The Transformative Value Of Food A Review Essay

by Jonathan Latham, PhD

In 1381, for the first and only time, the dreaded Tower of London was captured from the King of England. The forces that seized it did not belong to a foreign power; nor were they rebellious workers – they were peasants who went on to behead the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury who were, after the king, the country’s leading figures. A tad more recently, in the U.S. presidential election of 1892 a radical populist movement campaigned for wealth redistribution and profound economic reform. The populists won five states. All of them were rural.

Descent from such rebels is typically claimed by unions and groups on the political left; but, over the long run of history, the most effective opponents of excessive wealth and privilege have not normally been city dwellers, workers or unions. Instead, they have usually been those with close links to food and the land, what we would now identify as the food movement.

Even today, in more than a few countries, food is the organising principle behind the main challengers of existing power structures. In El Salvador, the National Coordinator of its Organic Agriculture Movement is Miguel Ramirez who recently explained:

We say that every square meter of land that is worked with agro-ecology is a liberated square meter. We see it as a tool to transform farmers’ social and economic conditions. We see it as a tool of liberation from the unsustainable capitalist agricultural model that oppresses farmers.

The Salvadoran Organic Agriculture Movement wants much more than improved farming. It is seeking enhanced political rights, long term ecological sustainability, social equity, and popular health. Ramirez calls it “this titanic but beautiful struggle, to reclaim the lives of all Salvadorans“.

They may be small farmers, but they have a grand ambition that is even shared worldwide. But, how realistic is it? Could the food movement be the missing vehicle for transformative social change?

The question is timely. Not long ago, the New York Times asserted that the centre aisles of US supermarkets are being called “the morgue” because sales of junk food are crashing; meanwhile, an international consultant told Bloomberg magazine that “there’s complete paranoia“, at major food companies where the food movement is being taken very seriously.

The context of that paranoia is that food movements are rapidly growing social and political phenomena almost all over the world. In the US alone, there have been surges of interest in heirloom seeds, in craft beers, in traditional bread and baking, in the demand for city garden plots, in organic food, and in opposition to GMOs. Simultaneously, there has been a massive growth of interest in food on social media and the initiation or renewal of institutions such as SlowFood USA and the Grange movement, to name just a few.

Even at the normally much quieter farming end of the food value chain, agribusiness has had to resort to buying up “independent” academics and social media supporters to boost the case for GMOs and pesticides.

So whereas not so very long ago food, and even more so agriculture, were painfully unfashionable subjects, all of a sudden, individuals all over the globe have developed an often passionate interest in the products and processes of the food system.

If food regime change is in the air, the questions are: Why? Why now? And the big one: How far will it go?

The direction of the food movement

The answer to these questions comes into focus if we analyse the food movement from the perspective of five different “puzzle pieces”. If we do that we can see that there are profound reasons why the food movement is succeeding and growing.

This analysis suggests that the food movement, compared to other great social movements of the 20th Century (such as the labour, environment, civil rights, climate and feminist movements), has many of their strengths but not their weaknesses.

Further, the food movement is unexpectedly radical on account of having a distinct philosophy. This philosophy is fundamentally unique in human history and is the underlying explanation for the explosion of the food movement.

Like any significant novel philosophy, that of the food movement challenges the dominant thought patterns of its day and threatens the political and economic structures built on them. Specifically, the food movement’s philosophy exposes longstanding weaknesses in the ideas underpinning Western political establishments. In the simplest terms possible, the opposite of neoliberal ideology is not communism or socialism, it is the food movement.

The reason is that, unlike other systems of thought, food movement philosophy is based on a biological understanding of the world. While neoliberalism and socialism are ideologies, the food movement is concerned with erasing (at least so far as is possible) all ideologies because all ideologies are, at bottom, impediments to an accurate understanding of the world and the universe.

By replacing them with an understanding based on pure biology, the food movement is therefore in a position to supply what our society lacks: mechanisms to align human needs with the needs of ecosystems and habitats.

The philosophy of the food movement even goes further, by recognising that our planetary problems and our social problems are really the same problem. The food movement therefore represents the beginnings of a historic ecological and social shift that will transform our relationships with each other and with the natural world.

1) The food movement is a leaderless movement

The first important piece of the food puzzle is to note that the food movement has no formal leaders. Its most famous members are individuals. Frances Moore Lappé, Joel Salatin, José Bové, Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Jamie Oliver, and many others, are leaders only in the sense of being thought-leaders. Unlike most leaders, including of the environment movement, or the labour movement, or the climate movement, they have all attained visibility through popular acclaim and respect for their personal deeds, their writings, or their insights. Not one of them leads in any of the conventional senses of setting goals, giving orders, deciding tactics, or standing for high office. They are neither bureaucrats nor power-brokers, but leaders in the Confucian sense of being examples and inspirations. It is a remarkable and unprecedented characteristic that the food movement is a social movement that is organic and anarchic. This not to argue it is unstructured, far from it. Rather, the food movement is self-organised. It is a food swarm and absence of formal leadership is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

2) The food movement is a grassroots movement

A second and complementary piece of the puzzle is that the food movement is far more inclusive than other social movements. It is composed of the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, of amateurs and experts, of home cooks and celebrity chefs, farmers and gardeners, parents and writers, the employed and the unemployed. Essentially anyone, in any walk of life, can contribute, learn or benefit. Most do all three. Importantly too, just about any skill level or contribution can often be accommodated. To take just one example, in how many other social movements can a 14-year-old make an international splash?

This inclusiveness has various aspects that contribute significantly to its success. The first of these is that, unlike many protests, there is no upper limit to membership of the food movement. It is not defined in opposition to anything – it would include the whole world if it could – and so there is no essential sense in which it is exclusive. Exclusivity is often the Achilles heel of social movements, but though its opponents have tried to label it as elitist, for good reasons they have not succeeded. Granted, Prince Charles is a very enthusiastic member, but so too are rappers from Oakland, the landless peasant movement of Brazil, the instigators of the Mexican soda tax and the urban agriculture movements of Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland. Such groups are neither elite nor elitist. A better analysis would conclude that anyone can find space under its broad umbrella because the food movement does not discriminate on any grounds, least of all class. It is beyond grassroots. People see what they want in it because it is for everyone.

The second aspect of its inclusivity is that the food movement has barriers to entry that are low or non-existent. This is an important reason it has grown rapidly. These porous boundaries make the food movement unusually hard to define, however, leading some people to mistakenly conclude it is non-existent.

