By Wen Stephenson, Andreas Malm, May 25, 2021
A conversation with Andreas Malm about his new book, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism.
Andreas Malm, a historian and scholar of human ecology at Lund University in Sweden, may be the hardest-working intellectual on the climate left. The author of 2016’s Fossil Capital, a major contribution to our historical understanding of the climate crisis, and 2018’s The Progress of This Storm, he has published three more books since last September: Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency; How to Blow Up a Pipeline; and now the massive White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism.
Malm and I spoke last December about How to Blow Up a Pipeline (a far more nuanced book than the somewhat alarming title might suggest). While that much shorter volume is a sort of manifesto addressing the climate movement (in which Malm is a longtime participant), this new book is the result of a significant research project in collaboration with the Zetkin Collective, an international group of scholars centered around the Lund University department of human ecology. Exposing the connections between fossil-fuel industry denial and obstruction and the recently surging white-nationalist far right in Europe, the United States, and Brazil, the book goes on to trace the historical roots of “fossil fascism”—a term Malm credits to Virginia Tech political scientist Cara Daggett—back to British coal-powered imperialism and the European fascist movements and regimes of the 20th century.
It all feels frighteningly relevant to our American situation given the violent radicalization of the Republican Party base. The sudden U-turn on climate under the Biden administration, however refreshing, does little to address the threat of a growing reactionary movement—an alliance of fossil capital and neo-fascist white nationalism. It’s been said before: The only thing worse than climate catastrophe is climate catastrophe plus fascism. It would seem, then, that an urgent question, too rarely posed, is what a truly antifascist climate politics would look like.
WEN STEPHENSON: I think it’s important to say at the outset that the fossil-fuel industry’s decades-long strategy of denial and obstruction already amounts to unprecedented crimes against humanity. The situation we face in the coming decades, under current policies, is more extreme than even the cataclysms of mid-20th-century totalitarianism, in terms of the scale of death and destruction, especially in the Global South. And this is the doing not of fascist or totalitarian regimes but of liberal, so-called democratic capitalism—it’s business and politics as usual that got us here. And yet the situation could be even worse if something like fascism were to take hold as the climate system breaks down. It seems that’s where this book comes in, as a deeply researched warning that the danger of fascism in the context of the climate crisis is all too real. Do I have that right? Is that how you see this project?
ANDREAS MALM: I agree completely. You’re right that the climate crisis hasn’t been primarily induced by forces on the far right. These forces are not necessarily at the root of the problem as such. The argument is rather that when the crisis deepens, the far right might very well come to the fore as a political force aggressively defending fossil fuels and the privileges that come with them, or a force that institutes a climate apartheid scenario.
But racism has been part of this story from the beginning, with the global diffusion of fossil-fuel technologies in the 19th century, and we also argue that the classical fascist regimes gave a boost to fossil-fuel technologies with their accelerated development of automobiles and aviation and certain types of coal chemical engineering, these kinds of things.
We’re not saying that this is only a potential danger in the future, but that the prefiguration of something like fossil fascism, the early trends in that direction, have already caused tremendous damage, including to the climate system and other types of ecosystems. Perhaps the most devastating example is Brazil, with the destruction of the Amazon by Bolsonaro—which is not to minimize what Trump achieved during his four years in office, or for that matter the Polish right-wing regime, or the Norwegian right-wing petroleum policy.
WS: You take pains in the book to avoid any frivolous or simplistic use of the term “fascism.” So how do you define fossil fascism?
AM: It builds on the very influential definition of fascism proposed by Roger Griffin, and the idea of palingenetic ultranationalism. We modify it a bit and add this palindefensive component, which seems to be more what the far right is doing these days.
WS: Palingenetic meaning a rebirth of the nation, the white nation, which is perceived to be at a crisis point?
AM: Exactly. The idea that the nation is at a crisis point, it’s been decaying, degenerating. And then palindefensive is quite similar, but much more about the nation having to defend itself again—as it has had to do since time immemorial—against the enemies of the ethnically defined nation.
