Fred Murphy argues that John Bellamy Foster misrepresented and unfairly criticized Jason W. Moore in a recent C&C interview about ecological Marxism.
Ian Angus disagrees, and explains why he thinks Foster’s remarks were measured and accurate.
On June 6, Climate & Capitalism published an interview with John Bellamy Foster, in which he for the first time responded to nearly a decade of criticism from Jason W. Moore, who accuses Foster of “Cartesian dualism” and who promotes what he calls “world-ecology” as an alternative to the approach Foster is most associated with, metabolic rift theory and Ecological Marxism.
That article quickly jumped to the top of our “this year’s most-read” list, and we’re aware of much discussion of it on social media and elsewhere. Several readers took the time to write positive responses, elaborating on various aspects of the interview: their contributions can be read in the Comments section below the interview.
Fred Murphy, a historical sociologist who leads a study group at the Marxist Education Project in Brooklyn, disagrees with Foster’s criticism of Moore’s work. He submitted a critical comment to C&C, and posted it in the “Marxism, Science, the Anthropocene” group on Facebook.
His submission raises important and thoughtful questions, so we have moved it from the C&C Comments section and are posting it here, where it will reach a larger audience.
Ian Angus, editor of Climate & Capitalism, conducted the interview with Foster. Below Fred Murphy’s article he responds, arguing that Foster’s remarks were both measured and accurate.
As always, we welcome constructive and thoughtful discussion. Please read our Comments Policy before posting.
FRED MURPHY ON THE FOSTER INTERVIEW:
‘IN DEFENSE OF CAPITALISM IN THE WEB OF LIFE’
Let me preface this by affirming my respect and appreciation for the many contributions of John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus to ecosocialist thought, and especially Foster’s accomplishments in rehabilitating Marx and Engels as ecological thinkers. A study group I co-lead at the Marxist Education Project in Brooklyn, NY, recently spent several rewarding weeks on Foster’s Marx’s Ecology. We also devoted considerable effort to Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (hereinafter CWL). In the fall we aim to tackle both Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene and Moore’s edited collection Anthropocene or Capitalocene. While noting Moore’s differences with Foster on “Cartesian dualism” and “rift vs. shift,” our group did not dwell on these; we have found great value in both scholars and their works.
Hence I was taken aback by the sharp polemic Angus and Foster have aimed at Moore. It’s difficult to recognize the book that we read and the scholar I’ve come to know in the interview and comments above. I will leave “Cartesian dualism” to the philosophes, but I would like to point out here some key dissonances between Foster’s assertions and the content of Moore’s work.
Foster claims that Moore “essentially rejects all Green thought, including ecological Marxism or ecosocialism, for talking about ‘what capitalism does to nature’ instead of ‘how nature works for capitalism.’ For him, the central ecological problem is not the disruption of the Earth System, but the fact that natural resources have become more expensive, creating problems for the capitalist economy.”
To the contrary, Moore’s immanent critique of capitalism’s historical development with respect to nature incorporates and builds upon Green thought. At the same time, he seeks to deepen it further with a critique along three axes (none of which he imputes directly to Foster, by the way): “the reduction of humanity to a unified actor; the reduction of market, production, political, and cultural relations to ‘social’ relations; and the conceptualization of Nature as independent of humans, even when the evidence suggests the contrary.” (CWL, p. 6)
Moore proposes “a view of humanity as natural force [that] allows us to see new connections between human nature, global power and production, and the web of life. In an era of tightly linked transformations of energy, climate, food and agriculture, labor markets, urbanization, financialization, and resource extraction, the imperative is to grasp the inner connections that conduct flows of power, capital, and energy through the grid of capital accumulation — and in so doing, to shed new light on the limits of that very grid.” (CWL, p. 7)
Foster charges that Moore reduces capitalism’s “disruption of the Earth System” to “problems for the capitalist economy.” To the contrary, Moore shows how intimately these two moments are related, how all capital’s efforts to resolve its problems – historically and in the acute crisis now under way – lead inexorably to just such disruption. Foster ascribes to Moore the view that “ecological problems are reduced to the tap (or resource problem) for capitalism, downplaying or ignoring the larger problem of the sink, that is, how capitalism degrades and disrupts the entire Earth System, and imposes its wastes on it.” The following extended passage from CWL chapter 10 provides a prima facie refutation of the charge of “downplaying or ignoring” this problem:
“The cumulative and cyclical dimensions of nature-as-tap … are now meeting up with the cumulative dimension of nature-as-sink. Every great movement of appropriating new streams of unpaid work/energy implies a disproportionately larger volume of waste. That disproportionality has grown over time. The dimension of waste is therefore a crucial relation missing – to this point – from our simplified model of accumulation and crisis. Value and waste are dialectically bound, in a cumulatively disproportionate relation. … Urbanization, mining, and industry had been generating a rising volume of wastes since the sixteenth century, when contemporaries observed poisoned streams and befouled air amid the mining boomtowns of central Europe. … Agriculture has now moved to the pole position in the race to pollute the earth – in part because of its energy – and chemical-intensity, but also because its role in land clearance removes forests which would otherwise lock up carbon.
