Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

January 5, 2022

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

January 5, 2022

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: