Ecosocialism against cynicism: a review of Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature

Published online 6 February 2007.

This is a revisitation of Joel Kovel’s (2002) book The Enemy of Nature in light of a discussion I had with Joel, who says he is currently working on a 2nd edition.  Kovel’s work is the quintessential manifesto of ecosocialism (notwithstanding the actual “Ecosocialist Manifesto” he co-wrote with Michael Lowy).  The ecological crisis is dire, and capitalism is at fault.  But there are many other reader-accessible works which display an ecosocialist bent; what is important about Kovel’s work, I argue here, is its attack on the cynicism of our time.

Contextualized introduction:

Recent diaries in DKos about global warming have emphasized the direness of the IPCC report.  Most telling is the prominence given to global warming in Jillian’s summary of week before last.  Also notable on this level is DarkSyde’s suggestion that the lobbyists are paying top dollar to get scientists to dispute climate change, and Devilstower’s diary of 1/23 which suggests:

It will not be enough to call for new sources of energy, if the first call isn’t to simply using less energy through conservation.

In viewing the discussions on global warming, I’ve noted a series of wrong turns which we, in future discussion on this matter, can avoid taking:

  1. “Alternative energy” developments won’t do anything to combat global warming.  Our existing economic system will merely incorporate “alternative energy” into its plans to burn every last drop of cheap oil this planet has.
  1.  Improved efficiency, in the context of a system dependent upon growth, is just an excuse to create more activity.  Please see John Bellamy Foster’s piece on Jevons’ Paradox for an understanding of why this is so.
  1.  “Population” cannot be blamed as a direct cause of global overconsumption because, given that nearly a half of the world’s population lives on less than $2/ day, it’s easy to see that not all populations consume equally, or even significantly.  Directly implicated in overconsumption are those who in fact overconsume, not the “population” as a whole.
  1.  The “Kyoto protocol” will not, in itself, restrict “carbon burning” significantly enough to alter global warming trends.  And its passage by many of the world’s industrialized nations does not seem to have altered the increased “carbon burning” of the world as a whole.

In looking for solutions to global warming, we tend to observe that too many people are burning too much in the way of fossil fuel, without looking at the underlying rationale for the burning.  And in looking at underlying rationales, we might just look at the act of the consumption itself, without considering the processes of production and distribution that makes consumption possible.  “Human need” might compel the burning of fossil fuels, for instance, to stay warm in the winter.  But there must be systems of production to pump and refine these fossil fuels, and systems of distribution to get them to consumers.  In our current, globalized capitalism, distribution is predicated upon the ability to “make money,” an activity typically generalized in our culture as “making a living.”  It is all of us “making a living” together that produces the society of “goods and services” that burns 85 million barrels of oil every day that produces global warming.

In “making a living,” then, we participate in a system of production, distribution, and consumption.  But does this system cater directly to “human needs”?  The fly in the ointment is that distribution, under capitalism, is based on exchange.  Everyone must have something to exchange, either material goods or labor-power, in order to play the game.  And so, with the universalization of the market under global capitalism, production, distribution, and consumption come to prostitute themselves before exchange.  We have an economy that is alienated; people produce and consume within this economy not for “human needs,” but for market values.  Government intervention doesn’t change the arbitrariness of this whole set-up; it may allow more people to play the game (if it helps the excluded rather than toadying to corporate profit), but it basically elaborates on market values.  And the longer this goes on, the more deeply the divide between market values and “human needs” will make itself apparent.

I am, of course, just holding up global warming as an obvious and newsworthy example, here, but one which bares the essence of the problem Joel Kovel confronts in his book The Enemy of Nature, now available in a 1st edition (while Joel himself tells me he is at work on a second).  The problem is this: how to get behind the labyrinth of appearances to create solutions to ecological problems that don’t just treat the ecodisastrous “symptoms,” but push society-as-a-whole into a more ecologically sustainable path.


(all images used by permission of the author himself)

Kovel’s critique

Enter Joel Kovel, and his book The Enemy of Nature.  The title of Kovel’s book derives from Kovel’s supposition that there is one principle enemy of nature, and that is “capital.”  By “capital” Kovel means the regime of investment and profits that controls the work process.

