Technics and Historical Nature: Praxis of the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

The challenges involved in translating the philosophical premise of humanity-in-nature into historical methods and narrative strategies are considerable. This is the task pursued by the emerging set of arguments we call the world-ecology synthesis.

Certainly, a core problem has been the difficulty in forging a conceptual vocabulary that grasps “society” and “nature” as a singular ontological domain, such that all human activity is simultaneously producer and product of the web of life. The problem has been recognized for a long time, and especially since the 1970s (Birch and Cobb, 1981; Harvey, 1993). Elsewhere, I have tackled the problem with the concept of the oikeios, signifying the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment (2011a). The oikeios provides a way to move beyond the narrative trope of “the” environment (as object) in favor of environment-making (as process), at all turns a co-production of specifically bundled human and extra-human natures (Moore, 2013a). “Nature” and “society,” in world-ecological perspective, are viewed as violent abstractions that – by positing discrete ontological domains of humans without nature and nature without humans – dissolve the messy, bundled, and creative co-productions of historical change. The idea of nature as external to human relations is not, however, a magician’s trick of smoke-and-mirrors; it is a real historical force. Capitalism, as project, emerges through a world-praxis that creates external natures as objects to be mapped, quantified, and regulated so that they may service capital’s insatiable demands for cheap nature. At the same time, as process, capitalism emerges and develops through the web of life; nature is at once internal and external. In this way of seeing, the oikeios is a general abstraction that gains historical traction only insofar as it provides the conditions for recasting the great drivers of world-historical change – foremost among them the perennial darlings of industrialization, imperialism, capitalism, modernity – as co-produced by humans and the rest of nature.

If capitalism as a “way of organizing nature” gets us moving in the right direction, this is a statement more of the “what” of modernity-in-nature than of the “how.” To recast the “how” of capitalism as world-ecology – how power, capital, and nature form an organic whole – we might turn to Mumford’s notion of technics (1934). Mumford grasped that a new technics emerged in the early modern era – crystallizing tools and knowledge, nature and power, in a new world-praxis, one that reduced both “man” and “nature” to abstractions. For Mumford, power and production in capitalism embodied and reproduced a vast cultural-symbolic repertoire that was cause, condition, and consequence of modernity’s specific form of technical advance. This was not, Mumford made plain, a story to be celebrated. It was, rather, one to be recognized, and critiqued, for its peculiarity: “The Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, long before the Northern European, had taken most of the first steps toward the machine… [T]hese peoples plainly had an abundance of technical skill at their command. They had machines; but they did not develop ‘the machine’” (1934: 4, emphasis added). Here Mumford might have stopped, as have so many green thinkers. But he did not. At the heart of Mumford’s argument was the idea that machines, technics, and the alienated violence of capitalist civilization move through the web of life. It was the

discovery of nature as a whole [that] was the most important part of that era of discovery which began for the Western World with the Crusades and the travels of Marco Polo and the southward ventures of the Portuguese. Nature existed to be explored, to be invaded, to be conquered, and finally, to be understood… [A]s soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century, man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power, man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to dominate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power (Mumford, 1934: 31, emphasis added)

In the absence of a world-ecological concept of technics, much of green thought conflates the Industrial Revolution with modernity (Steffen, et al., 2011a, 2011b; Malm, 2013). The question of origins is elided – not resolved – through recourse to a meta-narrative premised on the self-evidently periodizing implications of rising CO2 emissions and other eco-consequential phenomena. The question of the origins of world-ecological crisis is axiomatically reduced to a surficial representation of the drivers and consequences of 19th century industrialization. Of course it all began with coal, says the Anthropocene argument, because the consequences are measurable, and this is, after all, what counts. The consequences of this approach –green thought’s consequentialist bias – are more significant than commonly recognized. Kingsnorth puts this well:

My feeling is that the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly (2011).

I would go still further. The fetish of industrialization quickly embraces other fetishes. A stylized love affair with machinery leads quickly to a stylized love affair with resources. This is not surprising given the faint influence of political economy and class analysis in most green interpretations of industrialization. But even for those on the left who favor a class-relational or capital-centric approach, a certain fossil fuel-fetishism appears, as when Malm suggests (2013) that one can insert fossil fuels as the spark that ignites the engine of capital (also Altvater, 2006; Huber, 2008). “Capital,” in these accounts, forms independently of the web of life, and intervenes in “nature” as an exogenous force, variously intruding in, and interrupting, a pre-given “traditional balance between humanity and nature” (Foster, 1994: 40). This view of capitalism as an exogenous rather than endogenous actor in relation to the web of life has the paradoxical effect of reducing nature to a substance that can be variously protected or destroyed (e.g. Martinez-Alier, 2002). No matter how dialectical the conception of capital, so long as this conception unfolds within a Cartesian frame – humans without nature, nature without humans – the analyst is compelled to engage capital’s relation with nature as “tap” and “sink” first, and only later as the field within which modernity unfolds. When push comes to shove, the philosophy of humanity-in-nature gets pushed aside in favor of analytical practicality (compare Harvey, 1993 with Harvey, 2003, 2005). The result is that nature is fetishized rather than adequately historicized.

It is always tempting to “think in terms of realities that can be ‘touched with the finger’” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 228). In this way of thinking – Bourdieu calls it substantialist (ibid.) – substances form prior to, and independently of, events and fields of relations, rather than developing through environments cohered by definite patterns of events (Birch and Cobb, 1981: 79-96 and passim; Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Substantialism, in this sense, is at the heart “human exemptionalist” social theory (Catton and Dunlap, 1979), which isolates humanity from its extra-human conditions of reproduction. The result is a way of thinking humanity as ontologically independent – a kind of human substance apart from the ‘substance’ of Earth/Life. Even when the professed goal is holism, substantialist dualism fetters the move towards synthesis (e.g. Foster, 2013b). Why? Largely because human exemptionalist social theory – and this is still most social theory (e.g. Ritzer, 2005) – presumes humanity’s specificity in the absence of a historical specification of the whole: the natures within which human activity unfolds, and to which human activity actively contributes. The very procedure that might establish humanity’s “dialectical historicity” is in the process denied (Meszaros, 1970: 40). What Marx and Engels called “historical nature” (1970: 41) is too often missing from critical and mainstream green perspectives.

It turns out that, as with pregnancy, one cannot be a little bit Cartesian. For nature is either abstract and external or historical and immanent to everything that humans do, including those large-scale and long-run patterns of power and production that we call civilizations, world-systems, and modes of production.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history in the Department of Sociology at Binghamton University, and is on the executive board of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays can be found on his website,


The Capitalocene: Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

Jason W. Moore

We ended our last installment with a simple observation:

Rising labor productivity tends strongly towards the rising throughput of materials per quantum of necessary labor-time, and the constant danger, given capitalism’s industrial dynamism and commitment to expansion, is that the value of inputs will rise, and the rate of profit, fall. This tendency towards the overproduction of fixed capital and the underproduction of raw materials was so important for Marx that he called it a general law (Marx, 1967, III: 119-121; also Moore, 2011a; Bukharin, 1915).

Such post-Cartesian readings of capitalism’s “general laws” – or other propositions regarding the longue durée movements and moments of the capitalist world-ecology – opens up the possibility of moving from the “environmental” consequences of “social” processes to the socio-ecological constitution of Anthropogenic drivers themselves. Too often, the environment leads an unduly narrow existence, as a zone of consequences, impacts, and conditions. Green scholars study the metabolism of globalization, industrialization, and agrarian change, rather than studying globalization, industrialization and agrarian change as metabolisms, as ways of organizing nature. I think this transition from the political ecology or environmental history of social change towards social change as environment-making is now a possibility, with significant intellectual and therefore political implications. To move from a focus on the environmental consequences of so-called social processes to a view of social processes as co-produced by human and extra-human natures involves more than philosophical assertion, and entails more than registering political and theoretical protest. Such a move also demands historical reconstruction – a reconstruction made possible by generations of environmental scholars across the Two Cultures since the 1970s.

