Après moi le déluge! Fossil fuel abolitionism and the carbon bubble - part 2

A worker cleans an oil spill from an abandoned Shell well in Oloibiri, Nigeria

In part two of this two-part article, we look at the parallels between fossil-fuel abolitionism and the abolition of slavery in the 19th century United States.

Part 1 | Part 2

Abolitionism in the 19th century US

In 1850, the US population was about 23 million, of whom over 3 million – 13% – were slaves. According to Thomas Piketty, US national capital in 1850 was 440% of national income, with slaves valued at 108% of national income. In today’s terms, the value of slaves would therefore equate to assets of around $16 trillion. There were also investments in the labour processes that used slave labour which were devalued too, and slave-based labour was the centre of the South's economy and a huge part of the US economy. However, the value of the wider infrastructure is hard to estimate. Mitigating climate change would similarly destroy a lot of invested wealth and it will likely require a similar degree of intense social conflict. The headline figure of $4 trillion for the carbon bubble is less than the approximate $16 trillion present value of US slaves in 1850, however it is reasonable to assume the path-dependent sunk costs in fossil fuel infrastructure (refineries, transport/vehicles, industrial processes, agriculture etc) would be significantly higher than $4 trillion, perhaps even more than $16 trillion. Working this out would be a serious piece of scholarship, so we’re working with broad order-of-magnitude estimates here.

Abolitionists in the 19th century United States were a broad political spectrum analogous to people today who care about climate change. There were insurrectionary abolitionists like the slaves who rose up against plantation owners. The people who went on the raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry Virginia in 1859 were another kind of insurrectionary abolitionist. The raiders brought a long a copy of a constitution for the US government after they seized power, which included a statement of loyalty to the US government and its constitution, and noted that they did not intend to overthrow the government. There were also direct action abolitionists like the many individual African Americans who fled slavery, 'stealing' themselves from their owners, and others who 'stole' other enslaved people, helping them escape.

There were important organized forms of this movement, often called the Underground Railroad. There were policy oriented abolitionists as well, who pushed for the legislative end to slavery. These approaches could mix with direct action approaches in the form of militant action to demand new laws. Some legislative abolitionists sought an immediate end to slavery while others sought a gradual end. Some wanted slave owners to be paid for their human property while others wanted expropriation. And some wanted the freed African Americans to be deported to Africa. We can see an analogous range of political approaches to climate change today.

The history of slavery, abolition, and the US Civil War is complicated and contentious. One version of the story is that slaveholders and other ruling class political forces had a kind of uneasy co-existence that grew increasingly troubled over the course of the 19th century. Essentially, the US federal government played as kind of balancing role, keeping those forces in relative balance within the policy decisions and economy at the time. As the US expanded territorially, this led to a series of conflicts over political issues about where slavery would and would not be permitted. That expansion occurred in the context of a growth market in cotton and other slave-made goods and rising prices in slaves. Which is to say, there was a great deal of money to be made by investing in slaves and setting slaves to work, and that great deal of money was getting bigger over time, creating pressures for the further expansion of slavery.

These conflicts occurred with greater and greater frequency over time and became more intense; slave owners and other ruling class forces became increasingly polarized. That polarization and the nature of the conflicts that occurred were dramatically shaped by abolitionists. Abolitionists pressed upon the pre-existing and growing tensions between ruling class fractions, tensions that arose from the policy and economic changes. Abolitionists also created new tensions and politicized the nature of slavery itself, coding slavery as a moral wrong (though as we noted above, abolitionists differed among themselves and their differences included what kind of wrong they said slavery was).

Fossil fuel abolitionism?

The point of this parallel is to lay out a rough analogy with the present. There are policy and economic developments that create tensions among different capitalist class fractions. We are skeptical about the possibility to control climate change without ending capitalism. If climate change is to be controlled while capitalism continues, we are skeptical as well that it can come from the capitalists and their governments without militant social movements, analogous to the abolitionist movements. Furthermore, as residents of the planet Earth we would of course welcome the control of climate change over the runaway climate change that is becoming a terrifying new possibility. That said, we are not just residents and we want more from the future than simply 'continuing to live on this planet.' We are libertarian communists who want humanity to live on this planet in particular ways. It is not at all clear that all anti-climate change forces will be forces for genuine human emancipation, any more than all anti-slavery forces were forces for genuine emancipation.

None of this is to say civil war is on the cards, nor to accept that the US civil war was fought simply to abolish slavery (as opposed to emancipation being a useful ploy to destabilise the South, for example). But the example demonstrates how the emergence of a social movement can tip the balance of forces between rival developmental trajectories within the capitalist class. This is especially true when the material interests concerned are too divergent, due to path dependency, to be reconciled by normal capitalist processes of general will formation (e.g. party politics). That said, it’s worth noting that by 1880, US national capital had recovered to 422% of national income, with slaves accounting for 0% (Piketty’s data), which suggests other forms of capital quickly grew to make up the loss.

