Beyond the ‘Exploitation of Nature’? A World-Ecological Alternative

Jason W. Moore

Is nature exploited? “Of course!” says the environmentalist. But what might this mean? And, more significantly, is it so? Might there be a better way see the relations between humans and the rest of nature?

On the one hand, “exploitation” is often used by red-green scholars as a moral slogan, a polemical phrase – something Marx did frequently as well (e.g. 1977: 519; also Williams, 1980; Merchant, 1980; Moore, 2000a, 2000b; Plumwood, 1993; Katz, 1998; Smith, 2006). Such polemics have their place. Polemical phrases are often useful, and one shouldn’t be too nit-picky about their use; they often overlay and reinforce substantive analytics. Marx’s polemical use of exploitation, for instance, overlaid his theory of the exploitation of labor-power. But the polemical use of the exploitation of nature as a trope for all the bad stuff that capitalism “does” to “the” environment has not yet linked up with a theory of the exploitation of nature. This is even the case when the exploitation of labor power and the exploitation of nature are deployed side by side. Absent a theory of exploitation, the polemic seems to have reinforced a generalized drift away from the law of value, and a generalized, at times ritualized, denunciation of capitalism’s “war on the earth” (Foster, Clark, and York, 2010).

One of the consequences of the generalized drift away from Marx’s value-relational approach is the conversion of the concept of explotation from an analytical concept to a moral one. Of course there is always a moral dimension to analytics; but moral polemics do not relieve oneself of the analytical task. We may recall that Marx’s theory of exploitation as the production of surplus value – in which the rate of exploitation turns on the ratio between surplus and necessary labor-time – is at the center of his critique of classical political economy, and, of course, of capitalism itself.

So, on the other hand (you knew this was coming), the “exploitation of nature” trope (I am reluctant to call it a theory) generates considerable confusion when it comes to how capitalism works. As we will consider presently — and as we’ve considered previously on this blog — the accumulation of capital unfolds at the nexus of paid work (performed by some humans) and unpaid work (performed by most humans, and all extra-human natures). This is a dialectic of the exploitation of labor-power, within the commodity system, and the appropriation of unpaid work/energy outside the commodity system but directly necessary to its expanded reproduction. Domestic work and childrearing are classic instances, but so too are the appropriation of agro-ecological ferility and the bountiful mineral deposits.  The only thing worse than being exploited, in this perspective, is… being appropriated (see “Capitalism as Frontier“)!

What’s the big deal with the “exploitation of nature”? Well, most simply, it’s not exploitation in any analytical sense. More importantly, however, it reinforced the Cartesian dualism of red-green thought, which tends to convert Marx’s internal contradictions (capitalism-in-nature) into external contradictions (capitalism and nature). The metabolic rift perspective has moved furthest in this regard, frequently invoking a  dual exploitation model: of labor (power) and nature/the environment. In these arguments, the “exploitation of nature”  is placed on a more-or-less equal footing with the exploitation of labor power (Foster, 1999: 35; Clark and York, 2005a: 395; Clausen and Clark, 2005: 423; Clark and Foster, 2009; Longo, 2009: 48; Clark and Foster, 2010b: 145; York and Clark, 2010: 492; Magdoff and Foster, 2011: 64; Holleman, 2012: 81; Austin and Clark, 2011: 444; Clark and York, 2013: 30). Indeed, the “exploitation of nature” so frequently that it cannot be dismissed as mere sloganeering. It has real – if theoretically unspecified – meaning in the perspective’s critique of capitalism. The real intellectual problem is that the metabolic rift school — which I single out because its influence is so great — has left the big questions unasked: what is the exploitation of nature, how does it relate to the exploitation of labor power, and how does the introduction of dual exploitation model change received notions of capital accumulation?

The dual exploitation model in red-green thought may be something of a dead-end. It’s an easy argument to make, because is essentially additive. Like much of green thought, the “exploitation of nature and labor” thesis is arithmetic rather than synthetic. This is what I have called Green Arithmetic: society plus nature. It wasn’t a bad place to start; but it’s a rather lousy place to end up. Why? Because “nature” and society” are much more fluid categories than we have been led to think; it is difficult to think of any major historical process that has not seen human thought and action “bundled” with the rest of nature.

What happened, since the early 1990s environmental studies boom, was a widespread conversion of marxists to green thought, and a much weaker conversion of greens to Marxism. This reinforced the underlying Cartesian dualism. In this movement, traces of a value-relational approach – one implicit in O’Connor’s second contradiction approach – were largely dissolved in favor of the primacy of historical materialism, increasingly conceptualized as an approach for which value relations were epiphenomenal. (This partly explains the curious preference of the metabolic rift school for the neoclassical “Jevons’ Paradox” over the Marx’s general law of underproduction.) This red-green Cartesianism has been most evident in this couplet – the “exploitation of nature and labor” (Clark and York, 2013) – which does not in fact undermine the older model (in which nature was invisible) but simply adds to it. The dual exploitation model therefore endorses a human exemptionalist ontology, which retains the exploitation of labor-power as crucial to the course of capitalist development, while creating a second category of exploitation in which the exploitation of nature occurs through an external relation to the exploitation of labor power.

