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Book Review

Published onOct 16, 2023
Book Review

Marx famously defined labor as a unique human capacity to transform nature into products useful to society (Marx 1976: 283-306). In the process, human beings reshape themselves through the application of their imaginations onto the nonhuman world. Under capitalism human creativity itself is converted into a commodity, thereby alienating humanity from its own “species being.” But what if the perpetuation of capitalism “depends on the acceptance of the idea that labor is the exclusive property of the human” (Besky and Blanchette 9)? The eleven chapters collected in How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet question the premise that “human beings are always and necessarily the solitary protagonists of labor” (Besky and Blanchette 8) while at the same time joining feminist and anti-productivist critics to “unpack how capital assigns primary value to labor” (Besky and Blanchette 9) and querying the classical Marxist demand for unalienated work. They suggest that work in this sense always involves domination and resistance: “we know that nature works not because it works, or because of how it works, but because it refuses to work” (Dave 216). At the same time, the authors are careful to show how humans and nonhumans alike live and make meaning through work, riddled as it is with tensions between coercion and consent, exhaustion and endurance, care and killing. How Nature Works asks what political possibilities arise from the contradictions inherent to contemporary deployments of interspecies labor?

Inspired by Jason W. Moore, who has argued, “capital and power do not act upon nature but develop through the web of life” (Moore 2015: 26), many of the chapters show how the labor process is not limited to human actors. Industrial hog farms have “deskilled” hogs’ capacity to survive to such an extent that “hog biologies have come to lie ‘within’ human workers’ actions as much as they reside in pigs’ bodies, just as hogs now attune to and embody industrial human farmworkers in new ways” (Blanchette 63). Industrial growers’ increasing reliance on honeybees’ ability to raise the rate of pollination has worn down both bees and beekeepers who are forced to migrate ever more rapidly for their survival (Kosek 149-168). Semi-wild orangutans and their caretakers alike have found themselves subsisting through the imposed rhythms of wage labor in wildlife centers where “each experience vulnerability with the other” (Parreñas 95).

Tracing the intertwined labor of caring and killing adds nuance to a framing of capitalist ecologies that sees them as “ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production” (Tsing 2015: 6). For the people and plants who live and labor on “sick” Indian tea plantations abandoned by capital, they are not ruins but spaces of home and belonging, persisting through interspecies relations that “sit somewhere between alienation and love” (Besky 34). Similarly, In Paraguay the shift from campesino cotton cultivation to plantation soy production has been marked by an “intensification of killing and a concentration of labor and death in new forms of property,” (Hetherington 42) but has also generated a new kind of politics: “many campesino dissidents began to view soy, rather than the state or ranchers, as the true threat to their way of life” (Hetherington 46).

How Nature Works reveals that interspecies relations of capitalist exploitation are not inevitable; to the contrary, they are frequently on the verge of collapse and are opening new possibilities for solidarity and collective action. It points in the direction of future ethnographic research on emergent “more-than-human political collectives” (Battistoni 2017: 7) capable of radically reorganizing productive activity outside of the domination of capital and in the service of the needs of the planetary interspecies community.


Battistoni, Alyssa. 2017. “Bringing in the Work of Nature: From Natural Capital to Hybrid Labor.” Political Theory 45 (1): 5–31.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso Books.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: The Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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