Ku Klux Climate: Coal, Petro-Palingenesis, and the Historical Materialism of Fossil Fascism, by Paul Street

22b S. Calif

Image by Neal Wellons via Flickr

by Paul Street
Writer, Dandelion Salad
The Official Website of Paul Street, Mar. 28, 2022
March 30, 2022

Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (London: Verso, 2021)

We live in a dangerous time when a far-right more powerful than at any time since 1945 is doing all it can to accelerate the capitalist project to turn our planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas chamber. The last United States president, the “instinctive fascist” Donald Trump, believed that anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) global warming was a hoax and did everything he could to end limits on fossil fuel production. Brazil’s current president, the demented pandemo-fascist Jar Bosonaro, has sadistically opened up the Amazon – the lungs of the planet – to enrich agro-industrial profiteers. Climate-denialist far-right parties have marched into key energy and climate-related offices in Europe, from Sweden and Norway to Spain, Poland, and Hungary. As the world tips into climate catastrophe, anti-immigrant parties who promote the unchecked extraction and burning of fossil fuels are surging in the name of white supremacy and national regeneration. Even while climate crisis begins to collapse civilization before our very eyes, right-wing forces have surfaced absurdly and dangerously claiming to possess the purported real solutions to the supposed real problems: closing European and US borders to “save the nation(s)” from nonwhite immigrants and clearing out Indigenous tribes from rural Brazil.

What gives? Like many left observers, I have tended to keep the menaces of late fascism and ecocide in largely separate if related folders. Thus, for example, I’ve said and written things like these:

+ ‘The fascistic nationalism of Trump, Bolsonaro, and other far-right actors and parties is terrible but, strange as it seems to say, capitalism has produced an even greater danger: climatological ecocide.’

+ ‘It’s “socialism or barbarism” – really “socialism or the continuation of capitalism in the form of fascism” – if we’re lucky, for the biggest danger is the collapse of livable ecology on the part of a capitalist system that is wired to cook the planet beyond decent habitability with or without fascism.’

+ ‘If we don’t defeat fascism and keep it at bay, we’ll have no chance of stopping an even bigger problem: climate-driven capitalogenic ecocide.’

These two statements are true but incomplete. The Swedish human ecology professor Andreas Malm is a leading member of the Zetkin Collective (hereafter “Malm/Zetkin”), a transnational group of antifascist scholars and activists who study the “political ecology of the far right” from a historical-materialist (Marxist) perspective. As Malm/Zetkin show in their marvelously titled book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, the two menaces are joined at the capitalist historical hip. This deeply insightful and wide-ranging (with primary and secondary sources in at least ten different languages) volume finds many interrelated and overlapping connections between racist, nationalist, and fascist ideology on one hand and the climate-denialist “fossil-capitalist” war on livable ecology on the other hand. Through an exhaustive survey and analysis of far-right climate politics (including that of a US Republican Party that should now be considered fascist) in Europe and the Americas, Malm/Zetkin discover numerous forms of toxic, mutually reinforcing synergy between the two menaces. This synergy is a deadly political windfall for the arch-criminal fossil fuel industry, whose leaders have known from the start that their business operations were going to dangerously warm the planet.[1]

A Lethal Political Conjuncture

The first part of White Skin, Black Fuel traces overlapping strands in this deadly “conjuncture of climate change and nationalist politics.” This lethal conjuncture is a boon for “primitive fossil capital” (the coal, peat, oil, and gas industries) and “fossil capitalism” (the broader capitalist sectors dependent on fossil fuels, including of course the auto, trucking, and aviation industries) Here are some of the main currents of this potentially fatal historical intersection:

