Capitalism in the Web of Life: an Interview with Jason W. Moore


Part­way through Cap­i­tal­ism in the Web of Life, Jason W. Moore pro­vides the imper­a­tive for a com­plete the­o­ret­i­cal rework­ing and syn­the­sis of Marx­ist, envi­ron­men­tal, and fem­i­nist thought by assert­ing: “I think many of us under­stand intu­itive­ly – even if our ana­lyt­i­cal frames lag behind – that cap­i­tal­ism is more than an “eco­nom­ic” sys­tem, and even more than a social sys­tem. Cap­i­tal­ism is a way of orga­niz­ing nature.”

Kamil Ahsan spoke with Moore about his book Cap­i­tal­ism in the Web of Life (Ver­so), released last month, to grap­ple with his new chal­lenges to old assump­tions.

Kamil Ahsan: What was the impe­tus for Cap­i­tal­ism in the Web of Life?

Jason W. Moore: I want­ed to come up with a frame­work that would allow us to under­stand the his­to­ry of the last five cen­turies in a way that was ade­quate to the cri­sis we face today. For the past four decades, we’ve had a “Green Arith­metic” approach to cri­sis. When we’ve had an eco­nom­ic or social cri­sis or any oth­er kind of cri­sis, they all go into one box. Then we have an eco­log­i­cal crises – water or ener­gy or the cli­mate – that go into anoth­er box.

So for rough­ly the past four decades, envi­ron­men­tal­ists and oth­er rad­i­cals have been rais­ing the alarm about these crises but nev­er real­ly fig­ured out how to put them togeth­er. Envi­ron­men­tal thinkers have been say­ing one thing and then doing anoth­er – they claimed that humans are a part of nature and that every­thing in the mod­ern world is about our rela­tion­ship with the bios­phere, but then when they got around to orga­niz­ing or ana­lyz­ing, it came down to “Soci­ety plus Nature,” as if the rela­tion­ship was not as inti­mate and direct and imme­di­ate as it is.

KA: The premise of this book is that we need to break down the “Nature/Society” dual­ism that has pre­vailed in so much of Red and Green thought. Where did this idea come from, and why is it so thor­ough­ly arti­fi­cial?

JWM: The idea that humans are out­side of nature has a long his­to­ry. It’s a cre­ation of the mod­ern world. Many civ­i­liza­tions before cap­i­tal­ism had a sense that humans were dis­tinct. But in the 16th, 17th and 18th cen­turies, this very pow­er­ful idea emerged – that is embed­ded in impe­ri­al­ist vio­lence and dis­pos­ses­sion of peas­ants and a whole series of recom­po­si­tions of what it meant to be a human, par­tic­u­lar­ly divi­sions around race and gender—that there was some­thing, in Adam Smith’s words, called “civ­i­lized soci­ety,” which includ­ed some humans.

But most humans were still put into this cat­e­go­ry of “Nature,” which was regard­ed as some­thing to be con­trolled and dom­i­nat­ed and put to work – and civ­i­lized. It sounds very abstract, but the mod­ern world was real­ly based on this idea that some group of humans were called “Soci­ety” but most humans go into this oth­er box called “Nature” with a cap­i­tal N. That’s very pow­er­ful. That didn’t come about just because there were sci­en­tists, car­tog­ra­phers or colo­nial rulers who decid­ed it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put togeth­er mar­kets and indus­try, empire and new ways of see­ing the world that go along with a broad con­cep­tion of the Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion.

This idea of Nature and Soci­ety is very deeply root­ed in oth­er dualisms of the mod­ern world: the cap­i­tal­ist and the work­er, the West and the rest, men and women, white and black, civ­i­liza­tion and bar­barism. All of these oth­er dualisms real­ly find their tap­roots in the Nature/Society dual­ism.

KA: What is the impor­tance of break­ing this dual­ism, espe­cial­ly in terms of how you recon­cep­tu­al­ize cap­i­tal­ism as being “co-pro­duced,” as you say, by human and extra-human natures?

