Roads to an energy commons

November 18, 2021

Commodification matters, because it is one of the ways that capitalism shapes the technological and social systems that consume energy. A movement towards post-capitalism would, by destroying the social relations of which commodification is part, put an end to it, and pave the way to an energy commons.  

Such a movement would be by far the most effective way of tackling dangerous global warming, because it would enable society to use energy for need, and not for profit.

These arguments are made in a paper published today by People & Nature.  

To early 21st century city people, gas for a stove, electricity for a factory, or fuel for a vehicle, is presented as “energy”. People often refer to “energy” as something that is, or even must be, bought and sold. Actually, that buying and selling is very recent in historical terms, and even now is not ubiquitous.

London demonstration for climate action, 6 November

Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” is useful here. Marx believed that social relations between people, and the fruits of their collective labour, were presented to them in “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. This was truly weird, he thought; it reminded him of the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. The contradiction between the commodity’s use value and its exchange value in markets was obscured.

This mystification persists today in energy research: the idea of “energy demand” elides the need for energy services (the need for a use value) with the economist’s concept of demand for a commodity.

For thousands of years, humans accessed types of energy – human or animal labour power, or mechanical energy from windmills or water wheels – directly from nature. Fuels became commodities only in the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism rose to dominance, it turned labour power into a commodity, and much else besides, including energy sources such as wood and coal.   

The energy carriers associated with the second industrial revolution – electricity and oil – were treated as commodities from the start.

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