18 ConclusionProspects for Energy Democracy in the Face of Passive Revolution*
William K. Carroll
This book has mapped the relations and contours of a powerful regime of obstruction within contemporary Canada. In conclusion, I take stock of what we have learned and reflect on the implications for crafting a socially just escape route from impending climate catastrophe.
Rooted in the political economy of fossil capitalism—and conjoined with a panoply of hegemonic practices that reach into civil and political society and into Indigenous communities whose land claims and world views challenge state-mandated property rights—the regime is driven by the quest for profit through the carbon extraction that continues to fuel capital accumulation globally. As this book has shown, the regime combines several modalities of power—economic, political, and cultural—that operate through a variety of channels (see figure I.1, in the introduction).
Antonio Gramsci’s thinking on capitalism and hegemony can be helpful in coming to grips with these interrelated modalities. Capital accumulation is the source of corporate power, in that it appropriates wealth from labour and nature and lodges it in the hands of a tiny elite: leading investors and corporate executives. But, as Gramsci emphasized, economic power is itself underwritten and legitimated by power resident in political and cultural practices. To the extent that they cohere as a way of life, these economic, political, and cultural relations form the institutional and ideological foundations for what Gramsci called an historical bloc—the basis of a stable regime. Discussing Gramsci’s concept, Ngai-Ling Sum and Bob Jessop point out that
the historical bloc reflects ‘the necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructure.’ This reciprocity is realized through specific intellectual, moral and political practices. These translate narrow sectoral, professional, or local (in his terms, ‘economic-corporate’) interests into broader ‘ethico-political’ ones. Thus the ethico-political not only helps to co-constitute economic structures but also provides them with their rationale and legitimacy. (Sum and Jessop 2013, 199, quoting Gramsci 1971, 366)
The various studies collected herein have mapped the relations and practices that position fossil capital within “the decisive nucleus of economic activity” (Gramsci 1971, 161) while legitimating continued carbon extraction as business-as-usual. In the economic field, we have mapped the operational power of management, flowing through a chain of command within an “oligopolistic bloc” of a few large corporations (chapter 1) and wielded along commodity chains that are also “corridors of power” (chapter 2). Our mapping of who owns leading Canada-based fossil-capital corporations revealed a network of strategic power that is concentrated among major shareholders (corporate and personal) and institutional investors, amounting to a massive centralization of economic power in the hands of private investors accountable only to themselves (chapter 4). Complementing the power of ownership is the allocative power of finance. Canada’s financial sector is dominated by five big banks. As lenders to and shareholders in fossil fuel companies, the banks enable the accumulation of fossil capital while appropriating a portion of the surplus, and some of them also share directors with the same firms (Daub and Carroll 2016).1 As financial capital “digests” the looming climate catastrophe, biospheric degeneration gets converted into risk factors that help steer accumulation without addressing the scale and scope of the ecological crisis itself (chapter 3). These economic power modalities are integrated within a complex circuitry in which capital metamorphoses across the productive, commercial, and financial forms initially identified by Marx (1967).
As for the hegemonic modalities of corporate power, my analysis of the fossil-capital elite in chapter 5 reveals a cohesive corporate community, embedded in a transnational elite network, that enables big business to reach a working consensus on long-term goals and vision and, on that basis, to speak politically with a single voice and lead. The fossil-capital elite is fully integrated with financial and other fractions of corporate capital in Canada, participating in what Nico Poulantzas (1973, 141) called a relatively integrated “power bloc.”
Part of what makes the elite network a power bloc, and complementing this elite integration, is the reach of corporate power into the public sphere. The extensive elite network extending from fossil-capital boardrooms into key knowledge-producing sectors of civil society (mapped in chapter 6) offers many channels for corporate influence in constructing the public interest.
Fossil Capital Within the Hegemonic Bloc
As it organizes a consensus for business-as-usual, not only among corporate leaders but more widely through civil and political society, the power bloc obstructs democratic alternatives that jeopardize immediate capitalist interests in redeeming past investments and securing new revenue streams. But the hegemony of fossil capital and its allies extends well beyond the leading echelons—the power bloc itself—as we have seen in the cases of online pro-industry activism and small-town industry boosterism (chapters 7 and 11).
This raises the issue of how the regime of obstruction is organized not only through modalities of economic and political-cultural power but also on distinct scales—from households and families up to “the historic blocs underpinning particular states [that] become connected through the mutual interests and ideological perspectives of social classes in different countries—portending ‘an incipient world society’” (Cox 1987, 7). Indeed, the regime operates on multiple scales, from the everyday to the global. Table 18.1 offers some key instances (discussed below) but is not intended as anything like a complete inventory.
