism’s breathless trajectory towards ecological collapse and the limits of prevailing strategies among elements of the capitalist core’s climate movements.

While none of the urgency of these works is lost in White Skin, Black Fuel, it drops into the background as a richly detailed analysis of the interrelations of racial capitalism, fossil fuel extraction, nationalism and climate breakdown takes precedence. The book is an example of engaged scholarly research at its best. A clarion call to movements and a forceful reminder of the reactionary forces that are stacked against us as we fight to realize an eco-communist future.

In this interview Kai Heron speaks to Zetkin Collective members Andreas Malm, Laudy van den Heuvel and Ståle Holgersen about the Collective’s writing process, climate denial and resistance to fossil fascism.

Kai Heron: According to White Skin, Black Fuel’s (WSBF) flyleaf, twenty-one members of the Zetkin Collective collaborated on the book. But what is the Zetkin Collective? And what was it like to write a book with 20 other people? From the outside, this seems like quite a logistical feat!

Laudy van den Heuvel: The Zetkin Collective is a pretty diverse group of scholars, students, alumni and activists that each have their own field of expertise within the subject of ecology and the far right. Some hold positions at different universities, but most of us are voluntary members. For the book, everyone basically did research within their own field of interest and expertise and delivered that to Andreas Malm, who compiled the information and turned it into a running and coherent text.

As the Zetkin Collective does try to be as transparent and democratic as possible, the development of the book did take quite some time, as Andreas processed all the information which Zetkin members provided, to then hand it back to all of us and ask for approval, feedback, comments, et cetera, to be sure that all the information was actually correct, clear and used as much as possible.

The Zetkin Collective as a group is what we make of it: we all have different points of focus, yet we all work roughly with the same topic. Moreover, the collective has a clear activist foundation, in the sense that we believe that action is needed now. The way we express this activism might be different from person to person, but we have a rather coherent set of values, and the Zetkin Collective is, besides working collectively on the same topics, also a place to get together with people with shared visions.

Ståle Holgersen: The writing process has been as unconventional as the title of the author. In short it was like this: all the members of the Collective wrote a few pages on relations between far right parties, racism/anti-immigration and ecology within countries they had profound knowledge about. Andreas then composed these parts into the symphony one can read today.

In addition, the chapters not directly building on contemporary case studies — like more general discussions on fossil fascism or racial history of fossil fuel — are, to a large extent, originally written by Andreas. Then, in an organic, chaotic yet somehow structured manner, everyone commented, made changes, modified and sometimes even rewrote parts of the manuscript throughout the process.

WSBF warns of the emergence of what it calls “fossil fascism.” What is fossil fascism, how is it distinguished from the fascism of the mid 20thcentury, and what motivated you to write a book on the subject now?

LH: The term “fossil fascism” was actually introduced in an essay by Cara Daggett on the topic of petro-masculinity, fossil fuels and authoritarian desire. In WSBF, we argue that, when it comes to fascism, a distinction should be made between fascism as a set of ideas, as the famous scholar on fascism, Roger Griffin, understands it, and fascism as a real historical force, whose classical case is the fascism we saw in the interwar period. What we can see right now is a rise of far-right parties, tendencies and sympathies, which in fact never have died out, but have experienced a general — albeit not liner — resurgence in recent years.

Yet, for fascism to become a historical force, there needs to be an actual crisis, and fascists need to come into power. We do face an enormous crisis right now, which is of an environmental nature, and the far right is on the rise, defending the fossil industry — fossil capital — with all its might. That means that there is the risk that we are heading towards a fossil fascism.

Andreas Malm: To give a very simplified definition, I would say that fossil fascism is the aggressive defense of privileges called into question in the climate crisis, combined with systematic state violence against non-white people defined and treated as enemies of the white nation. We stress that this is not something that exists in any of the countries we study — we do not claim that the Trump administration was fascist, or that any of the far-right parties in or close to power is yet of that nature — but we see tendencies pointing in this direction. And the climate crisis is bound to get worse. As it deepens, it can, we argue, take two ideal-typical forms: a mitigation crisis, where fossil fuels as such are called into question and a swift and radical transition away from them is commenced; or an adaptation crisis, in which climatic impacts strike so hard as to demand the redistribution and opening of access to basic resources held in abundance by the rich in the metropolitan core — this could be land, water, essentially anything. Needless to say, these two forms of crises could converge in a messy reality. We consider various scenarios in which the far right could come to power and aggressively defend the privileges called into question through turning the fire of state violence against non-white people. Unfortunately, these scenarios do not seem entirely far-fetched, or so we argue.

SH: One central research question for fascism scholars is “what kind of crisis enables fascism”? In the book we simply explore the obvious follow-up question: can the climate crisis be such a crisis? Although we cannot of course know anything for sure about the future, there are certain unmistakable signs: in a highly unstable world, future organic crises will develop, with potentially rising numbers of immigrants due to climatic impacts. Racist actors will need to come up with candidates on whom to blame the problems — given that it cannot be rich, white men.

