Anthropocene, Capitalocene & the Flight from World History, Part II, 24 May, 2022
Jason W. Moore
World-Ecology Research Group, Binghamton University, USA
The relations between the origins of a world-historical problem, its historical development, and its recent configurations of power, profit and life are intimate. One’s assessment of these relations feeds, more-or-less directly, into one’s conception of world politics. Tragically – three decades after Harvey’s lament (1993) that Green Thought either ignores environmental history or treats it as “a repository of anecdotal evidence in support of particular claims” – most environmentalist theory proceeds as if capitalism’s history is epiphenomenal.
Counter-intuitively, such history denialism lends itself to critical variants of Hillary Clinton’s neoliberal insistence that we “get over” the long history of imperialism: “For goodness sakes, this is the 21st century. We’ve got to get over what happened 50, 100, 200 years ago” (Reuters 2010). A political theory de-linked from capitalism’s world histories produces a politics with major blind spots, not least around imperialism’s willingness to “destroy the village in order to save it” and the signal contribution of anti-imperialist revolutions in defending those metaphorical (and actual) villages.
The Capitalocene thesis is one antidote to this history-denialism. Both the 1830 and 1492 Capitalocene theses – for all their differences – agree: climate justice politics must interrogate the origins of planetary crisis (see Malm 2016; Moore 2017a, 2018, 2019).
The flight from history performs a twofold ideological task for capital. First, it fragments our understanding of how structures of knowledge, the geocultural pillars of capitalist domination, and the worldwide dynamics of capital and class fit together. Such fragmentation appears with the promiscuous deployment of adjectives: “the heteropatriarchal capitalist modern/colonial world system” and all that (Escobar 2018: xii). These mouthfuls are usually justified on basis of some elusive Marxist bogeyman, endowed with supernatural powers, who holds that imperialism, sexism and racism, and manifold forms of domination are somehow beside the point. (Any notion that dialectics moves through, not in spite of, variation, is brushed aside). It’s a way of signaling that these arguments are respectable for polite academic company and not – not really – socialist in any meaningful way. They are, curiously (?), not held responsible for explaining how the bourgeoisie’s specific forms of domination (racism, sexism, Prometheanism, etc.) are necessary to the exploitation of surplus-value and the appropriation of unpaid work/energy in the capitalist world-ecology – the dialectics of super-exploitation (Moore 2021b). Let’s recall that among neoliberal theory’s core premises is the elevation of oppression as everything, and exploitation, nothing.
In recent years, it’s become sufficient to string together adjectives in what appears to be an anti-capitalist critique – but which in reality reproduces a pluralism perfectly consonant with neoliberal rule. The simplest version of these additive formulations is some version of colonialism plus capitalism. Typically, these disconnect both capitalism and colonialism from specific class structures – and especially the dynamics of peripheral class formation – implanted by specific imperial projects seeking to secure a good business environment (e.g., Grosfoguel 2002). Imperialism is how capitalism prefers to do business, and how capitalists prefer to wage the class struggle: waged not between oppressors and oppressed, but to create the conditions for a good business environment. Importantly, such disconnection tends to present any account foregrounding class and capital as “reductionist” – a view that collapses the significant differences between world-historical class analysis and Eurocentric class formalism (e.g., compare, respectively, Moore 2017a and Malm 2016). Erasing class dynamics, moreover, much of the now-fashionable settler colonialism argument reproduces an older Civilizing discourse of “native” and “settler” – a discourse which also abstracted from class relations (albeit with different political sympathies), usually in the interests of sustainable development avant la lettre (e.g., Jacks & Whyte 1939).
Such “critical” theory looks to de-center – if not erase entirely – capitalism. Such arguments tend to evade the ways in which European Universalism emerged as a class project of capitalist transition. It bears emphasis, given today’s climate crisis and the “great implosion” of capitalist productivity, that the rise of capitalism was tightly bound to climate change and successive Civilizing Projects (Moore 2021b). European Universalism – and its pivotal trinity of Man, Nature, and Civilization – matured in the long seventeenth century. This was capitalism’s first developmental crisis. These crises mark the transition from one phase of capitalism to another, during which imperial bourgeoisies resolve systemwide through new rounds of primitive accumulation and the extra-economic appropriation of Cheap Natures (see Moore 2015). Epochal crises, in contrast, yield to new metabolisms of power, profit and life, such as the highly uneven transition from Late Antiquity to feudalism or feudalism to capitalism – both also moments of profoundly unfavorably climate transition!
