#7CheapThings: Cheap Energy

excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

Welcome to the sixth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

#7CheapThings care book coverCapitalism’s ecology has a distinctive pyrogeography, one that is part of the fossil record. Indigenous People had thoroughly modified New World landscapes through fire. In eastern North America, they coproduced the “mosaic quality” of forest, savannah, and meadow that Europeans took for pristine nature. Between Columbus’s arrival and around 1650, disease and colonial violence reduced Indigenous populations in the Americas by 95 percent. With fewer humans burning and cutting them down, forests recovered so vigorously that the New World became a planetary carbon sink. Forest growth cooled the planet so much that the Indigenous holocaust contributed to the Little Ice Age’s severity. By the middle of the seventeenth century, some of the early modern era’s worst winters were being recorded across Eurasia and the Americas. Not coincidentally, it was an era of bitter war and political unrest, from Beijing to Paris. To reprise an idea from the introduction, it would be wrong to characterize this episode of genocide and reforestation as anthropogenic. The colonial exterminations of Indigenous Peoples were the work not of all humans, but of conquerors and capitalists. Capitalogenic would be more appropriate. And if we are tempted to conflate capitalism with the Industrial Revolution, these transformations ought to serve notice that early capitalism’s destruction was so profound that it changed planetary climate four centuries ago.

For many commoners in Europe and beyond, forests and woodlands were—and remain—as essential to survival as food. The destruction of the commons involved more than the creation of hunger. It also removed common rights to gather wood, imposing a poverty of fuel and construction material. In feudal Europe, demographic and settlement expansion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries led to conflict not just over farmland but also over access to forests, which had become lucrative income sources for nobles and kings. When England’s King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, it’s significant that he was also compelled to sign a second document at the same time: the Charter of the Forest. Where the Magna Carta turns on legal and political rights, the Charter of the Forest was about “economic survival”: securing for peasants something called estovers, a broad category of subsistence wood products. The Forest Charter was an assurance of English commoners’ access to fuel, food, and building materials.

In Germany, as Peter Linebaugh notes, “the first great proletarian revolt of modern history, the Peasants’ Revolt of Germany in 1525, demanded the restoration of customary forest rights.” These included rights to use “ ‘windfall wood, rootfall trees, and inbowes,’ where these latter were defined ‘also only to so much thereof as the bees do light on, and the honey that shall be found in the tree, but not to cut any main bough or tree itself by color thereof.’ ” People have been fighting for centuries over the fuel and construction material that wood can become. It’s worth mentioning all this because it’s too often forgotten that capitalism’s energy revolution began not with coal but with wood—and with the privatization that forest enclosure implies.

This is not to privilege a European and North American history of energy over the histories of deforestation in, say, China. Notwithstanding the moderating effects of the forest police, China’s great deforestation one thousand years ago had consequences that persist today: at ten cubic meters (353 cubic feet), the country’s per capita forest reserves are an eighth of the world average. But China’s world-ecology wasn’t committed to global conquest. Europe’s was.

The reason to look at energy in Europe lies in the different use of fuel—a kind of cheap nature—as an intrinsic part of capitalism’s ecology. Cheap energy is a way of amplifying—and in some cases substituting for—cheap work and care. If cheap food is capitalism’s major way of reducing the wage bill, cheap energy is the crucial lever to advance labor productivity. The two can function as a logical sequence, even if the actual history is more complex. First, peasants must be ejected from the commons. These new workers must find wage work in some form. Second, the workshops and factories that employ these workers have to compete with one another. And while there’s a long history of bosses’ overworking their employees, the competitive struggle between capitalists is ultimately decided by labor productivity. We normally think of labor productivity—that is, the production of more commodities per average hour of work—as something determined by machines. But capitalist machines function because they draw on the work of extrahuman natures, and these have to be cheap, because the demand is limitless. For this reason, the enclosure of terrestrial commons coincided with the enclosure of the subterranean world. At the very moment when peasant life was turned upside down in sixteenth-century England, the country’s great coal mines were pumping out coal by the thousands of tons. Here a new layer of cheapness emerges in our picture of the world: capitalism’s global factory requires not just a global farm and a global family, but a global mine as well.

In this chapter we explore how energy became one of capitalism’s cheap things through energy revolutions in Europe and the Americas, and what cheap energy means for the twenty-first century’s global ecology. Energy qualifies as a “thing” insofar as it is transformed from part of the web of life into a commodity to be bought and sold. Fossilized life becomes stuff for a fire and an engine’s fuel tank only through capitalism’s ecology. But capitalism’s energy system does several tasks at once. It makes both energy and inputs cheaper: cheap coal makes cheap steel; cheap peat makes for cheap(er) bricks. This reduces the costs of doing business and enhances profitability. Cheap energy also helps keep labor costs down, by controlling one of the largest costs (after food) in a family budget. While enclosure made energy more expensive for most peasants by removing their access to the commons—where, in many parts of the world, collecting resources had fallen to women—it also pulled workers into the cash economy, where they had to pay for their building materials and fuel. Controlling energy costs was another way to manage and sustain cheap work.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore author photo careJason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


#7CheapThings: Cheap Meat, Cheap Labor, Cheap Food

excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

Welcome to the fifth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

#7CheapThings care book coverTo those with a romantic view of where their food comes from, meat appears to be a raw ingredient rather than a processed one. Yet the industrial labor techniques of simplification, compartmentalization, and specialization first developed in sugar production have found their way into meat production too. Feed and oilseed crops, made possible in the Global South partly by the spread of the Green Revolution, form part of what Weis terms “the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex.” The creation of markets for uniform grain and meat commodities—such as the Chicago Board of Trade—made it possible for these commodities to become not only cheap food but the backing for financial instruments. These instruments in turn require the uniformity, homogenization, and industrialization of the crops they transform. Such industry demands the invention of new veterinary practices—from intensive breeding to hormonal supplementation to antibiotic use to concentrated animal feeding operations—which have had globally transformative effects on the quality of food, soil, water, and air. Raw meat in the supermarket is, in other words, cooked up by a sophisticated and intensive arm of capitalism’s ecology.

One result is a meat-production system that can turn a fertile egg and a nine-pound (four-kilogram) bag of feed into a five pound (two-kilogram) chicken in five weeks. Turkey production times almost halved between 1970 and 2000, down to twenty weeks from egg to thirty-five-pound (sixteen-kilogram) bird. Other animals have seen similar advances from a combination of breeding, concentrated feeding operations, and global supply chains. Half of the world’s pork is eaten in China, and its feed import sources are a planetary affair. As are the consequences: 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are from livestock production. One pound (about half a kilogram) of beef requires 1,799 gallons (6,810 liters) of water and seven pounds (three kilograms) of feed to produce.

The environmental consequences of meat production are, of course, external to the profit calculus of the industrial food system. This is one of the reasons why meat is so cheap. Cheap labor is another. The danger is to see “factory farming” as an environmental question and “factory production” as a social question. Given the centrality of cheap labor power in the US neoliberal meat-packing sector, we might also point out the centrality of Latino immigrants. The delivery of this cheap work was made possible by class restructuring on two fronts. One, in the United States, was a strong movement in the 1980s by newly aggressive meat-packing firms—such as Hormel—to destroy union power and replace unionized workers with low-wage immigrant labor. The other was the destabilization of Mexico’s agrarian order after 1994 by NAFTA, which resulted in flows of cheap immigrant labor, unemployed workers displaced by capitalism’s ecology from one side of the US border to the other.