This has created difficulties for the formation of a theory of the exploitation of nature, precisely because it is an additive rather than synthetic formulation: positing the exploitation of nature as an external relation to the exploitation of labor power does two things. First, it confuses matters, because nature and labor are not comparable entities. Nature is the field within which human activity unfolds, and is also the object, and precondition of, human activity. Second, it confuses matters yet further by establishing an arbitrary discontinuity between human environment-making – the exploitation of nature – and  environment-making by other forms of life. I do not mean to suggest that that all forms of environment-making are created equal; that would be a false equivalence. It is precisely – and counter-intuitively – the proclamation of the “exploitation of nature” as characterizing human environment-making that fails to distinguish between more or less emancipatory, and more or less oppressive, forms of humanity-in-nature. When do humans exploit nature and when do we merely use it? The exploitation of nature argument closes down the question before we can ask it.

A different way forward is suggested by the emphasis on relations of exploitation and appropriation.

If we take the nexus paid/unpaid work as our premise – implicitly suggested by ecological and feminist scholars – the implications are significant. Capitalism and value relations cannot be reduced to a relation between the owners of capital and the possessors of labor-power. To repeat: the historical condition of socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work. This observation opens a vista on capitalism as a contradictory unity of production and reproduction that crosses the Cartesian boundary. The crucial divide is between the zone of paid work (the exploitation of commodified labor-power) and the zone of unpaid work (the reproduction of life). This contradictory unity works by creating a relatively narrow sphere of commodity production within which labor-power can be said to yield either rising or falling productivity, which can be represented (imperfectly) through input-output calculations. This narrow sphere, premised on the exploitation of labor-power within commodity production, operates in relation to a much more expansive sphere of appropriation, through which the diversity of nature’s “free gifts” – including the reproduction of life from the family to the biosphere – may be taken up into commodity production, but not fully capitalized. Why not fully capitalized? Because the capitalization of reproduction is subject to the exhaustive tendencies we have just discussed, which imply a rising value composition of capital and signals a situation in which capital must bear a great share of its own costs.

The upshot is this. Taking shape in the “long” sixteenth century (1450-1640), this new law of value, turning on socially necessary labor-time within commodity production, required an expansive (and expanding) domain of appropriating cheap natures. This was in fact what early capitalism was best at doing: developing technologies and knowledges unusually well-suited to identifying, coding, and rationalizing cheap natures. Here the new way of seeing the world – inaugurated by the emergence of Renaissance perspective – decisively conditioned a new organizing technics for the capitalist world-ecology, manifesting in the cartographic-shipbuilding revolution of early modernity, from the Portolan maps and caravels to Mercator globes and galleons, and much beyond.

Appropriating cheap natures was a far more creative act than the dependencia language of plunder allows (e.g. Galeano, 1973; Clark and Foster, 2009; see Moore, 2010a). “Appropriation” represents a productive activity every bit as much as “exploitation.” The outright seizure of basic wealth – clearly no invention of the sixteenth century – provided no durable basis for the endless accumulation of capital. What did provide a reliable basis for the new civilization was a set of appropriative practices combined with the world market and technological innovations oriented towards global expansion. Crucially, these comprised quite conscious colonial strategies to reorganize indigenous populations into strategic hamlets that functioned as labor reserves: the reducciones in the Andes and the aldeias in Brazil (Gade and Escobar, 1982; Schwartz, 1978). The practices enabled rising labor productivity within the only zone that capital cares about: the zone of commodification. It did not matter that horrific levels of mortality accompanied this rising labor productivity so long as the costs of appropriation – through indigenous and African slave trades – were sufficiently low (Schwartz, 1985; Moore, 2007).

This speaks to a problem not only of economic historiography but also of Marxist political economy. We are, in the conventional reading of Marx, offered two categories for the production of surplus value: absolute (more hours worked) and relative (more commodities produced in the same number of hours). For good reason, Marx focused on the basic tendencies at play in the rise of large-scale industry, and this focus has been reproduced ever since. But Marx also points towards a theory of the rate of exploitation that is grounded in the dialectic of human labor with external natures. In this, the fertility of the soil may “act like an increase of fixed capital” (1977: 238, 636-38; quotation from 1973: 748; also 1981: chapter 38). We can take this reference to soil fertility as a shorthand for the life-making capacities of human and extra-human natures. Even where extraordinary soil fertility was in some sense “given,” it was equally co-produced: as in the fertility of seventeenth century Bahia or the nineteenth century American Midwest and Great Plains. Absent the cartographic-shipbuilding revolution of the long sixteenth century, or the railroad revolution and the rationalization of American territory in the long nineteenth century, the bounty of these frontiers was no more than potential. These “hard” and “soft” technologies of production advanced labor productivity by harnessing the capacities of these natures to work for free. But it took work to gets these natures to work for free, and this was the innovation of early capitalist technical advance. Sugar and wheat frontiers remade the world only through extraordinary movements of capital, knowledge, and humans, each movement a mighty expenditure of energy aimed at transforming nature’s work into the bourgeoisie’s capital. Yes, coal and oil are dramatic examples of this process of appropriating unpaid work, understood in such a relational framework. But this observation – namely, that fossil fuels have been central to great leaps forward in labor productivity – is turned into a fetish when the same processes are not applied to early capitalism.

