30 October 2020

Rigorous Suppression of Intellectual Creativity: Responding Again to Alf Hornborg


Christopher R. Cox, University of Washington, Seattle

Jimmy Hendrix famously played the American National Anthem out of tune, with distortion, and added an improvised section. Donna Haraway dared to use the image of the cyborg as the canvas on which to paint a radical feminist theory of gender that is non-binary to the point of being posthuman.1 In both cases, there are those who seek to suppress the creativity and originality of thought at the root of these interventions. Squashing creative and original work has always been a tool of the elite establishment to keep itself secure in its place of power. Alf Hornborg has shown himself to be a leading member of this establishment in his willingness to smear those he sees as his opponents in his viewing of world environmental history, Jason W. Moore and presumably myself, being two of them.

            Hornborg outright condemns what he sees as a “fashionable posture” among the many students who have found interest in reading Moore. I will give him the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that he is having bout of “explicit frustration,” because there is a clear absence of what is usually thought of as “rigorous analysis”.2 At the foundational level, we can all agree that opinion does not equate to analysis, no matter how strongly it is held. Nevertheless, Hornborg seems content to suggest that all the students who are reading Moore – many of whom, I might add, are finding their way to Marx through Moore – are all just useful idiots in a grand scheme of dumbing down the level of analysis in Marxist circles. To put it more bluntly, I will use Hornborg’s own words. He claims these students all over the world that are reading Moore’s work are but a “category of students who have been persuaded that a revolt against the injustices of capitalism must entail jettisoning rigorous analytical thought”.3 When I first read that sentence I was tempted to put down the essay and just let him have the last word in this rather unproductive debate we are having. Nevertheless, there is more to attend to. Hornborg’s ‘rigorous analysis’ was apparently suspended when he stated that Marx failed “to see that exploitation could also take the form of draining another society’s natural resources”.4 With a statement like that I am left wondering how he could call himself a Marxist.

Crucially, he does not even attempt to analyse my arguments, or, for that matter, Moore’s arguments, yet he assumes that I must engage all his. He seems to want to subject to critique only the phraseology that Moore uses, and then just moves back, repeatedly, to the work of this mysterious group of students of Moore’s who are ruining Marxism for him. Who are they? What exactly is their research doing and not doing? He claims it is “posthuman”, but, again, does not define this term in the context of his critique. I pointed out his willingness to shame these unnamed people as “deeply unprofessional,” which he took offence to. Point taken. Perhaps the more appropriate term would be amateurish, because what I called unprofessional was his willingness to treat Moore, a highly competitive colleague in the field, as some sort of fraud with a large and sycophantic following of students. It is, indeed, an amateur move to downplay the work of people you have clearly not even read. I maintain my questioning of how much he has read of Moore’s work. For example, the first fifty pages ofCapitalism in the Web of Life reads like a critique of Latour, whom Andreas Malm (Hornborg’s past student) claims Moore is somehow mimicking.5 Let me be clear, I did, in fact, suggest that Moore and Latour harmonise around the idea of breaking down the Cartesian divide between humans and nature, but is far from stating that Moore is some sort of Latourian.

Hornborg’s rebuttal of my assertion that he is “reluctant to allow Marxism to take on new vistas” was to remind me, as though I surely must have read everything he has ever written, that he produced three articles in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism that specifically argued that Marxists should “take on new vistas”. Perhaps a keyword search of Hornborg’s many published works would have been in order there? On the other hand, if I had done that, I might claim a bit of sarcasm, since my point was clearly missed. He then says something interesting that we might both agree upon: “Marxist theory certainly deserves to be calibrated with new theoretical approaches –whenever they add clarity to its core concern with exploitation.” Except, he then states, amazingly, that his chosen approach – the ‘theory of ecologically unequal exchange’ – adds clarity, while posthumanism does not. What this has to do with Marxism is a mystery to me. As Moore wrote, long ago in response to Hornborg: “Capital accumulation has many faces but only onelogic—expand or die. It exploits the environment only through the exploitation of labor power.”6 Sadly, this is a crucial area of Moore’s work that Hornborg has refused to engage with. That is, the notion that labour is performed not only by humans in society, but by nature itself (i.e. the work of the river, the tree, the soil). Moore utilised the term work/energy to analytically separate human labour from extra-human labour.7 Whereas Hornborg would likely point to this as evidence of Moore’s posthumanism, Moore would simply posit this as a reality of capitalism as environmental history, as opposed to the environmental history of capitalism.8