Despite the considerable environmental and governmental subsidies afforded the meat industry, many people are unable to afford its products. For them the private sector and the international development community have offered an alternative: improved nutrition of industrially produced plant-based food. This is more than a little ironic: industrialization and the Green Revolution bred nutrition out of many of the staples in the food system. Those nutrients were casualties of the drive to maximize the yield, shelf life, and consumer acceptability of a standardized commodity. Reintroducing them is a means of increasing the profitability of an ultraprocessed food substance. In a way, the logic of cheap meat production comes full circle, with additives in food designed not to produce profitable animal flesh but to sustain cheap human labor, which, in its turn, will produce more profit further down the line.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore author photo careJason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


#7CheapThings: Raj Patel on World Ecology and More

Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives: these are the seven things that have made our world and will shape its future. In making these things cheap, modern commerce has transformed, governed, and devastated Earth. In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore present a new approach to analyzing today’s planetary emergencies. Read on below to learn more about world ecology and the importance of #7CheapThings in our current political climate.

What is world ecology?

Like all academic terms of art, it’s not quite what it appears. World-ecology isn’t the ecology of planet Earth – that’d just be ‘ecology’. World-ecology is an intellectual update of world-systems theory, which in its day was a new way to think about what unit of analysis to use to explain and understand social change. Rather than take individual states as molecules in a system interacting with one another, world-systems theory looked to the processes that produced those states, at how Britain wouldn’t be Britain except through its interactions with the rest of the planet. World-ecology goes one better. Rather than looking at humans and nature separately, world-ecology looks at how our understanding of human and nature have been produced together.

What is the capitalocene vs. anthropocene?

Understanding the answer to question 1 makes it easier to answer this question. World-ecology makes it harder to believe that there’s some timeless and unchanging set of things that constitute being human in the world. For the term ‘anthropocene’ to make sense, you have to believe that the current transformations of the planet, recorded in the earth as extinctions and radioactivity and plastic, are the inevitable outcomes of anthropos, of humans. The counterargument is that while humans have indeed been responsible for extinctions in the past 20,000 years, we also still have human civilizations – particularly indigenous ones – that are very good at living within the web of life without leaving a trail of destruction. The real uptick in planetary transformation has much less to do with being human and much more to do with capitalism. So rather than call it the anthropocene, it’s more accurate to call it the capitalocene.

How do we make sense of your book’s message during the current political climate?

We’re writing this book to help connect dots between different movements for change, to show how ideas of patriarchy and supremacy have always been intersectional. We’re already very excited about the international reception we’ve received for these ideas, and what we’re hoping is that they can help inform the theorizing and organizing for change that’s happening around the world, helping movements to connect with one another in ways that can make them stronger.

Read more posts in our #7CheapThings blog series here.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.


Available Today: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

We live in precarious times. As we continue to step further into both our uncertain political climate and continuing late stage capitalist system, it is unclear both where we are headed and what things will look like in the near future.

Starting with Christopher Columbus and continuing through to the present day, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore chart the history of our current economic system and suggest that it’s not too late to steer ourselves off of the increasingly capitalist and neoliberal path we are currently wandering down. Using the cheapening of seven key things—nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives—A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things shows how we made the world safe for capitalism and provides a radical new way of understanding—and reclaiming—the planet in our current turbulent times.

Read on to see what others have to say about the book, and use promo code 17W1863 to save 30% when you order the book on our website.


“Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore have transformed ‘cheapness’ into a brilliant and original lens that helps us understand the most pressing crises of our time, from hyper-exploitation of labor to climate change. As we come together to build a better world, this book could well become a defining framework to broaden and deepen our ambitions.”—Naomi Klein, author of No Is Not Enough and This Changes Everything

“It’s remarkably rare that authors manage to find a really useful new lens through which to view the world—but Patel and Moore have done just that, writing an eye-opening account that helps us see the startling reality behind what we usually dismiss as the obvious and everyday.”—Bill McKibben, author of Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance

“What a relief to read a bold, grand narrative of European colonialism/capitalism and its destruction of the environment as well as reducing whole civilizations to enslavement, impoverishment and ruin—just what is needed at this time to contextualize the many granular studies we now have access to. Patel and Moore have provided not only an elegantly written and insightful narrative, but also a path to imagine a noncapitalist future.”—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

“This book is a remarkable achievement: it makes the history of capitalism from Columbus to climate change into a page-turner. If you’ve been wondering how we got into this mess, what care work has to do with ecological crisis, why racism is intertwined with capitalism at the roots, Patel and Moore are the guides you need.”—Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

Follow along with the rest of our #7CheapThings blog series here.


