Â© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI: 10.1163/1569206X-12341279
Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 brill.com/hima
The Origins of Fossil Capital:
From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry*
Human Ecology Division/LUCID, Lund University
The process commonly referred to as business-as-usual has given rise to dangerous climate
change, but its social history remains strangely unexplored. A key moment in its onset was the
transition to steam power as a source of rotary motion in commodity production, in Britain and,
first of all, in its cotton industry. This article tries to approach the dynamics of the fossil economy
by examining the causes of the transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry in the
second quarter of the nineteenth century. Common perceptions of the shift as driven by scarcity
are refuted, and it is shown that the choice of steam was motivated by a rather different concern:
power over labour. Turning away from standard interpretations of the role of energy in the
industrial revolution, this article opens a dialogue with Marx on matters of carbon and outlines a
theory of fossil capital, better suited for understanding the drivers of business-as-usual as it
continues to this day.
Fossil fuels, steam power, water power, cotton industry, labour, space, time, carbon dioxide,
In those spacious halls the benignant power of steam summons around him his
myriads of willing menials, and assigns to each the regulated task, substituting for
painful muscular effort on their part, the energies of his own gigantic arm, and
demanding in turn only attention and dexterity to correct such little aberrations
as casually occur in workmanship.
â€“ Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures1
The chemical changes which thus take place are constantly increasing the
atmosphere by large quantities of carbonic acid [i.e. carbon dioxide] and other
* Many thanks to Alf Hornborg, Stefan Anderberg, Rikard Warlenius, Max Koch, Wim Carton,
Vasna Ramasar and other LUCID colleagues, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful
comments at various stages of this work.
1. Ure 1835, p. 18.
16 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
gases noxious to animal life. The means by which nature decomposes these
elements, or reconverts them into a solid form, are not sufficiently known.
â€“ Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures2
Global warming is the unintended by-product par excellence. A cotton
manufacturer of mid nineteenth-century Lancashire who decided to forgo his
old water wheel and, at long last, invest in a steam engine, erect a chimney
and order coal from a nearby pit did not, in all likelihood, entertain the
possibility that this act could have any kind of relationship to the extent of
Arctic sea ice, the salinity of the Nile Delta soil, the intensity of the Punjab
monsoon, the altitude of the Maldives, or the diversity of amphibian species in
Central American rainforests. Nonetheless, sporadic forebodings appear in the
literature of the time. One notable flash of apprehension about the atmospheric
consequences of employing steam power in factories can be found in the first
chapter of Charles Babbageâ€™s classic treatise On the Economy of Machinery
and Manufactures. Babbage is credited with being the father of the modern
computer, and his book is considered the first to introduce â€˜the factory into the
realm of economic analysisâ€™.3 He made his fleeting remark, quoted above, some
two-and-a-half decades before John Tyndall explained the greenhouse effect,
and more than half a century before Svante Arrhenius first calculated the rise
in surface temperature of the Earth following an increase in the emissions of
carbon dioxide (called â€˜carbonic acidâ€™ by Arrhenius as well).4
But the environmentally concerned enquiry of the pioneer economist
was truncated, due to sheer lack of knowledge. Babbage was verging on yet
uncharted territory. Instead, his book continued as one long encomium to the
wonders of machinery â€“ first and foremost â€˜the check which it affords against
the inattention, the idleness, or the dishonesty of human agentsâ€™.5 With that
turn of phrase, Babbage established a leitmotif for mid nineteenth-century
bourgeois thinking on the triumphant powers of the machine. It evolved on
the basis of the operating procedures of manufacturers, continuously checking
the idiosyncrasies of human agents with ever more machinery impelled by ever
more powerful steam engines, unsuspecting of any particular noxious effects.
As the world teeters on the brink of unimaginable catastrophe due to global
warming, it is about time we revisit the origins of our predicament. How, simply
2. Babbage 1835, p. 18.
3. Rosenberg 1994, p. 24. See also Schaffer 1994.
4. See Weart 2003; Arrhenius 1896.
5. Babbage 1835, p. 54.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 17
put, did we get caught up in this mess? Why were modern economies put on
the track of perpetually increasing consumption of fossil fuels? This is the
question of the emergence of the fossil economy: an economy characterised by
self-sustaining growth predicated on growing consumption of fossil fuels, and
therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide. Thus
defined, the concept refers to an expansion in the scale of material production
realised through expansion in the combustion of coal, oil and/or natural gas.
In the lexicon of climate change discourse, the term â€˜business-as-usualâ€™
is commonly employed as a stand-in for the fossil economy. As usual as this
business now appears, it is not a fact of nature, nor the product of geological
or biological history. The fundamental ontological insights of climate science
tell us as much, and moreover, fossil fuels should, by their very definition, be
understood as a social relation: no piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself
into fuel. No humans have yet engaged in systematic large-scale extraction of
either to satisfy subsistence needs. Rather, fossil fuels necessitate commodity
production and waged or forced labour as components of their very existence.
A primary scientific task should therefore be to write a social history of
business-as-usual or â€“ synonymously â€“ the fossil economy, and yet it is sorely
neglected, in a field awash with data on the disastrous effects of the process
but comparatively poor on insights into the drivers of the danger. Most climate
science still dwells in the noiseless atmosphere, where everything takes place
on the surface, rather than entering the hidden abode of production, where
fossil fuels are actually produced and consumed. What follows is a modest
contribution to the filling of this gap.
The birth of the fossil economy
The obvious birthplace of the fossil economy is Britain. As late as 1850, this single
country was responsible for more than 60 per cent of global CO2 emissions
from fossil fuel combustion. It raised three-and-a-half times more coal than the
US, France, Germany, Belgium and Austro-Hungary combined, the lionâ€™s share
of it for combustion on the British Isles; per capita consumption was more than
ten times higher than in France and Germany.6 For quite some time, Britain
was the sole economy of its kind, the place of origin of business-as-usual, from
which it eventually spread to other advanced capitalist countries.
By the mid-nineteenth century, however, coal had been regularly utilised as
a source of heat in Britain for almost two millennia. Stumbling upon outcrops
of the black stone, the Romans began to burn it for heating military garrisons
and villas, working iron in smitheries, and keeping the perpetual fire alive at the
6. Boden, Marland and Andres 2011; Church 1986, p. 773; Cameron 1985, p. 12.
18 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
temple in Bath.7 Coal fell into disuse with their departure, only to reappear in
the thirteenth century â€“ primarily in the smitheries â€“ and experienced a surge
in the late sixteenth, when it spread rapidly as a fuel for domestic heating. By
1800, most people in towns probably bought coal to heat their homes and cook
their meals.8 The household continued to be the chief hearth for combustion.
It could not give rise to a fossil economy: as long as coal was mostly used in the
domestic production of heat, fossil fuels remained unattached to an engine of
self-sustaining economic growth. No matter how much coal British households
burnt, consumption levels were constrained by the slow march of population
growth, rather than boosted by the exponential expansion in the scale of
material production we associate with business-as-usual. It would be absurd
to date its onset to the Roman occupation or the thirteenth century.
But long before 1850, coal had also made inroads into manufacturing, as a
fuel in the production of salt and soap, lime and ale, bricks and glass, copper
and pottery and a range of other commodities.Most importantly, the owners of
blast furnaces shifted from charcoal to coke in the last quarter of the eighteenth
century, ushering in a boom in iron production. By 1800, the iron sector took
some 10â€“15 per cent of all coal â€“ a rapidly rising share, though still rather small
in relation to that of domestic heating (somewhere between a half and two
thirds).9 In furnaces, kilns and breweries, coal served the same purpose as in
cottage stoves: it provided heat for smelting, boiling or distilling the matters in
hand. A substitute for wood, it was confined to the processing of substances
whose properties required heating. For coal to be universalised as a fuel for all
sorts of commodity production, it had to be turned into a source of mechanical
energy â€“ and, more precisely, of rotary motion.
Only by coupling the combustion of coal to the rotation of a wheel could
fossil fuels be made to fire the general process of growth: increased production â€“
and transportation â€“ of all kinds of commodities. This is why James Wattâ€™s
steam engine is widely identified as the fatal breakthrough into a warmer
world.10 Newcomenâ€™s engine had managed to force a piston up and down, up
and down, in a vertical motion well suited for the pumping of water in mines,
but not for driving machinery. That was the feat of the device patented by Watt
in 1784, when he finally â€˜adapted the motion of the piston to produce continuous
circular motion, and thereby made his engine applicable to all purposes of
7. Dearne and Branigan 1995.
8. Nef 1966; Flinn 1984; Hatcher 1993.
9. Nef 1966; Flinn 1984; Hatcher 1993; Buxton 1978; Hyde 1977; Humphrey and Stanislaw 1979.
10. See, for example, Crutzen 2002; Crutzen and Steffen 2003; Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill
2007; Zalasiewicz, Williams, Smith, Barry, Coe, Bown, Brenchley, Cantrill, Gale, Gibbard, Gregory,
Hounslow, Kerr, Pearson, Knox, Powell, Waters, Marshall, Oates, Rawson and Stone 2008.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 19
manufacture.â€™11 But a patent cannot by itself spark off something like a fossil
economy. The mere existence of a steam engine as certified in the legal rights
of the inventor tells us nothing about the extent to which such engines were
actually installed, their function in the economy, or the propensity to emit
carbon dioxide. History is replete with inventions petrified into objects of
exhibitions or fantasies da Vinci-style, including in the annals of steam power,
the basic principles of which were known long before Watt, including in
China.12 The question of the steam engine is therefore the question of why it
was adopted and diffused â€“ in Britain, and, first of all, in the cotton industry.
The most advanced branch of industrial production, following Richard
Arkwrightâ€™s establishment of the factory system, the cotton industry was eyed
by Watt as the natural outlet for his product. The assembling of machines under
one roof demanded a regular, smooth and dependable propulsive force, posing
the technical challenge Watt wrestled with, and promising a vast market for him
and his business partner Matthew Boulton once he succeeded. And indeed, the
promise was eventually realised. The steam engine owed its coming position as
the defining prime mover of industrial production to its success in the cotton
mills.13 But that was by no means an automatic or predetermined affair. In fact,
as we shall see, cotton manufacturers preferred another prime mover for at
least four decades after Wattâ€™s patent: the water wheel.
A traditional source of mechanical energy, leaving no traces of CO2 behind â€“
â€˜carbon-neutralâ€™, in todayâ€™s parlance â€“ water was the foundation of the early cotton
industry.14 Water, not steam, carried the first generations of cotton manufacturers
to their super-profits, even as Boulton & Watt did everything to advertise the
advantages of their engine. The water wheel proved extraordinarily resilient to
the challenge of steam, and when it finally gave way, the shift was contingent
upon developments in which neither Watt nor Boulton played any role.
Water power was a barrier that had to be knocked down for the fossil
economy to emerge. The British cotton industry was the historical gateway,
on the other side of which the steam engine spread to other major industries,
other countries, completely different applications â€“ such as on the seas â€“ and
11.â€‚â€ŠFarey 1827, p. 13; emphasis in original.
12. On steam engines in China, see Pomeranz 2000, pp. 61â€“2.
13. See, for example, von Tunzelmann 1978; Lord 1965; Hills 1970; Hills 1989; Briggs 1982.
14. See, for example, Aspin 2003; Fitton and Wadsworth 1958; Chapman 1972; Chapman
1992; Tann 1970; Cooke 2010; Ingle 1997. Insofar as the wheels were built using iron, which they
increasingly were in the first half of the nineteenth century, they were not completely carbonneutral or independent of fossil fuels â€“ compare a bicycle, a windmill or a solar panel today.
However, since depreciation rates were extremely low for water wheels made of iron, the
embedded carbon element in every horsepower delivered must have been all but negligible.
20 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
thereby suffused the process of self-sustaining growth with fossil energy.15
The adoption of steam power in the British cotton industry was, so to speak,
a rite de passage for coal, a qualitative leap into the spiral of ever expanding
commodity production. Had the cotton industry â€“ the very spearhead of
industrial capitalism â€“ stayed with water, the fossil economy would not have
come about the way it did (and the first task for history-writing is to account
for what actually transpired). A central question in the writing of the social
history of business-as-usual will therefore be: why did the British cotton industry
switch from water to steam?
False starts in energy studies
While global warming accords novel significance to the energy aspects of the
industrial revolution, interest in them is not, of course, entirely new.16 The doyen
of modern research in the field is E.A. Wrigley. In a path-breaking article in 1962,
he first broached ideas later developed into a grand narrative of the industrial
revolution and, more generally, of modern economic growth.17 In what he
would come to call an â€˜organic economyâ€™, all forms of material production are
based on the land. Raw materials, as well as thermal and mechanical energy â€“
human and animal bodies used to put things in motion â€“ are all drawn from
the yield of present photosynthesis. But that yield is restricted. There is no way
to enlarge it beyond the constant supply of land. A growing organic economy
will inevitably get trapped in fierce competition for scarce resources, making
â€˜a permanent, radical increase of industrial raw material supplyâ€™ â€“ a necessary
condition for modern economic growth â€“ â€˜very difficult to obtain.â€™18 The
dependency on the land puts a low ceiling on industrial production. Fossil
fuels shatter that ceiling.
In a series of subsequent articles and books, culminating in the 2010 magnum
opus Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, Wrigley elaborated on these
theses, whose influence on the study of energy in the industrial revolution
now deserves the epithet of a paradigm.19 That paradigm, however, has deeper
sources than Wrigley himself, as he developed it in continuous engagement
15. For some aspects of the transition to steam power in the British imperial navy, see Malm
16. For an excellent overview, see Barca 2011.
17. Wrigley 1962.
18. Wrigley 1962, p. 1. See further Wrigley 1972; Wrigley 1988; Wrigley 1990; Wrigley 2000;
Wrigley 2004; Wrigley 2010.
19. For applications of Wrigleyâ€™s theories, see for example Thomas 1985; Mayumi 1991;
Malanima 2001; Malanima 2006; Sieferle 2001; Andrews 2008; Jones 2010. On Wrigleyâ€™s centrality
and influence, compare Barca 2011.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 21
with two of the classical political economists: David Ricardo and Thomas
Malthus. For Ricardo, a growing economy would lay claim to more land. Inferior
soils would have to be taken into cultivation: wetlands, steep slopes, fields in
the mountains hitherto left untouched because of their natural infertility.
