Et in Arcadia Ego

December 26, 2017   •   By John W. W. Zeiser

“Easy come, easy go.”

— Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte






Global North/Global South.

Haves/have nots. Even if we’re unaware of it, we have René Descartes to thank for this world of binaries. That is, according to Raj Patel and Jason Moore, authors of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. They argue that binary thinking, of the kind Descartes propounded nearly 400 years ago, has 1) enabled capitalism to feed its need for constant growth by appropriating Nature’s apparently limitless abundance, and 2) prevented us from addressing crises in capital with anything other than short-term fixes that incontrovertibly lead us back to crisis.

Patel and Moore’s book makes a strong argument for getting rid of our binary thinking in favor of a radically different perspective: Society and Nature, the binary par excellence, are not independent of one another, instead they constantly shape each other in a dialectical fashion. This allows Patel and Moore to paint a very different picture of how reality is constructed and how the history of capitalism has unfolded.

Moore’s previous book, the fascinating if overly dense Capitalism in the Web of Life, theorized a unified, historical reality he dubbed the Double Internality “of capitalism through nature, of nature through capitalism,” or simply “the web of life.” In this new book, Patel and Moore use this web of life as their jumping off point to describe how successive layers of Nature and humanity have co-produced one another. After 500 years of booms and busts, mild climates and Little Ice Ages, we have arrived at rising sea levels, superstorms, and ever more novel forms of subjugation and exploitation. But, while A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things is underpinned by theory, it’s accessible. Patel and Moore provide a way to see like a Marxist geographer, or a serious food activist, without making it feel like assigned reading.


            The strategy of cheapness?

Despite the book’s accessibility, for those more familiar with the pop histories in the Freakonomics vein, the seven cheap things described in the book might seem a bit like a letdown. Indeed when I relayed the cheaps to friends, they were uniformly dismayed that Patel and Moore hadn’t written a book about some facile set of objects — such as telegraphs or trains or sneakers — to explain capitalism’s rise. Instead the cheaps are broad categories of inputs always found at the frontiers where capitalist and non-capitalist ways of life collide. Eventually — though Patel and Moore stress, not inevitably — these non-capitalist forms have been drawn into the capitalist system. “Cheap is not the same as low cost,” they write, “though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work — human, and animal, botanical and geological — with as little compensation as possible.”

They argue these categories are important not only for understanding history, but for seeing the present and imagining the future. Cheapness is the strategy used to fix capital in crisis. When cotton monocropping in Dixie depleted the soil, capitalists didn’t end the practice, they simply shifted investment to the Punjab. When production slowed in the silver mines of Central Europe, its ecology devastated, operations merely moved to Potosí. When autoworkers in Michigan cost too much, it was easier to move the plant to Mexico than pay a living wage. Even these examples are expressed in binaries … Descartes would be proud.

The seven “cheaps” are central to the story of capitalism, and Patel and Moore devote a chapter to each one. The first six: Nature, money, work, care, food, and energy will be at least vaguely familiar to most readers. Nevertheless, the book’s descriptions and specificities provide an amazing and dizzying array of detail about these concepts: we can thank the colonial-era financial system for transporting fire ants from Mexico to Asia, the Dutch literally dug themselves under sea level in order to fuel their growth, and the British smuggled rubber seeds from Brazil to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and then transported them to Southeast Asian plantations.

The seventh, cheap lives, however, proves both more abstract and more deeply instructive about the current moment. It’s no simple formula for valuing a human life. Instead, the concept of cheap lives illustrates how the first six cheaps that built capitalism rely on something to perpetuate it. Cheap lives, then, is a catchall for the application of particular ideas, discourses, technologies, and institutions, that organize and maintain capitalism’s hegemony. Yet the idea of cheap lives also contains some new revolutionary potentials, and this is the message the authors wish to emphasize at the conclusion.

To understand how these cheaps work in concert, consider the history of NAFTA. From the turn of the 20th century workers had successfully militated against capitalist class power. Labor’s swan song was the crippling 1970 postal worker wildcat strikes, which Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatters to Black Liberation reminds us were organized in large part by black workers. Worker militancy combined with rising costs and decreasing profits in the 1970s and ’80s required fixes that could again make labor cheap and profits soar. One tactic was financialization, and increasingly financiers bet on the future, hoping they wouldn’t be the last one holding the bag when bubbles burst, as Lehman Brothers and AIG were left in 2008. But another tactic was free trade agreements, which kneecapped organized labor and de-industrialized large areas of the Global North.

