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10 talking points from Jason W. Moore’s ‘Capitalism in the Web of Life’

by Gareth Bryant on November 24, 2016
Past & Present

moore_-_capitalism_in_the_web_of_life-28ccec2d6dcf167acd4733a0a8a74581The Past & Present reading group at the University of Sydney has just completed reading Jason W. Moore’s major new book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015). The book provided very fertile ground for lively and critical discussions on capitalism, ecology, value, method, ontology, politics, history, space and much more. To reflect the richness of the discussions, we are publishing a collective review of the book, in the form of 10 talking points contributed by members of the reading group.

  1. What is the dialectical method of a world-ecology perspective?

The dialectical method is treated as the differentia specifica of Karl Marx’s Capital in studying economic problems so that labour, value, and capital are understood in their inner connection as an integrated totality with Nature. So, too, with Jason Moore’s world-ecology perspective we find an emphasis on the dialectical relation between human and extra-human natures in the web of life in order to reveal the inner connection of capitalism through nature and the internal relation of nature through capitalism. This means tracking the double internality of capital’s internalisation of nature and nature’s internalisation of capital. As an example, one could think of the ways in which capitalism extends into the biosphere through the reproduction of cheap labour, food, energy and raw materials in order to turn these ‘Four Cheaps’ into the commodity system. Alternatively, there are limits to Nature meaning that conditions such as climate change may act as a barrier to the endless accumulation of capital. A dialectical method avoids the “dirty dualism” of bourgeois thought based on the distinction of Nature versus Society, or viewing the environment as an object based on its interaction with society as externally related. Instead, the philosophy of internal relations guides us through the inner ties of class, capital, Nature to address how frontiers of appropriation are produced and reproduced in the web of life. Adam David Morton

  1. On the distinction between ‘nature in general’ and ‘historical nature’

braudel“The survival of capitalism has turned on its unusual flexibility”, says Moore quoting from Fernand Braudel. “Where Braudel stressed capital’s capacity to move from one sector to another—say, from industry to finance—we might highlight an even more fundamental form of flexibility: the capacity to move from one historical nature to another” (p. 117). Jason Moore’s differentiation between ‘nature in general’ and ‘historical nature’ constitutes an important dimension of his understanding of capitalist civilisation as an ecological regime. For him, while nature in general is unavoidably out there for billions of years, capitalist historical nature is defined by the law of Cheap Nature and reproduced through capitalism’s revolutionising of nature and the succession of historical natures in parallel. Based on Moore’s understanding of historical nature as ‘ways of earth moving’ as well as ‘ways of seeing and knowing nature’, one might ask, whether we can make a form-analysis of capitalist historical natures in parallel to the analysis of forms of the capitalist state? What does the move from one form of capitalist historical nature to another imply in the current historical phase of capitalism in different space- and scale-specific contexts? The investigation of the transformation of historical natures can bring new perspectives to the analysis of the current phase of capitalism as much as to the construction of alternative and resistant imaginations of a new civilization. Sirma Altun Kucukarslan

  1. Capitalism, ecology, and (settler) colonialism in the Web of Life

The nexus between capitalism, ecology, and the ongoing struggles against (settler) colonialism hovers around the borders of Moore’s analysis, particularly in his development of the concept of the ‘Four Cheaps’. Via the “regimes of abstract social labour” (p. 221-240) and the “technics of abstract social nature” (p. 193-220), Moore highlights how the development of capitalism has relied on the appropriation of labour-power, food, energy, and raw materials to maintain the ‘ecological surplus’ – the appropriation of large amounts of ‘unpaid work/energy’ provided by non-commodified human and extra-human natures (p. 95-98). Alongside the exploitation of labour-power in commodified production, the maintenance of this surplus is crucial in capital accumulation. For Moore, this surplus is violently maintained via the expansion of frontiers (p. 222) –  a process most vividly demonstrated in historical and present-day manifestations of (settler) colonial power. We can perceive these frontiers historically in colonial dispossessions of land, in the transatlantic triangle; we must, however, also be alert to them in contemporary times. As First Nations peoples in settler colonies continue to battle extraction on the frontlines – the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, the Wangan and Jagalingou in central Queensland – the building of coalitions around a tripartite resistance to capitalism, ecological degradation, and settler colonial violence becomes an increasingly urgent pursuit. Cameron Smith