+ The frequent right-wing claim that the real existential crisis facing rich nations isn’t climate collapse but the immigration of non-whites – this while millions of Africans, Arabs, and Latin Americans try to flee the climate crisis that the wealthy nations have created with their capitalist addictions to endless growth and fossil fuels. ‘A rule has remained in force up to the moment of this writing,’ Malm/Zetkin note: ‘Every time a far-right European party denies or downplays climate change, it …says: the problem facing our societies has nothing to do with climate – forget about the hoax – the real danger is the presence of too many non-white foreigners in …our land…The [liberal/Left] elite is to be despised because it has opened the borders and invited the enemy…Thus [Dutch fascist leader] Geert Wilders [said in 2017 that] European government[s] …“worry about climate change. But they will soon be experiencing the Islamic winter.”’ (pp. 39-40, 51)

+ The widespread far-right linking of climate activism and non-white people/immigrants as two sides of the same coin of an alleged anti-Western primitivism that seeks to undermine the glorious fossil-fueled technological modernity that has made rich white nations “great.”[2]

+ Racist “spillover” whereby Barack Obama’s declared belief in climate science encouraged racist Amerikaner white nationalists to reject climate science. “If global warming was something Obama believed in,” the twisted logic went, “it must be a hoax to disinherit the whites.”

+ Ideological spillover whereby belief in climate science on the part of fascism’s longstanding mortal enemy “the Left” encourages the right to reject climate science.

+ Faith in the exploitation of domestic fossil fuels as the material base for the return and expansion of national strength and “greatness,” sold as “energy independence” and even “energy dominance” (Trump). (Energy independence from the demonized but oil-rich Muslim world, that is, whose capacity to disrupt rich white nations was demonstrated during the first Arab oil crisis of 1974.)

+ The right-wing narrative of climate activism and mitigation as racialized and poor Others trying to rob white nations and people of their supposedly natural and hard-won wealth.

+ The racist, xenophobic, and conspiratorialist/paranoid narrative of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”

+ National energy and ethnic stock-ism: far-right identification of virtuous primordial national white-ethnic “stocks” with domestic national fossil fuel stocks.

+ The despicably arrogant and racist “let them drown” notion that climate change is a “secondary concern” for rich white core nations since the initial catastrophic consequences of global warming fall hardest on nonwhite nations and peoples in the global periphery. (Epitomizing this mindset, the blue-eyed Sweden Democrats explained in 2018 that “it will be developing countries that suffer, if any,” from climate change.)

+ The standard right-wing identification of governmental regulation – obviously required for climate change mitigation – with supposedly oppressive and authoritarian “big government socialism” (never mind that neofascists embrace big government regulation of immigration and repression of nonwhites and leftists).

+ Racist demonization of non-white Indigenous people accused of obstructing national growth and greatness by insisting on their tribal rights to inhabit lands that climate-cooking investors want to rape for fossil fuel extraction and/or (as in the Amazonian rain forest that has been pillaged and burned under “the Trump of Brazil”) ago-industrial “development.”

+ The creation of a “fossilized proletariat”: the identification of certain surviving proletarian sectors – coal, peat, gas, and oil workers (employed in “primitive fossil capital” industries) and autoworkers, truckers, and aviation workers (working in “fossil capitalist” sectors removed from initial/primitive extraction) – with fossil fuels.

+ The Malthusian claims (among those “eco-fascist” and “green nationalist” sections of the far right willing to acknowledge the existence and problematic nature of human-generated global warming) that the real cause of the climate problem is over-population led by non-white peoples and that the source of environmental spoilation within rich nations is the globalist Left-instigated influx of overly fecund nonwhites, who come in to “ruin the commons.”

