NANCY FRASER IN NLR ON ECO-SOCIALISM PART II

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28 february 2021


Climates of Capital
For a Trans-Environmental Eco-Socialism
Part II

Nancy Fraser, New Left Review, 127

An analogous contradiction dogs the relation in capitalist society between ‘the economic’ and ‘the political’. On the one hand, a capitalist economy necessarily relies on a host of political supports: repressive security forces that contain dissent and enforce order; legal systems that guarantee private property and authorize accumulation; multiple public goods that enable private firms to operate profitably. Absent these political conditions, a capitalist economy could not exist. But capitalism’s way of relating economy to polity is also destabilizing. Splitting off the private power of capital from the public power of states, this arrangement incentivizes the first to hollow out the second. Firms whose raison d’être is endless accumulation have every reason to evade taxes, weaken regulation, privatize public goods, offshore their operations—and thus to undermine the political prerequisites for their own existence. With the cannibal again primed to devour its own preconditions, a tendency to political crisis is installed at the very heart of capitalist society.footnote6

Here, then, are two further contradictions of capital, which also follow the 4–D logic of division, dependence, disavowal and destabilization. Considered in this light, as analytical abstractions, they closely parallel the ecological contradiction dissected here. But that formulation misleads. The three contradictions do not in fact operate in parallel but, rather, interact with one another—and with the economic contradictions diagnosed by Marx. In fact, the interactions between them are so intimate and mutually constitutive that none of them can be fully understood in isolation from the others.

Consider that the work of social reproduction is deeply concerned with matters of life and death. Care of children encompasses not only socialization, education and emotional nurturance but also gestation, birthing, postnatal tending to bodies and ongoing physical protection. Likewise, care for the sick and dying is focused on healing bodies and easing pain as well as on providing solace and assuring dignity. And everyone—young or old, sick or well—depends on carework to maintain shelter, nutrition and sanitation for both physical well-being and social connection. In general, then, social-reproductive work aims to sustain beings who are simultaneously natural and cultural. Confounding that distinction, it manages the interface of sociality and biology, community and habitat.

Social reproduction is thus intimately entwined with ecological reproduction, which is why so many crises of the first are also crises of the second—and why so many struggles over nature are also struggles over ways of life. When capital destabilizes the ecosystems that support human habitats, it jeopardizes caregiving as well as the livelihoods and social relations that sustain it. Conversely, when people fight back, it is often to defend the entire eco-social nexus at a single stroke, as if to defy the authority of capitalism’s divisions. Eco-critical theorists should follow their example. We cannot adequately understand capitalism’s ecological contradiction unless we think the latter together with its social-reproductive contradiction. Although the system works to separate both nature and care from the economy, it simultaneously sets in motion extensive interactions among them. These interactions deserve a prominent place in the eco-critical theory of capitalist society.

The same point holds for the ecological and the political, which are also intimately linked in capitalist society. It is public powers, usually states, which supply the legal and military framework which enables capital to expropriate natural wealth gratis or on the cheap. And it is to public powers that people turn when ecological damages become so immediately threatening that they can no longer be ignored. It is states, in other words, that capitalist societies task with policing the boundary between economy and nature: with promoting or restraining ‘development’, with regulating or deregulating emissions, with deciding where to site toxic-waste dumps, whether and how to mitigate their effects, whom to protect and whom to place in harm’s way.

Struggles over the relation between economy and nature are thus unavoidably political—in more than one sense. Typically focused on the concrete policies that states should pursue in order to protect nature from economy, they often turn into conflicts over the limits of public power, its right and capacity to rein in private (corporate) power. Also at stake in such struggles is jurisdiction: the proper scale and agency for intervention in matters, such as global warming, that are by definition trans-territorial. Likewise at issue is the grammar of nature: the social meanings attributed to it, our place within it and relation to it. Finally, what looms behind every eco-contest is the all-important meta-political question: who exactly in society should determine those matters? At every level, therefore, the nature-economy nexus is political. We cannot understand the ecological dimension of capitalism’s current crisis unless we grasp its interactions with the political strand. Nor can we hope to resolve the first without also resolving the second.