“Capitalism’s … wastes are now overflowing the sinks, and spilling over onto the ledgers of capital. Climate change, once again, is our most expressive instance of this phenomenon. Hence, the connection between biospheric ‘state shifts’ and accumulation crisis is more intimate than usually recognized. But I think there is another, deeper, historical-geographical problem that has not (yet) been sufficiently considered: the temporality of nature-as-tap differs significantly from the temporality of nature-as-sink. New primary production regimes, until now, could develop much faster than did waste-induced costs. Outrunning these contradictions was possible because there were geographical frontiers – not just continents, but bodily, subterranean, and atmospheric spaces – from which ‘free gifts’ could be extracted, and into which ‘free garbage’ could be deposited.
“There is, then, a fantastically non-linear dynamic at play. Capitalist technological advance not only produces a tendency for industrial production to run ahead of its raw materials supply – Marx’s ‘general law’ of underproduction. It also produces a general law of overpollution: the tendency to enclose and fill up waste frontiers faster than it can locate new ones. Thus the non-linear slope of the waste accumulation curve over the longue durée, with a series of sharp upticks after 1945, 1975, and 2008. As ‘resource quality – a wretched term – declines, it is not only more costly to extract work/ energy, it becomes more toxic.” (CWL, pp. 279-280)
In sum, Moore takes Foster’s concern over earth system dynamics as central, and on that basis builds out a series of connections to demonstrate how the biosphere’s tipping points, rooted in capital accumulation on a global and historical scale, are becoming quite problematic for capital – and of course, not only for capital but for working people, all humanity, and the earth itself. Whatever its shortcomings, Moore’s analysis is very much in the tradition of Marx, Luxemburg, and . . . Foster.
IAN ANGUS REPLIES:
‘FOSTER’S REMARKS WERE MEASURED AND ACCURATE’
Thank you for your kind words. I look forward to learning what your study group thinks of my new book: as I say in the Preface, I view it as “the beginning of a discussion, not a final declaration,” and I encourage “responses, amplifications, and, of course, disagreements.”
In the same spirit, I welcome your comments on my recent interview with John Bellamy Foster. Frank discussion of our differences can only strengthen the ecosocialist cause. I hope you’ll find my response of interest, even if you aren’t convinced.
When I read your comments, I was reminded of something the philosopher Agnes Heller wrote in her study of Marx’s views.
“I am quite sure that there is no such thing as an interpretation of Marx which is proof against being ‘contradicted’ by means of quotations. But I have put the word ‘contradicted’ in quotation marks quite intentionally. What interests me is the main tendency (or tendencies) of his thought.”
Heller’s words are relevant because, although you titled your comment “In defense of Capitalism in the Web of Life,” you chose to “leave ‘Cartesian dualism’ to the philosophes.” I sympathise with your distaste for obscure philosophical debate, but in this case Cartesian dualism is the proverbial elephant in the room. If we don’t understand Jason Moore’s dualism fixation, we can’t understand the “main tendency” of his thought, or put any supposedly contradictory passages in context.
In Moore’s works, “Cartesian dualism” is not just a baseless accusation leveled against Foster and other ecological Marxists, although it certainly is that. Moore believes that dualism is capitalism’s original philosophical sin, the ideology that made capitalism possible and protects it today. He is very explicit:
- “the binary Nature/Society is directly implicated in the colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world. … [T]he view of Nature as external is a fundamental condition of capital accumulation.”
- “The Nature/Society divide … was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.”
- “This dualism drips with blood and dirt, from its sixteenth-century origins to capitalism in its twilight.”
For Moore, dualism isn’t just a mistake, it is a fatal obstacle to progressive change: “efforts to transcend capitalism … will be stymied so long as the political imagination is captive to capitalism’s either/or organization of reality.” No “anti-systemic strategy” is possible so long as we remain “firmly encaged within the prison house of the Cartesian binary.”
When Moore accuses Foster and many others of dualism, he isn’t raising an obscure philosophical point, or admonishing them for minor infractions. He is saying that they are complicit in the “colossal violence, inequality, and oppression of the modern world,” and are preventing change. Metabolic theory, with which Foster is strongly identified, “is an eminently Cartesian way of seeing … [that] reproduces the very alienation of nature and society it seeks to transcend.” Foster’s analysis offers only a “millenarian view” that “disarms the left.”