The Historical-Material Base of Fossilized Whiteness

The second part of White Skin, Black Fuels offers a deep historical explanation for the poisonous nexus of neofascism and climate denial. How, Malm/Zetkin ask, did Western racist white nationalism today become so intimately bound up with the embrace and defense of fossil fuels? An “articulation of energy and race that developed in the 19th Century,” Malm/Zetkin write, “sedimented an association between fossil fuels and whiteness that wells up like magma in a time of climate breakdown. Certain defenders of such fuels…feel…questioned not only as burners [of the planet and the future – P.S.] but more specifically as white people [and as men – see below- P.S.], who for so long have had their tap-root of riches in the bowels of the planet” (p. 362). The argument runs like this: the rich Western nations have long believed that their dominant (core) position in the world capitalist system reflected an at once white and technological superiority fired by fossil fuels. The critical technologies are the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, motor-power (instead of wind-) powered ships, railroads, airplanes, and (though Malm/Zetkin do not really go into this) the broader mass-murderous technology of the modern imperial and military-industrial complex, all given life by fossil fuels: coal at first and then, after the late 19th Century, oil and gas.

Malm/Zetkin cite and quote some remarkable and depressing mid-late 19th Century white male commentary on the supposed organic connection between whiteness, technological superiority, and fossil fuels. In a striking passage rescued by Malm-Zetkin from the condescension of such posterity as may continue to exist on the eve of climatological cataclysm, the British-imperial engineer and explorer John Turnbull Thomson addressed some fellow English-speaking conquerors of the brown-and black-skinned periphery as follows in 1874:

“What has made the white man – or more conspicuously the Anglo-Saxon – of the Teutonic race so ubiquitously progressive and aggressive [dominant, that is- P.S.]; this more especially of so recent a recent date? It is his humanity and science, combined with steam. And what makes steam for him? It is coal. What then has coal to do with our race? As far as we know yet, everything.” (p.355)

(Yeah, Trumbull said that.) Equally nauseating are the curious pontifications of the modernity-mad white supremacist essayist, philosopher, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who marveled in his 1854 travel volume English Traits on the supposed race superiority of the English. The glorious English, Emerson felt, were “so rich and seem to have established a tap-root in the bowels of the planet” – an unmistakable reference to England’s northern coal mines. Emerson called the British “the best [racial] stock in the world,” an ethnic reference he related to England’s fossil fuel stock: white skin, black fuel indeed.

This “techno [and carbon- P.S.] racism” persisted into the 20th Century. Gas-fueled cars provided a mode of white-supremacist “secessionist automobility” that whisked whites past Black ghettos to lily-white sundown suburbs and kept Caucasians off the public transportation modes frequented by people of color. Gas-fueled airplanes and rockets carried the marriage of Western white racism and fossil capital to new and horrifying height with classic historical fascism itself – white nationalism and Social Darwinist arch-racism on steroids in its German form. The Third Reich was deeply and passionately invested in dreams of a magnificent, white-ruled future rooted in fossil-fueled technologies and goods both commercial and military. Carbon capitalist “techno-racism was law in the Third Reich” (p.427), reflecting the wild racist claim that Weimar Marxists and “parasitic” Jewish finance capital had stabbed the great German nation in the back by holding back the proper Fordist and capitalist development of automobiles, roads, and aeronautics and the fossil fuels necessary to activate the beloved machines and infrastructure. Mussolini and Hitler and the regimes they stood atop worshipped coal, oil- and gas-powered automotive and aeronautic machinery and modernity, wrapping cars, highways, planes, and air power with quasi-religious national, racial, and gender meaning.

The car-mad Third Reich, Malm-Zetkin note, was both the product and agent of thoroughly modern automobile capitalism, like contemporary neofascism; it was no hangover from the pre-capitalist past, contrary to a long line of liberal scholarship. Thus, Malm and Zetkin approvingly cite Theodore Adorno on how “the most important psychological condition for Auschwitz was the pursuit of ‘one’s own advantage before all else’ and ‘the inability to identify with others’” – an inability deeply reinforced by capitalism’s core possessive-individualist ethics and the egotist automobility advanced by the frothing anti-Semite Henry Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Porsche, Volkswagen (a Nazi production quietly reinvigorated by Western occupation authorities after World War II), and Hitler’s sponsor Daimler-Benz. “This,” Malm-Zetkin note, “is the kind of whopping claim that, for critics of Adorno, suggest an implausibly straight arrow of causation from the mundanities of capitalist modernity to mass murder. But the actual automobile adoration of the original fascists, its echoes on the far right today, and the aggregate effects of the private car suggest that he was on to something.” (pp. 447-48)