3) The food movement is international

A third unconventional attribute of the food movement is to be international and multilingual. In each locality it assumes different forms. The Campaign for Real Ale, Via Campesina, the Zapatistas, Slow Food and Europe’s anti-GMO movement are very different, but instead of competing or quarreling, there are remarkable overlaps of purpose and vision between the parts. This was on show at last winter’s British Oxford Real Farming Conference where food producers and good food advocates from all over the world shared stages and perspectives and the effect was to complement and inspire each other.

4) The food movement is low-budget

The fourth distinguishing characteristic of the food movement is that it has little money behind it. It might seem natural for “social movements” to be unfunded but it is in fact very rare. The climate movement has Tom Steyer, the Tea Party has the Koch brothers, Adolf Hitler’s car, chauffeur, private secretary, and of course his blackshirts, were funded by Fritz Thyssen, Henry Ford, and some of the wealthiest people in Germany. Even the labour and environment movements have dues or wealthy backers. The food movement therefore is highly unusual in owing little to philanthropic foundations or billionaire backers. Instead, it consists overwhelmingly of amateurs, individuals and small groups and whatever money they possess has followed and not led them. This is yet another powerful indication that the food movement is spontaneous, vigorous and internally driven.

5) A movement of many values

Most social movements are organised around core values: civil rights, social equality or respect for nature are common ones. What is unique about the food movement is that it has multiple values. They include human health concerns, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability, ecological sustainability, food justice and political empowerment, but even this list does not adequately capture the range of its concerns. It is a movement with many component parts.

Explaining the philosophy and synergy of the food movement

For an emergent social movement to have such unique and seemingly unconnected properties suggests the possibility of a deep explanation, and in fact there is one: the food movement embodies a profound philosophical shift.

The narrative dominating international food policy, especially post-1945, has been that food is a commodity (when it is not a weapon) and agriculture is a business. According to this narrative, neither have much to do with the environment or your health. This economic and depleted conceptualisation of food is an ideological extension of the current dominant Western philosophy, which is that of the European enlightenment. The chief character of this philosophy is to be atomistic and mechanistic, meaning that in the formal and official worlds of business, government, the law, education, etc., phenomena are presumed unconnected until proven otherwise, which usually means proven by science.

The evidence for this mindset is ubiquitous. The separation of government ministries: Health from Agriculture and both being distinct from Environment. The reduction of food to the status of an industrial raw material completely measurable by yield or profit is another. The same ideology also allows, in the United States, the agriculture “industry” to be exempt from most anti-pollution legislation, and doctors not to be educated in nutrition. The privileging of the health requirements and food needs of one species (humans) – and usually just a few of those – above that of all other organisms – is a fourth data point.

Citizens in “modern” nations are thus surrounded in everyday life by institutions and practices whose founding rationale is the ideology of disconnection. Thanks to our education, we come to see this state of mind as natural – even though it came into being quite recently – and also inevitable, even though until recently it was unique to Western society.

In contrast, the food movement believes in something very different, which can be summarised as follows: that the purpose of life is health and that the optimal and most just way to attain human health is to maximise the health of all organisms, with the most effective way to do that being through food.

This belief system is derived from practical experience. The food movement has internalised certain observations: the potential of compost to improve crop growth and soil function, the human health benefits of a varied diet, the successes of numerous farming systems in the absence of synthetic inputs, these are a few of those. It also has noted apparent powerful connections between health, agriculture, animal welfare and the environment. These connections allow for the existence of a virtuous circle in which the most ecologically healthy farms generate foods that are the healthiest and the tastiest. These farms are also the most productive. For US examples see here: and for an example from rice see here.

Except for the obviously subjective ones (like taste), there is nothing unscientific about these claims.

We are familiar with the neo-Darwinist narrative of life-as-competition, but this slugfest interpretation hides a bigger and more important truth about life: that before there can be competition, there must first be at least two organisms. Life can, and often does, exist without competition, but competition cannot exist without life. In other words, the neo-Darwinist vision is wrong in that it trivialises biology. Food philosophy replaces this view with the idea that life thrives in the presence of other life. There is perfectly good evidence for this – we know, for example, that all of the tens of millions of species on earth are interdependent. Not a single species could exist if the others were removed. For example, plants and algae excrete oxygen, which all animals need. Animals eat plants and algae, but excrete nitrogen and phosphorus, which all plants and algae need.

Similarly, at the level of individuals, if we can look past the standard mechanistic view of biology offered by celebrated scientists like neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins, who famously called organisms “lumbering robots”, we can note that all biological organisms are in fact self-optimising and self-repairing systems. They therefore tend to maximise their own robustness and health unless, as unfortunately but commonly occurs, they are actively prevented from doing so (e.g. by a limited environment or a deficient diet).

So food philosophy envisions life in an entirely novel way. There is quite a difference between seeing nature, as the self-styled biological rationalists like to portray it, as robots slowly succumbing to the teeth and claws of vicious nature in comparison to the food view of primarily mutually beneficial interactions between vibrant and dynamic systems. The unfortunate truth for the supposed rationalists is that, as recent research into the microbiome is showing, the food philosophy view better fits the facts than does the neo-Darwinist one. Prisoners of their enlightenment ideology, the neo-Darwinists have turned the message of life on its head.

The origins of food philosophy

Food philosophy has three notable antecedents. One is philosopher Peter Singer’s famous anti-speciesist argument from his book Animal Liberation: that humans have a duty of care towards all animals, with the crucial difference being that the food movement extends Singer’s argument to all organisms, not just animals.

The second antecedent is Gaia theory which proposes that life forms create and enhance their own living conditions. The main difference being that food philosophy applies this thesis to every scale, notably to soils and to landscapes.

The third is Barry Commoner and his four laws of ecology. His second and third laws are consistent with food philosophy. However, Commoner’s First law: “Everything is connected to everything else”, needs modification. The reason is that all things are not connected equally – most connections occur primarily through food. Commoner’s fourth law, which states “There is no such thing as a free lunch”, is flatly contradicted by the virtuous circle of the food movement. All ecological systems generate synergies and synergies between organisms are free lunches; which is why, excepting occasional shocks like meteor impacts, species diversity and biological productivity on earth have continuously risen over aeons.

Like every philosophy, food philosophy implies practical consequences. It becomes the task of a food system, or any sub-part of it – such as a farm – to maximise the positive aspects of each component, so that the circle can become ever more virtuous. By the same token, the food movement believes in the existence of a downward spiral – biological impoverishments such as those that result in dust bowls. Such negative possibilities could be safely ignored were it not the case that many governments and certain businesses seem determined, even enthusiastic, to plunge headlong into them.

