A Peculiar Way of Organizing Nature

PART I, Labor, Land, and the Commodification of Everything

 Jason W. Moore

Historical capitalism is a peculiar way of organizing nature. This peculiarity begins with a curious inversion of the land-labor relation that governed civilizations for millennia prior to the long sixteenth century (1450-1640). For premodern civilizations, land productivity was the decisive metric of wealth. Barring demographic collapse, such tributary civilizations were more-or-less content with declining labor productivity, so long as returns from the land continue to grow, or at least did not decline. Such civilizations usually expanded, some dramatically so, but none possessed either the will or capacity to conquer the world. That would change with the rise of capitalism. Beginning in this long sixteenth century, we can see a dramatic rupture with the old land-labor relation. Labor productivity, not land productivity, would increasingly govern the logic of power and production.

Why should the sixteenth-century origins of this peculiar configuration of land and labor – these are of course shorthands for much more complex relations – concern us? The short answer is that these peculiar relations, of land, labor, and endless commodification, are still with us. And these relations underpin capitalism’s grand experiment in the web of life.

It turns out that relations really do matter. The new mode of producing wealth, power, and nature was evident from the first stirrings of commodity frontiers in Central European mining and metallurgy and the Atlantic sugar-slave nexus in the century or so after 1450. From the earliest movements of expansion in the later fifteenth century, we see the age-old geography of demographic expansion leading to commercial expansion turned inside-out. In medieval Europe, for example, the effloresence of feudal civilization produced wave upon wave settler expansions. This was most obvious east of the Elbe, but such expansion also occurred within settlement cores, where forests retreated rapidly (Bartlett, 1993; Moore, 2013). From these demographic-territorial expansions issued commercial and manufacturing growth. (Hence, eastern Europe prospered relative to western Europe in the long fourteenth century crisis.) Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the logic of geographical expansion changed. Demographic and resource frontiers yielded to commodity frontiers. These commodity frontiers – sugar is a spectacular instance – served as magnets for settlement.[1] Where commerce had once followed people, now people followed the frontiers of commodification.

Needless to say, this was a violent process. Forced settlement was most dramatic, of course, in the modern slave trade. But it was also in effect in the “internal Africas” of the New World, those indigenous labor reserves – strategic hamlets called aldeias in Brazil, reducciones in the Andes – that were the necessary complement to the sugar and silver production complexes (Moore, 2010; 2007: chapter six). Here is one basis for explaining the “special laws of population” (Marx, 1977: 784) that attended the rise of capitalism. (And need we say that such special laws apply also to extra-human animals too: cattle, mules, and horses especially in the New World?)

The new civilization – a capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b) – was not particularly strong. Its “forces of production” were not, by global standards, especially advanced. But emerging in the sixteenth century was a destabilizing synergy of technics and technique, of power and production (Mumford, 1934). This synergy its epoch-making expression in the commodity form, which was now elevated to God-like status. Where merchants and bankers once bowed before kings, now kings bowed to the power of mammon. Commodification, following the first stirrings of recovery from the fourteenth century crisis (c. 1290-1450), began to invert the old rules of reproduction. Across the hotspots of commodification – enforced and enabled, to be sure, by the technics of a new globe-imagining imperialism – labor no longer served the land. Land, and the rest of nature, would serve labor; the exploitation of labor power in the production and realization of commodities would come first. Everything else came second. And this meant, above all, that the totality of the natures within capital’s grasp – more on this presently – would be appropriated in service to this peculiar civilizational objective: advancing labor productivity. (Or reducing unit labor costs – in the language of economists – which amounts to much the same thing.)

All of which might have you wondering, What does this have to do with nature?

It was the emergence of a new “law of value” – of valorizing some elements of nature (labor power in production, but not labor power in reproduction) and devalorizing other elements of nature (now considered “raw materials”) – that explains the world-ecological revolution of early capitalism (see Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Part II). For increasingly after 1450, all of nature, including most of human nature, was to be mobilized – and thence exhausted – in the service of advancing labor productivity within the commodity system.



Bartlett, Robert (1993). The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1977). Capital, Vol. I. Ben Fowkes, trans. New York: Vintage.

Moore, Jason W. (2007). Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism. PhD dissertation. Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.

Moore, Jason W. (2010). “‘This Lofty Mountain of Silver Could Conquer the Whole World’: Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545–1800,” Jour­nal of Philosophical Economics 4, 1, 58–103.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2013). Ecology in the Making (and Unmaking) of Feudal Civilization. Unpublished manuscript.

Mumford, Lewis (1934). Technics and Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Jason W. Moore is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Correspondence is welcome: jasonwsmoore@gmail.com. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, food and agriculture, and political economy, are available on his website: www.jasonwmoore.com.


[1] There persisted an older pattern, marked by the proliferation of the expansion of commercial outposts (‘factories’). But even here, the old pattern was reconfigured within new relations. The Portuguese empire was in the vanguard, multiplying commercial outposts along the African coast and thence establishing a tenuous “merchant-warrior” hegemony over the Indian Ocean spice trade (Pearson, 1987; Brady, 1991).

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