The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Capitalism in the Web of Life: Jason Moore on the exploitation of nature.

With the global economic crisis being anything but over, there are continuing struggles over how to respond to economic stagnation. While the right continues to push for austerity and neo-liberal restructuring and a new extreme right combines this with blaming migrants for economic woes, the left envisages a new role for the state in reviving economic fortunes. As different as these positions are, what they have all in common, though, is this view of nature as an external resource. In his fascinating book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015), Jason Moore critically engages with this understanding and contrasts it with a dialectical position emphasising the internal relations between humans and nature. In this blog post, I will provide an overview of some of the key aspects of Moore’s argument.

The internal relations between capitalism and nature

Capitalism presents nature as an external resource. ‘Capitalism’s governing conceit is that it may do with Nature as it pleases, that Nature is external and may be coded, quantified, and rationalized to serve economic growth, social development, or some other higher good’ (P.2). Focusing on the internal relations, Moore argues that the dialectical relationship between humans and nature can be grasped within the concept of ‘oikeios’. ‘From the perspective of the oikeios, civilizations … do not “interact” with nature as resource (or as garbage can); they develop through nature-as-matrix’ (P.36).

Drawing on Marx, Moore’s key point of departure is, therefore, a focus on the internal relations between capitalism and nature, called the ‘double internality’. ‘The dialectical thrust of Marx’s philosophy is to see humanity/nature as a flow of flows: as human internalising the whole of nature, and the whole of nature internalizing humanity’s mosaic of difference and coherence’ (P.22). Focusing on the inner connections allows Moore to understand human history as co-produced history and the history of capitalism as one of successive historical natures.

Similar to other Marxist approaches, Moore emphasises capitalism’s inner dynamic of constant outward expansion. However, this is not only related to intensified exploitation of wage labour in processes of commodification. Capitalism equally depends on the appropriation of unpaid human and extra-human work, what Moore refers to as the Four Cheaps. ‘Capital must not only ceaselessly accumulate and revolutionize commodity production; it must ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, Cheap Natures: a rising stream of low-cost food, labor-power, energy, and raw materials to the factory gates (or office doors, or …)’ (P.53). Moore identifies two key ways of how appropriation of free nature occurs. ‘The first pivots on processes of biophysical reproduction (labour-power, forestry, agriculture); the second, on geological extractions (energy, minerals). In ecological revolutions, both appropriations raise labor productivity above the prevailing system-wide average without a corresponding increase in constant capital (machinery and inputs)’ (P.146).

Thus, analysing the capitalist social relations of production, Moore offers us the possibility to comprehend and conceptualise capitalist exploitation as not only taking place in the work place. Capitalist accumulation equally depends on exploitation in the sphere of social reproduction. ‘The relations of reproduction cut across the paid/unpaid work and human/extra-human boundaries. In this, the historical condition for socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work’ (P.65).

The tendency of the ecological surplus to fall

Incorporating a dialectical understand of nature into our assessment of capitalism then allows us, Moore argues, to understand the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall. While surplus capital tends to rise, ecological surplus falls. As capitalist accumulation increases faster than the appropriation of unpaid human and extra-human work, there is this constant pressure to extend the capitalist frontier into new forms of cheap energy, cheap raw materials and cheap food, closely related to cheap labour. ‘As English agriculture stagnated after 1760, grain was imported in growing volumes, at first from Ireland and, after the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, increasingly from North America. Britain’s mid-nineteenth-century-zenith as the “workshop of the world” was closely linked to the agricultural revolution of the American Midwest’ (P.136).

Capitalist crises are overcome through a combination of expanding capitalist commodity production in tandem with establishing new ways of appropriating free nature. ‘Capital therefore depends on the Four Cheaps, and there is only one way to get this Cheap nature fix: the frontier. The response to this imperative has been endless geographical expansion and endless innovation’ (P.155);

‘Cultural fixes’ play a crucial role in overcoming crises. They ‘transcend the wage-relation’s double boundary with unpaid work. Such fixes naturalize not only capital’s appropriation of unpaid work by humans – above all the reproduction of labor-power – but also new epoch-making practices of appropriating unpaid work by extra-human natures’ (P.198). And it is scientific advances in understanding nature and measure it, which ultimately pave the way to new forms regarding nature as external and thus available for appropriation. For example, ‘mapping space was constitutive of global conquest’ (P.212).

Neoliberal capitalism and the end of Cheap Nature as a civilizational strategy?

Analysing the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s, Moore identifies the crucial role of Cheap Nature in this process. ‘The neoliberal “boom” that commenced after 1983 was accompanied – or preceded – by a significant cyclical decline in food, energy, and resource prices. Commodity prices for food declined 39 percent – and metals by half – between 1975 and 1989. Meanwhile, oil stabilized by 1983, for the next twenty years, at a price per barrel about twice that of the postwar era’ (P.236). The flow of cheap food from the Global North into the Global South during the 1980s, made possible by imposed structural adjustment programmes, displaced millions of peasants and, thereby, created the cheap labour, transnational corporations have drawn on ever since (P.263).

Instead of locating the start of the current global economic crisis in 2007/2008, Moore refers to 2003, when the commodity boom implied an increase in price of the Four Cheaps and thus, in line with the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall, unpaid work could no longer be appropriated faster than the increasing mass of accumulated surplus (P.226). Financialisation has allowed capital to survive longer in the form of a new world-ecological revolution. ‘The “conversion of the global South into a “world farm”, the industrialization of the South, and the radical externalization of biophysical costs, giving rise to everything from cancer epidemics to Global Warming – all figure prominently in the unusually expansive character of finance-led appropriations of the oikeios during the neoliberal era’ (PP.161-2).

Moore ends on an ominous note. Financialisation has allowed capitalism to survive. ‘But for how much longer?’

The appropriation of unpaid work and the centrality of wage labour

This is an impressive book, opening up novel conceptual ways of how to integrate the exploitation of nature into a class analysis of capitalism’s relentless outward expansion through a focus on the philosophy of internal relations. My only critical comment is in relation to Moore’s reliance on a world systems theory definition of capitalism and related references to the long 16th century, when capitalism is alleged to have emerged in tandem with the establishment of a world market (P.12). ‘The rise of capitalism after 1450s was made possible by an epochal shift in the scale, speed, and scope of landscape transformation in the Atlantic world and beyond. The long seventeenth century’s forest clearances of the Vistula Basin and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest occurred on a scale, and at a speed, between five and ten times greater than everything seen in medieval Europe’ (P.182).

Moore is right to locate the shift in scale and speed of transformation within capitalism. Nevertheless, a focus on the world market as key to capitalism cannot explain the compulsion to constant expansion. It is here where a focus on the social relations of production becomes essential. And while capitalism does depend on unpaid human and extra-human work, the compulsion to expansion itself is generated in the way capitalist production is organised around wage labour and the private ownership of production. Because not only workers compete with each other for employment, but also employers are compelled to compete with each other over market share, the capitalist mode of production is characterised by this dynamic, but ultimately destructive, outward expansion.  

This does not mean that exploitation of slave labour and exploitation in feudal relations was not important during the 16th century for the development of capitalism. Nevertheless, the key change was precisely the emergence of this new way of production around wage labour and private ownership of the means of production in England at the time, which then resulted, for example, in these enormous pressures towards the intensification of exploitation on sugar plantations in the Caribbean based on slavery, the profits of which were channelled back into the industrial revolution in England. In short, the importance of unpaid work for capitalist accumulation is clear, but ultimately wage labour and the resulting dynamics remain key to understanding capitalism.

Andreas Bieler

Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:

2 November 2018

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