Food philosophy therefore represents a major split from post-enlightenment philosophy in its vision of life and biology – which for most practical purposes represents the universe we live in. In so doing it highlights how much the enlightenment was not so enlightened. Enlightenment philosophers used the foundational statement “I think therefore I am” as the justification for effectively disregarding all previous thought. They then adopted the premise that only the tools of logic and deductive reasoning could extend this thought and tell us how to achieve true knowledge and spend our time. But this core presumption was wrong. As the influential philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend put it, enlightenment ideas are “philosophical tumours” that exemplify “the poverty of abstract philosophical reasoning”.

Food philosophy is thus in the pre-enlightenment tradition of principles deduced from real world experience. It doesn’t ask: what does rational thought reveal about how we should live. It asks: what does nature reveal about how we should live? This is why food philosophy is not a different ideology from neoliberalism or communism; rather, it is the absence of ideology. So while neoliberalism and communism and socialism are products of the enlightenment, food philosophy is not, because it gathers its evidence as directly as possible from the natural world.

To the extent it can be simplified, we might summarise food philosophy approximately as follows:

1) biological interactions allow synergisms of individual health and system productivity, which can be taken advantage of in good farming; and,

2) these biological interactions occur primarily through food, which represents the chemical energy running through the system.

This philosophy is significant in two ways. First, it explains, in general, the form, structure, and composition of the food movement.

Secondly, it predicts the likely impact of the food movement on the food system and society as a whole.

Implications of food philosophy for the food movement

The distinctive features of the food movement can be seen to stem from this philosophy.

The first feature explained by its philosophy is the self-organising and leaderless nature of the food movement. Its members act as if they were reading from an invisible script, which in a sense they are. It also goes far in explaining the lack of money. The philosophy generates values and values are often the most powerful long term motivator of human behaviour.

The attitudes of the food movement also reflect the philosophy. Since the philosophy (see points 1) and 2) above) is universal, constructive, inclusive, flexible, and non-violent, so is the movement.

To take a more detailed example, whereas people outside of the food movement (with their enlightenment hats on) tend to see the issues of human health, food quality, animal welfare, and ecological and agricultural sustainability as concerns to be solved separately (if at all), those inside food movement are likely to see them as connected and therefore insoluble except together.

As people begin to sees these issues as connected, those who enter the orbit of the food movement are likely to move deeper into it. Someone who begins by buying free range eggs, perhaps for reasons of ethics, moves on to keeping chickens and perhaps to sourcing other meats more ethically or more locally. People attracted to flavourful meat or produce are likely to expand their interests into animal welfare or become locavores, and so on. This is why the food movement is deepening and growing.

This same reasoning around the connectedness of food issues also creates an important presumption: that anyone who advances one of these goals automatically advances the rest. Consequently, alliances between individuals and between organisations are likely to form around the common goals, and so the food movement emerges as a synergy between issues formerly identified as distinct, channeling a vast reservoir of positive social energy in consistent directions.

These are explanations for formation and growth of the social movement, but the food movement does not exist for its own sake; like any social movement, it aspires to solve society-sized problems. When the food movement tackles an issue, the features noted above can become enormous assets.

There is usually no actual decision (because typically there is no leader), instead, the philosophy leads its members to use whatever resources are at hand in the most appropriate manner. They develop arguments, write letters, make calls, avoid products, share information, and so on, wherever they perceive the need or opportunity to be greatest, just as the workers of an ant or bee colony do whatever job appears in front of them without explicit orders. To the multinational corporations who are its targets, movement activity may feel like a piranha feeding frenzy. Blood is scented; arguments are sharpened; protests register on social media; more attackers arrive; the target howls; opportunistic journalists pile in; maybe some legislators too, until finally the target agrees to amend, label, or remove the offending product, ingredient or publication. These are food swarms, and they are what direct democracy looks like.

Following once again its own philosophy, food is also a guide to action. Using its enlightenment rationalisations, a government can instruct people, for example, that irradiated or GMO food is safe to eat. But it cannot make them eat it. Resistance based on food logic is always likely to beat enlightenment logic when the subject is food, because it is both rational and relatively easy for the people to both form their own opinions and spend their money elsewhere. The food system is perhaps the one domain where the people retain this power, certainly more than they do in any other domain of public life.

In consequence, time and again the arguments of the food movement: over GMO safety, the benefits of organic food, the dangers of antibiotics in animal farming, food additives, GMO labeling, and so forth, have gained traction out in the public domain (though not always yet in public policy). The combination of solid logic and practical power is hard to resist. Through its philosophy, therefore, the food movement is succeeding both in building itself and winning practical victories as it does so.

Thus one can begin to see how food issues are the organizing principle for a grand social movement. Indeed, the successes of the food movement are now sufficiently evident that major parts of the old environment movement, plus the health and wellness movements, and even parts of the labour movement, have begun to reframe their activities as coming from a food system perspective. Some have largely migrated into the food movement altogether. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is much better known to the public and has been more successful through its food connections than through its union ones. To a significant degree, once separate social movements are converging to become branches of the food movement.

We can sum up this rather complex state of affairs by saying that food is a highly successful rallying point. It serves well because food is simultaneously a novel conceptual framing for much of human affairs that is strongly distinct from the standard enlightenment framings of economics and social Darwinism, but also because it acts as a potent organising principle for individuals to act around. Food succeeds as a conceptual framing because it is simultaneously anthropocentric and truthful, and it succeeds as an organising principle because food fruitfully highlights the practical biophysical linkages between issues. So while most frames are artificial mental constructs that have zero underlying biological or physical substance, the frame used by the food movement also precisely reflects the key biological reality that a universal daily requirement of all humanity, is food. Good food. And the same is true for other species. Thus, our good food also needs good food, and so on ad (almost) infinitum. Anyone who adopts that devastating logic has a huge advantage, not only in understanding how the world really works, but also in acting on that information.

How will the food movement impact society?

Ideas are the currency of power. Philosopher Peter Singer wrote the book Animal Liberation in 1975. It spawned the international animal rights movement and drove society-wide debates on the human usage of animals for research and in agriculture. Forty years later, the increasing popularity of veganism shows his ideas are still gathering momentum. Singer’s achievement was to show that enlightenment thinkers had attempted to rationalise – rather than ditch – the concept of human exceptionalism, which dated back at least to the Bible’s authorisation of Man’s dominion over the earth. At a stroke, Singer destroyed the arguments for treating animals badly and provided a perfect example of how enlightenment rationalisations have functioned to constrain modern thought, and most particularly the human potential to do good.