Higher inputs of capital and labour into such land would inescapably produce
diminishing returns, decreasing profits, falling wages, and an end to growth;
in a Ricardian formulation repeatedly quoted by Wrigley, a state of stagnation
will â€˜necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have
limited the productive powers of the land.â€™20 But coal offers a â€˜chance of
escaping the Ricardian curseâ€™.21 At the end of the eighteenth century, the
British economy emancipated itself from the land constraint. Digging into the
stores of past photosynthesis, bypassing the restricted surface area of inflowing
solar radiation, it finally broke the spell of stagnation.
One method used by Wrigley and his followers to illustrate this logic is
to convert coal into acres of land required to generate the same amount of
energy. In 1750, all coal produced in England would have equalled 4.3 million
acres of woodland, or 13% of the national territory. In 1800, substituting wood
for all coal would have required 11.2 million acres, or 35% of the British land
surface; for 1850, the figures rise to 48.1 million acres and 150% respectively.
A hypothetical total conversion from coal to wood in the British economy
would thus, even in the year 1750, have â€˜represented a significant proportion
of the land surface for which there were many other competing usesâ€™; in 1800,
it would have been â€˜quite impracticalâ€™, while in 1850 it was â€˜self-evidently an
impossibilityâ€™.22 In a similar computation inspired by Wrigley, Rolf Pieter
Sieferle, in his aptly titled The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the
Industrial Revolution, concludes that â€˜British coal production freed an area
that was equivalent to the total surface of Britainâ€™ already in the 1820s, while
Paola Malanima, likewise standing on the shoulders of Wrigley, estimates that
without fossil fuels, Europe would have needed a land area more than 2.7 times
its entire continental surface in 1900, rising to more than 20 times in 2000.23
But the pressures undone by coal were not only Ricardian in character.
They emanated from reproduction as much as from production. According
to Wrigley, Malthusâ€™s theorem of geometrically growing population and
arithmetically growing food supplies, generating a tendency for output per
head to fall with population growth, is indeed valid in an organic economy. As
long as all material production derives from land, living standards will decline
20. Ricardo quoted in Wrigley 2010, pp. 10â€“11. The quotation also appears in Wrigley 1988, p. 36;
Wrigley 1990, pp. 49â€“50; Wrigley 2000, pp. 128â€“9; twice in Wrigley 2004, pp. 55, 72.
21.â€‚â€†Wrigley 2010, p. 174.
22. Wrigley 2010, p. 99.
23. Sieferle 2001, pp. 102â€“3; Malanima 2006, p. 104.
22 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
when more people divide the fixed supplies into smaller pieces. Perpetual
stagnation is ensured â€“ until coal blazes a new trail, allowing population and
economy to grow hand in hand.24
The Malthusian component of the paradigm has received its most articulate
expression in a study by Richard G. Wilkinson. In Poverty and Progress: An
Ecological Model of Economic Development, appearing in 1973, Wilkinson â€“
fortunately now better known for his work on the unhealthy impacts of social
inequality â€“ constructed a model of technological and economic development
in general, and of the industrial revolution in particular. People do not invent
new methods of procurement because they are affluent, but because â€“ and
only when â€“ they are poor. Poverty is a symptom of resource scarcity. Such
a condition comes about when a human population succumbs to its innate
tendency, common to â€˜every animal populationâ€™, to reproduce beyond the
bounds of its resource base.25 This is, Wilkinson argued, what happened on
the eve of the industrial revolution: the self-restraint of English couples broke
down, fertility rose sharply, hitherto existing ecological equilibria collapsed
and gave way to acute scarcity.
The growing population initially resorted to the â€˜available slack in the
resource-baseâ€™.26 But by the eighteenth century, the combined RicardianMalthusian curse had, according to Wilkinson, reached intolerable levels,
forcing England into â€˜the substitution of mineral resources for landbased
ones.â€™27 The stimulus to the industrial revolution came â€˜directly from resource
shortages and other ecological effects of an economic system expanding to meet
the needs of a population growing within a limited area.â€™28 Coal was the natural
resolution of the crisis, taking the place of wood in cottages and smitheries
under the dictates of â€˜population growth and the consequent extension of the
economic systemâ€™.29 Like every other change the industrial revolution brought
about, the turn to fossil fuels was the outcome of â€˜a valiant struggle of a society
with its back to the ecological wallâ€™, a decision â€˜made under duressâ€™.30
We may designate this the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm for studying
the role of energy in the industrial revolution.31 Another Wrigley-inspired
24. For example, Wrigley 2010.
25. Wilkinson 1973, pp. 4â€“5, 19â€“52. â€˜Every animal populationâ€™: Wilkinson 1973, p. 20.
26. Wilkinson 1973, p. 76.
27. Wilkinson 1973, p. 101.
28. Wilkinson 1973, p. 112.
29. Wilkinson 1973, p. 115.
30. Wilkinson 1973, pp. 126, 134.
31.â€‚â€†Robert Brenner speaks of a â€˜Malthusian-Ricardian modelâ€™ in the closely related context of
the debate on the origins of capitalism (see Brenner 2007). The terms have been swapped here,
since the Ricardian component appears determinant, primarily in Wrigley. An ironic illustration
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 23
scholar, Brinley Thomas, sums up its basic tenets: â€˜The industrial revolution
was Britainâ€™s response to an energy shortage which afflicted its economy in the
second half of the eighteenth century. A population explosion intensified the
need to change its energy base from wood fuel to fossilized fuel.â€™32
How, then, does the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm account for the rise of
the steam engine? In his original 1962 piece, Wrigley noted the delay between
Wattâ€™s invention and its diffusion in the cotton industry, concluding that â€˜only
after a generation of expansion had caused the need for power to outstrip
the capabilities of the human arm and the water wheel was the steam engine
brought into useâ€™.33 The great advantage of the engine was its independence
from â€˜the annual round of plant photosynthesisâ€™, as hitherto embodied in
human or animal muscle.34 According to Wilkinson, â€˜the use of water power
was limited by the number of streams with suitable sites for mills: new sites
became scarce in many parts of the country during the seventeenth century.â€™ By
the time of the late eighteenth, the rise in British fertility had created a situation
where â€˜good mill sites were no longer availableâ€™, whereas â€˜coal to fuel the steam
engine was plentiful â€“ especially at the pit head. The spread of steam power
was ecologically favoured.â€™35 For Kenneth Pomeranz, whose magisterial and
extremely influential The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of
the Modern World Economy is based on Ricardian-Malthusian â€“ and Smithian â€“
conceptions of growth, â€˜water power, no matter how much the wheels were
improved, simply did not have the same potential to provide energy inputs that
would significantly outpace a rapidly growing populationâ€™.36 In this version of
events, water wheels and other traditional prime movers were discarded in
favour of the steam engine because they could not deliver the requisite absolute
quantities of energy.
Critique of the paradigm
The Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm has a number of conspicuous shortcomings. Wrigleyâ€™s terminology is imprecise, to begin with: fossil fuels are
no less organic than wood or people, which is why their combustion releases
carbon dioxide. Denoting our current economy â€˜inorganicâ€™ or â€˜mineral-basedâ€™ â€“
of the power of the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm is the apparently thoughtless recent
endorsement of it by Timothy Mitchell, who is, of course, sharply anti-Malthusian. Mitchell 2011,
pp. 12â€“15; compare p. 238; Mitchell 2002.
32. Thomas 1985, p. 729; emphasis added.
33. Wrigley 1962, p. 12.
34. Wrigley 2010, p. 100.
35. Wilkinson 1973, p. 120; emphases added.
36. Pomeranz 2000, p. 61.
24 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
Wrigleyâ€™s antitheses to â€˜the organic economyâ€™ â€“ makes little sense; both terms
would encompass the Bronze Age as well as the Iron Age.
Semantic pedantry aside, the paradigm fits ill with the transition we are
concerned with here. Prime movers derived from photosynthesis â€“ animal and
human bodies â€“ were never capable of delivering mechanical energy to largescale industry. In eighteenth-century British factories, they were certainly
experimented with, but quickly abandoned as useless.37 Not land but water
was the element on which Britainâ€™s industries, cotton foremost among them,
first developed. Products of present photosynthesis are eminently suitable
for the generation of thermal energy, human beings having burnt wood for
heat since time immemorial, but not for powering machinery: coal was never
an alternative to wood, humans or animals as fuels for rotary motion. Thus
a Ricardian exigency could not possibly have triggered the one transition
we have identified as epoch-making. Ironically, Wrigley himself professes
awareness of the diffusion of steam engines in industrial production as the
watershed event â€“ and yet it is an anomaly to the paradigm, since the crucial
victory of steam power came at the expense of a prime mover that did not grow
from plants.38 There is still, of course, the possibility that scarcity in a more
general sense, along the lines suggested by Wilkinson and Pomeranz, afflicted
water power, and that steam offered relief from it. We shall see presently how
that proposition chimes with the data.
A more fundamental problem of the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm,
however, lies in its form of explanation. It runs something like this: there is a
constant appetite for more energy inherent in all societies, and in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, Britain finally managed to satisfy it. To construct
such an explanation for the emergence of a fossil economy, the paradigmâ€™s
exponents need to invoke a transhistorical factor, an urge shared by all societies
finding its wanted object in Britainâ€™s mines. For Wrigley, that factor is simply
the drive to perpetual economic growth. â€˜The move away from an exclusively
organic economy was a sine qua non of achieving a capacity for exponential
growthâ€™, he writes, or: â€˜The land surface of the earth was a fixed quantity and
formed a barrier to indefinite growthâ€™, or: â€˜The energy bottleneck which set
limits to growth in organic economies was widened progressively as fossil fuels
replaced organic [sic] fuels.â€™39 Similar statements are repeated ad infinitum in
37. See, for example, Tann 1970.
38. For Wrigleyâ€™s awareness of the centrality of mechanical energy and rotary motion in
particular, see for example Wrigley 1990, pp. 6, 78, 90; Wrigley 2004, pp. 35, 78; Wrigley 2010, pp.
42â€“5, 100, 177â€“8, 190â€“1.
39. Wrigley 2000, p. 139; Wrigley 2010, pp. 193, 191.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 25
For Wilkinson, a rather more avowed Malthusian, the transhistorical factor
is the biological urge to breed, shared not only by all societies but by all animal
populations. Since the dawn of time, it aroused a unilinear â€˜growth of needâ€™
that forced man â€˜to involve himself in more and more complicated processing
and production techniquesâ€™; in hyper-fertile Britain, it finally impelled him to
enter the age of fossil fuels.40 According to Pomeranz, the English economy
diverged from an equally growth-prone China because the turn to coal â€“ via
the steam engine â€“ â€˜enabled it to break through the fundamental constraints
of energy use and resource availability that had previously limited everyoneâ€™s
horizons.â€™41 Such formulae rest precisely on the assumption that the impulse
to expansion was permanently present in pre-fossil economies, bottled up
throughout history, on everyoneâ€™s horizon, from the Yangzi to the Thames. The
growth imperative was always there, though frustrated by the dependency on
land â€“ and this explains why fossil fuels were introduced in the end.42
The transition then becomes a mere formality. Since that which requires
explanation â€“ the dynamics of business-as-usual â€“ is postulated a priori as
biding its time, there is not much to uncover in the passage from one form of
economy to another. In Wrigley and his peers, the fossil revolution resembles
the fulfilment of historical destiny, rather than a rupture separating two distinct
orders from each other. There are no laws of motion specific to the fossil
economy, no emergent imperatives that compel economic agents to combust
fossil fuels, only an opportunity to realise age-old, universal forces â€“ laws of
nature, in effect. And hence there are no social antagonisms. â€˜Capitalismâ€™,
according to Wrigley, â€˜is an elusive conceptâ€™ unworthy of application; no
relations of power between labour and capital appear on his radar.43 In
claiming that â€˜the spread of steam power was ecologically favouredâ€™, Wilkinson
elevates the agents of steam to representatives of the common interests of
their biological population, while Sieferle similarly refers to humanity as an
undifferentiated whole: â€˜Fossil energy liberated humans from their ties to area
size.â€™44 As if the fossil economy was the work of humans in general, of a species
in action, united and harmonious.
40. Wilkinson 1973, pp. 90, 102.
41.â€‚â€‰Pomeranz 2000, p. 207; emphasis in original.
42. This critique is derived from that developed by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner
in the context of the debate on the origins of capitalism. See Meiksins Wood 1995; Meiksins Wood
2002; Brenner 1986; Brenner 1987a; Brenner 1987b; Brenner 2007.
43. Wrigley 2010, p. 209.
44. Sieferle 2001, p. 121.
26 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
The puzzle of superior water
In actual history, the decision to replace water with steam was not, of
course, democratically taken. Choice of prime mover was the prerogative of
capitalists. It presupposed the separation between the direct producers and
the means of production; only when operatives were gathered under the eye
of a manufacturer, who paid them to perform labour on his machines, did
he have reason to weigh the relative merits of different non-human motive
forces for the propulsion of machinery. Choice of prime mover, in other
words, was a corollary of the factory system, and though its instigator Richard
Arkwright failed in his early experiments with steam, it did not last long before
cotton-mills puffed out black soot. In 1786, the brothers Robinson erected the
first rotative steam engine to drive machinery for spinning cotton in their
Papplewick factory on the River Leen. But they soon became disappointed. In a
complaint that would long haunt steam power, the brothers faulted the engine
for excessively high fuel costs: coal commanded a price of 11 to 12 shillings, to
be measured against the free running water of the Leen. Instead of pursuing
steam further, they fell back on the natural supply of the river, augmented it
with reservoirs, and continued to spin by water.45
The rotative steam engine first made a home in the mills of Manchester in
1790.46 By the middle of the decade, the technical capability of the prime mover
had been thoroughly demonstrated, knowledge of steam was widespread,
and cotton capitalists in some Lancashire towns eagerly embraced it. Yet
water power reigned supreme, its dominance in the cotton industry barely
dented.47 Frustration surfaced in the sales efforts of Boulton & Watt. In 1791,
one manufacturer explained why he turned down their offer: â€˜The Expense of a
small engine as well as the consumption of coal and water being much greater
than I apprehended would be required for our work, it seems more advisable
to place our machines on a stream of water about a mile from our houseâ€™.48
Watt himself offered a sober assessment in the same year: â€˜I hear that there
are so many mills resting on powerful streams in the North of England that the
trade must soon be over-done.â€™49
45. Marshall 1957; Chapman 1971, pp. 5â€“6. On Arkwright and steam, see Fitton 1989; Tann
46. Chaloner 1954â€“5.
47. See Chapman 1969; Chapman 1971; Chapman 1972; von Tunzelmann 1978; Musson 1976;
Kanefsky 1979; Hills 1970; Hills 1989.