Writing in the last paragraph of his rejoinder that “much of the humanities and social sciences have submitted to a cult of the preposterous posthumanist argument that there is no such thing as “nature” or “society”, we begin to see what he means by “posthumanism”. Is he serious here? Maybe some citations of so-called ‘posthumanists’ who have suggested that both analytical categories do not exist would help his argument. Otherwise, I will just have to assume that he has not read the long list of historians, political ecologists, philosophers, and postcolonial theorists who have spilt truck-loads of ink explaining why the categories ‘nature’ and ‘society’ are merely social abstractions that allow for the continuance of the annihilation of all that stand in the way of capital accumulation.9 Very few writers of the Marxist persuasion have suggested that “nature” and/or “society” do not exist, while I know of many who have written that perhaps they ought not, because their mere existence perpetuates the ongoing environmental history of social and ecological annihilation.10 The early imperialist adventures of capitalism, in other words, could not possibly exist without the social constructions of “nature” and “society”. This is another way of saying that capital’s exterminist logic falters where there is not an implicit understanding that “nature” is the storehouse of land, labour, and resources that “society” is free to appropriate. It is only possible if “nature” and “society” are accepted as, at the least, analytically discrete categories. If the goal is to challenge capitalism, it would seem we ought to challenge the continued use of these categories. But that would be ideological, and ideology seems to be something that Hornborg is against?11

Hornborg claims that I did not understand his point about the difference between Cartesian dualism and binary analytical distinction, because I argued that nature is inclusive of capital, while, at the same time, capital makes nature work for it – an argument that is threaded throughout all of Moore’s work. He clearly does not understand the point I was trying to make either, which is this: binary analytical distinction is an abstraction from the whole. Cartesian binary distinction suggests material separation, as well as categorical separation. In my view – and perhaps this is just an area of distinction between Hornborg’s and my own interpretation of the dialectic – analytical distinction is always brought back to the whole when doing the analysis. Thus, capital is indeed always in nature and nature is alwaysin capital, but that does not mean we cannot consider them as analytically distinct categories when attempting to analyse how one is affected by the other. Hornborg seems to not like the messiness that this implies. However, in the real world, messiness is everywhere. Clarity is frankly nowhere. It is glaringly obvious that Hornborg does not understand this basic premise of what I was writing. This is made clearer when he strangely asserts that implicitly claim that capital isnot a phenomenon contained in nature, yet he provides not evidence for this statement.

There are many other claims made in Hornborg’s response to my initial rebuttal, but, in the interest of time, I will end by addressing only one more. As is the case with several other statements I made in the rebuttal, there was no direct interaction with my argument beyond suggesting that there is something Hornborg wrote that I should go read. He writes: “A third irony is that Cox appears to think that he needs to remind me that the “humans” responsible for the Anthropocene are a global minority. He is obviously not aware of the article that Andreas Malm and I wrote for The Anthropocene Review, currently cited over 700 times, which makes exactly this point.” Incredibly, this comes presumably as a response to the paragraph in which I point out that Hornborg had written in the past that“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”.12 In that same paragraph, I point out that Hornborg’s overly-simplified reading of Moore makes him appear like many of the Anthrpocenics who do not possess the analytical rigour necessary to move beyond the behaviour of human beings in absentia of the systems under which they operate. Absurdly, he then suggests that I am unaware that Moore did not “invent” the termCapitalocene. This blatant pettiness is uncalled for and quite ironic, considering one of the better outlines of the origin of the wordCapitalocene comes from Donna Haraway.13  

If there is one lesson I have learned in this intellectual dance, it is that the attack of yet another senior scholar telling a new generation of scholars that their work is not ‘rigorous’ enough needs to be retired. The suppression of creativity and originality of thought in academia (and beyond) has no place in a world where existing scholarship has thus far had a net zero effect on the footprint of the capitalist system. Let the siren call be heard: the new generation of Marxists will not be deterred from exploring all possible ways forward, even if it marks them as unworthy in the eyes of the academically established elites.