Such historical reconstruction calls into question any periodization premised on a dualistic “social drive plus environmental consequence” model. This remains the hegemonic model within global environmental studies, even as regional studies have long since transcended such dualisms (e.g. White, 1995; Kosek, 2006). From this standpoint, the Anthropocene argument is not only philosophically and theoretically problematic – viewing humans as separate from nature and erasing capitalism from the equation – it also offers an unduly narrow conceptualization of historical time. This plays out at two levels. One is an awkward conflation of geological notions of time with the periodization of historical change. The other is the Anthropocene’s recuperation of an older historiographical vista which saw the “real” changes of “real” modernity beginning in the later 18th century.

In this respect, the Anthropocene argument feeds into Green Thought’s longstanding love affair with the Two Century model of modernity: industrial society, industrial civilization, industrial capitalism. The notion that It all began with the Industrial Revolution has been with us for a very long time (e.g. Toynbee, 1894/1884/1881; Beard, 1901). After taking a pounding in the 1970s (Wallerstein, 1974; Frank, 1978), the Two Century Model came roaring back at the dawn of the 21st century. Not just Anthropocene advocates, but many critical historians and social scientists, came to embrace the Industrial Revolution as the source of all things difficult and divergent (e.g. Pomeranz, 2000; Harvey, 2010). Within green thought, the embrace of the “industrialization thesis” on the origins of ecological crisis has been especially warm (Moore, 2003b; see, e.g. Daly and Farley, 2004; Huber, 2008; Heinberg, 2003; Jensen, 2006; Malm, 2013; O’Connor, 1998; Steffen, et al., 2007, 2011; Wrigley, 1990, 2010).

What this Two Century model obscured was the remarkable remaking of land and labor beginning in the “long” sixteenth century, c. 1450-1640 (Braudel, 1953). (About which, more presently.) Ignored – even by environmental historians (see Moore, 2003a, 2003b) – was the important historiography of economic change in early modern Europe and the Americas, written during the postwar era. Only occasionally were these analyses framed in terms of capitalism; but for these historians there was no question that the early modern transformations of economies and landscapes were dialectically bound (see inter alia, Braudel, 1972; Galeano, 1973; Kellenbenz, 1974, 1976; Kriedte, 1983; Nef, 1964; Malowist, 2009; Prado, 1967; Wallerstein, 1974; Brenner, 1976; Sella, 1974; de Vries, 1974, 1976; Cipolla, 1976). Since the 1970s, for all their distinctive geographical emphases and interpretive differences, the view of early modernity as real modernity has persisted (e.g., de Vries and van der Woude, 1997; de Vries, 2001; Brenner, 2001; Crosby, 1997; DuPlessis, 1997; Jones, 1987; Komlos, 2000; Landes, 1998; Seccombe, 1992; Mokyr, 1990: 57-80; Moore, 2003a, 2003b, 2007, 2010a, 2010b; Nef, 1964; Prak, 2001; van Zanden, 1993). For some, this ongoing “revolt of the early modernists” (van Zanden, 2002) did not go nearly so far enough: the decisive period begins sometime just after the turn of the millennium (van Zanden, 2009; Levine, 2001; Arrighi, 1994; Mielants, 2007). And yet, green thought has been slow – very slow – to engage this literature. This holds true even for students of early modern environmental history (e.g. Richards, 2003; Warde, 2006a, 2006b; Grove, 1995; Williams, 2003). Industrialization appears, in the metanarratives of green thought, as a deus ex machina dropped onto the world-historical stage by coal and steampower.

