Letter: Comments on Jason Moore's interview

Date: 2021-10-13T19:11:21+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

I would like to open this letter by enthusiastically stating how excellent and illuminating the recent interview, The World Ecology, with Jason Moore was. The strident affirmation of an anti-imperialist ecological politics, centering of webs of life (in which human labor is embedded), and the radical democratization of science are frankly inspiring. I came away from the discussion with a much richer understanding of the nuances of the political stakes in Moore’s theoretical debates with Foster and Malm, which seems invaluable for linking an ecological understanding to concrete political organizing.

There are however two, perhaps minor, points of contention I think are worth highlighting. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with my published work in Cosmonaut, is a sharp disagreement with Moore’s use of the term “Prometheanism” to describe the ecocidal and domineering techne of capitalist worldmaking. While on some level this point is semantic, Moore’s own interventions against the term Anthropocene in favor of Capitalocene illustrates that the use of terminology does have important stakes. To highlight the political stakes, using the idea of “Prometheanism” as a stand-in for the analytic omni-consuming drive within capitalism to tear apart and refashion natural systems and webs of life into simple cogs is a kind of mystification and fetishism of the fundamental material dynamics at play. Moore overtly contrasts it with a kind of reverence for nature, which he’s quick to clumsily disassociate from mysticism. Further, Moore claims that this Prometheanism is fundamental above patriarchy and racism and generates them.

The way in which capitalism comes to establish destructive relationships between humans and nonhuman life and wider systems is not reducible to a particular attitude or ideology. The cognitive enframing of natural systems as commensurate and mechanical rather comes from first the class dynamics of patriarchy, racial domination, slavery and capitalist managerialism. It is the fundamental asymmetrical social relations which are prior to any attitude of control and drive toward appropriation. People treat animals as objects to be dismembered and metabolized because they are habituated by social practice into this mentality. The rational kernel of what Moore is grasping at is that this dynamic has taken on an extra-human character and represents a drive above the level of individual wills. But rather than blame it on Descartes, whose philosophy I equally reject in solidarity with Moore, I think that Kenneth M. Stokes’ formulation of the autonomous technosphere (his term for technocapitalism as a geological force) offers much a greater causal, though less poetic, explanation for the dynamics we must all oppose.

Moreover, on literary and historical grounds I completely reject the idea that Prometheus or Prometheanism can be linked to any sort of domination whether of humans or nature. Prometheus is mischaracterized by the same sort of ecologists that Moore critiques, as a god of technology who gave Man fire and spoiled the “natural” order. But Prometheus is not a god of technology: that is Hephaestus, the forge master and designer of robot slaves. Prometheus is the god of foresight, creativity, humanity, and above all freedom and the opposition to tyranny. Prometheus didn’t simply give people fire and tell them the Earth was their domain like the Abrahamic god. In fact, in Hesiod and Ovid’s accounts he is either the creator of humanity or our direct ancestor. Prometheus is driven by pathos and love for his children. He is also a Titan not an Olympian, which many scholars believe indicates he was a god of the egalitarian pre-Mycenean Pegasean pantheon rather than their patriarchal conquerors. And while the term Prometheanism has an established provenance within ecological circles as a dirty word, it has a much older provenance within the Radical Enlightenment as a term indicating a fundamental allegiance to the cause of emancipated humanity. Prometheus was closely linked as a symbol to the proto-communist Illuminati and the radical republican movements. Percy Shelly, proto-communist and Marx’s favorite poet, wrote his own Promethean myth, “Prometheus Unbound” as a counterpoint to Aeschylus’ tragic play which had left him eternally tormented for the crime of refusing to accept Zeus’ tyranny. His wife Mary even subtitled her novel Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus” as an ironic jab at what she saw as her husband’s delusions of grandeur. Marx himself commented “Prometheus is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” Of course, Marx’s personal literary tastes should not determine what terminology Marxists use, but it illustrates that within the class struggle-communist movement the term Prometheanism has an established meaning that is not only more faithful to the original mythology, but also embodies the same radical democratic values that Jason Moore espouses. I encourage him to embrace the revolutionary and Marxist usage of the term rather than the version spawned by the Malthusian tradition.

The second point of contention is Moore’s termination of the genealogy of the development of capitalism in the Plantation economy. I don’t take issue with any part of his specific analysis of the plantation economy, or its fundamental historical significance within the history of the development of capitalism. Rather, I would propose that the colonization and pillaging of the Americas was in continuity with a much older political economy embedded in Feudalism centered around the monastic and military holy orders of the Catholic Church. The methods of accounting and labor control employed within the slave plantations, and later extended into capitalism, were first developed in the monasteries of Europe to increase agricultural productivity for the expansion of Church wealth in a way that prefigures the bourgeois corporation. But even more, the northern Crusades in the Baltic region by the Teutonic and Livonian Orders was overtly Settler-Colonial in much the same form as capitalism would enact on a much grander scale later. The German crusader-colonists stole and pillaged pagan lands and created it as nature in much the same way Moore describes in his works. The Hanseatic Merchant-Cities of Danzig and Konigsberg and their riches were made possible through the transformation of the land and political geography by the crusaders. In fact, Prussia as a European state was established by Albert Hohenzollern, who was the last Grandmaster of the Teutonic Knights. Prussia would of course go on to establish the Ur techno-militarist state, with Hegel as its official philosopher. Prussia’s second incarnation, under Hitler, directed her scientific and industrial might into developing the weapons that could fulfil her destiny to “end history” (ultimately completed by America at Los Alamos). Looking southward to the Crusades in the Middle East, bankrolled by Venetian merchant capital, we see some of the key features of capitalism emerge. The Knights Templar for instance, invented the cheque, as a means of securing the assets of pilgrims, and organized one of the earliest international banking networks. While the Frankish colonizers of the Levant are not noted to have developed a particularly sophisticated manufacturing economy, being beset by hostile Islamic principalities, they did funnel enormous amounts of wealth to the Church, western European monarchs (helping facilitate the centralization of European states), and Italian merchants. The Venetians used this capital to not only expand their banking operations, and colonize the Dalmatian coast, but also intensify and expand their manufacturing operations. Of note is the Venetian near-monopoly on high quality glassmaking maintained by concentrating craftsmen on the island of Murano. Likewise, the Venetian “New Arsenal,” built in the early 14th century, prototyped the many elements of mass manufacture which were essential to both the military conquest of the globe by the colonizers and the mechanical development of capitalist industry. The shipwrights developed an early form of assembly line, employed over 15,000 laborers, and utilized a highly specialized division of labor. While the scale and intensity of the Arsenal would not be repeated elsewhere in Europe for some time, the basic engineering technologies and designs were copied and improved upon by other European powers. Had the European rulers not ‘discovered’ America, they would have still colonized Africa and Southeast Asia in their drive toward the exploitation of the planet and its people. The Portuguese were already navigating around Africa to seek out routes to access valuable commodities. This is not to say that Moore ignores this history completely or sees it as unimportant, nor does it mean that the world historic scale of the plunder of the Americas did not allow a qualitatively faster development by European proto capitalism into capitalism. Rather, I believe that it is important to highlight that while there was a victorious class struggle against a particular kind of ruling class in the Middle Ages, a sister ruling class was prodigiously nurturing itself into full bloom before the 16th century plantation economies began.

I want to close by affirming my view that Moore’s contributions to contemporary Marxist theory are nearly unparalleled. I submit this letter in a spirit of humility and hope it will be of some use in furthering the discussion on these important topics.

Amelia Davenport

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