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Capitalism as ecology: Mexican resistance at the frontier

by Alejandro De Coss on November 10, 2016

Capitalism does not have an ecological dimension; it is an ecology: capitalism is a world-making system. This is the main argument of Jason W Moore’s latest book, Capitalism in the Web of Life. The premise is simple: nature is not an object or a factor, but a matrix. Capitalism develops through nature, and, at the same, time, nature acts within and shapes capitalism.

Conceiving capitalism as an ecology implies including the production of historical nature in the analysis. In short, nature cannot be treated as external (or externality), but rather as a fundamental element for understanding the making of capitalism in history, as “a patterned history of power, capital, and nature, dialectically joined.” This move requires, as well, rethinking capitalism’s Law of Value.

moore_-_capitalism_in_the_web_of_life-28ccec2d6dcf167acd4733a0a8a74581Moore’s argument is that capitalism depends not only on the wage labourer’s work, but on the work that nature does without any payment. This process is called appropriation. It sustains the flow of raw materials, energy, labour-power, and food which are necessary for commodity production and social reproduction. These four factors must be made free or cheap for capital if it is to sustain an increasing profit rate. This is why Moore defines the Law of Value as one of Cheap Nature – comprised of Four Cheaps.

Keeping nature as an external object is key to the historical development of this Law of Value. This means that nature is not given, but rather made, and that this making is always intertwined with appropriation and the process of capital accumulation. Several logics sustain this work of making nature as something external and that is there for the taking.

One of these logics is that of the frontier. Each process of capitalist expansion, articulated through imperialism and its civilising discourse, has required new frontiers: America on the 16th Century; Africa and Asia during the 17th and 18th, and the great plains in the United States during the 19th and 20th. This frontier logic is coming to an end. Climate change, for instance, shows the limits of using nature as a supposedly infinite tap and as sink, which, in practice, has historical constraints.

The argument about the depletion of frontiers at a systemic level is convincing. Moore supports his point with plentiful evidence of how nature is becoming more expensive, increasing therefore the costs of the accumulation process. However, the logic of frontier appropriation still goes on. Even if these new frontiers are insufficient to fuel a new expansive period for capitalism, they might be sufficient to further current accumulation dynamics. In the following paragraphs, I will argue that the Mexican South-Southeast is one of these frontiers, which is also a territory where diverse resistances challenge capitalism’s Law of Value through practice.

The Mexican South-Southeast as an internal frontier

Elsewhere I have explored how David Harvey’s concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ can be useful in explaining the multiple crises Mexico faces as a political and territorial entity. The arguments presented in Capitalism in the Web of Life are an opportunity to rethink this proposal. In particular, the notion of the frontier as a space in which nature is produced as something external, which is waiting to be appropriated, can be particularly fruitful; even more so when we think of this appropriation as a process that goes beyond the moment of violent dispossession, requiring processes of ethical and political valuation. An example might better explain this.

There is an ongoing conflict in Mexico, regarding the implementation of a reform on the teacher’s collective contracts. The reform, which seeks to evaluate teachers, and then punish them if they fail, has a twofold consequence. The first is that it seeks to discipline the workforce according to quality schemes, common in other labour markets today, which displace the responsibility of success or failure to the individual, hiding the structural problems she might face. The second, which depends on the teacher failing, is to free large amounts of labour-power to the market, making them part of the reserve army of labour. Potential proletarians, whose unemployment guarantees lower wages in the labour market, fuelled by competition; individuals that are part of the labour force, but whose survival does not depend on wages: the cost of sustaining this labour-power is made external, a part of nature.

This reform has been fiercely fought by grassroots teachers. In the centre of this struggle, is the Mexican South-Southwest, Oaxaca in particular. There are many reasons for this. I will not attempt to mention them all here. Instead, I will only highlight one: the struggle to keep teaching as a form of labour close to the family nucleus. Those who defend this reform on teaching labour have framed the practice of inheriting positions as something fundamentally negative, part of a corrupt lifestyle that denies the progress embodied in the evaluation. However, this resistance can also be framed as a fight to keep the sphere of social reproduction outside the sphere of capital, in relations mediated not by the market, but by the state. In this way, the will to evaluate and punish would be, on the one hand, a form of breaking this form of social reproduction. On the other, it is an affirmation of the ethico-political desirability of the capitalist wage labour relation. For Moore, these two processes always go hand in hand.

At the same time, Oaxaca is a territory in which Cheap Nature is being appropriated. In the Tehuantepec Isthmus, thousands of wind turbines have been (and are being) installed, although open-pit mining or small-scale hydroelectric dams are also good examples of this. Here, the frontier is even clearer. Cheap energy appears to be part of an external nature, which can be colonised by capital, this time legitimised by the superior moral value of clean energy. Hegemonic discourses hide the pollution that is still generated by these clean energies, as well as the displacement of thousands of people, who might be forced to survive by selling their labour-power, even if their reproduction occurs outside the wage relation: one of the Four Cheaps Moore highlights as crucial.

harvey-new-imperialismFinally, it is necessary to consider the project of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) as part of this process of frontier conquering. It has been pointed out that these SEZ will not reduce poverty. This is due to their design, which is still based on an ideology of trickle-down economics, which gives enormous privileges to capitalists, in exchange for a promise of social and economic benefit for all that will never arrive. Here, I would add something: this trickle-down ideology is intertwined with a Cheap Nature practice. In this case, the Mexican South-Southeast becomes a frontier in which resources, energy, and labour-power can be appropriated by being framed as part of an external and non-capitalist nature, as also discussed on the PPE blog by Chris Hesketh. Moreover, this expansion is also presented as something desirable, as the wealth generated by the appropriation will (never) trickle-down.

This process of appropriation includes many others: framing the Law of Value as something morally and politically valuable; mapping natural resources, translating Cheap Nature into a portable, readable format; codifying the limits of nature and society in laws and bills, so as the first remains cheap, and creating new institutional arrangements, which allow the market and the state to produce this logic through space and time. Appropriating Cheap Nature is not only a process of violent material dispossession. It is also a way to see the world which naturalises – and makes desirable – this process, upon which capitalist accumulation depends.

Afterword: resistance and ontology

Moore highlights the centrality of a new kind of politics: those centred on ontology. As the book scarcely develops this point, as Soper has argued elsewhere, the Mexican case might be a good place to begin this work. In many cases, the resistance to capitalist development projects in the Mexican South-Southwest has been framed in ontological terms. The Zapatista Army (EZLN) is a clear case of this practice. Making reference to a particular way of being indigenous in the world, they posit a different ontology: a different way of thinking and making nature, society, power and existence as ever intertwined processes.

My intuition is that in the centre of ontological resistances (both indigenous and not) to capitalism as project and process, there is a new law of value. This new law has, at the core, a radically different valuation of nature. At odds with the capitalist vision, which Moore explores, these resistances think of nature not as something external, and therefore not an object to be conquered and plundered. Here, there is no concept and practice of external Nature, but of humanity-in-nature and vice versa. If we take seriously Moore’s arguments, these resistances would not be anecdotic to the great history of capitalist development, but creative foci in which new ways of making the world are put in practice. Speaking from the frontier, and overcoming it in subaltern and world-making ways, these practices might point to different futures in which sustainability is not ancillary to world development, but of a way of seeing and being in the world.

Alejandro De Coss
Alejandro De Coss is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics. His current research is an exploration on the role of infrastructure in the urbanisation of water in Mexico City over the course of the 20th Century.

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