#7CheapThings: Cheap Care

excerpted from A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore

Welcome to the fourth post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

“As we come together to build a better world, this book could well become a defining framework to broaden and deepen our ambitions.”—Naomi Klein

#7CheapThings care book cover

There’s no set way for humans to take care of one another. The extraordinary diversity of community forms and population dynamics in human history underscores the point. At every turn, systems of tending to, caring for, and reproducing human life are connected with extrahuman natures. This existential connection not only encompasses the material and biological but extends to our belief systems and modes of thought. Every rite of passage, every springtime fertility ritual, from maypoles to bloodletting, signals the range of ways that human and extrahuman life form through each other. But when we talk of reproductive labor under capitalism, we’re referring to a very specific set of arrangements, ones that were rearranged through world-ecology and persist today. Under these arrangements, some humans were confined to new political, social, and ecological units—households—the better to engage in care work in capitalism’s ecology. Call this the Great Domestication.

Consider what appear to be entirely independent sets of observations. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 International Attitudes Project received a range of responses to the statement “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” In Iceland, 3.6 percent of people agreed, but in Egypt 99.6 percent did. Why the difference? The easy explanations are culture, religion, tradition, income level. Yet a study in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Economics points the finger at none of these things. Examining data over the past two hundred years, controlling for everything from religion to war to the presence of oil, the authors found that somehow, across a range of countries, a key factor associated with gender inequality is the introduction of a specific agricultural technology: the plough. Individuals who grow up in a society with a tradition of using ploughs aren’t just more likely to perpetuate gender inequality at home—it even sticks with them when they migrate. Like good economists, the study’s authors haven’t a clue why. It’s clear that problems of gender, inequality, and discrimination wouldn’t disappear if we were now to replace ploughs with some other agricultural technology. The deeper challenge is understanding not just how a particular way of tilling the soil comes to naturalize divisions between men and women but what might be done to move toward equality.

So why might a farming implement ancient enough to be depicted in 2600 bce Egyptian hieroglyphics be responsible for twenty-first-century chauvinism? At the sixteenth-century frontier in what is now Peru, the chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega reported something that might solve the plough-sexism conundrum. Indigenous People widely viewed the domestication and then harnessing of oxen as bizarre behavior, both for its interruption of the order of nature and for what it said about the domesticators. The Indigenous explanation was that the Spanish were too lazy to till the land themselves and had to train animals to do it for them while they sat around picking food from their teeth. The Spanish were also considered odd because of the land they chose to farm and the way they occupied it. Colonialists preferred the relatively flat plains for their haciendas, while Indigenous People embraced the terracing technologies that can still be seen in and around Cuzco. You can’t plough a steep hillside that everyone owns—physics and social convention both exert strong forces against it. It’s much easier to plough on large, contiguous, privately owned haciendas. In other words, it wasn’t just the plough that was odd—it was the constellation of transformations in work, relations to extrahuman life, and property into which the plough fit. And central to those ideas were newly forming ones around animal and human domestication.

The modern household and its membership have their origins in ecological changes in European capitalism. In The Working Lives of Women in the Seventeenth Century, Alice Clark argues that the nuclear household of husband, wife, and children emerged through shifts in the economic geography of care and production on the commons. Recall that women’s work on the commons included fuel gathering and gleaning, which made subsistence possible and sometimes provided a marketable surplus. If anything went wrong, social insurance came from networks of support—religious, personal, social—across the community. These arrangements were incompatible with the kinds of agricultural innovation that brought about the widespread use of the plough: larger and larger enclosed landholdings, monocultures, exclusive private property arrangements, and the creation of a workforce motivated by the threats of starvation and imprisonment.