But these are merely ideational components of fascism, exclusively a matter of ideas, and the big point that someone like Robert Paxton makes [in The Anatomy of Fascism], as against Griffin, is that fascism isn’t primarily about ideas, but about a particular kind of historical force. In the classical version of it, you had fascism coming to power with the aid of incumbent rulers and dominant classes using fascism to defend their interests and uphold the status quo in moments of extremely severe social crisis. And yet Paxton and others in the field of fascism studies, until quite recently, said that we cannot see any such crisis on the horizon nowadays, so liberal democracies are safe, because there is no crisis in the cards that is even close to the magnitude of what we experienced in the interwar period.
Now, one of the more perceptive scholars of fascism, Geoff Eley, has had the perspicacity to say that there is actually a very serious crisis brewing, and it’s the climate crisis. It’s not inconceivable that it would be what he calls a fascism-inducing crisis, a crisis that throws the existing order into doubt, so that when things get really intense you might actually have a far right, of a very aggressive kind, rising to the surface and in the worst case assuming state power.
But I would be upfront about an ambiguity in our argument here. On the one hand, we say that fascism, as a historical force, will only materialize after, or in a moment of, extreme crisis. On the other hand, we’re seeing what some refer to as “fascist creep,” a gradual process of growing into something like fascist politics. We refer to it as “fascisation.” And this sort of trend can obviously appear before you have the really intense moment of crisis, and this is very much happening in some European countries right now, particularly thinking of my own country and France. I mean, the situation in France is terribly scary. They have presidential elections next year, and it’s [possible] that [Marine] Le Pen will be president—and if it’s [Emmanuel] Macron again, it’s a Macron that’s extremely close to Le Pen and banging on the same drums as she is. That is going on in France without this kind of extreme climate-induced crisis having happened yet. So these things can obviously play out in many different ways.
WS: A skeptic might say, yeah, but in most of these countries, these far-right parties are still relatively small.
AM: The voter support for the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, peaked in 1932 at 37 percent. That’s a big minority, but it never got any higher than that before the seizure of power. I don’t think that any fascist party or force anywhere has come to power because of majority support. That’s not a precondition, and never has been. In Germany, when Hitler rose to power, it was through a coalition with the conservatives and the existing rulers of the country. And with all consideration of the differences, there can be similar trends in contemporary Europe even though these parties are still within the range of, say, 15 to 35 percent in voter support, and they can have an outsized influence on the political agenda and the general political trends in the society.
WS: So, how does class fit into the current picture? As you write in the introduction, the book deals primarily with race, while class and gender are mostly bracketed. But you do discuss the recent rightward shift of the white working class in Europe.
AM: It’s way too simplified to say, as it often circulates in the conversation, that the rise of the far right in Europe is due to the white working class. It’s far more complicated than that. But it’s also undeniable that you’ve seen a drift of significant segments of the white working-class electorate from parties traditionally associated with the labor movement to the far right. You see it in Sweden, in Germany, in France, in Italy. That corresponds quite closely to what’s been going on in the US with sections of the white working class and Republicans, although the dynamic is different in many respects.
One of the big issues here is that the working class as a social and political force, in European politics, is probably weaker now than it has been for the last one and a half or two centuries. And it’s precisely that weakness that is expressed in the rightward drift of parts of the working class. Of course, these parts of the white working class in Europe still have material interests to defend and a certain level of privilege, if you put it in global and historical context, and the combination of that with extreme political weakness and fragmentation is a dangerous one.
WS: So, what would an antifascist climate politics look like? A green antifa? Or something more like a Green New Deal, something broadly redistributionist? I tend to think it’s the latter. But can liberal capitalism, or what you call “capitalist climate governance,” provide a bulwark against fossil fascism?
AM: I very emphatically do not think that capitalist climate governance can serve as a bulwark against fossil fascism, because capitalist climate governance as we define it is a perpetuation of business as usual, it just postpones the showdown with fossil-fuel corporations and associated parts of the capitalist class. To really preempt a scenario of fossil fascism would mean to remove fossil-fuel corporations from a position of economic and political power. As long as they have that power, they are likely to defend it tooth and nail—that’s what they’ve done so far, in various forms—and when things become sharper, they might very well step up their defense. They have been swinging back and forth between denial and greenwashing strategies, and right now, perhaps in line with the shift from Trump to Biden, you have BP and Shell and others saying they’re going net-zero by 2050, or whatever, while they’re still, of course, continuing to expand their fossil-fuel extraction. But that pendulum can swing back again toward the Trump pole.
