Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jason W Moore - Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital

Jason W. Moore's book Capitalism in the Web of Life has become a required read for those trying to understand why it is that capitalism is unable to prevent growing ecological crisis. Moore's work has won awards and has been widely discussed, and critiqued. [Ref 1]

Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique of what Moore sees as established thinking around ecological questions. His particular targets are what he calls “Green Thought” and the work of Marxists around ecological issues. Moore is at pains to put his own distinct ideas on the table.
My sense of Green Arithmetic is that it appears to work because we assume Society plus Nature add up. But does this assumption hold up under closer examination? Capitalism in the Web of Life opens an alternative path. I argue that “Society” and “Nature” are part of the problem, intellectually and politically; the binary Nature/Society is directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world; and that the view of Nature as external is a fundamental condition of capitalism accumulation.[Ref 2] [p2]
On the surface this can sound very radical. We are, after all, fed a constant stream of articles about what “we” are going to “nature” but such a binary is absolutely inadequate to explain what is taking place. Moore continues,
“The economy” and “the environment” are not independent of each other. Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature. [p2]
He then explains that “The ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole... This is nature as us, as inside us, as around us. It is nature as a flow of flows. Put simply, humans make environments and environments make humans – and human organisation.” [p3]

It is difficult to argue with this. After all, Marx said something very similar in the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts
The universality of man appears in practice precisely in the universality which makes all nature his inorganic body – both inasmuch as nature is (1) his direct means of life, and (2) the material, the object, and the instrument of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature. [Ref 3]
This is perhaps uncontroversial. What becomes controversial is that Moore argues closely that many of those who have argued on these lines, such as John Bellamy Foster, have ended up in a position of replicating the “society” and “nature” dualism. In particular he suggests that the idea of the concept of the “metabolic rift” which Marx (and others) have used to identify the particular break that capitalism has with the natural world because of alienated labour, has actually reinforced the idea of difference. As Moore puts it:
Rather than ford the Cartesian divide, metabolism approaches have reinforced it. Marx’s “interdependent process of social metabolism” [KM] became the “metabolism of nature and society” [JBF] Metabolism as “rift” became a metaphor of separation, premised on material flows between nature and Society. Thus did metabolic rift triumph over metabolic shift as a means of unifying humanity-in-nature within unified metabolisms of power, wealth and nature. [p76]
This seems to me to be a crude criticism of John Bellamy Foster's work. As Foster himself has pointed out in a response [Ref 4] to Moore’s book, this is a misunderstanding of dialectics. The point of dialectics is very much the coming together of opposites. Thus “society and nature” are both the same, society is inseparable from nature, interdependent and so on, but also there is difference and separation too. As Foster points out, “To call that approach “dualist” is comparable to denying that your heart is both an integral part of your body and a distinct organ with unique features and functions”.

But in places Moore recreates this duality himself. Although he talks about the oikeios, as the sum total of social relations that “form and re-form the relations and conditions that create and destroy humanity’s mosaic of cooperation and conflict: what is typically called ‘social’ organisation”. But then, in dozens of places through the book, Moore is forced to use the phrase “human and extra-human natures” emphasising the differences between the two.

I don’t want to dwell further on this part of Moore’s book in part as it's been extensively critiqued elsewhere, though Moore’s oikeios underpins all of the remainder of his work and the weakness of the concept in turn weakens the rest of his argument. For the remainder of this review I want to focus on two other aspects of Moore’s writing. The first of these is the centrality to which Moore gives a reworked concept of the law of value and, secondly, what this means for how we get a non-capitalist, sustainable world. I should note in passing that I did not agree with some other parts of Moore’s book such as his discussion of the Anthropocene [Ref 5] but these are consequences of his approach to the subject and will no doubt be further discussed elsewhere.

Marx argued that the value of a commodity is proportional to the labour required to produce it, a proportion that is related to socially necessary labour-time, averaging the human labour required across society. Moore says that “this cannot be the end of the story” as this fails to account for the central importance of “invisible work” such as the contributions of women to the reproduction of labour, non-human labour and the contribution from natural resources (coal and wood for instance).

These are, in Moore’s view, “A rising stream of low-cost food, labour-power, energy, and raw materials to the factory gates... The law of value in capitalism is a law of Cheap Nature.” [p53]

Here Moore echoes others, like David Harvey, who have emphasised the importance of a new phase of primitive accumulation, what Moore would characterise as the location of new sources of cheap nature at the “frontiers” of capitalism, to fuel the ongoing accumulation of capital.

However, as Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos have argued there is a limit to this.
In a climate of intense competition and relatively low profitability, capitals eagerly hunt out any niche from which profits can be extracted. Some firms, taking advantage of the shift in public policy towards promoting the interests of private capital, reorganise themselves or are set up to unlock the surplus-value that can be created or redistributed by appropriating state assets. Some of the opportunities on which they seize are to be found in the global South: the role of European transnationals in Latin American privatisations is particularly striking. But the predominant flows of commodities and of capital across the world economy take place among the OECD countries, and – along with the important extension of these circuits to embrace China – they feed the expanded reproduction of a capitalist system that continues to derive its profits mainly from the exploitation of wage-labour. [Ref 6]
This is not to devalue what capitalism does. Moore rightly points out capitalism bends everything to its own interests, the “mapping, quantifying, and rationalizing natures in service to capitalism accumulation”. [p67] We should never forget that this means the systematic destruction of natural resources, human lives and employment and the transformation of everything into systems that can maximise the accumulation of wealth in the interests of a tiny minority.

But Moore argues that this is the central process that has to be understood - evoking a new concept of “world ecological surplus” that falls over time (the phrase deliberately copies the Marxist concept of the falling rate of profit). Without this, Moore argues, “the rate of exploitation of labour-power... tends to exhaust the life-making capacities that enter into the immediate production of value”. [p67] Moore goes further:
If we take the nexus of paid/unpaid work as our premise, capitalism and value relations cannot be reduced to a relation between the owners of capital and the possessors of labour-power. The historical condition of socially necessary labour time is socially necessary unpaid work. [p69]
In other words, we have to decentralise the role of labour, and by extension, workers from the capital-labour relation to properly understand capitalism and its consequences. As Nayeri notes in his own review “Moore privileges “appropriation” instead of “production.”

Moore clearly disagrees with Marx’s approach to capitalism, or perhaps more fairly, he thinks it inadequate as anything but a starting point for his own approach. This is why, I think he emphasises critiques of Marxism by Feminists and Greens because he can use them to bolster his position. But Moore’s argument is limited in part because it mistakenly suggests that Marx and Marxists haven’t seen the importance of this work previously. Take the question of unpaid labour by women. As Judith Orr has noted in her book Marxism and Women’s Liberation:
What is being bought and sold [by the capitalists] is a worker’s ability labour, not the actual work. Because exploitation is a social relationship between worker and boss and between bosses who compete with each other, the crucial question is not even how much value a single worker produces. The concept of ‘socially necessary labour time’ has to be recognised – the average time needed to produce a given commodity in society at any one time.... Just because domestic labour in the home is not directly producing surplus value does not mean that Marxists don’t recognise its contribution to the ability of the ruling class to make profits.
Orr then quotes Rosa Luxemburg “this kind of work is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent, the thousands little efforts add up to... this sounds brutal and insane... corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy”. [Ref 7]

Of course, this is not to argue that cheap inputs are not important to offset the failing rate of profit. It is one reason, for instance, that capitalists are constantly searching for new, easily accessible sources of oil.

Moore’s argument that Marxism has failed “to see the appropriation of Cheap Nature as central to world accumulation [and] has led to a major mis-recognition of capitalism’s laws of motion”, leads to his conclusion that all capitalism needs is the constant location of new cheap nature, which seems to me less of a great insight, and more of a restating of fact. Marx, for instance, noted the importance of the “cheapening of the elements of constant capital” as a factor in counteracting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. [Ref 8]

But there is a problem too with Moore’s concept of what these cheap inputs are. For instance, Moore repeatedly argues for the acknowledging the importance of non-human natures’ contribution to the economy. Though I don’t know why Moore thinks that is has not been acknowledged previously. Marx famously polemicised in his Critique of the Gotha Programme that
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor
But Marx goes further than this; if one reads the full quote,
Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. [Ref 9]
In contradiction to Marx, who sees human labour as facilitating the use-value of non-human nature, Moore on occasions assigns nature a role analogous to that of workers, speculating for instance that “the problem of surplus capital is one of capital putting nature to work, and then failing because uncapitalised nature balks at working overtime.... A rising ecological surplus in contrast, makes all sort of capital investment attractive, because lots of free nature can work lots of cheap overtime.” [p113]

It is precisely here, in his attempts to understand how capitalism actually operates, that the concept of oikeios is exposed for its limitations. Humans can work over-time, or they can refuse to and “work-to-rule” or strike. Non-human nature cannot make these sort of decisions. It’s a meaningless approach to human ecology. This sort of approach downplays the centrality of humans to historical change, and, most importantly it negates the central role that workers have, through the importance of their labour power to capitalism, to transform society.

For all its critiques of capitalism, and indeed for its excellent analysis of the problems that the “web of life” creates, Jason Moore’s book is perilously short on alternatives and how to get there. It would be entirely fair for Moore to disagree on the Marxist vision of revolutionary change whereby workers transform society and themselves through a mass movement that creates a workers’ state and the organs of popular democracy and a democratic, planned economy. But surly an alternative should be offered. Moore mentions, almost in passing, a few attempts to improve aspects of society, notable some radical attempts to rebuild agriculture outside of the mainstream economy by mass movements of landless workers and peasants in parts of South America. But, given the urgency of the environmental crises we face, this is hardly a vision for all of us.