48. Letter quoted in Tann 1973b, p. 220. This particular manufacturer was in the woollen
industry, but his objections summarised those â€˜of many small clothiers to steam power at the
turn of the centuryâ€™ (ibid.). Compare Musson and Robinson 1959, pp. 423â€“4; Hills 1970, p. 145.
49. Quoted in Briggs 1982, p. 57.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 27
By 1800, 84 Boulton & Watt engines in British cotton mills were still
overshadowed by around one thousand water wheels. Water remained the
foundation for the capitalist factory system, and not merely as a relic of the past:
wheels were enlarged and perfected, dams and reservoirs excavated en masse,
new and extended mills â€“ particularly in the great cotton boom of 1823â€“5 â€“
equipped with the latest wheel-models of gargantuan dimensions. More than
four decades passed from Robinsonsâ€™s first installation to the decisive triumph
of steam. Some time between the mid-1820s and the late 1830s â€“ no exact
date can be pinned down â€“ steam power reached parity with and, in quick
succession, dethroned water in the cotton industry. This was the time of the
transition, in at least three senses. New or extended mills were now only rarely
fitted with water wheels, in a sharp break with the past. For the first time, the
bulk of horsepower came from steam engines. But perhaps most importantly,
a range of decisions were taken over the 1830s by manufacturers and legislators
that, for all practical purposes, ended water power expansion in the cotton
industry and cleared the way for steam, not only there, but throughout British
The time-lag has long been considered a puzzle: â€˜Explaining the slow
adoption of steam power in the cotton industry is an important problem for
the historians of its technologyâ€™, in the matter-of-fact words of a recent account
of the industrial revolution.51 But the problem could just as well be formulated
in the reverse terms. The very slowness of the process â€“ four or five decades are
a blink of an eye in geological time, but they can be an aeon in the annals of
capitalism â€“ raises the question not only of why it happened so late, but why
steam power was adopted at all. We need an explanation that can account for
the adoption that took place before the mid-1820s, but particularly thereafter,
with the 1830s standing out as the decade of the most concentrated shift.
Was steam resorted to because water was scarce by the time of the 1830s?
The hypothesis of an energy crisis â€“ a wall of water shortage confronting cotton
manufacturers, leaving them no choice other than steam â€“ was submitted to
rigorous testing by Robert B. Gordon in 1983. â€˜If it can be shownâ€™, Gordon wrote,
â€˜that nearly all the water power physically available in the industrial regions
was exploited before steam power was much used, the energy crisis hypothesis
would be proved.â€™ But if the recoverable data rather indicated that â€˜there were
unused water power resources throughout this period, it would be necessary to
appeal to the social factors for support of this hypothesisâ€™ â€“ or, to be exact, the
50. See, for example, Kanefsky 1979; Rose 1986; Taylor 1949; von Tunzelmann 1978; Chapman
1972; Chapman 1969, p. 75; Crafts 2004. More extensive empirical support for the claims in this
article, with full sourcing, will be found in the dissertation in progress of the present author.
51.â€‚â€†Allen 2009, p. 172.
28 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
hypothesis would be disproved, and a completely different explanation would
Gordon proceeded with a scrupulous reconstruction of the meteorological,
geological and topographical conditions in the industrial areas of both
England and New England. To assess the potential power supply, he identified
the available watersheds and computed their drainage areas, falls and stream
slopes, but excluded sites where the initial costs of establishing a mill would
have been prohibitive. The results for both regions were unambiguous. As for
England, in the year 1838, mere fractions of the potential water power in eleven
major rivers running through the textile districts were utilised. For Irwell, that
fraction was 3.4%; for Derwent, 1.7%; for Dove, 0.8%; for Ribble, 3.0%; for
Spodden â€“ the most heavily exploited watercourse on the list â€“ 7.2%. â€˜More
water power could have been obtained by continued geographical extension
of the industrial districts without encountering either high initial costs or
excessive variable, transportation, or other costs. It followsâ€™, Gordon concluded,
â€˜that physical bounds on the availability of water power at low cost was not
a limitation on the development of industry.â€™53 The energy-crisis hypothesis
demolished, he stopped short, however, of exploring alternative explanations.
For Scotland, a cotton district second in importance only to Lancashire,
the picture is similar. â€˜The potential of water power in Scotland was never
fully realised, except in a few localities favoured by other attributesâ€™, runs the
conclusion of John Shaw in his Water Power in Scotland, 1550â€“1870. â€˜The end of
the Age of Water Power came about not so much on account of any inherent
weakness as through changes in the scale of industrial units, in work patterns,
populations distributions and economic goalsâ€™ â€“ factors which, again, Shaw left
without further examination.54
Did the transition happen because steam engines had become more
powerful and reliable â€“ in short, technologically superior? In the early decades
of the nineteenth century, the average output of both an iron breast-wheel
and a Boulton & Watt steam engine was 20 horsepower, or slightly less. But
the most powerful prime movers were invariably water wheels. In the 1820s,
steam engines of 60 horsepower were considered unusually powerful, while
a string of giant water mills in northern England and Scotland had a capacity
of between 300 and 500 horsepower. Indeed, as late as in the early 1840s, the
most imposing wheel constructions generated more power than the mightiest
steam engines â€“ a situation that would not remain for much longer, the engines
52. Gordon 1983, p. 243.
53. Gordon 1983, p. 256.
54. Shaw 1984, p. 544.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 29
leaping ahead in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, but by then the
transition in the cotton industry had long been completed.55
One of the greatest obstacles for Boulton & Watt was the perceived
irregularity and frailty of their engines, compared to the robust wheels. Not
until the mid-1830s could the finest workshops deliver steam engines capable
of producing a motion as smooth and even as that of water.56 In 1840, The Civil
Engineer and Architectâ€™s Journal reported that factories at Stockport erected
two engines to work the same machinery in order to equalise the action of
steam, â€˜yet the motion is not so regular as that of an overshoot water-wheel,
where the supply of water is uniform.â€™57 In his unpublished PhD thesis from
1979 â€“ the authoritative compilation of statistics on water and steam in British
industry â€“ John Kanefsky reckoned that â€˜cotton produced by water mills was
still regarded as being generally superior to that produced by steam powerâ€™,
due to the unequalled evenness of motion in the former, all through the 1830s.58
Well into the second half of the century, water wheels were less prone to
mechanical glitches and breakdowns.59
Was steam cheaper than water? This is, at first sight, the most plausible
explanation: cotton capitalists opted for steam because one horsepower
thereof was cheaper than one of water. A water wheel represented a substantial
investment. The wheel itself had to be purchased, positioned in a wheel-house,
and, in most cases, supplemented with a dam to secure a regular supply of
water. Then the mill-owner would have to build a system of conduits â€“ canals,
leats, sluice-gates â€“ to lead the water onto the wheel in proper amounts,
presuming that it was of the standard overshot or breast type. A steam engine,
on the other hand, consisted of iron, brass and copper, fly-wheel, boiler and
pipes; fixed on a solid framing in a special engine-house, its construction
required skilled labour. Then there was the occasional need for extensive
repairs following breakdowns and the spectacularly high depreciation rates,
whereas water wheels could function with only minor maintenance for
decades or even a century. Water came flowing for free. Once the capitalist
had secured a lease from the landowner, paying rent for the right to utilise the
stream, there were no further fuel costs. Coal had to be constantly purchased
on the market. The sum of these relations is widely accepted in the literature:
water wheels were consistently cheaper per horsepower than steam engines in
55. Musson 1976; Reynolds 1983; Hills 1970; von Tunzelmann 1978.
56. Chapman 1971, p. 12.
57. The Civil Engineer and Architectsâ€™ Journal 1840, p. 8; emphasis added.
58. Kanefsky 1979, p. 141.
59. Kanefsky 1979, p. 142.
30 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
the early nineteenth century.60 â€˜It is difficult to resist the conclusionâ€™, writes
cotton historian Stanley Chapman, â€˜that steam was more expensive than the
costliest water power installations.â€™61
But had not the balance swung in favour of steam by the time of the 1830s?
Could water wheels still put up with the challenge, in pure cost terms? The
1833 Factories Inquiry, carried out by a Parliamentary commission under the
leadership of Edwin Chadwick, provides some answers. One proprietor of a
steam-powered mill in Manchester declared that a manufacturer with water
power enjoyed an â€˜advantage over his competitorsâ€™. Curious, his interviewer
Why do you think he has till now enjoyed an advantage over his competitors in
trade? â€“ Because it is a well-ascertained fact that water-power is cheaper than
Then if a mill-owner wishes to set up a manufactory, he can always do it cheaper
by purchasing a waterfall than a steam-engine? â€“ Yes; if he does not pay too high
for his water.
Suppose he does not pay too high for his steam-engine, would he be in the same
condition? â€“ No; because the price of fuel is a greater object than the price of a
Why is it cheaper to purchase a waterfall than a steam-engine? â€“ On this ground â€“
the constant supply of water is much cheaper to turn an engine with than the supply
â€˜If I wanted to hire power to-morrowâ€™, announced Thomas Worsley, a Stockport
shopkeeper, â€˜I can procure it in the country parts round Manchesterâ€™ â€“ i.e. along
rivers â€“ â€˜one-third under what I should have to give for it in Manchester or any
of the manufacturing townsâ€™. Therefore â€˜the owners of water power can work
cheaper than the owners of steam power.â€™63 One commissioner alluded to a
â€˜jealousy of the water-millsâ€™ on the part of steam-dependent manufacturers
in the cotton industry.64 Factory philosopher Andrew Ure referred to the
â€˜cheapnessâ€™ of water â€˜as compared to that of steamâ€™.65 In 1849, the manager of
Quarry Bank mill, the water-powered jewel of Samuel Greg & Co. â€“ known as
the largest cotton empire in all of Britain â€“ calculated that running an engine of
60. See, for example, Chapman 1971; Kanefsky 1979; von Tunzelmann 1978; Tann 1970; Hills
1970; Hills 1989; Briggs 1982; Musson 1976.
61.â€‚â€†Chapman 1971, p. 13.
62. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, p. D2.132; emphasis added (John Cheetham).
63. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, p. D1.16.
64. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, p. D2.99.
65. Ure 1835, p. xlvii.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 31
100 horsepower instead of the current wheel of the same capacity would burden
the factory with a cost of Â£274 per annum.66 The computation was repeated in
1856, now against a water wheel of 172 horsepower; again, the manager found
that â€˜our waterpower is worth about Â£280 a yearâ€™ due to â€˜the saving in coal.â€™67
Such evidence dovetails with all modern reconstructions of power costs in
the period. Chapman estimated the cost per unit of horsepower in a cotton
mill in the year 1840 as Â£86 for steam and Â£59 for water.68 In Steam Power and
British Industrialization to 1860, Nick von Tunzelmann inferred that water
wheels â€˜cost far less per horsepower for purchase and erection than did steamenginesâ€™ in the 1850s; â€˜for large wheels the cost was around half that of steamengines of equal power.â€™69 But the decisive factor remained the difference
in fuel costs, underpinning â€˜the profitability of water-power up to at least
the mid-nineteenth centuryâ€™.70 Kanefsky went even further. â€˜It is quite plain
that throughout the periodâ€™ â€“ up to 1870 â€“ â€˜water power was, when available,
significantly cheaper in all but very exceptional circumstances and that where
coal was expensive the difference could be considerable.â€™71 The railways failed
to close the gap, so that water was â€˜preferable to steam even in 1870 if cost factors
alone were under considerationâ€™ â€“ but then again, in 1870 the transition had
been accomplished long ago.72
All of this points to a conclusion of rather startling implications for the
history of the fossil economy. The transition from water to steam in the British
cotton industry did not occur because water was scarce, less powerful, or more
expensive than steam. To the contrary, steam gained supremacy in spite of
water being abundant, at least as powerful, and decidedly cheaper. None of this
is in serious dispute, pace Wrigley et al., but so far it has only served to deepen
the mystery: then why did the transition occur? Was it irrational, or did it have
another rationale, a different set of causes, hidden beneath the immediately
visible differentials in economic and technological benefits? Neither Gordon,
nor von Tunzelmann, nor Kanefsky or anyone else has systematically examined
the actual motives for turning to steam. It is to this task we now turn.
66. Rose 1986, p. 42. On the size of the firm, see for example Ure 1835, p. 347.
67. Greg archive: C5:3/2, memorandum, â€˜Water Wheel Power at Quarry Bank, August 4th
68. Chapman 1971, p. 18.
69. von Tunzelmann 1978, p. 130.
70. von Tunzelmann 1978, p. 136.
71. Kanefsky 1979, p. 175.
72. Kanefsky 1979, p. 176; emphasis added.
32 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
Power to visit labour
The steam engine could not explain or promote itself. Its way had to be paved
by tracts and manuals, written for manufacturers and their right-hand men,
teaching them how to properly handle the boilers and the pipes, the flywheels and the governors, and appreciate the superior principles of steam.