Mass struggle, not enlightened policy

Climate change seems likely only be averted/contained in two scenarios: if there's a libertarian communist revolution overthrowing states and capital and instituting a global commons; or, if there's a powerful, militant movement that emerges around climate change which is harnessed by inter-capitalist and inter-state conflict, analogous to the US civil war. These aren't entirely distinct, as green capitalists would surely attempt to harness any nascent communist movement to restructure capital in their interests, "reforming to preserve, not to overthrow."1

If a militant anti-climate change movement emerges a lot of people on the left will mistake it for being revolutionary, given that people have mistaken much less important and exciting movements for revolutionary, and given that people have mistaken the abolitionist movement for revolutionary. It's important therefore to understand the extent to which environmentalism can oppose particular fractions of capital, or even the current path of capitalist development, without necessarily opposing the capital relation itself.2

Newell & Paterson wrote:
...many of the union activists in the 1930s wanted to abolish capitalism, but in practice contributed to a better-regulated and more successful version of it.3

On the other hand, it's also important to recognise that any movement powerful enough to force big reforms has the potential to overflow the constraints of the capital relation and its social forms (states, private property, commodities, wage labour, etc). People and movements are dynamic. A struggle that begins as reformist in its demands and social vision may come to demand more thoroughgoing change. In noting the possibility for anti-climate change movements to take on a reformist character we are not advocating abstention from them but rather advocating the need for communists to push for those movements to expand their political vision to a more expansive sense of human liberation. We should not assume that climate change movements will be inherently anti-capitalist, but they will necessarily challenge the current organisation of capitalism, and in so doing perhaps open up the space for a more fundamental social transformation.

In the absence of such a movement, the dynamic equilibrium between recuperation and rupture may seem moot - there's precious little to recuperate. But if the business-as-usual trajectory is to be reversed, the dynamics of social movements and inter-capitalist wrangling will be crucial. Fossil fuels are central at a world scale, whereas slavery was central at a national/sub-national level. The value of the assets and infrastructure that need to be written off to mitigate dangerous climate change is staggering, of a similar order of magnitude to slavery (though on a rough comparison of headline figures, $4trn to $16trn, perhaps the carbon bubble is smaller than the slavery one).4

A write-off of this magnitude won't happen without a push, but we shouldn't underestimate the capacity of the capitalist system to harness social movements in order to transform and preserve itself. What we can say is that attempts to create and burst a 'carbon bubble' through top-down policy channels are a dead-end. Such a massive economic write-off will not be voluntarily undertaken, given the likely impact on stock markets (down) and food prices (up) alone. In this sense, responses to climate change, whether reforms or revolution, are in the hands of social movements. There are many potential flashpoints for such a movement: food riots, movements for free transport, anti-extraction and anti-airport struggles. Such struggles seek to block the current fossil fuel-intensive development path, and are vital for that reason. Their emergence may also generate a crisis which opens up the possibility of more radical social transformation.

  • 1. British Prime Minister Earl Grey in 1831, discussing suffrage, quoted in SolFed's Fighting For Ourselves.
  • 2. Militant reformism is a term that's come up in (and really, developed through) conversation among people on libcom. The discussion has spread across multiple blog posts and is hard to summarise. For an overview, see Responding to the growing importance of the state in the workers' movement.
  • 3. Peter Newell & Mike Paterson, Climate Capitalism, p.180.
  • 4. It is worth noting that the write-off in the United States was a social and economic earthquake. And this earthquake involved massive military casualties. Petrochemical companies like Shell are already notorious for their support for brutal dictatorships, most infamously in their collusion in the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (Shell paid $15.5 million in an out of court settlement to his family to avoid admitting liability). Recently this has been dramatized in the political video game Oiligarchy. These behaviours have happened in a period of relative profitability for the petrocapitalists. Once we start talking about actual destruction of their capital, they may well be willing to resort to much more widespread use of violence to maintain the existence of their industry.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Apr 21 2014 07:39

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  • The point of this parallel is to lay out a rough analogy with the present. If climate change is to be controlled while capitalism continues, we are skeptical that it can come from the capitalists and their governments without militant social movements, analogous to the abolitionist movements.

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Comments

Biffard Misqueegan
Apr 21 2014 12:33

In my experience there is a leftist side to the green movement that is rabidly reformist and usually acts swiftly to marginalize any whisper of class analysis, class struggle or capitalism from any environmental discussion. And then there is the overtly bourgeois side of the green movement that is comprised of large segments of the petty-bourgeois as well as the big-capital competitors of the "petrocapitalists". I have a really difficult time seeing that movement as anything other than a huge obstacle to fundamental environmental change.

factvalue
Apr 21 2014 14:02

Out of the Woods wrote:

Quote:
That said, it’s worth noting that by 1880, US national capital had recovered to 422% of national income, with slaves accounting for 0% (Piketty’s data), which suggests other forms of capital quickly grew to make up the loss.