The seventeenth century’s “general crisis” was a perfect storm of climate change, popular revolt, endless war, and economic volatility. The climate downturn – unfavorable even by the standards of the Little Ice Age – was a decisive moment (Parker 2013). Natural forcing drove the climate shift. But it amplified by conquest, commodification, and class formation in the Americas after 1492. This was the emergence of capitalogenic forcing. (If that word, capitalogenic – “made by capital” – strikes you as awkward, it’s because we’ve been taught to speak in ways that avoid naming the system.) Its geological signature was the Orbis Spike, Maslin and Lewis’s term for the sixteenth-century carbon drawdown resulting from New World genocides (2015; see also, Cameron et al. 2015).
Like the climate-class conjuncture two centuries earlier – marking feudalism’s epochal crisis – this seventeenth-century conjuncture amplified class and political tensions, propelling popular revolt and endless war in a Europe fiscally exhausted by the Valois-Hapsburg wars. These culminated in the great financial crisis of 1557 (Patel & Moore 2017). However, in contrast to the late medieval conjuncture, ruling classes could resolve the crisis within the shaky, yet powerful, rules of the capitalist game. The new modern state-machineries at the heart of Iberian, then Dutch and English, seaborne empires “fixed” the seventeenth-century crisis of world order and world accumulation through a new imperialism that delivered Cheap Natures – labor-power above all – to capital’s hungry maw. Contrary to facile descriptions of early capitalism as mercantile or simply engaged in plunder, what followed was an audacious series of productivist campaigns. Neither Marxists nor critical theorists are particularly interested in this history, so if this early capitalist wave of coercive proletarianization, ecocide and genocide is news, that’s not on you. This was the world-ecological revolution of the long seventeenth century, bringing a critical increment of planetary life into the circuit of Cheap Nature for the first time. Its crown jewels were Peru’s silver mining complex and northeastern Brazil’s sugar plantations. Not for nothing, these zones of commodification and conquest mapped perfectly onto the hot zones of the Great Dying imposed on indigenous populations (Koch et al 2019). In places like northeastern Brazil, the result was a protracted guerilla struggle waged by the Aimoré and fugitive slaves, the latter dramatically concentrated in quasi-states like seventeenth-century Palmares (Schwartz 1999). Meanwhile, within Europe, an epochal movement of semi-proletarianization generated explosive class contradictions in the countryside, manifested in agrarian rebellion and proto-communist movements (see, Moore 2010a, 2010b; Linebaugh & Rediker 2000).
European Universalism crystallized in this first capitalogenic climate crisis – a developmental crisis grasped as a turning point in capitalism’s trinity of power, profit, and life. Refusing conquest-determinism and climate determinism, these two moments were dialectical antagonisms driving capitalism towards a “climate fix” strategy prioritizing large-scale industry and trans-Atlantic proletarianization. In the colonies, the problem for empire was to restore and expand Cheap Labor following the slaving-induced genocides. Within central and western Europe, the problem was to contain the dangerous classes – which in the fourteenth century had dealt a historical defeat to Europe’s ruling classes and by the seventeenth century threatened, once again, to get out of hand (Zagorin 1982). In this first capitalist climate crisis, forms of Universalism began to materialize that directly facilitated this climate fix. Hence, the remarkable synchroneity of the seventeenth-century’s labor/landscape revolution with its enabling real abstractions: Man, Nature, and Civilization, quickly germinating naturalized ideologies of racial and gendered domination (Moore 2017a).
By disconnecting imperial and class projects, decolonial and cognate arguments have disabled our critique of European Universalisms and its Civilizing Projects. These are more than abstractly moral “bads” that accompany an abstractly amoral modernity. The heart of these Civilizing Projects – think of successive Christianizing, Civilizing, and Developmentalist Projects from Charles V to Harry S. Truman and the Washington Consensus – has been a class-managerial imperative. These Projects build out a geocultural logic that is also a managerial philosophy, one specific to class rule in the capitalist world-ecology. This is planetary management. It seeks to reduce the world to “thinking” (managing) beings and “doing” (unthinking working) essences (see esp. Moore 2021a; Satrio 2022). If that sounds a lot like Cartesian dualism, you’re on the right track. And for those students of labor history and the capitalist labor process, if that sounds like Harry Braverman’s degradation of work hypothesis, you are also on the right track. If we’ve identified Big ‘E’ Environmentalism as the Environmentalism of the Rich (Dauvergne 2016), it’s also the Environmentalism of the Bosses.
