| Of Energy Struggles, Energy Transitions and Energy Democracy[1]

April 2013  Druckansicht
von Tadzio Müller

Foto: tjschloss/flickr

Abstract: Germany’s Energiewende, its comparatively rapid and multi-scalar move towards a more renewable energy system, is the subject of much international scrutiny and discussion. Within Germany, it has become clear that there are two paths that can be taken in this expansion of renewable energies: one that leads to large-scale installations (Desertec, off-shore windparks) under the continued control of the big energy companies; one that leads to an increasingly decentralised, increasingly democratic and socially responsive energy sector. In this paper, I try to analyse the contribution that social struggles ‘from below’ can make in this process, to what extent they can coalesce into a broader struggle for ‘energy democracy’.

A snapshot:2 The petroleum workers’ union Pengassan threatens a complete shutdown of oil production in Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of crude oil which exports to countries like the USA, Brazil and India. They demand that the government re-introduce subsidies whose withdrawal had doubled the price of fuel over night. The workers’ chances look good: only a few months before, popular pressure had forced the Bolivian government to withdraw a similar increase in fuel prices. Meanwhile, the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme is escalating: a nuclear physicist is killed by a car bomb in Teheran, and Japan threatens to reduce its oil imports from Iran. The Brazilian government increases subsidies for agrofuel from sugar cane – frequently mislabelled as ‘biofuel’ – only days after the USA scrapped import tariffs on it.

In Germany, where the phased ‘exit’ from nuclear power allegedly reduces their profit margins, the country’s four major energy companies (EON, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW) are expanding into international markets with even greater force in order to generate more of their electrical power in Brazil and Chile.

Energy struggles

For years now, the issue of energy has been moving to the forefront of the political agenda, whether at the geopolitical level – the ‘War on Terror’ as ‘War for Energy’ (Klare 2008) –, at the level of German national politics (‘energy transition’), or in everyday life, where parties that exhort people to switch their energy-suppliers have taken the place of Tupperware parties. From the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to nuclear exit in Germany, from the climate summit in South Africa to uprisings in Central Asia: energy struggles – that is, social struggles over the control of, the access to, and pricing of energy – have always been, and increasingly are, at the core of social conflicts around distribution and ecology, modes of production and modes of life. The history of all hitherto existing society is also the history of energy struggles, because “every form of energy implies a particular organization of work” and a particular social division of labour (Abramsky 2010, 8).

The centrality of energy struggles in the social balance of power is easily explained: energy is an extremely profitable good because all production and reproduction depend on it. Energy is a potential. In everyday life it means being able to move from A to B, to heat the apartment or make coffee. For capitalist businesses, it is the potential to make human labour more efficient or even replace it. For governments, it is the ability to deploy troops abroad, or to forge social compromise through the targeted reduction/increase of heating costs.

Energy plays a central role in class struggles: because it can make human labour more efficient, it is indispensable for increasing relative surplus value (as opposed to increasing absolute surplus value by lengthening the working day). Control over energy therefore represents a crucial power resource in labour and class struggles. Industrial action by workers in the coal and oil industries can cause enormous social disruption, and it is for that reason that vast resources are mobilised globally to co-opt them – or to crush them if they revolt. Energy struggles come in various forms and are being waged by actors at all levels of society: from government subsidies for renewable or fossil fuels, to hostile takeover bids between different energy companies.

Energy struggles and transformation

The current accumulation, intensification and coalescence of energy struggles marks the transition from a fossil fuel-based energy system to a post-fossil era, where renewable energy will play an increasing role. To be sure, traditional energy sources are not disappearing, they are instead being subsumed under the new energy system. The transformation of an energy system is closely connected to profound changes in the structure of global capitalism and the conditions of social struggle. Early mercantile capitalism, which, from the 16th century on, expanded from Europe to encompass the entire globe, was initially based on renewable energies, such as wind, water and biomass (Caffentzis 2009). By the mid-18th century, industrialisation in Britain seemed to reach the limits of this energy regime, as land was used for both agricultural and fuel production – a dual function which the rather small British Isles could not fulfil. From 1780 onwards, however, this problem was solved because coal mining now allowed energy to be extracted from under the soil.

In other words, the rise of industrial capitalism, capitalist class relations and British hegemony coincided with the emergence of the first fossil energy system. Later, the system of globalised Fordist mass production under US hegemony coincided with the use of petroleum as primary source of energy. It was not by accident that Lenin defined communism as “soviets plus electrification”. Today we are once again faced with the question what kind of energy system will come to be combined with which type of social formation as a result of contemporary social struggles.

The coming energy transition

Three kinds of global crisis tendencies exist that might suggest and/or bring about the end of capitalist fossilism.

