Today, the geopolitics of labor mobility and energy transition are increasingly intertwined. For workers, understanding how these connections work and building solidarity along them is a political priority, as it enables reinventing internationalism, argues Brett Neilson in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” Vladimir Lenin’s 1920 statement correlates workers’ power and energy transition. What are the resonances of such an understanding of communism? Lenin’s commitment to electrification was based on the idea of building a powerful heavy industry, with power stations fueled by substances such as coal, peat, petroleum, natural gas, and shale oil.
Today, electrification is associated with a move away from fossil fuels and the remaking of grids to accommodate renewable energy sources. As these sources are variable and often located far from populations and industries, the channeling of electricity across vast networks, frequently exceeding national spaces, becomes a priority. If, for Lenin, workers’ control of industry was the precondition for an electrification program that was at once communist and fossil-fuel driven, how do working-class politics cross the current energy transition?
In our forthcoming book, “The Rest and the West: Capital and Power in a Multipolar World,” Sandro Mezzadra and I discuss how renewable energy initiatives prompt grid reconfigurations with implications not only for geopolitics but also the global division of labor. Large cross-border grids were certainly a feature of the energy landscape long before the integration of renewables. Lenin’s dream of a unified Soviet grid was not realized until the Brezhnev era, by which time the network had hydroelectric and nuclear inputs. In 1979, the grids of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were synchronized into the system.
These days the transmission systems of these nations, or at least those on the territories they used to occupy, are part of the European grid, the world’s largest electricity network. Clearly, there is a geopolitical logic to these changes, as evident in Ukraine’s switch from the post-Soviet to the European grid in March 2022. However, strategic concerns are not the only ones that influence grid interconnections. Across the world, grids are being linked and reshaped to integrate renewable energy sources, including wind and solar.
The geopolitics of Sun Cable
Consider the Sun Cable project, which aims to supply solar energy generated in Australia’s desert via an undersea high voltage direct current (HVDC) cable running to Singapore. Currently dependent on electricity generated from natural gas, Singapore has few options but to wheel in renewable energy if it is to green its economy. The question is whether it can rely on closer but more uncertain sources, for instance in Indonesia’s Riau Islands. Sun Cable plans to build the world’s largest solar array on Warlmanpa Indigenous Country, but the wealth and jobs that the project promises to generate are likely to bypass local people and labor forces. To create an energy supply steady enough to reach Singapore, the company needs to install multiple voltage conversion and battery storage facilities, the latter likely to employ modular lithium ion technology. Like all renewable energy projects, the venture has its extractive sides.
Sun Cable is geopolitically laden. Snaking through the Indonesian archipelago, the cable would pass through the Lombok Strait, a key entry point to the South China Sea. This deep water channel offers passage to oil tankers that travel from the Middle East to China and are too large to fit through the Malacca or Sunda Straits. Lombok Strait is a strategic control zone and potential flash point in any naval blockade or access denial exercise accompanying conflict over Taiwan or other Indo-Pacific military scenarios. Along with other sea line entries to the South China Sea, the Strait is routinely mentioned in policy documents and media stories concerning the AUKUS technology sharing agreement between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. Patrolling and maintaining security for vessels and undersea infrastructures that pass through this water body is a primary task for the nuclear-propelled submarines that Australia seeks to acquire under this agreement.
Sun Cable’s financial perturbations have made headlines. The initial capital outlay for renewable energy projects far exceeds that required for electricity generation infrastructures powered by fossil fuels. In the former instance, almost all costs are incurred upfront; whereas in the latter between 40 and 70 per cent of costs derive from operating and fuel expenses, which can be hedged against sales in the forwards and futures markets. Insofar as the energy transition “is and will remain fundamentally capitalist,” writes Brett Christophers, the “transition, and the ‘fossil fuels versus renewables’ question at its core, is about investment, not price.”