How much did the availability of new forms of technology run on new energy sources account for the 'transition' from slavery? Would renewables being much less energy dense than fossils shift the capitalist notion of cost up significantly? What are the main contenders for mass production of non-fossil food?

Out of the Woods
Apr 21 2014 15:43

Biffard Misqueegan

Quote:
I have a really difficult time seeing that movement as anything other than a huge obstacle to fundamental environmental change.

We would tend to agree with this analysis. If you are interested, some of our thinking on the current state of the environmental movement can be found here.

factvalue wrote:
How much did the availability of new forms of technology run on new energy sources account for the 'transition' from slavery? Would renewables being much less energy dense than fossils shift the capitalist notion of cost up significantly? What are the main contenders for mass production of non-fossil food?

We mentioned briefly in part 1 that cheap energy almost certainly eased the transition from human muscle power to wage labour then automation. That's not really the case now, although renewables are becoming competitive, and in the long run are on a downward cost trajectory while fossil fuels are on an upward one.

We're currently researching a series on food - which as you rightly note is currently very energy intensive. Something approaching 50% of the world population is currently fed by food fertilised by nitrogen fixed using the Haber process for example. This is a very big topic, and there's lots of interesting proposals we want to look at from the viably mundane (no till, organic) to the utopian (vertical farms).

syndicalistcat
Apr 21 2014 19:28

Historians usually say slaves in 1860 represented an investment of $2 billion in the money of that time. This would be $47 billion, not $16 trillion, in terms of value of the money today. At least if we use the answer posted here:

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_1000_dollars_in_1860_worth_in_today%27s_money

At the end of the civil war the national debt, from the Union side in the civil war, was also $2 billion. So that has to be counted as another cost of abolition. That national debt was equal to the then-current capital invested in the slaves. The debt was held by Wall Street financiers & they were able to get the federal government ensure the debt was paid back in hard currency (gold). This created problems of deflation throughout the period from 1870s to 1890s.

Even today the south is relatively under-developed in comparison to the rest of the country.

During the 1860s the manufacturing interests of the north were also able to get adopted a much higher tariff. Through "accumulation by dispossession" capital value was also created through pure land speculation....lands seized from the natives, throughout the 1800s. But there was a very rapid & vast development of manufacturing during the late 1800s, based on production for a vast protected national market. Capital grew more rapidly than income in that period...as I think Piketty points out. This is also characteristic of the current period, according to Piketty...another example of the return to the Gilded Age.

Alasdair
Apr 21 2014 19:37

@syndicalistcat

That's true, $2billion is the figure I've seen before, and a simple uprating by inflation does bring that to around $50bn today. However, I'm not sure that accurately conveys the importance to the antebellum US economy. For one thing inflation was pretty volatile around then, so $2bn in 1863 is quite different to $2bn in 1862. Moreover, inflation is not that easy to measure, the basket of goods we use for CPI today is very different to what an average person would consume in 1860, so it's not immediately clear we can simply uprate a price from that long ago to today in a (totally) meaningful sense. Second, real GDP has grown immensely since then, along with population, so in the same way it's easier for someone with $10m to pay $1000 for their dinner than someone with a normal salary, writing off $30bn in 1850 is rather different to writing off $30bn today, even ignoring what is a sensible inflator. Hence, as we said at the start of the first part of this piece, and following Piketty, we've chosen to use the ratio of capital to national income (roughly speaking GDP). I hope that makes sense, but you're right it's a complex story overall and shifts depending on where you focus and how you measure it.

Alasdair
Apr 21 2014 19:38

On a related note, I was just reading this piece by Julia Ott (http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/slavery-the-capital-that-made-capitalism/) on the role of slavery in setting the scene for that industrial and financial development in the North.

syndicalistcat
Apr 21 2014 19:48

"Primitive accumulation" in North America was based on four main points:

(1) Use initially of mass Euro slave labor -- the unique feature of British vs other Euro colonizing in the Americas. Not paid wages so super-profits could be scarfed up.
(2) Conversion to life-time inherited slavery in early 1700s led to an even bigger profit growth because under the previous temporary 7 year slave scheme planters & owners of iron foundries etc had to buy a new workforce every 7 years. With slavery they got the slave for life & also their children, and could make profits by raping female salves, sell the children on slave markets.
(3) Participation in 1700s in Atlantic slave trade. Especially centered in Rhode Island but also Boston, New York. Capital invested in industries such as distilleries, ship building, etc.
(4) Pure land speculation based on "accumulation through dispossession" of the natives. This was in fact one of the main motivations for the independence movement of 1770s since the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had guaranteed the lands of the native tribes west of the Allegheny mountains. Jefferson, Washington & other leaders of the independence movement were major speculators in Indian lands. Fortunes were made through sale of lands acquired free or at minimal expense.