Fossil-fuelled consumer capitalism as a way of life: the privatized geography of automobility and suburbanization
Civic privatism/boosterism and hegemonic community economic identity; Indigenous ambivalence
Entrenchment of fossil interests in institutions of knowledge production, etc.: petro-universities and state-subsidized R&D
Alberta as petro-state, industry boosterism in extractive and sacrifice zones
Defining the “national interest,” through elite policy planning and online extractive populist networks
Global governance and transnational policy planning to manage crisis and maintain fossil-capital predominance
Matthew Huber’s (2013) study of postwar suburbanized consumerism remains a key work in revealing how fossil-capital hegemony is accomplished in everyday life. Without even getting behind the wheel, anyone who views an SUV commercial experiences automobility (vicariously) as empowering and liberating, and, although home ownership is out of reach for many, the single detached house continues to function as a symbolic representation of personal sovereignty. The hegemony of fossil capital is both deeply ingrained in everyday pleasures, identities, and aspirations and reinforced through media content that trumpets corporate social responsibility while often vilifying critics.
With regard to local communities, Emily Eaton and Simon Enoch’s study of “hegemonic community economic identity” in small-town Saskatchewan (chapter 11) shows how the allocative power of corporate funders of local amenities combines with the discursive power of industry-propagated frames of reference to produce a hegemony deeply lodged in an acceptance of industry narratives and an othering of those who challenge the environmental viability of business-as-usual. In Canada, some local communities are Indigenous, and their strong claims to land and self-governance have always troubled a hegemonic bloc based in settler colonialism. Until relatively recently, individuals deemed to be members of First Nations under the Indian Act were considered wards of the state and were excluded from full citizenship rights. It was only in 1960, when Parliament passed the Canada Elections Act, that “registered Indians” were granted the right to vote and only in 2011 that First Nations individuals finally received full access to Canada’s human rights protection.2 Genocidal policies mandated by the Indian Act, which succeeded for many decades in marginalizing and silencing Indigenous voices, have bequeathed a legacy of injustice that in our era spurs resistance and demands reparation. Resurgent Indigenous politics speaks in an ethico-political voice, championing a holistic vision of the health and balance in which humanity recovers a harmonious relationship with the rest of nature.
Yet, as Angele Alook and her colleagues document in chapter 12, Indigenous workers in extractive zones often have little choice but to take lower-rung jobs in the industry, with women doubly marginalized. Moreover, as Cliff Atleo argues in chapter 13, Indigenous struggles for self-determination coexist with capitalism’s powerful colonizing capacities, both economic and ideological. In these instances, hegemony is expressed as Indigenous ambivalence—a contradictory consciousness situated between the aspiration for Indigenous resurgence and the pragmatic lure of partnership as a means to secure a portion of the wealth that capital and state continue to extract from Indigenous lands. “Partnership” is now presented as a form of self-determination, through which Indigenous peoples can become sovereign subjects in a capitalist way of life in which they are already participants. “Partnership” forms a crucial aspect of the hegemonic project favoured by the Canadian state and capitalist class, as a means of winning effectively permanent consent to capitalist development on Indigenous land.
At a subnational scale, we encounter a diversity of scenarios, shaped by the uneven spatial distribution of carbon resources. In extractive and sacrifice zones, industry boosterism often prevails, with good-news narratives displacing dissent and critique. As Laurie Adkin and others argue (see Adkin 2016), Alberta in particular functions largely as a petro-state. At first blush, British Columbia, currently governed by a social-democratic party that has opposed the expansion of a bitumen pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, might appear as just the opposite. Yet the ongoing extraction of massive reserves of methane in British Columbia’s northeast—under the ideological cover of a mythical notion of liquefied natural gas as a “transition fuel” (Lee 2019)—suggests otherwise, as does the “captured” status of the BC Oil and Gas Commission, which, as Shannon Daub and her colleagues show in chapter 11, rubber-stamps new fossil-capital projects. In Alberta, where fossil capital reigns supreme, the same regulatory capture is evident, but capital’s hegemonic reach extends to an industrial-scientific complex that subsidizes corporate profitability by lowering production costs as it also transfuses market values into the public sphere (Carroll, Graham, and Yunker 2018). This industrial-scientific complex exemplifies fossil capital’s reach into knowledge-producing institutions, including the universities and research institutes examined in depth in chapter 10 (and, more broadly, in Gray and Carroll 2018).
