Book Review: Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 2nd edition

Published online 26 September 2010.

In today’s diary I will look at the second edition of Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature, revised from the first edition which I reviewed here back in 2007.  This newer review will take a look at Kovel’s central proposal, ecosocialism, from the perspective of the history of power, by which I mean the general trend in which capitalism, imperialism, feudalism, empire, and so on exist as various historically-based means of domination.

Prologue: on the history of power

The primary libertarian illusion about the capitalist system is that capitalism has nothing to do with power.  (Thus, of course, corporate domination of our elections is rationalized by the Supreme Court with libertarian logic as innocuous “free speech” in the recent Citizens United decision.)  For libertarians, capitalism is about “trade” between sovereign individuals, and nothing more.  Never mind that none of the trades are in any sense equal trades, or that the reality of most of what counts as wage labor is nothing more than an ongoing extortion, wherein the laborers get to live while the owning class gets ever-richer while half of the human race earns less than $2.50 per day.)  Never mind the ridiculous nature of the contrasts: for the libertarian, the rich deserve theirs, as do the poor.

A primary libertarian confusion is about the historical process which originally made the rich rich and the poor poor, for this history reveals the unrealism of the libertarian fantasy world.  Any number of sociological surveys will bear out the old adage that “you have to have money to make money”; if against this a few people each year are able to defy the undertows of wealth and poverty, beating the odds to parlay their poverty into wealth, this will allow the pervasive influence of the commonsense libertarian notion that being rich or poor is ultimately a matter of choice.  But here I am referring to the history of “primitive accumulation” as granted by Marx:

In actual history it is notorious that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, briefly force, play the great part.

That brutal history, then, is what determined the initial wealth of the wealthy; it was the initial stacking of the deck after which the results of the subsequent deals, from the robber baron era to the present, were pronounced to be fair and honest.  “But hey,” the libertarian may then offer, “that’s just history: get over it.”  It is in such a way that the history of power is effaced from the memory of libertarians.  We, on the other hand, should not forget, because it is through this critique of libertarianism that we avoid seeing the world in the ultimately lonely, free, and friendless way in which they see it.  When the oppressed people of the world were “liberated” into the capitalist world of the 21st century (e.g. Black people after the civil rights movement of the 1960s) and told (at some point) that they were on their own, this did not end poverty, or for that matter racism.

In regarding the expanding capitalist system, with its history of power, as an approximation to an ideal of “free trade,” libertarians also think nothing of the social, political, and economic systems which must be in place before “sovereign individuals” can trade.  If it requires a state, for them it must not be “pure capitalism,” and this explanation serves as the alibi for the brutality of the actual “free market” as opposed to the ideal one which exists in the minds of libertarians.  The libertarian approach proceeds in willing ignorance of the social structures which create the “marketplace,” the political structures and police powers which guarantee and define “property,” “money,” and “exchange,” and the thousands of years of history which created the customary background which serves as a prerequisite to our current, individualized, and corporate notions of “property.”  Markets are viewed by the libertarian as an element of human nature, people are seen as genetically hard-wired to own and to trade, and there is nothing to see in the world but independent, self-sufficient sovereign individuals with no real connection to each other.  In this light the physical universe is regarded as an agglomeration of properties which us humans were born to own.

The critique of libertarianism, then, operates a fundamental philosophic “move” — it reveals how we have made capitalism seem natural.  (The libertarians, here, are merely noteworthy for having made a philosophy of this naturalization.)  The “move” can target the most specific things about capitalism — the reigning legal definition of “property,” for instance, is a universalization of two concepts: real estate and moveable property, neither of which are natural — humanity has so far critically abused the oceans and the air, for instance, because under capitalism the oceans and the air do not fit the standard classification for “property.”

The critique of libertarianism, then, is also the optimal tool for the critique of a text such as Joel Kovel’s The Enemy Of Nature, which proposes to replace capitalism with another system — ecosocialism.  With it we hope to ask this question: to what extent does Kovel’s book denaturalize the capitalist system so as to grant people the opportunity to envision how world society could be something different than what it is?

