World-ecology is a collaboration, a conversation. Ours is a global conversation of scholars, of artists, of activists about planetary justice. It draws seriously on Marx, but refuses the conceit of a “One True Marx.” There’s no True Marx, only a historical Marx. The same is true for other great thinkers. I think one of the great risks of radical traditions is found in the tendency to convert ideas into beliefs, and beliefs into sacred objects. Then one defends the sacred object — “socialism in one country” or “the working class” — instead of cultivating a revolutionary praxis.
For the world-ecology conversation, my hope is that it encourages and facilitates conversations and syntheses useful for planetary justice in the twenty-first century. I’ve always insisted that some of my formulations will be more useful than others — some may not be useful at all! My approach has been to raise questions about the lacunae between radical interpretations of historical change – including the present as history. In Capitalism in the Web of Life (Moore, 2015), I raised questions about the connections between relations of domination, exploitation, and environmental history. How can feminist, environmentalist, and Marxist critiques be reworked in a new synthesis? And what might a generative synthesis — generative, that is, of further investigation, narration, representation, research, conversation — look like?
World-ecology is about sparking conversation, and this often leads in unexpected — indeed often uncomfortable — directions! Too many radicals need to be “correct.” The point of world-ecology is not to arrive at the correct line, and then to defend it. Our collaborative ambition is to open, sustain, and support conversations that generate emancipatory knowledge for planetary justice. That means, among other things, that we have given up the certainties of past knowledges. Those past knowledges are important and indispensable. At the same time, the modes of thought that have created today’s planetary crisis will not lead us towards planetary justice. An emancipatory praxis must insist that no one has all the answers; and that compelling responses to planetary crisis are by nature collective.
World-ecology has therefore never been about my position on this or that historical or theoretical question. Far from it! My sense is that it’s a conversation cohered by a commitment to understanding human history — including the history of the present — as co-produced with and within webs of life. There’s a philosophy of history that views the historical geography of webs of life as ontological conditions. This encourages a historical method that asks how human organizations of power, production, and reproduction are not only producers of these webs of life, but also products of them. Basically, we ask: How are human relations configured with and within nature as a whole?
That’s a horizontalist philosophy of humans in the web of life. It has practical implications. Perhaps most significantly, that philosophy challenges views of human liberation that treat the web of life as secondary. There’s been a long history of socialist projects that have treated Nature as a productivist resource. There are a lot of dangers with this, one of them being that Nature is never limited to extra-human nature; it always includes human populations.
You will notice that I have written Nature in the uppercase. And that idea — Nature — is always contrasted with Society, Civilization, or something to that effect. That’s more than an idea. It’s a practice. And it’s praxis: of dominating humans, not just the soils and streams and fields and forests. In other words, Nature is — and was from 1492 — a class project, an imperial project that fused the production of “surplus value” and the exercise of “surplus power” (see especially, Patel and Moore, 2017).
World-ecology therefore takes the history of ideology and cultural domination very seriously. I do not think this history is separate from capitalism’s devastations of the web of life; nor do I think we can make sense of race, gender, and sexuality abstracted from the world-historical fetishes of Nature and Civilization. Fundamental to world-ecology is the claim that modern modes of thought and culture, power and accumulation constitute an evolving totality. In my view, the emergence of capitalism can only be adequately understood in these terms. I think the role of class struggles and economic change is well understood, so let me simply focus on capitalism’s emergent geoculture. Capitalism’s geoculture, geopolitical economy, and systemic class antagonism are all moments of this evolving whole, each moment implying specific relations with webs of life.
This geoculture was premised on two reinforcing logics. One is the logic of the binary code, and its earliest expression was the ontological claim of Civilization versus Nature. The other was the logic of instrumentalism, necessary if (some) humans wished to transform most humans and the rest of nature into profit-making opportunities. From the beginning of capitalism, “dominate and profit” was dialectically joined to “define and rule” (Mamdani, 2012).
Capitalism’s geoculture reaches far beyond the binary of Civilization and Nature. After 1492, its animating logic rapidly entangled with binaries of gender, race, and sexuality, and quickly enmeshed in strategies of imperial rule and capital accumulation. When I say that capitalism works through a binary code, I am highlighting a specifically capitalist praxis. That is, capitalism’s praxis is a unity of thought and action that develops historically by rewarding practices that enable – and punishing practices that obstruct — the endless accumulation of capital.
This praxis is a geocultural factory of fetishization; it fragments reality, issuing segments of binary code, then using these fragments to dominate, appropriate, and exploit. Civilization and Nature — again in the uppercase –are real abstractions. Their power resides in the degree to which the One Percent acts as if they are real, and the degree to which the 99 Percent accepts their reality. The real abstractions Civilization/Nature may be understood as a world-historical expression of alienation under capitalism — that is to say, this binary is the geocultural expression of the worldwide class struggle.
But it is not the only form of alienation. As soon as we look at the history of this geoculture, we see that the boundary between Civilization and Nature is intimately connected the world color and gender lines. The racialization and gendering of work relations, ongoing from 1492, has flowed through — and in turn reinforced — the real abstractions of Civilization and Savagery. Languages of civility and savagery have always formed a kind of discursive “raw material” for racist, sexist, and homophobic discourses and practices. As Silvia Federici (2004) points out, women became the “savages of Europe” in early capitalism, their life-activity redefined as non-work. Women were “naturally” fit to be mothers and caretakers, work that needn’t be compensated as work. Everywhere in the Atlantic world, non-Europeans — Africans, indigenous peoples, Slavs, the Irish – were redefined as savages. They were assigned to Nature, not Civilization — the better their lives and work could be cheapened (Moore, 2017a, 2017b, 2018a, 2018b).
Federici, Silvia (2004). Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia).
Mamdani M. (2012). Define and Rule (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Moore, Jason W. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso).
Moore, Jason W. (2017a). The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis, The Journal of Peasant Studies 44(3), 594-630
Moore, Jason W. (2017b). World Accumulation and Planetary Life, or, Why Capitalism will continue until the ‘Last Tree is Cut.’ IPPR Progressive Review 24(3), 175-202
Moore, Jason W. (2018a). The Capitalocene, Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy, The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(2), 237-279
Moore, Jason W. (2018b). Slaveship Earth: The World-Historical Imagination in the Age of Climate Crisis, PEWS NEWS: Newsletter of the Political Economy of the World-System Section, American Sociological Association (Spring), 1-4.
Patel, Raj, and Jason W. Moore (2017). A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (Berkeley: University of California Press.)
Jason W. Moore is an environmental historian and historical geographer at Binghamton University, where he is professor of sociology. He is author or editor, most recently, of Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), Capitalocene o Antropocene? (Ombre Corte, 2017), Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016), and, with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017). His books and essays on environmental history, capitalism, and social theory have been widely recognized, including the Alice Hamilton Prize of the American Society for Environmental History (2003), the Distinguished Scholarship Award of the Section on the Political Economy of the World-System (American Sociological Association, 2002 for articles, and 2015 for Web of Life), and the Byres and Bernstein Prize in Agrarian Change (2011). He coordinates the World-Ecology Research Network. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpted and adapted from Jason W. Moore, 2019. World-Ecology: A Global Conversation, Sociologia Urbana e Rurale 120, 9-21. (Interviewed by Gennaro Avallone and Emanuele Leonardi.)