Review: Reading ‘Capitalism in the Web of Life’ by Jason W. Moore after COVID19

A glass sand timer stands on the left of the image against a stark black background, resting on a white table. Inside the top half of the glass is a miniature tree in sandy soil. Underneath is the skyline of a modern city. The image evokes an impending collapse of the web of life by capitalism.
Entwined and destructive, capitalism undermines the web of life.

A few weeks into the current lockdown, as fatalities and reported cases of COVID19 were continuing to rise, news from the frontlines of Ireland’s food production and agri-sector began to arrive, casting an unsettling light on the many – and now overtly dangerous – levels of exploitation on which this cornerstone of the national economy is based.

First, in April, the public learned that Keelings had flown in (and lodged in shared accommodation) almost 200 casually contracted workers to shift the bulk of the coming season’s fruit for market: a decision that seemed deliberately to ignore the health and safety guidelines specified by the HSE’s emergency Coronavirus taskforce. Such a course of action was justified by Keelings on the basis of keeping domestic and global supply chains open, with little comment made as to the risks posed to the fruit-pickers themselves, their families, and, indeed, anyone in contact with them, as a result of company policy.

This reckless managerial focus – on meeting previously projected revenue margins, at workers’ expense and during a global pandemic – reared its head again in a similar, if even more disturbing, case of industrial recalcitrance in May, when an outbreak of the potentially lethal virus was recorded in a number of Irish meat factories. The sub-heading to The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the scandal was appropriately ominous: ‘Workers share COVID19 fears over lack of social distancing, crowded accommodation and being forced to buy their own PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]’.

Viewed from high up on a gantry, white-coated workers are working on production lines of slabs of meat. An Irish meat plant: where despite the outbreak of COVID19 clusters, workers and animals were subject to 'business as usual' practices.
Irish meat plant: where despite the outbreak of COVID19 clusters, workers and animals were subject to ‘business as usual’ practices.

The story makes for difficult reading, exposing a culture of normalised exploitation and industrial slaughter, in which low-paid, poorly contracted migrant workers ‘feel intimidated and vulnerable’, unsure of their legal rights, and fearing for their medical safety, with one whistleblower also expressing his combined horror and sadness at the cruelty with which, even in normal circumstances, Irish cattle are butchered and turned into meat. In such a scenario, COVID19 posed an immediate threat to the life and health of factory employees; and yet the overall impression the interviews conveyed was that, from the point of view of both the workers and the animals they were dealing with, business as usual was a systematically ruthless and dehumanising affair.

Although occurring five years after the publication of Jason W. Moore’s book, both incidents could be cited as living (if also quite morbid) proof of the validity of his central argument: that ‘Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.’ Cheap labour, migrant and working-class bodies, brutalised animals, rigorously schematised seasonal cycles, are all – equally and as a whole – fodder for the relentless pillage, the forever-primary drive for profit, that is capitalism’s life-in-the-world.

Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique and revision of environmental concepts and approaches, rather than a miscellany of insights into present environmental struggles (as in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, for example). Such a focus, however, is not necessarily negative: what Moore’s analysis lacks in activist-oriented urgency it arguably makes up for in the expansiveness of its critical scope. Moore’s writing is that of a sincere, discerning and formidable critic of ecological and political arrogance, both capitalistic and leftist; and crucially (against that most insidious of critical bugbears) he is methodical and convincing in suggesting an alternative series of attitudes and understandings.

The book cover of Capitalism in the Web of Life, by Jason W Moore. The book is facing a little to the right, so the spine can be seen and the V for Verso logo of the publisher. It is a simple cover with white writing on a black background. The only art is a white twisting column that suggests smoke rising from a fire.
Capitalism in the Web of Life, Jason W. Moore

As implied by the title, Moore sets out to dismantle the distinction between humanity and nature, industrial civilization and the environment, as binary, separate forces, and instead proposes a long-view and multi-faceted perspective: one that recognises how dependent human activities and power dynamics are on natural seasons, cycles, and ecosystems. We change them, Moore argues, and they change us, continuously: and it is on such a ‘world-ecology’ that the success of future efforts to disband and replace neoliberal civilization with radical and sustainable communities-in-process will depend. ‘A capitalist looks at a forest and sees dollar signs,’ Moore observes,

an environmentalist sees trees and birds and soils; a world-ecologist sees how humans and other species have co-produced the forest, and how that “bundled” forest simultaneously conditions and constrains capital today.

