Cheap Nature

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Benjamin Kunkel:

"Some of Moore’s terminological novelties name useful conceptual innovations. The first of these is a capitalist law of Cheap Nature, analogous to the quest for cheap labour. In a standard reading of Marx’s law of value, capital strives to get ever more commodity production from an hour’s labour while paying the labourer ever less for that hour as a share of its costs. Without dissenting from this, Moore sees the effort to boost labour productivity in the workplace as united with another imperative. Capital ‘must ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, Cheap Natures’ as inputs to commodity production. These belong to four basic categories: food, labour power itself, energy and raw materials. Staple foods must become cheaper because household expenditure on them accounts for much of the base cost of hiring workers. Labour power – considered here not as something expended on the job, but reproduced in the worker’s home – must become or remain cheap by foisting as much as possible of the burden of maintaining the labourer onto unwaged workers, especially, historically, their wives. (In a modest but central way, Moore’s book is a feminist work.) As for energy, improvements in the design of windmills, ships and watermills made propulsion by wind and water cheaper; the novelty of more recent centuries is that energy from fossil fuels first enabled motorised transport and drove industrial production, and then tended constantly to lower their costs. Finally, raw materials too must become cheaper, since the construction of a building or the manufacture of a metal device will be less expensive the more economically timber can be logged or ore mined.

Naturally, the ‘Four Cheaps’ can’t be expected invariably to fall in cost at the same time. If need be, one kind of cheapness can compensate for difficulties in obtaining another. Moore supplies an example from the 16th century, when rising agricultural wages in Western Europe and, consequently, more expensive food promoted the expansion of commodified agriculture to the Baltic, where grain could be grown for less. Indeed, the secular trend over recent centuries has been for labour power to become more expensive while the price of energy and raw materials has tended to fall. Ideally, however, the availability of any one of the Four Cheaps promotes that of the others, in a continuous campaign to open multiple new ‘commodity frontiers’: ‘The Dutch Republic was the 17th century’s “model capitalist nation”’ – in Marx’s phrase – ‘because it organised and led a world-ecological regime that delivered Cheap grain (from Poland), Cheap energy (from domestic peat), and Cheap timber (from Norway and the Baltic) to the northern Netherlands.’ To the degree that the Four Cheaps can be secured, both the efforts of labourers and the cruder components of the labour process can be more cheaply had. The productivity of an hour’s labour will therefore rise, and the opportunity for profit expand.

Altogether, according to the logic of Cheap Nature, ‘more and more extra-human nature attaches to every quantum of socially necessary labour-time,’ while the cost of securing this increasing biophysical throughput decreases as a proportion of capital’s total outlays. Capitalism’s ecological project, in other words, is to enlarge the quotient of ‘unpaid nature’, like that of unpaid labour, in the total value of saleable commodities. (It may sound strange to speak of unpaid nature when nature accepts no cash, but workers must be paid to deliver many of its so-called free goods, and rent is usually paid for access to resource-rich land.) The insight that commodity production will cost least where both work and materials cost least may appear obvious. But it’s not too obvious to have escaped most writers on Marx’s value theory, who typically concentrate on machines and other infrastructure (‘fixed capital’) in the means of production to the neglect of energy and raw materials (‘circulating capital’). As Moore points out, ‘circulating capital is the forgotten moment in Marx’s model.’ Later adherents of the labour theory of value perhaps felt abashed to admit the full import of non-human energy and raw materials, when these are obviously not products of human labour. But as Marx himself insisted, ‘labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values … as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature.’

Can capitalism come by Cheap Nature indefinitely? Moore identifies a counter-tendency, which he calls ‘the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall’. The ecological surplus refers to the contribution that the flood of non-human ‘work/energy’ into the economy makes to capital accumulation over and above the monetary cost of procuring it. The ecological surplus will fall whenever capital can’t maintain or boost the quotient of ‘unpaid nature’ in the sum of commodity values.

Moore lays out four reasons why this might – and, finally, must – take place across the system. First, the law of entropy stipulates that using compact and versatile energy-dense materials (say, precious metals or fossil fuels) yields less serviceable and energy-dense materials (cans in the recycling bin) if not outright waste (discarded batteries) and pollution (power plant emissions). Over the long run, transforming useful resources into useless waste rules out economic growth. (Moore denies that entropy ultimately threatens civilisation tout court, as opposed to ‘specific civilisational logics’, but he doesn’t say why, and how could he? One suspects a concession to the anti-Malthusian etiquette of socialists, according to which no ultimate limits to growth should be conceded lest final scarcity justify interim poverty. But the Second Law of Thermodynamics doomed civilisation on earth to a mortal career from the start; the only question – as with a human life – is how brief and blundering the career proves.)

A second and more immediate risk is that the capitalisation or money-cost of the Four Cheaps rises faster than their contribution to labour productivity, as might happen should increased demand for unfinished commodities like wood, copper or wheat – or co-operation among the countries that export them – drive up prices. A third hazard is that natural resources may, for technical reasons, become harder rather than easier to come by; after plucking the lowest-hanging fruit, capital will need to make and climb a ladder, as it were, to gather the remainder. (Petroleum production furnishes perhaps the most important example of declining ‘energy returned on energy invested’: a century ago, it took far less effort to extract a barrel of oil from the great Texas oilfields than it does now to get, through fracking, another barrel from what the first procedure left behind.)

Moore’s fourth and last barrier to a perpetually increasing ecological surplus – and ‘arguably the most cumulatively significant’ – is degradation of the biosphere through carbon emissions, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, chemical toxicity and so on. A sufficiently tattered web of life will yield ‘negative value’ rather than any positive plenty: no application of capital or labour, in any amount, will be able to produce anything but goods of generally inferior quality and quantity. Capitalism would then have finally destroyed the natural preconditions for continually rising labour productivity and endless capital accumulation, never mind the welfare of noncapitalist humans and other bystander organisms." (


  • the above is from a review of:

Jason W. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso 2015) [1]