The ecological is also entangled, finally, with capitalism’s constitutive division between exploitation and expropriation. Corresponding roughly to the global colour line, that division marks off populations whose social-reproduction costs capital absorbs, through the payment of wages, from those whose labour and wealth it simply seizes, without compensation. Whereas the first are positioned as free rights-bearing citizens, able to access (at least some level of) political protection, the second are constituted as dependent or unfree subjects, enslaved or colonized, unable to call on state protection and stripped of every means of self-defence. This distinction has always been central to capitalist development, from the era of New World racialized chattel slavery to that of direct-rule colonialism, to postcolonial neo-imperialism and financialization. In each case, the expropriation of some has served as a disavowed enabling condition for the profitable exploitation of others.footnote7

But expropriation has also served as a method by which capital accesses energy and raw materials very cheaply, if not for free. The system develops in part by annexing chunks of nature for whose reproduction costs it does not pay. In appropriating nature, however, capital simultaneously expropriates human communities, for whom the confiscated material and befouled surrounds constituted a habitat, their means of livelihood and the material basis for their social reproduction. These communities thus bear a hugely disproportionate share of the global-environmental load; their expropriation affords other (whiter) communities the chance to be sheltered, at least for a while, from the worst effects of capital’s cannibalization of nature. The system’s built-in tendency to ecological crisis is therefore tightly linked to its built-in tendency to create racially marked populations for expropriation. In this case too, eco-critical theory cannot adequately understand the first apart from the second.

All told, capitalism’s ecological contradiction cannot be neatly separated from the system’s other constitutive irrationalities and injustices. To ignore the latter by adopting the reductive ecologistic perspective of single-issue environmentalism is to miss the distinctive institutional structure of capitalist society. Dividing economy not only from nature but also from state, care and racial/imperial expropriation, this society institutes a tangle of mutually interacting contradictions, which critical theory must track together, in a single frame. As we shall see, that conclusion gains additional support when we shift our focus to history.
nature: a terminological excursus

First, however, a word about ‘nature’. Widely recognized as slippery, that term has appeared in the preceding pages in two different senses, which I now propose to disaggregate, before introducing a third. In speaking of global warming as a brute reality, I have assumed a conception of nature as the object studied by climate science: a nature that ‘bites back’ when carbon sinks are flooded, operating via biophysical processes that proceed behind our backs, independently of whether or not we understand them. That scientific-realist conception—call it Nature I—is at odds with another meaning I invoked to explain capitalism’s ecological contradiction. ‘Nature’ there was referenced from capital’s viewpoint, as the ontological other of ‘Humanity’: a collection of stuff, devoid of value, but self-replenishing and appropriable as a means to the systemic end of value expansion. That conception—call it Nature II—is a construct of capitalism, historically specific to it, but by no means a simple fiction or mere idea. Operationalized in the dynamic of capital accumulation—which also proceeds systemically, independently of our understanding—it has become a potent force with momentous practical consequences for Nature I. Much of my argument to this point has sought to illuminate the catastrophic hijacking of Nature I by Nature II in capitalist society.

Now, however, as we turn to history, we are poised to meet yet another conception of nature. This one, Nature III, is the object studied by historical materialism: concrete and historically changing, always already marked by prior metabolic interactions among its human and nonhuman elements. This is nature entangled with human history, shaped by and shaping the latter. We see it in the transformation of biodiverse prairies into monocultural farm lands; in the replacement of old-growth forests by tree plantations; in the destruction of rainforests to make way for mining and cattle ranching; in the preservation of ‘wilderness areas’ and the reclamation of wetlands; in farmed animals and genetically modified seeds; in climate- or ‘development’-induced species migrations that trigger zoonotic spillovers of viruses—to cite examples from the (relatively short) capitalist phase of the Earth’s history. Jason Moore evokes the idea of Nature III when he proposes to replace the uppercase singular ‘Nature’ with the lowercase plural ‘historical natures’ in his groundbreaking Capitalism in the Web of Life.footnote8 I shall use Moore’s expression in what follows, along with the adjective ‘socio-ecological’, to portray the society-nature interface as an interactive historical nexus—a nexus that capital has tried to control and now threatens to obliterate.

This third conception of nature, as inextricably entangled with human history, will be front and centre in the following step of my argument, which situates capitalism’s ecological contradiction historically. But that focus by no means excludes or invalidates Nature I or Nature II. Contra Moore, both of those conceptions are legitimate—and compatible with Nature III.footnote9 And both will find a place in my story—whether as ‘objective’ historical forces that operate behind our backs or as (inter)‘subjective’ beliefs that motivate our actions. We’ll see, too, that the beliefs collide with one another—and with other, subaltern understandings of nature, yet to be identified, but also possessing the capacity to ‘bite back’—in this case, through social struggle and political action. In sum, we need all three conceptions of nature working in concert to chart the historical career of capitalism’s ecological contradiction
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2. socio-ecological regimes of accumulation