Vast & rapid expansion of capital in manufacturing after the civil war was based on economies of scale from the ability to produce for a vast protected national market, created through the vast railway construction of that period, which also created demand for industrial products such as rails, ties, fasteners, steam engines, rolling stock.

Of course that was all carbon based, in terms of energy, with burning of coal for energy, heat, making of steel, etc.

factvalue
Apr 21 2014 21:20

Excellent stuff, thanks. Could you recommend what you would consider the best accounts/source material of this economic history? Nice clear article with no hocus pocus btw OotW - just sayin'.

Joseph Kay
Apr 22 2014 18:25

A piece in the Nation today makes a similar argument, and gets a figure of $10trn present value of slaves (same order of magnitude as the $16trn here).

Nate
Apr 24 2014 04:15
factvalue wrote:
Excellent stuff, thanks. Could you recommend what you would consider the best accounts/source material of this economic history? Nice clear article with no hocus pocus btw OotW - just sayin'.

Gavin Wright's book Slavery and American Economic Development is a great read, based on public lectures so quite accessible.

syndicalistcat wrote:
Historians usually say slaves in 1860 represented an investment of $2 billion in the money of that time. This would be $47 billion, not $16 trillion, in terms of value of the money today.

Alasadair pretty much covered this but the point here was to compare $2 billion in 1860s dollars to an analogous proportion of the US and global economy. We could have indicated this more clearly. The gist is that the end of slavery was something like an earthquake (do a degree that's way larger than a $50 billion dollar loss would be in the world today) and that writing off oil and coal etc as required for climate change is likely to be a similarly large social earthquake. I could imagine a counter-argument that said 'this is best captured by something other than dollar amounts.' I'm sympathetic to that.

Alasdair wrote:
On a related note, I was just reading this piece by Julia Ott (http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/slavery-the-capital-that-made-capitalism/) on the role of slavery in setting the scene for that industrial and financial development in the North.

That piece is great! Thanks for the link.

Ablokeimet
Apr 24 2014 11:48

A couple of points:

1. The US Civil War was a revolutionary war. Lincoln didn't go into it as a revolutionary, but became one because of what was required to win. At the start, all he wanted was "the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was". As the war progressed, he saw that he had to take the side of the abolitionists - and the radical abolitionists at that.

In order to win, Lincoln had to issue the Emancipation Declaration and arm hundreds of thousands of slaves as soldiers in the Union army. It was not merely a "useful ploy", but an essetial precondtion. As he said (I'm quoting roughly from memory), "If I could have won by freeing the slaves, I would have done that. If I could have won by leaving the slaves, I would have done that. And if I could have won by freeding some of the slaves and leaving others, I would have done that, too."

The US Civil War can be called a revolutionary one because it involved the destruction of the slaveocracy. The US was unique in the world in having two ruling classes, separated geograhically. Because of the conflict between slave labour and free wage labour, however, this situation could not endure perpetually. The showdown that occurred in 1861 was inevitable - it if had not come then, it would have come at a later date and probably not terribly long after.

2. Climate War?

Quote:
Climate change seems likely only be averted/contained in two scenarios: if there's a libertarian communist revolution overthrowing states and capital and instituting a global commons; or, if there's a powerful, militant movement that emerges around climate change which is harnessed by inter-capitalist and inter-state conflict, analogous to the US civil war.

The analogy with the US Civil War is not complete, because different classes wage war in different ways. The working class (the only class which can defeat the capitalists) struggles through using its unique role in production, first through strikes, then through occupation and finally through expropriation. This is not fundamentally about control of territory, so although control of territory influences control of production, the determining factor is the extent and strength of workers' organisation.

An example of the crucial role of workers in production can be seen in how the Kornilov Coup was defeated in August 1917 during the Russian Revolution. Kornilov was marching on Petrograd to smash the Soviets, but he lost his army on the way because of the actions of railway and telegraph workers.

The working class, therefore, can be far more effective in neutralising a capitalist army by cutting off its supply of food, fuel, transport, communication and ammunition through labour boycotts than it can by putting a workers' militia in the field. A workers' militia will most probably be necessary, but its role will be secondary to the role of workers in production.

Chilli Sauce
Apr 28 2014 21:47
Quote:
there was a great deal of money to be made by investing in slaves and setting slaves to work, and that great deal of money was getting bigger over time, creating pressures for the further expansion of slavery.

So, obviously other folks have touched on this, but Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship basically argues that you can't separate slavery from the early development of capitalism. It's a really good read all around and although I don't think he talks about slaves as a form of primitive accumulation, it's just a fascinating book and a really good argument all around.

Oh, and good blog, again.