1| The global energy crisis, the existence of which is now recognised even by the International Energy Agency. It results, on the one hand, from growing energy demand generated by rapid industrialisation, especially China and other new capitalist centres like India or Brazil. On the other hand, supply is shrinking as the world has reached (or may indeed have passed) the peak of fossil fuel production. To be sure, the ‘peakists’’ more extreme predictions have not been validated so far, partly because ever riskier drilling is undertaken in ever more remote parts of the world. It is, therefore, unclear when absolute supply will decrease, but the tendency itself and its effects in terms of higher prices cannot be denied.

2| The escalating climate crisis, primarily caused by the enormous amounts of carbon dioxide that societies with both private- and state-capitalist modes of production have spewed into the atmosphere in the past 250 years. This leads to upheavals such as social unrest, massive migration, disruption of global production chains, higher costs, intensified competition and so on, which then increases political pressure to resolve the crisis through a restructuring of the global energy system.

3| The economic crisis, for which the most popular solution being discussed is the green modernisation of capitalism (Kaufmann/Müller 2009). According to its proponents, governments are supposed to create the necessary framework and to invest so as to stimulate a capitalist growth cycle based on renewable energies. In Germany, oligopolistic energy companies and the financial industry are jointly trying to subsume renewables under their centralised energy system. Private equity funds like Blackstone are investing several billion Euros into the offshore wind farms of EON, Vattenfall and RWE off the German coast. An feed-in tariff of €150 per megawatt hour, assumption of the costs associated with network expansion by the network provider, direct subsidies from the German government as well as cheap loans from the government-owned development bank are all meant to allow high profits to be made.3

There is a fourth factor that may have the potential to drive global energy transition: the new cycle of struggles for democratisation that rises from the ruins of neoliberal post-democracy. The connection between democratisation and a possible energy transition is manifested in what the late German Social Democratic intellectual Hermann Scheer called the “techno-logic” of energy sources: whereas fossil and nuclear technologies strongly tend towards centralisation, it is much easier to imagine an energy system that is based on renewables as being democratised, socialised and decentralised. Linking energy struggles to this wave of democratising movements would strengthen the push toward decentralised, democratic and renewable energy systems. Backyard wind turbines clearly are more feasible than backyard nuclear power plants. However, Caffentzis (2009) reminds us that a renewable energy system would by no means lead automatically to a peaceful or post-capitalist world. “The last time capitalism was based on a regime of renewable energy was from the 16th to the late 18th century.“ It was a time marked by wars, genocides perpetrated against indigenous peoples, trade in African slaves, and violent expropriation of European farmers that forced them into the cities. Social antagonisms will shift, but they will not disappear.

The left and energy transition

A survey of the German political landscape confirms that energy transition is an important site for the crystallisation of social struggles. Things are looking reasonably well for progressive developments in the energy sector as there are multiple actors involved in emancipatory energy struggles. The anti-nuclear movement is broadly rooted, from local farmers’ organisations and (post-)autonomous subcultures to parliament and people’s common sense. It is unusually effective, having already managed to coerce two reluctant governments into a statutory ‘nuclear phase-out’ – regardless of how quick or slow this exit is happening in practice.4 There are also successful struggles against coal power. In the past few years, 17 out of 34 new power plant developments were prevented – though this is also the result of diminishing profitability of coal power.5 In parliament, moreover, there are at least two parties – the Greens and The Left – that might push for an emancipatory energy transition.

The field of trade union struggles is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, the unions mostly represent the interests of their members in the nuclear and coal industries. In 2006, for example, the bosses of the service sector union and various industrial unions denounced stricter climate change regulations in an open letter to the federal government, demanding instead “the long-term conservation of Germany as a power plant location and of the jobs that go with it”.6 Then again, some unions, in particular the service sector union (ver.di) and the metal workers’ unions (IG Metall), are now actively trying to organise workers in the rapidly expanding renewable energy sector, which could shift the balance of forces. IG Metall is advocating the use of renewables and a withdrawal from nuclear power7, while ver.di now promotes an increasingly “regulated area of decentralised energy production” in its alternative scenario to E.ON’s Strategy 2.0 (Berlin 2011). The energy group is to be restructured as an “integrated provider of systemic services for decentralised power generation facilities that are in close proximity to their customers”. At the same time, however, the “necessary construction of new coal-fired power plants” currently being planned is not to be “put into question”.

The most politically influential actor in this energy transition is probably the ‘green’ capital fraction, which is increasingly capable of reorganising the political balance of forces in the energy sector. It originated in the alternative and environmental movement and inscribed itself into the state apparatuses through the Green party. More recently, it also managed to promote its own expansion by means of the Renewable Energy Law which all but guarantees profitability with its feed-in tarriffs. This fraction must become part of any progressive bloc in the energy sector, for there will be no energy transition without renewables. From a left-wing point of view, on the other hand, the relationship with an industry characterised by extremely poor working conditions and high rates of exploitation is bound to be a difficult one – not to mention its nature as private capitalist business.