Because they go far beyond our treatment of sentient animals and extend to all organisms, the ideas of food philosophy are significantly more profound and far-reaching than those of Peter Singer. Food philosophy is an intellectual key to overthrowing mechanistic reductionist society. Much of standard economics, large parts of biology such as neo-Darwinism (selfish genes) and genetic determinism, reductionist biology and medicine, which at present are the centrepieces of Western education, will come to be seen in their proper light, which is as largely irrelevant to the functioning of whole systems. These are the “philosophical tumours” that stand in the way of human development. To the many individuals who suspect that enlightenment thought is the engine driving our societies over an ecological cliff, food philosophy offers the conceptual way out.

Enlightenment thought arose in tandem with industrialising societies. Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for a meritocratic and commercial society to replace feudalism, but the grand irony is that they did not themselves gain acceptance solely on merit. Rather, they were selected for their usefulness. Their ideas justified the necessary concepts the new society came to rely on: mechanisation, individualism, and competition. Enlightenment philosophers were largely establishment figures giving form to establishment thought. Nowadays their ideas are used for preserving this order, but since the intellectual flaws of that understanding are increasingly manifesting as ecological crisis and social disorder, the same process is happening in reverse.

But the question has long been what will take their place? As I was completing this essay I consulted The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Even in 1946, Russell saw that a satisfactory philosophical resolution to the problem of how to reconcile power and the benefits of social cohesion with individual liberty was yet to be reached. At the very end of introducing modern philosophy he writes that the scientific enterprise tips the balance towards power, but is itself “a form of madness” in that it prioritises means over ends. Without a philosophical antidote this imbalance will become “dangerous”. He concludes “To achieve this a new philosophy will be needed”.

Enlightenment ideas have been developing for almost 400 years. They are largely mistaken, but they were also mistaken when they were conceived. There are two good reasons why no overhaul took place, even at the heights of the social movements of the 1960s or the environment movement in the 1970s. The first is that no adequate philosophical replacement was available. The second is nakedly political. No political force or social movement was previously in place to force the issue. The food movement, however, fulfills both requirements, and so the pieces are finally in place for a peaceful social revolution of thought and action.

The final analysis

This essay has attempted to understand how and why a successful social movement can arise, and even be called a social movement, when it lacks essentially all of the traditional props and attributes of social movements – strong leadership, organisational structures, formal outreach programs, money, and so forth.

This analysis attributes the success of the food movement largely to factors internal to itself. Its members share an infectious vision which is constructive, convivial, classless, raceless, international, and which embraces the whole world. That vision rests on a novel and harmonious philosophy. It is also deeply realistic because it is biological in nature; so while the remainder of society is naively getting further out of touch with the natural world by adopting ever fancier communications devices, internet apps, high speed travel, Pokemon Go, and so forth, the food movement is busy getting in touch with that world and being successful in working with it.

One issue largely missing from this analysis, however, is the imperative of confronting climate change. The food movement did not come together to solve this issue. Nevertheless, many in the food movement believe it has the tools to largely solve the problem. The reasons are simple. First, perhaps as much as 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions result from the activities of the industrial food sector. Secondly, carbon can easily be removed from the air and stored in soil and in the process creating the type of soil actively desired by organic and agroecological farmers. These farmers are still developing their techniques for carbon sequestration, but anecdotal evidence suggests that soil sequestration can combine with food production to store many tons of carbon per acre per year. Thus, as two recentreports show, the food system desired by the food movement can make our atmospheric carbon problem manageable and perhaps solve it completely.

This information seems not to have penetrated the mainstream climate movement. Climate leaders seem to believe solutions must be technical or social: but windmills, solar power, electric cars, dams, divestment, infrastructure protests, etc., are largely symbolic actions. Unlike reducing demand for energy by reforming and localising the food system or storing carbon in living soils, such “solutions” do not necessarily reduce overall use of fossil fuels nor prevent the release of greenhouse gases from disturbed ecosystems. Worse, as resource-intensive ways of generating and storing energy, technofix solutions have many negative consequences of their own.

Hopefully sooner, rather than later, the well-meaning but misled climate movement will come to understand the (typically enlightenment) error of singling out specific forms of pollution (CO2 or methane) and join with the food liberation movement. If not, the food movement may solve climate change without them.

In the ultimate analysis, the growth of the food movement is the people’s response to the failing ideas of the enlightenment. It represents a tectonic realignment of the forces underlying our society and a clash of ideas more profound than anything seen since the collapse of feudalism and the emergence of the industrial revolution. The outcome of this clash will determine not only the future of our society, but also whether our descendents get to live on a planet recognisable to us today. The portents are excellent. The food movement is prevailing because it takes advantage of the synergies and potentials inherent in biological systems, whereas the ideas of the enlightenment ignore, deny, and suppress these potentialities. It will indeed be a beautiful struggle to turn these portents into reality.

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Book review essay – Sara Nelson on Jason Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”

Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, New York: Verso, 2015. ISBN: 9781781689011 (cloth); ISBN: 9781781689028 (paper); ISBN: 9781781689042 (ebook)

Review by Sara Nelson (Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, University of Minnesota), February 2016

***A pdf version of this essay is available here***

Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life is, above all else, an ambitious book. At once theoretical treatise and empirical history, Moore’s work strives toward a “‘unified’ theory of historical capitalism and historical nature” (p.ix) drawn together within a new paradigm of world-ecology. For Moore, world-ecology promises to transcend what he views as a persistent “Nature-Society dualism” or “Cartesian binary” that not only underpins capitalism as a historical project, but also pervades critical scholarship on the subject. As Moore writes:

The Cartesian narrative unfolds like this. Capitalism–or, if one prefers, modernity or industrial civilization–emerged out of Nature. It drew wealth from Nature. It disrupted, degraded, or defiled Nature. And now, or sometime very soon, Nature will exact its revenge. Catastrophe is coming. Collapse is on the horizon. (p.5)

Against this narrative, Moore sees capitalism not as a social or economic system that acts on external nature in more or less destructive ways, but as itself a world-ecology–a “way of organizing nature” through the “co-production of earth-moving, idea-making, and power-creating across the geographical layers of human experience” (p.2, 3). Moore therefore asks us to take seriously the ecological dimensions of all capitalist change, which unfolds through what he terms the “double internality” of “humanity-in-nature/nature-in-humanity” (p.5).

