What’s Worse Than Climate Catastrophe? Climate Catastrophe Plus Fascism
By Wen Stephenson* –
A conversation with Andreas Malm about his new
book, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.