That’s absurd and undialectical, not to mention insulting, but let’s set that discussion aside for now. The point is, that the main tendency of Moore’s thought is inextricably bound up with his obsession with dualism, real or imagined. We have to evaluate his work – and any quotations from it – with that in mind.
With that in mind, let’s consider the three specific concerns you have raised about the interview.
Building upon Green Thought?
Foster said Moore “essentially rejects all Green thought, including ecological Marxism or ecosocialism.” To the contrary, you say, Moore’s work “incorporates and builds upon Green thought.”
You quote a short passage in which Moore identifies three axes of concern with Green thought, and you say that Moore doesn’t impute any of his three concerns to Foster. One of them, however – “the conceptualization of Nature as independent of humans” – is exactly what Moore likes to call Cartesian dualism, and that’s his primary criticism of Foster. As I said, you can’t understand Moore if you leave that subject to the philosophes!
It’s true that Moore says he builds on Green thought, but in practice he displays disdain for Earth System science. He accepts the claim that climate activists like Bill McKibben have a “CO2 fetish,” and he says that Marxist historian Andreas Malm, author of the brilliant book Fossil Capital, suffers from “fossil fuel fetishism.” Even worse, he endorses social constructionist Bruce Braun’s bizarre charge that the Marxist environmentalist Elmar Altvater is guilty of the “ahistorical and apolitical” view that “the laws of thermodynamics are immutable.”
By far the most serious example of his rejection of Green thought is his response to the Anthropocene, a development that he himself says is “the most influential concept in environmental studies over the past decade.”
He has devoted several major essays, a long chapter in Capitalism in the Web of Life, and an edited book, to the Anthropocene – and none of them could reasonably be described as “building upon” the science. Typically, he offers a few sentences or paragraphs of faint praise, leading to pages of denunciation, all framed by the most damning criticism in his lexicon: “The Anthropocene argument shows Nature/Society dualism at its highest stage of development.”
As I’m sure you know, a major achievement of Anthropocene science has been its discovery that the present global crisis is unprecedented. As the most important synthesis report says, “The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of the species.”
Moore emphatically disagrees: “where the Anthropocene perspective goes wrong – so very, very wrong – is in its reckoning of the present conjuncture as unique.”
Moore says Anthropocene science has a “fundamental bourgeois character.” It is “analytically anemic,” and “a conceptual and historical mess” that is based on “a neo-Malthusian view of population” and “fanciful historical interpretations.”
His most outrageous claim: “The most celebrated Green concepts of our times – the Anthropocene and the ecological footprint …. have become tools of the bourgeoisie.”
If this is building upon green thought, I hate to think what tearing down might look like.
Foster said that for Moore, “the central ecological problem is not the disruption of the Earth System, but the fact that natural resources have become more expensive, creating problems for the capitalist economy.” You object that, on the contrary, Moore “shows how intimately these two moments are related.”
Moore believes that his “post-Cartesian worldview,” has enabled him to identify a kind of capitalist crisis that Marx and all Marxists have missed. According to his “unified theory of capitalist development and crisis over the longue durée,” what capitalists call inputs and Moore calls the Four Cheaps periodically become globally more expensive. This reduces what he calls the ecological surplus, forcing the entire capitalist world-ecology into crisis until it can reorganize into a new ecological regime. Capitalism, which Moore repeatedly says is “a way of organizing nature,” has to organize nature in a different way.
Marxist economists who haven’t incorporated his approach into their analyses of the 2008 financial crisis – Moore specifically names John Bellamy Foster, Robert McChesney, David Harvey, David McNally, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin – are guilty of “nature-blindness.”
Leaving aside whether his theory makes sense, does he show that the kind of crisis he describes is intimately related to “the disruption of the Earth System”? Is it true, as you say, that “Moore takes Foster’s concern over earth system dynamics as central”?
Well, no. Earth system dynamics are virtually absent from Moore’s work, and, as the foregoing discussion of Anthropocene science shows, the little he does say is hostile and dismissive. When Moore compares the two kinds of crisis, he is very clear about which one is important, and which one definitely is not. Far from showing them as intimately related, he counterposes them in thoroughly dualist terms:
“The problem today is the end of the Capitalocene, not the march of the Anthropocene. The reality is not one of humanity ‘overwhelming the great forces of nature’ … but rather one of capitalism exhausting its cheap nature strategy.”
Sinks and waste and the Earth System
Foster said that for Moore, “ecological problems are reduced to the tap (or resource problem) for capitalism, downplaying or ignoring the larger problem of the sink, that is, how capitalism degrades and disrupts the entire Earth System, and imposes its wastes on it.” You reply by quoting from a discussion of sinks and waste in Chapter 9 of Capitalism in the Web of Life. You call this a “prima facie refutation of the charge of ‘downplaying or ignoring’ this problem.”