The consequence is a massive blindspot in radical thought: the great labor productivity revolution of early capitalism is almost universally ignored.[1] Why? Because our metrics and even narrative frames have been largely unable – or perhaps unwilling? – to bring unpaid work into value-relations. The challenge is to internalize, in our narrative frames and analytical strategies, how configurations of paid and unpaid work stabilize, and are cyclically restructured, through successive productivity regimes in historical capitalism. Returning to our early modern frame, we might ask, How do we internalize the fertility windfalls of massapé soils in 17th century Brazil? Of the contributions of the families of the mitayos (forced wage-workers) traveling to the Potosi mines? Of Norwegian and Baltic forests to the shipbuilding centers of the Dutch Republic? Of peasant cultivation to the off-season iron-making work of Swedish peasants, whose labor costs were correspondingly much lower than English competitors? And perhaps most spectacularly – I am again transgressing the Cartesian boundary – of African families whose sons and daughters were impressed into plantation labor?

This early modern labor productivity revolution turned not only on Smithian specialization, technological change, and organizational innovation, but also on the new technics of value through which cheap natures were mapped, organized, and appropriated. The “fertility” of cheap natures was the pedestal for productivity advance within the commodity zone. Perhaps inadvertently, Clark offers an illuminating contrast about labor productivity informed by a caloric metric. In a passage that would resonate with any energy-centered critic of industrial agriculture (e.g. Pimentel, et al., 1973), Clark notes that the average “worker-hour” in English agriculture around 1800 would have yield about 2,600 calories, premised on wheat, milk, and wheat staples (2007: 67-68). In contrast, the average “worker-hour” in swidden agriculture in turn-of-the-century Brazil, cultivating manioc, maize, and sweet potatoes, yielded anywhere between 7,000 and 17,600 calories (ibid; also Werner, et al., 1979).

What does this tell us? Most of all, it tells us that one of the key reasons why capitalism was able to consolidate across the early modern era was its ability to appropriate the astounding realities, and realize the extraordinary potentialities, of uncommodified natures worldwide. If sixteenth century Europe was exceptional in any technological sense, it was this. Food works well as an example, because the metrics are easy, but one could multiply the appropriations of worker-hour windfalls to all sectors of early capitalism. How would work-hour productivity in timber vary between, say, coppiced English forests and the relatively unmanaged Norwegian forests of the late sixteenth century? Or between long-exploited Central European silver mines and Potosí’s Cerro Rico around 1550? In a narrow sense, these differences were not “produced” in any straightforward, linear, sense. But neither were these bountiful frontiers simply there for the taking. They were co-produced.

There was necessarily a mix of serendipity and strategy at play in early capitalism’s productivity revolution: serendipity insofar as New World crops such as maize, potatoes, and manioc were high-yielding, and strategy insofar as the new commodity frontiers (sugar and silver above all) actively constructed their production systems around such high-yielding crops. But even where Old World crops were introduced – the Spaniards in colonial Peru loved wheat bread – the initial yields were extraordinarily high (an order of magnitude greater than the Europe average) and remained so for the first long wave of colonial domination (c. 1545-1640) (Super, 1988; Moore, 2010e). The point can scarcely be overstated: the introduction of “cheap” food, as civilizational strategy, “acts like an increase in fixed capital.” The declining price (value composition) of food is advancing labor productivity is the rising rate of exploitation.

The catch? The cheapening of food – along with raw materials and energy – cannot be accomplished by economic and territorial means alone. Cheap food, and “cheap nature” as capitalist project, could be realized only through the symbolic regimes of  abstract social nature (see Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part II“). These encompassed the “primitive accumulation of botanical knowledge” organized by Iberian botanical gardens (Cañizares-Esguerra, 2004, 2006), the emergence of a new “map consciousness” (Pickles, 2004), the “death of nature” inaugurated by early modern materialism (Merchant, 1980), and much more. We will have both motive and opportunity to return to the question of abstract social nature in subsequent installments.

[1] This revolution is largely unacknowledged, although sometimes hinted at (Landes, 1998). Why the blindspot? On the one hand, economic historiography remains overwhelmingly Eurocentric, methodologically nationalist, and quantitatively fetishist. One the other hand, it has been unable to grasp the role of unpaid work secured by extra-economic means, which include but go beyond processes of primitive accumulation.

JASON W MOORE teaches world history at Binghamton University. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


Capitalism as Frontier: On the Nature and Value of ‘Socially Necessary’ Unpaid Work

Jason W. Moore

Here we take up again questions of the relations of value, nature, and history. We have, in earlier installments, considered the indispensable contributions of unpaid work to the endless accumulation of capital: contributions that transcend the illusory divide between human and extra-human natures. The condition that some work is valued is that most work is not.

Not-valued forms of work are outside the value form (the commodity) – they do not directly produce value (contra Dalla Costa and James, 1972). And yet – it is a very big and yet – value as abstract labor cannot be produced except through unpaid work. I would therefore suggest that the value form and the value relation are not coincident; they cut across the paid/unpaid work divide such that generalized commodification cannot be sustained except through the incessant revolutionizing not only of the forces of production but also the relations of reproduction. The historical condition for socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work. De-valued work, in this model, becomes an “immanent… antithesis” within the generalization of commodity production and exchange (Marx, 1977: 209). In this contradiction between the expanded reproduction of capital and the simple reproduction of life we have “two universes, two ways of life foreign to each other yet whose wholes explain one another” (Braudel, 1977: 6). The crucial geographical implication of this enabling and constraining tension between paid and unpaid work is the necessity of frontier-making. Recurrent waves of socio-ecological exhaustion – understood as the inability of a given bundle of human/extra-human natures to deliver more work to capital – implicate recurrent waves of geographical expansion. The commodity frontier strategy has been so decisive not because of the extension of commodity production and exchange as such – a common misunderstanding of commodity frontier theory (Moore, 2000, 2013c, 2013d). Rather, commodity frontiers were so epoch-making because they extended the zone of appropriation (of natures’ unpaid work) faster than the zone of commodification. This was the crucial dialectic that Marx put his finger on in addressing the contradictions of the working day, the tendency towards manifold “industrial patholog[ies],” and the necessity of incorporating “physically uncorrupted” human natures into the world proletariat (1977). In sum, not only does capitalism have frontiers; it is a frontier civilization.

