May 28, 2021
From Spectre Journal

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro mirrors Trump in installing climate denialists. Crucially, however, in the case of Brazil, the Collective draws out the consequences of white skin-black fuel for the country’s indigenous populations, articulated in a cardinal principle that the “backward, savage communities have to be subordinated to the modern, developing nation, their resources subjected to maximum extraction.” It is a tentative attempt to engage with the ecological habitation of indigenous peoples, a promising response to critiques of Malm’s previous works lacking any engagement therewith.

Chapter 7 tackles the meaning of fossil fascism, contrasting it with classical fascism, and comparing the contemporary far right with that of interwar Europe. The authors provide a masterly overview of the historiography of classical fascism, crafting an excellent working definition based on key components of (European) fascist ideology such as the myth of palingenesis. Critically, Malm et al. make an important historiographical innovation in observing that fascism must be conceived as a political force resulting from historical processes, rather than purely as an intellectual tradition. “Grasping it by pinpointing its ideational essence is rather like trying to taste a bread by looking at its recipe,” they write. “There need to be ingredients, fermentation, kneading, baking.” Taking their lead from scholar of fascism Robert Paxton, they conceive of fascism-as-force.

For this reason, the Collective excavates the historical socio-economic conditions which birthed interwar fascism. Factors include deep capitalist crisis, the concomitant failure of the dominant ruling class to maintain states’ social formations, and finally those ruling classes inviting fascists into the corridors of power to help govern. The authors make the compelling case that the conditions constitutive of classical fascism could re-emerge today in the form of the climate crisis.

Chapter 8 outlines how components of classical fascist ideology entered contemporary ultranationalism. Picking up on the energy race nexus highlighted in Part I, the Collective offers a fascinating historical explanation of why the far right tends to prize fossil fuel combustion over renewables; namely, that fossil fuels belong to the national corpus of energy stock (“our oil,” “our coal”), whereas water and air belong to a transient “flow of energy” untraceable to any one given nation.

In chapter 9, the authors trace the historical origins of this dichotomy of autochthonous stock and fugitive flow to European imperialism. In what is perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, Malm et al. provide a genealogy of energy and race, making the case that the expansion of coal extraction and of the use of steam-powered battleships became entwined with European imperial domination in the minds of its practitioners. The authors provide firm evidence that “stock imperialism” spawned postulations about “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples based on their technological advancements predicated on fossil fuel combustion.

British imperialists lauded steam for giving them omnipotence and superiority over all others. “Then, what has made the white man … so ubiquitously progressive and aggressive?” the British civil engineer John Turnbull Thomson asked in an 1874 lecture. “It is his humanity and science, combined with steam. And what makes steam for him? It is coal. What then has coal to do without our race? As far as we know yet, everything.” Malm et al. effectively pinpoint when whiteness came to mean burning fossil fuels, developing the idea of “racial capitalism” to show the origins of racial primitive fossil capitalism.

In chapter 10, the authors argue these ideas of energy and race resurfaced during classical fascism and became enthused with interwar ultranationalism. Citing the works of fascist poet-propagandists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Ernst Jünger, in interwar fascism we witness the total worship of the machine as the ultimate destroyer, the perceived final materiality of productive forces for the Produktionskrieg. While the authors’ knowledge of Marinetti and Jünger is undoubtedly strong, I would be fascinated to know if analogous national propagandists in less advanced capitalist countries in South America conceived of nature and industry in the same way.

In the final chapter, the Collective shifts focus to futures of denial. Delving into the fatal interplay between irrationality, narcissism, capitalism, and crisis, this nearly amounts to a meditation on the psychoanalysis of climate denialism. Based on readings of Stanley Cohen and Sigmund Freud, the authors posit that we, our egos bruised by a burning world, could enter a fascist mentality. In that scenario, fascism would act as a cure for narcissistic injury and we would enter a collective death drive.

The book has several shortcomings. For one, the authors say nothing about strategies for resisting fossil fascism. The text is merely descriptive, veering clear of making demands or prescriptions.

A second shortcoming relates to scope. The Collective does not examine fossil fascism in China or India, nor any of the Latin American countries where fascism has reared its head historically. As we have noted, the focus of the book is on Europe by virtue of the fact Europe “gifted the world fascism.” However, I respectfully point towards a strong historiographical argument that fascism was in fact originally American. Indeed, as historians of fascism have argued, including Robert Paxton, the first Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction South has a strong claim as the world’s original fascist movement.

It could be argued, then, that the American hemisphere gifted the world fascism. Europe is undoubtedly where fascism’s historical focus became most pronounced, but this does not necessarily warrant the exceptional status which Malm and his coauthors assign it. Acknowledging this transatlantic reciprocity enables us to decenter Europe and shift scholarly focus away from it and towards, say, places like Argentina or Chile which historically also exhibited fascist tendencies and where future studies should focus.

Similarly, the authors do not cover climate conscious authoritarianism in China or India. The Collective acknowledges the study makes “no pretence of an exhaustive or conclusive inquiry,” which is of course perfectly acceptable. However, as Helen Thompson notes, climate mitigation is a geopolitical problem as much as it is one of economics or physics, one necessitating a latter day détente with repressive authoritarian regimes like China (the world’s largest carbon emitter) and cooperation with others like India (the world’s third largest carbon emitter). The struggle for climate mitigation thus extends to these fronts as well, and antifascists and antiracists will have to understand these regimes as much as it needs to understand European, American, or Brazilian fossil fascism. For this reason, the book should inspire complementary scholarship on climate Hindutva or climate Chinese communism.

Perhaps these issues speak more to the fact that few books can provide a comprehensive account of global environmental politics. In any case, the book is a serious historical inquiry into the phenomenon of the conjuncture of climate denialism and far-right politics in the 21st century and provides a firm foundation for antifascist understandings of fascism. If the name of the game is to know our enemy, this is a crucial first step.