And if energy itself is unjust?

A response by Larry Lohmann to the article How Energy was Commodified, and How it Could be Decommodified

The way that industrial capitalism and 19th-century thermodynamic energy – the energy we talk about today – have constituted each other, and what this means for political movements, is something that colleagues and I been struggling to understand, off and on, for many years. So Simon Pirani’s paper How Energy was Commodified, and How it could be Decommodified, was extremely stimulating for me.

I share Simon’s view that understanding energy as commodity and as commons is crucial for the struggles ahead. But his paper also reawakened a certain uneasiness about the way issues of “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are typically framed by the left, especially in the global North.

In August 1842, during a strike in Lancashire, in the UK, against wage cuts by cotton mill owners, workers pulled the boiler plugs from the steam engines. Their action became known as the “plug plot riots”. Photo from Underground Histories

Usually I abbreviate this unease by saying that the issue cannot be only that the distribution of energy is unjust or undemocratic (which it is). Or that structures of extraction, production, distribution, access, governance, planning and use of energy are unjust and undemocratic (which they are). There has to be a lot more. And that without taking account of this “more”, the best-intentioned efforts to address these distributional/administrative/governance/cultural types of issue are eventually going to come to grief (or already have).

Simon’s work helps pin down what some of this “more” is – namely that energy, when treated as a commodity, is always going to have these issues, and that the further step of searching out and linking together existing and potential moves toward energy-as-commons ought to be more integrated into popular strategy.

But I feel that there is more to this “more” than just the idea that energy has become a commodity – and that maybe, to some extent, it can be decommodified.

Maybe a better formulation would be that the “commodification” way of putting the matter still seems to me somehow incomplete insofar as it gives the impression of an identifiable, enduring “thingy thing” that at first was not commodified but now is.

My usual way of abbreviating this particular unease is to say that a critical approach to energy-as-commodity shouldn’t leave out the fact that energy itself is unjust and undemocratic. That in some sense energy itself is part of the commodification processes of industrial capitalism. And that a concept of energy lifted unexamined from 19th-century capitalist science can be an alienating lens for left social movements to look at questions of livelihood, labour and climate change.

Looking through some recent volumes on energy democracy and energy justice (Energy Democracy, Routledge Handbook of Energy Democracy, Handbook of the International Political Economy of EnergyI don’t keep up like I should), some of which are referenced in Simon’s article, I find that what gives rise to my unease hasn’t really changed over the years. The injustice and undemocratic nature of energy itself are still not recognized by the North Atlantic left, as far as I can see, any more than its “whiteness” is.

From my perspective, this lack of recognition is going to continue to have movement-building costs, not least when we’re talking about movement-building with the grassroots in the global South. I’ve been reminded of this recently by, for example, movement colleagues in Indonesia expressing frustration with the obstacles that the clean energy/dirty energy discourse throws in the way of their ability to confront the joined-together assault on people’s life-spaces that links fossil, geothermal, hydroelectric, nickel and cobalt projects. Or colleagues here in Ecuador who are documenting the social and ecological devastation wrought over the last two years by rampant balsa extraction for wind turbine construction in China.

For me, one of the lessons of such experiences is not just that there ought to be a “better”, less commodified energy out there in the realm of possibility. Nor that the only way to deal with these kinds of strife is to chop the logic and make the alliances that are necessary to replace false or misleading distinctions between different kinds of energy with true and correct ones. For example, to try to transcend or put into perspective the counterproductive, incoherent discourses of clean energy/dirty energy, green energy/brown energy, renewable energy/nonrenewable energy by means of a more relevant discourse, that of commons energy/commodity energy.

For me, instead, what such experiences point toward is the need to delve deeper into what energy is, where it came from, why it is colonialist in itself, and what that means for recognizing new and different possibilities of alliance-building. Without this inquiry, my fear is, it’s not going to do the Indonesian or Ecuadorian situations much good just (for example) to let loose on them enlightened teams of collaborating social scientists and engineers with an Ostromian vision of energy commons constructed by salvaging capitalist energy detritus.

The problem, after all, is not that issues like those in Indonesia or Ecuador go unnoticed. Or that nobody is raising the alarm about them. On the contrary, they are attracting more and more notice, including even to a small degree in the global North, which is good. The problem, rather, is more that, without being conceptualized as stemming from the undemocratic and unjust nature, dynamics and geography of energy itself, they tend to be slotted into the category of problems awaiting a solution somewhere down the road, while energy itself remains untouched – and that, accordingly, industrial/digital capital accumulation remains undertheorized and the means of undermining it understrategized.