At the national scale, the struggle for hearts and minds is condensed into contention around the “national interest.” In the federal government’s 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, for example, analyzed in chapter 8, the “national interest” in “clean growth” incorporates the interests of Alberta-centric fossil capital, as well as of financial institutions based in central Canada, while also promising jobs to workers and a healthy environment—in a compelling illustration of the new climate denialism. Yes, we must address a pressing climate crisis and, yes, we must build more pipelines to speed all extractable carbon to market, while also stoking accumulation in the renewable energy sector. This is the thinking that enabled the Trudeau government to reapprove the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion on June 18, 2019, the day after it declared a climate emergency (see Hughes 2019). This seemingly incoherent construction of the national interest continues a long tradition of brokerage politics for which the Liberal Party of Canada has been the leading agent. But with right-wing populist governments now installed in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, the clean growth framework has been unravelling. The challenges facing the framework illustrate how entrenched fossil-capital interests are within the federated Canadian polity and how low-tax, light-regulation neoliberalism deepens those trenches.
Of course, the practices that maintain an historical bloc for fossil capitalism extend beyond the state-capital nexus (van Apeldoorn, de Graaff, and Overbeek 2017), in both elite and popular registers. The elite networks that reach into knowledge-producing domains of civil society are complemented, in everyday life, by emergent online networks of what Shane Gunster and his colleagues, in chapter 7, term extractive populism. In combination, such communities of discourse constitute a petro-bloc “oriented around neoliberal extractivism, ecoskepticism and transnational ‘market fundamentalist’ epistemic communities” (Neubauer 2017, iii). In contrast to the new climate denialism, extractive populism ignores the need for “climate leadership” altogether. It portrays “ordinary people” as victims of liberal elites who impose their environmental values upon everyone else (Gunster and Saurette 2014) and constructs within online echo chambers a pro-fossil “national interest” grounded in anti-elite resentment.
As political projects, the new climate denialism and extractive populism work in tandem within both policy discourse and popular discourse, the former closely hooked into ruling relations and the latter posing as “outsider” to power. Together, they delimit the boundaries of mainstream discussion, posing a choice between “climate action” inadequate to the scale of the crisis and no action at all—and, in the process, contributing to the maintenance of business-as-usual.
Climate Capitalism as Passive Revolution
Notwithstanding the various practices and modalities of power that obstruct meaningful climate action in Canada, changes are afoot, as China and Europe (as well as subnational jurisdictions such as California) open space in the energy mix for renewables and as transnational carbon majors like Shell, BP, and Total write down billions as stranded assets.3 In a June 2020 report titled Decline and Fall: The Size and Vulnerability of the Fossil Fuel System, researchers at the Carbon Tracker Initiative conclude that, as demand for fossil fuels continues its decline, companies “will face major asset write-downs as it becomes clear that high-cost fossil fuel supply and demand infrastructure has limited value” (Bond, Vaughan, and Benham 2020, 46). At the same time, major international financial institutions are choosing to divest from the dirtiest fossil fuels, including Alberta’s tar sands (McSheffrey 2017).4
This brings us to climate capitalism, an emergent accumulation strategy that “seeks to redirect investments from fossil energy to renewable energy generation so as to foster an ecological modernization of production and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” (Sapinski 2015, 268; see also Adkin 2017). The promise of climate capitalism is to shepherd the world to a safe landing without disrupting its essential nucleus in capitalist relations of production. However, the presence of major fossil-capital companies at the heart of the “climate capitalist corporate-policy elite”—that is, those corporate directors who also sit on climate and environmental policy groups—suggests “a weak project of climate capitalism,” one in which the transition to sustainable energy production takes place relatively slowly (Sapinski 2015, 273, 276). This gradual shift averts the threat of stranded assets while allowing fossil capital time to expand its control of replacement energy sources (Sapinski 2016, 106).
