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Is capitalism an ecological system?


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The New Inquiry has a review of philosopher Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, a book that seek to overcome the impasses of environmentalism by thinking of capitalism as an ecological system. An excerpt:

Although not a book on political movements, the philosopher Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital seeks to analyze the root cause of this impasse for environmentalism: the widely-shared view that “the environment” is a separate and unique part of existence outside of capitalism that capitalism devalues. Instead of examining the degradation of nature as an aspect of accumulation, Moore proposes that nature is instead always in capital, and likewise, capitalism is always in historical natures. Nature conditions capitalist accumulation and is produced historically by capitalist relations. His argument allows us to see how dependent accumulation and the exploitation of labor are on the appropriation and reproduction of “cheap natures” (food, energy, raw materials, and labour-power — defined as “cheap” in the sense of “the periodic, and radical, reduction in the socially necessary labor-time of these Big Four inputs”). In Moore’s clearest formulation: “Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature” …

This understanding leads Moore to argue that “Nature can neither be saved nor destroyed, only transformed.” Such a thermodynamic formulation strikes us as profoundly contrary to received environmentalist wisdom — and fundamentally correct. It allows Moore to analyze oil next to labor, the household next to superweeds, contemporary climate change next to 16th century sugar plantations. Each of these is equally historically and relationally produced by and through capitalism, and in turn conditions capitalism’s historic and future ability to extract value from its natures.

Perhaps Moore’s most emphatic and important application of oikeios is to tease out the relationship between paid labor power (exploitation) and the appropriation of unpaid work/energy — what Maria Mies succinctly sums up as “women, nature, and colonies.” If we accept that nature is not a timeless background to capitalism, but instead that “historical natures” are produced by and products of modes of production, then it becomes increasingly clear that historical natures and their reproduction are not incidental to accumulation. Natures are the condition of its possibility.

This thesis shows how we might answer several problems that have vexed Marxist theory: Is slavery central to accumulation, or a pre-capitalist formation? Did European settler colonization and “frontier” adventures precede and kick-start accumulation (as “primitive accumulation”), or are they necessary to ongoing accumulation? Moore argues that in a long view of capital in and as nature, it becomes clear that accumulation is a dialectic of capitalization and appropriation.

Image via The New Inquiry.