Capitalism, and its problem with the World-Ecological Surplus

McKenzie Wark on Jason W. Moore‘s concept:

“There’s a role then for what Moore calls the world-ecological surplus. He sketches an interesting view of the crisis of capital as related to the energy returned on capital invested. Expansions of labor productivity required expansions of ecological surplus appropriated from frontier territories. Moore also gestures to this being an entropy problem, but he does not linger over the possibilities of working jointly on how this might be modeled with approaches from the earth sciences. One could indeed think commodification as an ordering that can only happen in an open system, where its order appears at the turbulent site where flows meet, but where waste heat and disorder always has to be expelled somewhere. One could then think commodification’s problem as running out of open space within its own circuits.

In Moore’s language this problem appears thus: “it is not just the reproduction of labor-power that has become capitalized; it is also the reproduction of extra-human natures. Flows of nutrients, flows of humans, and flows of capital make a historical totality, in which each flow implies the other.” (99) Only maybe that totality is not quite historical in the way history as a humanities discipline, or Marxism as re-read as only a humanistic mode of thought, might think ‘history’.

It is interesting that it is at this point that Moore gets caught up in the dualisms he earlier tried to forswear: “For in capitalism, the crucial divide is not between Humanity and Nature – it is between capitalization and the web of life.” (100) What’s missing here is the earth system perspective, which isn’t about a metaphoric couplet at all, regardless of what one makes the two terms. It’s a worldview that is at base chemical. One need not think a dialectic of capital and life; one can think instead of an earth system as a chemical-metabolic process of which both life and capital are now components, each operating on its own very different temporalities.

Still, I have to acknowledge that while I think these things through a different worldview, Moore’s worldview nevertheless yields powerful insights. In his dialectical view, capital’s externalization of costs is at the same time also an internalization of space. That’s a good way to make sense of what happened to the atmosphere. It’s a formerly external space internalized within capital itself. What we’re not looking at closely then however is the physics of why that’s a bad idea.

“The history of capitalism is the history of revolutionizing nature.” Even before things came to this impasse, capital has had a never-ending struggle on its hands. “Over time, the Four Cheaps cease being Cheap.” Capital tries over and over to create nature in its own image, quantifiable and interchangeable. Maize is a great example, being no longer just a food but an input into everything, from fuel to plastics. But at some point one has to think not so much the problem of peak oil (or the lesser known problem of peak phosphorous). One has to think peak appropriation.

This I think is one of Moore’s really strong insights. This is not a peak in output, but a peak in the gap between capital set in motion to make a commodity and the work and energy embodied in that commodity. For any given forces of production, cheap nature comes to an end. Capital recognizes scarcity only through price, and price does not really cover the long run. The biosphere is finite; capital is not. Nature is “maxed out” rather than wiped out.

Over time, the value of inputs starts to rise, the rate of accumulation slows, and capital has to find new ways to reconfigure the oikeois and restore cheap inputs “The rise and fall of the ecological surplus therefore shapes the cyclical and cumulative development of capitalism.”

2. The role of the surplus in World-Ecological Regimes:

“McKenzie Wark on Jason W. Moore’s concept:

“The concept Moore offers for thinking this is the world-ecological regime. Moore: “capitalism does not have an ecological regime; it is an ecological regime.” (158) This is a version of David Harvey’s spatial fix theory from Limits to Capital, combined with Arrighi on how Dutch, British and American capitalist formations are organizational revolutions of territorial power (and one might add, information). “Each long wave of accumulation was made possible by organizational revolutions that gave the new hegemonic power ‘unprecedented command over the world’s human and natural resources.’” (160)

Each world-ecological regime is undermined not just by anti-systemic movements and competition from rivals, but rather these have to be seen as always and already social-ecological contests. Thus Arrighi was dealing only in partial totalities. Moore mentions in passing Harvey’s point that financial expansion was often connected to accumulation by dispossession, which in Moore’s terms is the appropriation of cheap natures. Here cheap information appears once again as a category that could do with some more thought. Capital has to know something about what it is going to dispossess.

The strength of Moore’s perspective is to think the oikieos as historically specific dialectical relations of social forms and natural terrains, each internalizing the other. Then to think a more specific series of historical formations, the world-ecological regimes, through which the commodity form sustains and expands itself through the appropriation of cheap natures. This produces both under-production constraints specific to the exhaustion of particular resources and moments of peak appropriation, as well as the more familiar over-production crises in which capital accumulation fails as the value composition of capital rises. Moore is particularly interesting on the complex role of cheap nature in attempts to lower the value composition of capital.

Any particular worldview comes with certain affordances. In Moore, I think it’s the way capital functions, as in Lukacs, as the bad totality, a failed metaphorical doubling of the world. But if it is to be a totality, Moore has to insist that there’s only the historically determined viewpoint from within. Strangely, despite a passing reference to anti-systemic movements, the point of view of Moore’s thinking is always that of capital itself. We do not proceed here from the labor point of view. Certainly the labor of producing verifiable knowledge about the nonhuman world gets very short-shrift. Certain data from the earth sciences enters – has to enter – any social thought today, and to Moore’s credit he is one of the few who clearly knows this. But for him this can only be interpreted from within the point of view of capital itself.”

1 Comment Capitalism, and its problem with the World-Ecological Surplus

  1. Jason W. Moore

    Fantastic to see this conversation piece. May I add that Wark’s comment, quoted at the end, is imprecise: Of course, there are many possible optics from which to understand the problem of humanity-in-nature, and that capital is merely one possible vantage point, in my view. Many situated knowledges will be necessary to transcend the present, disastrous state of affairs in the world!

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