JWM: It is impor­tant to under­stand that cap­i­tal­ism is co-pro­duced by humans and the rest of nature, espe­cial­ly in order to under­stand the unfold­ing cri­sis today. The usu­al way of think­ing about the prob­lems of our world today is to put social, eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al crises into the rubric of “social crises” – and then we have eco­log­i­cal crises and that’s cli­mate and every­thing else. Today, we’re increas­ing­ly real­iz­ing that we can’t talk about one with­out the oth­er, but that’s actu­al­ly been the real­i­ty all along.

We need to over­come this dual­ism so we can build our knowl­edge of the present cri­sis, a sin­gu­lar cri­sis with many expres­sions. Some, like finan­cial­iza­tion, look to be pure­ly social, and oth­ers, like the poten­tial sixth extinc­tion of life on this plan­et, appear to be pure­ly eco­log­i­cal. But in fact those two moments are very close­ly linked in all sorts of inter­est­ing ways.

Once we under­stand that those rela­tions are cen­tral, we begin to see how Wall Street is a way of orga­niz­ing nature. We see the unfold­ing of prob­lems today – like the recent tur­bu­lence in Chi­nese and Amer­i­can stock mar­kets – as wrapped up with big­ger prob­lems of cli­mate and life on this plan­et in a way that even rad­i­cal econ­o­mists are not will­ing to acknowl­edge. This has an impact on our pol­i­tics. We are see­ing today move­ments – such as food jus­tice move­ments – that say we need to under­stand this trans­for­ma­tion and it has to do with a right to food in an eco­log­i­cal sense, but also a cul­tur­al and demo­c­ra­t­ic sense, and these can­not be sep­a­rat­ed out.

The prob­lem with the “Green Arith­metic” of “Soci­ety + Nature” is this weird sep­a­ra­tion of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice from social jus­tice, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty from social sus­tain­abil­i­ty, eco­log­i­cal impe­ri­al­ism from reg­u­lar impe­ri­al­ism – even though any­one who knows the his­to­ry of impe­ri­al­ism knows that it is always about “who are we going to val­ue” and “what groups of soci­ety are we going to val­ue?” Once we stop this adjec­ti­val promis­cu­ity, we see that impe­ri­al­ism was always about how humans and the rest of nature were wrapped up with each oth­er.

I think then we can prac­ti­cal­ly start to make new alliances with dif­fer­ent parts of the world’s social move­ments that are dis­con­nect­ed – between peas­ant move­ments and work­ers’ move­ments, between women’s move­ments and the move­ment for racial jus­tice. There is a com­mon root. The rea­son why putting togeth­er what I call a “sin­gu­lar metab­o­lism” of humans in the web of life is so cru­cial – it allows us to start mak­ing con­nec­tions between social moments and eco­log­i­cal moments.

KA: In direct oppo­si­tion to the Nature/Society bina­ry, you pose a new syn­the­sis, the “oikos.” What is that and how does that take us to a deep­er analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism?

JWM: At the core of rad­i­cal thought is some­thing that vio­lates our empha­sis on his­to­ry and rela­tions between humans and the web of life. What hap­pened is this core idea of Nature as out­side of human rela­tions as pris­tine, as nature with­out a his­to­ry. That leads to this sense of Nature is there and we need to pro­tect it because if we don’t, the apoc­a­lypse is com­ing. It gets part of what’s going on cor­rect, but it does what rad­i­cals have oth­er­wise always been good at: nam­ing the sys­tem wrong.

Rad­i­cals talk about the inter­ac­tion between humans and the rest of the nature, but don’t name the rela­tion of life-mak­ing that pro­duces both envi­ron­ment and species. Human­i­ty evolves through a series of envi­ron­ment-mak­ing activ­i­ties that trans­forms not only land­scapes but also human biol­o­gy. For instance, the har­ness­ing of fire allowed human ances­tors to devel­op small­er diges­tive sys­tems and treat fire as a sort of exter­nal stom­ach.

One of the big ideas in this book is that Nature in gen­er­al has many pat­terns that are rel­a­tive­ly constant—the Earth rotat­ing in an orbital pat­tern around the Sun—but Nature is also his­tor­i­cal.