The coup de grâce was Bill Clinton signing NAFTA, which not only off-shored US jobs, but also completely destabilized the agrarian practices of Mexican peasantry. Like turning a tap, NAFTA’s ratification let loose a flow of cheap, unorganized labor. Just as in late Medieval Europe, Mexican campesinos were pushed off the land and forced to sell their labor-power. This was an ideal outcome for US industries such as industrial farming, which readily absorbed unskilled and often undocumented labor into horrible factory conditions with little recourse. Meanwhile, Mexican farming consolidated and industrialized, making cheap food even less expensive. Additionally, this same period saw massive expansions in the carceral state. California alone built 23 prisons after 1984, what Ruth Gilmore Wilson has termed “the Golden Gulag.” It’s no coincidence that Black men — who, a generation earlier, were part of the vanguard of resistance to US capitalism and imperialism — were made into a surplus population in need of only State control, as cheap Mexican labor and food surged into the United States. This, we could say, is the strategy of cheapness in practice.


            How we became Cartesian 

Descartes was not the first nor only philosopher interested in the separation of mind and body. Yet in the historical moment in which he wrote his ideas were particularly potent and consequential. His ideas told readers that they should be in charge. In Holland, where Descartes lived in exile for 20 years, res cogitans (thinking things, or Society) and res extensa (extended things, or Nature) reflected and amplified many ideas floating through 1640s Dutch capitalism and within colonial philosophies propounded by thinkers like the Mexican Jesuit Antonio Rubio.

While Patel and Moore readily admit that humans are a particularly capable species, adept at ordering the world to our advantage, our abilities aren’t enough to extricate us from the web of life. One need only compare the diets of coastal Japan and the Andean highlands to see human culture and societies are as implicated in the web of life as any other being or material found on Earth. Nevertheless, it’s telling that Descartes chose to bifurcate reality in this way. His ideas were the herald of capitalism as the system of world-order, and the culmination of a 150-year period in which capitalism was refined through experiments in colonial appropriation, exploitation, and domination of new frontiers where seven cheaps were always present.

But thus far, Descartes appears innocent of any crime. He merely suggested humans and nature might be separate. What harm is there in that? Yet what Descartes did then was apply to his conception of reality a specific set of justifications for why the world was broken up this way. Based on his logic that the world is in fact two things: Western European men became thinking things constituting Society, while women, children, Indigenous peoples, and others were relegated, along with domesticated animals, soil, energy, food, and other cheaps, to the extended category of Nature. Of course, Nature was savage and in need of domination, and Descartes exhorted his readers to become “the masters and possessors of nature,” as had already been occurring for quite some time.

Patel and Moore call this an example of a “real abstraction.” Instead of Descartes’s ideas remaining in the realm of thought, they were utilized to reorder the world: “Here was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying, and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this today.” Those transformations were 1) binary thought, 2) social relations becoming mediated through commodities and systems of commodity production, 3) systems of dominance, and most importantly 4) making “thinkable, and doable the colonial project of mapping and domination.” Three abstractions lead to a profound material change in human relations that privileges one group over another, subjugates human and extra-human Natures to the imperatives of profit.


            Madeira, capitalism’s incubator

The Medieval Warm Period gifted the North Atlantic with 300 years of mild weather. Think wine production in Norway and wheat farms climbing up the Alps. Expansion followed a relatively stable pattern of central population growth that pushed out into frontiers, “Feudalism’s most important feature was its capacity to sustain massive and ongoing settler expansion without centralized authority. To do this, it relied on cultivation — the greatest conqueror of all.” But when Feudal Europe was laid to waste by the Little Ice Age and the Black Death — the result of already transcontinental system of trade — aristocrats simply looked to expand business as usual. In what should have a familiar ring to it, Feudal lords doubled down on monocropping already exhausted soils and debt financing expansionist projects like the Reconquista, a blueprint for full-blown colonial capitalism. Thus, while Lords attempted to “make Europe great again,” the pattern of Feudal expansion was “turned inside out in the two centuries after 1492. Frontiers were to become an organizing principle of metropolitan wealth.”

