Metabolic Rift, Zoonotic Spillover, Agency
Updated: Jan 14
20 October 2020
Rowan Fortune reviews Andrea’s Malm’s latest contribution to the theorisation of metabolic rift, specifically in the context of Chronic Emergency as highlighted by the Coronavirus pandemic. While questions remain about the nature of the capitalist crisis, Malm outlines a serious articulation of the present catastrophe socialists must appreciate.
Indisputably one of the most serious theorists writing about the crisis of nature today, Malm has much to teach a new generation of socialists grappling with our responsibilities and calamity. Fossil Capital remains one of the best works of theory on metabolic rift. Alongside Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan, which is a similarly splendid political appraisal of the ecological situation, Malm’s masterpiece (to date) grasps the history and meaning of the economic crisis better than most, situating it persuasively within class conflict and the origins of modernity, and showing that to traverse our current impasse, we must create a radically different society.
The Nature of the Crisis
Starting with an account of the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, Andreas Malm’s Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency asks a follow-up question to his earlier works: ‘why did the states of the global North act on corona but not on climate?’
In addressing this, he makes quick work of ideological ‘explanations—the unreality of the climate crisis, its comparatively benign character, or uncertainty, intangibility, complexity, remoteness or lack of front lines’. The idea that the reason lies in the fact that climate change is more gradual, while superficially persuasive, is also shown to poorly characterise the reality of ‘a cascading series of abrupt disruptions.’ To find answers, then, Malm instead looks to relationships of time and space—as he has done in the past—and how these disasters are therein fundamentally different.
In that light, he shows that Covid-19 impacted the global north foremost, so that a ‘timeline of victimhood placed rich and poor at opposite ends for corona and climate’, but even more to how as ‘a secular trend, global heating gave extended opportunities for obstruction to the perpetrators’. Moreover, just as Covid ‘was not, in and of itself, an effluent from profit’ like CO2, in addition ‘a shutdown of fossil capital would have to be permanent.’ If the temporal distinction between secular climate change and a shock pandemic is one aspect of the puzzle, it is also the case that the management of the virus might be plausibly achieved by ‘closing borders, sending military to patrol them (Denmark jumped on this opportunity), promoting autarchy, shutting oneself off from the outside world.’ Therefore, hyper-nationalist governments found a justification for a pre-existing ideology.
With zoonotic spillover (animal to human contagion) long known, Malm delves into the mechanics of reservoirs (especially bats), amplifiers and parasites, noting that we empirically know ‘higher biodiversity means lower risk for zoonotic spillover.’ Deforestation, with its damage to biodiversity, is a major risk factor. This might be because the resulting fragmentation of forests pushes pathogen evolution within restricted circumstances.
Bushmeat is another contributor, a more morally complicated one given how many of the dispossessed rely on it, but importantly exasperated when ‘deforestation prises open the basins of wildlife.’ Looking at the history of spillovers in this context, Malm quotes biologist Rob Wallace, arguing that ‘opening the forests to global circuits of capital’, and deforestation, spreads pathogens. This is an example of John Bellamy Foster’s metabolic rift that is distinct from climate change. Moreover, since the circuits are global, zoonotic spillover cannot be strictly local. It is because China is where ‘global tendencies were present in concentrated form’, Covid-19 struck there, and because of globalised capitalism it spread out.
This raises questions about whether hyper-nationalist, capitalist ideology has in fact been adequate to tackling Covid-19. Echoing Wallace again, Malm singles out another productive force, ‘domesticated, hyper-exploited animals that form artificial lagoons of pathogens.’ Livestock might not be the culprit now, but could be in the near future—as Mike Davis has warned. As wild nature is encompassed by circuits of capital, ‘and given the biological fact that pathogenic microbes are constituent elements of such nature, capital must call them up too.’ Moreover, comparing climate change and Covid-19 is ‘comparing a war with a bullet.’ They have different spatiotemporal profiles.
Taken together, the crisis is shown to be not at all conducive to the far right; that is, when we understand that the ‘drivers are shared’, i.e. global capitalism at one level of abstraction, deforestation and chronic emergency at another. Capitalism is the primary source of the problem. Taken in this correct context, the true inadequacy of the response is not only clear, but easy to anticipate in a world riven by class, where the wealthy and privileged sustain a system to their advantage and to the geographically uneven disadvantage of workers and the oppressed—in line, stresses Malm, with critical vulnerability theory.
Solutions to the impasse
In offering a set of practical solutions Marxists can advocate, Malm starts with the crisis theory of James O’Connor. O’Connor—and Malm and Foster—first of all hold to Paul Sweezy’s underconsumptionism theory (i.e., and simplified, lowered wages depress the demand ultimately required for capitalism to return investments from consumption). The second view argues that as capitalism ‘aggressively cuts costs and chases still higher profits’ it eventually reaches a stage ‘where segments of labour and nature may disintegrate.’ This causes falling profits.
Malm rejects that this particular crisis-situation has occurred so far, arguing instead that the current crisis has been caused by state intervention ‘in a moment of relative autonomy.’ Moreover, he adds that these crises (underconsumption and falling profits due to Covid-19) have looped into each other. However, Malm stresses, such a crisis must also examine ‘the mediation of such disasters through relations between classes and states and other protagonists in a social formation.’ I.e. we cannot find recourse in environmental determinism, society (including social conflicts) still shape the unfolding of the crisis.
This brings Malm to socialism, and a two-page obituary for social democracy—locating its death as far back Eduard Bernstein, rather uncharitably dubbed the ‘Steven Pinker of socialism’. For Malm, the problem was with Bernstein’s rejection of crisis theory, allowing for social democrats to switch from revolutionary strategies to gradualist reformism, contrary to Rosa Luxemburg’s contemporaneous underconsumptionism theory, with imperialism only postponing crisis.
