November 30, 2020

The Work of Nature

Responses to “Bringing in the Work of Nature: From Natural Capital to Hybrid Labor” Alyssa Battistoni

In her abstract, Battistoni describes moving away from what is known as natural capital (ecosystem services) to a feminist approach to what she calls “hybrid labor”, through which she articulates

…an expanded idea of hybrid labor that understands the “work of nature” as a collective, distributed undertaking of humans and nonhumans acting to reproduce, regenerate, and renew a common world.

Natural resources:

  • Graham Harman, “Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
  • Is extraction, taking, depleting built-in to the word resource?
  • Ecosystem services /Natural capital: Natural capital functions as an umbrella term that aims to capture a general sense of the value of nature to human societies, while ecosystem services refer to particular activities—for example, honey-bee populations provide a fertilization service; earthworms, decomposition.
  • Biocapital: the “economic enterprises that take as their object the creation, from biotic material and information, of value, markets, wealth, and profit.” (Helmreich)
  • Timothy Mitchell argues, “the economy” does not preexist its representation, but is actively “constituted as a discursive process, a phenomenon of values, representations, communications, meanings, goals and uses.”
    • In other words: economy, like any abstract ideological “fact” is dynamically constituted as it is expressed. Chronically reinscribed through metaphors, visualizations, justifications.
  • Is there a parallel to be pushed at, between Foucault’s Homo economicus, the “entrepreneur of himself” and how far we might perceive natural capital, forced to a ridiculous extreme?
    • A bird of paradise has a portfolio of moves; a bower bird, a portfolio of artistic tools of courtship; a coral reef is of course a productive metropolis—that’s nothing new… (I rather like the work of philospher Alfonso Lingis on reefs, his likenings have nothing to do with capital)
  • Intrinsic versus Instrumental. Criteria for assessing intrinsic value are divergent.
    • Arne Nass, originator of Deep Ecology: “the well-being of non-human life on earth has value in itself . . . independent of any instrumental usefulness for limited human purposes.” The concept of “biospheric egalitarianism”
  • Economic logic has superseded many other modes of decision making
    • such as: greatest good for most people, 7 generations logic,

Natural Capital, argued along the same lines as all capital, by turning complex biological, atmospheric, and earth systems into services (rather than things to be extracted at least). It is familiar (yes, neoliberal valuation has seeped into the family, the self, and all else) to describe the importance of ecosystemic contributions to the health of the planet as something that can be abstracted, i.e. assigned a monetary value.
Yet even the valuation of ecosystems as natural capital have (had? this article was written in 2017) largely been ignored by political theorists.

Battistoni wants us to move away from the notion of capital as the definition of labor, leveraging “the insights of feminist theorists regarding undervalued forms of production” to examine how acts of working together are “a collective, distributed undertaking of humans and nonhumans acting to reproduce, regenerate, and renew a common world.”

Her term for this new undervalued collaborative form of production is “Hybrid Labor.”

Taking cues from Bennett and Latour, she asks how to bring their ideas of actor networks and vibrant matter, lively agents of all stripes and forms, into the political realm (“Bennett’s analysis falters when it comes to suggest-ing how the power of these multitudinous agents might be recognized and mobilized for political action.” and “what exactly does it mean to “bring in” species, rivers, earthworms, as we go about, in Latour’s words, “composing a common world”?)

Natural capital purports to “bring nature in” to economics for the purposes of transforming it, but without any intent to effect political transformation.
To get at a political transformation, we first must dissect labor and what constitutes the human. We can take off from a Marxist runway, and expand through marxist feminists. A starting point is the ways in which labor is under-recognized across the human species (unpaid, reproductive, emotional, affective labor, etc). But to contain labor as exclusively within the domain of humans is also an oversight. Marx’s “influential view that labor is exclusively and distinctively human leads him to undervalue the constitutive powers of reproduction and generation in the production of nature itself. The earth, beyond the human, does plenty of unpaid work.

To suggest that labor is not exclusively human is not to efface the difference between human labor and other forms, or between humans and other laborers. The fact that humans have capacities that are not utilized by certain forms of labor does not mean that labor must be an exclusively human category—only that “what makes us human” is located elsewhere. Labor can still be a useful and important category of political activity even—and perhaps especially—if it is not also the determining characteristic of humanity.


As wages-for-housework proposed that household tasks be seen as work rather than a set of exchangeable commodities à la Becker, I propose conceiving of the reproduction of the conditions of life on Earth—the continuous rebuilding of our common, livable home—as a form of collective, hybrid labor rather than a set of services to be traded. Scholars are beginning to highlight the human labor and care that go into maintaining ecosystems, granting these often invisible forms of work critical recognition.73 But we must also recognize the generative, productive forces of “nature itself” as part of this labor. The daily remaking of the world requires more-than-human activity: thus the importance not only of replacing “capital” with “labor,” but “natural” with “hybrid.”
…The similarities of interest to me are structural and historical rather than ontological or essential: both “women’s work” and the “work of nature”—the kinds of bodily, ephemeral, daily activities necessary for simply sustaining life—have tended in capitalist societies to be unrecognized and undervalued, to act as background conditions to market relations and lasting works.

Labor vs Capital:

  • a subject rather than a stock. “hybrid labor is not merely a matter of adjusting economic taxonomy to reflect structural similarities; it also functions as a political declaration of collective belonging.”
  • labor is a category that threads the needle between the ethical categories of intrinsic and instrumental value: it both acknowledges instrumental activity and limits its scope, claiming recognition and power on the basis of useful activity while also asserting space for life beyond it.
  • asserting that nonhumans should count as workers can help us imagine a new vision of what we “might together be able to become,” and of what new political formations might be possible if we thought in terms not only of companion but comrade species. Whereas Haraway’s term “companion species” aims to capture the deep entanglement of humans and other species in daily life, the designation comrade names a distinctly political relationship—one that has traditionally been associated with the politics of labor
  • Solidarity
  • What could a demand for “wages” even mean beyond the human? Rather than a limitation, the inability to pay a traditional wage to nonhumans is an opportunity to consider what kinds of other relationships might be possible.
  • We might begin to think beyond monetized forms of reciprocation and imagine what Federica Giardini and Anna Simone call “circuits of restitution” that are concerned with access to the “conditions of living” and making a “joyful existence.”
  • Could we describe, in the rubric of capital, that more-than-human workers are slaves?

Battistoni’s apologia:

to argue for political subjectivity based on labor may seem to re-center labor as the primary activity of life or accept too readily the subsump-tion of other activities to the category of labor.86 Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, for example, that to declare various forms of human activity labor is to already accept capitalist categories and figurations of politics;87 Helmreich rightly cautions against seeing “organisms as natural factories or assembly lines, when in fact they only become so in certain relations.”88 Indeed, I don’t seek to reify social relations as natural, suggest that only activities designated as labor can be recognized as valuable, insist that labor is the only basis for political relationships, or propose it as an all-encompassing descriptor of human–nonhuman relationships.

By way of comparison, recognition of another human’s status as a co-laborer does not preclude other relationships; if anything, it is likely to foster additional forms of sociality. Likewise, considering nonhumans in terms of labor does not mean they should be seen entirely or exclusively in those terms. Nor must labor be the exclusive political relationship. As humans who participate in politics organized around their labor also act politically in other dimensions, so too with more-than-human politics: taking up the idea of hybrid labor does not, for example, preclude a politics that aims to minimize nonhuman suffering, as in campaigns against cruelty to animals.