Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.

(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)

One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.

1. How do we define “energy”?

When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.

Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.

Protestors from the Canada Real shanty town in Madrid, saying “light is not a luxury, it’s a right”

It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.

So I accept that. I think there are many circumstances in which people, including those on the “left”, use the term “energy” in a way that obscures these historical and social realities. And I can see why Larry would want to stress that “energy” is something brought into being by capital – in order to emphasise his political point, against anyone who thinks that, if we could just remove the most egregious manifestations of neoliberalism, there is some pure “energy” waiting underneath to be recovered and used in the interests of society. There are indeed many people who think like this, and it’s related to the view of technology that I’d say is (depressingly) dominant on the “left”– that technologies are somehow neutral and if we can e.g. only “nationalise them under workers’ control”, all will be good.

But … having said all that, to be analytically precise, there is a distinction between my approach, as per my definition, and Larry’s approach, which leads him to say:

Without industrial capitalism and its prior organisation of dead labour, there would be no energy. Capital comes first, then energy. Nineteenth-century thermodynamicists’ early identification of their new energy as the ability to do ‘work’ or carry out of perform ‘duty’ is itself a typical part of capitalist mystification ….

I see what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries differently. I think that capitalist social relations, which had started to take root in agriculture long before that, congealed around, and became dominant in conjunction with, the new fossil-fuel-based technologies. My definition of energy, “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”, would cover water wheels, windmills, dams and coal-fuelled metalworking in precapitalist societies. Larry’s would not. His is a view not of “energy” in the way that I understand it, but of “energy as a concept developed by capital, starting in the 19th century”, which isn’t quite the same thing.

A third type of definition of energy current today is that used by university-based physicists. They refer to Newton’s three principles, enriched by, but not negated by, both 19th century thermodynamics and 20th century relativity. Clearly their definition refers to things that were happening for millions of years before there were any humans, let alone capital and its systems of control. Again, to be analytically precise, neither Larry’s definition nor mine would work to explain those things.

In social movements, definitions matter not because everyone has to say things the right way – indeed there’s a danger of “political correctness” being used to shut up people who don’t have the “right” education – but because words can be filled with damaging meanings that serve our enemies. This often happens with the word “energy”. But, as people who are trying to understand the world and analyse it, we then need to clarify whether we should simply not use the word at all, or, if we use it, how.

2. In which ways do the laws of physics shape social processes?

In Larry’s comments, and some of his other writing, he makes connections between the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and what I would call the contradictions of capitalism and the way that the process of capital accumulation increasingly ruptures humanity’s relationship with its natural surroundings and hits up against natural barriers.

I am on perilous ground here, because my understanding of physics is limited. But let’s start with the second law. I think I understand Larry’s point about gradients running from low to high entropy. I think I understand that it’s better to think not of capital “using up energy”, but of it “pulling open various doors – usually violently – through which an entire territory slips more rapidly down those gradients”. And I think I understand that the violence is used because “the sequence and patterning of that door-opening has to suit the operation of capital’s conversion devices”.

So, to give an example I’m familiar with: the expansion of Russian and European capital in the late 19th century forced through the violent industrialisation of the Donetsk basin in eastern Ukraine. The pattern of urbanisation, the imposition of paid wage labour and all the rest was in many respects dictated by the ways in which the coal mines and steel mills were arranged, adjacent to each other. The coal was burned, to fire the steel-making process, in ways dictated by capital, resulting in a huge movement down the gradient to high entropy. (Fossil Capital by Andreas Malm describes very well how this happened some decades earlier in Britain.)

Larry draws a picture of this process going through “borders”, and capital requiring a “border politics” to maintain the non-equilibrium of systems. He adds that cruder forms of “entropy politics” are needed for the labour exploitation technologies that capital is forced to adopt as a result of the evolution of the class struggle. These cruder forms of politics are conducted between energy beneficiaries and their “dissipative structures” on one hand, and “sacrifice zones” on the other. This is where I get lost. Larry apparently sees the operation of the second law of thermodynamics as THE crucial driver of capital expansion, class struggle and colonialism. I don’t think that’s right.