We might therefore do well to ask if industrialization is really the best way to frame the origins and subsequent development of modernity’s “ecological” crisis? At its best, industrialization is a shorthand for the tensions between technology and power, between the “forces” and “relations” of production; these are hardly novel historical problems. But these tensions have, almost universally, been framed in dualistic terms, contained within a “social” universe of human relations ontologically prior to the latter’s engagement with web of life. This is the problem of Cartesian dualism, one that bears bitter fruit in the hegemonic narrative of industrialization as acting upon, rather than developing through, nature. At a time when Cartesian dualism, as philosophical construct, finds itself widely questioned across the spectrum of green thought (e.g. Harvey, 1996; Latour, 1993; Plumwood, 1993; Braun and Castree, 1998; Castree and Braun, 2001), such dualism retains its hegemony over the methods, theory, and narrative frames of world-historical change (see Moore, 2011a). Left ecology still tends to think of capitalism and nature rather than capitalism-in-nature (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010; Heynen, et al., 2007). This is the largely-unacknowledged dissonance at the core of green thought today, between the philosophical recognition that humans are a part of nature (humanity-in-nature) and the construction of histories, recent and remote, that proceed as if human relations are ontologically prior to the web of life (humanity and nature).

Whereas the Anthropocene argument begins with biospheric consequences and moves towards social history, an unconventional ordering of crises would begin with the dialectic between (and amongst) humans and the rest of nature, and thence move towards geological and biophysical change. These consequences, in turn, constitute new conditions for successive eras of capitalist restructuring across the longue durée. Relations of power and production, themselves co-produced within nature, enfold and unfold consequences. The modern world-system becomes, in this approach, a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature as an organic whole (Moore, 2003, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2013a, 2013b; also Deckard, 2012, 2013; Leonardi, 2012; Niblett, 2012, 2013; Mahnkopf, 2012; Marley, 2013; Marley and Fox, forthcoming; Oloff, 2012; Ortiz, forthcoming; Parenti, 2014; Weis, 2013). This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life. Crises are turning points of world-historical processes – accumulation, imperialism, industrialization, and so forth – that are neither social nor environmental in the usual sense, but rather bundles of human and extra-human natures, materially practiced and symbolically enabled. In world-ecological perspective, Nature stands as the relation of the whole. Humans live as one specifically-endowed (but not special) environment-making species within Nature.


Capitalism as a Way of Organizing Nature

On Value and the Appropriation of Unpaid Work

Jason W. Moore

To ask about humanity’s modern relation with the rest of nature is to shift our focus from the consequences of these relations to the relations that enfold and unfold these consequences. Consequences are crucial. Those issuing from climate change are especially salient, perhaps especially in its suppressive impact on labor and land productivity in world agriculture: signaling the end of capitalism’s longue durée cheap food regime (Kjell, et al., 2009; Zivin and Neidel, 2010; Peng, et al., 2004; Moore, 2012, 2013b). But to periodize historical change on the basis of consequences – or a highly-stylized interpretation of the Industrial Revolution fueled by fossils – is to cloud our vision from the outset. Of course we must begin with the decisive shifts in the dominant relations of power and production, of classes and commodities. To leave it at that, however, says nothing new. What the more sophisticated versions of the “coal and capitalism” argument appreciate is that the transition in the relations of power and production that occurred at the onset of the “long” 19th century involved a transition that went beyond relations between humans; it also implied a transition in humanity’s relation with the rest of nature (e.g. Huber, 2008; Malm, 2013). I would go still further. The radical engagement with the Anthropocene has proceeded through an agreement on periodization – the Two Century Model – which is problematic enough.  More fundamentally, both centrist and radical approaches to the Anthropocene argument have converged on an ontological agreement: the “co-production of society WITH nature” (Swyngedouw, 2013: 16, emphasis added; also Davis, 2010; Gowdy and Krall, 2013), as if these were two independent entities (but see Sayre, 2012). While co-production is the right way to put it, its association with a Nature/Society vocabulary short-circuits the effort to move from modernity WITH nature towards modernity-in-nature. Why? Because the philosophy of co-production depends on acting units that are themselves co-produced. To be sure, radicals such as Swyngedouw – a pioneer in the critique of Nature/Society dualisms (1996) – understand this. But the distance between philosophical critique and world-historical interpretation has been great. The Achilles’ Heel of the post-Cartesian critique has been historical analysis, resulting in a disjuncture between the “production of nature” as theoretical construct and world-historical process. Without a sufficient historical grounding, the critique of Nature/Society dualism tends to stumble on the terrain of world history, precisely the turf staked out by the Anthropocene position.