It will consequently not suffice to identify the influence of abstract social labor as an “economic” phenomenon, although this remains pivotal. The endless frontier strategy of historical capitalism is premised on a vision of the world as endless: this is the conceit of capital and its theology of endless substitutability.[1] Abstract social labor, in this reading, is the economic expression of the law of value, which is unworkable historically without strategies of appropriating cheap nature. Why is this? Because, in short, the creation of socially necessary labor-time is constituted through a shifting balance of human and extra-human work; the co-production of nature, in other words, is constitutive of socially necessary labor-time. Socially necessary labor-time forms and re-forms in and through the web of life (Moore, 2013b).[2] Early capitalism’s landscape transformations, in their epoch-making totality, were unthinkable without new ways of mapping space, controlling time, and cataloging external nature – and they are inexplicable solely in terms of world-market or class-structural change. The law of value, far from reducible to abstract social labor, finds its necessary conditions of self-expansion through the creation and subsequent appropriation of cheap human and extra-human natures. These movements of appropriation must, if capital is to forestall the rising costs of production, be secured through extra-economic procedures and processes.

By this I mean something more than the recurrent waves of primitive accumulation that we have come to accept as a cyclical phenomenon of capitalism (Angelis, 2007). These also remain pivotal. But between our now cherished dialectic of “expanded reproduction” and “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2003) are those knowledges and associated practices committed to the mapping, quantifying, and rationalizing of human and extra-human natures in service to capital accumulation.

Thus the trinity: abstract social labor, abstract social nature, primitive accumulation. This is the relational core of capitalist world-praxis. And the work of this unholy trinity? Produce cheap natures.[3] Extend the zone of appropriation. In sum, to deliver labor, food, energy, and raw materials – the “Four Cheaps” (Moore, 2012) – faster than accumulating mass of surplus capital derived from the exploitation of labor-power. Why? Because the rate of exploitation of labor-power (within the commodity system) tends to exhaust the life-making capacities that enter into the immediate production of value. Capital is indifferent to the Cartesian divide:

Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labor-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour-power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility (Marx, 1977: 376, emphasis added, also 636-38).

This exhaustion might take the form of an obvious withering of “vital forces” (Marx, 1977: 380). More often, however, exhaustion manifests in the inability of a given production complex to yield a rising stream of unpaid work – performed by human and extra-human natures alike. This latter form of exhaustion typically issues from some combination of class struggle, biophysical change, and the tendentially rising “geographical inertia” of regional built environments (quotation from Harvey, 1982: 428-29). In a world treated as boundless, capital as a whole has evinced a cumulative, but cyclically punctuated, tendency to search out and appropriate new, “physically uncorrupted” (Marx, 1977: 380) zones of cheap labor, food, energy, and raw materials. Exhaustion signals a rising value composition of capital, and the inflection point of decline for a given production complex to supply a growing stream of unpaid work to regional accumulation.[4] To the degree that “foreign preserves” can be identified and dominated, such relative “degeneration of the industrial population” matters little (quotations respectively from Cairnes, 1862: 110-111 quoted in Marx, 1977: 377; and Marx, 1977: 380).[5]

Has it been so different for extra-human natures? English agriculture, though not necessarily physically exhausted, was certainly exhausted in terms of its capacity to send a rising stream of cheap food to metropolitan capital by the early decades of the 19th century (Thomas, 1993). Not surprisingly, British capitalism at its mid-century apex would nourish itself on the basis of cheap calories – grain and sugar – supplied from New World frontier zones in North America and the Caribbean (Cronon, 1991; Mintz, 1985).

We can now connect the dots between the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the law of value. Value relations incorporate a double movement to exploitation and appropriation – within the commodity system, the exploitation of labor-power reigns supreme, but this supremacy is only possible, given its tendency toward self-exhaustion, to the degree that the appropriation of uncommodified natures counteracts this tendency. It is has been a difficult process to discern because value relations are necessarily much broader than the immediate production of the value form (the commodity). The generalization of commodity production has historically proceeded through an expansionary web of value relations whose scope and scale is necessarily much broader than the immediate process of production. McMichael puts the issue very well when he observes the problem of capitalist development as one of the uneven globalization of wage-work dialectically joined to the “generalization of its conditions of reproduction” (1991: 343). The difficulty in pursuing such an analysis has been rooted in the dualisms immanent to modern thought; for to construct capitalism in the fashion that I have suggested is to transcend the man/woman, nature/society boundaries upon which the whole edifice of modernist thought depends (see esp. Plumwood, 1993: 41-68; also Waring, 1988). For not only do we need to unify the distinctive but mutually formative dialectics of human work under capitalism through the nexus paid/unpaid work – “productive” and “reproductive” work. We also need to recognize that the dynamism of capitalism has owed everything to appropriating and co-producing ever more creative configurations of human and extra-human work across the longue durée.

JASON W MOORE teaches world history at Binghamton University. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


[1] Much of ecological economics can be read as a sustained critique of this theology. A useful introduction is found in Daly and Farley, 2004; also Perelman, 2007.