Donetsk in the early 1900s. Workers in the foundry of the agricultural machinery plant established by the American capitalist Jacob Niebuhr

I think the fundamental drivers of capital expansion, class struggle and colonialism are social relations between people – capital’s endless drive to accumulate, to subordinate labour to itself, to enrich itself and to reinforce and maintain its power through violence, chiefly but not only state violence. I see the harnessing of fossil fuels in prodigous quantities, from the early 19th century, as, in the first instance, a result of these processes. I think that these social relations, working through the expansion of capital, forced forward the development of technologies dependent on vast quantities of fossil-fuel-produced power, such as the steam engine and steel manufacture.

Many Marxists in the twentieth century failed to see the centrality to capitalism of fossil fuels, the prodigous energy throughput of fossil-fueled systems, and the operation of the second law of thermodynamics, in the first place through such systems. A more serious mistake was to see the technologies as somehow neutral, to think that you could abstract them from the social relations within which they emerged, and that “productive forces” were somehow inherently progressive. An even more serious mistake was to ignore the ways in which capital expansion, from the start, played havoc with our natural surroundings, and that disasters such as global heating are inevitable outcomes of capital expansion. I think it’s past time that we got clear about the damage done by such mistakes, particularly in the form of the pernicious influence of Prometheanism, productivism and techno-optimism in the labour movement.

For all these reasons, I welcome Larry’s work. I think that the second law of thermodynamics needs to be integrated into analysis of social phenomena. But I don’t think that, by itself, it’s a sufficient explanatory framework for capital expansion and colonialism. There are other things going on.

To go back to my example: the second law is useful in explaining the Russian colonisation of the Donbas, and part of explaining the colonisation of the Caucasus and Central Asia. But what about the Russian colonisation of Siberia? I think the chief drivers there were about geography and statecraft – control of trade routes, defence against Asian states, etc. Most of the mineral resources (gold, silver etc) were mined for their commercial value under capitalism, without much connection to energy production. The hydro and coal resources were only opened up in the late 20th century, more than a hundred years after colonisation. I don’t know how the second law of thermodynamics came in, but it was not as direct as in Britain in the 1840s or the Donbas in the 1890s. I am sure we could think of similar examples from other empires. 

My next question is about Larry’s argument that the second law euphemises all these processes we have been discussing. Again, I need convincing. I don’t doubt (i) that Kelvin, Joule and all those guys saw their science as part of a colonialist enterprise; (ii) that we can not understand physics or any other science as something that operates outside the social context, i.e. capitalism; and (iii) the whole idea of “energy” predominant in mainstream discourse, up to the present, normalises capitalism, including its violent and colonialist aspects.   

Science is used by capital, bent to capital’s purposes and deformed by capital. But that is not all it is. So, when you split an atom of Uranium-235 under the right conditions, you get a nuclear explosion, and in the mid 20th century gigantic research resources were put into understanding that, in order to develop the bomb. That cruel, inhuman result does not however negate the laws that physicists use to explain how that reaction takes place. A couple of generations of physicists were kept up at night by the fact that the science, legitimate on its own terms, was deployed to such catastrophic ends.

In the 21st century it’s difficult to see how the science of nuclear physics can be extricated from the military-industrial complex that mostly funds it. Difficult – but not impossible. Because that science is not ONLY formed by that context, but by other contexts, including the physical realities it endeavours to explain.

I remain to be convinced that things are any different with thermodynamics. Yes, we need to overturn the idea that there is something called “energy”, that if only freed from capitalist ownership can work to our advantage. We need to understand energy throughput through the capitalist economy, which includes the thermodynamics and the interactions with the natural world, as well as the social and economic factors. We need this understanding, to help us envisage what might supercede capitalism. But, as far as I understand, while the law of entropy is interpreted and mobilised by capital in fossil-fuelled energy systems, it also operated in physical reality before capitalism existed and will operate in any post-capitalist future.

