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.


2 thoughts on “Capitalism as a Way of Organizing Nature

  1. Abolish the wage system! Unpaid work? Like commute time, the necessary labour time of keeping home and hearth going? Sure, the employing class isn’t going to take that into consideration as you sell your labour power to them. Or maybe it is already in our wages in the industrialised parts of the planet, in that most workers can afford cars to drive to work. And where does this ‘afford’ come from other than their wages, the price of their labour power?

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