Moore questions whether “the ‘collapse’ of capitalism.... [is] really to be feared” [p86] pointing out that it is a society that leaves a third of the population in malnutrition. Well the real question is whether there is an alternative. The replacement of capitalism with a socialist, sustainable, world based on equality, democracy and so on, is of course not to be feared. But the collapse of capitalism without such an alternative would be horrific for billions of people – the regression to barbarism that Engels feared would happen without socialism. But despite this fear there is no clear alternative.

I have spent almost all of my review criticising aspects of Moore’s book. It is worth noting that I did find much of passing interest in the work. In particular, I enjoyed Moore’s clear critique of the Green Revolution and modern agriculture. Capitalism in the Web of Life is a book that will be widely read, and has already received many commendations. But there are significant problems with its approach which I hope that I have managed to outline in the interests of a stronger left, and Marxist, ecology.

Related Reviews


[1] I found Kamran Nayeri’s critical review useful Though note a slight correction offered by Adam Rose to Nayeri’s article I also recommend John Bellamy Fosters’ extended piece discussing Moore’s work amongst that of other left ecologists Marxism in the Anthropocene: Dialectical Rifts on the Left in International Critical Thought, Vol. 6, Issue 3, 2016

[2] In this review numbers in square brackets refer to 2015, Verso edition of Capitalism in the Web of Life.

[3] See

[4] John Bellamy Foster responds to a critic, Climate and Capitalism website, Jun 2016,

[5] Moore discusses the Anthropocene and conflates the start of the Anthropocene as being with the systematic adoption of fossil fuel. [179] I think this misunderstands what the Anthropocene concept is from a scientific point of view, particularly the idea that there has to be a geological marker for its beginning. Moore is wrong also to suggest there are only “weak” arguments for a late Anthropocene. Ian Angus, for instance, puts a strong (and clear) argument for a post-WW2 Anthropocene in his Facing the Anthropocene, Monthly Review, 2016.

[6] Sam Ashman and Alex Callinicos, Capital Accumulation and the State System: Assessing David Harvey’s The New Imperialism, Historical Materialism, volume 14:4, p128-129.

[7] Judith Orr, Marxism and Women’s Liberation, Bookmarks, 2015, p159-160.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital III, Penguin, p342-343.

[9] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875

1 comment:

Kamran Nayeri said...

Mr. Empson:

I enjoyed reading your review.

I wish to add the following comment about Mr. Rose's two criticisms of my of review which you cited.

While Mr. Rose generously calls my review "excellent" he offers two criticisms. In my view, his first criticism is based on a number of misunderstandings. I think his second point which is not a criticism of me at all is entirely correct. Let me explain:

Mr. Rose's first criticism takes "labor" and "production" to mean the same thing dating them as far back as 2.8 million years ago. Engels in "The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" his title in inaccurate) clearly is discussing how the ability of early humans to stand on their two legs freed their hands to do things and working with their hands helped develop them apart from other Great Apes. Engels is not arguing that humans engaged in production going back 2.8 million years (In fact, the time horizon he considers given the state of knowledge at the time is "[m]any hundreds of thousands of years ago").

What did humans do with their hands until the dawn of farming? Barker, an eminent archeologist begins his book "The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why Did Foragers Become Farmers?" (2006, p.1) thus: "Humans have occupied our planet for several million years, but for almost all of that period they have lived as foragers, by various combinations of gathering, collecting, scavenging, fishing, and hunting." It is important to note that currently most experts agree that transition to farming was not a choice but a compulsion and that early farmers were worse off for an extended period of time.

Thus, the transition to farming marks a truly world-historic event which has been the subject of much debate for more than a century. Therefore, my interpretation of Marx' and Engels' text in the German Ideology about "production" which he quotes is accurate both in terms of what the authors meant and what we now know about the transition itself. My quoting of M&E in the essay is for two purposes. First, to delineate some key elements of historical materialism to show how Moore's methodology differs from them. Second, to argue for my own claim that the origin of alienation from nature is in the Agricultural Revolution. Given the limited scope of my essay, I asked anyone interested to read my "Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outlines, Part 2" (2013) for an exposition. Mr. rose's criticism does not show that that he read that longer discussion. I urge anyone interested to do so and comment if they find it wanting.

Mr. Rose's second critical comment is about the role of agency in Marx's theory--the proletariat. He is absolutely correct that Moore's theory systematically sidelines wage-workers' significance for the capitalist economy (I say as much in the essay but in passing). But as I noted in the essay, there are a number of other important issues in "Capitalism in the Web of Life" that I had to set aside in order to assess its overall method and theory without making it too long.