  1. Making and exhausting commodity frontiers

Verso-978-1-84467-643-9-Uneven-Development-5f18e79e6921f6a949fd76c9a65a5b72Moore introduces the concept of ‘commodity frontier’ as an integral strategy of capitalism. Capitalist expansion is only possible insofar as non-commodified land and labour are made available beyond the frontier. However, Moore argues that capital’s dynamism also exhausts the very webs of life necessary to sustain accumulation. The history of capitalism has been one of recurrent frontier movements to overcome that exhaustion, through the appropriation of nature’s free gifts hitherto beyond capital’s reach. The fundamental disequilibrium is between a logic of capital that does not account for nature unless in the form of free sources of raw materials/free waste disposal containers and the actual history of capitalism’s unaccountable episodes of plunder and degradation. The place of other seminal contributions to Marxist ecology could be more clearly articulated within Moore’s exposition of this constant frontier-exhaustion movement. How does Neil Smith’s work on the ‘production of nature’ enter into the notion of the oikeios as environment-making, including the making of frontiers? How does James O’Connor’s conception of underproduction in his analysis of the ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ relate to the exhaustion of Cheap Nature? Nandita Das

  1. Anthropologies of diversity, agency and crisis in the oikeios

Capitalism and the Web of Life is a genuine attempt to match the scope of Marx’s dialectical and materialist vision. At the same time it seeks to recalibrate it in the face of a different kind of crisis. Marx would have been happy with the brutalism of the four cheaps of labour-power, food, energy and raw materials as the driver of capital. Whether this is the foundation of a current, and potentially revolutionary crisis is something on which the group discussions could not agree. But the question has been posed. As anthropologists we particularly appreciated the way this brutalism was linked to a dialectical understanding of capitalism’s specific historical natures – a formulation that has the potential to link the Marxist vision of Alfred Schmidt with the detailed empirical and systemic grasp of the articulation of culture and environment that has been such a strong thread in anthropology. As part of this understanding of nature Moore has also revived the material force and violence of abstraction that is such a distinctive aspect of Marx’s writing. It provokes the question of whether a new kind of Marxist engagement with the Foucauldian tradition might be opened up.

schmidtAt the heart of Moore’s analysis is the dynamics of the frontier as the historic source of the four cheaps. This also resonates with anthropologists. Empirically that is where much of anthropology has been situated and theorising that frontier (as articulation) was the basis of anthropology’s re-engagement with Marxism in the 1970s and 1980s. So, we have a lot of sympathy with the distinction between exploitation and appropriation that is the key to the way Moore conceptually grasps the frontier (while acknowledging the reservations of many others in the discussion). Nevertheless we also have our reservations. The linkage of appropriation to unpaid work means there is simply too much going on in this conceptual space. The appropriation of women’s labour, of reproductive labour from subsistence economies, of historically accumulated fertility in soils, or energy in oil, are all subsumed within this function. In the end this obscures the diversity of intellectual traditions from which Moore is drawing and the diversity of concrete relationships that are at stake. Perhaps most importantly it obscures the relationship between the geographical frontier and the frontiers within the geographical heart of capital that the juxtaposition of postcolonial, feminist and ecological perspectives makes clear.