3. How do we envisage the transition away from fossil fuels?

Now about the first law of thermodynamics. Larry writes about the way that capitalism turned the stream and the hill into “energy carriers” for its own systems. He sees extractivism as an expression of a hierarchy in which “non-thermodynamic energy” of the commons is seen as subordinate to “an overarching abstract energy developed in the 19th century”. I’m with him, that far. Where he loses me is with the conclusion that, whenever we “acquiesce” in the unqualified use of the term “energy carrier”, we are siding, whether intentionally or not, with a 19th-century European capitalist imposition.

I don’t see why, in discussions of technological systems, the term “energy carrier” necessarily has that function. As far as I know, this term began to be used in the US and Europe in the 1970s, i.e. when “energy studies” became a thing. It was used as part of “net energy analysis”, which developed to illustrate the way that physical energy flowed through systems. (See e.g. David Reister and Warren Devine, “Total costs of energy services”, Energy 6:4 (1981), and Daniel Spreng, Net-Energy Analysis and the energy requirements of energy systems (1988).)

“Net energy analysis” was developed in universities dominated by, and funded by, capital. Its authors basically accepted capitalism as an imperfect but also irreplaceable reality. They sought ways of measuring flows of energy that was separable from economics, even though they also referred to the monetary costs of energy. They analysed physical processes, to show what was going on in the technological systems developed by capital. They thought there were better ways of providing for populations’ basic needs than these systems. I doubt that any of them would agree with Larry or me that the problem is that the system’s purpose is NOT to provide for people’s basic needs, but to enhance the power and wealth of the ruling class. Nevertheless, their work is valuable. Can we not read it, and try to develop upon it, without acquiescing in an interpretation of the industrial revolution and subsequent development of technological systems that reduces natural phenomena to providers of value, and without accepting the way the term is now used by oil companies or international quasi-state agencies?

I also don’t see why, by using the term “energy carriers”, we are siding with capital against 21st century commoners who use non-thermodynamic energy. First of all, there is the research of the relationship between thermodynamic and non-thermodynamic energy systems by scholars grounded in “net energy analysis”. The classic for me is An Energy Analysis of Household Consumption (2007), by Shonali Pachauri, about fuel use in Indian households. It is built on a huge body of field work, and written with great sensitivity to class, caste, and gender dynamics. I wouldn’t agree with all of Pachauri’s conclusions, which are couched in terms of “policy advice” to elites. But she is hardly the only person in academia who does worthwhile work and writes up the conclusions in that way.

Beyond this, though, is a wider, substantial point. Larry at least implies a dichotomy that reads “thermodynamic – big, capital-controlled and therefore bad : non-thermodynamic – small, outside capital’s control, and therefore good”. I am not suggesting that he thinks in those crude terms, but doesn’t his logic lead in that direction?

There’s a practical issue for social movements here. Newly-urbanising populations in developing countries, participants in the great rural-to-urban migration of the 20th and 21st centuries, are demanding electricity as a right, not a good. There were a series of struggles around this issue in the 1990s, especially sharp in South Africa and Brazil, but stretching far beyond. This demand can be understood as the “moral economy” of these working people. As far as I know, it is also potent in the villages from which this migration starts. When people get to know about some of the benefits that electricity brings, they want it.

Of course these processes are double-edged swords. They are stories of people in the shanty-towns being pulled into the orbit of capitalist relations – all the more so since, once they arrive from the countryside, they usually do wage labour in order to survive. In the countryside, too, the proliferation of off-grid or part-grid systems is often associated with the penetration of capital. So on one level, “electricity as a right” is a demand to be included in a thermodynamic, capital-controlled system, but without having to pay. But to my mind that is an entirely reasonable demand; it’s one that socialists can and should embrace; moreover, the struggles I have mentioned are part of the struggle for a just, post-capitalist society. Recognising that does not mean making an absolute virtue of urbanisation, rural-urban migration, or “technological progress”, as many 20th century Marxists did.

My question to Larry is: doesn’t his interpretation of the dichotomy between thermodynamic and non-thermodynamic systems push these struggles to the sidelines? 