Then there are a multitude of local citizens’ groups that put up resistance to, among other things, the expansion of the electricity grid, the installation of new wind turbines, or to so-called pump storage units whose job it is to smooth the inevitable fluctuations in the supply of renewable energy by storing it until it is actually needed. Empirically speaking, there are several reasons why people take part in these struggles. Some are motivated primarily by “nimbyism” and prefer to see the energy transition and construction of wind turbines take place anywhere but in their own backyards. Others support the transition but have their doubts about the construction of new overhead power lines, suspecting that the real goal is to secure the oligopoly of the major power providers. Still others fight the pump storage units imposed ‘from above’ for the same reasons that motivated those who recently took to the streets of Stuttgart to protest against the construction of a new railway station and the demolition of the existing one: After 30 years of neoliberal de-democratisation, there is a widespread sensation that people have less control over their own day-to-day lives and that it would be desirable to regain some of that control. What role will these actors play in the ‘energy transition’?

And what is the ‘opposing side’ in this process up to – if it can be identified at all? The short-term goal of the energy companies and their government allies is to delay the transition just long enough so that the companies can gain a good foothold in the renewables sector that allows them to be as dominant in the new energy system as they were in the old – making up for their previous neglect of renewable energy. This is why the government supports the centralisation of renewables. The conditions for grid expansion and other investments are designed in a way that ensures that, in the end, it will be mostly large-scale facilities, such as Desertec (thousands of solar panels in the Sahara desert) or gigantic offshore wind farms that will be profitable. In the long run, there is the risk of a conservative-green hegemony that coalesces around this kind of green-capitalist energy transition (cf. Rilling 2011; IfG 2011). There is a possibility here, too, of an overlap between ‘green’ interests and neo-mercantilist strategies: Germany as ‘world champion of renewables export’?

The issue of energy transition is leading to shifts in the political field that also affect traditional left-wing issues like the question of private property. Calls for a socialisation of energy companies (whether by the Left Party, attac or activist groups such as the Interventionist Left) are growing louder again; the question of decentralising decision-making powers is being raised; and the politicisation of the contradiction between capital accumulation and dignified human life in relatively stable eco-social systems cannot be suppressed. Presenting a socially and ecologically viable energy policy is currently a crucial challenge for left-wing actors, though the existence of a broad range of possible allies should make this task easier. Moreover, there is no other important arena where the prospects for a radically democratic transition are equally promising. This confirms once again Scheer’s statements about the “techno-logic” of renewables.

Energy democracy

How can we bring all those actors with their varying interests together under one roof? Whether in Brandenburg or Bolivia, left-leaning governments often face the same quandary: to create jobs and finance social programmes for their constituencies, while accepting that ecological damage is caused in the process, destroying the livelihoods of those same marginalised people that the left purports to be fighting for. If we heed the critique of growth, the response to this dilemma must be that we should all together produce and consume less energy. But how can reduced (energy) consumption be translated into greater and more evenly distributed wealth of time, when we are faced with growing social inequalities and the power of existing modes of production and life? What would fair prices for energy be? The green default position is to demand that ecological ‘externalities’ should be priced in, which would amount to de facto price increases. A left-wing response would have to focus on avoiding energy poverty, meaning that simply regulating energy consumption through prices would lead to an unjust ‘false solution’. One possibility would be to have socially adjusted electricity prices, i.e. a sliding scale with a low base tariff and steeply rising prices for surplus consumption.

How can a local citizen’s group be convinced that a pump storage unit or power line should be built in their area? How to convince a green capitalist not to build it in that same area? How the union or worker that some industrial jobs will have to go? Or the environmental activist that not every pit can be closed as quickly as the Leave the Coal in the Hole slogan suggests? In the past, the left has ceded the hegemonic function – the generalisation of particular interests and the concomitant subordination of other interests – either to the bourgeois state (social democracy) or to the party (classic Leninism), but it cannot work like that in a pluralist ‘mosaic left’.

This raises the question how a broad-based progressive coalition for social and ecological energy transition can be forged when interests conflict and positions are often undefined. The answer lies in the unifying power of the struggle for energy democracy, a demand that was embraced a few years ago by attac’s Power to the People campaign and that once again places energy struggles in the context of recent global movements. The exact nature of this demand is still subject to debate, but the following will have to be among the cornerstones (cf. Gegenstromberlin 2011):

Ecology: With government support, the entire energy sector (electricity, heating and transport) has to switch to 100% renewable energy. There is no agreement as to when this would be possible, but it is undeniable that things must move faster than they have so far. By 2050, countries in the global North in particular must have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by no less than 90% of their levels in 1990.

