Know Your Enemy

On Fossil Fascism

May 28, 2021

White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism
by Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective

Why would we care what the far right thinks about climate change? Especially in the throes of a climate emergency, the opinions of swivel-eyed climate denialist loons should be the least of our concerns.  A Chinese “hoax,” former US President Donald Trump called it; “the biggest scam in history,” claimed Spanish Vox party leader Santiago Abascal.

For now, at least, the green movement is largely the preserve of the Left, evidenced by the Left’s effective conjoinment of climate action with economic and social justice issues. Ecological reactionaries, firmly on the margins, recognize this reality. “Today’s environmentalism?” reactionary ecologist writer Paul Kingsnorth asked sardonically in 2017. A “consolation prize for a gaggle of washed-up Trots.”

Nevertheless, what the far right thinks about climate change is of importance because globally far right parties occupy the very state apparatuses required to mitigate it, Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective argue in their new book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. In seats of power across the world, from Berlin to Brasília, the far right has stormed into office — at precisely the historical juncture when we must slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The authors uncover a subtle yet fundamental error in our climate political modelling; we have assumed the public is rational. Climate scientists pass on knowledge of how things are unfolding, and the public fixes it. This assumption of rationality has underpinned the expectation that the global economy will shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy when the price of the latter has decreased.

This climatically Whiggish conjecture has not factored in the rise of the far right alongside rising temperatures, the authors argue. “No [United Nations] IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenario has counted on the possibility,” Malm and his coauthors point out, “that deep into the early stages of global warming, just as the urgency of slashing emissions ought to be at its most overwhelming, state apparatuses in Europe and the Americas would be increasingly occupied by parties and presidents professionally clad and white of skin and eager to show the whole issue the door.”

Anti-racists and antifascists cannot ignore this context. “Rather, their old struggle against the far right is taking on a novel aspect,” they argue. “It is increasingly difficult to tell it apart from the struggle to preserve the conditions in which humans and other life can thrive on this planet.” Put simply, the struggle against the far right and the effort to mitigate climate breakdown are now coterminous.

The Zetkin Collective’s contribution to this struggle is to enable readers to know their enemy. In 1923, Clara Zetkin was the first writer to engage with fascism from within the workers’ movement. Months before Mussolini’s march on Rome, she was tasked with drafting a resolution on the topic for the Comintern. She called for a “special structure to lead the struggle against fascism” — item number one for doing so was “collecting facts on the fascist movement in every country.”

It is in this spirit that the Zetkin Collective submits this empirically rich, systematic study into the political ecology of the far right, the Collective’s first book. Malm and company investigate what the far right has said, written, and done on climate and energy in 13 European countries and 2 countries in the Americas (Brazil and the United States); Europe because it “gifted the world the fossil economy and fascism” (perhaps a dubious claim to which we will return), Brazil and the US because they have an outsized impact on climate and because climate denialist far-right presidents rule(d) over them.

This is not to say that the rise of the Reactionary International has not been extensively commented upon already. However, as Malm et al. observe, such commentary has focused on the far right’s views on issues ranging from religion, gender, violence, euroscepticism, globalization — but nothing on ecology.This needs addressing because, as Alyssa Battistoni points out, “[f]rom now on, every issue is a climate issue,” the biosphere a primary lens through which all political issues are understood. “Far right politics in the 1930s or 1980s could perhaps be studied outside of the natural environment,” the authors argue. “In the 2010s or 2040s, one cannot understand what it is doing in and to the world if that context is bracketed out.”

The book is divided into 2 parts. Part I provides a history of the conjuncture of climate change and nationalist politics. The authors trace the evolution of a set of ideas around climate and nation, energy and race — from the earliest organization of denial, to the stances of the party family that has shaken up American, Brazilian, and European politics this last decade. Part II of the book makes sense of all this. How is it possible for the anti-climate politics of the far right to come to prominence at such a late hour? What would it mean to live in a hotter world which is also further to the right?

In chapter 1, the authors provide an overview of the fortunes of denial, charting its rise from the 1970s onwards. Deploying Louis Althusser’s idea of the ideological state apparatus (ISA) — a “system of defined institutions, organisations and the corresponding practices”1Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, pg. 77. enabling the reproduction of the relations of capitalist production — they conceive of a system of institutions to launder climate denialist opinion. Set up by corporations like Exxon and Shell, the climate denialist ISA takes the form of think tanks like the Heartland Institute in the US and the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK; lobbying groups like the Global Climate Coalition; and mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Spectator; before finally seeping into political parties themselves.

Whenever a European far-right party denies the existence of climate change, it makes a statement about immigration, presenting the latter as the real danger.

This long march through the institutions shatters any liberal illusion that fossil fuels can be relinquished through some kind of market-based transition with everyone on board,the authors argue. Chiming with Adam Tooze, they point out that we require a herculean redirectionof the world economy through the reallocation of tens of trillions of dollars globally over several decades. In demonstrating the material base of the far right in primitive fossil capital (a neat inflection of Malms concept of fossil capital, denoting oil and gas companies, as opposed to industrialists who use fossil fuels to produce goods), Malm et al. underline the enduring importance of engaging with capital as a contributory factor of climate breakdown inhibiting this reallocation and of using a Marxist-Leninist intellectual framework to diagnose this problem.