My position is that the critique of Nature/Society dualisms is not only relevant to historical analysis, but that the history of capitalism cannot be explained in terms of a ping-pong of nature-society interactions (citations omitted for anonymous review). The bundle of transformations that gathered steam in the closing decades of the 18th century were co-produced by human and extra-human natures (in which the latter are also directly constitutive of so-called “society”) – not only at the level of consequences, but in terms of the strategic relations behind capitalism’s peculiar reordering of the biosphere over the longue durée. This perspective views capitalism as, at once, producer and product of the web of life. Capitalism can then be understood as a co-production of human and extra-human natures. The patterns of co-production are contingent but cohered, and this coherence reveals itself in specific patterns of environment-making that reach well beyond conventional reckonings of landscape change. This coherence is realized and reproduced through definite rules of reproduction – of power, of capital, of production. For capitalist civilization, these rules embody a value relation, quite literally determining what counts as valuable and what does not.[1] Different civilizations have different value relations, that prioritize different forms of wealth, power, and production. Feudal Europe, for instance, privileged land productivity where the world capitalist system increasingly privileged labor productivity after 1450. For the moment, I simply wish to highlight that capitalism’s “law of value” – understood more expansively than for Marx, but in the spirit of Marx’s method (Marx, 1973; Hopkins, 1982; Sayer, 1987) – produced an exceedingly peculiar forms of wealth – capital as value-in-motion – that creates abstract social labor only through a far-flung repertoire of imperialist enclosure and appropriation of nature’s “free gifts” in service to commodity production (Burkett, 1999; Moore, 2011a). Capital is value-in-motion is value-in-nature. Value is a bundled relation of human and extra-human natures (e.g. Marx, 1977: 283; Burkett, 1999). Hence Marx writes that the natural fertility of the soil may “act as an increase in fixed capital” (1973: 748): an observation pregnant with socio-ecological implications for the analysis of capital accumulation.

We may begin to unpack these implications through a suggestive proposition: Value operates through a dialectic of exploitation and appropriation that illuminates capitalism’s peculiar relation with, and within, nature. On the one hand, the system turns on a weird coding of what is valuable, installing human work within the commodity system (wage-labor) as the decisive metric of wealth. In this domain, the exploitation of labor-power is pivotal, upon which all else turns. On the other hand, the exploitation of wage-labor works only to the degree that its reproduction costs can be checked. The mistake is to see capitalism as defined by wage-labor, any more than it defined by the world market. Rather the crucial question turns on the historical connections between wage-work and its necessary conditions of expanded reproduction – conditions which depend on massive contributions of unpaid work, outside the commodity system but necessary to its generalization. Sometimes this is called the domain of social reproduction (e.g. Bakker and Gill, 2003), although it is here that the adjective “social” seems especially unsuitable – where does the “social” moment of raising children end, and the “biological” moment begin? Clearly, we are dealing with zone of reproduction that transcends any neat and tidy separation of sociality and biology, better viewed as internal to each other. Neither is this zone of reproduction – the domain where unpaid work is produced for capital[2] – narrowly human affair. For unpaid work not only makes possible the production of potential – or the reproduction of actual – labor-power as “cheap” labor; it also involves the unpaid work of extra-human natures. In this domain of reproduction, the appropriation of unpaid work is central.

