History of the World in Seven Cheap Things
* Book: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel. University of California Press, 2017
The call for a Reparation Ecology by Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel:
"Weighing the injustices of centuries of exploitation can resacralize human relations within the web of life. Redistributing care, land and work so that everyone has a chance to contribute to the improvement of their lives and to that of the ecology around them can undo the violence of abstraction that capitalism makes us perform every day. We term this vision “reparation ecology” and offer it as a way to see history as well as the future, a practice and a commitment to equality and reimagined relations for humans in the web of life." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/moore-patel-seven-cheap-things-capitalocene/)
1. From the publisher:
"Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives: these are the seven things that have made our world and will shape its future. In making these things cheap, modern commerce has transformed, governed, and devastated Earth. In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore present a new approach to analyzing today’s planetary emergencies. Bringing the latest ecological research together with histories of colonialism, indigenous struggles, slave revolts, and other rebellions and uprisings, Patel and Moore demonstrate that throughout history, crises have always prompted fresh strategies to make the world cheap and safe for capitalism. At a time of crisis in all seven cheap things, innovative and systemic thinking is urgently required. This book proposes a radical new way of understanding—and reclaiming—the planet in the turbulent twenty-first century." (https://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520293137)
2. From the intro by the authors, Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel:
"In our new book ... we show how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives. Every word in that sentence is difficult. Cheap is the opposite of a bargain — cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life that includes humans. “Things” become things through armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally, humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century billiard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life-making is messy, contentious and mutually sustaining. Our book introduces a way to think about the complex relationships between humans and the web of life that helps make sense of the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.
As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geological record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The chickens we eat today are very different from those consumed a century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post-World War II efforts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than 60 billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of Cheap Nature.
Already the most popular meat in the United States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh for human consumption by 2020. That will require a great deal of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor, paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work.
In the US poultry industry, 86 percent of workers who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury, and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for workers is a 15 percent decline in income for the ten years after injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production but central to their continued participation in the workforce. Think of this as Cheap Care.
The food produced by this industry ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy of Cheap Food.
Chickens themselves are relatively minor contributors to climate change — they have only one stomach each and don’t burp out methane like cows do — but they’re bred in large lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint. You can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap Energy.
There is some risk in the commercial sale of these processed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the soy feed for chickens is grown — mainly in China, Brazil and the United States — to small business loans, that risk is mitigated through public expense for private profit. This is one aspect of Cheap Money.
Finally, persistent and frequent acts of chauvinism against categories of human life — such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color and immigrants — have made each of these six cheap things possible. Fixing this ecology in place requires a final element — the rule of Cheap Lives." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/moore-patel-seven-cheap-things-capitalocene/)
(from the introduction)
How climate change spurred the end of feudalism
Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel:
"Civilizations don’t collapse because humans reproduce too fast and starve, as Robert Malthus warned in his Essay on the Principles of Population. Since 1970, the number of malnourished people has remained above 800 million, yet few talk of the end of civilization. Instead, great historical transitions occur because “business as usual” no longer works. The powerful have a way of sticking to time-honored strategies even when the reality is radically changing. So it was with feudal Europe. The Black Death was not simply a demographic catastrophe. It also tilted the balance of forces in European society.
Feudalism depended on a growing population, not only to produce food but also to reproduce lordly power. The aristocracy wanted a relatively high peasant population, to maintain its bargaining position: many peasants competing for land was better than many lords competing for peasants. But feudalism was a system born of an earlier climate. Historians call this the Medieval Warm Period — it was so balmy that vineyards reached Norway. That changed at the dawn of the fourteenth century. Climate may not be destiny, but if there is a historical lesson from climate history, it’s that ruling classes don’t survive climate transitions. Feudalism’s class-enforced monocultures crumbled in the face of the Little Ice Age: famine and disease quickly followed.