Marxism is not utopian,historian Eric Hobsbawm once pronounced on the uses of the intellectual tradition following the Cold War. Marxism is a definition of the problems we have to deal with, with which capitalism cannot presently deal.

Having charted the rise of climate denialist opinion, in chapters 2 and 3 the authors explore how the issue of climate change became imbued with the contemporary far rights rampant racism. The authors discern a tendency, based on firm evidence, that whenever a European far-right party denies the existence of climate change, it makes a statement about immigration, presenting the latter as the real danger. The authors theorize that immigration acts as a funnel issue, one through which all others must pass. All of the worlds issues unemployment, crime, sexual violence, poverty boil down to the ur-problem of immigration.

Climate change thus morphs into a conspiracyagainst the whiteswho are held responsible for the misery of the world,as Jean-Marie Le Pen put it in 2007. This is how the Dutch Party for Freedom party (PVV) could claim that [e]radicating Islam should be the primary target of Dutch foreign policyin the 2010 election, while also supporting new coal powerplants. Or when German Chancellor Angela Merkel muted closing Germanys coal mines in 2017, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) could castigate her for laying our country to waste not only by a disastrous asylum policybut also by means of a left-green ideologized climate policy.The authors demonstrate why the far right and fossil capital intersect so effectively. The suspicion with which the far right regards climate mitigation gifts fossil capital an ideological smokescreen for business as usual.

In chapter 4, Malm et al. explain the converse of this logic, namely that fossil fuels are the nations future, which climate and immigration threaten. Providing a sweeping overview of a plethora of far-right positions, from the petronationalism of Norways Progress Party (FrP) to the coal nationalism of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), fossil fuel combustion is prized as the energy wealth of the nation.

In chapter 5 the authors explore green nationalism, a reactionary transformation encapsulated by the National Front, rebranded as the National Rally (RN) in 2018. In 2011, Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and 3 years later unveiled the partysNouvelle Ecologie. The top priority would now be the protection of family, nature, and race. What had happened? RN leaders like Le Pen had fallen under the spell of environmentalists like Hervé Juvin, argue Malm et al., who linked climate change to globalization. The shutting of borders becomes the best self-defense of the white nation against planetary nomadism.Or as one RN leader put it, [t]he best ally of ecology is the border.

Malm and his coauthors sketch a history of the reactionary ecologist intellectual tradition, and how the far right in some instances became inducted into this tradition. One learns about environmental authors like Edward Abbey who lambasted corporate polluters but at the same time called for halting the mass influxof millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically [!] peopleso as to save an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautifulworld.”

Reading about this intellectual lineage, one begins to wonder how the Left ever established an environmental movement to which these ideas were formed in opposition. The authors suggest this answer lies in the ascendancy of the idea of environmental justice,which emerged from a case in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 when locals rose up in protest against the state government for dumping toxic waste near their homes. “It became known as the moment of birth for the environmental justice movement,” the authors write, the moment when justice became the essence of sustainability rather than its negation.

The green movement has been twinned to the Left ever since, but the movement’s shift leftward was deeply controversial among reactionary environmentalists concerned with overpopulation, who poured scorn on the Left for stealing their movement. The geneaology of environmental justice thus serves as a cautionary tale of the contestable nature of the climate movement, demonstrating potential cooptation by a climate conscious Right.

Chapter 6 shifts focus to the western hemisphere. The US was the birthplace of the climate denialist ISA, and it was here where its victory was most consummate, where political apparatuses were captured by the likes of Rex Tillerson and Robert E. Murray, and so brashly that it would have made Althusser blush.” Here whiteness and climate denialism interpenetrated so devastatingly; while Trump wrote racist tweets, his administration quietly dismantled environmental regulations in the background. In the climate emergency,the authors write, the far right is the vehicle in which primitive fossil capital takes a seat, driving the state away from limitation on fossil fuel use.

The authors provide firm evidence that “stock imperialism” spawned postulations about “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples based on their technological advancements predicated on fossil fuel combustion.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro mirrors Trump in installing climate denialists. Crucially, however, in the case of Brazil, the Collective draws out the consequences of white skin-black fuel for the country’s indigenous populations, articulated in a cardinal principle that the “backward, savage communities have to be subordinated to the modern, developing nation, their resources subjected to maximum extraction.” It is a tentative attempt to engage with the ecological habitation of indigenous peoples, a promising response to critiques of Malm’s previous works lacking any engagement therewith.