The specimen of the genre today regarded as most accurate â€“ and probably
wielding most influence over manufacturers at the time â€“ is the voluminous
A Treatise on the Steam-Engine, written in 1827 by John Farey, owner of a
consulting firm through which he advised capitalists on technical matters.73
Here he wished to â€˜perfect the practice of those engineers and others who
require to employ steam-enginesâ€™, averring that the application of the â€˜power
of the steam-engineâ€™ was of paramount importance for the well-being of the
nation. The reason was simple: â€˜Unless the industry of the working class is
systematically applied, and aided by the use of machines, there can be but little
surplus wealth to maintain an educated class in society, and produce that state
of general affluence which is conducive to the progress of civilization, and the
development of the intellect.â€™74 The steam engine was eminently conducive
to this pursuit. In the Introduction to his Treatise, Farey juxtaposed water and
steam, without hinting at any scarcity of the former: the advantage of steam lay
not in its being uniquely plentiful, nor in its commanding a lower price. Instead,
Farey argued, steam â€˜is often preferred, because a manufactory by steam power
may be established in any convenient situation where fuel can be procuredâ€™,
whereas â€˜water power can only be obtained in particular situations, which are
frequently unfavourable in other respectsâ€™. Of particular significance,
natural falls of water are mostly found on rivers in the open country; but steamengines can be placed in the centres of populous towns, where labourers are easily
procured. Steam-power is frequently preferred, as a first mover for those mills
which consist of a number of small machines, each performing some delicate
operation; such machines require considerable assistance from work-people
to direct their actions, and supply them with the materials upon which they
are to operate. As all manufactories of this nature require many work-people,
they are more advantageously carried on by steam-power in populous towns,
than by water-power in the country: this is fully proved by the number of large
manufactories in London, Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow.75
73. On Farey and the Treatise, see Woolrich 1997; Woolrich 1998; Woolrich 2000; Nuvolari
74. Farey 1827, pp. vâ€“vi.
75. Farey 1827, p. 7; emphasis added.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 33
The edge of steam, in other words, was its unique suitability not for the
generation of power per se, but for the exploitation of labour.
John McCulloch, a leading bourgeois economist of the period, had as his
mouthpiece the Edinburgh Review, house organ of cotton capital. He hammered
away at the point throughout the 1820s and â€™30s, dispelling misunderstandings
and speaking the truth to his audience of manufacturing interests:
The real advantage of the application of the power of steam to give motion to the
machinery of a spinning mill, or of a number of power-looms, appears to be a good
deal misapprehended. It does not consist so much in any direct saving of labour,
as in permitting it to be carried on in the most proper situation. The work that is
done by the aid of a stream of water, is generally as cheap as that which is done
by steam, and sometimes much cheaper. But the invention of the steam-engine
has relieved us from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations
merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed them to be placed in the centre of
a population trained to industrious habits.76
The argument was echoed on both sides of the transition. In 1818, John
Kennedy, partner in McConnel & Kennedy â€“ among the largest fine-spinners
in Manchester and pioneers of steam â€“ deplored how the dependency on water
caused manufacturers to be â€˜removed from the experienced workmenâ€™. But the
steam engine offered salvation: â€˜instead of carrying the people to the power, it
was found preferable to place the power amongst the people.â€™77 Almost half a
century later, in 1866, William Stanley Jevons, in his classic The Coal Question,
maintained that â€˜when an abundant natural fall of water is at hand, nothing
can be cheaper or better than water power. But everything depends upon local
circumstances.â€™ Some circumstances worked to the detriment of this source
of energy, however cheap it may be: the necessity of â€˜carrying the work to the
power, not the power to the work, is a disadvantage in water power, and wholly
prevents that concentration of works in one neighbourhood which is highly
advantageous to the perfection of our mechanical system.â€™78
Statements of this kind can be multiplied over and over. In steam-engine
manuals, essays on the factory system, testimonies from manufacturers and
other contemporary sources, this is the single most salient motive: steam was
a ticket to the town, where bountiful supplies of labour waited. The steam
engine did not open up new stores of badly needed energy so much as it gave
access to exploitable labour. Fuelled by coal instead of streams, it untied
76. McCulloch 1833, p. 323; emphasis added. Compare The Circulator of Useful Knowledge,
Literature, Amusement, and General Information 1825; McCulloch 1835, p. 457.
77. Kennedy 1818, pp. 10, 15â€“16.
78. Jevons 1866, pp. 150â€“1.
34 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
capital in space, an advantage large enough to outdo the continued abundance,
cheapness, and technological superiority of water. But before we accept this
conclusion, we need answers to at least three questions. What determined
the geographical mismatch between water and labour supplies? How did it
affect cotton capitalists in their daily operations? And did the locality of water
become particularly burdensome during the 1830s?
The centrifugal dynamic of water mills
Water power was not without its limitations. With electric transmission far into
the future, streams had to be used right on the spot, and not all spots were, of
course, equally generous in their supply of moving water. As William Fairbairn,
the eraâ€™s super-engineer and designer of several of the most stupendous water
mills, pointed out in his Treatise on Mills and Millwork, water wheels received
their â€˜energy from falling or flowing water, and their power or dynamic effect
clearly depends upon the amount of water supplied and the height through
which it falls, or its velocity at the point of application.â€™ Thus the wheels had
to be placed â€˜on the banks of rivers where a large body of water is at hand,
and near some considerable natural or artificial fall in the bed of the stream.â€™79
Riveted to the spot, the water supply was contingent on the varying attributes
of the landscape. While profuse on the whole, cotton capitalists could not take
for granted that it was present in the right amount where they so wanted it to
be; near or inside towns, sites might become crowded.
But there was always an exit. Manufacturers could move out to eschew
congested areas, or simply to find the best sources. In the 1780s, master spinners
from Manchester and other cotton centres fanned out across the countryside
of Lancashire, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales; penetrating deep into the
Pennine and Rossendale valleys, into Derwent and its sister valleys or the upper
Clyde, they found untouched, spurting flows of water. Not only were the banks
unoccupied uphill, but the falls tended to be steeper, the rain more frequent,
and the need for extensive dams lesser.80 Reliance on water power generated
a centrifugal dynamic in the localisation of cotton mills. The more capitalists
used water, the stronger the push to search farther afield â€“ but the farther
they went, the smaller the likelihood of them encountering a pre-existing
settlement. If the water resources were the chief reason for choosing the site, as
was so often the case in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the
79. Fairbairn 1864, p. 67.
80. See, for example, Chapman 1971; Ashmore 1969; Rodgers 1960; Taylor 1949; Ashworth 1951;
Atwood 1928; Turner 1958; Foulkes 1964.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 35
other prerequisites for factory production might have to be assembled from
the ground up. First of all, that meant labour power.
In order to construct a viable factory at Cromford, where the swift streams
of the Derwent could power his water-frames, Richard Arkwright had to collect
operatives from towns and conjure up a whole village, establishing not only
the first full-fledged factory, but also the blueprint for the factory colony, to be
copied along the rivers of northern Britain. Once collected, the operatives â€“
primarily young women â€“ had to be accommodated in houses built for the
purpose. A colony usually also included a church or a chapel, a Sunday school, a
shop for groceries, perhaps roads and bridges, maybe also an inn, and certainly
a mansion for the manager. Without assistance from any authority or public
budget, all of this had to be financed from the pocket of the manufacturer
Recruitment and maintenance of a labour-force were the defining problems
of the factory colony. When a manufacturer came across a powerful stream
passing through a valley or around a river peninsula, chances were slim that he
also hit upon a local population predisposed to factory labour: the opportunity
to come and work at machines for long, regular hours, herded together under
one roof and strictly supervised by a manager, appeared repugnant to most,
and particularly in rural areas. Colonisers following in the steps of Arkwright
frequently encountered implacable aversion to factory discipline among
whatever farmers or independent artisans they could find.Instead, the majority
of the operatives had to be imported from towns such as London, Manchester,
Liverpool and Nottingham, requiring steady advertisement in the press as well
as attractive cottages behind leafy trees, allotment gardens, milk-cows, sickclubs and other perks to persuade the workers to come, and to stay.82
While wages were generally lower in the countryside, the total costs for
assembling and sustaining a labour force might well have been higher in the
colonies. In 1826, an anonymous â€˜practical spinnerâ€™ published a note â€˜on the
comparative costs of power obtained by steam or waterâ€™ in Glasgow Mechanicsâ€™
Magazine, including in his calculation rent to the landlord, outlays on dam and
sluices, expenses for transporting raw materials and a manager between mill
and market and other costs associated with water. Even so, the steam engineâ€™s
consumption of coal resulted in a balance in favour of water â€˜at the rate of
Â£1.10s. per horse power: but this must be more than counterbalanced by the
great advance of capital necessary to start such a work in the country, where
81.â€‚â€†See, for example, Pollard 1964; Pollard 1968; Fitton and Wadsworth 1958; Chapman 1992;
Ashworth 1951; Aspin 2003.
82. See, for example, Cohen 1981; Pollard 1968; Redford 1976; Cooke 2010.
36 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
a village must be built, loss of time in collecting a regular set of workers, with
other innumerable inconveniences, which in many instances requires years to
accomplish.â€™83 The problem of labour was inherent in the centrifugal dynamic
of water power: for every new colony constructed on a riverbank, there ensued
the process of ingathering of labour, of concentrating workers from all possible
directions on the spot. It was the constitutive feature of the colonies, their
very structure intended to attract and keep operatives in place. When they
failed â€“ when workers left â€“ the loss was of another magnitude than what
an absent worker might cause in a town mill, since every employed piecer,
spinner or mechanic was, almost literally, a living investment; their departure
necessitated a new round of recruitment, posing the whole problem anew.
None of this was a fact of nature. Physical laws did not determine low
concentrations of population in a water-rich area, the reluctance to enter the
factories or the desire to escape once inside. These were socially determined
factors, making labour difficult to capture and easy to lose, but they were played
out and magnified in an immutable geography of riversides, from which the
water wheels could never stray like the workers. The contradiction was generic
to water power as a source of mechanical energy in capitalist commodity
production, present from the very beginning. But in the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth centuries, it was manageable and fully compatible with good
business, for average profit rates were high, and the working class had yet to
emerge as a force of organised power. By the 1830s, all of that had changed.
Crisis in the colonies
When the Combination Laws were repealed in 1824, the powder keg built
up over half a century of industrialisation exploded in strikes and union
activism across Britain. Cotton spinners were the most militant segment of
the proletariat.84 The epicentres of mobilisation were, of course, the towns,
not the dells and brooks of the countryside, but rural colonies were always
more vulnerable to the effects of disorder than urban factories. As strikes
hit water mills with full force in the early 1830s â€“ rioting workers rampaging
through and partly trashing the colony of the Ashworths, operatives at the
Catrine works blocking the gates and throwing dirt and stones on knobsticks,
the Stanley colony turned into a bulwark of the Scottish spinnersâ€™ union â€“
that vulnerability was violently exposed.85 Leading owners of water mills
responded with unusually fanatical attacks on unions in general and those of
83. Glasgow Mechanicsâ€™ Magazine 1826.
84. See, for example, Turner 1962; Kirby and Musson 1975.
85. Manchester Guardian 1830; The Scottish Jurist 1835; Cooke 2003, pp. 126â€“7.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 37
their own workers in particular. The Ashworth brothers, major spinners of fine
yarn near Bolton, referred to the legalisation of combinations as â€˜this indulgent
Actâ€™ and sacked the entire vanguard of the strike-cum-riot in 1830. A perfectly
viable tactic inside towns, the mass dismissal renewed the problem of labour
supply: now the Ashworths had to advertise for spinners again, replacing the
strike leaders with much difficulty and extra cost. The price of the strike was
By its very logic, the factory colony rendered layoffs, recruitment of strikebreakers, riots and repression risky and potentially ruinous; with the strike
waves of the 1830s, the advantage of immediate access to a reserve army of
labour came decisively to the fore. Adding to the pressure, profit rates in the
cotton industry were falling, ever since the financial panic of 1825 set off a
cycle of protracted stagnation and brief booms. In the mid-1830s, a bonanza of
factory construction and expansion â€“ the first in a decade â€“ temporarily ended
the depression. Manufacturers wishing to survive now had to keep up with
the competition, introduce the latest machinery and enlarge their premises,
but if they relied on water, they often faced a predicament: â€˜There is in this
neighbourhood a greater scarcity of workpeople than I have ever knownâ€™,
Henry Ashworth lamented in 1835.87
For the Gregs, owners of Quarry Bank and two other water mills in Lancashire,
the worries were similar: the scarcity of labour and the trade unions conspired
to bring about â€˜a difficulty in obtaining labourers at extravagant wages in these
northern counties.â€™ If they would expand their water mills, there was an obvious
risk that â€˜any further demand for labour would still further increase the unions,
drunkenness, and high wages.â€™88 Luckily for the Gregs, however, alternative
options were available. In late 1826, the company acquired two factories inside
the towns of Lancaster and Bury, both powered by steam. Most of the investment
was redirected to these two mills; already in 1832, the one in Lancaster surpassed
Quarry Bank mill as the largest establishment of the concern. The factories in
Lancaster and Bury had one decisive advantage: they offered local supplies of
labour power.89 Throughout the 1830s, the Gregs continued to expand through
their steam-powered assets â€“ while the Ashworths, still based on water, lost
their leadership position in fine spinning.90
Scarcity of labour was never absolute or evenly distributed. In Lancashire at
large, the Manchester Guardian noted in 1835, there was in fact â€˜an abundanceâ€™
86. Boyson 1970, pp. 141â€“55.
87. Parliamentary Papers 1835, pp. 344â€“50.
88. Parliamentary Papers 1835, pp. 346â€“7.
89. Rose 1986, pp. 39, 43, 55; Owens 2011, p. 74.
90. See Boyson 1970.
38 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
of spinners.91 McConnel & Kennedy never had reason to complain about a
shortage of workers; â€˜unless they appear by Eight or Nine oâ€™Clock on Monday
Morning, we get fresh onesâ€™, they could boast.92 It was an ever more powerful
magnet. Throughout the strikes waves and business cycles of the 1830s,
cotton capitalists sought to defend their positions against workers and each
other by further mechanising production, introducing self-acting mules for
spinning and power-looms for weaving; and with automation approaching,
the premium on operatives amenable to the discipline of the machine rose.
