27th Jun, 2020
Christopher R. Cox, University of Washington
Jason W. Moore has been written off by an influential group of peers, unjustly in my opinion. Therefore, instead of writing another ruthless critique of Capitalism in the Web of Life, I attempted to show how the book is an important contribution to the ever-expanding world of Marxism. In this light, my review essay was indeed based on a positive reading of the book.1 There are some who believe that the Marxist framework should be reined in, clarified and codified, as opposed to being opened up to a leap into postmodernism, or post-anything. I disagree vehemently with that viewpoint, which is a source of righteous indignation for Alf Hornborg.
His reluctance to allow Marxism to take on new vistas that even Marx himself may or may not have dug into, highlights the sclerosis of Marxism within the walls of academe, and Hornborg’s role as hall monitor. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that Engels argued that readers of Marx’s writing ought not expect “fixed, cut-to-measure, once and for all applicable definitions” (Marx 1991: 103), for that is where the dialectic lives. There is a chasm of difference between the status-bound scholasticism of Hornborg’s Marxism and the politics of democratic knowledge production that Moore – and a global network of connected world-ecology scholars – advocates, even though Marxism is what connects them all. In his practice, Moore advocates, as does Haraway in her theoretical work, a move from the posthuman to the post-Human.2 Haraway situates that as a move away from the supposedly ‘objective’ – and usually white male – gaze from nowhere and everywhere, what she famously called the “God-trick” (Haraway 1988). This viewpoint opens modes of exploration for mutual connection and aid that are often deeply veiled or even shut down by the would-be holders of the knowledge of “acceptable Marxist theory”.
Hornborg made a point of noting that I was incorrect in stating that Bruno Latour is not mentioned in the book. He is correct. Latour is indeed mentioned, once, in a footnote simply to provide a citation for the idea that cultural studies scholars write of “hybrids, assemblages, and networks,” as a way of addressing the “arithmetic of Nature plus Society” (Moore, p. 33-34).3 Hornborg’s unfortunate pettiness is on display here, especially as he suggests that I am not “sufficiently familiar with Latour’s approach to recognise the affinity”. My point was very clear. Moore actually suggests, rightfully so in my view, that Latour and others in his lineage, do not actually go far enough in their attempt to “abandon the distinction between nature and society”, because that distinction is still quite strong in their work. Read a few pages of Latour’s famed ‘actor-network theory’ (Latour 2005) and you will see for yourself. He then cites Latour’s equally petty statement that the title of Moore’s book “restates succinctly the problem that [he is] trying to circumscribe.” Perhaps it would have pleased Hornborg more if Latour were written off by Moore, as opposed to given credit for being an important thinker in his own right. Crucially, I think Moore harmonises quite well with Latour’s notion that “we” were never modern (Latour 1993). It is possible to respect a fellow scholar and disagree with them at the same time.
In a turn toward the absurd, Hornborg states that my “mission is to reconcile Jason Moore4 and John Bellamy Foster”, which is patently false. In fact, I argue that it is not a reconcilable debate because it is not an actual point-counterpoint discussion. I state that it is a “non-debate” because Foster has “refused to engage in any meaningful way with Moore’s critiques”. Hornborg does not respond to my outlining of the analytical differentiations between the metabolic rift school of thought and that of world-ecology, nor to the well-documented dislike Foster seems to have for anyone who suggests Moore’s work is useful.
Hornborg posits that I “rejoice” in the “holistic amorphousness” that Moore represents to him. Perhaps he is really onto something here! On the one hand, Moore is simplifying much of the complexity of capital in nature by always focusing so doggedly on the environment-making aspects of capital accumulation throughout the history of the post-feudal world, while, on the other hand, he is complicating the simplified language that the stagnant Marxism of academe has developed over the past forty years. An example of this complicating, in my view, is Moore’s term the Oikeios, which I did in fact point out as one of the terms I had a hard time coming to accept. It still makes me a little uneasy, but unlike Hornborg, I am giving Moore the benefit of the doubt here, because I do believe there is something useful in it. Not unlike the dark matter that holds the universe together - something we cannot actually see, but to which we have plenty of evidence of existence - there is a kind of amorphous socioecological substance that these “biosphereic configurations, cycles, and movements” (Moore 2015: 36) travel through. This dark matter of capital is what Hornborg is either very uninterested in considering or is just put off by the language that Moore uses in his attempt to describe. Which is it?