With the oikos, we are talk­ing about a rela­tion of life-mak­ing, and we are nam­ing this rela­tion that gives rise to mul­ti­ple ecosys­tems that include humans. Humans are always mak­ing their envi­ron­ments and in the process, mak­ing their rela­tion­ships with each oth­er and their own biol­o­gy. The struc­tures of pow­er and pro­duc­tion, and cru­cial­ly of repro­duc­tion, are part of that sto­ry of how we go about mak­ing land­scapes and envi­ron­ments, and how those envi­ron­ments are mak­ing us. How­ev­er, our vocab­u­lary and con­cepts are hard-wired in this dual­ism. We need to crack this dual­ism and offer some new con­cepts.

KA: Very ear­ly on in the book, you cite Marx’s obser­va­tion that indus­tri­al­iza­tion was turn­ing “blood into cap­i­tal.” You go on to talk about this ter­ri­fy­ing trans­for­ma­tion of the work of all forms of nature into val­ue. What forms of Nature has cap­i­tal­ism his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­at­ed and what is capitalism’s trend with pre­vi­ous­ly unex­ploit­ed natures?

JWM: Cap­i­tal­ism is a weird sys­tem, because it’s not real­ly anthro­pocen­tric in the way that Greens usu­al­ly talk about. It’s anthro­pocen­tric in a nar­row way which is that humans work with­in the com­mod­i­ty sys­tem, which is based on exploita­tion: the work­er works four hours to cov­er his or her own wages and then anoth­er 4-10 hours for the cap­i­tal­ist. That’s one dimen­sion that Marx focused on. But he was aware of a wider set of dimen­sions.

Cap­i­tal­ism treats one part of human­i­ty as social – the part of human­i­ty that is with­in the cash nexus and is repro­duced with­in the cash nexus. But –  and this is the counter-intu­itive part – cap­i­tal­ism is also an island of com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion and exchange with­in much larg­er oceans of appro­pri­a­tions of unpaid work/energy. Every work process of say, a work­er in Shen­zhen, Chi­na, or in Detroit 70 years ago in an auto plant, depends on appro­pri­at­ing the unpaid work/energy of the rest of nature. Cap­i­tal­ism is, above all, a mag­nif­i­cent and destruc­tive sys­tem of  “the appro­pri­a­tion of women, nature and colonies,” to use Maria Mies’ great phrase.

The prob­lem of cap­i­tal­ism today is that the oppor­tu­ni­ties of appro­pri­at­ing work for free – from forests, oceans, cli­mate, soils and human beings – are dra­mat­i­cal­ly con­tract­ing. Mean­while, the mass of cap­i­tal float­ing around the world look­ing for some­thing to invest in is get­ting big­ger and big­ger. The view of cap­i­tal­ism in this book speaks to some­thing that is dynam­ic about the present sit­u­a­tion and will feed into an increas­ing­ly unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion in the next decade or two. We have this huge mass of cap­i­tal look­ing to be invest­ed and a mas­sive con­trac­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ties to get work for free. This means that cap­i­tal­ism has to start pay­ing its own costs of doing busi­ness, which means that oppor­tu­ni­ties for invest­ing cap­i­tal are shrink­ing. There’s all this mon­ey that nobody has any idea what to do with.

What hap­pened in the rad­i­cal cri­tique is two par­al­lel lines. One, the world is com­ing to an end, which is the plan­e­tary apoc­a­lypse view of John Bel­lamy Fos­ter. Then there’s the oth­er view of cap­i­tal­ism, that it has an under­con­sump­tion or an inequal­i­ty prob­lem. But each of these two argu­ments is incom­plete with­out the oth­er, and they need to be put togeth­er. And when you bring togeth­er the eco­log­i­cal into the the­o­ry of eco­nom­ic cri­sis or the analy­sis of social inequal­i­ty, the terms of under­stand­ing eco­nom­ic boom and bust and inequal­i­ty begin to change, and vice ver­sa. Part of that is that the core issues of social inequal­i­ty, along class, race, and gen­der lines, have every­thing to do with how cap­i­tal­ism works in the web of life.