Let’s take this point about thermodynamic and non-thermodynamic energy, and the commons, a bit further.

We could sum up the current plans of a significant section of the ruling class with regard to electricity systems as follows: they intend to replace coal- and gas-fired electricity generation with a combination of wind, solar, nuclear and gas … and leave everything else, about the way electricity is delivered and organised, largely the same. Capital’s control will be largely unaffected. I think that Larry and I both believe there is a serious danger of “leftists” and environmentalists buying into this “vision”, which will do too little to address the danger of global heating, and nothing to address the inequalities and oppression bred by capitalism.

My question is: should we not develop our own ideas about electricity provision, that can be counterposed to this view? I briefly mentioned such ideas at the end of Burning Up (pages 188-190). I suggested that three types of changes that could hasten the transition away from fossil fuels:

1. “Changes to, or adaptations of, existing technological systems that could reduce fossil fuel use rapidly”, such as the changes mentioned above. These could happen under capitalism, potentially in very bad ways.

2. Changes that amount to “superseding the technological systems in their current form”. I included under this heading “moving to full integrated decentralised electricity networks, geared to multiple small electricity producers, managed by ‘smart’ technology, thereby reducing or ending the need for fossil-fuel-fired power stations. This would be (is being) resisted by electricity companies”. I don’t know whether this could happen under capitalism or not, but I would embrace attempts to move in that direction, which could be related to movements against capitalism.

3. “The transformation of the social and economic systems that underpin the technological ones.” In plain language – moving past capitalism. I argued in the book that this would unleash the best opportunities for ending fossil fuel use, in large part because the uses of fuel would be transformed, thereby (in any scenario I can think of) be minimised.

Larry doesn’t see how social movements to decommodify energy can broaden their bases sufficiently unless they refuse the euphemisms (“energy carriers”, “democratic energy”, etc) outright and “confront the fact that energy itself is violently colonialist”. Clearly, the changes in rich-country electricity systems now are 100% predicated on such plunder, and this should be at the forefront for any and all social movements. And it isn’t. And rich-country “leftists” who talk about large-scale wind and solar power, but don’t consider whether or how this can be done without plundering minerals from the global south, deserve condemnation.

But there’s no reason why the control of electricity systems by capital is inevitable, any more than there is a reason why the existence of capital itself is inevitable. And I don’t see why there can not be discussions about, and actions around, transformations of the electricity system that envisage not the continued control of capital, but a struggle to go beyond capitalism.

4. Is there some meaning underlying the concept of “energy services”, that we should try to get hold of?

Larry is as suspicious of the term “energy services” as he is of “energy democracy” and “energy carriers”. In the last paragraph of his comments, he writes that “because of their history and structure”, energy services are “ill-suited in many ways to democratic commoning, anti-colonialism and anticapitalism”. I agree, insofar as the idea of energy services – which, like “energy carriers”, as far as I know, started to be used by liberal-minded researchers in the 1970s – always carried the idea of a “service” that had to be paid for. That is, a commodity, exchanged in the market, as part of the social relations of capitalism.

But I think there is another side of the concept that is useful. Those liberal-minded researchers wanted to distinguish between the “energy” used by individual consumers and “energy” as a big technological system. Here is Amory Lovins, writing in the 1990s about the arguments of the 1970s:

Customers wanted not kilowatt-hours per se, but hot showers and cold beer, comfort and illumination, torque and electrolysis – the ‘end-user services’ that the energy provided” (Weizsacker, Lovins and Lovins, Factor Four, p. 156.)

Lovins has spent his whole life arguing that not only the shift away from fossil fuels, but the shift away from big fossil-fuelled technological systems, and the wastefulness inherent in them, can be made under capitalism. Larry and I would (a) not accept the assumptions that underlie Lovins’s word “customers”, and (b) draw very different conclusions about the reason these systems are so wasteful. Lovins says it is down to poor regulation of markets; Larry and I would see that wastefulness as a function of markets, and the broader system of which they are part.