(Contrary to Malm, it could be argued that for neither Bernstein nor Luxemburg is crisis inevitable, especially in the later context of Keynesianism as a bourgeois solution to underconsumption. Moreover, doubts might be raised by some contemporary Marxists on the overall characterisation of capitalist crisis, such as from Michael Roberts or Andrew Kliman.)
Where most (if not all) Marxists would likely agree is in Malm’s point that social democracy requires timescales our crisis, as with historic ones, will not permit. To be useful such a politics ‘would have to go beyond itself’. That is, no longer be social democratic. Malm expends less effort dismissing anarchism, arguing merely that the lessons of the Arab Spring and Covid-19 show that the left requires ‘some degree of hard power.’ Most Marxists would agree with this too, although it is not a very humble appraisal of anarchist theory. Malm’s solution, then, is from the Leninist tradition, and on this terrain—as when he is discussing metabolic rift—Malm is more comfortably authoritative.
Taking a lesson particularly from Lenin’s response to the crisis of the First World War, Malm suggests we must similarly take measures that already exist, ‘step them up a notch and deploy them against the drives of catastrophe.’ In the current context, that would begin with a preventing the appropriation of the tropics, while investing in both afforestation and reforestation.
Such a global rewilding project, Malm rightly observes, is supported by scientific evidence, and would be justified on the ground of sustaining planetary habitability. There should also be a ‘ban on importing meat from countries in or bordering on the tropics.’ And a gradually unrolled ban on wild animal meat. The end goal of which would be instigating universal veganism, not as a consumer choice but a collective, state-led and global project. State sanctions, Malm argues, are better than relying on culture, which in any case has not been shifted by previous zoonotic spillovers and can be shifted by laws.
Likewise, tackling the climate change side of chronic emergency, Malm proposes ‘the nationalisation of all private companies extracting and processing and distributing fossil fuels.’ Next, he argues, we should be investing in machines ‘to function like vacuum cleaners, suck up carbon and putting it out of circulation, as a non- or even anti-commodity.’ This scheme, dubbed Climeworks, would also need to be state incentivised.
There is a common theme to these schemes, descaling meat production and rewilding as well as forced cessation of air travel, ‘Everything begins with draconian restraints and cuts.’ Whether tackling demand or supply, it is done through ’rationing, reallocating, requisitioning, sanctioning, ordering’. Bringing all of this together, Malm cites the copious literature on a Green New Deal transition as the guide to the project.
The problem, as Malm sees it, is that ‘no capitalist state is likely ever to do anything like this of its own accord.’ Instead, it will opt for ideas like geoengineering, which ‘could switch the planet onto another track towards catastrophe.’ Instead, we need to look elsewhere to find a way to attack the drivers of chronic emergency. In this light, Malm suggests ecological Leninism and singles out three principles.
1. ‘turning the crises of symptoms into crises of causes.’ The project must emphasise, in the spirit of Luxemburg, the roots of our catastrophe and the need to act. This establishes the next point. 2. ‘speed as paramount virtue.’ Finally, this implies 3. to seize ‘any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction, break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working towards catastrophe to direct public control.’ This requires a ‘plurality of methods’, which Malm plans to outline in the upcoming How to Blow up a Pipeline. The core problem is ‘the complete, gaping absence—of any leadership.’ He notes that while his outlined plan (or something like it) is necessary, it is not inevitable.
War communism, the subtitle of Malm’s book, is described historically in terms of a Russia starved of fossil fuels during its post-revolutionary struggle, so that ‘the state resorted to some measure of forced labour—bodies and trees substituting for the concentrated energy from under the ground—in the battle against armies with all the support of the earth at their disposal, thereby setting in motion a train to despotism.’
What differentiates the current case, then, is the ways in which the profile of renewable energies does not have any of the deficiencies of wood power. That is, it is ‘conducive to the betterment of peoples’ lives.’ Although we will need to forsake, at least for a time, some luxuries during transition, during which (contra the idea of FALC or Fully Automate Luxury Communism a la Aaron Bastani) ‘nothing suggests plenitude will be there for the taking.’ In short, the metaphor of war communism is roundedly defended over more superficially attractive alternatives, while distinctions from the historic example are emphasised.
Malm looks to Lenin not only in abstract, but for Lenin’s conservation schemes and ecological thought. In this context, ‘Stalinism was also an ecological counter-revolution, but it didn’t succeed in obliterating the legacy’ of ecological Leninism. He charts some of the history of Russian conservation and rewilding, i.e. the zapodevniks (territories to be kept always wild). This is held in contrast with a ‘domination of nature [that] goes deeper in history than capital’, albeit not ‘deeper than class society.’
Returning to the autonomist and philosophical themes Malm develops in The Progress of This Storm and Fossil Capital, he ends the book by championing humanity’s unique capacity for collective, historical agency, for good or ill. That is, ‘defending wild nature against parasitic capital is now human self-defence.’ He ends, then, asking ‘Where is that global subject?’ I.e. the one capable of realising something like the vision being outlined. This is to ‘weigh up the void in which we fumble’, a provocation still in need of an answer, and one we at the A*CR take seriously within our own project. To that end, contributions from serious theorists remain highly welcome.
Rowan Fortune is a West London activist, student of utopia and editor of Citizens of Nowhere, an anthology of utopic fiction that demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.
Andreas Malm will be in conversation with the Anti*Capitalist Resistance on 14th January 2021. Please remember to book your place here.