The Enemy Of Nature: A Call to Ecosocialism

Libertarians, as we have seen above, envision capitalism as this grotesque social “ideal” in which isolated individuals spend their days in “trade.”  On the other hand, the real, metastasizing cancer on the world that is capitalism is the subject of Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature.  Capitalism’s driving force, capital accumulation, may be responsible for spreading a whole bunch of things, but it is also responsible for spreading a crisis in which “the large-scale news is virtually all bad, and recounts the steady, although fitful and non-linear, disintegration of the planetary ecology.” (ix)

Kovel’s argument about capitalism requires three sections, proceeding as follows: 1) it’s capitalism, with its protagonist capital, and not something else, which is responsible for the disintegration of the planetary ecosystems, 2) building a new relationship to nature means rejecting capitalism altogether, and 3) transforming society away from capitalism means creating a society based on “ecocentric production,” a fairly difficult concept to define.  Here is how Kovel words it in the introduction:

The term “ecosocialism” refers to a society that is recognizably socialist, in that the producers have been reunited with the means of production in a robust efflorescence of democracy; and also recognizably ecological, in that the “limits to growth” are finally respected, and nature is recognized as having intrinsic value, and thereby allowed to resume its inherently formative path. (8)

Here, then, I will review Kovel’s new edition of The Enemy Of Nature, with especial emphasis upon its third section, and critiquing as I go along to understand how Kovel hopes to fit his vision of ecosocialism in the ongoing drama of the history of power.  As I’ve shown in the critique of libertarianism, the rational approach is to view society as working together (“all labor is social labor”) and that social connections are the basis of social power, as part of a history of power.

The first and second parts of this book level a devastating indictment of the capitalist system, and of capital in particular.  Capital is of course the relation underwriting the capitalist system — the relationship between capital and its exploited commodities in a system in which everything (and everyone) is a commodity, with wealth headed toward the vortices of capital accumulation.  In the process of producing the world as an ensemble of commodities, Earth’s ecosystems are wasted.

Kovel’s particular focus upon capitalism, then, is to underline its specifically toxic quality at this point in its development:

The culture of advanced capital aims to turn society into addicts of commodity consumption a condition “good for business” and correspondingly bad for ecosystems.  The evil is two fold, with reckless consumption leading to pollution and waste, while the addiction to commodities builds a society unable to comprehend, much less resist, the ecological crisis.  Once time is bound in capitalist production, the subtle attunement to natural rhythms necessary for an ecocentric sensibility becomes thwarted.  This allows the suicidal insanity of ever-expanding accumulation to appear as natural. (69)

Thus the delusional nature of immersion in capitalism can be seen as giving rise to consumer perspectives which bear no relation to the real-world outcome of the whole process, mass suicide.  Recognizing the power of this delusion over one’s human existence appears as a first move toward waking up to real resistance.

To summarize:

    • The ecological crisis puts the future at great risk
    • Capital is the reigning mode of production, and capitalist society exists to reproduce, secure, and expand capital
    • Capital is the efficient cause of the ecological crisis

….

  • As capital keeps growing, the crisis grows, too: civilization and much of nature is doomed.  Indeed, it is not unwarranted to ask whether this will prove to be the way of our extinction as a species:
  • Therefore, it is either capital or our future.  If we value the latter, capitalism must be brought down and replaced with an ecologically worthy society.

(159)

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this part of the book — it’s admirably covered in Alison Smith’s short review — I’d rather discuss the last part of The Enemy Of Nature which is about Kovel’s explication and realization of ecosocialism.  Firstly, Kovel provides us with a “critique of actually existing ecopolitics” in which it is noted how thoroughly ineffective Al Gore has been in actually doing anything about the environmental crisis, as opposed to raising consciousness about global warming, at which he has done so well.  Gore’s problem, of course, is that he’s a capitalist, and that when push came to shove in the White House Gore emerged as a defender of capitalism, rather than of the environment.

In general, Kovel is calling for an end to the commodification of the world.  Bioregionalism is fine, but as he points out, “no coherent project of bioregionalism can survive if productive land becomes a commodity” (193).  The war of position is couched in terms of use-value versus exchange value, and Kovel goes down the line in evaluation of all the various eco-movements to see how they deal with capitalist domination.  What works, then, is ecosocialism — a way of living together, with nature, which will in fact be sustainable.

Kovel then moves on to what he calls “prefigurations.”  A prefiguration is an imaginative envisioning of an “integral human ecosystem” (244) — an attempt to use the material world to look forward into global ecosocialism.  In his chapter on prefiguration Kovel moves from the Christian socialism of the Bruderhof to the history of “actually existing socialism” to that most necessary element which Kovel calls “ecocentric production” — production (organic farming is the first thing mentioned) as if ecosystem stability mattered.  The important thing about all of these social formations is that they count as social designs which can give us clues as to what ecosocialism will ultimately look like.  The value of ecocentric production is explicated thusly: “To build ecocentric production, then, means restoring the ecosystemic capacity for interrelatedness and mutual recognition; most elementally, to restore nature as a source of wonder and to be open to nature” (239).