Much of the analysis in this long book speaks to capitalism’s capacity to perpetuate accumulation through the cycles of creating new historical natures on opening frontiers. Each developmental crisis is resolved by a new supply of the four cheaps. In Moore’s extended historical purview, the shape-shifting forms of capitalism seem to be without end. It is only towards the end of the book that we find a more emphatic assertion of capitalism’s decline. Climate change is implicated here – “the paradigm moment of the transition to negative-value” (p. 276), the planet’s overflowing atmospheric sink. There is a fleeting glimpse of a secular soteriology: new forms of radical politics will challenge the exhausted civilizational model, new ideas will become material forces. This is an awkward shift in the grounds of the argument. It does however bring the proposed eruptions of historical agency into anthropologically familiar terrain – the specificity of relationships between human and non-human nature in the oikeios, and the potential of existing socio-ecological diversity for epochal change. Neil Maclean and Linda Connor

  1. Reclaiming a systemic theory of value relations

Capitalism in the Web of Life recovers and revitalises Marxist value theory. Abstract social labour remains the substance of value, but labour is understood as a process that takes place between humans and the rest of nature. This formulation allows us to move beyond tired debates that seek to categorise what/who is and isn’t value productive as an end of Marxist scholarship in itself. Recognising that capitalisation (self-expanding value) is predicated on the devaluation of appropriated nature reclaims the explanatory and analytical power of value theory by considering all of the value relations that co-produce, in a positive or negative way, socially necessary labour time. This systemic view of value was articulated by Marx in Chapter 1 of Capital, who argued “labour-time socially necessary to produce commodities asserts itself as a regulative law of nature” akin to gravitational force. Following Marx, the book offers a framework that can account for the central role played by factors such as financial instruments and state policy in constituting value relations. With intensifying pressures for commodification in the sphere of reproduction, driven by market-based policies in areas from climate change to universities, this is increasingly important. World ecological perspectives focused on the reorganisation of appropriation and capitalisation by finance and the state will be essential in an era when the evolution of this boundary is as acute for the future of capitalism as ever before. Gareth Bryant

  1. For and against Moore’s value theory

cooperMoore expands the Marxian theory of value to more explicitly incorporate the role of non-human natures in the creation of value. While this is an important contribution, it is limited by Moore’s commitment to a substantialist reading of value theory based on labour-time.

While living labour (and its subordination) is the object of capitalist value relations, reading labour as the substance of value raises many problems. With respect to Moore’s work, it makes it difficult to engage with important phenomena in the contemporary global economy such as intangible assets, financial markets, and the biophysical limits (or not) of capitalism. With respect to biophysical limits, Moore’s work charts the exhaustion of what he calls commodity frontiers, such as Latin American silver mines and European agricultural land. He suggests that there are few, if any, new frontiers available. By contrast, an understanding of value that goes beyond labour as substance may expose the ways in which the negative value that Moore describes can create new opportunities for value creation. The frontiers of capital accumulation are limited only by the creativity of capital and social struggles around the terrain of accumulation.

Nonetheless, Moore’s incorporation of the subordination of non-human nature to capital accumulation is a valuable insight, along with others who have explored ways in which capital “puts life to work”. The imposition of social control through work remains at the core of value relations. As Moore’s work shows, capital is drawing ever more of the web of life into its circuits of accumulation. Claire Parfitt

  1. Steering praxis: Moore and the (de)mystification of capitalist value relations?

Moore’s intervention through the ‘World Ecology’ approach is a challenging read. His claim to laying down an ontological challenge to capitalism through a dialectical engagement with Marxist ecology, among various other tangents, prompted hard introspection. Capitalism in the Web of Life serves a fundamentally important function in the enduring class war: it compels us to grapple with and understand value theory lest our politics become the antithesis of our noble aims.

My quibble with this grand project is simple: the concept, labour-time, encompasses the ‘appropriation’ of so-called ‘unpaid’ labour (not labour-power) in nature that is socially necessary to produce commodities. Labour-time is the time in which capital, not merely labour, is held fast in the sphere of production. Capital is, among other things, a social relation that already accounts for all the rest Moore seeks to bring into the equation. As such, the need for Moore to forge an inner connection between ‘exploitation’ and ‘appropriation’ as the basis for his argument seems questionable. The value relation and the wage relation are conflated in order to produce a dialectical coupling through which the majesty of Moore’s argument unfolds. At issue here is not semantics, linguistics, interpretation or fidelity to bygone theory, but whether this steers us away from class struggle and constrains our praxis. ‘Exploitation’ in relation to ‘appropriation’ is incorrectly framed as ‘unpaid wages’ or ‘cheap nature’ instead of the systemic appropriation of surplus-value by one class from those who produce it. Our task is to demystify the value relation in order to transcend it. Moore’s valiant attempt reminds us just how difficult and imperative that challenge really is. Joe Collins

