CfA: Environmental Histories of Capitalism
Theoretical Practice 1/2024
Editors: Michał Pospiszyl
Abstract submission deadline: March 31, 2023
Text submission deadline: June 30, 2023
Planned date of publication: March 2024
The starting point for the planned issue can be found in Karl Marx's famous formula: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves”. According to the commonly held interpretation, Marx believed that the construction of egalitarian and fair relations required the right infrastructure: machines, developed productive forces, and the modern organisation of work. We encourage the submission of texts which challenge this anthropocentric interpretation and attempt to think about material conditions of societies not only as something technical, but above all emerging from their natural environments.
Our issue will aim to explore histories of the relationship between the natural environment and different social systems. We invite to examine different influences that mountains, steppes, primeval forests, islands, deltas, marshes, oceans or rivers may have had on the shape of social life (class, gender or interspecies relations). We want to ask how what we grow and raise is, and was, forming our social relations. What impact does our energy choices have and what differences it brings if we decide to use muscle, wood, coal, oil or nuclear power to fuel our social life?
We encourage submissions fitting into one of the three following research fields.
Firstly – articles situating the history of capitalism in an environmental perspective. Capitalism, according to Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel, can be seen as a system which seeks, by means of technology, to conquer more and more of the so-called 'cheap natures' – exploiting the free labour performed by fertile land, plants, animals, women or slaves (Patel and Moore 2017). Here, what hides under the name of technological progress are primarily the ways and means of capitalism to solve successive ecological crises (crises of rebellious cheap natures) and to invent new mechanisms of exploitation (Moore 2015). In a similar vein, Andreas Malm and Timothy Mitchell focus on the entanglement of technological change with social and environmental history. Malm, author of the meticulous study on the industrial revolution in England, shows the discontents of the transition from water power to steam and coal. The steam engine, it turns out, for a very long time was more expensive, less reliable and less efficient than the water mill, yet – claims Malm – it offered a much bigger potential for the subjugation of the working classes (Malm 2016). Mitchell, focusing rather on the transition of the global economy from coal to oil and nuclear power, shows how the birth of mass democracy (the progress of workers' rights) was linked to the political power of miners. In his view, turning away from coal, consequentially, can be linked to the birth of neoliberalism – majorly based on oil (Mitchell 2013).
Secondly, we will welcome texts in which the subordinated classes in their struggle against primitive accumulation, the modern state and processes of commodification find their ally in the unregulated natural environment (Scott 2010; Malm 2018). As shows Carolyn Merchant, the processes of subjugating or regulating nature bring not only ecological, but also social changes. In her study of the history of the ecological revolution started by colonialists in New England, she depicts the destruction of relatively egalitarian gender and social relations and the dismantling of ecologically sustainable, precolonial economies. In her perspective, the conversion of gardens and fisheries into plantations, the eradication of floodplains or the melioration of swamps sought not only to appropriate natural resources, but also to destroy the environment which made it possible to live ‘below reach’ of the modern state and the global market (Merchant 2010). It is in the Age of Enlightenment that these wars against the unregulated nature and undisciplined populations were being more and more often declared. We can see it on the examples of the eighteenth-century Prussia (Blackbourn 2007), Eastern Europe (Pospiszyl 2023), Iraq (Husain 2014), the United States (Morris 2022; Nevius 2020), Southern Italy (Barca 2010) or Switzerland (Speich 2002). Such antagonisms however are not just a problem of the past, we find them e.g. in today’s Bolivia (Taussig 2010), Burma or Vietnam in the 1970s (Scott 1977), and wherever the autonomist movements of the global South merge with the environmental movements (Martinez-Alier 2003; Shiva 2020).
Thirdly, we encourage the authors to explore edges of the global economy, whose 'wildness' is post- rather than pre-capitalist. Here, we will be interested in explorations of abandoned, post-industrial, dilapidated, contaminated or littered spaces. In the era of climate catastrophe such spaces abound. The work of researchers such as Anna Tsing, Kate Brown, Rebecca Solnit or Patrick O'Hare shows how they influence new patterns of social and ecological relations (Tsing 2015; Tsing et al. 2017; Brown 2020; Solnit 2010; O'Hare 2022). In what ways situations of crisis or scarcity can foster and even compel cooperation? How the disaster-affected places dismantle the fiction of self-sufficiency? How natural catastrophes, rather than enforcing struggle and competition, are proving to strengthen cooperation, not only among humans but also with other species?
While the editors will accept article submissions for review without the prior submission of an abstract, we strongly encourage interested authors to contact us in advance.
Example inquiry questions:
- mountains, deltas, swamps, marshes, primeval forests, oceans (inaccessible nature as an ally of the oppressed)
- plantations (can slave labour be abolished without destroying plantations?)
- contaminated zones
- agriculture of escape (crops difficult to commodify and to capture by the state)
- coal, oil, nuclear power
- unregulated nature and common goods