One of the first frontiers for this new world-organizing system was the Portuguese territory of Madeira. Portuguese for “lumber,” Madeira became an early center of commodity production. Forests (cheap nature) were felled first for shipbuilding, and later as fuel (cheap energy) for the expanding sugarcane industry. In their place came wheat fields (cheap food) and then sugar (a soon-to-be cheap food), which had been a novelty in Medieval Europe, the stuff of kingly desires, difficult to cultivate and highly sought after. Madeira became its key point of sugar production because of its supply of wood, essential for fueling the furnaces. In addition to the prodigious energy needed to produce sugarcane, the land had to be reshaped and cultivated by labor (cheap work and care). That labor was appropriated from people indigenous to the Canary Islands, slaves from North Africa, and occasionally waged workers from Europe. Following on the research of Sidney Mintz, Patel and Moore note, “the plantation was the original factory.” Unfortunately for the ecology of Madeira, “Europe’s wealthy ate the sugar, and sugar ate the island.”

In classic Marxist political economy, exploited labor, i.e., waged labor, is the primary object of interest and analysis, and the long century from the colonization of Madeira to Descartes is often seen as a primitive form of capitalism. Patel and Moore, however, don’t believe this to be the case. Early capitalism was full capitalism in their eyes. Many of the processes that can be seen in Madeira are industrial, even if the steam engine was several hundred years away. What is most important here is that all the tactics of capitalism were already in a nearly finished form. Because exploitation quickly becomes “expensive,” due to the declining rate of profit, capitalism’s great innovation from the get-go was not simply the development of value based on commodity production, but also the devaluation of everything else.


            Colonialism to care to contemporary crisis

With Madeira exhausted, new frontiers in the Western hemisphere — opened to European expansion by Columbus’s accidental “discovery” — were already singing the siren song of greater profits and more abundant cheaps. It comes as no surprise that the Madeira experiment influenced Columbus. By the time Columbus arrived on the shores of Waitukubuli, which he unimaginatively named Dominica after the day of the week on which he spotted it, Genoese capital was already guiding his life. His voyages were grubstaked by Genoese bankers and his worldview was formed in the city where slave-trading was an economic pillar. Moreover, after witnessing the enslavement of Muslims and Jews at the conclusion of the Reconquista, Columbus found it easy to view New World Indigenous peoples through a similar lens.

Human beings, valuable because their labor could be appropriated, may have elicited some pangs of conscience from Columbus and the Portuguese, but any guilt was assuaged by a pliant Vatican, which deemed “enemies of Christ” to be subjects worthy of enslavement. This was a convenient interpretation considering that all Indigenous peoples in the New World and Africa could be considered enemies of Christ.

Madeira and Columbus provide the authors with convenient analytical references throughout. Some of the cheaps have long garnered more scholarly attention: cheap money and cheap labor are of course as thoroughly Marxist objects of investigation as can be. But the chapters on care and food feel new, germane areas of analysis that Patel and Moore synthesize into their ideas about cheap lives.

Cheap care is situated within feminist Marxism, particularly among thinkers like Silvia Federici, who have pushed Marxist analysis beyond its traditional boundaries. Assuming that early capitalism was full-blown capitalism, and not some precursor to Manchester’s Satanic mills, Federici has argued in Caliban and the Witch that without cheap care, capitalism simply could not exist. As the authors paraphrase, “Patriarchy isn’t a mere byproduct of capitalism’s ecology — it’s fundamental to it.” Colonial disgust at non-binary gender formations, “The Great Domestication” — from which we get ideological formations such as fixed genders, the nuclear family, and gendered care work — and the ways that women have resisted the strictures of gendered capitalism all figure prominently into how cheap care is appropriated to perpetuate capitalism.

When Columbus and other early colonizers arrived in the New World or Western Africa, they were shocked by the radically different forms of Indigenous gender and sexuality:

This isn’t because Mayan society was an egalitarian bacchic love-in. On the contrary, sex was subject to well-defined hierarchies, circumscribed in ways Spanish colonists might have recognized had they not been overwhelmed by unfamiliarity. In place of Adam and Eve’s shame at their nakedness, Mayan gods stabbed their own penises […] In Mayans’ belief in the possibility of knowing gods carnally, Spanish colonists saw only the promise of sedition and shame.

Fearful of this difference, the Spanish deployed an apparatus of surveillance and punishment for sexual practices that transgressed prudish hyper-Catholic sensibilities. Sound familiar?

In early modern England, the practice of coverture meant women and their property were brought under the legal authority of their husbands. This led to creative solutions within the English legal system to protect women’s rights, principally the act of taking the husband’s name. But sadly, as activist and critic Kalamu ya Salaam wryly notes of the Anglophone world, “Today, we continue using this patriarchal form of naming allegedly in order to identify the parents of children and vice versa.”

