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: www.jasonwmoore.com.


[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.


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

  1. “The historical condition for socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work”: real! It’s a very interesting point of view

    1. Thanks, Gennaro! I think this is the necessary implication of the feminist Marxist debate (from the 1970s) and of the eco-Marxist argument on the “exploitation” of nature. As it turns out, extra-human nature is NOT exploited, because its appropriation (along with the unpaid work of human nature) is the necessary condition for the exploitation of labor-power inside the commodity system. Appropriation in this sense is not a euphemism or minimization of the reality: to paraphrase an old Marxist joke, the only thing worse than being exploited is being appropriated!

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