By Malm/Zetkin’s analysis, this history has wedded whiteness to the capitalist extraction and burning of fossil fuels in a deeply embedded, almost subconscious mass-psychological way – a form of what they call “fossilized whiteness” (p. 384). This “fossil fascist”/“late fascist” marriage of white identity and fossil capitalism has now come to the political surface in a late-capitalist (“neoliberal”) era marked by resurgent white ethno-nationalism, significantly climate-driven mass migration, endemic mass precarity, and ever more imminent environmental collapse. Distressingly enough, there’s nothing or at least very little nationally specific and very much international and global about the renewable energies – wind, solar, and water – we need to tap and distribute across national lines if we are going to avert catastrophic climate change in coming years. In this way, too, white nationalism is a poison pill militating against a post-carbon future – and hence against any decent human future.

There is a strong gender dimension to the toxic mix as well, for the patriarchal nationalist right links the extraction, burning, and techno-sexist utilization and application of fossil to rugged, allegedly Left-endangered manly vigor. The right links renewable energy to a perilous effeminacy that opens the West to non-white penetration and racial dilution (see pp. 391-396, containing a chapter sub-section titled “The Gender and Art of Ecological Sadism.”)

“Late Fascism” with Race Taking Primacy Over Class

What do Malm/Zetkin mean by fascism? On page 405 they refer to “the basic strands” of “a sort of DNA code of fascism…: anti-Marxism, anti-feminism, racism, imperialism, the preoccupation with fertility, the promotion of inequality, accolades to violence, and a giddy myth of palingenesis [that is, a myth of lost but soon to be right-reborn national greatness, stolen by liberal and Left elites accused of “stabbing the nation/fatherland in the back” by promoting and “replacing” supposedly virtuous and hard-working native whites with supposedly dangerous and inferior non-white others – P.S.].” That is a useful short description to which we could easily add other ingredients: the war on previously normative bourgeois electoral democracy and rule of law, the “Orwellian” campaign against truth and intellectuals, conspiratorialism, cults of personality centered on powerful and always male “charismatic Leaders,” and more.

The danger of fascism remains alive and well, Malm/Zetkin argue. They rightly take issue with the esteemed emeritus Oxford historian and leading “fascism scholar” Roger Griffin, who claimed in 1991 that “fascism is a spent force.” Reflecting on a deranged fascist’s murder of dozens of young Norwegian social democrats in 2018. Griffin dismissively opined that fascism no longer finds relevant political space because of the absence of “a generalized subjective sense of an existential crisis of the nation and of modern liberal civilization.” How laughable to read that today, with:

+ far-right parties invigorated like never before across Europe.

+ a fascistic regime still actively and lethally assaulting people of color and livable ecology in Brazil.

+ one of the two dominant political parties (the Republifascists) in the United States having crossed into “palingenetic ultranationalist” (to use Griffin’s pioneering description of classic historical fascism) space, poised to take back full triple-branch control of world history’s most powerful and dangerous nation.

+ dark global right-wing money pulling the strings of neo-fascist white trucker rebellions meant to provoke political crises (in the name of opposition to basic public health pandemic protections) for bourgeois democratic governance in Canada, the US, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia – an episode (not so vaguely) reminiscent of the right-wing trucker rebellions that helped destabilize the democratic elected socialist government of Chile before the CIA-sponsored coup that murdered president Salvador Allende in 1973.

No “generalized subjective sense of an existential crisis of the nation and of modern liberal civilization”? Really? Does Roger Griffin[3] know any other good jokes? Along with the endemic chaos, hyper-inequality, and widespread precarity imposed by neoliberal “late capitalism” and the unmentionably capitalist covid pandemic, the capitalogenic climate catastrophe (a driving force behind fascism-fueling nonwhite migration) now provides abundant “existential” material fueling white-hot “late fascism” (p. 253) with a widespread sense of life-or-death crisis precisely for “the nation and of modern liberal civilization.”

