Monday, May 15, 2017

2612. Nature, Labor, and the Rise of Capitalism

By Martin Empson, Monthly Review, May 2017

Capitalism has, to put it mildly, a peculiar relationship with the natural world.1 Karl Marx perhaps summarized it best in the Grundrisse, where he wrote that with the rise of the capitalist mode of production, “for the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”2 In the same section, Marx notes that “capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society.”
This instrumentalized relation to the natural world contrasts sharply with the ways that nature was seen and used by earlier human societies. This novel interaction with nature arose from the violent social transformations that accompanied the development of capitalism in Western Europe, and expanded with the spread of that system to the rest of the world. Marx catalogued the many forms of plunder and destruction perpetuated by early capitalism as it remade the world in its image: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”3 Capital, he famously concluded, enters the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” as nature itself is subordinated to the needs of the system.4
In all historical societies, humans have had some form of metabolic interaction with nature. Through our labor, we have always transformed nature to satisfy our needs—indeed, as Marx puts it, the essence of labor is the “appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs”:
Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, thorough his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.5
Capitalism was a radical break with the past: for the first time, production of basic goods was driven by the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and not primarily to satisfy human needs. This system of generalized commodity production has also changed us. We are alienated from the natural world, as the products of our own labor are no longer under our own control. Our very perception of nature is shaped by an economic system that treats “the environment” as a collection of commodities to be exploited for profit.
This historical emphasis on our changing relationship with the natural world is not unique to Marxism, or even to the left. The great Whig historian G. M. Trevelyan believed that among other things, social history must be concerned with “the attitude of man to nature.”6 Colonial encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations of the Americas offer a vivid—and bloody—illustration of these changing attitudes. These interactions were, on the whole, enormously destructive for the people and ecology of the Americas. Millions died from disease or military conquest, communities and civilizations were destroyed, and many thousands were enslaved. Despite some European migrants’ vision of a land free from hierarchy and exploitation, the so-called New World rapidly came under the rule of capitalist social relations.7A corresponding change occurred in the ways people understood the land and used its resources.
In her classic book Myths of Male Dominance, the anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock studied the changing social structures of the Montagnais-Naskapi people of Canada after the arrival of the French fur trade in the seventeenth century. The Montagnais were an egalitarian, matrilocal society of hunter-gatherers, and their social relations were governed by “generosity, cooperation, and patience…those who did not contribute their share were not respected, and it was a real insult to call a person stingy.” Despite the upheavals the Montagnais had endured, Leacock still found vestiges of a quite different social organization during her twentieth-century fieldwork:
As far as I could see, decision-making on such important issues was a most subtle process—indeed an enigma to the fieldworker schooled in competitive hierarchies—whereby one found out how everybody concerned felt without committing oneself until one was fairly sure in advance that there would be common agreement. I was constantly struck by the…continual effort…to operate together unanimously…in the direction of the greatest individual satisfaction without direct conflict of interest.8
The Jesuit missionaries who accompanied the fur traders to Canada were horrified by Montagnais life, and set about trying to “civilize” the tribe. Within a decade, the old order began breaking down, as the economic base of Montagnais society was transformed. The European market for fur was enormous, and to meet this insatiable demand, traders offered the Montagnais and other indigenous peoples European goods in exchange for tens of thousands of pelts. The communities around the trading stations consequently grew dependent on French tools, weapons, clothing, and food. Filling French orders for fur meant that the Montagnais ceased to be hunters who spent large parts of the year travelling long distances; they instead became sedentary trappers. The collective, collaborative experience of hunting gave way to a more individualistic one, with single people managing traps and reaping the rewards. Before the Europeans’ arrival, the Montagnais had no notion of private property; now the land was divided into individually owned lots. Social relations changed too: under pressure from the Jesuits, the patriarchal European model of family life came to dominate, as women were forced out of their role as producers and men took on the primary task of trapping.
Similar changes occurred everywhere European traders went, as John F. Richards notes in his study of the commodification of animals. For instance, “although the Creeks adapted quickly and successfully to the new incentives of the deerskin trade, they…faced a basic contradiction. Economic and political forces made it imperative that they deliver a maximal number of deer skins every year. They became market hunters linked into the world market who used muskets to avidly pursue as many deer and bear as possible.”9
It is important not to romanticize the life of indigenous peoples before European arrival, lest we slip into old tropes of “noble savages” living in perfect harmony with nature. As Richards notes, evidence exists that in pre-contact times, Native Americans faced with an abundance of prey would kill more animals than they needed, to ensure they got the choicest food.
But this hardly compares with the scale of the slaughter of animals driven by European demand for fur and skins. As Richards puts it: “Once Indians were touched by the stimulus of market demand, any restraints they had previously maintained eroded rapidly. Pursuit of the material rewards offered by the fur traders forced Indians to hunt preferred species steadily, despite declining numbers…. What they became were commercial hunters caught up in the all-consuming market.”10
Even Europeans’ wide-eyed descriptions of the New World often read like catalogues of natural commodities. Thus the explorer Martin Pring, in his 1603 report on the island later named Martha’s Vineyard, seemed to be compiling a kind of shopping list of trees. Centuries of deforestation had made wood expensive in Europe, and Pring recognized the island’s potential riches:
As for Trees the Country yeeldeth Sassafras a plant of sovereigne vertue for the French Pox, and as some of late have learnedly written good against the Plague and many other Maladies; Vines, Cedars, Okes, Ashes, Beeches, birch trees, Cherie trees bearing fruit whereof we did eat; Hasels, Witchhasels, the best wood of all other to make Sope-ashes withall; walnut trees, Maples, holy to make Bird lime with and a kinde of tree bearing a fruit like a small red Peare-plum.11
Letters home from other visitors to the Americas include similar inventories of natural resources. Explorer James Rosier described coastal vegetation in Maine as “the profits and fruits which are naturally on these Ilands.”12
The transformation in attitudes toward nature that followed European arrival in the Americas mirrors that which accompanied the rise of capitalism in Europe. Keith Thomas has pointed out that in Tudor and Stuart times, “the long established view was that the world had been created for man’s sake and that other species were meant to be subordinate to his wishes and needs.”13 By way of illustration, Thomas cites a fanciful early seventeenth-century poem depicting animals as willingly heading off to their slaughter for human consumption:
The pheasant, partridge and the lark
Flew to thy house, as to the Ark.
The willing ox of himself came
Home to the slaughter, with the lamb;
And every beast did thither bring
Himself to be an offering
The separation of the people from the soil, one of the “original sources of wealth,” was a protracted and brutal one. Rural producers were turned into wage laborers. Many were pushed off the land into the growing towns and cities; others were forced to emigrate, often to the frontiers of capitalism in the New World. The remainder lost their traditional rural role, becoming wage laborers, as Marx recognized:
