Book review: Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life

Originally published online 27 September 2015.

Book review: Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London and New York: Verso, 2015. Print.

Many readers of my diaries will know that Jason W. Moore is one of my favorite writers and that I’ve relied upon his material to make some of my points. Some examples of my use of Moore are:

1) my big long and over-involved introduction to Jason’s work

2) “Postcapitalism summarized” — a rationale for why I assume the capitalist system is going to come to an end, in two or three decades I believe, which uses Moore’s work

3) a discussion of the Jason W. Moore “Four Cheaps” theory in a piece titled “Capitalism will last forever or maybe not.”

Much of what Moore has already written prior to the book is linked to a website for Moore’s essays which will give you a lot of interesting reading, and there’s a link to presentations as well if you just want to listen. The interviews with Sasha Lilley on KPFA are interesting and relatively easy to understand, if you want especially accessible Moore.

The book, though, reads as a polemic advocacy of what Moore calls “World-ecology,” and as a history of capitalism (pointing in the end to a way out of capitalism). World-ecology is fundamentally a “challenge to the conceit of Cartesian dualism” (22), and thus I’ve been calling Moore’s genre “post-Cartesian thought.” Moore argues:

Our scholarly vocabularies, even after four decades of Green Thought, are still contained within — and constrained by — an essentially Cartesian notion of nature-society interaction. Nature goes into one box; Society goes into another. The two interact and shape each other, but the messily bundled and interpenetrating relations of manifold human and extra-human natures are abstracted from the movement of the parts, and the constitution of the Whole. The dualist construction of Nature and Society — Green Arithmetic — poses a question it cannot answer: the question of the Whole. Why? Because Nature plus Society does not add up. Something is missing.

Moore’s project, here, is to bring the history and theory of capitalism back into an understanding of history which doesn’t separate people from nature. The implied, and much bigger, project is to bring the whole of the social sciences back into an understanding which doesn’t separate people from nature. I’ve been calling the genre of writing which hopes to undo the academic separation of people and nature “post-Cartesian thought.” This is demanding, though super-important work.

It’s also interdisciplinary work (as seen from the present-day academic perspective). As Kees van der Pijl points out in the first chapter of his Survey of Global Political Economy, the whole of the social sciences constitute a single discipline (which he calls “political economy”), and the “disciplines” (as artifacts of university history) distinguish themselves through differing axiomatic presuppositions about humanity. The anthropologist thinks of people as cultural or as physical, the political scientist thinks we are citizens or subjects, the economist thinks we are consumers of goods and services, and so on. And so van der Pijl muses as follows:

Classical political economy as we saw was based on a comprehensive theory of society. Yet even the most axiomatic and dogmatic disciplinary understanding of one aspect of society, in this case economics, will have to adhere to certain assumptions about those aspects of social life not formally accounted for in the discipline. However dedicated an economist may be, s/he will have to have a potted anthropology, psychology, political science and international relations ready to be able to make a complete argument about the economic process. (10-11)

Each of the social sciences is like this — making assumptions in other fields in order to maintain disciplinary integrity — while at the same time only a unified project (“political economy”) will prove useful in the long run in understanding the world and in solving larger-scale problems within it.

Moore’s book is a valuable contribution to the social-scientific (or “political economy”) project as such, although it should be clear from an involved reading of Capitalism in the Web of Life that more books like Moore’s could be written merely to clarify Moore’s premises. Moore himself is straddling the disciplines to be sure: he’s an environmental historian with a Ph.D. in geography who teaches in a department of sociology and talks of ecology.

As you may have guessed, Moore’s premise (as stretched out over a book of approx. 300 pages length) makes for difficult reading for the uninitiated. Perhaps a basic prerequisite of this book is having read Marx: many of the chapters of this book deal with Marx in one way or another. So for instance the title of Chapter 4 is “The Tendency of the Ecological Surplus to Fall,” a title distinctly reminiscent of a portion of Volume 3 of Capital (“The Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall”).

It might just be simple for newer readers to sample the essays on Moore’s own web page. The essays form an excellent background for the book.

Moore creates a new vocabulary to discuss, rather than Society plus Nature, “human and extra-human natures.” (23) His argument is that “all relations between humans are always — already — relations at once ‘of nature’ and ‘to the rest of nature.’ Perhaps the biggest service I can perform, then, as a reviewer of this book for uninitiated, is to explain this new vocabulary. So without further ado, here is a glossary of Moore’s terms:

the Oikeios: I’m going to let the author define this one for you:

Oikeios is a way of naming the creative, historical, and dialectical relation between, and also always within, human and extra-human natures. The oikeios is shorthand for oikeios topos, or “favorable place,” a term coined by the Greek philosopher-botanist Theophrastus. For Theophrastus, the oikeios topos indicated “the relationship between a plant species and the environment.”

The oikeios topos, then, is nature as if people were part of it, or habitat conceived as an ongoing interaction. (It indeed bothers me that Moore is using an adjective (“oikeios”) as a noun. I will henceforth refer to the “oikeios topos.”) World-ecology: this is the “new paradigm” in which “civilizations” appear as forces of nature (3). World-ecology is what Moore says he does (he has told me this himself). I am also hoping that Moore can, someday, make use of a similar term which he uses now and then: socioecology.