[2]“[T]he process of reproduction has to be considered from the standpoint of the replacement of the individual components of C’ both in value and in material” (Marx, 1978: 469).

[3] Produce does not mean “call forth at will,” but rather signifies a dialectic of co-production (Marx, 1977: 283).

[4]This explains something of the recurrent waves of financialization that redounded to the benefit of the declining world hegemon – in their respective belle époques, the Dutch, British, and American hegemonies each enjoyed a renewal of accumulation by capitalists in their respective geographical loci by deploying financial means to secure the fruits of agro-industrial expansions, based on new appropriations of cheap nature elsewhere in the world (Arrighi, 1994).

[5] Of course we should take care to appreciate that movements to drive down labor costs are found in technical innovation in core industrial sectors, alongside class politics and imperial initiatives to widen the sphere of appropriation. Thus, English labor-to-capital costs were 60 percent higher than on the Continent in the mid-18th century, which encouraged efforts to mechanize production (Allen, 2011, 31-32 and ch. 3 passim). Nevertheless, the new phase of industrialization gathered steam in those regions of England – such as the northern Midlands – where wages were relatively low compared to the south of England (Hunt, 1986). Yet, such mechanization was possible in great measure, especially after 1780s, by technical innovations that were probably “capital-saving” as much as they were “labor-saving” (von Tunzelmann, 1981), at least until the 1830s (Deane, 1973). In textiles, we are clearly dealing with rising labor productivity. But even here the technical composition of capital (the mass of machinery) could rise much faster than its value composition because of opportunities for appropriating cheap energy and cheap iron through the coal/steampower/iron nexus. We are, then, unavoidably dealing with a cascading series of technical innovations that work simultaneously to reduce the value of labor-power and the rest of the Big Four inputs. These cascades – necessarily and irreducibly – extend well beyond any sectoral or national frame, crucially encompassing production/reproduction configurations in the minimally-commodified colonial and frontier zones.

The Origins of Cheap Nature: From Use-Value to Abstract Social Nature

Jason W. Moore

Modernity’s law of value is an exceedingly peculiar way of organizing life in a civilization. Born in the midst of the rise of capitalism after 1450, the law of value enabled an unprecedented historical transition: from land productivity to labor productivity as the metric of wealth and power. It was an ingenious civilizational strategy, for it enabled the deployment of capitalist technics – crystallizations of tools and ideas, power and nature – to appropriate the wealth of uncommodified nature in service to advance labor productivity within the zone of commodification. The great leap forward in the scale, scope, and speed of landscape and biological transformations in the three centuries after 1450 — stretching from Poland to Brazil, and the North Atlantic’s cod fisheries to Southeast Asia’s spice islands — may be understood in this light (see Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I”; also Moore, 2007; 2010a; 2010b; 2013a; 2013b).

Such transformations were the epoch-making expressions of a new law of value that reconfigured uncommodified human and extra-human natures (slaves, forests, soils) in servitude to labor productivity and the commodity. The new law of value was quite spectacular. Never before had any civilization negotiated this transition from land productivity to labor productivity as the decisive metric of wealth. This strange metric — value — oriented the whole of west-central Europe towards an equally strange conquest of space. This strange conquest was what Marx (1973, 524) calls the “annihilation of space by time,” and across the long sixteenth century we can see a new form of time — abstract time — taking shape (Landes, 1983). While all civilizations in some sense are built to expand across varied topographies, none represented these topographies as external and progressively abstracted in the ways that dominated early capitalism’s geographical praxis. The genius of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy was to represent time as linear, space as flat, and nature as external (Mumford, 1934; Merchant, 1980; Pickles, 2004). It was a civilizational inflection of the “God-trick” (Haraway, 1988), with bourgeois knowledge representing its special brand of quantifying and scientific reason as a mirror of the world — the same world then being reshaped by early modernity’s scientific revolutions in alliance with empires and capitals. The God-trick was the work of abstract social nature.

With abstract time, in other words, would come abstract space (Lefebvre, 1991). Together, they were the indispensable corollaries to the weird crystallization of human and extra-human natures in the form of abstract social labor. It was this ascendant law of value — operating as gravitational field rather than mechanism—that underpinned the extraordinary landscape and biological revolutions of early modernity. Notwithstanding the fanciful historical interpretations of the Anthropocene argument and its idealized model of a two-century modernity (Steffen et al., 2011), the origins of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy and today’s biospheric turbulence are to be found in the long sixteenth century. The issue is not one of anthropogenic-drivers — presuming a fictitious human unity — but of the relations of capital and capitalist power. The issue is not the Anthropocene, but the Capitalocene.

The “Age of Capital” has been premised on a relation that enables advancing labor productivity in great bursts with even greater bursts in the production of “cheap natures,” above the Four Cheaps of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012). The catch is that capital-labor relations are not are well-equipped to map, code, survey, quantify and otherwise identify and facilitate new sources of cheap nature. This latter has, crucially, involved all manner of knowledge-practices, closely linked but not reducible to territorial power (Parenti, 2014), in which the expanded reproduction of the capital-unpaid work relation has been central. This is the historical terrain of abstract social nature and accumulation by appropriation.