Energy keeps being subdivided into different kinds so that it can be claimed that growing worldwide strife, degradation and crisis stems from some particular way of dealing with energy, rather than also involving, ultimately, a reaction to the dynamic of evolving colonially-structured entropy territories that constitutes energy.

For me, backing up a step in order to get behind all this means reflecting once again on thermodynamics (which gives us our idea of energy) in the ways that George Caffentzis has taught us to do. Especially now that, in reaction to emerging forms of labour revolt, energy is increasingly being combined with Turing machines to help organize new areas of absolute surplus value extraction from living interpretive labour and ecosystem services.

Energy was born at the end of the heyday of absolute surplus value, when capital’s idea had been just to move more and more people away from the land and previous rhythms of life and confine them literally and figuratively in ways that could increase the person-hours that they could dedicate to capitalist work. During that era, as Marxists point out, the classic way of increasing surplus had been to lengthen the working day, plus to continue to try, against enduring resistance, to clear away “Saint Monday” and other inconvenient manifestations of conflicting (often rural) temporalities, without necessarily trying to reduce the amount of social labour time necessary to reproduce the workers themselves – or even (it depends) always to mess with their residual reliance on remnant commons.

But with new forms of resistance to lengthening the working day came pressures to intensify the working hours that capitalists slowly came to realize that they were stuck with. Because it wasn’t so easy any more to augment profits by stretching the working day to its limit and beyond. Because once workers had finally been pushed or pulled into new capitalist workplaces, their resistance partly morphed from general mulishness, refusal of linear absolute time, etc. into new forms of volatility, cunning, combination, foot-dragging, etc.

This was the origin of the “productivity” and “efficiency” discourses, when industrial machines really arrived in their modern forms. Not that industrial machines have not also been useful all along in dealing with the old capitalist problems of getting masses of people off the land into wage work (as witness one of the greatest rural-urban migrations of all time around the turn of the 21st century). But the machines had really found their first usefulness in the new stage of capitalist class struggle against ordinary people that arrived in the 19th century.

These machines’ way of dealing with the new challenges to surplus-appropriation was not that they themselves constituted a new or “replacement” or “supplementary” source of living labour for the workplace (although they did help drag in much more of that living labour in the form of new human fodder). Nor did the machines “substitute” in any way whatsoever for the lamentably limited human workers beavering away alongside them. Instead, their mode of increasing surplus was by organizing that human living labour and those human lives along somewhat differently brutal lines and scales. In some ways, the living labour process became more intense. More intensely rapid-paced linguistic interactions, recognitions, gestures, actions and other language-games among the society of human (and sometimes animal) interpreters confined to the factory and its surrounding little shops were necessary to keep up with the repetitive, thundering machine motions. Different modes and intensities of living interpretive labour also became mandatory among the societies of workers charged with tending the plantations, or “machines on the land,” that formed another pole of the new mechanization.

None of this in any way “turned humans into machines”. On the contrary, it relied absolutely on bases of sociality and social/biological evolution established by and specific to the long non-capitalist history of the human species, even as it suddenly twisted them into various new hypertrophies and atrophies. One result was that the amount of social labour time necessary to reproduce the workers themselves decreased, meaning that the skimmable surplus increased in proportion. Another outcome was that workers and their commons began to experience new and different ways of getting ecologically “maxed out” other than just having to be on site long hours – whether or not this happened in any particular case to translate directly into new forms of rebelling against capitalist work, or what normally goes under the name of “resistance”.

One more crucial pole of this process was the emergence of energy between around 1800-1870. As Caffentzis notes, “relative surplus value is the type of production that is at the basis of thermodynamics’ investigation of work/energy.” But it’s crucial in the 21st century to spell this out in somewhat more detail than George did in the 20th.

One aspect of the First Law of Thermodynamics was its “level of generality and abstractness,” which gave “enterprising spirits” ideas about the “possibility of producing work from novel, untoward sources.” The very form of the First Law expressed the new estrangements characteristic of the epoch of relative surplus value. The flowing stream’s sui generis relationships with the hill, the forest and the community do not disappear, but they now jostle with and are often bumped aside by the new relationships of equivalence between the forest (= abstract heat) and the stream (= abstract mechanical force) (as worked on by Julius von Mayer and James Joule), between chemical bonds and magnetism, between sunlight and electricity.

Capitalists’ efforts to get their hands on surplus value now involve a new entity in the landscape – energy – whose presence changes everything else about it. The stream, the forest and the hill are now energy – not only a singular, unified, abstract resource and eventually a commodity, but even more fundamentally just a new “thingy thing” generated out of a set of new relationships and new temporalities.