As a result, with the onset of the Black Death, webs of commerce and exchange didn’t just transmit disease — they became vectors of mass insurrection. Almost overnight, peasant revolts ceased being local affairs and became large-scale threats to the feudal order. After 1347 these uprisings were synchronized — they were system-wide responses to an epochal crisis, a fundamental breakdown in feudalism’s logic of power, production and nature.
The Black Death precipitated an unbearable strain on a system already stretched to the breaking point. Europe after the plague was a place of unrelenting class war, from the Baltics to Iberia, London to Florence. Peasant demands for tax relief and the restoration of customary rights were calls that feudalism’s rulers could not tolerate. If Europe’s crowns, banks and aristocracies could not suffer such demands, neither could they restore the status quo ante, despite their best efforts. Repressive legislation to keep labor cheap, through wage controls or outright re-enserfment, came in reaction to the Black Death. Among the earliest was England’s Ordinance and Statute of Labourers, enacted in the teeth of the plague’s first onslaught (1349–51). The equivalent today would be to respond to an Ebola epidemic by making unionization harder.
The labor effects of climate change were abundantly clear to Europe’s aristocrats, who exhausted themselves trying to keep business very much as usual. They failed almost entirely. Nowhere in western or central Europe was serfdom reestablished. Wages and living standards for peasants and urban workers improved substantially, enough to compensate for a decline in the overall size of the economy. Although this was a boon for most people, Europe’s 1 percent found their share of the economic surplus contracting. The old order was broken and could not be fixed.
Capitalism emerged from this broken state of affairs. Ruling classes tried not just to restore the surplus but to expand it. That was easier said than done, however. East Asia was wealthier, so although its rulers also experienced socio-ecological tribulations, they found ways to accommodate upheaval, deforestation and resource shortages in their own tributary terms. One solution that reinvented humans’ relation to the web of life was stumbled upon by the Iberian aristocracy — in Portugal and Castile above all. By the end of the fifteenth century, these kingdoms and their societies had made war through the Reconquista, the centuries-long conflict with Muslim powers on the peninsula, and were so deeply dependent on Italian financiers to fund their military campaigns that Portugal and Castile had in turn been remade by war and debt.
The mix of war debt and the promise of wealth through conquest spurred the earliest invasions of the Atlantic. The solution to war debt was more war, with the payoff being colonial profit on new, great frontiers. The modern world emerged from systematic attempts to fix crises at this frontier. What followed was an epochal transition: one that reinvented the surplus around a cocktail of banking, slaving, and killing." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/moore-patel-seven-cheap-things-capitalocene/)
On the perspective of World-Ecology
Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel:
"Our view of capitalism is part of a perspective that we call world-ecology. World-ecology has emerged in recent years as a way to think through human history in the web of life. Rather than begin with the separation of humans from the web of life, we ask questions about how humans — and human arrangements of power and violence, work and inequality — fit within nature. Capitalism is not just part of an ecology but is an ecology — a set of relationships integrating power, capital and nature. So when we write — and hyphenate — world-ecology, we draw on older traditions of “world-systems” to say that capitalism creates an ecology that expands over the planet through its frontiers, driven by forces of endless accumulation.
To say world-ecology is not, therefore, to invoke the “ecology of the world” but to suggest an analysis that shows how relations of power, production and reproduction work through the web of life. The idea of world-ecology allows us to see how the modern world’s violent and exploitative relationships are rooted in five centuries of capitalism and also how these unequal arrangements — even those that appear timeless and necessary today — are contingent and in the midst of unprecedented crisis. World-ecology, then, offers something more than a different view of capitalism, nature and possible futures. It offers a way of seeing how humans make environments and environments make humans through the long sweep of modern history.
This opens space for us to reconsider how the ways that we have been schooled to think of change — ecological, economic, and all the rest — are themselves implicated in today’s crises. That space is crucial if we are to understand the relationship between naming and acting on the world. Movements for social justice have long insisted on “naming the system” because the relationships among thought, language and emancipation are intimate and fundamental to power. World-ecology allows us to see how concepts we take for granted — like Nature and Society — are problems not just because they obscure actual life and history but because they emerged out of the violence of colonial and capitalist practice.