These financial considerations have correlate effects on employment, which tends to cluster at the beginning of projects and then fall off. Sun Cable estimates a construction workforce of approximately 1,750 but an operational workforce of only 350. Like other green capitalist ventures, the project will generate primarily precarious jobs, and a predominantly male workforce.
The question of the employment generated by Sun Cable and similar projects exceeds the enumeration of jobs created by these initiatives alone. It is also necessary to account for secondary patterns of employment. Sun Cable aims to provide Singapore with fifteen percent of its electricity needs, and Singapore, in turn, uses seven percent of its available electrical energy to supply data centers.
Following the lifting of its moratorium on data center construction, Singapore seeks to consolidate its position as a hub by encouraging the construction of new facilities meeting decarbonization objectives. That the capital behind Sun Cable derives from tech industry investment is no accident. Not only does the project incorporate a high degree of automation, with data production and analysis supplementing its physical infrastructure, but the solar energy it plans to export feeds an economy that hinges its digital expansion on renewable technologies and the moral turn of green rhetoric.
These technical and regulatory arrangements shift the division of labor across national borders. Singapore accounts for 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s data center capacity, meaning that the servers it hosts connect clients across the region. Like Sun Cable’s solar array, Singapore’s data centers require minimal operational labor. But they link users and workforces across a vast spatial footprint.
Whether understood as production, data supply, or the reproduction of knowledge and life, labor in this context stretches well beyond the walls of the factory and the office. The complex network topologies involved derive not only from patterns of cable connection but also from peering relations within data centers, which enable data exchange among firms and multiply their extractive capacities. The resulting network architectures create infrastructural connections among otherwise disconnected labor forces, crossing differences of space, gender, race, citizenship, occupation, employment status, and social identity.
For workers to understand how these connections work and to build relations of solidarity along them is a political priority in a time of data economies and energy transition. Under these conditions, labor divisions, relations, and processes are unlikely to abide the models of the supply chain or production network, which tend to ignore or relegate to the background patterns of digital connection and electrification. Consequently, tactics and modes of action need to shift.
The limits of identifying logistical chokepoints in supply chains and conducting blockades are already becoming evident. Workers’ occupation of factories will continue to have symbolic and practical import, particularly in Europe where social avenues between labor, activism, and climate justice movements have been opened. But these actions risk remaining isolated incidents. If such efforts are to find resonances that extend across borders of geopolitics and colonialism, they need to forge organizational modes that do not simply aim to hijack the infrastructural links created by green capitalism. At stake is rather an attempt to join technologies of transmission, processing, and storage to a politics of translation that strives to articulate struggles and labor solidarities across diverse spaces, scales, and subjectivities.
To make these claims is not to assert that all future labor organization hinges on the energy transition. Large cross-border mobilities of people seem to proceed independently of this change and accompanying processes of digitalization, even as migrants depend on smartphone connections to organize their movements. Yet, as a consideration of the situation in the Mediterranean shows, the geopolitics of labor movement and energy transition are increasingly intertwined.
Italy’s so-called Mattei Plan aims to position the country as an energy hub due to its proximity to North Africa. Part of the plan involves the construction of HVDC cables joining Algeria and Tunisia to Italy, purportedly to increase renewable energy transmission to Europe. Yet pragmatically and politically, these initiatives depend on the greater integration of Algeria and Tunisia into migration control and interdiction, specifically through the bankrolling of their coastguards and border police.
Under such circumstances, electrification can no longer be understood as a conduit that links working-class politics to energy transition at the “whole country” level. Yet Lenin’s insight that communism turns around the nexus of labor and energy remains. Today ecological debates on communism have splintered. Degrowth politics point toward localized patterns of energy generation, food production, and public transportation, while ecomodernist agendas call for a working-class seizure of the means of energy production, beginning at the national level if necessary. But however the politics of scale are cast, infrastructural realities draw us toward wider vistas of connection and contestation. Climate struggle necessarily articulates the reinvention of internationalism.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds