Soviet power plus electrification

The communist project, in 1917, was based on a massive expansion of fossil-fuelled industry to lever one sixth of humanity out of poverty and illiteracy. In Lenin's famous formula, it required Soviet power as the political organ of working-class democracy, and breakneck electrification as the necessary basis for economic sufficiency. 

What could 'red plenty' look like now when energy seems, abruptly, far more problematic? We must be careful here. There is a tendency in some ecological literature to equate fossil capital and fossil communism. Leaving aside the significant contributions made by the early Bolsheviks to conservation, documented by the historian Douglas Weiner, the communist drive for electrification sought, by creating a superabundance in essential goods and services, to reduce the demands on workers' caloric energy: which demand, as we’ll see, is tightly bound with the demand for non-human energy sources. The wrinkle is that even the ruthlessly exploitative, slave labour-driven industrialisation of Stalin's command economy, which can be seen as a form of 'primitive accumulation of capital', was ideologically justified by this ultimate horizon. And while it would be absurd to ‘blame’ the early Bolsheviks for how their version of red productivism was bastardised by Stalinism, it would be equally obtuse not to see how germs of Bolshevik industrial modernism survived into the era of the gulag. Only an ostrich could maintain that no further rethinking of that experience was necessary.

So, I just want to briefly circle around this problem of energy without trying to solve it. Of course, there is enough renewable energy, in principle, to fund the growth and development of societies well beyond their current scale and velocity. From solar power alone, there is a theoretical maximum of 600TW of energy available each year, compared to 15.5TW actually used. However, that is obviously not straightforward. Solar energy arrives on the planet's surface in a high entropy state, and its energy density is low, making it difficult to capture. This partly accounts for the extremely low efficiency of photosynthesis, as well as for the difficulty in making a solar panel that can convert as much as a fifth of the sunlight that hits it. Thus far, moreover, there is no solar solution to air travel. Besides, much of the energy we need comes, not directly from sunshine, but from the biological production that derives from solar energy, and we are already stretching the fisheries and soils to their limit.

This means we need to think more precisely and discriminatingly about what energy actually is before we rally to any magical technological solutions. From Hume to Feynman, the answer of philosophers and scientists to the question of what energy is, has been that we have absolutely no idea. It is not a "single, easily-identifiable entity", Vaclav Smil writes. Somehow, such completely different things as light waves, heat, motion, calories, gama-neutron reactions, biomass, and electro-magnetism, all have this property we call energy. And, somehow, they are convertible. The biochemical energy contained in sugars can be converted into muscle power, kinetic energy. That kinetic energy can be used to set fire to dead trees. The chemical energy contained in the atomic bonds of dead trees can be released through rapid oxidation, producing heat. That energy can be converted into kinetic energy turning the mechanical rotors of a generator to rotate, thus producing electrical energy. But this still leaves us with no clue as to what energy actually is. What we do know is that it is quantifiable and convertible.

Knowledge of the laws of energy conservation, conversion and quantification is itself a product of fossil capital. As Thomas Kuhn argued, it is no coincidence that the major contributions to energy science from Carnot, Kelvin, Helmholtz and Clausius, emerged just as industry was converting energy from wind, wood, water and coal. Carnot, for example, theorised the caloric based on observations of the steam engine. Industrial capital tended to treat energy as indestructible and substitutable, in roughly the way the laws of thermodynamics showed it to be. Further to that, as Anson Rabinbach showed in his extraordinary book on The Human Motor, this was also the moment in which an Enlightenment-begot mechanistic view of human energy and its deployment was consolidated. Rabinbach links productivism, the view that social and natural relations are defined by the primacy of production, to the conceptual breakthroughs made by energy science during this era. Work became linked, not to Christian dignity, nor to medieval artisanship, but to flows of energy deemed to be limitless in principle.

Marx’s twist on the category of labour-power resulted in a comprehensive theorisation of how industrial capital transformed both muscle power and flows of fossil energy, by subordinating both to the production of something called value. To the relationship between human and non-human energy, Marx gave the name “dead labour”. We might call it infrastructure, where an infrastructure is whatever allows new work to take place. Insofar as caloric energy can be extracted from the labouring body and stored in another format, a stockpile, machinery, “dead labour” in short, it can be used to intensify the work of living labour. This is why eco-marxist literature, from George Caffentzis to Jason W Moore, speaks of capitalism as a regime of work/energy. Energy by itself, abundant in the natural world, does not produce economic value. This is extremely important: while capital depends on nonhuman energy, if value could be produced by nonhuman energy alone, then capital should be able to gradually dispose of labour power. Certainly, individual capitals have been known to “downsize”, partly as a disciplinary weapon against indisciplined workforces, and partly to reduce the wage bill. But the aggregate trend is for the energy basis to expand the workforce and create new opportunities for the extraction of surplus-labour.

Put more concretely, air contains kinetic energy (as wind), but this is of no economic value unless human labour does something to it: for example, by building and operating a windmill. An apple contains chemical energy, but it is of no economic value until it is picked, washed, packaged and put on the shelves. The value form depends on the appropriation of a surplus of human caloric energy, thus impinging on the working body’s powers of recuperation, frequently driving it beyond fatigue and, over time, close to mental or physical exhaustion. (Look at the faces on the rush hour Underground, and you’ll see what I mean.) The accumulation of dead labour, as I’ve said, is what enables new work to happen in new ways. Edison's major contribution as an energy capitalist was to so direct the labour power at his disposal as to create the grid. Energy could thus be distributed in such a way as to facilitate the accumulation of value by accelerating the cycle of production, transit and consumption. The expanded productivity of labour-power was thus put to work in such a way as to improve the efficiency of capital and extend its power to extract value from an ever-expanding workforce. Hence, the sheer, hectic celerity of capitalism is based on its capacity to make non-human energy pump more work out of human energy. A process to which the only limit is either subjective (revolt) or physical (exhaustion of both human and non-human capacities).

Capital isn’t just hungry for energy in the way that a machine or a living body is. It lives, and grows, on the value added to that energy by human labour. It doesn’t just rip open stocks of purified carbon deposited by ancient life, with utter disregard for the ‘externalities’. If that were the case, capital would be agnostic about energy sources, just as open to air, wind and sunlight as coal, oil and natural gas. Rather, capital’s relationship to non-human energy is determined its dependence on human energy. As Malm has shown us, capital preferred inefficient, labour-intensive coal to efficient, cheap and abundant water largely because in contrast to the collectivist, democratic aspects of operating the latter, stocks of coal were better for capitalist control of the labour process. There is a reasonable argument today that, as Hermann Scheer argued in support of Germany’s ‘Energiewende’, a solar infrastructure would have to be decentralised, subject to local democratic control, and thus freed from the systems of political control, monopoly and rent-seeking linked to the carbon giants. It would therefore not be easily organised around the further efficient extraction of surplus-labour.

In this sense, the fear that eco-austerity will leave us with less stuff is partly missing the point. The overproduction of ‘stuff’ is largely achieved by making a costly withdrawal from the worker’s body, a form of life-impoverishing austerity. And a great deal of that ‘stuff’ is not for workers’ consumption, but rather, where it is not consumed as profit and dividends, is dead labour whose main effect is to achieve a further extraction of labour. We might think of energy conservation as class self-defence.

Become a patron to

Unlock 228 exclusive posts
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message