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Ecologies of Capitalism

Published onOct 16, 2023
Ecologies of Capitalism

Reflections on the conditions of work today often slip into an existential register – so thoroughly does work shape the possibilities for living. This is consistent with the type of questions raised in How Nature Works, a compelling collection of essays concerned with what it means to live and labor in the wake of racial capitalism. However, the existential angst described in the book is deeply political. It grapples with the real, pervasive, and uneven impact of environmental degradation and economic precarity that its protagonists live through every day. These vulnerabilities are not belated consequences of capitalist expansion but are part of the very structure that props it up. At the heart of this book is thus a profound critique of capitalism as generating fraught ecologies that exhaust human-nonhuman life and landscapes. By tracing labor relations in these compromised circumstances, authors in this collection demonstrate the amount of work it takes for capitalism to cohere as a system. This analysis looks different in the multiple geographies reflected in the book. Indeed, its strength lies in its ability to evade normative judgments, with each chapter steeped in ethnographic detail and committed to struggles for planetary justice in situ.

More critically, the book presents an anthropology of work that locates labor outside frames of human agency, and the ability to labor outside the capitalist imperative to work. These twin gestures of decentering produce a more honest reckoning of how other beings express their proclivities and desires, how they are subjected to (and are subjects of) work, and that in many ways all work is an un/witting multispecies collaboration. By discussing the possibilities and pitfalls of nonhuman work, the authors push us to consider what worker solidarity and a coalitional politics outside of species boundaries might entail.

The book is divided into three sections – the Ends of Work, Labor Struggles, and the Futures of Work – that build on each other. It is packed with cases such as varied as human workers in pork factories functioning as biological prosthesis for industrial hogs, honeybees pollinating almond plantations in California changing at the level of their DNA, the increased incidence of kidney disease among sugar cane plantation workers in Nicaragua or orangutans being trained to conform to the rhythm of a contract worker’s day. These examples are suggestive of the scale at which control is desired under contemporary capitalism and the level at which workers are affected by their labor.  Far from the automatized efficiency or cold calculation associated with factories and industrial farms, contributors notice instead intimacy and intrusion. Despite the perniciousness of its reach, capitalism is not cast in an all-encompassing, deterministic role either. It is lived in its awkwardness, ambiguity, and liveliness, where its neatly packaged logics are thwarted by the unruliness of living beings. The ability of workers to refuse work, abscond, and surprise us, are all possibilities in excess of the self-perpetuating fictions that naturalize it. Writing across this in-between space where capitalism is both a structuring condition as well as a generative context for action and nonwork (even if undertaken by increasingly overworked bodies) is where the book shines the most. As a student and researcher, I’m grateful for the model of care and nuance offered in these essays.

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