Inside the towns, a second generation of â€˜handsâ€™ had now grown up: â€˜There is
always that superabundance of labour in the market that I can always attain a
sufficiency of hands who have been accustomed to the work, and brought up
in it, I suppose; which are always preferredâ€™, explained another Manchester
manufacturer.93 In the late eighteenth century, when factories were novel
sights everywhere, the advantage of urban locations was muted. Three or four
decades later, the towns of Lancashire and Scotland were brimming with the
â€˜population trained to industrious habitsâ€™ of which McCulloch spoke: young
men but preferably women, born in a world of mills, resigned to bells and
managers in a way country folk would rarely if ever be.94
A fascinating victim of the dynamics was Robert Thom. Having doubled
the water supply of his cotton mill at Rothesay by excavating an ingenious
system of aqueducts and reservoirs, he rose to become the foremost hydraulic
engineer of Scotland and a zealous advocate of water as a superior source
of energy. â€˜Get water if you can, and be quit of these smoky and expensive
enginesâ€™, ran his rallying cry to Britainâ€™s cotton manufacturers.95 The pinnacle
of his lifework was the Shawsâ€™ Water-Works at Greenock, by which water was
collected and distributed to prospective mill sites, in quantities said to exceed
the total power capacity of â€˜all the steam-engines in Glasgow and its vicinity.â€™96
Deeply impressed, the Manchester Guardian proposed the construction of a
similar system on the River Irwell, in the heart of Lancashire, to â€˜enable the
mill-owners to dispense with the assistance of steam-enginesâ€™.97 But in 1834,
seven years after the inauguration of the Shawsâ€™ Water-Works, a dejected Thom
had to concede that â€˜the waterfallsâ€™ he had made available to investors
91.â€‚â€†Manchester Guardian 1835.
92. Quoted in Fitton 1989, p. 151. See further Lee 1972.
93. Parliamentary Papers 1834, p. D1.206 (James Fernley). On the self-acting mule, see Catling
1970; on the power-loom, see Bythell 1969.
94. Balderston 2010; Williamson 1988; Thompson 1966, p. 249; Redford 1976, p. 111; Gatrell 1977,
95. Mechanicsâ€™ Magazine 1832.
96. Manchester Guardian 1827.
97. Manchester Guardian 1831.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 39
go off very slowly â€“ there being about thirty of them still unlet â€“ while during
the time these have been in the market, a great many Steam Factories have been
erected at Glasgow, though steam power there costs about Â£20 per horse power,
or nearly seven times the cost of water power at Greenock. And this preference is
given to Glasgow, why? Because it is the principal seat of trade in Scotland with a
trained population ready for such Factories.98
The Irwell reservoirs were planned and designed, but never built.99
What had happened by the 1830s was clearly not an exhaustion of the
potentials of water power, in physical, technological or strictly economic
terms. Instead, capitalist development had reached a point where the greatest
advantage of steam power â€“ its mobility in space â€“ overrode all other concerns.
The eruption of union struggles, the booms and busts of the post-1825 business
cycle and the advancing mechanisation of cotton production enhanced the
demand for workers that were substitutable, expendable and adapted to
machinery. While the incentive to shift to urban steam was certainly already
operative around the turn of the century, the underlying contradiction between
the centrifugal dynamic of water-powered factories and the geographical
concentration of suitable reservoirs of labour power became acute after the
repeal of the Combination Laws and the financial crash of the mid-1820s.
As profits fell, moreover, the cost of establishing a colony de novo became
The boom of the 1823â€“5 period was the last to see a major expansion of
water-powered factories. In the 1830s, colonies fell like dominoes, while mills
survived and grew inside Manchester, Oldham, Stockport, Blackburn. The
period marked a decisive shift from a centrifugal to a centripetal dynamic, as
the cotton industry retracted into the urban core of Lancashire, in a process of
urbanisation indistinguishable from the conversion to steam.100
The foundation of the industrial town, in other words, was fossil. Coal had
the benefit of not being a part of the terrestrial landscape. Buried in its interior,
it was reached through a hole in the ground â€“ the pit-mouth â€“ hauled up in bits
and pieces and ferried off to circulate freely on the market. Unlike water, coal
could be transported to mills and stored in warehouses, without the need for
further attention, passively awaiting combustion. For the first time in history,
98. Thom archive: valuation report, â€˜On the Waterfall between Dalernie Mill and the Devils
Bridgeâ€™, 29 March 1834; emphasis in original.
99. For an inquiry into the fate of these reservoirs, Thomâ€™s failures, and some other aspects of
the political economy of the transition from water to steam, see Malm 2013.
100. Rodgers 1960; Taylor 1949; Atwood 1928; Ashworth 1951; Balderston 2010; Chapman 1972.
40 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
the converter and the source of mechanical energy â€“ the engine and the
mine â€“ were disassociated in space.101
The mobility of capital, the freedom to seek out the â€˜populous towns, where
labourers are easily procuredâ€™, was constituted by fossil fuels. That freedom
was only relative â€“ the price of coal rose with the distance from mines â€“ but
Lancashire happened to lie on top of rich coal-fields, â€˜sufficient to supply the
consumption of its steam-engines for uncounted generationsâ€™, in the estimate
of industrial traveller William Cooke Taylor.102 Lancashire was likewise bathed
in rivers, but whereas extended utilisation of water at one point or another
required capitalists to move away from the labour power, the coal deposits
merely demanded that collieries were sent into the ground. Space, however,
was not the only dimension in which the transition unfolded. Time mattered
Power to command labour
Nailed to the landscape, the flow of water was not only immovable, but exposed
to shifts in the weather. A river might freeze, overflow, ebb and peter out. In
1833, Samuel Greg described the power source of the Quarry Bank mill:
Water, ninety horse power; stream irregular, occasionally a day or day and a half
lost by floods. In dry seasons, for some weeks, only three quarters of daily work
done. In ordinary seasons, a few hours lost daily for two or three weeks.103
A book-keeper at a cotton mill near Bingley in the West Riding, named Edward
Birkett, told the commissioners of the Factories Inquiry that work normally
went on for 13 hours, but in dry summer months production might have to be
discontinued after a mere six.104 In the absence of massive reservoir structures
of the kind Robert Thom championed, such weather-induced irregularities
were an all but ineluctable feature of water power.
By its very nature, in other words, water was subject to the whims of the
seasons â€“ but the problem was constituted socially. As long as mills catered
to a local market for corn, linen, silk or whatever produce they turned out, a
day of too much or too little water in the river was â€˜a source of inconvenience
101. Adapted and developed from Smil 2008, p. 204; Sieferle 2001, pp. 124â€“5; Debeir, DelÃ©age
and HÃ©mery 1991, p. 102.
102. Cooke Taylor 1843, p. 156.
103. Parliamentary Papers 1834, p. D1.301.
104. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, pp. C2.65â€“6.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 41
but nothing more seriousâ€™: people simply turned to other tasks for a while.105
The cotton mills of the early nineteenth century operated on other principles.
They were oriented towards global markets, tailored to maximise output,
constructed with profit as sole raison dâ€™Ãªtre â€“ and thus working days had to be
long. If the norm had been, say, six or eight hours of production, the demand
for uninterrupted water power would have been significantly easier to satisfy,
but the norm in the early 1830s was 12 hours, at a minimum. Simple arithmetic
tells us that such a long day of work â€“ compared to a hypothetical, shorter
day â€“ was exacting for any given watercourse. Furthermore, if water had been
the only source of energy available, its irregularity would have been a fact of
life, to be handled with anything from insurance schemes or dams to slight
variations in output: it was the challenge of the steam engine that defined it
as a drawback.106
That drawback could be easily offset, up to the 1830s. If water was insufficient, the workers were simply sent home and ordered to make up for the
shortfall when the flow returned through even longer working days, effectively
cancelling out the power shortages over time. As Birkett explained: â€˜The hands
are dismissed, and recalled by a bell; they have that time to themselves; they
are always paid as working a full day, and expected to make up the time as
opportunity may occur.â€™ In its first summary of the Factories Inquiry, the
Chadwick Commission submitted that â€˜it is the custom for the people to work
sometimes half an hour, at other times an hour, and occasionally even as
much as two hours daily, until the whole of the lost time be made up.â€™107 The
irregularity of water was thus translated into bouts of extreme working days;
from the baseline of 12 hours, capitalists pushed their workers even further, to
cushion themselves against intermittent flow. Within the parameters of early
capitalist commodity production, as it intersected with the nature of water, the
practice appears to have been a necessity.
But it was precisely from the unbearable extension of the working day that
arose some of the most passionate popular fury in the early 1830s. The demand
of the factory movement â€“ a universally applicable Ten Hours Act â€“ was
dreaded by proprietors of water mills. The Chadwick Commission found them
fearing for their commercial survival. One master of a water-powered factory
at Burley, Yorkshire, believed that â€˜the contemplated Ten Hours Bill would be
exceedingly injurious to the cotton-trade; the legislature no doubt wishes to
encourage health and morals, but if this Bill becomes a law the effects would
be to destroy many water-mills entirely in rural situations in the country, and
105. Shaw 1984, p. 481.
106. von Tunzelmann 1978, pp. 154, 170.
107. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, p. 10.
42 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
drive the trade into large populous towns. . . . Steam-power is mostly in large
towns, and can be set to work at any moment; water-mills are subject to many
interruptions for want of water.â€™108Edward Birkett the book-keeper testified that
a Ten Hours Act would be â€˜ruinousâ€™ to water mills, telling his interviewer about
three he knew first-hand, which â€˜the masters would be compelled to abandon,
such would be the injury to their profits. It would be perfectly impossible
for them to carry on their mills at all during the summer season, under such
restrictions.â€™109 Statements of the same tenor can be piled up from the Inquiry.
Though some certainly exaggerated the threat â€“ prophesies of doom were a
constant in bourgeois polemics against the Bill â€“ the fundamental concerns
were real: water supplies did fluctuate, manufacturers did make up lost time,
criminalisation of the practice would cause serious trouble. The special
circumstances for water mills were widely recognised, including by adherents
of the factory movement. And logically, resistance to factory legislation was
led by proprietors of water mills: from the early 1830s to the early 1850s, the
Ashworths and the Gregs commanded the forces of the manufacturing
interests, headed the associations of the Lancashire cotton masters, negotiated
with Parliament, lobbied commissioners, penned pamphlets, spoke at public
meetings and did everything in their power to thwart any limitation on the
working day.110 Of all cotton capitalists, those dependent on water stood to
lose most, and therefore came to articulate the common interests of their
class with particular urgency and stridency. Due to the nature of their prime
mover â€“ and the social demands placed on it â€“ they found themselves first in
the line of fire.
Steam engines, meanwhile, were independent of weather. While their
owners were, as a rule, equally opposed to the Ten Hours Bill, their motive force
could be fully adapted to a shorter working day. As it became increasingly clear
in the early 1830s that popular unrest was forcing the British state to place a cap
on the working day lest the country descend into full revolutionary chaos, the
incentive structure was altered, the mere threat of a Ten Hours Act reducing
the expected profitability of water.
Despite the protestations of the Ashworths and their kind, Parliament
made a first, meagre concession to popular pressure with the Factory Act of
1833. Employment of children below the age of nine was banned in textile
factories, while the working day was limited to eight hours for children up to
13 and to 12 hours for â€˜young personsâ€™ up to 18; factory inspectors were charged
with enforcing the regulations. After extensive deliberations, the Chadwick
108. Parliamentary Papers 1834, p. C1.19 (J. Whitaker); emphases added.
109. Parliamentary Papers 1833a, p. C2.66.
110. See Howe 1984; Ward 1962; Boyson 1970; Rose 1986.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 43
Commission, on whose recommendations the Act was based, had concluded
that water mills deserved exemptions, and so they were given the right to order
their children and young persons half an hour extra per day to compensate for
any shortfall in power.111 Was that enough? Half an hour was at the low end
of established custom. The special needs of water capitalists were enshrined
in the Act, but their latitude was severely constrained; anything beyond
half an hour overtime â€“ previously comme il faut â€“ was now a crime, at least
Proprietors of water mills immediately set about flouting the law. Soon
responding in force, the factory inspectors endeavoured, under the leadership
of Leonard Horner, to uncover their offences and bring them to court. In 1840,
a parliamentary committee reviewing the workings of the Act asked Horner
where he found the greatest number of violations: â€˜in the detached and outlying millsâ€™ situated â€˜on streamsâ€™, he replied.112 Water was less compatible
with lawful behaviour than steam. Howard P. Marvel has demonstrated that
reliance on water was closely correlated with court action already in the
years 1834â€“6 in Lancashire and West Riding, heartland of the English cotton
industry, in a pattern that would remain in force for the coming two decades:
water capitalists committed more offences, were more likely to be prosecuted,
and were subject to stiffer penalties than their steam-powered competitors.113
To this must be added another consequence of a capped working day. The
grand strategy for counteracting any reduction of hours was to produce more
in the hours left. The disposition of labour power curtailed, more must be
squeezed out of the fewer hours of work by means of installing more productive
machines, speeding up those already in place, and/or enjoining operatives
to work more intensely. The Factories Inquiry and subsequent reports made
it abundantly clear that this was the Plan B of the manufacturers. They had,
Leonard Horner reasoned in 1845, all sorts of opportunities: â€˜The work turned
off is produced by the combined effort of the steam-engine and the workman,
and the amount contributed by each varies immensely in different factories,
and in different departments of the same factory.â€™ But the opportunities on the
rivers were not as promising. â€˜In the case of water millsâ€™, Horner wrote, â€˜where
the intensity of the power in some seasons is continually varying during the day,
the workman cannot bring increased vigilance or attention to bear.â€™114
111. See, for example, Horner 1834. For the history of factory legislation and the factory
movement, see for example Gray 1996; Ward 1962.
112. Parliamentary Papers 1840, pt. 1, pp. 5, 9.
113. Marvel 1977. On the prosecution of the Act, see also Peacock 1984; Bartrip 1985; Nardinelli
1985; Peacock 1985.
114. â€˜Reportâ€™, in Parliamentary Papers 1845, p. 22.