KA: Let’s turn to the labor process, the cor­ner­stone of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion in clas­si­cal Marx­ist thought. You argue that Marx felt that it’s not just wage labor but the unpaid work and ener­gies of both humans, espe­cial­ly women, and extra-human natures that has been cen­tral to cap­i­tal­ism. And you also note that we live in a world where increas­ing­ly, we seem to pit wages and jobs against the cli­mate, which is a false dichoto­my. How do we begin to move away from this bina­ry you’re try­ing to break?

JWM: I went to the core of Marx­ist think­ing to tease out a new inter­pre­ta­tion that is con­sis­tent with how Marx thought about it. Val­ue is one of the most bor­ing things that any Marx­ist can talk about – to utter the words “the law of val­ue” cer­tain­ly makes my eyes glaze over. But all civ­i­liza­tions have a way of valu­ing life. That’s not unique to cap­i­tal­ism. What cap­i­tal­ism does is say that well, labor pro­duc­tiv­i­ty with­in the cash nexus is what counts and then we’ll deval­ue the work of women, nature, and colonies. This turns inside-out the usu­al Marx­ist argu­ment. There is a kind of law of val­ue in cap­i­tal­ism that is a law of “cheap nature” or a law of devalu­ing the work of humans along with the rest of nature in order.

I grew up in the Pacif­ic North­west while this kind of pol­i­tics was unfold­ing. On one side you had con­ser­va­tion­ists who, right­ly so, want­ed to pro­tect old-growth forests. And on the oth­er side, you had the bour­geoisie but also labor unions which said, well, we need jobs.

This is chang­ing. It’s becom­ing clear, even for many big busi­ness­es, that cli­mate change is going to fun­da­men­tal­ly alter the con­di­tions of mak­ing a prof­it. We can see this around food. The mod­ern world is built on cheap food, which you can get if you have a very reg­u­lar cli­mate, lots of soil, cheap labor – then you can grow calo­ries for rel­a­tive­ly cheap. But we see the food sov­er­eign­ty move­ment emerg­ing which says there aren’t any jobs any­way, and there’s no way to get nature to work for free any more than it already is, because now we’re see­ing all the bills com­ing due of treat­ing the glob­al atmos­phere as a dump­ing ground for pol­lu­tion.

We also see the sit­u­a­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, for instance, where the drought has become so severe—the worst in 1200 years, we’re told—that the cen­ter of North Amer­i­can cash crop agri­cul­ture might just dis­ap­pear over the next few decades. So in a lot of ways, the accel­er­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal change is mak­ing that “jobs vs. envi­ron­ment” dis­course obso­lete.

KA: You talk a great deal about capitalism’s modus operan­di being the appro­pri­a­tion of social­ly nec­es­sary unpaid work, and Green and Red thought has gen­er­al­ly tend­ed to ignore that. What are some exam­ples?

JWM: The first thing we need to be aware of is that the most pow­er­ful orga­niz­ing myth of Green thought and envi­ron­men­tal activism over the past four decades has been the Indus­tri­al Revolution—this is the argu­ment of the “Anthro­pocene” today, which says that every­thing bad about envi­ron­men­tal change goes back to Eng­land around 1800 with the steam engine and coal. That’s not real­ly true, but that idea is ingrained in how we learn about the mod­ern world and espe­cial­ly how we think about envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis.

In fact, the rise of cap­i­tal­ism can be seen most clear­ly in the 15th, 16th and 17th cen­turies in the ways that land­scapes and humans on those land­scapes were trans­formed. There was a rev­o­lu­tion in envi­ron­ment-mak­ing that was unprece­dent­ed in scale, speed, and scope between 1450 and 1750.

The most dra­mat­ic expres­sion of this was the con­quest of the Amer­i­c­as, which was far more than mere­ly mil­i­tary con­quest and geno­cide, although that was a big part of it. The New World became a prov­ing ground for indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism in every sense. The ori­gins can be seen in sug­ar plan­ta­tions. A close sec­ond was sil­ver min­ing in Poto­si, in Bolivia today, in Spain, Mex­i­co today. There were very large pro­duc­tion oper­a­tions, lots of machin­ery, mon­ey flow­ing in, work­ers who were reg­i­ment­ed by time and by task – and it was all premised on appro­pri­at­ing the work of nature for free or very low cost and turn­ing it into some­thing that could be bought and sold.