So far as the word “ignoring” is concerned, I agree. Foster used the word informally, but I, as editor, should have corrected it. I apologize.
But he was not wrong to say downplaying.
I cannot find any other passage in Capitalism in the Web of Life – or anywhere else in Moore’s work, for that matter – that describes sinks and waste as a major environmental problem in our time. Of course it’s good that he discusses the issue at all, but if we compare this brief account with his extensive and highly detailed discussions of the environmental impacts of pre-industrial capitalism, the section you cite can only be called perfunctory. It is a digression in a book whose main tendency involves severe criticism of metabolic rift theorists for suggesting that capitalism might cause “earth-system breakdown or the end of civilization as we know it.” When Moore wrote that “catastrophism … runs like a red thread through Foster’s work,” he did not mean it as a compliment.
The passage you quote leads not into a discussion of the Earth System crisis, but to Moore’s claim that although “capitalism’s wastes are now overflowing the sinks, and spilling over onto the ledgers of capital…. many Greens [are still] unduly focused on what capitalism does to nature (the degradation question) rather than how nature works for capitalism.” (emphasis added)
So what we actually have here is yet another demonstration that, as Foster said, for Moore “the central ecological problem is not the disruption of the Earth System, but the fact that natural resources have become more expensive, creating problems for the capitalist economy.”
Fred, when I first read your comments on the interview I was concerned. Had Foster really misunderstood Moore’s views so badly? Had I as interviewer and editor been negligent? So I carefully reread both of Moore’s books and many of his essays. I even read his PhD thesis. I found much to admire, especially his research on the environmental impacts of early capitalism. At his best, he is a serious scholar with important things to say.
What I did not find was a Marxist, dialectical or materialist understanding of today’s ecological problems, much less of the crisis facing the entire Earth System. The “new paradigm” that Moore calls “world-ecology” is a mechanical schema, a Procrustean bed into which he force-fits reality, discarding anything that is inconvenient or contrary. Anyone who disagrees is charged with “Cartesian dualism,” no matter how inappropriate that label might be.
For the better part of a decade, John Bellamy Foster has been the principal target of that absurd and insulting criticism, and his long-delayed response is both measured and accurate.
Your interpretation of Moore’s work is generous. That’s to your credit: our first response to new radical ideas should always be positive and open, and we should always make allowances for less-than-perfect presentation. But such generosity can only take us so far: many contributions that initially seem progressive turn out, on further study, to be retreats or dead-ends. Reading Moore in light of the main tendency of his thought shows that in this case your generosity, though laudable, is unwarranted.
 Agnes Heller, The Theory of Need in Marx, (St. Martin’s Press, 1976) 22.
 Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, (Verso Books, 2015), 2. [hereinafter: CWL]
 Jason W. Moore, editor, Anthropocene or Capitalocene, (PM Press, 2016), 7. [hereinafter, AoC]
 CWL, 4.
 CWL, 2, 5.
 Jason W. Moore, “Transcending the Metabolic Rift: A theory of crises in the capitalist world-ecology,” (2011) 3. Consulted at http://www.jasonwmoore.com/Essays.html, June, 2016
 Jason W. Moore, “Putting Nature to Work: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and the Challenge of World-Ecology,” in Cecilia Wee, Janneke Schonenbach, and Olaf Arndt, eds., Supramarkt. (Irene Books, 2015). 18.
 Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part 1,” (2014) 13n, 13, 16. Consulted at http://www.jasonwmoore.com/Essays.html, June, 2016.
 AoC, 3.
 Will Steffen et al. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure, (Springer, 2004): 131.
 Moore, “Putting Nature to Work.” 19.
 AoC, 83, 88; CWL, 169n; Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I,” 3; Jason W. Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature,” (2014) 296. Both consulted at http://www.jasonwmoore.com/Essays.html, June, 2016.
 Moore, “Putting Nature to Work,” 30.
 Moore, “Transcending,” 2.
 Moore, “Transcending,” passim; CWL, Chapter 4. In Moore’s work, none of the italicized terms have anything to do with “ecology” as ecologists understand the word. He periodically invents new words and new meanings for old words, because, as he says repeatedly, a non-Cartesian worldview requires a new vocabulary.
 Moore “The Capitalocene, Part 2,” 15. Jason W. Moore, “The End of Cheap Nature,” 289. Both consulted at http://www.jasonwmoore.com/Essays.html, June, 2016.
 AoC, 113.
 I have searched diligently, so if there is such a discussion elsewhere in Moore’s work, it’s unlikely to be prominent.
 AoC, 79; Moore, “Transcending, 15.
 CWL, 279-80.