Choosing between the older relationships linking the stream, forest, hill and community and the incompatible relationships linking mechanical force, heat and electricity quickly became, for 19th-century capitalists, a no-brainer – provided that the reorientation met the criterion of cheapness. And workers, while participating in machine development, suffered and joined in these choices. Making the stream, the hill, and the forest into “energy carriers,” following the First Law, meant doing something politically different with them that revalued their prior mutual relationships, readjusted their relationships to livelihood, and steamrolled over various prior structures of significance they may have had.

Java as energy. Each column indicates a site where materials violently extracted from sacrifice zones are to be deployed violently to wrench open “doors” facilitating accelerated erosion of entropy gradients, for example by geothermal fracking or hydroelectric dam construction. Graphic courtesy of Hendro Sangkoyo, School of Democratic Economics

These shifts are continuously recreated today and are instrumental in the hegemony of thermodynamic energy over other energies – over, for example, the nonthermodynamic “energy” that in many places around the world continues to inhere in noncommodity food. The stream’s relations with the hill become important mainly only as a support, interchangeable with others, for the exploitation of time-intensive capitalist labour. Here is the birth of what is now called “extractivism”, whether of coal, copper, lithium or balsa. Extractivism is an expression of a hierarchy in the landscape in which every “nonthermodynamic energy” of the commons – cooking fuel collected from common woodlands, oil left underground, undammed streams – is seen as subordinate to the overarching abstract energy developed in the 19th century.

Whenever we acquiesce in the unqualified use of the contemporary term “energy carrier”, we are siding, whether intentionally or not, with this 19th-century European capitalist imposition. We are allying ourselves with capital against not only 19th-century commoners, but also many 21st-century commoners. The same goes for a range of other terms that continue to appear year after year after year in the energy justice and energy democracy literature, including “energy source,” “energy conservation,” “energy services,” “renewable energy,” and “energy depletion.” Hard as it may be, whenever we use these terms we have to ask ourselves, at the very least, whose side we are on, because we can’t be on everybody’s.

That’s just the First Law. The Second Law of Thermodynamics spells out further injustices and antidemocracy that reside inside the energy that it, together with the First Law, helps define. Particularly revealing is non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Today this is considered to be on the cutting edge of physics, but it was already present in embryo in 1824 in the work of Sadi Carnot. Carnot explored the seeds of the idea that we might express today by saying that what capital needs for its machines, including computers, is not energy as such – which, after all, is never destroyed and whose supposed “sources” are everywhere – but “falls” (chutes) or gradients in the landscape from low to high entropy.

Gradients between hot and cold in heat engines; gradients between the binding energy of electrons in molecular bonds and the heat generated in chemical reactions; gradients between short-wave solar radiation at around 5760 Kelvin and longer-wave radiation emitted by the earth at 255 K into an outer space standing at a temperature of 2.7 K; and so on. When capital burns oil or runs radiation from the sun through solar panels or industrial biomass plantations, it doesn’t use up energy but rather pulls open various trapdoors – usually violently – through which an entire territory slips more rapidly down those gradients, eroding the gradient itself in the process. Violence is part of the picture because the sequence and patterning of that door-opening has to suit the operation of capital’s conversion devices. It’s no good having a sluice gate if you can’t open and close it at the right times; no use having a lot of coal if you can’t apply heat and oxygen and vent carbon dioxide in rhythms and places that fit your machines’ functioning.

The rolling outcome of all this violence is accelerated flattening of entropy gradients within the relevant system that the labour-exploiting machines are using. The higher the intensity and extensiveness of energy conversions that capital pursues in line with the First Law of Thermodynamics, the swifter that equilibrium is approached in whatever system is being rejiggered. If the system is “closed,” in the jargon of physics, the closer that entropy changes come to halting altogether. This “entropy balance” is what “sets the limit to the power of the engine,” in the words of one physicist. The hierarchical landscapes of multiplying First Law conversion engines are also landscapes of increasing Second Law entropy slope flattening and “waste.” Which capital has to deal with if it is to keep its machines running in those landscapes or others.

The US as energy. Each colour indicates the theoretical potential for profitable annexation of territory on which materials violently extracted from sacrifice zones can be employed to accelerate conversion of light to other forms of energy, speeding up the flattening of entropy slopes. Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

This is where the colonialist frontier comes in. If we set our system border at the level of the heat engine, then delaying the onset of the equilibrium that capitalist violence hastens but which is anathema to capital’s machines means (violently) going outside that border for more low entropy. If we set a new border at the level of [the heat engine + its extraction zones], then delaying the onset of equilibrium in that larger system means going outside that border in turn. And so on through various additional levels of the earth’s thermodynamics, until we get to global warming and all the rest of it. In short, the Second Law demands that, where a system has to be maintained far from equilibrium, there has to be an ever-changing border politics to maintain that nonequilibrium through what physicists sometimes refer to in shorthand as low entropy imports or high entropy exports.