Climate capitalism faces two challenges, however. For one thing, its pace of change is too slow, compared to the realities of climate breakdown, and, for another, capital’s growth imperative essentially precludes a shrinking footprint. In these senses, climate capitalism, closely akin to the “green economy” and “clean growth” thinking that Marc Lee critiques in chapter 14, is the strategic framework behind what we have termed the new climate denialism. Looking ahead, as measures such as carbon taxing and cap-and-trade prove ineffective, the climate-capitalist strategy seems poised to incorporate geoengineering—both carbon capture and storage (CCS) and stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI)—into its action repertoire, with potentially catastrophic ramifications.5
SAI has been aptly described as “a mechanism that can relieve (for capital) some of the immediate pressures of the climate crisis and enable a passive revolution from fossil capitalism to green capitalism, blunting the more radical alternatives advanced by the climate justice movement” (Surprise 2018, 1230; see also Mookerjea 2017). Indeed, climate capitalism exemplifies the Gramscian notion of passive revolution. Deployed in an organic crisis, when bourgeois hegemony is weakened, passive revolution is “a strategy which allows the bourgeoisie to reorganize its dominance politically and economically” (Sassoon 1982, 134). As Thomas Wanner (2015, 31) suggests, climate capitalism “is the promise of a green capitalism without questioning the underlying dynamics and power relations and causes of unsustainability of this system. On the contrary, the green economy/growth discourse further intensifies the privatisation and marketisation of the fictitious commodity of ‘nature,’ and perpetuates the myth of limitless growth.” Climate capitalism’s system-friendly reforms are a formula for continuity in change, managed from above. They appeal to subjectivities already normalized within fossil-fuelled consumer capitalism and portend only minor shifts in capitalism’s historical bloc.
Within climate-capitalist rhetoric, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mantra “grow the middle class” invokes the reassuringly familiar desire for more of the same (material goods and services), while “clean growth” provides the means to that regnant end. Given fossil capital’s weight in both the Canadian economy and the country’s power bloc, and as a concession to extractive populist elements, the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change melds fossil capitalism with climate capitalism, in the form of robust sales of bitumen while global demand still exists, combined with a gentle program of state support for renewables and other mitigation efforts.
But time is not on this venture’s side, as the costs of renewables have already undercut those of carbon. Moreover, evidence strongly indicates that demand for fossil fuels overall reached a peak in 2019, in which case “it is clearly not necessary to build new supply or demand infrastructure” (Bond, Vaughan, and Benham 2020, 43). A recent study (Mercure et al. 2018) charts the likely outcome. As demand for carbon wanes, stranding the assets of high-cost producers, Canada’s GDP is projected to plummet (in step with a milder US decline) while Europe and China grow as new centres of climate capitalism.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to develop and co-opt the organizations and cadres needed in constructing a climate-capitalist historical bloc—whether in state-led climate leadership initiatives or in new state- and industry-supported groups in civil society, such as University of Ottawa–based Smart Prosperity (McCartney 2018; see also Graham 2019) and the McGill University–based Ecofiscal Commission. Concurrently, resurgent right-wing governments in Ontario and Alberta practice a more entrenched obstructionism grounded in extractive populism—complete, in the latter case, with a publicly funded “energy war room” based in Calgary set to crank out rapid responses to fossil capital’s critics, with assistance from Postmedia (Bellefontaine 2019; Heydari 2019). Now the epicentre of a retrograde fossil capitalism, Alberta’s strident obstructionism is echoed at the federal level by the Conservative Party of Canada, whose base in Alberta is foundational. Whereas the Liberals have pursued a hybrid project to valorize fossil capital while implementing climate-capitalist measures such as taxing carbon, the Conservatives defend fossil capitalism and pay only lip service to climate capitalism (see, for instance, Willcocks 2019). As fossil capital and its allies redouble their obstructive endeavours, prospects for a just transition seem grim, and resistance may face sharper repression.
As several Gramscian scholars have suggested, to counter a passive revolution one must conduct an “anti-passive revolution”: a war of position that extends popular-democratic and class struggles “so as to mobilize ever-wider sections of the population for democratic reforms” (Simon 1982, 49; see also Buci-Glucksmann 1979; Sassoon 1982). In that spirit, I want to turn to an alternative, which is currently on the margins of public discourse but not without the prospect of securing practical grounding in the emerging era.
Energy Democracy as Non-reformist Reform
The four essays comprising part three of this volume offer many insights into policy measures that could move Canada toward climate justice (chapter 14), the revelatory role of resistance in illuminating pathways toward such a future (chapter 15), and the challenges of building popular coalitions to counter the power of fossil capital—at key points along the commodity chain (chapter 16) as well as extra-locally, as in the divestment movement (chapter 17). As I noted in this book’s introduction, these various initiatives add up to a bundle of non-reformist reforms, not a full-blown project of system change. However, the former are precisely what can, in a process of countering a passive revolution, set the stage for deeper transformation. Clearly, such a process requires coordinated efforts at various sites and scales, converging on a shared vision/strategy that informs effective public policy.
