Jason Moore on the Exhaustion of Cheap Natures and the Crisis of Capitalism

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Jason Moore:

"How does capitalism work through the web of life? How can we begin to understand capitalism not simply as an economic system of markets and production and a social system of class and culture, but as a way of organising nature? I’ve argued that this is a co-produced relation, that capitalism makes nature and the web of life makes capitalism. But how do we come to terms with planetary ‘state shifts’ like climate change – dramatic, abrupt, and irreversible moments of planetary change?[1] That is, how do we understand the tendency towards both planetary crisis and accumulation crisis as two moments of a self-forming whole. We have an immediate problem because the way of thinking about these questions in the modern world, after five centuries of colonialism and scientific revolution and everything else, puts society in one box and nature in another. They interact – sort of – but they are very much in different spheres. The answer to these fundamental questions has to begin by acknowledging that the planetary state shift recognised by earth system scientists requires an intellectual and political state shift: a radical shift in how we think about the relations between humans and the rest of nature.

Crucial to my thinking has been a family of ideas that seek to show how capitalism, from its early modern origins, has been not only a mighty producer of changes in the web of life, but also a product of that web of life, and of the totality of transformations between what is usually called society and nature. This means that modernity never masters or possesses nature. Capital not only never subsumes nature, but it has few effective mechanisms for managing its own nature in any given era. The web of life is unruly, rebellious, and has a way of continually upsetting the best laid plans of states, of capitalists, of scientists and engineers.

This is important because the new liberal craze for turning over global natures, including human natures, to market-oriented management represents an important break in the history of capitalism. Longstanding patterns of state and imperial governance of nature have produced a set of conditions of production which I call Cheap Nature. The Four Cheaps – labour power, food, energy and raw materials – are necessary to launch and sustain great bursts of capital accumulation. Today, capital is seeking profitable investment opportunities in a world in which there are really no more significant frontiers of Cheap Nature. These are not significant enough, in my view, to relaunch another golden age of capitalism.

The exhaustion of the Cheap Nature model is happening at a time when, thanks to climate change, the very mechanisms of cheapening labour, food, energy and raw materials are not only breaking down – they are reversing themselves. The reversal will be, like planetary state shifts, dramatic, irreversible – and non-linear. This is most evident in the relationship between climate change and the agricultural model of historical capitalism – the Cheap Food model – based on producing more and more calories with less and less labour time. It’s a model that’s breaking down because we have reached the moment where the enclosure of the atmospheric commons is now supressing yield growth in the world’s four big cereal crops – and because terrestrial enclosures of every kind are now being challenged by agrarian and food justice movements of every kind.

How do we reconcile the dynamics of planetary crisis and world accumulation? The essence of capital in the modern world is that it produces more capital than it can reinvest profitably. This is the surplus capital problem. What’s been missed in Marxist political economy is the centrality of Cheap Nature. The truly epoch-making expansions of the modern world have turned on much more than new machines, new markets, and new economic organisations; they been able to soak up surplus capital because new domains of Cheap Nature have been opened up by states and empires." (http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/world-accumulation-planetary-life-capitalism-will-not-survive-last-tree-cut/)