Amory Lovins (right), with Steve Strongin of Goldman Sachs at an investor event. Lovins has always argued that the shift could be made under capitalism

I would go further. As I tried to say in my article about decommodification, I would see in the concept of “energy services” something of Marx’s concept of “use value” of a commodity, as opposed to exchange value. I haven’t developed that thought sufficiently, but I think that it’s an important research task to take apart “energy consumption” – i.e. understanding the qualitative difference between (1) fuel for cooking and lighting, and the electricity that shanty town dwellers demand, across the global south, (2) Lovins’s “hot showers and cold beer”, archetypal comforts for hundreds of millions of people in rich countries that many people in the global south can not access, and (3) fuel for military jets, Range Rovers and plastics production, electricity for Bitcoin, and all the other “energy services” that could mostly be abolished tomorrow to the great collective benefit of humanity.   

I would hope to supersede – rather than dismiss – the idea of “energy services”, including past work by Lovins, and current work e.g. by Arnulf Grubler, Charlie Wilson et al, on the gigantic possibilities inherent in what they call “demand reduction”. They propose, basically, that humanity could avoid climate disaster as it’s usually defined (i.e. as 1.5 degrees of warming, and, yes, I’m fully aware of the scientism around such targets) by “demand reduction”. There is a huge hole in their argument, i.e. they don’t ask or answer the question of how this is going to happen, given that the entire economic system is geared to doing the opposite. But I still think it’s important that they said it.

I very much hope this discussion continues, and certainly this web site is open for all constructive contributions. SP, 5 January 2022

■ See also: Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science? by David Schwartzman

One Response to Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

  1. philw53 says:

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the term “non-thermodynamic” energy. Surely all energy is “thermodynamic” in the sense that conversion between one form and another (chemical to electrical, thermal to mechanical, gravitational potential to mechanical etc.) involves an increase in entropy and is therefore necessarily less than 100% efficient?

    It looks like these commentaries are using the term “thermodynamic energy” when perhaps “thermal energy” would be a better description. Even that may not adequately describe the era of fossil capital, as fossil fuels are not strictly bearers of such energy but of chemical (potential) energy. They need to be “processed” (combusted) for thermal energy to be released.

    I’m also uncertain about the use of entropy in this commentary as well. Entropy is a useful concept in discussion of renewable energy systems, as it allows for an explanation of why low-grade energy (e.g. thermal) is inefficient and wasteful and high grade ones like electricity are less so. However, I fail to see how entropy considerations affected the decision to industrialise the Donbass and would appreciate a more detailed explanation. If it was, then surely it cannot have been conscious?

    I would also like to comment on the suggestion that small scale, local electricity generation systems are preferable to large ones. I think this can apply to solar (but see below regarding electricity storage), but for wind power this is not so obvious..

    Firstly, location of wind turbines is very important for maximum efficiency (and the latter of course implies “minimum extractivism”) and small systems in cities are particularly wasteful in that respect.

    Secondly, the larger the turbine, the smaller the ratio of material use to electricity output. The material use question can easily be seen in the famous example of the models of the Eiffel Tower, which would have no stiffness at all if their beams and trusses were reduced in the correct scale. This is not a minor issue. In the link below, I show that the model of the Eiffel Tower being discussed would weigh at least 100 times less than it does if it was really to scale. I presume this was one of the reasons why the ex-Labour MP who tried to promote wind turbines on houses failed to make any money out of it. (I can’t remember his name).

    The reason why wind turbines need to be a big as possible, is explained in the following article:


    The same consideration of material use and efficiency applies to the electricity storage technologies mentioned above, although to a lesser extent. For example, most Li-ion batteries are very wasteful, as the cells tend to be small, which – along with their propensity to catch fire – means the ratio of packaging to useful material is very high. Larger cells and modules would use less material for each unit of energy stored.

    I do agree with the comments about energy services and the analogy with use value vs. exchange value. People don’t “need” energy: they need the things that it provides or enables. Again, sometimes these might be best provided at scale, as a way of reducing waste. I think particularly of hot food and the old Bolshevik (I think) demand for neighbourhood communal provision, but I’m sure there are other examples as well.

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