Chapter 7 tackles the meaning of fossil fascism, contrasting it with classical fascism, and comparing the contemporary far right with that of interwar Europe. The authors provide a masterly overview of the historiography of classical fascism, crafting an excellent working definition based on key components of (European) fascist ideology such as the myth of palingenesis. Critically, Malm et al. make an important historiographical innovation in observing that fascism must be conceived as a political force resulting from historical processes, rather than purely as an intellectual tradition. “Grasping it by pinpointing its ideational essence is rather like trying to taste a bread by looking at its recipe,” they write. “There need to be ingredients, fermentation, kneading, baking.” Taking their lead from scholar of fascism Robert Paxton, they conceive of fascism-as-force.

For this reason, the Collective excavates the historical socio-economic conditions which birthed interwar fascism. Factors include deep capitalist crisis, the concomitant failure of the dominant ruling class to maintain states’ social formations, and finally those ruling classes inviting fascists into the corridors of power to help govern. The authors make the compelling case that the conditions constitutive of classical fascism could re-emerge today in the form of the climate crisis.

Chapter 8 outlines how components of classical fascist ideology entered contemporary ultranationalism. Picking up on the energy race nexus highlighted in Part I, the Collective offers a fascinating historical explanation of why the far right tends to prize fossil fuel combustion over renewables; namely, that fossil fuels belong to the national corpus of energy stock (“our oil,” “our coal”), whereas water and air belong to a transient “flow of energy” untraceable to any one given nation.

In chapter 9, the authors trace the historical origins of this dichotomy of autochthonous stock and fugitive flow to European imperialism. In what is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, Malm et al. provide a genealogy of energy and race, making the case that the expansion of coal extraction and of the use of steam-powered battleships became entwined with European imperial domination in the minds of its practitioners. The authors provide firm evidence that “stock imperialism” spawned postulations about “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples based on their technological advancements predicated on fossil fuel combustion.

British imperialists lauded steam for giving them omnipotence and superiority over all others. “Then, what has made the white man … so ubiquitously progressive and aggressive?” the British civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson asked in an 1874 lecture. “It is his humanity and science, combined with steam. And what makes steam for him? It is coal. What then has coal to do without our race? As far as we know yet, everything.” Malm et al. effectively pinpoint when whiteness came to mean burning fossil fuels, developing the idea of “racial capitalism” to show the origins of racial primitive fossil capitalism.

In chapter 10, the authors argue these ideas of energy and race resurfaced during classical fascism and became enthused with interwar ultranationalism. Citing the works of fascist poet-propagandists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Ernst Jünger, in interwar fascism we witness the total worship of the machine as the ultimate destroyer, the perceived final materiality of productive forces for the Produktionskrieg. While the authors’ knowledge of Marinetti and Jünger is undoubtedly strong, I would be fascinated to know if analogous national propagandists in less advanced capitalist countries in South America conceived of nature and industry in the same way.

In the final chapter, the Collective shifts focus to futures of denial. Delving into the fatal interplay between irrationality, narcissism, capitalism, and crisis, this nearly amounts to a meditation on the psychoanalysis of climate denialism. Based on readings of Stanley Cohen and Sigmund Freud, the authors posit that we, our egos bruised by a burning world, could enter a fascist mentality. In that scenario, fascism would act as a cure for narcissistic injury and we would enter a collective death drive.

The book has several shortcomings. For one, the authors say nothing about strategies for resisting fossil fascism. The text is merely descriptive, veering clear of making demands or prescriptions.

A second shortcoming relates to scope. The Collective does not examine fossil fascism in China or India, nor any of the Latin American countries where fascism has reared its head historically. As we have noted, the focus of the book is on Europe by virtue of the fact Europe “gifted the world fascism.” However, I respectfully point towards a strong historiographical argument that fascism was in fact originally American. Indeed, as historians of fascism have argued, including Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction South has a strong claim as the world’s original fascist movement.

It could be argued, then, that the American hemisphere gifted the world fascism. Europe is undoubtedly where fascism’s historical focus became most pronounced, but this does not necessarily warrant the exceptional status which Malm and his coauthors assign it. Acknowledging this transatlantic reciprocity enables us to decenter Europe and shift scholarly focus away from it and towards, say, places like Argentina or Chile which historically also exhibited fascist tendencies and where future studies should focus.

Similarly, the authors do not cover climate conscious authoritarianism in China or India. The Collective acknowledges the study makes “no pretence of an exhaustive or conclusive inquiry,” which is of course perfectly acceptable. However, as Helen Thompson notes, climate mitigation is a geopolitical problem as much as it is one of economics or physics, one necessitating a latter day détente with repressive authoritarian regimes like China (the world’s largest carbon emitter) and cooperation with others like India (the world’s third largest carbon emitter). The struggle for climate mitigation thus extends to these fronts as well, and antifascists and antiracists will have to understand these regimes as much as it needs to understand European, American, or Brazilian fossil fascism. For this reason, the book should inspire complementary scholarship on climate Hindutva or climate Chinese communism.

Perhaps these issues speak more to the fact that few books can provide a comprehensive account of global environmental politics. In any case, the book is a serious historical inquiry into the phenomenon of the conjuncture of climate denialism and far-right politics in the 21st century and provides a firm foundation for antifascist understandings of fascism. If the name of the game is to know our enemy, this is a crucial first step.

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