To this point, I have elaborated capitalism’s tendency to ecological crisis in structural terms, as if it existed outside of time. In reality, however, this tendency finds expression only in historically specific forms or, as I shall call them, ‘socio-ecological regimes of accumulation’. I use that phrase to designate the various phases whose succession forms capitalism’s history. Each regime represents a distinctive way of organizing the economy-nature relation. Each features characteristic methods of generating energy, extracting resources and disposing of waste. Likewise, regimes exhibit distinctive trajectories of expansion—ways of annexing previously external chunks of nature through historically specific mixes of conquest, theft, commodification, nationalization and financialization. Finally, regimes develop characteristic strategies for externalizing and managing nature: methods of offloading damages onto families and communities that lack political clout or are deemed disposable; and schemes for distributing responsibility for mitigation among states, intergovernmental organizations and markets. What makes a regime distinctive, then, is where it draws the line between economy and nature and how it operationalizes that division. Equally important, as we shall see, are the concrete meanings a regime ascribes to nature—in theory and practice.

None of these matters is given once and for all with the advent of capitalism. Rather, they shift historically, often in times of crisis. Those are times when the long-brewing effects of capitalism’s ecological contradiction become so apparent, so insistent, that they can no longer be finessed or ignored. When that happens, the established organization of the economy-nature relation appears dysfunctional, unjust, unprofitable or unsustainable and becomes subject to contestation. The effect is to incite broad struggles among rival political blocs with competing projects for defending or transforming that relation. When they do not end in stalemate, such struggles may install a new socio-ecological regime. Once in place, the new regime provides provisional relief, overcoming at least some of its predecessor’s impasses, while incubating new ones of its own, whose effects will become apparent later, as it matures. That outcome is guaranteed, insofar as the new regime fails to overcome capitalism’s built-in tendency to ecological crisis, but merely defuses or displaces it, however creatively.

That, at any rate, is the scenario that has prevailed to date. As a result, capitalism’s history can now be viewed as a sequence of socio-ecological regimes of accumulation, punctuated by regime-specific ‘developmental’ crises, each of which is resolved provisionally by the successor regime, which in due course generates a developmental crisis of its own.footnote10 Later, we shall consider whether this sequence may now be coming to an end, thanks to a deeper dynamic that subtends it: namely, the epochal trans-regime progression of global warming—cumulatively escalating, seemingly implacable, and threatening to stop the whole show. Whatever we say about that, there is no denying that the economy-nature division has mutated several times in the course of capitalism’s history, as has the organization of nature. My principal aim in this section is to chart these shifts—and the crisis dynamics that drive them.

The historical career of capitalism’s ecological contradiction spans four regimes of accumulation: the mercantile-capitalist phase of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries; the liberal-colonial regime of the nineteenth and early twentieth; the state-managed phase of the second third of the twentieth century; and the current regime of financialized capitalism. In each of these phases, the economy-nature relation has assumed a different guise, as have the crisis phenomena generated by it. Each regime, too, has precipitated distinctive types of struggles over nature. Yet one thing has remained constant throughout. In each case, eco-crisis and eco-struggle have been deeply entwined with other strands of crisis and struggle, also grounded in structural contradictions of capitalist society.

Animal muscle

I begin with mercantile capitalism—and with the question of energy. In that phase, agriculture and manufacturing ran almost entirely on animal muscle, both human and otherwise (oxen, horses, etc.), plus some wind and water, just as they had for millennia. Continuous in this respect with precapitalist societies, mercantile capitalism was what J. R. McNeill calls a ‘somatic’ regime: the conversion of chemical into mechanical energy occurred inside the bodies of living beings as they digested food, which originated from biomass.footnote11 This meant that, as in earlier eras, the only way to augment available energy was through conquest. Only by annexing land and commandeering additional supplies of labour could mercantile-capitalist powers increase their forces of production. In the event, they made ample use of those time-tested methods, but on a vastly expanded scale that encompassed the ‘New World’ as well as the ‘Old’.

In the periphery, then, mercantile-capitalist agents installed brutal systems of socio-ecological extractivism. From the silver mines of Potosí to the slave plantations of Saint-Domingue, they worked land and labour to the point of exhaustion, making no effort to replenish what they expended.footnote12 Electing instead to devour new human and nonhuman ‘inputs’ forcibly incorporated from ‘the outside’, they left trails of environmental and social wreckage across whole continents. Those on the receiving end fought back with varying degrees of success. Aimed at countering wholesale assaults on habitats, communities and livelihoods, their resistance was necessarily integrative. Whether communalist, counter-imperial or republican, it combined what we would now call ‘environmental’ struggles with struggles over labour, social reproduction and political power.