Energy democracy, a concept grounded in recent European struggles for a just energy transition (Szulecki 2018), offers a point of convergence, pointing us toward a twofold power shift: from fossil fuel power to renewables and from corporate oligarchy to democratic control of economic decisions. A feasible and just alternative to the oligarchic organization of fossil capitalism and climate capitalism, energy democracy has been endorsed by the international trade union movement through Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, an organization whose members include Canada’s largest unions and the Canadian Labour Congress. Energy democracy’s three overarching goals—“resisting the fossil-fuel-dominant energy agenda while reclaiming and democratically restructuring energy regimes”—inform a strategy that connects the dots between divestment initiatives, Indigenous activism, anti-fracking protests, community solar projects, and so on (Burke and Stephens 2017, 35, 45).
The three projects on offer might be hypothetically charted as follows, with fossil capitalism morphing in the organic crisis into climate capitalism, while an incipient bloc organized around energy democracy forms as an alternative:
organic crisis →
There are signs that such an alternative bloc is emerging. In conjunction with an international workshop on energy democracy held in Amsterdam in February 2016, participating NGOs formed an international alliance and have created a virtual meeting space, energy-democracy.net, for groups committed to the struggle. The alliance upholds the following core principles:
- Universal access and social justice: ending energy poverty while reducing energy consumption and prioritizing the needs of communities, households, and marginalized people
- Renewable, sustainable, and local energy: shifting to renewables by leaving fossil fuels in the ground, divesting from fossil fuels, and investing public funds in local renewable energy systems to create thriving communities
- Public and social ownership: bringing energy production under democratic control, within new forms of public ownership by municipalities, citizens’ collectives, and workers
- Fair play and creation of green jobs: building renewable energy through fairly paid, unionized jobs
- Democratic control and participation: empowering citizens and workers to participate in energy policy by democratizing governance and instituting complete transparency.6
We can recognize in this framing a project that is at once ethico-political, economic, and ecological, that addresses both the forces and relations of production, and that resonates with the concerns of several intersecting movements.
As Stuart Hall (1988) observed, struggles for an alternative hegemony occur on terrain already shaped by the existing hegemony. In this light we can revisit some of the key instances in fossil-capital hegemony, with an eye toward the forms that energy democracy might take at different scales (see table 18.2). In everyday life, politically inflected lifestyle changes and informal networks that reject fossil-fuelled consumerism can foster changes in “common sense” that pull people away from the doxa of oil as “lifeblood” (Huber 2013) and enlarge the popular base for energy democracy.
Within local communities, the decarbonization and decommodification of public transit can have a broader impact beyond individual lifestyles, as can practices such as community gardening that present alternatives to carboniferous industrial agriculture. Although eco-localism has its limits (Albo 2008), bringing decision making down to local scale, where feasible (also known as the principle of subsidiarity), can open new possibilities for participatory democracy and citizen empowerment. Indigenous resistance to colonization, closely associated with Indigenous resurgence (Coburn and Atleo 2016), can propel Indigenous communities into positions of leadership, in alliance with environmental and other movements, in a principled politics of decolonization.
Instances of fossil-capital hegemony
Practices of energy democracy
Fossil-fuelled consumer capitalism as a way of life, automobility as freedom
Politically inflected lifestyle changes; informal discussion in local and online networks
Civic privatism/boosterism; Indigenous ambivalence
Free public transit, alliance politics of decolonization and democratization, subsidiarity
Entrenchment of fossil interests in institutions of knowledge production, etc.
Reclaiming public institutions, divestment, knowledge, and culture for the people
Industry boosterism in extractive and sacrifice zones
Reclaim Alberta, Iron and Earth
Contention over the “national interest,” through elite policy planning and online extractive populist networks
The Leap, RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs), Green New Deal
Global governance and transnational policy planning
Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Indigenous Environmental Network
Meanwhile, as public institutions such as universities begin to divest from fossil capital, they undermine its hegemony. To enhance prospects for energy democracy, institutional investments can be redirected toward post-carbon “solidarity economy” initiatives (Williams 2014), with facilitation from credit unions and (potentially) publicly owned green banks. More broadly, universities, media outlets, and other institutions that have been colonized by corporate power can be reclaimed as public services, as can science and technology, attuning knowledge and culture to the social and political needs of the times.