At first glance, the significance of such an argument may seem somewhat remote: an example of the kind of linguistic and theoretical tinkering that only an academic Marxist could afford to spend their time discussing or disputing. But as Moore’s analysis unfolds, its pertinence to contemporary anti-capitalist struggles is clear to see. ‘Yes, diseases make history,’ Moore notes, but only insofar as they (and the conditions that intensify their effects) are understood as ‘bound to commerce and empire’.

So today, as historian Mike Davis and others have also argued, the COVID19 pandemic itself may be viewed as having its origin in – its capacity to wreak so much damage stems from – the networks of relentless intervention and attempted control (over bodies both human and ‘natural’) that sustain the capitalist project globally. Broadly speaking, the same may be said of the climactic and civilisational dangers that accompany continued carbon emissions, or global warming. In Moore’s terminology, capitalism’s ‘way of organising nature’ is inherently destructive of the ‘web of life’ on which its own existence (along with everything else) depends. Or as Karl Marx observed:

All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility […] Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer.

To his immense credit, Moore treats the latter perception less as an aphorism to be glibly quoted than as a key to a palpable, dialectical conflict in which we are, collectively, enmeshed. Likewise, recalling Marx’s earlier recognition of ‘the merciless vandalism’ with which land usage in both England and Germany had been standardised by way of ‘the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil’, Moore surveys the twenty-first-century vista of global, market-driven, genetically modified industrial agriculture as a field of combined ecological and material violence. He concludes:

We can say with some confidence that food – not just land – has become a central site of the world class struggle in a way that is entirely unprecedented, and unthinkable even three decades ago….. As neoliberalism’s [manufactured] definition of food has rolled out – shifting from the Green Revolution’s caloric metric to the ‘edible food-like substances’ that now line our supermarket shelves – it seems to have made food, and by extension nature, much more fundamental to the Old Left questions of liberté, égalité, fraternité than ever before. The class struggle of the twenty-first century will turn, in no small measure, upon how one answers the questions: What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?

So it is, Moore suggests, that campaigns for food justice, for ethical and non-industrialised farming, for environmental sustainability, for ecological restoration, all drive to the heart of the toxic, earth-spanning, wage-devouring monster that is the modern capitalistic world-order (or disorder). At the same time, these seemingly specialised movements challenge activists to sharpen our understanding of what we mean by – how we envision and situate ourselves, our resources and our relationships within – that horizon of political emancipation that draws us forward.

Moore’s critical perspective is illuminating, his meticulous dissection of capitalist accumulation most incisive when he relates his analysis to the tensions and contradictions of our present moment. Moore is refreshingly and emphatically opposed, for example, to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, for instance, who in an interview with the so-called Duke of Cambridge at the World Economic Forum at Davos last year stated that ‘the Anthropocene, or age of humans’ was effectively to blame for climate change.

William Windsor and David Attenborough seated at the World Economic forum. Attenborough is on the right and is making a point with raised hands in an animated gesture. Windsor looks like he is trying to contain a smirk. There is a backdrop of some large brown animals and a foreground of the tops of the heads of the audience.
David Attenborough and some inexpert but well-suited male at the World Economic Forum 2019.

‘The Anthropocene makes for an easy story’, Moore writes,

Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. The mosaic of human activity in the web of life is reduced to an abstract Humanity: a homogeneous acting unit. Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more, have been largely removed from consideration. At best, these relations are acknowledged, but as after-the-fact supplements to the framing of the problem.

Such skepticism of ‘The Anthropocene’ and its eloquently embedded public advocates in the Euro-American climate movement is well-founded, as even a cursory examination reveals: of Attenborough himself, who previously has posited famine as an acceptable natural check to the supposed ‘disaster’ of ‘overpopulation’ in the global South, or a figure like Michael Moore, whose most recent film gives credence to the same Malthusian and racist world-view.

By contrast, Moore’s work correctly pins the blame for impending climate collapse on the the globe’s expropriators-in-chief and the systematised practices that serve them, insisting that the fight for an ecologically sustainable society and future is by nature a struggle against ‘[i]nequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more’. Moore’s sober, but clear-eyed discovery is a valuable one: that we are both riven and empowered by our own interconnectedness; that with so much at stake, so much already lost and gone, disfigured and deranged, we still, together, have a world to win.

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