The immediate producer, the worker, could dispose of his own person only after he had ceased to be bound to the soil and ceased to be the slave or serf of another person…the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-laborers appears on the one hand as their emancipation from serfdom…. But on the other, these newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they have been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements.14
This new primacy of private property had to be enforced, and in England, Parliament enacted hundreds of new laws to encourage further enclosure and limit shared use of land. Such legislation was needed, as E. P. Thompson noted, because “property was not, in 1700, trenched around on every side by capital statutes.”15 Thompson referred specifically to the notorious 1723 Black Act, which criminalized unauthorized “hunting, wounding or stealing of red or fallow deer [in a forest, common lands, or Royal Park], and the poaching of hares, conies or fish.” The law imposed capital punishment on those found guilty of poaching.16
As the great agricultural trade unionist Joseph Arch noted, the act and other anti-poaching laws went beyond protecting private property to alter the ways that people used the country’s natural resources:
We laborers do not believe hares and rabbits belong to any individual, not anymore than thrushes or blackbirds do…. To see hares and rabbits running across his path is a very great temptation to many a man who has a family to feed…so he may kill a hare or a rabbit when it passes his way, because his wages are inadequate to meet the demands on them, or from dire necessity, or just because he likes jugged hare as well as anybody else.17
The Black Act was part of “making the world safe for English merchants and landlords to increase in wealth and so to contribute to the new power of the English state.”18
As in the Americas—though with far less bloodshed—such changes transformed social attitudes toward nature. Henry Best was an English yeoman farmer who saw his land triple in value through a process of enclosure in the mid-1600s. The author of several works on improved agricultural methods, Best had developed his own system for selling animals at optimal prices. All of this made him “intolerant” of the remaining communal traditions among his fellow villagers, and he refused to contribute to the shared hay stock for winter because “our hay would have been spent in feeding other men’s animals.” Best worked vigorously to ensure that other farmers’ animals did not stray onto his land, even keeping watch in the middle of the night. Deliberately isolating himself from his neighbors, Best represented an early case of the classic capitalist small landholder, driven by the desire to maximize his own profits at the expense of the wider community.19
The parceling up of the land in effect created private property where there was none before, and new restrictions on the use of nature by rural populations formed a foundational part of the new capitalist order, managed and protected by the state. As historian George Yerby writes, “the land was being pinned down, set at a conceptual distance, captured on the page and assessed in theory, rather than simply worked as a continuous, unbroken physical exercise.”20
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, an anonymous pamphlet circulated by the Diggers in 1648, complained bitterly of the rapid spread of enclosure:
All the Land, Trees, Beasts; Fish, Fowle, &c. are inclosed into a few mercinary hands; and all the rest deprived and made their slaves, so that if they cut a Tree for fire they are to be punished, or hunt a fowle it is imprisonment, because it is gentlemens game, as they say; neither must they keep Cattle, or set up a House, all ground being inclosed, without hyring leave for the one, or buying room for the other, of the chiefe incloser, called the Lord of the Mannor, or some other wretch as cruell as he.
These changes provoked spirited resistance. Anti-enclosure movements threw down fences and hedges, and riots broke out in protest of new land laws. Massed bands of poachers confronted armed gamekeepers in set-piece battles, and communities fought in the courts, in the streets, and in the fields to protect their shared interests. Later the rise of agricultural unions moved the battle away from violent clashes toward the struggle over wages and working hours, but riots and protests were for decades the principal form of mass outrage at what was being done to common people and their land.
The “classical case against the open-field and common,” Thompson writes, “was its inefficiency and wastefulness of time.” He cites a 1795 report complaining that the rural laborer, “in sauntering after his cattle…acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half and occasionally whole days are imperceptibly lost. Day labor becomes disgusting.”21 In Thompson’s view, enclosure and agricultural improvement were “concerned with the efficient husbandry of the time of the labor force.” In towns and cities, urban industry had “time discipline” at its heart, and education served as “training in the ‘habit of industry.’”22 Workers in the new factories and workshops had to be broken from their old habits into new ways of working.
This primary accumulation of wealth, as Marx called it, laid the basis for the development of the capitalist system, and severed traditional ties between the people and the soil, concentrating workers in towns and cities. This process of urbanization and proletarianization also brought with it a new form of time discipline, and the use of “reserve armies of the unemployed” to inhibit workers’ struggles against their employers.
All of this led ultimately to the rise of fossil fuels, which came to dominate British industry in the nineteenth century. This process was neither automatic nor speedy. As late as 1800, only eighty-four steam engines powered cotton mills in England, compared to around a thousand mills run by water.23 John Robison, a professor of philosophy and lifelong friend of James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, complained: “Water is the most common power and indeed the best, as being the most constant and equable; while wind comes sometimes with greater violence and at others is totally gone. Mills may also be moved by the force of steam…but the expense of fuel most undoubtedly prevent this mode of constructing mills from ever becoming general.”24
Nonetheless, steam engines were adopted eventually, despite the high capital costs of plant and fuel and the novel engineering needed. One reason was that they freed mill owners from the natural limits of hydropower; only so many water wheels can be installed over a particular river, and only in so many suitable locations are available. Fossil fuels, cheap and abundant, had no such constraints.
But the main reason that fossil fuels came to dominate capitalist production, as Andreas Malm argues in his recent book Fossil Capital, is that steam power offered “a ticket to the town.” Steam meant that industry could now be located in urban areas where workers disciplined in factory work could be easily hired (and fired). No longer would factory owners be compelled to build homes, churches, and schools in remote valleys. Instead, the slums of Manchester, Birmingham, and Glasgow became the major sites for mills. In 1833, J. R. McCulloch explained these developments in the Edinburgh Review: “The work that is done by the aid of a stream of water is generally as cheap as that which is done by steam, and sometimes much cheaper. But the invention of the steam-engine has relieved us from the necessity of building factories in inconvenient situation merely for the sake of a waterfall. It has allowed them to be placed in the center of a population trained to industrious habits.”25 Marx wrote that the process of primitive accumulation “conquered the field for capitalist agriculture, incorporated the soil into capital and created for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and right-less proletarians.”26
That the capitalist mode of production transformed human social relations is universally known, but it served equally to alter the relationship between humanity and nature. The separation between town and country grew, and the concentration of people in new and growing urban areas drove the adoption of new technologies and labor methods. Fossil fuels became the dominant form of energy, further enabling capital to exploit the workforce. Twenty-first century ecological crisis was never inevitable, but it became steadily more likely with capitalism’s global expansion. Understanding the historical processes that gave rise to the Anthropocene will be a vital weapon in the struggle for a sustainable and just world.