Contrary to the “Marxist” claim that fascism cannot emerge in the absence of a radical revolutionary challenge from a mobilized and Left proletariat, Malm and Zetkin note that “late” fossil fascism actually draws precisely on the defeat and marginalization of labor and the radical working class left today: “Fascisation happens [now] because of the political weakness of labour, as it approaches or falls below First International levels. It is not the unnerving presence but the total absence of both revolutionary and steadily reformist working-class politics that now sets the slide in motion.” (p. 453). Consistent with my own new book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals and the Trumping of America and with left political scientist Anthony DiMaggio’s findings on the social and ideological taproots of US-Amerikaner neofascism in the Trump years, Malm-Zetkin argue that whereas the first mission of classic historical fascism was to smash the organized working class, “in twenty-first fascism”:

‘race has primacy over class. The duty of Italian and German fascism was indeed to crush the organized working class; on its first day on the job, it jailed and killed the cadres of communism and social democracy. But if fascism were to assume power in the decades ahead, the immediate target would be racially defined – in Europe, immigrants, Muslims or other earmarked nonwhite populations. This is not, of course, to suggest that classic historical fascism was not racist – “in Bavaria, the fascist program is exhausted by the phrase ‘beat up the Jews,’” Clara Zetkin noted in 1923 – or that it could return without dominant class content. But…the hammer would not need to fall first on labour, but would rather hit enemies defined by descent. This might change: a sudden [French-inspired? – P.S.] upswing in class struggle would alter the calculus, as would a climate movement as frightening as the Commies once were. But on current trends, it will be race first.’

Malm/Zetkin for Beginners?

I highly recommend this wildly brilliant book – one of the most important and luminous monographs I have ever read – with three caveats. First, even though it is focused for obvious reasons on the fossil fuel era (the years since the mass application of coal to the firing of steam engines), its analysis of whiteness’s toxic and eco-cidal embedment in modern capitalism and politics still seems over-focused on the industrial era. I’d wind the analytical block back further. A arguably deeper historical understanding of racial-capitalist ecocide traces to the rise of the racist, and patriarchal, timber-, peat-, wind-, water-, whale-oil-, war- and slave-fueled world capitalist system born in the “long Sixteenth Century,” as brilliantly analyzed by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore in their also indispensable book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet and by Moore in his breathtaking study Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Second, Malm and Zetkin say nothing either positive or negative about nuclear fuel and technology, topics clearly relevant to understanding the modern world system and climate issues. This seems like an omission.

Third, White Skin, Black Fuel, not unlike the Patel and Moore book and especially the sole-authored Moore book I just mentioned, is largely inaccessible to people who are not well-schooled in high-functioning and (well) elite Left theory and scholarship. It is situated within the largely incestuous discourse of the Western intelligentsia, albeit the (absolutely) best (eco-Marxist, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist) parts of that intelligentsia. Few normal readers (I abnormally spent a month addicted to fighting my way through this brilliant volume during spare evening hours) would ever see their way through this lengthy and dense monograph, loaded with long historical and theoretical digressions, repeated references to the likes of Louis Althussar, Nicos Poultantzas, Walter Benjamin, and Adorno, and adorned with 1,611 academic footnotes. There’s nothing wrong with getting it all down on 540 dense (and I repeat, brilliant) pages or with writing a book for other intellectuals. I don’t want to sound anti-intellectual and anti-theory (I am neither) or anti-academic (though I do have a bit of that), but, given the urgent and profound significance of the topics under discussion (climate change is arguably the biggest issue of our or any time), it would be great to see a significantly pared-down and simplified version of White Skin, Black Fuel, modeled perhaps on Noam Chomsky’s widely read pamphlets (What Uncle Sam Really Wants, for example) on US imperialism or the once popular Marx for Beginners books.