The idea of nature as external has worked so effectively because the condition for capital’s “self”-expansion is the location and production of  external natures. (An obviously co-productive process.) Because these natures are historical and therefore finite, the exhaustion of one historical nature quickly prompts the “discovery” of new natures that deliver yet untapped sources of unpaid work. Thus did the Kew Gardens of British hegemony yield to the International Agricultural Research Centers of American hegemony, which in turn were superseded by the bioprospecting, rent-seeking, and genomic mapping practices of the neoliberal era (Brockway, 1978; Kloppenburg, 1988; McAfee, 1999; 2003.) This means that not only is capitalism bound up with a historically-specific nature; so are its specific phases of development. Each long century of accumulation does not “tap” an external nature that exists as a warehouse of resources. Rather, each such long wave creates — and is created by — a historical nature that offers a new, specific set of constraints and opportunities. The accumulation strategies that work at the beginning of a cycle — creating particular historical natures through science, technology, and new forms of territoriality and governance (abstract social nature)—progressively exhaust the relations of reproduction that supply “cheap” labor, food, energy, and raw materials. At some point, this exhaustion registers in rising commodity prices.

This view of nature as external object, while demonstrably false in terms of historical method, was an essential moment in the rise of capitalism. Here we can see ideas as “material force” (Marx, 1978, 60). Early capitalism’s world-praxis, fusing symbolic coding and material inscription, moved forward an audacious fetishization of nature. This was expressed, dramatically, in the era’s cartographic, scientific, and quantifying revolutions. These were the symbolic moments of primitive accumulation, creating a new intellectual system whose presumption, personified by Descartes, was the separation of humans from the rest of nature. For early modern materialism, the point was not only to interpret the world but to control it: “to make ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 2006, 51). It was a powerful vision, one so powerful that that even today, many students of global environmental change have internalized the early modern view of nature as effectively external to human activity (e.g., Steffen et al., 2011).

The origins of cheap nature are, of course, far more than intellectual and symbolic. The transgression of medieval intellectual frontiers was paired with the transgression of medieval territoriality. While civilizational expansion is in some sense fundamental to all, there emerged in early modern Europe a specific geographical thrust. While all civilizations had frontiers of a sort, capitalism was a frontier. The extension of capitalist power to new spaces that were uncommodified became the lifeblood of capitalism. I have elsewhere considered the historical geographies of early capitalism’s commodity frontiers (Moore, 2000b, 2003a, 2003b, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010d, 2010e). For the moment, I wish to highlight two relational axes of these frontiers. First, commodity frontier movements were not merely about the extension of commodity relations, although this was indeed central. Commodity frontier movements were also, crucially, about the extension of territorial and symbolic forms that appropriated unpaid work in service to commodity production. This unpaid work could be delivered by humans — women or slaves, for example — or by extra-human natures, such as forests, soils, or rivers. Second, such frontier movements were, from the very beginning of capitalism, essential to creating the forms of cheap nature specific to capitalism, the Four Cheaps.

What are the implications of this line of thought for a post-Cartesian historical method, one that takes the law of value as a co-production of humans bundled with the rest of nature?

An approach to value that joins the appropriation of cheap natures (including humans!) and the exploitation of commodified labor-power allows us to unravel some of the mysteries of early capitalism’s dynamism – a civilization with few significant resource or technological advantages and yet endowed with an epoch-making capacity to reshape landscapes worldwide. While marxisante ecology tends to ignore value (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010), it does so by hiding from view Marx’s formulation that use- and exchange-value represent “on the surface” the “internal opposition of use-value and value” (Marx, 1977: 153, 209). Marx’s discussion in these opening pages of Capital are pitched at so high a level of abstraction that I think the implications of this “internal opposition” have been insufficiently grasped. These implications are explosive. For to say that value and use-value are internally related is to say that the value relation encompasses the relation value/use-value in a way that necessarily extends far beyond the immediate process of production. Here is a connection that allows us to join definite “modes of production” and definite “modes of life” in concrete historical unities (quotations from Marx and Engels, 1970: 42).

This means that capitalism can be comprehended through the shifting configuration of the exploitation of labor-power and the appropriation of cheap natures – a dialectic of paid and unpaid work that demands a disproportional expansion of the latter (appropriation) in relation to the former (exploitation). This reality is suggested – even if its implications for accumulation are only partially grasped – by those widely-cited estimates on the contribution of unpaid work performed by humans (UNDP, 1995: 16; Safri and Graham, 2010) and the rest of nature (“ecosystem services”) (Costanza, et al., 1997). The quantitative reckonings for unpaid human work – overwhelmingly delivered by women – vary between 70 and 80 percent of world GDP; for “ecosystem services,” between 70 and 250 percent of GDP. The relations between these two moments are rarely grasped (but see Perkins, 2007); their role in long waves of accumulation, rarely discussed (but for unpaid human work, see Caffentzis, 2010/1980; O’Hara, 1995). I would observe that unpaid work comprises not only the active and ongoing contributions to the daily reproduction of labor-power and the production cycles of agriculture and forestry. Unpaid work also encompasses the appropriation of accumulated unpaid work in the form of children raised to adulthood largely outside the commodity system (e.g., in peasant agriculture) and subsequently pushed or pulled into wage-work, and also in the form of fossil fuels produced through the earth’s biogeological processes.