Planetary management rests on the divide between Civilization and Nature. (Note the uppercase.) This divide gets reinvented across successive phases of capitalist development, and its cutting edge is found on the frontiers of “new” imperialisms. Nature was – and is – never an innocent description. It had – and has – little to do with forests and fields, soils and streams. Nature emerged in these early modern centuries as a ruling abstraction. Far more than “ideas” floating in the ether, Civilization and Nature were abstractions of a specifically capitalist bent. Civilizing the savage – which comprised unruly human ecologies of every sort – became a political project, an animating cultural premise, and an accumulation strategy.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on the matter, Civilization, Man, and Nature became the indispensable ruling ideas of the imperial bourgeoisie as it remade webs of life suitable for the endless accumulation of capital. The Civilizing Project – of course its expressions were manifold whilst its relational nexus was singular – implemented peculiarly violent form of “human sacrifice,” to lean on Ynestra King’s apt formulation (1989). The slaving-induced depopulation of the Americas was but one, albeit spectacularly grim, expression of King’s human sacrifice. But such sacrifice needn’t always be so literal. As Federici underscores, the defeat of the proletarian and peasant forces in seventeenth century western Europe enabled the creation of modern sexism, redefining women’s work as natural, and enabling a new logic of superexploitation (Federici 2004a; von Werlhof 1988; Moore, 2021b; Mies, 1985). Women became, in Federici’s incisive turn of phrase, the “savages of Europe” – and not “Europe” alone. Here the Civilizing Project was one of the Great Domestication (Patel and Moore 2017). Bourgeois naturalism is therefore essential to explaining why and how “wild” humans must be tamed, and why the Road to Salvation (or Civilization, or Development) follows capitalist work-discipline. Thus were proletariat, femitariat, and biotariat – paid and unpaid work performed by humans and the rest of nature – bound together in the most intimate ways from the earliest stirrings of the capitalist world-ecology. It had to be so, because paying for reproduction costs, human and extra-human, is expensive. Cheapening, in its double register as ideological devaluation and economic cost-cutting, was consequently crucial to capital accumulation. This is why Nature as a separate zone of “savagery” – the zone of lawlessness, sacrifice areas, and free fire zones – is fundamental, and why it included most humankind from very beginning (Patel and Moore 2017; Hage 2017).
For this reason, Prometheanism is necessary to bourgeois rule. Prometheanism should not be read as an abstractly Human impulse to dominate Nature. This is indeed how the bourgeoisie wants us to see the problem. In any event, Prometheanism began to take shape as a logic of power, profit and life almost immediately in the “long” sixteenth century (1450-1648) and manifested not only in accelerated landscape change. It also fed the ideological development of racism and sexism as fundamental to the era’s coercive semi-proletarianization, from Brazil to the Baltic (Moore 2017a, 2017b, 2018, 2021a). Thus Prometheanism – “over-representing” the bourgeoisie as Man and “under-representing” the incipient planetary proletariat as Nature (Wynter 2003) – underwrote fetishisms that rapidly informed the drawing of the world color line and the globalization of patriarchy in their specifically Naturalized, modern forms. In sum, the ruling abstraction Nature – and its bourgeois ethos of Prometheanism – was never an innocent description. It was always either an instrument of utilitarian, profit-seeking domination (producing abstract social nature [Moore 2018]), or of geocultural domination, producing Naturalized forms of gendered and racialized domination in service to advancing the rate of profit. Nature, to paraphrase Claudia von Werlhof, became every form of life-activity the bourgeoisie did not want to pay for.
Nature was, to lean of Marx and Engels, a ruling idea. But we can’t leave matters there. Nature was also a ruling abstraction with a twofold purpose. One guided practical efforts to identify and secure webs of life and turn them into profit-making opportunities. This nourished science as a force of production (Moore 2018). Another forged an accumulation strategy that relocated most humans along with extra-human life into that new cosmological (yet very material) zone, Nature. As we’ve seen, the managerial priority was to “civilize” such humans, of course always in the interests of securing the maximal exploitation of labor-power and the maximal appropriation of unpaid work.
Here we discover the centrality of planetary management as a guiding thread for imperial practice and the appropriation of Cheap Natures – especially the Four Cheaps of food, work, energy and raw materials (Moore 2021a). European Universalism’s vision of planetary management, defined by the anti-political rationalization of socio-ecological problems on the road to Progress, is with us still. Call it Sustainable Development, the Anthropocene, whatever – old wine, new bottles.