Hornborg seeks to “sort” the interconnections between “nature and socioecological processes”. He admits that Marxist discourse is “amoeba-like” in its struggle to “absorb the concerns of the day”, yet he vilifies Moore’s attempt to build a vocabulary that is appropriately amoeba-like as “fuzzy,” “dim,” and “post-humanist jargon.” Those who pass off a certain style of analytical writing as “jargon” rarely, in my experience, spend much time reading what is on offer. Post-humanist analysis suggests the generally not radical idea of thinking about socieoecological questions from a more-than-human perspective. It dares to argue that humans are not in fact the centre of the universe, and that humans are far more diverse creatures than we typically acknowledge. After all, what does “humanity” even mean? Post-human is thus a better term, because it also does away with the noxious idea of a unified identity called Humanity. Does Humanity include indigenous people, urban and rural impoverished minorities, non-Western women, Black and brown people living in a White supremacist police state? When ecological Marxists are lamenting the doings of “humans” to the planet, who exactly are they thinking about? This is where, in my opinion, most Marxists fail. Neither Moore nor Hornborg spend nearly enough time picking out exactly the people that have placed “Humanity” in the position it finds itself.
Post-humanism does not suggest that we leave humans in the lurch and relegate ourselves to the wild musings of, say, new materialism, even though I may personally welcome that turn! To the contrary, the notion that the Anthropocene – or the Age of Humanity – is marked not by the ruinous doings of the capitalist system, or any of the many ‘isms’ it puts to work for it, but “Humanity” as an inherently destructive species. This is most assuredly anti-human. Yes, Moore’s work is, in this sense, quite necessarily post-human, but not in the archaic interpretation that Hornborg seems to think it implies. Through his own overly simplistic rendering of Moore’s thinking, and post-humanism, he marks himself as a member of the Anthropocene gang that is against the human species. I am not sure that is intentional, but that is how it reads. This is perplexing, because in his own words: “Both Marxian and mainstream thought represent technological objects as empowered by their intrinsic properties, which derive from human ingenuity and tend to progress over time. To transcend this paradigm will be possible only through the kind of post-Cartesian perspective on material artefacts that has been championed by Bruno Latour” (Hornborg 2014). It could very well be that my understanding of Hornborg’s thinking is unclear, but from what I read of him in the past, I do not see him so diametrically opposed to Moore, but here we are.
Hornborg then goes on to bemoan my connecting of Moore’s work to that of Donna Haraway, as something I should be ashamed of. I acknowledge the lines of connection between their work as something I think is a great step in the right direction. After all, if the post-humanists are unable to interact with Marxists, we Marxists are going to continue to live on an isolated island of our own, constantly deemed irrelevant to the real crisis of the moment. Hornborg’s response to the notion that Moore’s work had made Marxism a bit more legible to the post-humanist scholar is to simply throw away the work of Haraway and others and cavalierly claim: “I do not think that this is an accomplishment to celebrate”. Hornborg offers no clear explanation for this, so the reader is left assuming it just his opinion that the work of Haraway, one of the most respected radical scholars of the past forty years, is somehow misguided.
Responding to Moore’s Oikeios, he writes: “It is difficult to see what is not to be included in this all-embracing term – except astronomical phenomena at sufficient distance from the Earth to not exert any influence on it”. Since when do astronomical phenomena have no influence upon the Earth? With facetiousness I am making a point. Hornborg’s reluctance to think holistically leads directly to his inability to think beyond scientific rationality, precisely the boundary that Haraway and others urge us to transcend. Whereas Marx was willing and able to think about capital as a relation, for example, Hornborg seems unable to think about nature as such. The general antagonism of anything not neatly categorisable is extraordinarily non-dialectical. It is true, however, that Moore could be more careful in his boundary-making practices, as could I. For example, the ‘capital-in-nature’ relation that runs throughout Moore’s work, is hard to clearly visualise and explain, but that does not mean it is not an important and useful imaginary. Crucially, Moore has remained wide open to collaboration and exploration of the framework he has proposed, to the point at which many critical interpretations of his work have been published and then subsequently promoted by him. Where Hornborg seeks more categories, it would seem a great collaborative move to actually engage Moore directly and see how they might work together to clarify the modalities through which ‘capital-in-nature’ versus ‘capital-and-nature’ can be more usefully visualised.