That destroyed soils and the moun­tain­ous zones of the Andes, for instance, which were com­plete­ly denud­ed of trees, caus­ing ter­ri­ble soil ero­sion. But it was also dev­as­tat­ing for the humans involved. In the viceroy­al­ty of Peru in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, the Castil­ians, the Spaniards, for exam­ple, had a spe­cial word for indige­nous peo­ple which was “nat­u­rales.” These work­ers and indige­nous peo­ple were con­sid­ered part of nature.

The same sort of dia­logue went on around African slav­ery. The African slave trade was a con­joined real­i­ty with the sug­ar plan­ta­tions, which tells us some­thing impor­tant – not only were New World soils appro­pri­at­ed and exhaust­ed and forests cleared, but also African slaves were treat­ed not as humans or part of soci­ety, but as part of nature. The work of Africans was appro­pri­at­ed, and the work of soils and forests was appro­pri­at­ed. It was on this basis that a new rela­tion­ship with nature start­ed to emerge, and it had to do with the econ­o­my.

Every time new empires went out, the Por­tuguese to the New World and the Indi­an Ocean, the Dutch, the Spaniards, the first thing they did was start to col­lect all the natures they could find, includ­ing the humans, and to code them and ratio­nal­ize them. Final­ly there were extra­or­di­nary process­es of mobi­liz­ing unpaid work in ser­vice of com­mod­i­ty pro­duc­tion and exchange. The first thing any cap­i­tal­ist want­ed, or any colo­nial pow­er want­ed, was to put down a lit­tle bit of mon­ey, and get a lot of use­ful ener­gy back, in the form of sil­ver, sug­ar, and then lat­er tobac­co and then cot­ton with the advent of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. It was the same process that every act of tech­no­log­i­cal break­through – the steam engine or before that, inno­va­tions in ship-build­ing – was premised on: get­ting new ways of nature to work for free or a low cost on a mass scale. It’s the same thing in the past cen­tu­ry with oil.

KA: What is your cri­tique of the Anthro­pocene and how do you feel it gloss­es over real his­tor­i­cal analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism?

JWM: We need to dis­tin­guish between two uses of the term. One is the Anthro­pocene as a cul­tur­al con­ver­sa­tion, the kind of con­ver­sa­tion with friends over din­ner or at the water­cool­er. In this sense the Anthro­pocene has the virtue of pos­ing an impor­tant ques­tion: how do humans fit with­in the web of life? But the Anthro­pocene can­not answer that ques­tion, because the very terms of the con­cept are dual­is­tic, as in the famous arti­cle “The Anthro­pocene: Are Humans Now Over­whelm­ing the Great Forces of Nature?” That isn’t a great ques­tion if you believe humans are a part of nature.

The Anthro­pocene argu­ment in its dom­i­nant form, on the oth­er hand, is an absurd his­tor­i­cal mod­el. It says more or less that every­thing starts in Eng­land in 1800 with steam engines and coal. There are all sorts of his­tor­i­cal prob­lems with that, which we talked about. Long before the steam engine, there was an order of mag­ni­tude increase in capitalism’s abil­i­ty to trans­form the envi­ron­ment, in terms of scale, speed and scope.

I’m very con­cerned that the Anthro­pocene plays this old bour­geois trick which says the prob­lems cre­at­ed by cap­i­tal­ists are the respon­si­bil­i­ty of all of human­i­ty. That is a deeply racist, Euro­cen­tric, and patri­ar­chal view that presents a series of very real prob­lems as the respon­si­bil­i­ty of human­i­ty as a whole. On a deep philo­soph­i­cal lev­el, we are all the same in the eyes of the Anthro­pocene. In a his­tor­i­cal sense, that is some of the worst con­cep­tu­al vio­lence you can impose. It would be like say­ing race doesn’t mat­ter in Amer­i­ca today – any­body who said that would be laughed off the stage. But part of get­ting away with the Anthro­pocene idea is the Nature/Society dual­ism.