Modern concepts of Nature and Society were born in Europe in the sixteenth century. These master concepts were not only formed in close relation to the dispossession of peasants in the colonies and in Europe but also themselves used as instruments of dispossession and genocide. The Nature/Society split was fundamental to a new, modern cosmology in which space was flat, time was linear and nature was external. That we are usually unaware of this bloody history — one that includes the early-modern expulsions of most women, Indigenous Peoples and Africans from humanity — is testimony to modernity’s extraordinary capacity to make us forget.
World-ecology therefore commits not only to rethinking but to remembering. Too often we attribute capitalism’s devastation of life and environments to economic rapaciousness alone, when much of capitalism cannot be reduced to economics. Contrary to neoliberal claptrap, businesses and markets are ineffective at doing most of what makes capitalism run. Cultures, states and scientific complexes must work to keep humans obedient to norms of gender, race and class. New resource geographies need to be mapped and secured, mounting debts repaid, coin defended. World-ecology offers a way to recognize this, to remember — and see anew — the lives and labors of humans and other natures in the web of life." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/moore-patel-seven-cheap-things-capitalocene/)
A rather harsh marxist critique by Ian Iangus, well worth reading as a corrective: http://climateandcapitalism.com/2018/01/10/do-cheap-things-explain-capitalism/
"In his previous works, Moore insisted that capitalism depends on “Four Cheaps” — labor, food, energy and raw materials. Now, with no explanation for the change, the four have become seven: “We couldn’t do fewer,” they write. The cheap things are discussed in seven chapters, titled Cheap Nature, Cheap Money, Cheap Work, Cheap Care, Cheap Food, Cheap Energy, and Cheap Lives, that comprise most of the book. Each begins with an aspect of Columbus’s invasion, followed by a discussion of the particular “cheap thing” under consideration.
Throughout, Patel and Moore attempt to show that capitalists have always aimed to obtain the things they need “with as little compensation as possible… [at] as low a price as possible.” That’s certainly true, but it is hard to see why the truism that profit-seekers try to buy low and sell high should be considered a profound insight.
Most of the chapters are textbook examples of reification — treating social relationships as things, as objects to be bought and sold. Throughout A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, complex social-metabolic processes and relationships are reduced to things that capitalists use. Capital is just money. Energy is just fuel. Agriculture and farming are just food and calories. Nature is just raw materials and other inputs to production. The complex subject of social reproduction and the oppression of women in capitalist society is reduced to care. There is no dialectic here, only an unrelenting emphasis on cheapness, as if understanding capitalist development is simply a matter of determining whether the price is right.
That focus leads them onto quicksand in their discussion of labour, which is central to Marx’s analysis of the metabolic relationship between humans and the rest of nature. For Patel and Moore, in contrast, labour is just one of several kinds of work, “human and animal, botanical and geological.” In their view, “value is a specific crystallisation of the ‘original sources of all wealth’: human and extrahuman work.” This dissolves a powerful concept from political economy — human labour as a uniquely creative and destructive activity — into an engineering concept, the expenditure of energy. As Kamran Nayeri has pointed out, this sharply distinguishes Moore’s approach from Marx’s: “There is no way to reconcile the labour theory of value (or indeed any ‘theory of value’) and appropriated flows of work/energy because the former is about the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production and the latter obey the laws of physics.”
There is interesting material in all of the “cheap things” chapters, but the selection of topics often seems illogical and capricious. How, for example, can the authors justify devoting three pages to an 18th century painting of a wealthy couple, while saying nothing about most of capitalism’s wars and revolutions? In the end the book’s facts and anecdotes don’t add up to a coherent argument about the nature of capitalism.
The reason for that becomes clear in the chapter titled “Cheap Lives,” which includes this astonishing admission: “Technically, lives aren’t a cheap thing in the way that the others are — but it would have made for an infelicitous title to admit this earlier.” In other words, “seven cheap things” is an artificial schema, with topics and chapter titles selected to fit the book’s gimmicky title and cover."