Schroedinger clarified that some such border action is necessary for living beings to stay alive. Twenty-first-century biology and physics have started to reveal some of the stupendously complex, evolved subtleties involved. But cruder forms of entropy politics are necessary for the labour exploitation technologies that industrial capitalism was forced to adopt as a result of the evolution of class struggle. Here the picture is more one of hierarchically-organized political relationships between, on the one hand, energy beneficiaries and their “dissipative structures” and, on the other, “sacrifice zones.” These relationships have to be continually modified and shifted geopolitically as time goes on. This is what the Second Law euphemizes as a pan-human destiny of “heat death”.

And since the Second Law forms part of the energy concept, it is also part of what the term “energy” also euphemizes, in the hegemonic sense in which the word is used today. Try as I might, I can’t see how social movements to decommodify energy can succeed in broadening their bases sufficiently unless they de-euphemize these euphemisms and confront the fact that our 19th-century energy itself is violently colonialist – and that by definition there can be no such thing as “democratic energy”.

Another corollary that often seems to me to be glossed over even by some the ecological Marxist thinkers I most admire is that we need to be really careful with that neologism “work/energy”. Sure, there is a close relationship between energy and the evolution of capitalist labour exploitation. But thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour are not the same, no matter how closely they are tied together spatially and politically. They cannot substitute for each other. They are not additive or mergeable in the way that capital would like us to think. To use Marx-like language, no amount of BTUs or megawatts can, by itself, create an atom of capitalist value. Or to revert to Marx’s own lingo in Capital, in any particular case, energy-intensive mechanization

alters only the quantitative relation between the constant and the variable capital, or the proportions in which the total capital is split up into its constant and variable constituents; it has not in the least degree affected the essential difference between the two. (See Marx, Capital vol. 1, end of chapter 8.)

What “energy carriers” carry is not the ability to labour. Energy does no capitalist work and in itself adds no surplus for capitalists to skim off. Its place is with machinery and algorithms – to augment and mobilize the sum of what Marx called dead labour – to speed up stereotyped motions or manipulation of representations, for example – and not to replace or add anything to living labour. (Energy does have an effect on the latter, of course, as mentioned above.)

Without industrial capitalism and its prior organization of dead labour, there would be no energy as we use the term today. Capital comes first, then energy. Nineteenth-century thermodynamicists’ early identification of their new energy as the ability to do “work” or carry out or perform “duty” is a typical capitalist mystification, something you might expect given their uniformly business or colonialist backgrounds. Of course, the fantasy that energy does capitalist work will probably go on proliferating in common scientific and political usage. But in my view, it should long ago have been weeded out of radical social movement thinking.

To put it another way, spinning machines cannot produce surplus because they cannot spin. Power looms cannot do capitalist work because they cannot weave. By itself, energy cannot run a power station, move a car forward, or even warm a room in the way required for even a fractional increment of capital accumulation. Spinning, weaving, running power stations, growing food, providing internet services, transporting goods, repairing metal punches or photocopy machines – all this happens only when living labourers can explain what they are doing to other people by reference to rules, when what they do can be done rightly or wrongly in the view of certain human communities. Capital has as yet no means for short-cutting either the long-evolved community norms and frameworks or the 3-billion-year-old biological structures that it relies on to create surplus. Sometimes it wishes it could get its hands on such means (think AI) using masses of thermodynamic energy, but it couldn’t afford them even if it could figure out what they were.

In short, I agree that it’s a “false view of energy” that it is a “thing that is supplied to meet an abstract ‘demand’” identified by capital that “brackets together both energy services needed by communities and households with demand generated by the logic of capitalist expansion that is of no use to people.” There certainly are ways of taking commoners’ monkey wrenches to energy that could put “energy services” with a higher commoning content before the thoroughly commodified energy required by the logic of capitalist expansion. Indeed, as Simon suggests, this is a key part of anticapitalist strategy, and something that many movements are pursuing already.

But I feel like I would like to take this valuable line of thought further by noting that “energy services” themselves, because of their history and structure, are ill-suited in many ways to democratic commoning, anti-colonialism and anticapitalism. And that social movements that keep that firmly in view will stand a better chance of building broader and more powerful political networks in the future, because they will have opened themselves to voices, many of them outside the global North, that have been, at least implicitly, questioning energy itself. 17 December 2021

□ Larry Lohmann is a writer and activist with The Corner House.

□ This is a response to an article on energy commodification, published last month. People & Nature would warmly welcome further contributions to this vital discussion

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One Response to And if energy itself is unjust?

  1. Στέλιος Τσεκούρας says:

    Excellent article !!!! Congratulations !!!

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