What is promised in ecocentric production, then, is not utopia, but rather a chance.  In Kovel’s chapter on ecologies, he discusses what it means to produce ecocentrically:

It is important to recall in this time of despair that humanity, the greatest pest in nature, is not necessarily pestilential.  All production — our giving form to nature — is an ensemble of order, and an entropic gamble.  By “producing production” ecologically, we bring the odds of that production in the direction of ecosystemic integrity. (117)

There is, of course, no telling what those odds will be in light of the capitalist system’s continued dismantling of ecosystems — by the time we reach ecosocialism there may not be much left of terrestrial bounty.  Though Kovel goes on at length about the native management of Amazonian ecosystems as chronicled in Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn’s “The Fate Of The Forest,” this being held up as a shining possibility of proper human care and feeding for ecosystems, it is really hard to say what the state of planet Earth will be once we as a species decide that it is time to quit capitalism and get down to ecosystems nurturance.

The chapter of The Enemy of Nature in which Kovel actually discusses ecosocialism is devoted to “patterns of ecosocialist mobilization” — ways in which forces from the interstices (the “cracks in the pavement”) of world society can emerge and reclaim the commons from what Kovel calls the “force-fields of capital.”  Kovel’s first example of such a pattern is the Paris Commune — thus hoping to place ecosocialism in the mainstream of anticapitalist thought.  As for modern examples Kovel suggests movements in South Africa, the Zapatistas, the community at Gaviotas in Colombia, developments in Cuba and Venezuela.  Kovel suggests a political base for the ecosocialist movement in the worldwide ecological rights movements discussed in detail by Joan Martinez-Alier.

Kovel thinks that at some point there will have to be an ecosocialist party, though (and this is clearly a revision from the first edition of this book) he rather imagines that the Green Party is unlikely to be that party.  Kovel points to the Green Party’s largely-white following and its roots in narrow, sectarian politics, and then also suggests that green politics typically fails at serious critique of capitalism (266).

At some point, Kovel imagines that in the processes of movement-building and of the breakdown of the capitalist system a revolution will be possible, and people will take to the streets with the aim of bringing capital to an end.

Thus it could be that, in an increasingly hectic period, millions of people take to the streets, and join together in solidarity — with each other, with the communities of resistance, and with their comrades in other nations — bringing normal social activity to a halt, petitioning the state, refusing to take “no” for an answer, and driving capital into even smaller pens.  With defections mounting and the irreducible fact all around that the people are demanding a new beginning in order to save the planetary ecology, the state apparatus passes into new hands, the expropriators are expropriated, the 500-year regime of capital falls, and the building of a new world can begin (267-268).

Conclusion: analysis

For progress today really does mean simply the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe. — Theodor Adorno

The history of power has resulted in refinements of power such that power now largely takes the form of technologized destruction.  (Things have obviously gotten so bad because strong formations have triumphed over weak ones — but knowing this is no help in our current situation.)  The ultimate 20th century expression of this was the atomic bomb — though its deployment proved to be too immediately costly for everyday military use.  Evem so, the United States’ Armageddon-bearing military power, thus conceived, sits atop a military-industrial complex in which power is manifested as technologized communication, transportation, manufacture, architecture, mass food production and harvesting, etc.  The entire congeries of machinery as developed over the history of power requires a daily supplement of 85 million bbls. of crude oil and an equal carbon-equivalent of coal for its operation.  The industrial machines, left to their own daily routine, are thus doing and will continue to do irreparable damage to Earth’s ecosystems through vast increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (2.3 parts per million per year and increasing) unless the world-society which operates them is changed at some point.

As a polemic, The Enemy of Nature appeals to communitarian impulses against the military-industrial complex, social power as opposed to univocal technological power.  It seeks change, then, in the social forms in which power is manifested, as against the technical fetishism of the current era of power.  It leans on solidarity as opposed to brutality.  This, of course, is viewed as necessary because neither the “free market,” nor its guarantors among the political class, is going to bring about a world-society safe from ecosystems collapse.  Kovel argues that only away from the “force-fields of capital,” in which exchange-value dominates people’s motives, will world society be able to live in harmony with nature:

Use-values require the participation of nature, but exchange-values are made by quantifying nature.  The ascension of quantity over quality gives these relations the capacity for evil once the value function is advanced to the center of the social stage, as in capitalism.  In this loss of the sensuous and concrete, the abstracting function is abandoned to the delusions of power.  Precisely because nature has been detached, with its limits and inter-relations, in short, its ecosystems, there is no longer any internal limit to the value function. (136)

Thus a prerequisite for ecosocialism is freedom from exchange-value, and its commodification of planet Earth.

Already the existing system has started to fray at the edges.  (Also see this public reaction.)  The various prefigurative movements do not have the power of the military-industrial complex; it is by hiding in the interstices (where they can be crushed) that they retain a claim on the future.  It is anyone’s guess what the captains of the military-industrial complex will do as the complex itself starts to founder; capitalism, with its relentless commodification, remains a bad sign.

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