Enclosure made it impossible for peasants to survive on their meager landholdings. Peasants became wageworkers forced to sell their labor to survive. This also set women and men into competition in the labor market. With the commons, dairying had been a way for women to engage in agriculture, sustaining the household through milk and dairy sales. Without a commons, no cattle could be grazed. The market for dairying skills became tight—sheep’s wool was far more lucrative than cows’ milk, and shearing was gendered as men’s work. Women were required only for the paid work of milking and calving cows in the spring. Spring ploughing and autumnal harvesting involved heavier labor and were also often coded as men’s work. This division of labor led to different prices for men’s and women’s employment. It is in the fields that we find the origins of today’s global wage gap, a phenomenon in which relations with nature were involved from the beginning.


Raj Patel care author photoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore author photo careJason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


#7CheapThings: October West Coast Book Tour with Raj Patel

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Raj Patel, co-author of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet is stopping in the Bay Area and Seattle to discuss his new book. Read on to learn more about the event line up and RSVP to an event near you.

Seattle

A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet Wednesday, Oct. 11, 7:30PM

Rainier Arts Center, 3515 S. Alaska Street

Bay Area

Raj Patel: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet Thursday, Oct. 12, 7:00PM

Cubberley Community Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Raj Patel: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things Friday, Oct. 13, 7:30PM

The Bindery, 1727 Haight Street, San Francisco

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things Saturday, Oct. 14, 10:30AM

South Berkeley Senior Center, 2939 Ellis Street, Berkeley


Raj Patel Author PhotoRaj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.


#7CheapThings: A Cheap Work Reading List

Welcome to the third post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

The concept of cheap work can be traced back to Christopher Columbus and Spanish and Portuguese usage of slaves on sugar plantations, and is far from gone in today’s society:

The appropriation—really, a kind of ongoing theft—of the unpaid work of “women, nature and colonies” is the fundamental condition of the exploitation of labor power in the commodity system. You can’t have one without the other. When we talk of cheap work, then, we’re getting at the ways that capitalism sets in motion not just human work and not just agriculture and resources—but how they fit together, and the relations that bind human and extrahuman work at every turn.

[…]

As Edward Thompson observes, the governance of time follows a particular logic: “in mature capitalist society all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to ‘pass the time.’ ” The connection of specific activities to larger productive goals didn’t allow for time theft, and the discipline of the clock was enforced by violence across the planet.

As such, the cheapening of work continues today, albeit under a different guise than several centuries prior. With wages stagnating and hours increasing, current labor conditions benefit capitalism with a cheap and disposable work force. To help understand our current labor climate, we’ve selected a few books from our list that shed light on this issue and offer some solutions.

Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor edited by Michael Curtin and Kevin Sanson

This pathbreaking anthology peeks behind the hype and supposed glamor of screen media industries to reveal the intensifying pressures and challenges confronting actors, editors, electricians, and others. It examines working conditions and organizing efforts on all six continents, offering broad-ranging and comprehensive analysis of contemporary screen media labor in such places as Lagos, Prague, Hollywood, and Hyderabad. The collection also examines labor conditions across a range of job categories that includes, for example, visual effects, production services, and adult entertainment.

 

The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West by Ryan Dearinger

For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality.

 

The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream by Steve Viscelli

Long-haul trucks have been described as sweatshops on wheels. The typical long-haul trucker works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, often for little more than minimum wage. But it wasn’t always this way. Trucking used to be one of the best working-class jobs in the United States.  The Big Rig explains how this massive degradation in the quality of work has occurred, and how companies achieve a compliant and dedicated workforce despite it. The author outlines how deregulation and collective action by employers transformed trucking’s labor markets–once dominated by the largest and most powerful union in US history–into an important example of the costs of contemporary labor markets for workers and the general public.