At subnational scale, the inevitable decline of the tar sands creates openings for contesting hegemony in fossil capital’s heartland. Grassroots groups like Reclaim Alberta are calling for a just transition that heals the Earth from carbon extraction’s notorious externalities. Reclaim Alberta envisages “a wide-scale, industry-funded reclamation of Alberta’s aging and expired oil and gas infrastructure that puts thousands of workers back to work in every corner of the province,” while Iron and Earth, led by tar sands workers, has created “a platform to engage in renewable energy development issues, and to empower us to advocate for an energy future we can be proud of creating.”7
Across Canada, both the Leap Manifesto and the movement it has spawned represent a significant intervention in redefining the national interest that explicitly uses an energy democracy frame. The Manifesto, in particular, is deeply reflective of Indigenous world views.8 RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environment Needs) provides financial support to assist Indigenous Nations “in lawfully forcing industrial development to be reconciled with their traditional ways of life, and in a manner that addresses global warming or other ecological sustainability challenges.”9 As I write, another important initiative, the Pact for a Green New Deal, has been taking shape in Canada, involving community-based discussions that feed into a bottom-up process to define “what a Green New Deal should look like, to identify commonalities, and to start developing specific proposals.”10 These mutually reinforcing struggles for energy justice contest the notion of a “‘national interest’ that prioritizes short-term economic gain from finite and polluting resources” (Berman 2018), advocating instead alternative conceptions that prioritize human and ecological well-being.
At transnational scale, hegemonic networks of global governance are countered by networks from below that include the Indigenous Environmental Network and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. As I argue in greater depth elsewhere (Carroll 2016), such transnational formations are crucial in view of the scale and scope of fossil capitalism’s organic crisis—a crisis that cannot be adequately addressed in the absence of a global vision and strategy.
The challenge is to articulate these progressive forces into a coherent bloc that includes energy-sector workers, for whom a just transition must foster “upward-leveling relationships” so that as fossil energy is decommissioned, displaced workers find comparable positions in a rapidly expanding renewable energy sector (Abramsky 2010, 657). As Sean Sweeney and John Treat (2018, 43) argue,
A Just Transition is possible, but it will have to be demanded and driven forward by a broad, democratic movement, with unions playing a key role. There will be no Just Transition without social and political transformation, and such a transformation will be contingent on a successful challenge of existing ownership relations and the expansion of economic democracy at all levels. And there will be no such transformation until unions and their allies fully grasp the fact that such a transformation is both possible and absolutely necessary.
A broad vision of energy democracy can help pull together what might otherwise be siloed movements for green jobs, climate mitigation, moratoriums on fossil fuel development, and greater public and local control over energy decision making (Hess 2018). Because climate breakdown is occurring at global scale, adequate responses will require “some form of energy planning at regional, national, and transnational levels” (Thombs 2019, 165) to wind down the production and use of fossil fuels, complemented by decentralized systems offering direct democratic control. Yet, to encompass a deep transformation, the emerging historical bloc must extend beyond energy democracy per se. In view of the foundational relationship in Canada between colonialism and capitalism, decarbonization and democratization must be conjoined with decolonization, enhancing capacities for Indigenous self-determination. By the same token, the close symbiosis between energy and finance means that a robust energy democracy must bring the financial sector itself under democratic control. Much the same can be said about the need to undo hegemonic corporate power within communications media, to “remake media” by democratizing public communication (Hackett and Carroll 2006).
For André Gorz (1967), non-reformist reforms are steps toward system change that avoid co-optation by disturbing the capitalist status quo in ways that build popular power. Energy democracy is in this sense a bundle of targeted, non-reformist reforms, an “entry project” (Brie 2010) that can open space for democratization and decolonization of economic, political, and cultural life. In such a transformation, corporate power would give way to popular power and participatory planning in production and allocation, to environmental stewardship and authentic reconciliation, and to public communication and inclusive community development.
Toward Democratic Eco-socialism
This volume has mapped the various modalities of corporate power that constitute a regime of obstruction. To contest capitalist hegemony effectively, we will need to address the full spectrum of these modalities. Energy democracy will thus need to be developed in concert with other non-reformist reforms in the workplace, in finance and cultural production, and in the state, in a war of position that adds up to a project of democratic eco-socialism (see Baer 2019; Löwy 2018; Satgar 2018). The “just transition” we need is not simply from fossil fuels but from fossil capitalism. To achieve such wide-ranging change, corporate power in its various modalities must give way to democratic alternatives.