As the term “fascism” is conventionally linked strongly to two particular states, interwar Italy and Germany, we need to discuss its “return” in terms of features and trends — or processes of fascisation — rather than wait for Adolf Hitler to reappear. One thing we need to keep in mind in this respect is that fascism was always a highly modern way of organizing capitalism. This stands in sharp contrast to some of its rhetoric and aesthetics and means that “eco-fascism” as in a proper ecological society is about as unlikely as a capitalism with a sustainable relation to nature. In the construction of the “modern” capitalist societies fossil fuels have so far been the outstanding source of energy. It is these connections we explore in the book.

An astonishing 30 million people were displaced from their homes just last year by storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and other signs of escalating climate chaos. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that there will be a total of 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050. WSBF draws a fascinating association between immigration and far-right ecologism. You describe immigration as a “funnel issue” for far-right politics through which all others must pass, including the climate crisis. Could you elaborate on this idea and explain why it matters to us?

LH: As the book describes, every time the far right says something about climate change, it also makes a statement about immigration. This takes several forms: some may say something in line with: “the climate is not our main problem, immigration is”; some would argue that African and/or Muslim countries are to blame because they overpopulate the world with their high birth rates; and others would even say that immigration itself would cause environmental degradation by overpopulating the West and inviting the immigrants from poor countries to copy the Western lifestyle. All research suggests that such statements are absolute nonsense, yet for the European far right in particular, immigration is the main topic, as it derives every societal problem from (Muslim) immigration.

Denial is a recurring theme in WSBF. In the book’s final chapter you follow Stanley Cohen’s “States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering” in proposing a tripartite taxonomy of denial: literal, interpretive and implicatory. When it comes to the climate crisis, literal denial simply denies the crisis exists. Interpretive denial admits that something like global heating is happening but downplays its significance, absolves its perpetrators, obscures its origins in capitalist production, and so on. Implicatory denial, which you say is the most insidious, accepts the facts of climate change but refuses to act on them with anything like the urgency required. We could say that this has been the general position of centrist governments and environmental NGOs since at least the Kyoto Protocol, if not before.

First, could you tell us why denial is an important subject to broach in an analysis of far-right environmentalism? And second, I wonder if you would agree that we are now seeing a fourth kind of denialism. A denialism that recognizes the severity of the crisis and that acts — often very rapidly — precisely so that nothing essential has to change. This is a denialism that I think we find in proponents of green capitalism, green growth, eco-modernism, and even in most iterations of the Green New Deal. Do you see this kind of denialism as a block on meaningful political action? And if so, how can we hope to combat it?

LH: Commenting on the second section of the question, to what extent green capitalism and green growth etc. are forms of denialism blocking meaningful political action: I would definitely endorse this view. These are strategies for prolonging business-as-usual, while giving it a green sheen. A powerful narrative, which lures many: to seemingly solve “the problem” without demanding any actual change. It is a too comfortable image. Michael Redclift published an article back in 2005 in which he argues that sustainable growth is an oxymoron; the concepts are opposite each other and therefore do not go together. The exact same applies for green growth. I personally also think that a main problem is that “wealth” is exclusively a monetary measure, often expressed in abstract and incomplete GDP’s. These economic measures never really take into account the actual cost of things, such as long-term environmental impacts. So this can indeed by regarded as a form of denial.

AM: I have lost count of the phases and forms of denial… Denial is indeed absolutely central to our current predicament, and it comes in hundreds of guises. I would not, however, place Green New Deal in any iterations known to me in this category. Implicatory denial is the practical maintenance of business-as-usual and the refusal to support and initiate radical emissions cuts — despite formal recognition of the existence of the crisis. The GND is a program precisely for radical emissions cuts and is different in nature from, for example, carbon trading, various “net zero” visions for compensating continued emissions with carbon capture and most if not all other known programs at the green capitalism end of the spectrum. One can have various criticisms of the GND framework, of course, but I do not see how it could be legitimately labelled climate denial of any kind.

Now, the types of such denial we deal with in our book are primarily of two sorts: classical hard core literate denial, still the predominant positions on the far right, from Trump and Bolsonaro to Vox and the AfD; and green nationalism, which nominally accepts the existence of the climate crisis and then goes on to blame it on non-white people in general and immigrants in particular.

We consider the latter a secondary denial, because while it (purportedly) recognizes the ABCs of climate science, it denies the totality of the evidence about what drives global warming. So, the far right is deeply invested in two kinds of fairly extreme climate denial. A key point we make, however, is that this investment is one logical product of how capitalist societies work, far beyond the confines beyond the organized far right. The denial of the far right and that of capital are communicating vessels. More deeply still, there is a primordial link between racism and fossil-fueled technologies that we explore at some length in the book — but still we only scratch the surface here. Far more research is needed on this link, and thankfully, a lot seems to be underway.

Towards the end of WSBF you draw from Ralph Miliband to argue that the capitalist state — as it currently exists — is constitutively incapable of even so much as comprehending the scope of the climate crisis, let alone tackling it. This is so because while the state’s primary function is to maintain the social relations that make capital accumulation possible, the climate crisis is a problem that requires states to act in ways that oppose capital’s interests. But capital is comprised of competing capitals, many of which now see the climate crisis as a business opportunity.