Maybe the goal of trying to “sort out” the relation between nature and socioecological processes - a reductionist statement if there ever was one - is useless. Seeking clear lines of measurable connection between society and nature appears to me as a fruitless venture. It has, after all, gotten us nowhere. The capitalist world-system has only gotten stronger and more intertwined as we have studiously tried to show the separations between it and nature through all sorts of invented metrics. An ecological footprint is but a shadow in the fog when not placed in direct relation to the socioecological history that produced it.
Nature is either inclusive of everything, or exclusive of humans. We cannot have it both ways. What Moore and for that matter the post-humanists have accepted is that we humans do not do anything on our own. Hornborg terribly misinterprets Moore’s thinking here. Moore writes “Humans build empires on their own as much as beavers build damns on their own … neither exists in a vacuum” (Moore 2015, p. 7). He calls this an “audacious proclamation” that inadvertently seeks to “naturalize injustice”. To the contrary, by internalising capital to nature, we are dealing with the system itself, as a totality. When you tell a worker that capitalism is in the business of making nature (including humans) work for it, they get it. Even my eighth-grade geography students get what Moore means by this, while many scholars do not. This points to the chasm between not just the Hornborgs and Moores of the world, but the workers and the intellectuals. Moore’s language and writing style can be hard for many to get through easily, but within it there are brilliant, often very simple, imaginaries for unimaginably complex problems.
Hornborg goes on to make the bold assertion that “the fundamental philosophical flaw at the core of Capitalism in the Web of Life” is Moore’s failure to distinguish between ontological dualism and “binary analytical distinction,” a difference that he asserts I am missing in my reading of Moore. I am not. I am very cognisant of the difference. I just believe that those who do not come back to the dialectical whole are failing in their analysis, and thus falling into the trap of the Cartesian dualism I am told I don’t understand. On this, I am fully on board with Moore’s reading of the problem. Hornborg is not, and to him that means we are wrong. Furthermore, what Hornborg fails to understand about the world-ecology framing that Moore uses, is that nature is always “analytically distinct,” because he is constantly asking the question, how does capital make nature work for it? We can all acknowledge that capital demands the resources and ecological work of nature (inclusive of humans) to make rich white oligarchs increasingly powerful. What seems to be amiss is the ability to talk about how a system like capitalism is put to work entraining other systems within nature to behave in certain ways. Ecosystems do not exist in vacuums, and so our frameworks of analysis must not either.
It is clear from Hornborg’s assertion that I am “charmed” by Moore’s attempts to “think holistically about “world-ecology,” that he lacks even the most basic understanding of what “world-ecology” is. He also lacks the capacity to understand what I was doing in my essay. I’ll take the blame for that. World-ecology is an environmental historical argument and methodological approach to analysing capitalism as an environment-making regime – capitalism as ecology, not the ecology of capitalism. This is a crucial aspect of the world-ecology approach that Hornborg and many others seem wilfully blind to. In Moore’s own words, “capitalism is, rather, best understood as a world-ecology of capital, power, and re/production in the web of life” (Moore, p. 14). Perhaps I am missing something, but I do not see how that can be construed as thinking holistically about anything other than capital, power, and re/production. Nature, as a distinct analytical frame, in fact does regularly surface in Moore’s work, but it does so in ways that do not allow it to stay distinct, hence being anti-Cartesian. In this sense, words matter. Capital in nature is not the same thing as capital and nature. This simple ‘analytical distinction’ is rarely addressed by Moore’s detractors, including Hornborg.
Hornborg shows his underlying motive by stating that if Moore had simply stayed perfectly aligned with Foster’s metabolic rift thinking, “his position would have made more sense”. This, of course, comes right after reminding readers that Moore criticised him for “implying that Marx’s attention to ecology was less than perfect”. This is a highly uncharitable reading of an essay, now twenty years old, that praises Hornborg profusely. Moore (2000) simply argues that Hornborg does not go far enough in his outlining of Marx’s ecological thinking. He then goes on at great length to show what, in his view, is the deeply ecological thought process of Marx.5 A glaringly omitted point in this line of critique is the failure to notice or mention that Moore used the work of John Bellamy Foster to make his point. Not only is Hornborg reading into Moore’s critique something that is not there, but he is doing so in defence of someone who needs no defence. Foster has legions of people willing to go to war over his ideas.