44 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
The prerequisite for neutralising the effects of factory legislation was a
source of mechanical energy under the complete command of the master. In
the autumn of 1848, when the Ten Hours Bill had finally been passed, Horner
polled the opinions of mill owners, managers and labourers in Lancashire to see
how they coped with ten hours only. One manager of a cotton mill explained:
â€˜The weavers are now producing quite as much cloth as before in 12 hours. The
engine has been speeded.â€™ Two cotton spinners at another factory testified that
â€˜they work harder now during the time, and turn off nearly as much work as
they did in 12 hours, the engine having been speededâ€™.115 Steam was an integral
part of the capitalist solution to the reduction in the working day.
From the prelude to the Act of 1833 to the culminating Ten Hours Act of
1847, factory legislation gradually strangled water power: â€˜It is obviousâ€™,
one Manchester cotton manufacturer noted, â€˜that the more you diminish
the number of hours the more you decrease the value of a water-wheel, in
proportion to that of a steam-engine.â€™116 The Act of 1847 eventually sounded
the death-knell of water power as a viable energy source in the British cotton
With this, we can suggest an answer to our main question. Cotton capital
turned to steam because it offered superior power over labour. Needless to say,
there were other factors at work as well; the shift from water to steam was,
indeed, over-determined by a wide range of tendencies in early nineteenthcentury British capitalism, others of which we cannot investigate here. But
power over labour was an outstanding keynote of the transition.
The most tractable labourer we can employ
The character of steam power as a class projectwas written all over it. The very
appeal of the steam engine â€“ despite its strictly economic and technological
inferiority, relative to the water wheel â€“ was precisely its unique capacity to
apply â€˜the industry of the working classâ€™ to the production of â€˜surplus wealthâ€™,
in Fareyâ€™s words. The formula of that capacity, and a recurring theme in the
bourgeois visions of steam, was what we might call its powerless power. In the
same breath, apologists would extol the great power of steam and its complete
absence of any power of its own, outside that desired by its proprietors. â€˜What
distinguishes it from all othersâ€™, renowned bourgeois economist Nassau Senior
alleged in his 1848 lectures,
115. â€˜Reportâ€™, in Parliamentary Papers 1849, pp. 47â€“8; emphases added.
116. Parliamentary Papers 1833b, p. D2.49 (Charles Hindley).
117. Compare von Tunzelmann 1978, p. 225; Allen 2009, pp. 173, 177.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 45
is its manageability. Wind power must be taken as it is given by nature. It can
neither be moderated nor augmented. Water power is rather more under control.
It can always be diminished and a little may sometimes be done to increase it. The
power of steam is just what we choose to make it.118
While noting the noxious effects of â€˜carbonic acidâ€™, Babbage admired steam
for being â€˜obedient to the hand which called into action its resistless powersâ€™.119
M.A. Alderson, author of an acclaimed 1833 steam-engine manual, emphasised
that it could â€˜be obtained on the spotâ€™, and â€˜its mighty services are always at our
command, whether in winter or in summer, by day or by night â€“ it knows no
intermission but what our wishes dictate.â€™ 120 Fairbairn marvelled at â€˜powers
so great and so energetic as to astonish us at their immensity, while they are at
the same time perfectly docileâ€™, while another manual author lauded not only
â€˜the prodigious powers of steamâ€™, but just as much â€˜the ease and precision and
ductility with which they can be varied, distributed, and applied.â€™121 But perhaps
it was John Farey who offered the most pregnant formulation. James Watt and
the other modern improvers of the steam engine had, he wrote, â€˜rendered it
capable of very rapid movements, and put its powers so completely under
control, that it is now the most tractable, as well as the most active, labourer
we can employ.â€™122 A perfectly docile, ductile, tractable labourer: the wettest
dream of employers come true. Here were the reasons to glorify â€˜the creator of
six or eight million labourers, among whom the law will never have to suppress
either combination or riotingâ€™, in the words of FranÃ§ois Arago, author of the
first major biography of Watt.123
Steam was the consummate substitute for labour, ready to step into its shoes
with an infantry of machines, because it was everything that labour was not.
All its virtues were constituted as the negations of working-class vices. Just as
much, however, they appeared in contrast to all other available prime movers,
particularly water power, whose perceived deficiencies were uncannily
analogous to those of labour. Unlike water, steam was appreciated for having
no ways or places of its own, no external laws, no residual existence outside
that brought forth by its proprietors; it was absolutely, indeed ontologically
subservient to those who owned it. The purpose of machinery â€“ to secure
absolute power over labour â€“ was understood to necessitate a prime mover
over which capital could exercise absolute power while at the same time offering
118.â€‚â€ŠSenior papers: B18, notes for â€˜Course II, Lecture 8â€™, 1848.
119.â€‚â€ŠBabbage 1835, p. 49; emphasis added.
120.â€‰â€‰â€Šâ€‰Alderson 1834, p. 44; emphasis added.
121.â€‰â€‰â€ŠFairbairn 1861, p. 9; Stuart 1824, p. 192; emphases added.
122.â€Šâ€‚â€ŠFarey 1827, p. 13.
123. Arago 1839, p. 147. On this as the first biography of Watt, see Hills 2006, pp. 175â€“7.
46 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
capital all the power it needed. In the powerlessness of the great powers of
steam, British capital found the ideal spring of its class power. The ultimate
bedrock of all that power, however, was revealed in that one little detail: the
engine had to be fed with coal.
The factor in everything we do
In the final years of the 1830s, the amount of motive power derived from water
in the British textile industry began to fall. Cotton drove the decline, with an
ever heavier weight in Lancashire; by 1838, steam had gained ascendancy in
all parts of the county except for the outlying northern areas. The rise was
particularly fast in the second half of the decade, at the time of the bonanza:
between 1835 and 1838, horse-power from steam in the cotton mills of
Lancashire and Cheshire jumped by 62 per cent.124 With a lag, the transition
was mirrored nationwide. In 1830, steam engines supplied as much power to
the British economy as water wheels â€“ adding wind to the side of water, steam
provided slightly less â€“ but 40 years later, steam gave almost ten times more
than water and wind combined. In the meantime, after the initial triumph in
the cotton industry, the engine swept the factories and workshops of Britain;
â€˜it is only of late yearsâ€™, noted Fairbairn in 1864, â€˜that in this country the steamengine has nearly superseded the use of air and water as a prime-mover.â€™125
Since steam engines had to be fed with coal, the shares of coal consumption
were redistributed with their rise. In 1800, as we have seen, domestic heating
was the pre-eminent sector, and â€˜in no sense could the coal industry be
regarded as one of the fundamental basic industriesâ€™ of Britain; little more than
half a century later, the situation had been reversed.126 Domestic heating fell
below the 50% line in the 1820s, but remained the single largest end-use up to
1840. By 1855, general manufacturing had eclipsed it, taking up 31% of all coal
consumption in the British Isles, as against 25% for domestic heating; by 1870,
three times more coal was burnt in the sectors of general manufacturing, iron
and steel than in the hearths and homes of Britain.127 In this turning of tables,
124. Kanefsky 1979, pp. 254â€“5, 281â€“90, 301; Journal of the Statistical Society of London 1838;
Gatrell 1977, p. 101.
125. Allen 2009, pp. 172â€“3, 177â€“9; Lloyd-Jones and Lewis 1998, p. 70; Fairbairn 1864, p. 67. There
were, of course, a whole spectrum of branches that had yet to be mechanised. See, for example,
Samuel 1977; Greenberg 1982.
126. Mitchell 1984, p. 1.
127. Mitchell 1984, p. 12.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 47
â€˜the major growth point was the consumption of coal for steam-powered
production in factories and workshops.â€™128
Responding to the demand, output from British coalmines leapt ahead.
Lancashire was the scene of the most dramatic advance, its mines expanding
on the direct and indirect stimulus from the local cotton industry. Total output
in Britain entered a phase of acceleration somewhere between 1815 and 1830,
reaching an apex of growth in mid-century before falling back to previous
levels; the span 1831â€“54 saw the highest growth rate in coal production ever
experienced between 1700 and 1900.129 The new deep roots of the British
economy did not escape contemporary observers. â€˜Without an abundant supply
of coalâ€™, Farey acknowledged, â€˜the use of steam-engines, and the practice of
the modern system of manufactures, would be very limited.â€™130 No longer was
coal merely used for heating homes; these days, McCulloch pointed out â€“ in
the process defining the quintessence of the fossil economy â€“ the British coal
reserves â€˜are the principal source and foundation of our manufacturing and
commercial prosperity.â€™131 In 1866, when business-as-usual already appeared
entrenched in Britain, Jevons famously summed up its logic: â€˜Coal in truth
stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material
energy of the country â€“ the universal aid â€“ the factor in everything we do.â€™132
The railway to global warming had been laid down.
Towards a theory of fossil capital
It should be clear by now that the transition to steam in the British cotton
industry presents the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm with a serious empirical
anomaly. Not only was the vanquished contender not running on present
photosynthesis, but the basic tenets of the paradigm run counter to perhaps
the most remarkable aspects of the process: the abundance, the technological
strength, and the cheapness of water at the time of the transition â€“ and anything
that happened subsequently cannot, of course, be used to explain it. The fact
that the total consumption of mechanical energy in the British economy much
later came to exceed the potential supply from the watercourses of the country
could not possibly have been a factor in the actual transition.
128. Church 1986, p. 27.
129. Pollard 1980; Mitchell 1984, pp. 7, 23â€“31; Church 1986, pp. 28â€“9; Flinn 1984, p. 26; Church
1986, p. 3.
130. Farey 1827, p. 225; emphasis added.
131. McCulloch 1837, p. 2.
132. Jevons 1866, p. viii.
48 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
But Wrigley makes an attempt to apply the Ricardian law of diminishing
returns to what we have here called the centrifugal dynamic. Water power, he
claims, â€˜was subject to rising marginal cost of provision since the better sites
were naturally developed first, leaving smaller or less conveniently situated
falls for later exploitation.â€™133 Though this might sound a good match for the
law, in fact it diverges from it in crucial respects. There is no evidence that the
waterfalls at the outer rims of the centrifugal dynamic were â€˜smallerâ€™ or worse
in any other absolute sense, whereas the inferior soils of Ricardoâ€™s law were,
as both he and Wrigley assert, less fertile by the laws of nature (thin soil, steep
slopes, poor drainage, etcetera). The disadvantage of distant watercourses was
not their deficient capacity to produce power â€“ rather the opposite: waterfalls
uphill tended to be more powerful than in the towns â€“ but precisely their
â€˜inconvenienceâ€™. And that was a socially determined factor. It arose not from
the fixed supply of land, but from the contradiction between the locations
of streams on the one hand and the need for cotton capitalists to access
concentrated supplies of labour on the other.
As for the Malthusian component of the paradigm, it was hardly a desperate
struggle to satisfy the needs for the clothing of a growing number of British
denizens that made the Arkwrights, the Ashworths, the Gregs or any other
manufacturers establish and enlarge their mills. If a causal connection can
at all be stretched out from the acceleration of population growth in the late
eighteenth century to the transition from water to steam in the second quarter
of the nineteenth century, it looks set to be exceedingly tenuous. As it appears
in the data, the transition was nothing like â€˜a valiant struggle of a society with
its back to the ecological wallâ€™.
Someone of neoclassical persuasion, finally, might object that if access to
labour in space and time is counted as an associated cost of a prime mover,
water was indeed more expensive than steam â€“ but this is merely to displace
the problem, to which neoclassical theory seems oblivious. In a capitalist
economy, the relative cost-efficiency of prime movers cannot be understood
outside of the relations of production. The obvious alternative is Marx. An
exegesis of all that he and Engels wrote on steam remains an unfulfilled task,
beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that the first volume of Capital
contains a finely textured account of the rise of steam power, including an
apt prÃ©cis: â€˜The steam-engine was from the very first an antagonist of â€œhuman
powerâ€, an antagonist that enabled the capitalists to tread underfoot the
133. Wrigley 1990, p. 75. Compare Wrigley 1972, p. 249.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 49
growing demands of the workers, which threatened to drive the infant factory
system into crisis.â€™134
As a starting-point for an analysis of the fossil economy â€“ far more
promising than anything derived from earlier classical economists â€“ we
may simply take the canonical Marxian view of the specificity of capitalist
growth. The compulsion to expand the scale of material production is not an
attribute of the human species, present â€“ if only in latent, bottled-up form â€“
from the beginning of history. It is an emergent property of capitalist property
relations. Once the direct producers and the means of production have been
separated, the compulsion is inscribed in the very structure of production, in
a qualitatively novel, indeed historically unprecedented way.135 Divorced and
reconstituted as commodities, labour power and means of production can only
be reunified â€“ and reunified they must be, if society is to survive â€“ â€˜in the hands
of the capitalistâ€™.136 His function is to acquire both with money. When the new
commodities begotten by the rendezvous are sold, the capitalist again receives
money. But why exchange money for money? The point of the process can only
be the difference between the original amount thrown into circulation and
the amount withdrawn at the end. If the business forecast told the capitalist
that he would get back 95 per cent of his money, he would be wise to keep it
in his pocket or do something else with it; if it said that he would stand a good
chance to get 100 per cent of the expenses covered but no more, he would still
be prudent to abstain. The effort would be pointless. Given capitalist property
relations, only the reasonable expectation of an increment in exchange-value can
set the process of production in motion.
Another word for that increment is, of course, profit, obtained from the
surplus-value produced by workers. Profit is the â€˜driving fireâ€™ of capitalist
production.137 It recognises no end: more money can only usher in attempts
to make even more money, the profit from the first circuit igniting production
anew on a larger scale. This is the process commonly known as â€˜growthâ€™, better
understood as capital accumulation, encapsulated in Marxâ€™s general formula of
capital as M â€“ C â€“ MÂ´, or Money â€“ Commodities â€“ Money-with-an-increment.
More precisely, the commodities purchased by the capitalist fall into the two
categories of Labour Power and Means of Production, unified in the process of
Production, giving the following extended formula:
134. Marx 1990, pp. 562â€“3.
135. For this analysis of the growth imperative, see for example Brenner 1986; Brenner 2007;
Joffe 2011. For the specifically eco-Marxist analysis, see for example Burkett 2006; Foster, Clark
and York 2010; Foster 2011; Blauwhof 2012.