The Financial Times recently ran an article with the headline “Green is Good” luxuriating in the investment opportunities that a green transition might bring. While The Express, formerly the UK’s most rabidly climate denialist paper, now supports an eco-modernist, green capitalist, transition. It seems at least possible that factions of capital are preparing for a world after fossil capital and that capitalist states might follow suit.

Do you think this marks a shift in capital’s strategy since the book was written? And if so, what can WSBF tell us about this possible recomposition of state and capital?

SH: All analyses of capitalism must start from the fact that the system is highly flexible, as you point to. Capital will try to accumulate wherever it can: first by creating the ecological crisis — as it has done for 200 years — then by trying to solve it at least rhetorically and through greenwashing — as it has done for decades — and then through massive adaptations to a warming world, which will become increasingly important in the coming years. In principle, the last five persons on the planet could be a capitalist who orders four workers to use their latest modern technology to produce yet another survival kit.

Has capital become more green since the book was written? Perhaps rhetorically, yes. But in reality? Well, here every trend towards a “greener capitalism” must be seen in the light other trends: pre-pandemic consumption of petroleum is, for example, expected to be surpassed in 2022.

AM: There might of course be business opportunities in renewable energies and electrical cars and vegan food and what not. However, a transition that can minimize climate catastrophe is fundamentally about something else: it is about obliterating a whole planet of value. The climate is not stabilized by one iota if we build thousands of wind farms and billions of solar panels while we also maintain, not to mention expand, oil platforms and coal-fired power-plants and fossil gas terminals and airports and all the rest.

What we are seeing so far is not a transition — as in closing fossil fuel sources down for good and replacing what needs to be replaced with renewable energy — but an addition of green tech on top of a fossil foundation that is nowhere near dismantling. This is because capital cannot bring itself to kill all of these investments before they have yielded the maximum profit. Believing that this could happen spontaneously is a belief in the desire of capital to amputate its limbs, if not commit outright suicide. So, there might be factions of capital preparing to profit from renewable energy and similar things, but I have not seen any of them arming themselves to shut down ExxonMobil and Total tomorrow. Nor are capitalist states planning for this — just look at Biden or Trudeau or Macron or any other similar leader and how they continue to greenlight further expansion of oil and gas.

So far, then, Miliband’s law unfortunately seems to hold. It would be a miracle if it were to be broken in time to avert uncontrollable climate catastrophe. The alternative, of course, is to build counter-power that can ram through a transition from popular bases outside of the capitalist state and outside of any factions of dominant classes. But that alternative is not the focus of our book. It is about understanding the most aggressive, advanced detachment of the enemy.

Finally, the obligatory “What is to be done?” question. WSBF warns of a far right in ascendence, an execrable coalition of the fossil fuel industry, white supremacy, and eco-nationalist governments. But in the book’s coda you let in a ray of hope. “The good news,” you write, “is that the dominant ideology is showing signs of desperation.”

As we saw with the popularity of Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, the ecological crisis has the capacity to punch a hole in the myth of capital’s compatibility with human and non-human flourishing. As lockdowns begin to lift, the climate movement will need to pick up again with renewed urgency. What do you hope it learns from WSBF? And how can we start to tear down the apparatus of fossil fascism?

LH: How to tear down the apparatus of fossil fascism — or rather prevent it from materializing — is perhaps the most important, yet the hardest question to answer, as there is not one easy way to do it. Friday’s for Future demonstrations are one step in the right direction, legal cases against governments and Shell in the Netherlands are others, as are blockades against fracking sites, pipelines or coal pits. Still this is a bit as if you try to tear down a wall by scratching out the cement with your finger nails. We need bulldozers. As the book also mentions in the beginning: “Things might well get ugly. Indeed, they already are.” Yet crises do regularly instigate change, and sometimes — although far too rarely — in a progressive direction. For change to turn in the direction of environmental justice, the left obviously needs to be stronger. And how can that happen? This, it should be admitted, is not something we try to answer in the book.

SH: The book is basically a call for the climate and anti-fascist and anti-racist movements to join forces. Both in a defensive and an offensive sense: the climate movement need to understand what is going on when fascists pick up a “green” rhetoric, and realize just how deeply race and racism structure our warming world. In Europe, the movement remains overwhelmingly white and often blind to the politics of race — this has to change. Anti-fascists, on the other hand, need to understand the environmental destruction that can come with fascism and vice versa. But this convergence must also be offensive: in a common ecosocialist struggle. Only in this way can we confront the underlying processes that constitute both climate change and fascism: capitalism and its crises.

White Skin, Black Fuel: The Danger of Fossil Fascism by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective is out now from Verso Books.

Laudy van den Heuvel is an independent investigative journalist writing about alternative and esoteric worldviews and soon to be teaching assistant at Maastricht University.

Ståle Holgersen is a human geographer at Uppsala University, in Sweden. Research interests include political economy, urban planning and housing, economic and ecological crises. They are finalizing a new book on the relations between ecological and economic crises.

Andreas Malm is an Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University. Besides White Skin, Black Fuel, his most recent books are How to Blow up a Pipeline and Corona, Climate, Chonric Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, published by Verso Books.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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