In bringing this anti-Cartesian framework to bear on the history of capitalism, Moore undertakes a revision of Marxian value theory that holds much promise for scholarship in resource, agricultural, and animal geographies, and for critical engagements with “neoliberal natures”. In brief, Marx’s labor theory of value states that the substance of value is abstract labor, and its measure is (in David Harvey’s [2006] terms) socially-necessary labor-time (p.53). As Marxist-feminists have long argued, however, the privileged status accorded to wage labor in capitalism and in Marxian theory occludes the unpaid, gendered work that both reproduces labor-power and determines its value (e.g. Federici 2012; Fortunati 1996). Drawing on this tradition and taking up George Caffentzis’s (1992) concept of “work/energy”, Moore links the appropriation of unpaid reproductive labor with the appropriation of the unpaid work/energy of extra-human natures. That is, any increase in labor productivity is predicated on the production and appropriation of “Cheap Nature” as “a rising stream of low-cost food, labor-power, energy, and raw materials to the factory gates” (p.53). The law of value, Moore argues, is therefore “a law of Cheap Nature”.

In historical terms, this means that every new wave of accumulation that expands commodity relations is accompanied by a disproportionately large wave of appropriation of unpaid work/energy that underpins the increase in labor productivity. Abstract social labor thus depends on the production and appropriation of “abstract social nature”, a process that entails new scientific practices, measurement techniques, and representational forms alongside direct techniques of violence and dispossession. It is here that Moore marks a crucial distinction between capitalism as a historical project that must render nature external in order to ensure its appropriation, and capitalism as a historical process that involves the appropriation of both human and non-human nature. “Importantly,” Moore writes, “capital’s appropriation of unpaid work transcends the Cartesian divide, encompassing both human and extra-human work outside, but necessary to, the circuit of capital and the production of value” (p.55).

Moore thus inverts the relation between appropriation and capitalization presumed in conventional political economy, an inversion which distinguishes his account from analyses of primitive accumulation: rather than appropriation operating in the service of capitalization (by expanding commodity relations), Moore suggests that capital’s guiding imperative is in fact to expand the sphere of appropriation (p.103).[1] This argument is based on the assertion that any increase in labor productivity is predicated on a rising “ecological surplus” of Cheap Nature, in the form of energy and raw materials as well as labor-power whose reproduction remains uncompensated by capital. But because capital appropriates cheaply without paying the costs of this reproduction, it tends to exhaust its own social-ecological conditions. Moore thus posits a general tendency for the ecological surplus to fall, and for cheap nature to become less cheap.[2] As capital must internalize an increasing share of the costs of reproduction, production costs rise, accompanied by stagnating production and accelerating financialization. Moore therefore argues that capital expands geographically not to increase the “domain of commodification as such; it expands to shift the balance of world accumulation towards appropriation” (p.102). In the process, however, it advances a cumulative tendency toward an expanding sphere of commodification, encountering its own limits insofar as it tends to exhaust all available “frontiers” of appropriation.

Moore’s depiction of capitalism as simultaneously appropriative and exploitative enables a historical perspective on the capitalist transformation of nature (both human and nonhuman) beyond narratives of the endless expansion of commodification. Moore is not alone in linking Marxist-feminist and ecological critiques of capitalism, but his efforts to integrate this understanding of social-ecological reproduction into a historical theory of capitalist crisis is a considerable contribution to work in all regions of political economy and Nature-Society scholarship. His approach also offers a powerful response to emerging calls for greater attention to value in critiques of neoliberal natures (Dempsey and Robertson 2012), suggesting that an analysis of value involves a broad examination of how new forms of environmental knowledge and discourse work alongside policy innovations, not only to expand the sphere of commodification, but also to render new natures appropriable. Moore’s general theory of Cheap Nature also intervenes in the literature on fossil capitalism (Altvater 2006; Malm 2016), which, he argues, fetishizes fossil fuels by ignoring earlier periods of capitalist expansion enabled by the mass appropriation of slave labor, wood, and agricultural land (p.177).

But despite the close proximity of Moore’s approach to critical scholarship in Nature-Society geography (a term Moore rejects for its obvious invocation of the pernicious “Cartesian binary”), much of the geographical literature with which Moore’s work resonates most strongly remains conspicuously absent from the book. Moore makes much of Marx’s notion of underproduction–referring to raw material shortages resulting from capital’s failure to invest in their reproduction–which he argues has remained undertheorized as a “casualty of dualist habits of thought” (p.93), with no mention of James O’Connor’s (1988) seminal work on the subject. This absence is surprising given the proximity of O’Connor’s analysis of the “second contradiction” to Moore’s own argument (and all the more so given that Moore cites other works by O’Connor elsewhere in the book). Nor does Moore’s account of capitalism as a historical project, to which the production of nature as external is essential to rendering natures cheaply appropriable, engage directly with Neil Smith’s (1984) groundbreaking work on this topic. Moore implicitly critiques Smith for his understanding of the production of nature as a unilateral process, emphasizing in contrast the “co-production” of capitalist ecologies (p.79). But instead of engaging directly with these theorists, Moore makes his critique of Cartesian dualism into a general excuse for dismissing the majority of Nature-Society scholarship before him, reinventing some basic wheels of eco-Marxist criticism in the process. The result is a lost opportunity to strengthen the theoretical foundations of world-ecology.

Indeed, Moore’s project is characterized first and foremost by a drive to hunt down and root out this dualism wherever it has invaded “Green Thought”. But the same vehement anti-Cartesianism that gives the book its motive force also highlights its most glaring omissions. Prominent among these is the absence of perhaps the most foundational anti-Cartesian of all, Benedict de Spinoza.[3] Whereas Descartes’s dualism conceives mind (thought) and body (matter) as two ontologically distinct substances,[4] Spinoza’s monist philosophy posits a singular substance of which thought and extension (matter) are attributes. Spinoza’s God, unlike the God of Descartes, is not a transcendent creator but, rather, this very substance immanent in its multitudinous expressions; hence Spinoza’s (in)famous formula “God, or Nature”, by which he meant “God, i.e., in other words, Nature”, identifying God as the “concatenation”–or immanent interrelation–of all things.