Democratisation: The entire energy sector must be socialised and, as much as possible8, decentralised, which mainly means devolution to municipalities. This implies expropriating and splitting up the large energy groups as well returning energy-related political decision-making powers to municipal utilities. Public enterprises often play a less than glorious role due to the influence of managerialism and profit orientation, but they do provide an institutional framework for democratisation to take place. The municipal utilities in Sacramento, California provide a good illustration of a democratically run public enterprise.9

Reduction: It is not enough to merely demand a switch to renewables while leaving untouched the sector’s constantly increasing output. The critique of growth must lead to demanding reductions in both production and consumption of energy, though such physical and energetic reductions come up against the limits set by the capitalist imperative of continuous growth and valorisation.

What is interesting about the call for energy democracy is that it opens strategic options for the creation of a pluralist ‘mosaic left’ (cf. LuXemburg 1/2010) as well as an emancipatory bloc in the energy sector. The potential actors in a progressive energy transition that were identified above participate in energy struggles for a variety of reasons, and sometimes their interests are objectively opposed to each other. Local resistance against a coal-fired power plant, for example, contradicts the trade union’s desire to create new jobs. And those who are interested in rapidly expanding wind energy may stand in opposition to land owners who do not want to have wind turbines shoved in their faces ‘from above’.

In a collective struggle for energy democracy, the demands raised in different energy struggles would converge not because of their objective differences, but because of their strategic commonalities. In all those cases, the goal is to regain some control over one’s own daily life. Those who oppose power plants or wind farms are motivated by the understandable wish to have a voice in shaping their environment and in deciding how energy is produced there. When unions fight for economic democracy in the energy sector or a fair deal for those who lose their jobs in certain industries they are also waging democratising energy struggles. New social actors and movements emerge when their (potential) constituents focus on what they have in common rather than what divides them. The call for energy democracy does not only allow different energy struggles to relate to each other. It also implies recognition and legitimation of the different, at times conflicting, interests in those struggles and points to the necessity not of winning over other actors, but of communication between them. What is required is an act of political construction: not just to analyse empirically existing interests, but to rearticulate them in and through a progressive bloc.

Epilogue: Snapshot Part 2: On 18/01/2012, the Financial Times reports that the ongoing fuel protests in Nigeria have been victorious. President Goodluck Jonathan promises to reduce prices by over a third and to fight corruption in the petroleum industry, which many Nigerians believe is responsible for the high prices and the poor availability of this oil-producing nation’s own product. On the afternoon of the same day, the British newspaper The Guardian reports that an exploratory oil platform belonging to the Chevron group has exploded off the Nigerian coast around noon. Two workers are missing, and the government announces what is probably the worst oil spill in over a decade.

Welcome to the world of energy struggles.


Abramsky, Kolya, 2010: Introduction, in: same (ed.), Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social struggles in the transition to a post-petrol world, Oakland.

Caffentzis,George, 2009: Notes on Obama’s Energy Plan, Turbulence, No. 5.

Gegenstromberlin, 2011: Energiepolitische Thesen, www.gegen-stromberlin.net/2011/05/15/energiepolitische-thesen-gegen-den-fossil-nuklearen-wahn-energiedemokratie-jetzt/

IfG (Institut für Gesellschaftsanalyse), 2011: Organische Krise des Finanzmarkt-Kapitalismus: Szenarien, Konflikte, konkurrierende Projekte, www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/rls_papers/Papers_Organische_Krise_web.pdf

Kaufmann, Stefan, und Tadzio Müller, 2009: Grüner Kapitalismus: Krise, Klima und kein Ende des Wachstums, Berlin.

Klare, Michael, 2008: Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The new geopolitics of energy, New York.

Rilling, Rainer, 2011: Wenn die Hütte brennt …, LuXemburg, 3/2011, 134 et seq.


1 This article appeared originally in German in LuXemburg 01/2012.

2 From the Financial Times, 12/01/2012.

3 Mario Candeias, Szenarien grüner Transformation, Beitrag zur 1. Transformationskonferenz des IfG, Berlin 2011.

4 Cf. Schöneberger in LuXemburg 01/2012.

5 See kohle-protest.de.

6 www.campact.de/img/sprit/docs/2006-12-12-merkel-zuteilungsgesetz-2012.pdf.

7 www.igmetall.de/cps/rde/xchg/internet/style.xsl/das-energiepolitische-konzept-der-ig-metall-7935.htm.

8 See the debate between Hänggi and Witt in LuXemburg 01/2012.

9 Cf. Latza in LuXemburg 01/2012.