Labour History

Nature, Labour and Agriculture: Towards Common Ground in New Histories of Capitalism

Labour History (2021), 121, (1), 73–98.


Goods developed and exchanged in the production of capital value are commodified nature that is acted upon by humans. Yet new histories of capitalism have for the most part ignored nature as impacted by this economic, social, and environmental system, and the agency of nature in commodification processes. This article responds to the call from a leading historian of capitalism to consider “the countryside” as a neglected geography of human-nature relations that is integral to generating capital value. It asks whether co-exploitation of “the soil and the worker,” as Marx stated of industrialising agriculture in Britain, also occurred in Australia. To answer this, I have drawn together histories of environment, economy, and labour that are concerned with soils and labour for agriculture, which has resulted in a twofold conclusion. First, it is a feature of capitalist production in Australia that the tenacity of “yeoman” or family farming as the model for Australian market-based agriculture did not exploit labour. Farming has, however, transformed Australian soils in many places from their natural state. This transformation is viewed as necessary from a resource perspective but damaging from an ecological view. Second, Australian historians of labour and environment do not participate in international debates about whether or how to consider the historical intersection of nature and labour, or, indeed, nature, labour, and capitalism. The reasons for this are historical and methodological. The environment-labour divide among historians is relevant as global environmental and social crises motivate the search for new sources and relational methods to historicise these connected crises.

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Author details

McIntyre, Julie