Spinoza’s absence in Moore’s book would be unremarkable were it not for the philosopher’s immense influence on contemporary philosophy, political economy, and Nature-Society scholarship, and for the fact that Moore makes upsetting Nature/Society dualism the raison d’etre of his entire project. Through the work of thinkers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Antonio Negri, and Louis Althusser, Spinoza’s immanentism has been foundational to poststructuralist thought in general, and to contemporary Marxism, post-humanism, and new materialisms in particular–even where this influence may remain implicit (see Bruce Braun’s [2008] review of some of this work in geography). Far from engaging with this scholarship, Moore dismisses much of it as so many “cyborgs, assemblages, networks, hybrids, and many more” that have not “directly challenged the dualist framing or world history” (p.5)–and he simply ignores the rest. Referencing “hybrids, assemblages, and networks” as highlights from “cultural studies” (p.33-34), Moore signals an unfamiliarity with the field of Science and Technology Studies and with the profound influence of these ideas on Nature-Society scholarship in geography and elsewhere. This is further evinced by his assertion that (the Antipode reader may be surprised to know) the “signal contribution of nearly a half-century of radical geographical thought” has been to theorize the social production of space, the citations here suggesting that this field reached its apex in 1989 (p.10-11). With the repeated assertion that all prior attempts to depart from Nature/Society dualism have failed, Moore struggles to invent his own terminology for “nature as a whole”, naming this the “web of life” through which civilizations develop in a “creative, historical, and dialectical relation between, and also always within, human and extra-human natures” that Moore terms the “oikeios” (p.3, 35). But it is hard to read Moore’s description of nature as a “flow of flows” (p.2) without wondering whether Spinoza has not already provided countless generations of scholars with precisely the monist and relational ontology for which Moore calls, and has indeed done so with a much more solid grounding in first principles.

In this way, the ambition that gives Moore’s book its strength is also its greatest weakness. Moore sets out to do nothing less than to articulate, under the name of world-ecology, a “new paradigm” (p.3) for critical scholarship on capitalism, world history, and environmental thought that will transcend, once and for all, the dualism that for him is the singular source of all of the violence of modernity. “Just as we have been learning to move beyond the dualisms of race, gender, sexuality, and Eurocentrism over the past four decades,” Moore instructs, “it is now time to deal with the source of them all: the Nature/Society binary” (p.4, emphasis added). Bracketing for the moment the implications of this assertion for an intersectional understanding of capitalism, this clearly sets the bar for success rather high. But his critique of related scholarship that has sought similar ends is pitched at the level of terminology, not concepts. He claims for instance that words like “hybrids or fusions” “make sense…only if we presume an originary separation of Society and Nature” (p.44-45), and repeatedly denounces syntactical formulations that appear to him to portray “humanity and nature” rather than his preferred “humanity-in-nature” (p.75). On the one hand, this semantic critique fails to do justice to Moore’s interlocutors. For instance Donna Haraway’s (1991) “cyborg”, which Moore similarly characterizes as one of many attempts to “fuse or combine the relations of human and extra-human nature” that “come a dime a dozen in Green Thought” (p.35), was not simply a terminological innovation but a diagnosis of a concrete historical shift in which the divisions between nature and technology that had subtended modern “Man” were being transformed in practice. On the other hand, Moore is vulnerable to his own critique, since it is far from obvious that his language of “bundles of human and extra-human natures” (p.37) or “humanity-in-nature/nature-in-humanity” (p.5) offer sufficiently non-dualistic alternatives. Moore cautions against a “‘soft’ dualism that re-presents the dialectic of human and extra-human natures as an alternative to Nature/Society”, but the reader would be forgiven for asking how his “double internality”–describing “capitalism’s internalization of planetary life and process” and “the biosphere’s internalization of capitalism”–does not present precisely this kind of “soft” dualism (p.13).

More fundamentally, Moore’s emphasis on transcending Nature/Society dualism underplays the reality of this dualism in the history of capitalism. He writes:

No theoretical critique will open the cage [of the Cartesian binary]. Such opening requires that we build an alternative to the logic of dualism, and this requires new methodological procedures, narrative strategies, and conceptual language all at the same time. (p.5)

Not only does his ungenerous critique of previous literature make it less convincing that his approach alone provides us with these necessities. Beyond this, as the Out of the Woods (2016) collective has argued, is the problem that this intractable binary exists not simply as a scholarly conundrum but as a real abstraction that operates with material force within capitalism. Moore himself says as much (p.21), and yet his critical posture remains one of ideology critique, revealing how capitalism operates across this divide in practice. But taking seriously the force of Nature and Society as real abstractions means that we cannot simply step “out of the Cartesian binary” (p.37) through new historiographical strategies, but must confront it as a material reality on the level of political praxis (Out of the Woods 2016). Moore writes that “[w]ithout a world-historical reconstruction…the critique of Nature/Society dualism will remain theoretical when it needs to be methodological and historical” (p.14). But this can only be the case if by “historical” we don’t mean historiographical, but rather a praxis unfolding in history–a sense we do not get from Moore. With his faith that the right vocabulary and historical method will finally free us from the “prison house of the Cartesian binary” (p.5), Moore ironically reproduces that very binary (that is, the original one opposing mind to body) insofar as it underpins the idea that intellectual development proceeds apart from lived reality and acts on history as an external force.

But if Moore’s ambition seems to set the project up for failure on its own terms, this should not discount the work’s considerable contributions. Already on page 3, it is apparent that despite his more grandiose claims, Moore’s true intervention is in the realm of world historical accounts of capitalism. “World-ecology,” Moore writes, “asks us to put our post-Cartesian worldview to work on the crucible of world-historical transformation” (p.3). Moore’s real complaint is therefore not so much about the lack of non-dualistic paradigms as such, but that these have not been incorporated into the field of world history and world systems scholarship (p.24). Citing the work of geographers such as Bruce Braun, Noel Castree, Neil Smith and Jake Kosek, Moore offers the caveat that “[t]ranscending the Nature/Society binary has been one thing to do philosophically, theoretically, and through regional- and national-scale history. It has been quite a different enterprise for world-historical change” (p.39).