Nature/ Society: this is the old paradigm, according to which society can be analyzed without viewing it as part of nature, and in which “nature” is something to be added afterward, if it is to be recognized at all.

Cheap Nature: As capitalism depends for its existence upon the abstract separation of “society” and “nature,” and as capital (the driving force within capitalism) appropriates “nature” (both human and extra-human), capital operates by appropriating Cheap Nature, nature which can be easily capitalized. Moore divides up Cheap Nature into what he calls “Four Cheaps“: cheap labor, cheap food, cheap energy, and cheap raw materials. Capitalism depends upon the cheapness of the Four Cheaps – when they get expensive, we have a crisis of the system. Sometimes the system is able to overcome the crisis, and restore the Four Cheaps. Moore thinks that at some point in the future the system will be unable to overcome its own crisis tendencies, the Four Cheaps will no longer be cheap enough to save the system, and we will thus experience an “epochal crisis,” in which capitalism disintegrates.

Negative value: As the point of a business is to generate value by manufacturing and selling commodities, the waste products of the whole process count as a sort of negative value. Capitalist business pushes negative value onto the various natures, human and non-human — thus the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary cause of present-day climate change, occurs because the atmosphere has become capital’s “unpaid garbageman.” Eventually, however, negative value accumulates, imperiling the conditions for further capitalist expansion.

Abstract social nature: This is the extent to which human and extra-human natures are adapted to capital for the sake of facilitating capital accumulation. So for instance the world is mapped out, people are made into efficient laborers, government bails out businesses, and so on. Abstract social nature is what I’ve been calling “capitalist discipline.” “Capitalism, as project, seeks to create a world in the image of capital, in which all elements of human and extra-human natures are effectively interchangeable.” (204)

Ecological surplus: Moore defines: “The ecological surplus is the ratio of the system-wide mass of capital to the system-wide appropriation of unpaid work/energy.” The ecological surplus, then, is the potential bounty available to capital as a whole at any one moment in history. Periods of capitalist prosperity are periods of high ecological surplus. Periods of low ecological surplus are, correspondingly, periods of capitalist crisis.

This is an incomplete glossary to be sure, but I wanted readers to have a taste of what reading this stuff is like. At times Jason W. Moore achieves what I will call Peak Theory (and here I jest, but only partially): peak theory is what happens when the theorization of concepts exceeds the appropriation of the concrete circumstances which are to guide the theory. The abstract edifice at times stands in further need of concrete examples, then. More below the noodle.

Through his innovative, people-are-part-of-nature vocabulary, Moore depicts a world in which capitalism can’t last forever, and must at some point (probably pretty soon in terms of the overall arc of capitalist history) disintegrate. Moore tends to view the coming disintegration of capitalism favorably:

We are frequently warned of the alleged dangers of civilizational “collapse.” But is the “collapse” of capitalism — a civilization that plunges more than a third of its population into malnutrition — really something to be feared? Historical experience suggests not. The Fall of Rome after the fifth century, and the collapse of feudal power in Western Europe in the fourteenth century, ushered in golden ages in living standards for the vast majority. (85-86)

At such a point I really did want to know what Moore’s opinion was upon Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Upon the collapse of Rome the trade in commodities shrunk dramatically throughout the West. It’s also quite possible that capitalist civilization will collapse and in some places be replaced by nothing. After the collapse of capitalism there will still be a lot of useless “abstract social nature” present in the oikeios topos, which may prove to be a bad thing. Large numbers of people will be anticipating a capitalist system which will neither exploit them nor come to their aid. Capital’s appropriation of the world before its end, moreover, is likely to be a wholesale disaster. Everything will be plundered — you can see this now in the plunder that threatens to destroy the Post Office and public schooling in America. Climate change will ravage the planet. We can hope that there will be enough left when it’s over.

Moore’s suggestion of a solution, of a positive, uplifting future alternative to capitalism, then, merits scrutiny. The book has a subchapter titled “Toward a Socialist World-Ecology?” (286-289) in which Moore suggests that the principle of food sovereignty, that organizations such as La Via Campesina, and that applied sciences such as agroecology could suggest a basis for a socialist world ecology. I am definitely in agreement with him on this matter — though I think that such principles, sciences, and organizations constitute a start and that expanding on this solution is the first order of business. Agroecology, for instance, is an applied science, applying ecology to the art of growing crops. What we need, then, are applications of ecology to all of the human arts — the applied-science basis for a society based on ecology.

I would also like to say a word about the “Four Cheaps.” There needs to be a comprehensive analysis of Cheap Energy to correspond to the one Moore has dedicated to Cheap Food. When Moore examines Cheap Energy, he’s almost entirely involved with fossil fuels — there is no corresponding analysis in this book of the role (or lack thereof) played by “alternative energy” in the Cheap Energy equation.

In conclusion, though Moore’s book ascends to great heights of abstraction and so we should keep up the demand that his theory be persistently brought down to earth, Moore is on the right track and at the “place to be.” Moore suggests a theory of capitalism which brings out its contradictions far more meaningfully than traditional Marxism, which still can’t shake the implication that social democracy will resolve all of capitalism’s problems.

Moreover, Moore’s post-Cartesian thought is the type of theory we should all be pursuing, for (in general) it promises to save the social sciences from their own impending uselessness and self-absorption within the world of academic subsidy. If you don’t have a copy of this thing already, you should get one.


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