Bakker, Karen, and Gavin Bridge 2006, “Material Worlds? Resource Geographies and the matter of Nature’”, Progress in Human Geography 30 (1): 5–27.

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Bender, Frederic L. 2003, The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books.

Brantlinger, Patrick 2003, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930. Ithica and London: Cornel University Press.

Braun, Bruce 2002, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. U of Minnesota Press.

Bucher, B. 2014, “Acting Abstractions: Metaphors, Narrative Structures, and the Eclipse of Agency.” European Journal of International Relations 20 (3): 742–65.

Cox, Christopher 2015, “Faulty Presuppositions and False Dichotomies: The Problematic Nature of ‘the Anthropocene.’” Telos, no. 172: 59–59.

Cronin, William 1996, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69–91. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Haraway, Donna 2015, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6 (1): 159–65.

Hornborg, Alf 1998, “Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process.” Journal of World-Systems Research 4 (2): 169-.

Malm, Andreas. n.d. “In Defence of Metabolic Rift Theory.” Versobooks.Com. Accessed September 27, 2020.

Merchant, Carolyn 1980, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row Publishers.

Moore, Jason W. 2000, “Commentary.” Journal of World-Systems Research, 133–38. doi:10.5195/jwsr.2000.234.

Moore, Jason W. 2003, “CAPITALISM AS WORLD-ECOLOGY: Braudel and Marx on Environmental History.” Organization & Environment 16 (4). Sage Publications: 431–58.

Moore, Jason W. 2015, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. 1st edition. New York: Verso.

Morton, Timothy 2013, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press.

Narchi, Nemer E. and Beatriz Canabal Cristiani 2015, “Subtle Tyranny Divergent Constructions of Nature and the Erosion of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Xochimilco.” Latin American Perspectives 42 (5): 90–108.

Neumann, Roderick 1998, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pierotti, Raymond, and Daniel Wildcat 2000, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge: The Third Alternative (Commentary).” Ecological Applications 10 (5): 1333.

Preston, Christopher J. 2012, “Beyond the End of Nature: SRM and Two Tales of Artificity for the Anthropocene.” Ethics, Policy & Environment 15 (2): 188–201.

Spence, Mark David 1999, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. OUP E-Books. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image:“pisces” bynarghee-la is licensed underCC BY 2.0


  • 1. Haraway [1991] 2016.
  • 2. He uses this phrase but does not attempt to define it for the reader. Further, “rigorous” is a term frequently used to suppress creative intellectual work in all fields of academia.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Hornborg 1998: 72.
  • 5. Malm 2018. I should point out, however, that I think Malm is a very gifted writer. His unwillingness to engage in a generative way with Moore is, in my view, a lost opportunity.
  • 6. Moore 2000: 138.
  • 7. Moore 2015: 14-15, 29. I also wrote at length about this in my original review essay.
  • 8. Moore 2003.
  • 9. Bakker and Bridge 2006; Barad 2007; Morton 2013; Bucher 2014; Cox 2014. Then there is the lively ongoing discussion about what constitutes “wilderness,” which also challenges many understandings of “nature.” See Cronin 1996; Neumann 1998; Spence 1999; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Braun 2002; Narchi and Cristiani 2015.
  • 10. Merchant 1980; Brantlinger 2003; Bender 2003; Preston 2012.
  • 11. It strikes me as highly ironic that someone who claims to be a Marxist is wagging his finger at another Marxist who he claims is putting ideology to work.
  • 12. Hornborg 2014.
  • 13. Both Haraway 2015 and Moore 2015 explain the role of Malm in the origins of the term. Additionally, in my forthcoming dissertation The Productivore’s Dilemma, I also go into some depth about this.