Human nature

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Out of the Woods

 A review of Jason W Moore’s book on world-ecology, Capitalism in the Web of Life.

Since its rise in the 1970s, mainstream environmentalism has been viewed by many as a “new social movement.” As with the liberal and radical civil rights, feminist, queer, and decolonial movements, environmentalists have been accused by many radicals of fracturing left unity and promoting “interest group” politics over those of class or revolution. Indeed, while mainstream environmentalism implicitly (if sometimes explicitly) included a critique of capitalist accumulation’s excesses and its degradation of nature, these were generally seen to be aspects of historic capitalism that could be patched over in order to make our lives in it livable. And so throughout the 1990s, many environmentalist groups courted the corporate world through green consulting and rhetorics of “sustainable capitalism.” But the use of symbolic tactics by many of these groups failed to make a substantial impact on public opinion or state action. They may have kept “the environment” alive as an issue in public debate, but neither determined its political content or catalyzed widespread political action, despite its adding to the proliferation of “green” consumerism. All the while, the accumulation they critiqued continued at an ever-faster clip.

Although not a book on political movements, the philosopher Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital seeks to analyze the root cause of this impasse for environmentalism: the widely-shared view that “the environment” is a separate and unique part of existence outside of capitalism that capitalism devalues. Instead of examining the degradation of nature as an aspect of accumulation, Moore proposes that nature is instead always in capital, and likewise, capitalism is always in historical natures. Nature conditions capitalist accumulation and is produced historically by capitalist relations. His argument allows us to see how dependent accumulation and the exploitation of labor are on the appropriation and reproduction of “cheap natures” (food, energy, raw materials, and labour-power — defined as “cheap” in the sense of “the periodic, and radical, reduction in the socially necessary labor-time of these Big Four inputs”). In Moore’s clearest formulation: “Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.”

This latest book is Moore’s monumental attempt to follow the consequences of this view, and it deserves praise for its meticulous arguments, many of which we agree with wholeheartedly. But while we appreciate Moore’s synthetic world-ecology approach, he fails to explain why the nature/society split continues to obtain, and how it might be effectively dismantled. Answering these questions, we believe, is the key to unlocking an epochal crisis in capitalism. The crisis won’t come from nature alone; capitalism won’t end without us.

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