My use of appropriation therefore differs from Marx, who deployed the term more or less interchangeably with the exploitation of wage-labor. Appropriation, in what follows, names those extra-economic processes to identify, secure, and channel unpaid work outside the commodity system into the circuit of capital. Scientific, cartographic, and botanical revolutions, broadly conceived, are  good examples, and themes to which we will return in subsequent posts. Movements of appropriation, in this sense, are distinct from movements of the exploitation of wage-labor, whose tendential generalization is premised on the generalization of appropriative practices.[3] So important is the appropriation of unpaid work that the rising rate of exploitation depends upon the fruits of appropriation derived from cheap natures, understood primarily as the “Four Cheaps” of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012).

This use of appropriation therefore implies a labor/work distinction, insofar as labor in the Marxist tradition has been used as a shorthand for abstract social labor (Marx, 1967 and especially 1967, I: ch. 18; e.g. Mandel, 1981). Work, in what follows, signifies the historically-grounded forms of geo- and bio-physical activity as they “bundle” with humanity’s distinctive forms of sociality and embodied thought (e.g. White, 1995). This allows us to see that only some energy becomes work, and only some work becomes value. These broadly-entropic transitions allow us to highlight the self-consuming character of the capital relation, which in any given historical configuration tends to burn through its necessary biophysical conditions (included workers) and in so doing jack up the organic composition of capital (Marx, 1977: 377-380; Luxemburg, 1913: 328-427). Thus, capitalism’s cheap nature strategy, and the recurrent cyclical movements in favor of ever-cheaper nature until 2003 (Grantham, 2011), may be understood in relation to the cyclical threat of the Four Cheaps turning dear (Mandel, 1975; Rostow, 1978). Costly nature turns cheap through appropriating unpaid work on the commodity frontiers inside and outside the zone of commodification (Hochschild, 2002; Moore, 200ob). These cheap nature movements, at least until 2003-08, counteracted capitalism’s tendency to voraciously consumes both the geological accumulations and biological configurations of unpaid work as manifold capitals competed at the point of production. The competitive struggle in production – not merely the market, as environmental historians and sociologists  would suggest (e.g. Cronon, 1991; Foster, 2001) – compels capitalists to pursue rising rates of labor productivity, often through mechanization. Rising labor productivity tends strongly towards the rising throughput of materials per quantum of necessary labor-time, and the constant danger, given capitalism’s industrial dynamisms and commitment to expansion, is that the value of inputs will rise, and the rate of profit, fall. This tendency towards the overproduction of fixed capital and the underproduction of raw materials was so important for Marx that he called it a general law (Marx, 1967, III: 119-121; also Moore, 2011a; Bukharin, 1915).[4]

New installments coming soon!


Complete references found here.

[1] The argument for global value relations has been articulated by Araghi in a distinct but complementary register (2009a, 2009b).

[2] I do not mean to suggest that life-activity in the zone of reproduction is work as such, only that capital views it as such. Indeed, as I will show, a significant part of capitalist history is the identification and development of symbolic-material practices that aim to activate new streams of unpaid work in service to capital.

[3] The dialectic paid/unpaid work does not, therefore, displace the centrality of the value-relations with the circuit of capital. The terms paid/unpaid work serve to illuminate the constitutive relations through which socially-necessary unpaid work makes possible the successive determinations of systemic labor-time. In other words, the present argument agrees with the classical Marxist position on the centrality of the  exploitation of labor-power. My point is that the historical-geographical reproduction of this central relation cannot be explained absent the relational movements that channeled unpaid work into the circuit of capital.

[4] It is of course true that rising labor productivity – in value terms – may or may not involve rising throughput. This latter is the strongest tendency. Nevertheless, it would be possible to increase labor productivity without rising throughput by reducing the value composition of production; such a downward reduction would likely take the form of wage cuts. Even in these instances, such reductions would be temporary and partial, except in the case of an epochal crisis.