To bring a relational ontology to the study of capitalist world history is no mean feat (and certainly a more academically honest one than to put the binaries of Enlightenment thought to rest once and for all). In this endeavor, Moore makes important strides. His “Big Four inputs” of cheap food, labor-power, energy, and raw materials form a transhistorical necessity for any expansion of capital accumulation, but the shifting dynamics of how and where Cheap Natures are produced is the history of capitalism itself. To Giovanni Arrighi’s (1994) historical periodization of capitalism in terms of successive regimes of accumulation, Moore adds the production and appropriation of Cheap Nature as the enabling condition for and historical limit to any expansionary moment. Every expansion of accumulation, we’ll recall, is for Moore predicated on a growing “ecological surplus”–the ratio of appropriated to capitalized natures (p.149). This surplus is produced through “world-ecological revolutions” that enable the production of Cheap Nature on an expanded scale. Thus, Moore argues, taking up Arrighi’s periodization, “Dutch hegemony emerged trough a world-ecological revolution that stretched from Canada to the spice islands of Southeast Asia; British hegemony, through the coal-steam power and plantation revolutions; American hegemony, through oil frontiers and the industrialization of agriculture it enabled” (p.163). In chapter 7, this notion of world-ecological revolutions allows Moore to find the origins of the Anthropocene in the “revolution in human-initiated environment-making” beginning in the 15th century rather than the industrial revolution of the 18th (p.181).

This progressive expansion and exhaustion of the ecological surplus provides the basis for Moore’s notion of ecological limits, where exhaustion signifies the “inability of a given productive complex to yield a rising stream of unpaid work–performed by human and extra-human natures alike” (p.68). The counter-tendency to the “general law of underproduction”–whereby capital undermines, on a local level, its socio-ecological conditions–is therefore an expansionary “frontier movement” (p.115). On a world historical scale, this means that capital shifting away from production occurs not only due to competition, but also due to the exhaustion of historical natures (p.162).

But while Moore disavows the idea that “Nature in general” (p.116) poses a limit to capital, his notion of capital’s “frontier movement” suggests in fact that both the geographical finitude of the Earth and the spatio-temporal mismatch between capital accumulation and socio-ecological reproduction pose limits to capital in the long term. In seeking new frontiers of appropriation, successive regimes are expansionary not only with regard to accumulation but also in their geographical scope (p.161). Moore notes that capitalism is therefore faced with two contradictions: the first “between the finite character of the biosphere and the infinite character of capital’s demands”; and the second “between capital’s need to expand and to accelerate the uptake of work/energy relative to the reproductive requirements of carried elements of the web of life” (p.112). Moore’s central question in the second half of the book, therefore, is whether “today’s frontiers are of sufficiently great mass–in terms of work/energy–that they can restore the Four Cheaps, provide investment outlets for now massively overaccumulated capital, and revive accumulation”, and if so, how long these frontiers might be sustained (p.115).

The analysis offered in the later chapters of the book suggests that the answer is “no”, and here Moore arrives at some of his most unique and provocative conclusions. Moore argues that neoliberal capitalism has used a “strange mix of finance and empire” to impose “coercive overproduction and forced underconsumption–without a productivity revolution” (p.257). In a chapter charting the “Long Green Revolution”, Moore argues that the postwar expansion of industrial agriculture sustained Cheap Food into the 1980s, enabling the fall in food prices after 1975 that “underwrote the initial phases of neoliberal restructuring” (p.255). By the mid-1980s, however, this productivity growth was slowing. Since then, the neoliberal debt regime has increased food dependency in the global South without inaugurating a productivity revolution that would sustain Cheap Food, a new reality signaled by rapidly-rising food prices amidst a general “commodity boom” in the early 2000s (pp.265-267). Unlike previous eras, Moore argues, there are no promising frontiers of major agricultural productivity (he discounts the possibility of China fulfilling this role [p.266]), and while new extractive investments have proliferated, these are in high-cost technologies that will not lower energy costs. Meanwhile, the pesticide-fertilizer “treadmill” (p.250) inaugurated by the Green Revolution means that food and energy costs are increasingly linked, and these in turn are bound up with financial dynamics (p.269). This leads Moore to conclude that contemporary capitalism may be “exhausting its longue durée ecological regime” (p.304).[5]

Importantly, for Moore the limits to neoliberal capitalism arise not from any essential scarcity of resources but from the excessive liveliness of nature in general, which he conceptualizes as a form of resistance:

At some level, all life rebels against the value/monoculture nexus of modernity, from farm to factory. No one, no being, wants to do the same thing, all day, every day… Extra-human natures, too, resist the grim compulsions of economic equivalence… (p.205)

Like labor strikes, nonhuman resistance in the form of soil depletion or “superweeds” reduces the amount of work/energy available to capital. Human and extra-human natures therefore occupy a continuous terrain of class struggle linking “environmental” issues to labor politics. While Moore describes this as a transhistorical feature of capitalism, he also marks an epochal shift in which nonhuman resistance has been raised to a new pitch, through a generalized “superweed effect”–whereby capital’s efforts to “tame” various forms of nature prompt the latter to adapt in ways that “elude and resist that control” (p.273). This positive feedback loop has led, Moore argues, to a new era characterized by “negative-value”, “understood as the accumulation of limits to capital in the web of life that are direct barriers to the restoration of the Four Cheaps: food, labor-power, energy, and raw materials” (p.277). The accumulation of negative value is directly linked to the closure of frontiers, such that capital is increasingly exposed to the toxic effects of its own technological fixes to nature’s resistance (p.274). Challenging the production of Cheap Nature as both source and sink, climate change and the superweed effect form the two “major streams” of negative value in the current moment (p.280).

In his conception of ecological limits in terms of extra-human resistance to capital, Moore opens up promising vistas for political theory and action in response to environmental change, echoing and enhancing the new materialist turn in Nature-Society geography that has foregrounded the liveliness of nonhuman natures as they enable and resist capitalist production (Bakker and Bridge 2006; Braun 2008). Moore goes beyond that literature by laying the theoretical foundation for a posthuman labor politics (even if the practical problems of how to organize across the Nature-Society divide exceed the scope of his book). The strategic question not posed by Moore here is how such a movement might make ecological catastrophe a crisis for capital, while preventing capitalism from taking the rest of the world down with it.

