moore capitalism

Jason Moore shows that capitalism is innately destructive of its environment, but the solution is revolutionary socialist organisation, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life. Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso 2015), xi, 316pp.

There is a strand of green thought which holds that the root of all our environmental problems is that human activity has too much effect on the natural world. The solutions range from the exhortation to ‘tread lightly upon the Earth’ to the deep green proposal to restrict human habitation to the coasts, but the belief that stopping human society from affecting nature is possible or desirable is a hallmark of many green campaigns.

If you hold this position, you have to see human society as something distinct from nature, or rather, Nature, since this is to reify the natural world into a distinct, abstract concept. It would be a rare green who would disagree with the proposition that nature is ‘a web of life encompassing all human activity’ (p.33). At the same time, however, it is easy to slip into a view of nature which treats it effectively as something exogenous to human activity. However much we might accept the web of life in theory, in practice nature is often just the source of raw material inputs and a place for waste outputs. For Moore, this is a serious error. He argues that the reification which this separation requires is not only a misunderstanding of how human societies and their environments interact, but is itself a product of capitalism. It was the emergence of capitalism, reducing both people and nature to abstract commodities, that separated Nature from Society just as surely as it separated the peasantry from their lands.

Maintaining that capitalism is part of nature rather than separate from it is not, of course, the same as arguing that it is ‘natural’, in the sense of inescapable or unchangeable. Some right-wing arguments like to see the way that capitalism works as being as immutable as the laws of physics, but this is not a view with which Moore has any truck. Rather, he sets out how we have to see capitalism as a way of organising the natural world of which it is a part, and as a uniquely destructive one.

It is not the case, as is sometimes implied in green thinking, that before capitalism, human societies lived in mystical harmony with nature, only consuming what could be sustainably replaced. Human societies have been modifying their environments, with a range of beneficial and not so beneficial consequences, since human societies have existed. The difference is that what others do in centuries, capitalism has the power to do in decades (p.59).

That capitalism has a vastly increased power to destroy its environment will not be an unfamiliar thought to most, but the difficulty lies in the way in which this is often seen as being a result of the industrial revolution. This is either directly, through greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution, or somewhat more indirectly, as a result of the size of the human population which industrial agriculture allows the world to support. Arguments which seem to suggest that if capitalism is the problem, the solutions are to halve the population or give up modern medicine and communications, are unlikely to seem attractive options to most people.

Moore’s analysis here uncouples the environmental damage inherent in production under capitalism from the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Capitalism is not the cause of environmental problems because it is industrial, but because it is capitalist. The history of the development of capitalism from the mid-fifteenth century on (what Moore calls the long sixteenth century, approximately 1450-1650) shows that pre-industrial capitalists were capable of exploiting natural resources with a rapacity equivalent to that shown by their industrial descendants. It is undoubtedly the case that the development of industry gave capitalism new opportunities to destroy its environment, but the destructive tendencies were there from the start.

The central problem of capitalism here is that it is essentially, not aberrantly, exploitative. As Moore puts it, it doesn’t pay its bills. This is true for capitalist businesses’ treatment of wage labour, where ‘paying the bills’ would mean paying the workers the true value of their labour and therefore eliminating any accumulation of surplus value. This is also true of capitalism’s organisation of the natural world, as again, the ability to accumulate capital depends on the input of raw materials and the output of waste at less than the actual cost to the environment. Capitalism gets by on what Moore calls the ‘Four Cheaps’: Labour, Food, Oil and Nature, and only maintains itself as a system while these are, in fact, cheap.

The current crises are therefore indications that this ability of capitalism to get the inputs it needs at less than their actual cost may be coming to an end. Moore argues that we are seeing a shift into an era of negative value, where the cost of dealing with the effects of capitalist production – from the development of super-weeds, treating cancers arising from pollution, or dealing with the effects of climate change – becomes higher than the possible profits.

This again will not be unfamiliar. Marx and Engels identified the necessity for capitalism to maintain its profits through constant expansion, into new markets, new pools of cheap labour, new areas of raw materials or new spheres of activity to commodify. Engels, in writing against Malthus’ view that the poor would always outbreed the available resources and starve, was optimistic that human ingenuity would always come up with ways to increase food production, but he recognised that this was only possible within capitalism while there were unexploited areas for capitalist economies to expand into. As he wrote in 1865 about the western USA: ‘If all these regions have been ploughed up and after that shortage set in, then will be the time to say caveat consules [let the consuls beware]’.i Efforts in the twentieth century to increase agricultural production, such as the Green Revolution, worked by commodifying areas of agriculture which previously existed largely outside the global market system; a trick which worked for a while to shore up the rate of profit for capitalist agriculture, but which could only be pulled once.