The appropriation of unpaid work signifies something beyond the important – but nevertheless too partial – notion of environmental costs and externalities as “missing” (e.g. Patel, 2009). I think in this respect that we may take the crucial insight from feminist marxism: the contribution of unpaid work is not “just there,” but actively produced through complex (yet patterned) relations of power, (re)production, and accumulation. I risk pedantry here in saying that the “free gifts” of nature are not “low-hanging fruit” that can simply be picked without much time and effort. Quite the contrary! Cheap natures are actively produced by human activity bundled with the rest of nature, and human and extra-human natures are both replete with creativity and contingency. Nature is too often regards as a passive substrate – as in the popular ecological footprint metaphor (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996) – but this is a modernist conceit; one that reflects capital’s priorities rather more the history of capitalism. But nature is not substrate; it is the field within which all life unfolds. And all of that life is actively, creatively, incessantly engaged in environment-making (Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Moore, 2013a) – such that, in the modern world, human ingenuity (such as it is) and human activity (such as it has been) must activate the work of particular natures in order to appropriate particular streams of unpaid work. Such activation is co-produced reality, bundling the life-activities of human and extra-human nature, present and accumulated over time.

What are the implications for a historically grounded theory of value? On the one hand, capitalism lives and dies on the expanded reproduction of capital: value-in-motion. The substance of value is abstract social labor, or socially necessary labor time, implicated in the production of surplus value. On the other hand, this production of value is particular – it does not value everything, only labor power in the service of commodity production – and therefore rests upon a series of devaluations. Plenty of work – indeed the majority of work in the orbit of capitalism – does not register as valuable. Work by humans, especially women; but also “work” performed by extra-human natures. For good reason does Hribal pose the question (2003), “Are animals part of the working class”? – a question that illuminates the law of value’s absurdity alongside its consistent praxis. Although there remains a lot of confusion about this, it is now clear that Marx understood that extra-human natures perform all sorts of useful (but not valuable) work for capitalist production, and that such useful work was in fact immanent to the capital-relation (Burkett, 1999). Marx’s reading of value was, in other words, eminently post-Cartesian.

REFERENCES (TO BE ADDED, see also: “The Capitalocene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital,” for references).

Wasting Away: Value, Waste, and Appropriation in the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

The decisive violence imposed on life by the capitalist mode of production derives from its quest for radical simplification. The dream, the fantasy, the nightmare of capital is its practical desire — practical, yet impossible — for world of interchangeable parts, in which one part of nature easily substitutes for another. This the conceit of value as abstract social labor, whose practical violence lies precisely in its negation of, and yet utter dependence upon,  life-making. What is certainly true about a long-running commentary on capitalism and entropy — capitalism as “dissipative system” — is the law of value’s negation of life-making, which turns on adaptation, variation, and the ongoing emergence of biological and even geological difference.[1] What has been missed is capital’s dependence on such life-making processes: those uncapitalized human and extra-human natures without which no great wave of accumulation can materialize. That dependence is materialized through accumulation by appropriation: the channeling of unpaid work by human and extra-human natures into the conditions for capital accumulation (Moore, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

It is a wasteful system, to be sure, but one wasteful only secondarily at the level of consequences. The epochal claim of capital is that only one part of nature — labor-power within the circuit of capital — is valuable; all the rest, at least all the rest within reach of capitalist power, is to be mobilized in servitude to labor productivity. Viewed in this way, we can immediately identify as wasteful capitalism’s value-centered appropriations, which find useful only “an extremely quantified form of lif” (Caffentzis, 2005).  What early critics of industrial agriculture noted about energy inefficiency is in fact a general law of capital accumulation. Even in the 1960s, it was apparent that every calorie of food production demanded more and more energy over time, such that in American agriculture today, one calorie of food requires no less than 15 calories of energy (Pimentel, et al., 1973; Canning, et al., 2010; Acker, et al., 2013; Cuéllar and Webber, 2010). Compounding the problem, one-third to one-half of “all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2012; also Gustavsson, et al., 2011).

In these terms, capitalism is not a system of efficiency, and can only be identified as a system of profligacy and waste. Such wastefulness is, moreover, immanent to capital; it is bound up with the constitution of capital itself, and not only its palpable consequences for the biosphere and for particular landscapes. While the latter is recognized by Cartesian Marxists (e.g. Foster, 2012; Dowd, 1989), and is connected with today’s biospheric problems, such as climate change, the story is more than one of outputs. Waste is possible as “output” (after production) only to the degree that unpaid work is wastefully appropriated as “input” (before and during production); waste, in other words, is both producer and product of capital accumulation. The condition for such massive production of waste (after production) is capitalism’s wasteful appropriation of life and energy (during production) – is capitalism’s commitment to an extreme form of quantification: the law of value. The history of American bison hunters on the Great Plains in the 19th century – taking only the hide and leaving the rest to rot (Isenberg, 2001)[2] – serves as an appropriate metaphor for the capitalist world-ecology’s vast and wasteful history.

Waste, then, suggests a crucial point of entry into the problem of appropriation.

To Marx’s famous observation we may now add (1977: 763-764, ch. 25, part I), the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work (is the accumulation of waste). This dialectical syllogism represents a weave of very complex historical processes. What this formulation provides – the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work – is a way to explain long waves of accumulation as closely bound to the value composition (as abstract social labor) of the Big Four inputs: labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials. As labor, food, energy and raw materials are made cheap – through the appropriation of the unpaid work of “women, nature, and colonies” – they become what I have called the Four Cheaps (Moore, 2012, 2014a). As the Four Cheaps are restored, new opportunities for capital accumulation appear: for instance, the railroad revolution of the 19th century or the automobile revolution of the 20th century. Over time, the Four Cheaps stop being cheap, because the squeezing out of unpaid work in the upswing of an accumulation cycle exhausts the resilience of uncommodified relations of reproduction. Thence labor costs rise, along with food, energy, and raw materials prices. (Historically in uneven fashion, although this may be changing today, as commodity boom that commenced in 2003 shows few signs of collapsing [Erten and Ocampo, 2013].) As the Big Four inputs stop being cheap and start being dear, the opportunities for accumulation in the zone of material production (M-C-M’) stagnate, and begin to contract. Financial expansions (M-M’) tend to begin when the Big Four inputs become more expensive – the value composition of the labor, food,  energy, and raw materials rises rather than falls. (This is the heretofore “hidden” socio-ecological moment of overaccumulation crises.)