Today, these early problems with the way care work was and was not acknowledged have led to a systemic problem across the world:

Capitalism not only continues to take care work for granted but also expects the skills developed through this work to be available for sale in the world of commodity production. So it is that gendered ideas lead to women being sought — and cheapened — for their nimble fingers, caring attitudes, and supportive miens (for example) by those looking to hire cheap workers for maquilas, call centers, and nursing care industries, those workers having been trained through a lifetime of cheap care and expected to have certain skills because they are women.

Thus, even as some care work leaves the realm of appropriation and enters the realm of exploitation, those workers are still expected to be submissive, cheap, and flexible.

The systems that make cheap food are no less bleak and follow, akin to the other cheaps, a bloody path out of Feudal Europe, striking into frontiers where bodies (both human and non-human), soil and energy could be harnessed to feed the urban poor:

Capitalism’s agricultural revolutions provided cheap food, which lowered the minimum wage threshold: workers could be paid less and not starve. This in turn reduced employers’ wage bills as the scale of proletarianization increased, allowing the rate of exploitation to rise […] This system of cheap food didn’t emerge on purpose, but understanding its emergence in capitalism’s ecology makes it possible to think of and see the world differently.

It’s a lot easier to push tales of cheap nature or money to the side: without food one will starve. Yet to see how that food enters the circuits of capital is to never want to eat again. The meat-production system has made it possible to “turn a fertile egg and a nine-pound (four-kilogram) bag of feed into a five pound (two-kilogram) chicken in five weeks.” I had backyard chickens. Mine took months to get that big. But once again, this type of production is coming up against historic constraint. “14.5 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are from livestock production.” But unlike in early moments in capitalism, “there are no more atmospheric commons to enclose and no obvious way to keep the costs of climate change off of capitalism’s ledgers.” The constant search for cheap food to keep labor cheap and people from rioting now leaves us with a capitalist crisis the scale of which far exceeds previous ones.

Taken as constituent parts, little of the narrative of A History of the World in Seven Cheaps is particularly path-breaking. Capitalism is exploitative and ravenous. It relies on complex systems of domination. All this is old news, though many people still do not fully comprehend it. However, any good dialectical analysis lives or dies by its synthesis, and Patel and Moore’s is spot on. Particularly, the concept of cheap lives stands out as a novel way to tie the important threads of critical thought on capitalism’s history into a coherent tapestry of how it persists, as well as a way to comprehend and resist capitalism in 2017.

What does a world of cheap lives then look like? To consider the most recent hurricane season is to see exactly what Patel and Moore are analyzing. Puerto Rico is not suffering because of a climactic event. We should be under no illusion that Hurricane Maria’s force wasn’t aided by our blinkered Cartesian vision of the atmosphere as nothing but a giant sewer for our carbon waste — it was. But Puerto Rico suffers because it is a racialized colony, treated as a frontier at which white capitalist forces can exploit cheaps. Little wonder Elon Musk, Erik Prince, and their ilk are the ones offering to rebuild the colony. One shudders to imagine what Utopia Silicon Valley has in mind. This is little different from Houston, where city planners and developers long treated land cheaply, stoked by gluts of cheap energy, labor, and money in Texas. In California, massive wildfires are fought by the incarcerated, paid two dollars per day and one dollar per hour when on the fire line. What better exemplar of cheap lives than the 13th Amendment.

In the end, it is not enough simply to know these things. One must also believe in their power. In John Carpenter’s film They Live, the drifter John Nada tries to convince his friend Frank Armitage to put on a pair of glasses that will unmask reality. There’s a violent struggle before Frank succumbs. When he sees the world laid bare, new vistas of understanding open up. Surely, as Slavoj Žižek suggests in Sophie Fiennes’s documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), it is capitalism that Frank sees. Patel and Moore return again and again to how violent and dominant capitalism is, but they never leave it at that. Their book is filled with examples of resistance, from the German Peasants’ War of 1525, to the nameless woman in New Spain put to death in 1599 for smashing crosses and inciting Chichimec Indians to revolt, to Ogoni Ken Saro-Wiwa, murdered so Royal Dutch Shell’s fossil fuel extraction could remain cheap. These may be seem depressing, but they’re actually the opposite. Capitalism is constantly moving toward new crises, but how they are resolved is never inevitable. History is a living force that bends where social forces will it. In this we should not heed Descartes’s call to our differences, but Alice Walker’s call to resistance: “Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.”


John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic. He lives in Los Angeles.