In the metropole, meanwhile, capital scaled up by other means. Forcible land enclosures in England facilitated the conversion of farmland to sheep pasture, enabling expanded manufacture of textiles even in the absence of mechanization. That shift in land use and property regime converged with a major round of administrative state-building in the sixteenth century—and with a world-changing scientific revolution in the seventeenth. The latter gave us the mechanical view of nature, an early version of Nature I that was instrumental in the creation of Nature II. Hardening distinctions inherited from Greek philosophy and Christianity, the mechanical view expelled nature from the cosmos of meaning, effectively replacing suppositions of socio-natural proximity with a deep ontological chasm. Objectified and externalized, Nature now appeared as Humanity’s antithesis—a view that seemed to some to license its ‘rape’.footnote13 As it turned out, philosophical ideas of this sort proved inessential to modern science and were eventually dropped from later versions of Nature I. But they found a second life in capital’s metaphysic, which posited Nature II as inert and there for the taking.

In general, then, mercantile capitalism articulated conquest and extractivism in the periphery with dispossession and modern science in the core. We could say, with the benefit of hindsight, that in this era capital was amassing biotic and epistemic forces whose larger productive potential would only become apparent later, with the advent of a new socio-ecological regime of accumulation.

King Coal


That regime began to take shape in early nineteenth century England, which pioneered the world-historic shift to fossil energy. Watt’s coal-fired steam engine opened the way to the world’s first ‘exosomatic’ regime: the first to take carbonized solar energy from beneath the crust of the Earth and convert it to mechanical energy outside of living bodies. Tied only indirectly to biomass, the liberal-colonial regime appeared to liberate the forces of production from the constraints of land and labour. At the same time, it called into being a new historical nature. Coal, previously of interest only locally, as a substance to burn for heat, now became an internationally traded commodity. Extracted from confiscated lands and transported in bulk across long distances, energy deposits formed over hundreds of million years were consumed in the blink of an eye in order to power mechanized industry—without regard for replenishment or pollution. Equally important, fossilized energy provided capitalists with a means to reshape the relations of production to their advantage. In the 1820s and 30s, British textile manufacturers, reeling from strikes in the mills, shifted the bulk of their operations from place-bound hydropower to mobile steam—which also meant from country to city. In that way, they were able to tap concentrated supplies of proletarianized labour—workers with less access to means of subsistence and more tolerance for factory discipline than their rural counterparts.footnote14 Apparently, the cost of coal (which, unlike water, had to be bought) was outweighed by gains from intensified exploitation.

If coal-fired steam powered the industrial revolution in production, it also revolutionized transport. Railroads and steamships compressed space and quickened time, speeding the movement of raw materials and manufactures across great distances, thus accelerating capital’s turnover and swelling profits. The effects on agriculture were also profound. With hungry proletarians massed in the cities, there was money to be made from unsustainable, profit-driven farming in the countryside. But that arrangement greatly exacerbated the metabolic rift between town and country. Nutrients plundered from rural soil were not returned at the point of extraction but discharged into urban waterways as organic waste. Thus, the liberal-colonial regime exhausted farmlands and polluted cities in a single stroke.footnote15

This massive disruption of the soil-nutrient cycle epitomized capitalism’s ecological contradiction in its liberal-colonial phase. Equally emblematic was the response, as fixes purporting to solve Europe’s soil-depletion crisis served only to displace or exacerbate it. One improbable but profitable undertaking centred on guano. A new historical nature becomes a world commodity: that substance was scraped from steep rocky crags off the coast of Peru by semi-enslaved Chinese workers and shipped to Europe for sale as fertilizer—all to the principal benefit of English investors. One result was a series of anti- and inter-imperial wars for control of the trade.footnote16 Another, as deposits built up over centuries began to dwindle within a few decades, was the motive to invent and deploy chemical fertilizers, whose downstream effects include soil acidification, groundwater pollution, ocean dead zones and rising levels of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere—all deeply inimical to humans and other animals.

There is also a further irony. Fossil-fuelled production in the capitalist core expanded throughout the liberal-colonial era. But as the guano gambit showed, the appearance of liberation from land and animal muscle was an illusion. Exosomatic industrialization in Europe, North America and Japan rested on a hidden abode of somatic-based extractivism in the periphery. What made Manchester’s factories hum was the massive import of ‘cheap natures’footnote17 wrested from colonized lands by masses of unfree and dependent labour: cheap cotton to feed the mills; cheap sugar, tobacco, coffee and tea to stimulate the ‘hands’; cheap bird shit to feed the soil that fed the workers. Thus, the apparent savings of labour and land was actually a form of ‘environmental load displacement’—a shift in the demands placed on biomass from core to periphery.footnote18 Colonial powers ramped up the process by calculated efforts to wipe out man


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