The food/labor nexus is especially important, because “cheap” food and labor are at once determined by transformations of commodity production (through the capital-intensive moment of agricultural revolutions) and also by the degree to which capital can secure vast new opportunities for appropriating unpaid work outside the commodity system but inside capitalism. This was the genius of the American-led “family farm” revolution of the later 19th century (c. 1840-1900), combining unpaid family labor with the unpaid work of extra-human natures, especially those frontier soils of western North America, accumulated over millennia and largely untouched by agriculture (Friedman, 1978, 2000). Cheap energy is crucial because, especially since the steam power revolution, labor productivity surges forward with abundant cheap energy, and stagnates with rising energy prices, as we saw during the 1970s (Jorgenson, 1980, 1984). Recessions in the North Atlantic core have been closely linked to rising oil prices since the 1970s (Hamilton, 2009). Finally, neither cheap labor nor cheap energy is particularly useful if there are not abundant (cheap) raw materials that can be transformed into commodities.

The clear tendency of the capitalist mode of production is to dissolve the boundaries between each of the Big Four inputs, especially between food, energy, and raw materials, which have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. One moment of this is directly bio-material. The manifold uses of American maize, now used for ethanol, food, and industrial production, are one good example. Another is the generalization of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers in world agriculture, which have allowed a growing (but still minority) share of humanity to “eat” oil and natural gas (Manning, 2001). Another moment of this dissolution of the boundaries between the Big Four inputs is found in the new phase of financialization after 2000. Perhaps most spectacularly, the world’s primary commodity markets were financialized. Before the 21st century, commodity markets were largely independent “from outside financial markets and from each other” – for example, the price of oil was not strongly correlated with the price of copper. After 2000, however, finance capital (especially via index investors) “precipitated a fundamental process of financialization amongst commodities markets, through which commodity prices became more correlated with prices of financial assets and with each other… As a result of [this] financialization…, the price of an individual commodity is no longer simply determined by its supply and demand (Tang and Xiong, 2011, emphasis added). Not coincidentally, the commodity boom that commenced in 2003 has been the longest, most volatile, and most encompassing commodity boom of the past century, and indeed probably of the past five centuries (World Bank, 2009: ch. 2; Erten and Ocampo, 2013). What this combination of bio-material and financial restructuring suggests is a 21st century global scenario in which the tendency towards underproduction reasserts itself, through an unusual and unstable combination of physical depletion, declining agro-ecological productivity, new antisystemic movements, and financialization,

This attention to the appropriation of unpaid work, and its cyclical and cumulative exhaustion across the longue durée, allows us to elaborate a theory of how under-production operates in the long history of the capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Underproduction signifies a conjoncture in which one or more of the Big Four inputs becomes increasingly costly, and begins to fetter the accumulation process. From the outset, let me make two things clear about underproduction. First, underproduction always exists alongside overproduction in historical capitalism. The crucial issue is not underproduction or overproduction, but how the two moments fit together. The past two centuries have been dominated by overproduction. This marked a relative escape from the problems of early capitalism. The greatest problem early capitalism was the supply of the Big Four inputs – hence, the audacious movements of enclosure and primitive accumulation in Europe and the Americas, and the great commodity frontiers in silver, sugar, forest productions, and grain. Not for nothing does Wallerstein call such expansion the “fundamental factor” in the rise of capitalism (1974). The Big Four inputs were rarely all cheap at the same time, which explains at least part of the extraordinary scale and speed of European conquest and commodification in the early modern era (Moore, 2007; 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d).

But if the problem in early capitalism was too few workers or resources, the great problem for capitalism after 1800 was too few customers: too many commodities chasing too few customers, always and necessarily conditioned by the rising value composition of production. (Two sides of the same process.)  Given the relative ease with which European capitalists and empires were able to remake the world-ecology in the 19th century, the Big Four inputs were often cheap, and were made relatively cheaper when necessary, from the agrarian and subsistence crises of the late 19th century (Wolf, 1982; Davis, 2001) to the “shock doctrines” and dispossessions of the neoliberal era (Klein, 2007; Harvey, 2003, 2005). For this historical reason – the relative cheapness of labor, food, energy, and raw materials  between 1800 and 2000 – underproduction is poorly understood, and is often framed in terms of “scarcity.” Scarcity is the bogeyman of our times, one whose realities and spectres are impossible to distinguish through the violent abstractions of “nature” and “society.”


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[1] I do not mean to suggest a teleology of life-making. There is no question that life-making and adaptation may, under some conditions, move in the direction of simplification and the reduction in the diversity of life (Levins and Lewontin, 1985). Even when such movements towards simplification occur, however, the movement towards complexification resumes whenever life is afforded the solar, geological, and biological opportunity to do so.

[2] It is of course true, as Isenberg argues (2001), that Native American world-ecologies could also be wasteful in a similar fashion; but the scale, speed, and consistency of bison extermination after the American Civil War was clearly a qualitatively new development that found only the faintest formal similarities with the Native American past.