 

Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep Southby Angela Steusse

This book takes readers deep into Mississippi’s chicken processing plants and communities, where large numbers of Latin American migrants were recruited in the mid-1990s to labor alongside an established African American workforce in some of the most dangerous and lowest-paid jobs in the country. As America’s voracious appetite for chicken has grown, so has the industry’s reliance on immigrant workers, whose structural position makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

 

 

Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World edited by Marion Crain, Winifred Poster, and Miriam Cherry

Across the world, workers labor without pay for the benefit of profitable businesses—and it’s legal. Labor trends like outsourcing and technology hide some workers, and branding and employer mandates erase others. Invisible workers who remain under-protected by wage laws include retail workers who function as walking billboards and take payment in clothing discounts or prestige; waitstaff at “breastaurants” who conform their bodies to a business model; and inventory stockers at grocery stores who go hungry to complete their shifts. Invisible Labor gathers essays by prominent sociologists and legal scholars to illuminate how and why such labor has been hidden from view.

 

Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops by Sarah Adler-Milstein and John Kline

Sewing Hope offers the first account of a bold challenge to apparel-industry sweatshops. The Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic is the anti-sweatshop. It boasts a living wage three times the legal minimum, high health and safety standards, and a legitimate union—all verified by an independent monitor. It is the only apparel factory in the global south to meet these criteria. The Alta Gracia business model represents an alternative to the industry’s usual race-to-the-bottom model with its inherent poverty wages and unsafe factory conditions. Workers’ stories reveal how adding US$0.90 to a sweatshirt’s production price can change lives: from getting a life-saving operation to a reunited family; from purchasing children’s school uniforms to taking night classes; from obtaining first-ever bank loans to installing running water.


Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


#7CheapThings: What Is Cheap Money?

Welcome to the second post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

If we want to understand the idea of cheap money, we have to first go beyond money and zoom out to take a look at the larger picture. At the core of capitalism is a cycle that expands beyond just money and encompasses commodities as well. Money flows into commodities which then flow back into money. It is here that the authors note:

A peculiar and very modern magic lies here. States wanted the loot of war, but needed money to pay the military. Without war, they couldn’t acquire riches which they needed, in part, to pay for the previous war. War, money, war. Bankers needed governments to repay them, and governments needed bankers to fund them. What’s new about capitalism and its ecology isn’t the pursuit of profit, but the relations between the pursuit, its financing, and governments. The planet was to be remade through these relations, and they are the subject of this chapter.

This cycle is fueled by the cheap money in question, specifically “a secure denomination of exchange that can be relied upon to facilitate commerce, controlled in a way that meets the needs of the ruling bloc at the same time.” Said cheapness includes two major characteristics: the appropriation of a primary commodity such as gold or oil and its regulation that allows interest to remain low and control over the wider cash economy which only states can provide.

In the end, however:

Cheap money means one thing above all – low interest. Even in today’s world of fast-moving container ships and high frequency stock trades, credit is the lifeblood of capitalism. If cheap work, food, energy, and raw materials are the necessary conditions for capitalist booms, cheap credit makes it all possible. Historically, there’s been a virtuous circle of cheap money and new frontiers. When opportunities for profit making contracted in established regions of production and extraction, capitalists took their profits and put it into money-dealing. That’s one reason why, after each great boom in world capitalism – the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, the British in the mid-nineteenth century, and the American postwar golden age – there’s been a curious process that scholars call financialization. We’re living in such a time at the moment, and history doesn’t reassure – such cycles of accumulation usually end in war, with the rise of new financial powers, as we’ll see below.

Two movements make financialization attractive and even useful for capitalism. One is that, as we’ve seen, when the world’s economic pie stops growing, leading powers tend to go to war, or at a minimum build up their warmaking capacity. As we will see modern states rarely self-finance their wars. They have to borrow money just like anyone else. The other thing that happens is that capital in the heartlands of the system begin to flow towards the frontiers. In the late nineteenth century, for example, gigantic sums of British capital, in the form of loans, flowed out of London and towards the rest of world, especially to build railroads. Thus the significance of financialization – relatively cheap British capital flowed out to make possible a global railway network, which in turn was central to the next century’s extraordinary food and resource extraction. This worked so long as there were bountiful frontiers, where humans and other natures could be put to work – or otherwise extracted – for cheap. When the boom made possible – in part – by the global railway network went bust, in the 1970s, a new era of financialization began. And though the neoliberal era owed it existence to precisely the inverse of cheap money – the 1979 Volcker Shock – a long era of cheap money followed. As Anwar Shaikh explains, the neoliberal “boom” — such as it was – that began in the 1980s was “spurred by a sharp drop in interest rates… Falling interest rates also lubricated the spread of capital across the globe, promoted a huge rise in consumer debt, and fuelled international bubbles in finance and real estate.” What’s different today is that, where once finance was a bridge to a renewed era of profitability, because of how finance, science, and empire cooperated to make new frontiers of cheap nature, there are no such frontiers today. In the twenty-first, money masks the underlying problems of socio-ecological crisis, magnifying the contradictions in the process.


Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.


#7CheapThings: Cheap Nature

Welcome to the first post in our #7CheapThings blog series! Raj Patel & Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things focuses on seven areas that are the foundation of modern commerce: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. How has the cheapening of these things made the world safe for capitalism? Follow along to find out.

 

Raj & Jason, in their book, argue that humans in a capitalist system abuse the ecosystems that they are a part of, with the demand for profit outweighing detrimental effects on the environment. In this shift towards profit governing life, a split between the ideas of “Nature” and “Society” needed to occur. What exactly is meant by that is outlined in the excerpt below.

In the English language, the words nature and society assumed their familiar meanings only after 1550, over the arc of the “long” sixteenth century (c. 1450–1640). This was, as we shall see, a decisive period in England’s capitalist and colonial history. It marked the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and their construction of massive New World production systems, worked by coerced Indigenous and African labor. These transformations were key elements of a planetary shift in the global center of power and production from Asia to the North Atlantic. That shift did not come fast. Europe was technologically and economically impoverished compared to civilizations on the other side of Asia, and only after 1800 did that change. China, recall, already had the printing press, a potent navy, gunpowder, and vibrant cities, and it was marked by both wealth and environmental crisis. Where European capitalism thrived was in its capacity to turn Nature into something productive and to transform that productivity into wealth. This capacity depended on a peculiar blend of force, commerce, and technology, but also something else—an intellectual revolution underwritten by a new idea: Nature as the opposite of Society. This idea gripped far more than philosophical minds. It became the common sense of conquest and plunder as a way of life. Nature’s bloody contradictions found their greatest expression on capitalism’s frontiers, forged in violence and rebellion—as the witch killing demonstrates.

We take for granted that some parts of the world are social and others are natural. Racialized violence, mass unemployment and incarceration, consumer cultures—these are the stuff of social problems and social injustice. Climate, biodiversity, resource depletion—these are the stuff of natural problems, of ecological crisis. But it’s not just that we think about the world in this way. It’s also that we make it so, acting as if the Social and the Natural were autonomous domains, as if relations of human power were somehow untouched by the web of life.

This means that we’re using these words—Nature and Society—in a way that’s different from their everyday use. We’re capitalizing them as a sign that they are concepts that don’t merely describe the world but help us organize it and ourselves. Scholars call concepts like these “real abstractions.” These abstractions make statements about ontology—What is?—and about epistemology: How do we know what is? Real abstractions both describe the world and make it. That’s why real abstractions are often invisible, and why we use ideas like world-ecology to challenge our readers into seeing Nature and Society as hidden forms of violence. These are undetonated words. Real abstractions aren’t innocent: they reflect the interests of the powerful and license them to organize the world.

That’s why we begin our discussion of cheap things with Nature. Nature is not a thing but a way of organizing—and cheapening—life. It is only through real abstractions—cultural, political, and economic all at once—that nature’s activity becomes a set of things. The web of life is no more inherently cheap than it is wicked or good or downloadable. These are attributes assigned to some of its relationships by capitalism. But it has been cheapened, yanked into processes of exchange and profit, denominated and controlled. We made the case in the introduction that capitalism couldn’t have emerged without the cheapening of nature; in this chapter we explore the mechanics and effects of this strategy.

Click here to win an Advance Reader’s Copy of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things on Goodreads. Giveaway ends on September 15th.


Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University, and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.