As J. P. Sapinski and I have argued, “Corporate power is power-over: over workers, over finance and investment (and thus the future), over communities and governments, over the marginalized and dispossessed, and over ecosystems, which get reduced to ‘natural resources’ to be extracted at the lowest cost” (2018, 122–23). Yet “power-over” is only one form of social power, predominant within class societies and distinct from both “power-to”—the exercise of one’s own agency in shaping one’s world and one’s self in it—and “power-with,” which grows as people gain collective strength through collaboration with peers (VeneKlasen and Miller 2007). Each of the modalities of corporate power mapped in this collection can be transformed from current arrangements, which give the owners and managers of capital power over workers, communities, and states, to democratic alternatives that empower subalterns and foster equitable collaboration, within an ecologically sustainable framework (Carroll and Sapinski 2018, 131).
These ideas resonate with Mario Candeias’s notion of “green socialism”—a concept founded on a “transition to a green-socialist reproductive economy beyond growth” (2013, 15; emphasis added). Candeias lays out a program for transition that breaks not only from fossil capital but also from capitalism as a way of life by advocating:
the decentralization of public decision making and the remunicipalization of infrastructure (bringing energy, water, and other utilities under public control);
reclaiming the public sphere and commons by expanding public services and collective consumption;
a shift from top-down operational power and bureaucratic planning to planning based in economic democracy and decentralized participation; and
deglobalization, or the recentring of economic activity within domestic economies.
These shifts are convergent with aspirations for energy democracy, but they extend beyond the energy sector. Candeias’s Green Socialism proposal also calls for:
the redistribution of wealth through the expansion of different forms of socialization and social property; and
the socialization of investment through participatory investment decisions.
These measures challenge capital’s strategic and allocative power and reject the logic of capitalist accumulation. A just and ecologically sustainable world implies democratic control of investment, which can be initiated through “a network of public banks and the introduction of participatory budgeting at all levels of society” (Candeias 2013, 16).
The program of Green Socialism also has a strong bent toward ecological and feminist values, including:
a shift from production of endlessly accumulating things to enhanced provision of services in a care economy geared to enriched socio-ecological relations; and
a new division of labour addressing gender equity across four domains of paid employment, family, community, and self-development.
These eight components of the Green Socialism project could, in principle, be implemented in individual countries, rather than worldwide. To bring the transformation to a global scale, Candeias (2013, 19) identifies two key requirements:
Global planning regarding resource flows will be needed to ensure a just distribution of wealth while limiting consumption, as some sectors associated with climate change and the depletion of raw materials shrink while others (particularly the care economy) evolve and expand.
In a just transition that integrates the climate justice and labour movements, the needs of those most harmed by climate crisis must be prioritized.
In Canada, the regime of obstruction has bequeathed political conditions that are not well disposed to this plan. The plan is, in the Canadian context, aspirational. It specifies the necessary changes for moving beyond fossil capitalism into a democratic and ecologically sustainable way of life, but the challenge is to create the political conditions under which the transition becomes widely recognized as both desirable and possible. In our current circumstances, the Green Socialism program offers a yardstick against which we can appraise political projects that seem feasible in the here and now—in particular, initiatives in energy democracy and the Green New Deal. An early skeptic with regard to the transformative potential of the Green New Deal as it initially arose in Europe a decade ago, Candeias (2013, 13) observed that the Green New Deal’s failure to address capitalism’s relations of class power set it on a course to reproduce capitalism’s contradictions, including endless growth and increasing economic disparities (see also Candeias 2011).
Although the European Green Deal (EGD), officially launched by the European Commission in December 2019, is a first step toward carbon neutrality, “the fingerprints of industry, and in particular the fossil fuel industry,” are all over it, as the Corporate Europe Observatory (2020) points out. In October 2019, shortly before the official launch, Fossil Free Politics—an alliance in which the Corporate Europe Observatory is a leading member—reported that, over roughly the past decade, the five largest fossil fuel corporations (BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Total) had together spent upwards of a quarter of a billion euros buying influence at the heart of European decision making (Fossil Free Politics 2019, 4). Moreover, in the first one hundred days after the EGD launch, European Commission members charged with overseeing its development met with industry lobbyists an average of eleven times per week, as opposed to only twice a week with representatives of the public interest (Corporate Europe Observatory 2020). Not surprisingly, the emerging EGD relies heavily on the same measures that are central to the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change: carbon trading, natural gas as a “transitional fuel,” and emissions reductions targets that are “too modest and too slow” (Corporate Europe Observatory 2020).
The Green New Deal movement now emerging in Canada has been germinating along different lines, from the bottom up, emphasizing social justice and decolonization (see MacArthur et al. 2020). Yet the danger of passive revolution—of co-optation into the project of climate capitalism—remains. The Green New Deal resonates precisely because it calls for a new deal within the existing order, sidestepping controversial issues of transformation. To avoid co-optation, advocates of the Green New Deal and their allies will need to incorporate the struggle for energy democracy into their program. As part of that, yet reaching beyond it, the movement will need to devise strategies and policies that erode and replace corporate power over workplaces, finance, culture, and politics with democratic forms, building the conditions for Green Socialism.