136. Marx 1992, p. 120. Compare Marx 1992, pp. 114â€“15.
137. Mandelâ€™s translation of Marx. Mandel 1990, p. 60; compare Marx 1990, p. 254.
50 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
M â€“ C (L + MP) . . . P . . . CÂ´ â€“ MÂ´.
Reigniting after every circuit, the driving fire never goes out, and the general
formula can thus be extrapolated in perpetuity:
M â€“ C . . . P . . . CÂ´ â€“ MÂ´ â†’ MÂ´ â€“ CÂ´ . . . P . . . CÂ´Â´ â€“ MÂ´Â´ â†’ MÂ´Â´ â€“ CÂ´Â´ . . . P . . . CÂ´Â´Â´ â€“ MÂ´Â´Â´,
and so on. Capital is, by its very definition, this circulatory process of
valorisation, or self-expanding value. But capital is also â€“ by its very definition â€“
the relation between capitalists and workers. The two moments are intrinsically
connected: the relation unleashes the process, which in turn reproduces the
Capital, thus defined, exists â€˜only by sucking in living labour as its soul,
vampire-likeâ€™.138 But if labour is its soul, nature is its body. No profit from
commodity production is possible without the appropriation of nature as
â€˜the material substratum of exchange-valueâ€™.139 The deeper meaning of P in
the formulae of capital is a closely regulated Stoffwechsel, or metabolism,
between humans and the rest of nature: materials are withdrawn and, under
the command of the capitalist, placed in the hands of workers as means of
production.140 Apart from machines and other instruments, they include
raw materials, a subcategory of which is â€˜ancillary materialsâ€™ or â€˜accessoriesâ€™,
in Marxâ€™s terminology. These are the substances that do not enter into the
product itself â€“ in contradistinction to, say, cotton in a thread â€“ but form a
necessary part of the process of production. â€˜An accessory may be consumed by
the instruments of labour, such as coal by a steam-engine, oil by a wheel, hay by
draft-horses.â€™141 Coal and oil are treated by Marx as the archetypal accessories.
All required means of production â€“ â€˜machines, coal, oil, etc.â€™ â€“ have to be
present in sufficient mass â€˜to absorb the mass of labour which is to be turned
into products through themâ€™.142 In the right quantities, finely tuned to labour
power, the means of production will then be productively consumed, for the
production of commodities is also a â€˜consumption of the means of production,
which become worn through use, and are partly (e.g. in combustion) dissolved
into their elements again.â€™143 As value expands, more of the body of nature thus
has to be appropriated and consumed. The fire demands its fuel.
138. Marx 1993, p. 646.
140. For this analysis of the labour process, see Burkett 1999; Foster 2000.
141. Marx 1990, p. 288.
142. Marx 1992, pp. 177, 111.
143. Marx 1993, p. 90; emphasis added.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 51
At a certain stage in the historical development of capital, fossil fuels become
a necessary material substratum for the production of surplus-value. But they
are not merely necessary in the sense that raw cotton is necessary for the
production of cotton textiles, wood for that of tables, or iron ore for machines:
they are utilised across the spectrum of commodity production as the accessory
that sets it in physical motion. Other sources of rotary motion are pushed to
tiny fringes, while capital expands in leaps and bounds, energised by fossil
fuels. These have now become the general lever for surplus-value production.
With F for fossil fuels, we can thus derive the general formula of fossil
M â€“ C (L + MP (F)) . . . P . . . CÂ´ â€“ MÂ´
In the circuit of capital, fossil fuels are now a portion of the means of production.
The more capital expands, the larger the volumes extracted and combusted.
Integral parts of the Stoffwechsel, fossil fuels are subjected to productive
consumption in ever growing quantities, with an inevitable chemical
by-product, of which Marx and Engels were aware. In the second volume of
Capital, Marx explains that the time expended by the capitalist on buying and
selling his commodities, on prowling the market and securing transactions in
meetings with other businessmen, is not value-creating time, but nonetheless
â€˜a necessary moment of the capitalist production process in its totalityâ€™. Marx
draws a parallel pregnant with meaning. The time spent on buying and selling
is somewhat like the â€˜work of combustionâ€™ involved in setting light to a material
that is used to produce heat. This work does not itself produce any heat, although
it is a necessary moment of the combustion process. For example, in order to use
coal as a fuel, I must combine it with oxygen, and for this purpose transform it from
the solid into the gaseous state (for carbon dioxide, the result of the combustion,
is coal in this state: F.E.), i.e. effect a change in its physical form of existence
or physical state. The separation of the carbon molecules that were combined
into a solid whole, and the breaking down of the carbon molecule itself into its
individual atoms, must precede the new combination.144
When Engels edited the posthumous second volume of Capital, using his
initials to mark insertions in Marxâ€™s manuscripts, the science of chemistry
had made progress since the days of Babbage. Today, we may take Marxâ€™s
analogy literally and conclude that constantly increasing quantities of CO2,
just as market transactions, are a necessary part of capital accumulation; the
combustion of fossil fuels in their solid form and the consequent release of CO2
144. Marx 1992, p. 208.
52 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
do not in themselves create any value for the capitalist, but they are materially
indispensable for value creation. The extended formula of fossil capital thus
M â€“ C (L + MP (F)) . . . P . . . CÂ´ â€“ MÂ´
Since fossil energy now fuels the perpetuum mobile of capital accumulation,
igniting itself anew, as a driving fire that never goes out, the cycle continues
and so on. Valorisation proceeds through combustion. Fossil capital, in other
words, is self-expanding value passing through the metamorphosis of fossil fuels
into CO2. It is a relation, a triangular relation between capital, labour and a
certain segment of extra-human nature, in which the exploitation of labour
by capital is impelled by the combustion of this particular accessory. But
fossil capital is also a process, a flow of successive valorisations, at every stage
claiming a larger body of fossil energy to burn. It recognises no end. One could
think of this as the biophysical shadow of Marxâ€™s general formula of capital,
coming to the forefront only in the times of unexpected biospheric dusk.
The general formula of fossil capital, in these simple, extended and
extrapolated versions, does not, of course, capture the entire field of fossil fuel
consumption even in a capitalist society. The most obvious omission is a form
of consumption preceding fossil capital by at least six centuries: the purchase
of use-values whose very usage emits CO2. Heating cottages with coal falls
into this category, as does, to take but two examples, driving to work in a car,
or surfing the web with a computer (in so far as these run on fossil energy).
The immediate cause of combustion in these cases is the satisfaction of some
need or other in the sphere of private consumption. Here the formula would
But even though such individual consumption predates the productive
consumption of fossil fuels as a source of rotary motion, it does not give rise to
business-as-usual, for individual consumption is not the ignition mechanism of
M â€“ C (L + MP (F)) . . . P . . . CÂ´ â€“ MÂ´ â†’ MÂ´ (LÂ´ + MPÂ´ (FÂ´)). . . P . . . CÂ´Â´ â€“ MÂ´Â´
C â€“ M â€“ C (F)
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 53
Only with the emergence of fossil capital was business-as-usual established.
By placing coal right under the driving fire of capital accumulation, as the fuel
transmitting physical motion to the labour process, a spiral of growing fossil
fuel combustion was, for the first time, directly tied to the spiralling growth
of capitalist commodity production. But why did capital strike root in fossil
fuels? Why did capital in general become fossil capital? What tensions in the
relationship between capital, labour and the rest of nature â€“ or, what properties
of the capitalist property relations â€“ prompted this fateful step?
The abstract and fossil spatio-temporality of capitalism
The separation between direct producers and means of production means
that peasants are pushed off their land. Capital hinges upon a popular exodus
from the countryside. Released from their attachment to the soil, the â€˜freeâ€™
workers congregate at particular points, where they reconnect with the means
of production on someone elseâ€™s property. The receptacle for this original
spatial concentration of capitalist property relations is, of course, the factory,
but it immediately points beyond itself: every factory â€˜bears in it the germ of a
As the larger receptacle, the town amasses raw materials, instruments, means
of subsistence and, above all, workers. The concentration of proletarians in the
town is the flipside of the draining of the countryside. It is also a necessary
condition for the production of surplus-value. If there are no unemployed
workers knocking at the factory gates, labour will be in a perilously strong
bargaining position; the â€˜dead weight of the industrial reserve armyâ€™ has to
be in situ, in the form a large, dense, overflowing market for labour power.
In a small, thin, spatially dispersed labour-market, capitalists have to treat
their workers as precious assets, circumscribing the power to extract surplusvalue. Moreover, propertyless ex-peasants must become habituated to life as
disciplined operatives, in a community where wage-labour has become the
normal mode of existence for masses and generations of people. The town is
the ideal if not the only feasible receptacle for all these mutually dependent
processes.146 Water stood in fundamental contradiction to it.
Capitalist property relations engendered concentration in space: capitalists
sticking with water were obliged to expand out from the centre. In the colonies,
they had to fuse the spaces of production and reproduction, providing for all
the needs of their workers â€“ accommodation, access to staple goods, religious
institutions, schooling â€“ rather than letting them get by on an infrastructure
145. Engels 2009, p. 34.
146. Storper and Walker 1989, pp. 140â€“5; Smith 2008, p. 116; Harvey 1999, pp. 381â€“4.
54 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
already in place.147 It would have been different had the abundance of cheap
water been located in a hole in the ground, in a trunk around which the town
could bush out, or in some other vertical configuration â€“ but then water would
not have been water. As water, it flowed on the surface of the British landscape,
fully available but incongruous with the emergent spatial dynamic.
The contradiction was present from the start, but it was long hidden under
the super-profits of the first generations of cotton capitalists. Only after the
mid-1820s was it brought to a head. Resolving the contradiction, the cotton
capitalists then cut off the tether of water power, gained a fundamental mobility
to seek out â€“ and discard â€“ workers, broke loose from what Henri Lefebvre
called â€˜absolute spaceâ€™ and moved into its â€˜abstractâ€™ counter-dimension.
Absolute space is â€˜made up of fragments of nature located at sites which were
chosen for their intrinsic qualities (cave, mountaintop, spring, river). . . . Then
the forces of history smashed naturalness forever and upon its ruins established
the space of accumulationâ€™.148 There emerged abstract space. Instead of going
reverently to the mountaintops and rivers and establishing its businesses
there, capital produced a matrix of nodes and arteries through its own circuits.
Absolute, natural space â€˜juxtaposes â€“ and thus dispersesâ€™. Abstract, social space
â€˜implies actual or potential assembly at a single pointâ€™, and thereby also â€˜the
possibility of accumulationâ€™.149
But even abstract space ultimately has to rest on nature. Fossil fuels alone
have the characteristics that allowed for its formation. They are not diffused
on the surface of the natural landscape, not weaved into its qualitative
properties but concentrated in deposits beneath the ground, outside the realm
of human habitation and visible variety. Their most concrete property is their
abstractness. While bound to specific, irreproducible places â€“ seams, in this
case â€“ coal is buried at a remove from the space of humans, as the relic of
a landscape long dead and gone.150 It was the optimal raw material for the
initial break-out into spatial abstraction. By virtue of being concentrated in
subterranean sites of no other use or meaning, coal could be brought into the
world of earthlings as loose fragments, passing from hand to hand, circulating
freely inside the commodity circuits and releasing the forces of accumulation.
The temporality of capitalist property relations is homologous. Pre-capitalist
modes of production were structured by what Moishe Postone calls â€˜concrete
timeâ€™: time as dependent variable, the function of an occasion, process, or
147. Compare Lefebvre 1991, p. 319; Harvey 1999, pp. 398â€“405; Smith 2008, pp. 166, 182.
148. Lefebvre 1991, p. 49.
149. Lefebvre 1991, p. 101.
150. Compare the argument made in Mitchell 2011, especially Chapter 1.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 55
sensuous rhythm. Above all, concrete time is embedded in natural cycles.151
The pre-capitalist fisher attended to the tides, while the artisan downed his
tools when darkness fell. In peasant households the grain must be harvested
before the rains arrive, the cows must be milked in the morning, and the
firewood must be at hand when autumn comes â€“ in short, â€˜hours and task must
fluctuate with the weather.â€™152
But capitalist property relations generate a radically different, indeed
antithetical temporality: when a capitalist purchases the right to dispose of
labour power, that right is restricted and specified in time (otherwise there
would be slavery). His objective is to make sure that the worker performs as
much labour as possible within the given time-frame, be it six or twelve hours,
for one week or as long as the parties agree. The labour has to occur precisely
within that time â€“ not when the weather is right, or when the sun has risen,
or when the worker happens to be in the mood for hard labour, for then the
right to dispose of labour power might have already expired, and the purchase
would come to nought. Moreover, the capitalist must see to it that his workers
produce the commodities at least as fast as those of his competitors, and so he
becomes intensely preoccupied with productivity: labour output as measured
against a fixed time unit.153 With the rise of capitalist property relations,
there emerged, in Postoneâ€™s terms, abstract time. This is time as independent
variable, a mathematical vessel, an incorporeal repository of events which
heeds no seasons, weather or other concrete appearances in nature. It serves
as a measure of activity, beginning with labour.154
Water power was a legacy from the era of concrete time. It was eminently
commensurate with modes of production attuned to the ups and downs of
natural fluctuations, the ebbs and flows, the floods and dry spells, the freezing
cold in wintertime. But abstract time inhered in capitalist property relations.
A contradiction was inevitable, though it did not make itself felt until a certain
juncture in the history of capitalist development: as long as absolute surplusvalue was dominant â€“ as long as manufacturers could extend the working day
at will â€“ water was still a perfectly viable energy source. It could be used to
produce surplus-value, even as labour-time had to be adjusted to the power
supply. But with the Factory Acts of 1833 and 1847, not only was the lengthening
of the working day for the first time brought to a mandated halt, but the day
was shortened. How did capital respond to this challenge? It â€˜threw itself with
all its might, and in full awareness of the situation, into the production of
151. Postone 1993, pp. 201â€“2.
152. Thompson 1967, p. 78. Compare Ingold 1995.
153. Postone 1993, pp. 210â€“12; Thompson 1967, pp. 61, 90â€“1.
154. Postone 1993, pp. 202, 214â€“15.
56 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
relative surplus-valueâ€™, by increasing the productivity and intensity of labour,
so that more commodities were produced in the remaining given time units.155
The struggle for a shorter working day â€“ Urform of working-class selfdefence â€“ provoked capital to counterattack with a further abstraction of time.