By the long, cold seventeenth century, Cartesian rationality – including but not limited to its mind/body dualism – moved to the fore. The Cartesian revolution, which crystallizes dualism as a linked strategy of bourgeois thought and power, appears precisely at the moment of rapid primitive accumulation and proletarianization in western Europe (Plumwood, 1993; Seccombe 1992; Moore 2017a). This is also the moment of the Orbis Spike, climate crisis and unprecedented social revolt. Cartesian rationality responded to this far-flung crisis in all sorts of ways. One of them, predictably, pivoted on management. This history is ignored by “materialist” Marxists, who have suddenly become idealists on the matter, forgetting Marx and Engels’ emphasis on the control over the “means of mental production” (2010). They treat Nature and Society as innocent signifiers whose meaning floats freely, apparently independently of the capitalist labor process and its managerial logic (e.g., Malm 2018). This would not be so terrible if these same figures had not already climbed up on their high horses to denounce rivals as idealists! My critique, and its reconstructive alternative, recognizes that Civilization (‘Society’) and Savagery (‘Nature’) do exist, but as strategies of domination and superexploitation – hence the structural recurrence of bourgeois naturalism in the geocultures of domination. (Every era of capitalism must reinvent racism, sexism, and other forms of domination through the ideological meatgrinder of bourgeois naturalism.) Unlike Malm, I do not see this critique of ideology as playing “semantics.” Ideology in the class struggle is, to borrow from Marx, a material force.
Descartes’ contributions are easily displaced into a purely philosophical discussion. My priority lies elsewhere. Cartesian rationality expressed and enabled early capitalism’s managerial fantasies, over time congealing into a managerial ethos that would inform successive waves of imperial, resource, and workplace control revolutions. Centuries before Frederick Winslow Taylor formalized “scientific management,” pursuing the managerial concentration of “brain work” and the reduction of proletarian labor “almost to the level of labor in its animal form,” Descartes articulated a philosophy of planetary management (quotations respectively from Taylor 1912: 98; Braverman 1974: 78). Distinguishing between thinking things and extended things as discrete essences, prioritizing the domination of the latter by the former, Descartes articulated the geocultural “premises of the work-discipline” that capitalism required (Federici 2004b; Descartes 2006). In so doing, a Cheap Labor strategy was installed at the heart of European Universalism – and its Promethean impulse.
By the time Descartes formulated an early modern managerial philosophy (1637) – separating the thinkers (managers) from the bodies (workers) – modern structures of knowledge were taking shape. Across the seventeenth century, the concatenation of Descartes, Newton, Bacon and Locke codified the capitalist “system of knowledge” (Wallerstein 1980; Wallerstein 2006). The structures of knowledge were, in successive turns, dependent and independent variables, channeling but also informing the knowledge and practice of imperialism and its trinity of conquest, class formation, and commodification. The structures of knowledge and domination crystallized together in this era for a sound reason: their dialectical unity was crucial to imperial class projects – cultural, political, and economic – aimed at securing the conditions of expanded accumulation.
In our next installment (Part III), we will revisit the Capitalocene thesis – in both its 1492 and 1830 expressions – as a means of elaborating new syntheses of revoutionary critique. Far from narrowly academic, such syntheses are necessary if we are to understand the worldwide class struggle in the web of life and grasp how the capitalist world-ecology reinvents itself across successive long waves of world power, world accumulation, and planetary management. These are pressing political questions in an age of climate crisis that flow from historical assessments. At the end of the Holocene, assessments of capitalism’s “weak links” must incorporate the ways in which pivotal capitalist processes not only produce changes in the web of life, but are products of those webs. Planetary justice demands a more nuanced – and hopeful – interrogation of the contradictory mess and mass of epochal capitalogenic transformations that have brought us to the brink of the planetary inferno.
PART III forthcoming.
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 Jason W. Moore, a historical geographer and environmental historian, is Professor of Sociology, Binghamton University, USA. Address correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org. The revises arguments initially formulated in Jason W. Moore, Anthropocene, Capitalocene & the Flight from World History: Dialectical Universalism & the Geographies of Class Power in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1492-2022, Nordia 51(2), 123-146. This and other essays, including many in translation, can be accessed at: https://jasonwmoore.com.
 The precise quotation, from a US Army major in the midst of 1968’s Tet Offensive, was reported at the time by Peter Arnett, “The Only Way to ‘Save’ City was to Destroy It,” Associated Press, 7 February 1968.