Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology in the Department of Sociology, at Binghamton University. He is also the 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. His book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso, 2015) was published recently, and he also edited the book Anthropocene or Capitalocene? — Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2015). He's also the author of numerous essays, which can be found on his website.
Moore writes about capitalism as a world-ecology of power, capital and nature. He argues that we shouldn't merely chart the environmental “consequences” of globalisation, but rather illuminate the ways in which the core processes of globalisation are themselves socio-ecological projects. He argues that conventional ideas of Nature and Society are misleading when it comes to understanding the crises and politics of the 21st century. It is not just an analytical problem - Nature/Society dualism is a fundamental structure of modern thought, closely connected to a long history of violence, imperialism, and dispossession.
Moore's lecture in Zagreb was co-organized by the Institute for Political Ecology and Multimedia Institute. He talked about anthropocene, capitalocene, and the crisis of the 21st century. We talked with Moore about the dualism Nature/Society, capitalist use of nature as an external object, and about the reasons why the concept of Anthropocene poses significant problems to understanding capitalism’s crises –and formulating new radical politics.
You write about the way the crises of our time — of resources, climate, financial system – fit together. How do they fit together, and why is it important to see them that way?
The crisis of our time – financialization, the questions of income and wealth and inequality, climate change, droughts, ocean acidification and so on – we need to answer how all of those questions fit together, how they are connected.
The crisis of our time – financialization, the questions of income and wealth and inequality, climate change, droughts, ocean acidification and so on – we need to answer how all of those questions fit together, how they are connected. Otherwise, we end up seeing the problem in a deeply fragmented way, which is exactly how the ruling classes of our time want us to see it. We live in a world that is made by rationality, but a particular kind of rationality. It is a rationality of fragments, although it has the appearance of being holistic, because you can quantify, you can subject everything into an algorithm. We need to move beyond fragments and see how things are connected.
In relation to that, you write how all civilizations had frontiers of a sort, but capitalism was/is the frontier itself, so each wave of capitalism had depended on greater frontier movements.
The core argument in the Capitalism in the web of life, in terms of how capitalism works, is that it is a frontier system. You find resources, you find humans, you find agricultural fields where you can grow things cheaply and grow a lot, so you can basically put all of nature to work for free or at a very low cost. That's what the frontier gives capitalism, it gives it the extraordinary input of cheap nature. That cheap nature also includes the unpaid or the largely unpaid work of human beings, we have to understand that. For example, African slaves were not considered a part of humanity, they were considered a part of nature and treated accordingly. Most women, most indigenous people, were not considered a part of humanity, but a part of cheap nature. We need to think about the way capitalism works, how it has managed to survive and thrive over the last couple of centuries, and what is different today.
If we boil it down to the simplest argument it is this – capitalism has no more frontiers, not only that, but the way that capitalism has transformed planetary life is now creating forms of nature that cannot be resloved within capitalist techonology and its productive forms. These forms of nature are climate change, which cannot be resloved within the capitalist framework, and the emergence of new diseases, bacteria and superweeds –we have no ways of solving those issues anymore. We are facing the end of antiobiotic effectiveness, or the coming of the end of antibiotic effectiveness, all of that with the emergence of diseases that cannot be disciplined in the old way. That is horrifying for those of us who have to live in this era.
What I am trying to say is – yes, this is a dangerous time to live in, but it is also a profound danger to capital. Capitalism as a system is much more vulnerable than most of us think it is. Most of us are still more ready to admit that life on this planet could end, than that capitalism could end.
The premise of your book Capitalism in the web of life is that we need to break down the Nature/Society dualism that has prevailed in our modern thought. Why is that dualism still present and why is it artificial?
The first thing I need to say is that the job of the radical is to understand the specificities of how humans fit into the web of life. This is not an argument against seeing what is specific about humans – but understanding humans seperate from nature means that we miss most of what makes us distinctive.
The modern world is built on separation. We see this very curious development in the beginning of capitalism, in the era of Columbus, and two centuries after. That is when we see the emergence of nature and society, sometimes called civility, barbarism or savagery – there were a lot of different words used, but the sensibility was always the same – that there was a line between who is a part of humanity, who is a part of society, and who is a part of nature.