  1. What does Marx’s value theory look like without anthropocentrism?

deleuzeWhat if humans are not at the centre of capitalism’s production of value? Over 40 years ago, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari offered an amendment to Karl Marx’s value theory, suggesting that we need to think about the “machinic surplus value” of constant capital, alongside the surplus value of human labour. Jason Moore offers a different critique of Marx, arguing that the production of human surplus value through exploitation is only possible through a continuing relationship to massive unpaid appropriation of labour and energy, including that of non-humans: “the accumulation of capital is the multiplication of the proletariat is the appropriation of unpaid work/energy” (p. 221). Here, Moore highlights that social, political and epistemological “historical nature” reflects at any given moment what labour is available to exploited through a wage relation and what labour / energy becomes open to appropriation outside of the wage exchange. In my view, a significant achievement of Moore’s approach is that it attempts to narrate capitalism while holding in check Marx’s strong anthropocentrism (as is prominent in Marx’s early writings). On the flip side, Moore’s book has arguably created more questions than have been answered, in particular on the implications for a value theory without anthropocentrism. For example, although Moore appears to reject the idea that animals labour in a “valuable” way (see p.65; p.93n9) there is arguably a more complex question to be answered on how non-human labour contributes to the production of surplus value, a relation that may not be explainable in a singular fashion by either the concepts of “exploitation” or “appropriation.” Dinesh Wadiwel 

  1. What about the missing voice of knowledges from the Global South?

To what extent does Capitalism in the Web of Life distance itself from the same old academic work that is based more on experiences from the Global North? Up for debate here is whether important lines of thinking from postcolonial studies and decolonial thinking are excluded or missing and, more importantly, whether there is a move beyond treating the Global South and its communities and realities as case studies. The key here is whether the Global South is acknowledged more as a site of knowledge production in itself. In this regard, Jason Moore’s engagement with La Via Campesina tends to exhibit a romanticised vision of that movement without perceiving its epistemic contributions and thereby neglecting its ambiguities and contradictions. What is more, there are many wider efforts in the Global South to construct communitarian alternatives to capitalism, which are shaped by local knowledges, histories, territories and identities, as demonstrated by the transmission of indigenous knowledges. Therefore, a reading about world-ecology (or world-ecologies) involving the Global South would also require a wider engagement with alternative cosmologies and social movements of ‘southern theory’ as sites of knowledge production. In this regard, for instance, the concept sumak kawsay or buen vivir (good living) used by different communities in Latin America already signals a harmony between nature and humanity away from capital accumulation. Moreover, it proposes an epistemic turn from a ‘non-predatory civilisation’ standpoint to change reality and how we inhabit the world, thus, challenging the existing political-economic order. Indicative here would be Territorios en disputa: Despojo capitalista, luchas en defensa de los bienes comunes naturales y alternativas emancipatorias para América Latina [Territories in Dispute: capitalist dispossession, struggles in defence of natural common goods and emancipatory alternatives for Latin America] edited by Claudia Composto and Mina Lorena Navarro.  In this sense, by putting aside these sorts of knowledges and voices, Moore fails to provide a balanced, inclusive, novel and critical panorama that accurately draws the threads together between capitalism, nature and humanity on a global scale. Inés Duran Matute

A roundtable on Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life was held at the Fifth Annual Historical Materialism Australasia Conference, ‘Populism, Capitalism and . . . the Alternative?’, Sydney (25-26 November 2016) with a recording available below of the introduction by the Chair, Tad Tietze, and contributions by Joe Collins, Claire Parfitt, Gareth Bryant and Adam David Morton:

This post was awarded the runner up prize in the International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus 2017 ‘Duckies’ awards for the category of Best Blog Post in International Studies.

Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
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