Nature as a Mode of Accumulation

Capitalism and the Financialisation of the Earth

John Bellamy Foster

The expropriation of the commons, its simplification, division, violent seizure, and transformation into private property constituted the fundamental precondition for the historical origin of industrial capitalism. What Karl Marx referred to as the original expropriation of the commons in England and in much of the world (often involving the expropriation of the labourers themselves in various forms of slavery and forced labour) generated the concentrations in wealth and power that propelled the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution. In the process, the entire human relation to nature was alienated and upended. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, “What we call land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market for it was perhaps the weirdest of all the undertakings of our ancestors.

In order to develop a critical analysis of the current capitalist expropriation of world ecology, it is necessary to explore the concept of natural capital in the work of Marx and other early radical critics within classical political economy. It will then be possible to contrast this to current approaches in neoclassical economics, which views natural capital in purely exchange-value terms, offering this as a solution to the environmental problem. If, in Marx’s analysis, the human economy existed within what he called “the universal metabolism of nature,” in today’s dominant neoclassical economics, according to Dieter Helm, Chairman of the UK Natural Capital Committee, “the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed. Integrating the environment into the economy is hampered by the almost complete absence of proper accounting for natural assets.” Here, the whole of the Earth System is conceived as a largely unincorporated “part” of the capitalist economy. In Helm’s conception, the capitalist economy faces no outer boundaries but is capable of subsuming all of nature, which then simply becomes part of the overall capitalist system.


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