That seperation is entirely fanciful, it doesn't have a grounding in reality, if we look around us it is obvious that we are all a part of the web of life. Still, that separation had extraordinary power because the powerful empires, states and capitalists, had treated it as if it were real. That separation qucikly led to many other dualisms, other separations – man vs. woman, west vs. rest, town vs. country, rational vs. emotinal, etc.
How do we move away from those ways of thinking?
We have a way of thinking that we have inherited from the early modern centuries, the way of seeing and understanding the world and life which is deeply based on fragmentation. That is going to be a powerful barrier to humans in facing the issues of climate change, mass extinction, inequality, etc. We need to have a rationality of the whole, not the rationality of fragments. At its best, that is what many environmentalist have been arguing for for a long time, and that's also what Marx was arguing. I think one of Marx's most powerful ideas was to understand that humans in making themsleves and in making relations with other humans are always making natures and being made by the web of life.
We are going to have to make hard moral, philosphical, ethical decisions about life and life making, but we cannot begin by saying that what counts is human life and the rest of life is not important. We have to see that we are all one.
Capitalism not only produces change in the web of life, it is also produced by it. That's central to our politics because politics of emancipation that can deal with questions like climate change is politics that refuses to draw lines between the well-being of all life. We are going to have to make hard moral, philosophical, ethical decisions about life and life making, but we cannot begin by saying that what counts is human life and the rest of life is not important. We have to see that we are all one. That doesn't mean there are no differences, it implies a different way of seeing differences - within a unity.
You argue how the problem today is the end of Capitalocene, not the march of Anthropocene, that the reality is not one of humanity overwhelming the forces of nature, but capitalism exhausting its „cheap nature“ strategy. Do you think the focus on Anthropocene was also a way of avoiding a deeper conversation about capitalism, a way of still trying to find peace with capitalism?
The problem with Anthropocene is that it literally means "the age of men". The Anthropocene as a concept was developed by Eugene F. Stoermer and Paul J. Crutzen to deal with questions of geological history, and that part of Anthropocene is an important and useful argument. There is an other version of the Anthropocene, that has been endorsed by The Economist and by the editorial borad of The New York Times. That's the Anthropocene that says – we are all in it together, the problem of capitalism is the responsibility of all humans. To that I would say yes and no – it is the responsibility of humans to transform from that system into something just and sustainable, but we didn't all do this.
We need to understand how the concepts, the words that we use to talk about the world, matter. Radicals have for a long time said two things; name the system of power - racism, sexism, imperialism, capitalism - and we have comitted ourselves to speaking truth to power. For the powerful, Anthropocene is the most comfortable concept.
If we want to understand the origins of our problems today, if we want to start with the politics of revolutionary transformation, we need to understand that we don't live in the Anthropocene, the age of men, we live in the Capitalocene, the age of capital.
If we want to understand the origins of our problems today, if we want to start with the politics of revolutionary transformation, we need to understand that we don't live in the Anthropocene, the age of men, we live in the Capitalocene, the age of capital. The age of capital is what brought us to where we are now. When I say Capitalocene, that doesn't mean capitalism only as an economic system, it means capitalism as a way of organising nature, a way of organising thought. We have to go beyond the narrow vision of capitalism as economy, it is about power, nature, techonology and all the rest of it.
Breaking the Nature/Society dualism is extremely important in changing the way we live, as you have already mentioned. You write how nature as external object became an organizing principle for a civilization, that being the essential moment in the rise of capitalism. How did that come to be and why is the view of nature as an external object so essential for capitalism?
It is important that we understand what capitalism values and what it doesn't value. All civilizations made decisions about what they value, whose work and life they value, and what they don't value. The origins of capitalism are found in the era of Columbus. What we see during that period is something that we have never seen before – animals and the rest of nature in medevial Europe were seen as the heart of human and natural order, they were seen as helpers to humans. With the coming of capitalism animals became machines, objects, and it was not just animals, it was all of nature who were pushed out and put to work at free or low cost.
What counts as valubale in the modern world is how you produce more and more wheat, iron, rubber or laptops, with less and less labour. That is an extraordinary achievement of capitalism, we shouldn't minimize it. However, we need to understand that we think about labour productivity wrongly, if it is not seen in its entirety. In the golden age of capitalism, after the Second World War, the factory worker was paid, but underpinning his work was the unpaid work of a housewife, and mostly all women making the work of factory workers possible. There was this dynamic relationship in which only one part of the work was valued and the other wasn't.