KA: Is cap­i­tal­ism today, in the final analy­sis, in devel­op­men­tal cri­sis? What prog­nos­ti­ca­tion does this new his­tor­i­cal analy­sis give us?

JWM: Every­thing depends on how you think of cap­i­tal­ism. If you have a stan­dard def­i­n­i­tion of cap­i­tal­ism com­mit­ted to end­less eco­nom­ic growth and max­i­miz­ing prof­itabil­i­ty, you can say a lot of things about capitalism’s abil­i­ty to sur­vive. But if you say cap­i­tal­ism is depen­dent upon appro­pri­at­ing the unpaid work of humans and the rest of nature… then you start to have a dif­fer­ent view of lim­its.

The core ques­tion of polit­i­cal econ­o­my is: how do great booms of cap­i­tal­ist invest­ment and accu­mu­la­tion occur in the mod­ern world, and what are the lim­its to them?

Even if cli­mate change weren’t hap­pen­ing, these lim­its would be pro­found. Cap­i­tal­ists have always found their way out of cri­sis, some­thing rad­i­cals and con­ser­v­a­tives agree on. Both say the same thing because they are both nature-blind. Cap­i­tal­ism is above all a sys­tem of cheap nature, con­sist­ing of the four cheaps: labor pow­er, ener­gy, food, raw mate­ri­als. Cap­i­tal­ism restores the cheap­ness of those natures by find­ing new parts of nature that have not been com­mod­i­fied or brought into the cash nexus. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, that was South Asia and East Asia. Over the past 30 years, neolib­er­al­ism brought in Chi­na, India, the Sovi­et Union, and Brazil.

Then we have cli­mate change. That feeds back in a way that slows what­ev­er “cheap natures” are left. Cli­mate change is the largest sin­gle vec­tor of ris­ing costs of busi­ness as usu­al. It will under­mine the basis of capitalism’s whole rela­tion­ship with nature by rad­i­cal­ly under­min­ing the cheap nature strat­e­gy that it was based on.

KA: You men­tion that envi­ron­men­tal and social move­ments are slow­ly com­ing to the real­iza­tion that the Nature/Society bina­ry is false, pos­si­bly because of the real threats on both Nature and Soci­ety and cap­i­tal­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly with large-scale extrac­tive drilling projects that are encroach­ing on a Nature of which humans are a part.

JWM: I think some move­ments are see­ing Nature and Soci­ety as inex­tri­ca­bly linked. I think the next step is to move into the heart­land of ques­tions of race, gen­der, and inequal­i­ty to point out that these issues are inti­mate­ly about how Nature and Soci­ety get imag­ined in the mod­ern world. If you ask a sim­ple ques­tion, like why do some human lives mat­ter more than oth­er – so we think about Black Lives Mat­ter – or why do some geno­cides mat­ter more than oth­ers, you start to see that there are very pow­er­ful pre­sump­tions of Nature and Soci­ety that go in there.

I think move­ments around the tar sands or the Key­stone XL pipeline present the kind of social move­ment orga­niz­ing that fits very well with the argu­ments of this book. Move­ments for jus­tice can­not be pla­cat­ed any­more through a new dis­tri­b­u­tion of reward, in part because cap­i­tal­ism doesn’t have the sur­plus that it used to have. You see these con­ver­sa­tions espe­cial­ly around ener­gy, frack­ing, oil, and extrac­tive projects in Latin Amer­i­ca. And of course, in Latin Amer­i­ca, many indige­nous groups nev­er believed in this dual­ism to begin with. They were always ahead.

But there are still too many on the Left, espe­cial­ly in North Amer­i­ca, who view Nature as out there, as a vari­able, or a con­text, which will be a com­plete polit­i­cal dead end. We need to bring Nature into cap­i­tal­ism, and under­stand cap­i­tal­ism in Nature.

Authors of the article

is assistant professor of sociology at Binghamton University, and coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He writes frequently on the history of capitalism in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, from the long sixteenth century to the neoliberal era. Presently, he is completing Ecology and the rise of capitalism, an environmental history of the rise of capitalism, for the University of California Press.

is a freelance writer and a PhD candidate in developmental biology at the University of Chicago.