It is here however that Moore’s ideology critique of Nature/Society dualism poses a limit to his own analysis. Moore writes that it is not the task of world-ecology to explain “the separation of humanity and nature” (p.82), but, on the contrary, any analysis aimed at transforming contemporary capitalist ecologies would seem to demand precisely this. Much of the most exciting recent work in Nature-Society geography has shown how the distinctions between human and nonhuman, nature and technology, production and reproduction, and mental and manual labor are being radically transformed in contemporary capitalism. For instance, Elizabeth Johnson and Jesse Goldstein’s (2015) work on biomimicry has shown how the lively capacities of nonhuman organisms–from jellyfish to lobsters and octopi–are enrolled directly in the production of value through new technological apparatuses that demand a more-than-human understanding of Marx’s notion of the “general intellect”. Similarly, Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby’s (2014) work on tissue donors, Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s (2006) analysis of biocapital, and Mazen Labban’s (2014) research into biomining demonstrate the radically new productive associations across the human-nonhuman divide that underpin contemporary capitalism from high finance to extraction. While Moore claims that traditional notions of absolute environmental limits underestimate the adaptability of capitalism (p.292), his own treatment of Nature/Society dualism risks repeating this error by failing to attend to the intersectional processes through which these categories themselves are transformed as the line separating production and reproduction (and thereby capitalization and appropriation) is reworked throughout capitalist history.

Much of this recent literature has taken up the analysis of contemporary capitalism stemming from the Italian tradition of Autonomist Marxism, a founding insight of which has been that the individual human subject of labor has been radically displaced in contemporary capitalism to encompass the entire “social factory” (Negri 1996). If the individuated, gendered, human subject of labor was both prerequisite and product of modern capitalism, scholars such as Johnson have extended autonomist insights to show that the labor-power enrolled in contemporary production is irreducibly more-than-human. This is not to say that it was ever simply human, nor is it to suggest that nonhuman capacities directly produce surplus-value unmediated by human labor. But by treating the Nature/Society binary as a transhistorical constant, Moore leaves the category of labor unproblematized, sidelining qualitative historical changes in the way that socio-ecological capacities are both exploited and appropriated. Whereas autonomist theorists have emphasized the uneven temporalities of exploitation in contemporary capitalism, capitalism for Moore remains characterized by the time of the factory, in which the production of equivalence in the realm of exchange is conflated with the production of homogeneity in time and space (Moore suggests that nature rebels not against exploitation as such, but because “no one, no being, wants to do the same thing, all day, every day”). Moore’s ideology critique of Nature/Society staves off the perhaps more radical question of how that binary has shifted over time as an object of struggle, and how it is being qualitatively transformed in the contemporary conjuncture named by the Anthropocene.

What is lost in Moore’s account, therefore, is an understanding of how the concrete conditions of contemporary existence–and not simply of contemporary scholarship–may provide opportunities for the kinds of new ecologies that he desires. Based on his analysis of the limits to neoliberal capital’s production of Cheap Nature, Moore (echoing the writings of eco-Marxists in the 1960s) argues that the only possible future involves a “socialist ecology” that could revitalize productivity and recycle wastes through “agro-ecology, permaculture, and other non-capitalist agronomies” (p.286-287). But what makes these technologies inherently non-capitalist is far from obvious–presumably it is because they do not reproduce the Nature-Society binary in the way that Moore identifies it, and do not obey the logic of industrial monoculture. To return again to Johnson’s work with Goldstein, which has shown how biomimicry has been celebrated as inaugurating postcapitalist ecologies even as it is enrolled in cutting-edge military and industrial research (Johnson and Goldstein 2015), here Moore risks mistaking technology for politics. Understanding the concrete conditions that might give rise to a future “socialist ecology” (or, for that matter, a communist or anarchist one) requires attending to the changing ways that Nature and Society (and Culture, Humanity, etc.) operate as real abstractions rather than ideological constructs in contemporary capitalism.[6] This endeavor would be entirely consistent with the world-ecology framework, but would also require conceptual and political resources that lie beyond its purview.

In this regard, perhaps the greatest limit to world-ecology is its all-encompassing ambition. As evinced in Moore’s opening pages (and in the proceedings and CFPs for a proliferation of World-Ecology conferences and panel sessions), there is an evangelical tinge to the world-ecology project, insofar as it seeks to incorporate all relevant research in Nature-Society geography, environmental history, and political ecology into its sphere of influence. In his introduction, Moore positions his work as an attempt to give name to an emerging paradigm that is “breaking out all over, especially among younger scholars. I will call this paradigm world-ecology” (p.3). While Moore claims that his book provides a “contribution” to this work rather than an “encompassing definition”, it is clear that the ambition of world-ecology is to be this unifying framework, insofar as he locates the failure of other non-dualistic paradigms in that they have not achieved this unifying reach. Moore claims that world-ecology demands a diversity of theoretical approaches, but his own engagements with his interlocutors do not demonstrate this. Instead, his tendency to strawman related work in Nature-Society scholarship while reproducing some of its key insights forecloses the very diversity that might give world-ecology its vibrancy. It also risks distracting sympathetic readers from the real import of his work. Nevertheless, with all of the considerable intellectual resources that Moore’s book provides, there is certainly hope that the new generation of scholars who may or may not find themselves hailed as world-ecologists will take up these resources in the pluralistic–and politically engaged–manner that would give Moore’s concepts the transformative force to which they aspire.


[1] As my colleague Charmaine Chua pointed out, scholars of settler colonialism such as Glen Coulthard (2014) and Rob Nichols (2015) have made similar interventions with regard to the primacy of appropriation in capitalism.

[2] Moore’s argument here deserves a fuller analysis than is possible in this review. Moore arrives at his understanding of the tendency for the ecological surplus to fall through a revision of Marx’s analysis of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall as a result of technological change (that is, a rising ratio of constant to variable capital). But whereas Marx identified the root of this tendency in a shrinking proportion of variable capital (the form of capital [labor-power] that is capable of producing surplus-value), Moore frames this primarily in terms of rising production costs. Moreover, as Harvey (2006) has shown, the implications of technological change for the composition of capital are far from straightforward, depending on in which sector it occurs and on the internal dynamics of competition among capitals. Because Moore treats capital as monolithic, these internal dynamics remain unexamined.

[3] This is not to imply that Spinoza’s work was a simple rejection of Descartes; as Genevieve Lloyd (1996: 10) writes, Spinoza was an avid reader of his predecessor, and “developed, from Cartesian starting points, doctrines that were for the Cartesians outrageous”.

[4] That Descartes’s dualism posed an ontological split between body and mind, not nature and society, does not merit discussion in Moore’s work; we are left to assume that this maps onto contemporary “Nature/Society dualisms”.

[5] An empirical engagement with Moore’s claims regarding the scarcity of contemporary frontiers is not possible here; however, it may be worth noting that in his monolithic treatment of capital, Moore sidesteps the role of competition in opening up frontiers within already capitalized nature–for instance, through “disruptive” technologies that might undermine formerly-commodified relations.

[6] On this point see Out of the Woods (2016).


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