Notes

1. “We now know,” Malm/Zetkin write (White Skin, Black Fuel, p. 24), “that primitive fossil capital” – their term for the capitalist “class fraction” directly invested in the extraction of fossil fuels – “possessed rudimentary knowledge of the [anthropogenic global warming] problem since at least the 1960s.” They relate the story of legendary physicist Edward Teller telling a major 1959 US energy industry conference that continued mass CO2 emissions could lead to melted ice caps and submerged coastal cities. Subsequent research by the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil themselves notoriously validated the warnings, which entered public US political discourse when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the US Senate on global Greenhouse gassing in the sweltering summer of 1988. Fossil capital cooked the planet and denied the warming it caused with extensive internal and institutional knowledge of the catastrophe it was fueling – knowledge shelved and denied because it conflicted with the endlessly parasitic and value-expanding requirements of capital. How insidious. Is this perhaps the greatest crime in human history?

2. The far-right True Finns Party of 2014 epitomized this narrative by publishing a cartoon in which “a black man” was “dressed only in a grass skirt, his belly protruding over the belt.” Further:

‘His nose is pierced with an animal bone. Eyes dilated, a wide-open mouth flashing absurdly large teeth…he holds…a wooden bowl in which for more animal bones jump…[and] screams: “Even though the climate has not warmed since 1997, …I predict that the climate will melt and the surface of the ocean will rise at least six hundred kilometers!! By the next week!!” To his right are two smaller figures, a man and a woman, white of skin. They look frightened…Professionally clad, they manage the climate institute of Finland. The woman exclaims: “Ooh! We have to spend more on wind turbines that function for only three days in a year!” Satisfied, the witch doctor of climate science [says]…“Great idea, I will offer you a consultation…” “So-called climate science,” the party explains in the caption,” has not been able to prove that human activity is the cause for the 1 degree rise in temperatures. Nevertheless, the climate directives force you to pay extra tax.” True Finns would resist the extortion. They would refuse to believe in the fable, stop the pointless bleeding of resources and stand up for their own kind of energy’ [peat, coal, and oil] (Malm/Zetkin, pp. vi-vii)

3. Please see the fourth chapter (titled “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial”) in my new book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (New York: Routledge, December 30, 2021) for a critique of Griffin’s absurd fascism-denying take on Trump and Trumpism.


Paul Street is an independent radical-democratic policy researcher, journalist, historian, author and speaker based in Iowa City, Iowa, and Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of eight books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010); (with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011); They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014). Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement (CounterPunch Books, September 2020); and This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (Routledge, 2022). Paul writes regularly for Counterpunch and Dandelion Salad. Help Paul Street keep writing here and/or here.

Originally published at Counterpunch, Feb. 27, 2022

From the archives:

Michael Hudson and Patrick Bond: Is China Socialist or State Capitalist? + Is China’s Trade Predatory or for Mutual Benefit?

Another Global Warming Worry: Parts of Earth Could Become Uninhabitable, by Pete Dolack + A Dire Warning About the End of Human Civilization

A Communist Intervention: Reflections on Crisis, Revolution, and Personal Responsibility, by Paul Street

As Long as Capitalism Exists, The Threat of Fascism Exists, by Pete Dolack

A Dystopian Hellscape Beckons: 21 Dark Clouds Over 2021 Amerika, by Paul Street

The Road To A Climate Hell Of >4 Degrees C Is Littered With Untruths, by Andrew Glikson + Greta Thunberg: COP26 Is A Failure

Abby Martin and Paul Jay: Afghanistan, 9/11 and Climate Change, Part 2 + Current Climate Extremes Double at 2 Degrees Warming and Quadruple at 3

Earth Burns and the Capitalist World Talks, by Pete Dolack

Coronavirus Capitalism and “Exceptional” America, by Paul Street

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