Where my review essay of Moore’s book is based on a broadly positive reading, Hornborg’s response to that essay is one that reads like a wronged man seeking justice before a court of his intellectual peers. He is a tenured professor with a very good quality of life, yet his petulance glares off the page. What is it about Moore and his many compatriot thinkers that puts him off so much as to allow himself to treat Moore as a second-rate hack? Treating me like that – a not yet done PhD student – is nothing out of the ordinary in today’s academic universe, but to treat a highly successful and deeply published colleague in this way is deeply unprofessional. Perhaps instead of woefully bashing disagreeable Marxists and junior members of the now crumbling edifice of the academy, I endure to imagine a more collaborative approach to widening the field of play for differing Marxisms.
With all due respect to the good professor, it is downright off-putting to be told that I am “infatuated” with Moore’s holistic approach to Marxism.6 I am not infatuated with any analytical traditions, including historical materialism. I am simply open-minded to the usefulness any of them might have. This leaves very little room to see Hornborg as less than infatuated with challenging Moore, which surfaces as the fragility of ego, to which none of us is immune. Not unlike the hurt posture that Foster attacks Moore from, there is no recognition of Moore’s very prominent praising of both of their works over the years. Instead, there is the odious smell of indignation that Moore dare suggest there is something to criticise in their work. For Hornborg, anyone who dares to utilise Marxist analysis in a way that does not objectively place humanity and capital as working over and against nature, as opposed to within it as a totality, is doing a disservice to the veracity of Marx’s criticism of capital, and somehow to the dialectic. I find this logic fuzzy.
To conclude, let us re-consider what Hornborg has suggested. He has said that Moore’s approach (and mine by association) to the dialectic is confused, and this is evidenced by the fact that Moore’s work has opened the door to Marxism for post-humanist scholars. Karen Barad, an eminent scholar in this field, writes that “what often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all” (Barad 2007: 135). The capitalists rely on humans continuing to think and act as though we can neatly separate, or “sort,” the problems of nature and society. We cannot separate the deeply interdependent processes of production and nature any more than we can separate white supremacist policing and the capitalist establishment in America. Watch, as it all burns while the intellectual gatekeepers of anti-humanist Marxism do the work of the capitalists for them.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.
Cox, Christopher R. 2020. ‘Resuscitating the Dialectic: Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital in the Supposed “Age of Man”’, Historical Materialism, published online Feb. 4, 2020.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Fall 1988).
Hornborg, Alf. "Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism." Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 4 (2014): 119-40.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Marx, K., Engels, Friedrich, Mandel, Ernest, & Fernbach, David. Capital : A Critique of Political Economy. Volume Three, [The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole]. London: Penguin Classics, 1991.
Moore, Jason W. 2000. ‘Marx and the Historical Ecology of Capital Accumulation on a World Scale: A Comment on Alf Hornborg’s “Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process”’, Journal of World-Systems Research, 6(1):133-138.
Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.
- 1. http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/book-review/resuscitating-dialectic-moores-capitalism-web-life-ecology-and-accumulation-capital
- 2. I would like to thank Alan P. Rudy for helping me thing through this notion, as well as other issues that have come up in this set of essays.
- 3. This was part of larger literature review of how various strands of thought dualism and dilaectics.
- 4. I must also point out that his use of the great John Bellamy Foster’s middle name, while omitting Jason W. Moore’s middle initial (which he emphatically asks people to use, because there are so many “Jason Moores” in the world) is emblematic of the turf war that Hornborg seems to have been drafted into. We are scholars, and thus words matter. How we refer to each other matters as well.
- 5. Further, was this not the goal of Foster’s great work in Marx’s Ecology?
- 6. This also takes no accounting of the fact that I have utilised a wide swathe of frameworks in my own scholarship, including feminist new materialism, post-humanism, post-colonialism, indigenous knowledge, discourse analysis, environmental political theory, and anarchist geography. I have described my own approach to scholarship as “open at the top,” meaning I could not care less about what something is called, if I think it is useful analytically.