Energy democracy and the Green New Deal thus need to be approached not as end goals but as non-reformist reforms impelling a transition to a democratic eco-socialism that incorporates, within an expansive historical bloc, those struggling for gender justice and against racism and ongoing colonization. As Vishwas Satgar (2018, 14) suggests, “A renewed democratic eco-socialism faces squarely the challenge to save human and non-human nature from capitalism’s ecocidal logic through a radical practice and conception of democracy as people’s power, mediated by an ethics to sustain life.” As climate breakdown accelerates, “failure to construct alternatives rooted in new relations of production, exchange, consumption, and livelihoods is likely to have disastrous effects” (Abramsky 2010, 657). Unless we are able to replace corporate power with a participatory-democratic alternative that meets people’s needs while healing the Earth, capitalism’s ecocidal logic will continue to determine the contours of our lives. And the climate crisis will continue to spin out of control—to our common peril. The stakes are high; the time is short.
- 1. In a recent ranking of the world’s banks, the five big Canadian banks—Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), Royal Bank of Canada, and Toronto-Dominion Bank—numbered among the top twenty-five lenders to fossil-capital companies. The Royal Bank of Canada ranked fifth overall, having lent more than $110 billion to big carbon between 2017 and 2019. Along with JPMorgan Chase, all five big Canadian banks top the league table of lenders to major tar sands production and pipeline companies (Rainforest Action Network et al. 2020, 8–9, 28–29).
- 2. Until 2008, registered Indians were barred by the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) from filing complaints about discrimination with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, given that section 67 of the CHRA stipulated that the act did not apply to provisions of or pursuant to the Indian Act. In 2008, Bill C-21 repealed section 67, at which point the Indian Act was no longer exempt from the CHRA, but the bill also imposed a three-year “transition period” before complaints could in fact be filed (see CHRC 2011, 3–4). As a result, First Nations were effectively unable to access the amended legislation until June 2011.
- 3. In June 2020, both BP and Shell slashed the book value of their oil and gas assets by tens of billions of dollars (Kusnetz 2020). Total followed suit at the end of July, writing off $9.3 billion (US$7 billion) in tar sands assets and also cancelling its membership in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers—the latter action prompted by “a ‘misalignment’ between the organization’s public positions and those expressed in Total’s climate ambition statement announced in May” (Canadian Press 2020).
- 4. As I write this, BankTrack’s ongoing compilation lists twenty-two major financial institutions (none Canadian) that have ended financing for tar sands operations (“Banks and Tar Sands,” BankTrack, n.d., accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.banktrack.org/campaign/banks_and_tar_sands_1). These include Deutsche Bank, which declared on July 27, 2020, that it will not finance new projects to explore, produce, transport, or process tar sands bitumen (see Varcoe 2020).
- 5. These geoengineering schemes have been in development for some time, but the large-scale feasibility of CCS remains unproven, for reasons both of financial costs and of energy consumption. SAI—a solar radiation management (SRM) technology that entails the injection of inorganic particles (notably sulphates) into the atmosphere in order to create a reflective shield against sunlight—has been deemed potentially dangerous on a global scale. Still, SAI is quickly moving from the margins (as a last-resort “Plan B”) to the mainstream. As the climate crisis deepens, it is increasingly likely that SAI will be applied, at least to buy time for a managed transition in which capital’s economic nucleus is fully protected. The danger is that capital’s rapacious need to expand will require increasing doses of SAI as atmospheric carbon concentration climbs toward 500 parts per million—with possibly catastrophic consequences. Even without the increasing doses, “as with all SRM technologies that only address global surface temperatures, dramatic perturbations in the climate system can be expected if SAI is deployed.” Research studies suggest, for example, that sulphate-based SAI techniques “would likely cause droughts in Africa and Asia and endanger the source of food and water for two billion people.” “Stratospheric Aerosol Injection (Technology Factsheet),” Geoengineering Monitor, June 11, 2018, http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2018/06/stratospheric_aerosol_injection/.
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- * Portions of this chapter were previously published in “Fossil Capitalism, Climate Capitalism, Energy Democracy: The Struggle for Hegemony in an Era of Climate Crisis,” in Socialist Studies / Études socialistes 14, no. 1 (2020): 1–26. They are reprinted here by permission of the journal.