Biden could perhaps preempt a kind of resurgent Trumpian far right if he managed to go, perhaps not all out but pretty far with something close to the Green New Deal, where you’d have redistribution and a very rapid process of phasing out fossil fuels. But it’s also precisely that kind of politics that will encounter the greatest right-wing resistance. I don’t see how you can overcome the far right as a future threat when it comes to climate without taking these interests on, in a political confrontation.
WS: There’s more than one fascism haunting this book. There’s fossil fascism, and there’s also a “green nationalism” leading to an “ecological fascism” or “eco-fascism.” At times you suggest that the danger of eco-fascism may in fact be greater than that of fossil fascism. For example, if fascism were built into the energy transition, we could have “a world saved for sustainable dystopia.” What do green nationalism and eco-fascism look like, as you describe them in this book?
AM: Green nationalism is the nominal recognition of the existence of the climate crisis, but the solution to it is a reinforced nation with closed borders, reversed immigration, perhaps economic protectionism, and very simply, the idea that “ecology is the border,” that nationalist politics is the best way to protect the environment and climate. And our argument is that green nationalism is faux environmentalism. It’s fake. It’s just a secondary form of climate denial.
But for this to morph into an actual ecological fascism you have to have a green nationalism that transcends itself and actually starts slashing CO2 emissions. However unlikely, it’s not logically inconceivable that a far-right force could go through that metamorphosis and come out as a substantively pro-ecological, anti–fossil fuel actor. And then you are in for, not necessarily a greater climate danger, but politically, it’s scary to think of a scenario where you have a transition away from fossil fuels presided over by a far right.
WS: I’d hope this book might help those of us worried about green nationalism and eco-fascism make the case to the mainstream political world that fossil-fuel interests, with their ties to these forces on the far right, are not negotiating partners. They are not our friends. There have been too many deals with the devil all along. And one real contribution of this book is that it provides a sort of biography of the fossil devil.
AM: I mean, it ends with the whole thing about the death drive and these sorts of demonic forces that we have to grapple with. I don’t want to elevate this into a metaphysical or religious clash, but I really think we need to take into account that there are destructive drives at work in human societies and on certain levels of the human psyche.
There’s an assumption that has informed a lot of climate politics, including the climate movement itself, that people are fundamentally rational and that they will see the interest in preserving the planet and therefore relinquish fossil fuels. But there are so many irrational forces at work. This is also why the idea that climate denial will come to an end has proven naive so far, because it has underestimated the destructiveness of these drives and forces. You hear this repeated these days, that the climate-denying far right is going out of business. I’m afraid this is a premature conclusion, again, and that we’ll see more derivative, secondary types of denial, as well as all-out denial, even as we move deeper into the crisis. It could even flip into the affirmation of destruction and all-out fossil-fuel combustion.
WS: I’m not sure you have anything in Europe quite like the apocalypticism of right-wing evangelical Christianity in the US.
AM: Well, if you look at Poland, we have right-wing Christianity. It’s not evangelical. It’s Catholic, and it rules Poland. And I’m not an expert, but my sense is that there’s plenty of apocalypticism. We don’t have that same kind of crazy, right-wing evangelicalism, but the Catholic far right is a very important force not only in Poland but on the French far right; some manifestations of the Italian far right; the Spanish far right, the Vox party, plays some very Catholic themes. So I’m a little bit hesitant about this idea that the US is more crazy than Europe. It’s very common on the American left, this idea that you are somehow exceptionally insane in this country, while Europe is a saner continent. I don’t think that holds any longer, if it ever has.
WS: Well, then, if nothing else, that’s a positive note to end on—Europe is as crazy as we are! [Laughter] Good to know.
AM: I mean, come to Sweden if you want to see a crazy country these days.