  1. This article is based on two talks, the first given in May 2014 at Birkbeck College, University of London, and the second in November 2016 at the Marx Memorial Library in London, as part of the Raphael Samuel History Center’s History and Environment seminar series.
  2. Karl Marx,Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1977), 410.
  3. Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990), 915.
  4. Marx,Capital, vol. 1, 926.
  5. Quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 157; Marx,Capital, vol. 1, 283.
  6. G. M. Trevelyan,English Social History (London: Pelican, 1982), 10.
  7. For an excellent description of this process in one relatively small area of North America, see John Tully, Crooked Deals and Broken Treaties (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  8. Eleanor Burke Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), 71–72.
  9. Richards,The World Hunt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 35–36.
  10. Richards,The World Hunt, 45–46.
  11. William Cronon,Changes in the Land (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 21.
  12. Cronon,Changes in the Land, 20-21.
  13. Keith Thomas,Man and the Natural World (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 17.
  14. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 875.
  15. E. P. Thompson,Whigs and Hunters (London: Penguin, 1977), 21.
  16. Thompson,Whigs and Hunters, 22.
  17. Quoted in Horn,The Rural World 1780–1850 (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 181.
  18. Christopher Hill,Liberty against the Law (London: Penguin, 1997), 9.
  19. George Yerby,The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change (New York: Routledge, 2016), 250.
  20. Yerby,The English Revolution, 89.
  21. E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,”Past and Present 38 (1967): 77.
  22. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 78, 84.
  23. Andreas Malm,Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016), 56.
  24. Malm,Fossil Capital, 56.
  25. Quoted in Malm,Fossil Capital, 123-124.
  26. Marx,Capital, vol. 1, 895.

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