â€˜The pores of time are so to speak shrunk through the compression of labour.â€™156
Abstract time became ever more sovereign and supreme in its claims on
labour â€“ and consequently on nature. If labour was to proceed faster and more
intensely, so must the prime mover; all bulging pores of interruption had to
be banished. In the 1830s and 1840s, as absolute surplus-value was overtaken
by its relative twin, the increased expenditure of labour had to be placed on
the solid footing of the steam engine, utterly malleable to the temporal needs
of capital â€“ turned on, turned off, speeded up at will. Such virtues were mere
corollaries of the essence of fossil fuels: their ejection from perceptible natural
rhythms through burial underground. Frozen in time, coal was congenial to the
abstract time of capitalist property relations, and, under the duress of factory
legislation, it became a prerequisite for its continued abstraction.
Abstract space and abstract time together form what Noel Castree calls the
â€˜distinctive spatio-temporalityâ€™ of the capitalist mode of production.157 Capital
does not circulate in space and through time, as if the two were fixed axes
along which it develops; rather, it produces its own abstract space-time. The
one dimension is inseparable from the other. They constitute a single spatiotemporality, which emanates straight from the fundamentals of capitalist
property relations. A primordial rift in the relation between humans and
between them and the rest of nature â€“ the separation between direct producers
and means of production â€“ is propagated in space and time, severing human
beings from the qualitative properties of both dimensions. Labour is relocated
to particular places and moments set aside strictly for the purpose.
The necessary material substratum for this spatio-temporality â€“ long hidden
from the view of most Marxists, however sharp their eyes have otherwise
been â€“ is fossil fuels.158 They represent the geological compression of the time
and space required for photosynthesis hundreds of millions of years ago, when
no humans roamed the planet; sui generis, their dense energy permits capital
to produce its own abstract spatio-temporality for the production of surplusvalue. They are incorporated into capital as its own motive force.
155. Marx 1990, p. 534; emphasis added.
156. Marx 1991b, p. 335.
157. Castree 2009, p. 27; emphasis in original.
158. Some Marxists who have argued in this direction are Altvater 1994; Altvater 2006; Clark
and York 2005; Huber 2009.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 57
Marx comes close to capturing this logic in the third volume of Capital, at
the beginning of his treatment of ground-rent, devoted to an extraordinary
discussion of the relative benefits of water and steam. â€˜Assumeâ€™, Marx opens
his excursion, â€˜that the factories in a country are powered predominantly by
steam-engines, but a certain minority by natural waterfalls instead.â€™ Water
is far cheaper, Marx further assumes â€“ this is written in London in the mid1860s â€“ and provides the proprietors of water mills with â€˜exceptionally
favourable conditionsâ€™. Labour applied in the water mill has greater productivity
than in the steam mill, expressed â€˜in the way that it needs a smaller quantity
of constant capital to produce the same amount of commodities, a smaller
quantity of objectified labour than the others; and a smaller quantity of living
labour as well, since the water-wheel does not need to be heated.â€™159 However,
a natural force that is not available to all capital in the same sphere of production,
as is for example the elasticity of steam. . . . It is in no way just up to the capital
to call into being this natural condition of greater labour productivity, in the way
that any capital can transform water into steam. The condition is to be found in
nature only at certain places, and where it is not found it cannot be produced
by a particular capital outlay. It is not bound up with products that labour can
produce such as machines, coal, etc., but rather with particular natural conditions
on particular pieces of land.160
Water, Marx reiterates, â€˜cannot be produced by capitalâ€™s own production
processâ€™: capital â€˜cannot create a water-fall from its own resourcesâ€™.161 This is
in stark contrast to fossil fuels. Their power is â€˜just what we choose to make
itâ€™, in the words of Senior; their â€˜mighty services are always at our commandâ€™,
with Alderson. Needless to say, capital is unable to literally manufacture
coal seams or any other fossil fuel reserves, but it can call them into being
as energy deposits by mobilising its own resources: labour power and means
of production. Indeed, fossil fuels are not a natural force like water, running
through forests and meadows prior to capitalâ€™s arrival, dispensing its energy
merely by existing: fossil fuels must be called into existence. The appearance
of fossil energy qua energy is not autonomous, but contingent upon capital
itself. It assumes the guise of a power in motion internal to capital, lending it a
physical life of its own.
Precisely because it is so abstract, and founded on the power of the capitalist
class, the spatio-temporality of capitalism is more deeply rooted in a particular
159. Marx 1991a, pp. 779â€“81; emphasis added.
160. Marx 1991a, p. 784; emphases added.
161. Marx 1991a, pp. 784â€“5.
58 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
form of nature than other spatialities and temporalities in history. Arago
neatly laid out the principles in his hagiography of Watt: â€˜The great mechanical
powers which had formerly to be sought for in mountainous districts, at the
foot of rapid cascades, will, thanks to Wattâ€™s invention, readily and easily arise,
in the midst of towns, on any story of a house. The extent of these powers will
vary at the will of the mechanician; it will no longer depend, as heretofore,
on the most inconstant of natural causes, â€“ on atmospheric influences.â€™162
Instead, capitalist spatio-temporality came to influence the atmosphere. The
depth of its dependency on nature is fully disclosed when carbon dioxide
from the combustion of fossil fuels, with a transformative power unlike any
other anthropogenic substance, rearranges the qualitative properties of space
and jumbles historical and geological time in ways never previously seen.
Abstracting itself from nature, capital ended up making it less and less liveable,
in very concrete terms.
The persistence of business-as-usual
Fossil capital has proved fantastically profitable for almost two centuries. Up
to this day, its rotation continues to propel business-as-usual, in complete
disregard of the scientific knowledge of the noxious effects of increasing the
atmosphere by large quantities of carbon dioxide. How do we approach this
all-time social wreck? The favoured Ricardian-Malthusian explanation for
the transition to a fossil economy â€“ the liberation from land constraint â€“
can only be a one-off driver, at the very best. This becomes obvious if we
revisit the mathematical conversions from fossil fuels to acres of woodland
so highly regarded as explanatory exercises by Wrigley and his followers.
When Wrigley calculates that all coal in 1800 equalled 35% of the British land
surface, rising to 150% in 1850, this is, of course, a hypothetical, counterfactual
thought-experiment. Can it tell us anything about the causal forces operating
in the expansion of coal consumption in the period? For that to be the case,
Wrigley would have to present evidence that land scarcity pushed up prices for
alternative fuels in the first half of the nineteenth century, that the rising costs
of these other fuels impelled consumers to shift to coal, and that such costmotivated consumption made up the bulk of all coal-burning. Wrigley does
not, however, provide anything of the sort, and it would be difficult to do so.
Then can the exercise tell us anything about the causal forces operating later
in the history of business-as-usual?
162. Arago 1839, p. 150.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 59
Consider Malanimaâ€™s conclusion that a Europe bereft of fossil fuels would
have needed 2.7 times its continental surface in 1900 and more than 20 times a
century later: can it tell us anything about the driving force of this tremendous
pyre? Logically it cannot, because if Europe was liberated from the land
constraint â€“ even before the onset of the twentieth century â€“ it could no longer
have operated as a causal factor. The supposed breaking of the Ricardian curse
is a one-off event, evaporating as soon as it transpires. The same applies to the
iron industry, the best case for the paradigm: the liberation from land provided
by the conversion from charcoal to coke can explain the initial spike in coal
consumption, but once that liberation had actually occurred, other drivers
must have taken over. As for the Malthusian component, there is precious
little evidence that population growth has been behind subsequent waves of
expanding fossil fuel consumption.163
Adherents of the Ricardian-Malthusian paradigm are, of course, right in
identifying fossil fuels as a necessary precondition for the kind of growth the
world has seen in the past two centuries. But the only clue they can offer for an
analysis of business-as-usual after the industrial revolution is a vague reference
to growth as an innately human pursuit, common to all eras and modes
of production, permanently throbbing if sometimes held back. It begs the
question of what is special with the fossil economy. Nothing new has emerged;
the old has merely been realised. The theory of fossil capital, on the other hand,
appears to have explanatory power for the transition to a fossil economy and
for its continued development. Consider only the case of China. The twentyfirst century explosion in CO2 emissions is centred on China, largely caused
by the relocation of industrial production from advanced capitalist countries.
This process obviously has nothing to do with land constraints or population
growth in those same countries. But it has, as argued elsewhere, very much to
do with the removal of factories to other situations, where labourers are easily
procured and trained to industrious habits.164
This points towards a radical rethinking of the drivers of ecological
destruction in our time. They should not be conceived as archaic yearnings of
the human species, as a timeless growth pursuit bumping into walls of scarcity
and transcending them by substituting abundant goods for scarce ones: a
universal process unfolding through reaction upon specific constraints. The
reverse appears more appropriate. Capital is a specific process that unfolds
through a universal appropriation of biophysical resources, because capital
itself possesses a unique, insatiable appetite for surplus-value extracted from
163. For a debunkning of the myth that population growth drives carbon emissions, see
164. Malm 2012b.
60 A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68
human labour by means of material substrata. Capital, one could say, is superecological, a biophysical omnivore with its own peculiar social DNA.
Such a theory might, furthermore, provide insights into the stalled shift to
renewable energy sources. It has recently been demonstrated that all energy
consumed in the world could be provided from wind, water and solar power,
without any noticeable share of coal, oil or natural gas, within a few decades,
at little or no extra total cost â€“ if relevant actors only decided to harvest the
abundance of energy surrounding us.165 But there are hurdles in the way. In
a major survey in 2010, Science noted that â€˜building solar or wind farms is a
land-hungry process, and the energy they deliver is often intermittent and
hard to store.â€™ Quoting an ecological economist specialising in the field, it drew
attention to the fact that â€˜ â€œmany of the windiest and sunniest regions in the
world are virtually uninhabitedâ€ â€™.166 Now these inherent properties of wind
and sun â€“ absolute space, concrete time â€“ would perhaps not constitute such
serious handicaps if it were not for the particular form of spatio-temporality
that governs the world.
The problem is not new. One day in the late 1860s, as he sat preparing a
lecture on the economics of coal, William Stanley Jevonsâ€™s eyes fell upon a
newspaper report about the Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson, who
â€˜undertakes to supply a new fuel in the place of coal, and a new motive power
instead of steam. For several years he has been experimenting with a view of
collecting and concentrating the radiating heat of the sunâ€™ in a â€˜solar engineâ€™.167
Jevons saved the clip and scribbled down his excitement. It was the â€˜most
soundâ€™ of all suggested solutions to what he perceived to be an impending coal
and for my part I really do not look upon it as an unlikely notion to be carried
out into practice some day. But if it be carried out, what will be the result for us â€“
simply that we shall be replaced, and the seats of industry will be removed to the
sunny parts of the earth. In Manchester at any rate we have little sun that we have
to manipulate for light. . . . The tendency of things is such that we are likely to find
coal a source of sunlight [rather] than sunlight a competitor of coal.168
This â€˜tendency of thingsâ€™, Jevons thus intimated, did not inhere in the sun or the
earth themselves, but in the ongoing concentration of industrial commodity
production to the galaxy gravitating around Manchester.
165. Jacobson and Delucchi 2011a; Jacobson and Delucchi 2011b; Leggett and Ball 2012.
166. Kerr 2010 (Cutler Cleveland). Compare the points raised by Trainer 2012.
167. Jevons archive: JA6/9/168, â€˜Fuel from the sunâ€™, undated clip from Express.
168. Jevons archive: JA6/9/168, note on the Express clip.
A. Malm / Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013) 15â€“68 61
Today, the divergence between the potentials of renewable energy and the
tendency of things â€“ each advancing in their own direction â€“ is, of course, far
wider. Manchester and its twins in the advanced capitalist countries have
lost their lustre, because capital has become even more bent on removing to
locations where the supplies of labour power offer the highest rates of surplusvalue, regardless of any intrinsic qualities of places. Here is a question rarely
asked: is that tendency compatible with a complete cessation of fossil fuel
use, the kind of change climate science tells us is our only chance to avoid a
general breakdown of the ecological foundations of human existence? Even if
a project such as Desertec â€“ filling the Sahara with solar panels and sending
the electricity to Europe â€“ were to be implemented, it would still be impossible
to export that solar energy to, say, the Yangzi Delta, or any other distant place
capital currently might favour for commodity production.169 But oil can be
pumped out of the ground in Alaska or Angola and shipped to any site of
accumulation, from Guangzhou to Ghent. A similar question pertains to the
dimension of time. Are the principles of just-in-time and lean production at all
reconcilable with renewable energy?
Globalisation may be conceived as a process in which the spatio-temporality
of capital is extricated from and made to dominate all other aspects of human
and natural life: a most unpropitious moment, it would seem, for embedding
the worldâ€™s energy system in the spatial and temporal matrix of wind, water
and sun. It might well be the case that renewable energy can become as reliable
and all-encompassing as fossil energy â€“ if scaled up massively and assisted by
super-grids, surplus capacity, intercontinental transmission, electricity storage
systems and all the rest â€“ but in the meantime, we may do well to wonder if
the inaction on the most critical issue in the history of humanity is rooted in
the compulsions of self-expanding value.170 For two centuries, it has craved
constantly increasing quantities of energy, whose qualities correspond to its
own mode of existence, both of which moments seem to perpetuate businessas-usual and deflect alternatives. Will this fire have to be extinguished? What
would that require, given that we have so precious little time to stave off the
worst-case scenarios? Further research on fossil capital may throw light on
the â€“ literally â€“ social nature of this challenge.
169. On Desertec, see for example Clery 2010.
170. Elaborate arguments for such potentials of renewable energy are made in Jacobson and
Delucchi 2011a; Jacobson and Delucchi 2011b.
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