Capitalism has a strange value system, there's value in the economical sense but also in whose work and whose lives are worthy of respect and diginity. The modern world has a clear answer to that – you only get respect if you work for wages, and even then there is a big chunk of working for wages that is invisible and not appreciated – like the work of immigrant, or domains of agricultural work and most of the work done by women.
It is very important that we talk about whose work is made invisible, and how race and gender play into that. That is the work that is moved out of the account books, so when we talk about economy we don't even pay attention to those questions. Those questions are so important, essential in seeing capitalism the way it is – as islands of markets that operate in an ocean of cheap and potentially cheap nature.
In opposition to the Nature/Society binary and capitalist thought in general, you pose a new synthesis, the oikos. What is oikos and where does it take us?
The oikos is a nelogism, a new word to unsettle our thinking and help us understand something very simple for which we don't have a word. We always talk about nature and society, humans and the environment, but we don't have a word that expresses the pulse of life making, the pulse of creating new environments that also make us as humans.
In most of the Western languages there isn't a word to describe that we are constantly, at every turn, making new environments, and that those environments also make us. It is interesting that in many languages outside the West, and among many indigenous people, there is a word to describe that. Capitalism and European rationality removed those relations from our minds, and they have also disappeared from our languages. Oikos is a word I propose to talk about those multilayered relations, the web of life we live in. Up until now we have been captive of the invisible thought structures that have imprisoned us, but I feel the bars are opening.
Crisis are dangerous, but they are also an opportunity. What are your thoughs about what comes next, are you optimistic?
I don't think capitalism has ever been all that great, so I am not so sad to see it ending. What comes next could be much better, it could also be much worse. What is important is that we are seeing the end of thought that has served capitalism so well, which is Cartesian dualism. The old dualism that thought us strict separation between humans and everything else, the dualism that was a powerful and practical tool in terms of colonial and imperial policy, is now breaking down all around us. Even the Anthropocene argument developed out of a crisis of the so-called sciences of man and sciences of nature.
We even see right-wing think thanks, like the Breakthrough Institute, endorsing some forms of post-Cartesian critique, but in the most reactionary way. We have movements like food sovereignity and food justice, which argue the right to food as bilogical necessity, cultural expression and as a right of members of an egalitarian, democratic system. Those arguments are inseperable one from each other, you cannot satisfy just one in order to achieve food justice.
That kind of political perspective is breaking out all over the world, we're seeing it in the movements for climate justice, right to the city movements, etc. It is especially embraced by younger people, overwhelmingly under thirty, while many of the intellectuals and activists of my generation still want to pretend that the world unfolds in two boxes – nature in one, society in the other.
As you have mentioned, all around the world we see movements that are that are beginning to realize that the dualism Nature/Society is false. Could we then say that this crisis is more of an opportunity?
We need to demand a way of knowing the world that is appropriate to these times, that can inform us instead of stopping us in buliding a vision, in developing politics of emancipation that respect all life.
It is always one part danger, one part opportunity. We have a moment where conditions of stability for capitalism as a whole are weaker than they have ever been, capitalism won't be able to fix its crisis through new forms of productive growth. The frontiers are exhausted, and there are new challenges, like climate change, diseases, superweeds, that cannot be fixed with the old methods. Capitalism is creative, but it has its limits – it is not infinitely flexible, as many would still like to believe.
If there is a way to transform our way of thinking, our economical system, what we value, then I am extremely optimistic. But that means something very simple – we must change it. What I feel very deeply is another thing, and that is that we are living through Sixth mass extinction, which is a polite way to put it. We are living in times of intensification of mass extermination and in a powerful system of intragenerational mass murder, which makes me very uncomfortable because I have a six-year-old son.
I think people feel this, I think younger people feel it, even if they can't put it into words. That means we need to engage right now, not merely in protest, civil disobedience, but also in intellectual disobedience, to confront the gatekeepers, the priests of the old rationality and dualisms. We need to demand a way of knowing the world that is appropriate to these times, that can inform us instead of stopping us in buliding a vision, in developing politics of emancipation that respect all life.