Moore’s portrayal of the way in which capitalism is innately destructive of its environment, and of the current, looming crisis, is a convincing one, although it is notable that imperialism is largely missing from his discussion of the centrality of the frontier under capitalism. Since increasing competition among the major powers for scarcer cheap resources seems likely to be a continuing reality, and since the ‘War on Terror’, Nato, immigration issues and so on remain so central to domestic politics in both the US and UK, this seems something of an omission. Imperialism is a reality of twenty-first century politics, not a holdover from the nineteenth century, and to dismiss the question with an offhand comment about ‘gunboat diplomacy’ (p.192) seems insufficient.

More widely, the analysis is not without its problems. In particular, there is the contention that the inputs of the Four Cheaps are structurally the same; in other words, that we should not regard the contribution of the natural world to capitalist production as essentially different from that of labour. Moore is right to deride the strict separation of human activity and reified Nature in much green thinking, and the concomitant tendency to want to preserve pristine Nature from human activity. Progressing from this to a view of labour which includes natural inputs feels, however, like a bit of a stretch.

In Moore’s view, the essential distinction is between paid and unpaid labour. A carpenter, for example, would be paid less than the value of their labour for building a house for a developer. Also going into the creation of the house would be the unpaid labour which enabled the carpenter to work (preparing food, cleaning the house, looking after children etc.) and the unpaid labour of the tree in growing the wood. It is of course true that in order to accumulate profit, the capitalist developer here needs to get the unpaid human labour (the cost of the reproduction of labour) as cheaply as possible, since this has a relationship with the level of wages, and they also need to get cheap wood. It is not, however, helpful to view these unpaid inputs as interchangeable.

Capitalism can opt to meet the costs of the reproduction of labour in different ways: the carpenter could earn a ‘family wage’ enabling their wife to stay at home to do the housework and bring up the children; the children could be cared for in state-funded nurseries and dinner bought in from a canteen while both parents work; the carpenter’s wife could spend most of her own wage to hire an even-lower paid woman to look after her children for her. None of these entail paying the tree for its wood, nor the forested land for its lost trees. As Herman Daly famously said, in response to notions of how a form of steady-state capitalism could avoid affecting the natural world by switching to immaterial production: you can’t make up for a shortage of wood by hiring more carpenters. It is not necessary to reify a concept of Nature, separate and separable from human society, to see the role of nature in capitalism as a condition of production rather than as an unpaid worker.

The other difficulty with Moore’s work is a common one in green analysis: the question of what we actually do with this information. Moore presents a convincing case that from its origins in the fifteenth century, capitalism has been inherently destructive of the natural world of which it is part, as well as inherently exploitative of the proletariat. The obvious conclusion is that in order to stop that destruction and exploitation, we need to overthrow capitalism. Many greens avoid pursuing the evidence that capitalism is the problem to the conclusion that the solution would be to remove capitalism, so it is to Moore’s credit that he does follow this argument where it leads. This, however, is still the easy part; the real issue is how we could organise to make that overthrow happen, and what we might put in its place.

On the latter point, Moore’s separation of capitalist environmental problems from the industrial revolution is an important part of a rebuttal of the idea that in order to avoid environmental damage we all have to revert to pre-technological lifestyles. Given, however, that he clearly is envisaging a post-capitalist future, without such hallmarks of industrial production as coal-fired power stations (he comments, for example, ‘shut down a coal plant and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good’, p.172), some exploration of how we might power and feed that post-capitalist society would have been helpful.

Moore does refer to hopeful signs in food politics that a post-capitalist future is possible, pointing to examples of guerrilla gardening from Oakland and Detroit and to the work of movements like Via Campesina (pp.287-9). He is right to point to these sorts of efforts as good signs for our future, but they are indications of how we might grow our food outside of industrial food production, not themselves preparations for a successful revolution. The impression in this final section of the book is that such initiatives should be regarded as the class struggle, as part of the way in which we will overthrow the capitalist system.

It is a fairly common belief within green thought that practising pre-figurative politics, living as far as possible as if capitalism did not exist, is a strategy for defeating the system; that it can be hollowed out from within by individuals and communities making some effort to withdraw themselves. It is a tempting belief (it would be much easier) but as numerous examples, from the Diggers to the communist village in Spain, demonstrate, capitalism can continue to exist even if there are groups of people within it who think they are escaping its clutches. The only way that we will see the end of capitalism, before its crisis of negative value sees the end of us, is if we overthrow it and for that, we need to organise. Moore’s often impressive analysis overcomes the common green allergy to talking about a revolution. It just needed to go a little further and embrace the revolutionary socialist organisation that any chance of a successful revolution will require.

i Ronald L Meek (ed.), Marx and Engels on Malthus, (London 1953), p.82. 

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.