The established view sees capital as a rational factor of investment, a way of using money to fruitfully bring together the various features of economic activity.  For Karl Marx, capital was a ‘werewolf’ and a ‘vampire’, ravenously consuming labor and mutilating the laborer.  Both notions are true, and the second one, applied to nature as well as labour, accounts for the ecological crisis in all essential features. (38)

His indictment of capital is that “1.  Capital tends to degrade the conditions of its own production, and 2.  Capital must expand without end in order to exist.”  (ibid.)  His examples of degradation are extreme ones: the ruinous nature of capital is exemplified by the Bhopal disaster in India, and the degradation of labor is exemplified by the disaster that is Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.  Whether anticapitalist conclusions can be gleaned from less extreme economic contexts can, then, be debated by readers, though, at any rate, Kovel’s conclusion is that the current era of capitalism is likely to produce more of the extremities:

…the current stage of history can be characterized by structural forces that systematically degrade and finally exceed the buffering capacity of nature with respect to human production, thereby setting into motion an unpredictable yet interacting and expanding set of ecosystemic breakdowns.  The ecological crisis is what is meant by this phase.  (21)

Kovel’s critique, however, goes beyond the ecological and the economic to the communicative: we are told, for instance, that

the class system of capital conduces to endless permutations of deceit in order to conceal its elementary injustice.  As persons become personnel, synthetic bonds replace the organic ones of traditional society.  The ethos here is ‘managerial’ and the techniques manipulative, a sign of our times backed by a vast apparatus for the engineering of human relations.  As a recent article by one such technician put it in the headline, ‘Show Humanity When You Show Employees The Door.’  The point is that companies should ‘reinforce their cultures and maintain trust even during cutbacks,’ (61)

quoting an article in the Wall Street Journal.  Our reading of all these matters, however, can leave us in a sea of epiphenomena.  Kovel describes capital in a way that approximates magical thinking: he imagines the capitalist system as having a sort of “force field” that causes people to act as capitalists, exemplified by the enormous traffic of “mafia” and other illegal business in the world economy.  To a certain extent this appears in Kovel’s text as a search for an ultimate causative agent, an amazement at the ferocious jungle human existence on the planet has become.

In the end, it seems, we can look under the layers, under the spectacles of Bhopal and Juarez, under the acceleration of human rhythms in capitalist business, under the intensification of hurricanes due to global warming, under capital’s degradation of labor, and what we find holding things together even beneath capital (and Marx’s evisceration of it, with which Kovel concurs) is a sort of cynical accomodation which must be overcome:

Logic alone neither persuades nor gives hope; something more solid and material is required, a combination of the dawning insight of just how incapable capital is of resolving the crisis, along with some spark that breaks through the crust of inert despair and cynicism by means of which we have adapted to the system.  At some point — it has to happen if capital is the efficient cause — the realization will dawn that all the sound ideas for, say, regulating the chemical industries, or preserving forest ecosystems, or doing something serious about species-extinctions, or global warming, or whatever point of ecosystemic disintegration is of concern, are not going to be realized by appealing to local changes in themselves, or the Democratic Party, or the Environmental Protection Agency, or the courts, or the foundations, or ecophilosophies, or changes in consciousness — for the overriding reason that we are living under a regime that controls the state and the economy, and will have to be overcome at its root if we are to save the future.

— Joel Kovel, from The Enemy of Nature, pp. 223-224

Kovel’s proposed solution

The label Kovel gives for this solution, of course, is ecosocialism.  Some might object to the use of this label, as the world “socialism” raises hackles in many hearers and readers.  Kovel’s specification of what he means by “socialism” is that what he means by “socialism” is, firstly, “undoing the separation of the producers from the means of production,” (198) and secondly, a “free association of producers” (199) which “implies the fullest extension of democracy, with a public sphere and public ownership that is genuinely collective and in which each person makes a difference.”  Sure, plenty of readers are going to bicker with Kovel about the notion of “ecosocialism,” but he, doubtless, feels that he has eviscerated their knee-jerk anticommunism in his prior book “Red Hunting in the Promised Land.”  I personally, can imagine conversations with knee-jerk anticommunists about “ecosocialism” to devolve into shouting matches having nothing to do with reality.  Are we to associate capitalism with the mass murders of the Middle Passage or the genocide against the “Indian” peoples of the Americas in the same way in which anticommunists associate “Communism” with Stalinism?  However, we can’t let the knee-jerk anticommunists dominate the conversation about the future, for they will denounce anything they don’t like as “Communism,” and what’s left will kill either us or our children.

In returning to a discussion of Kovel’s ideal future, then, we will have to remember that his “socialism” is nothing like Stalinism.  The “free association of producers,” in Kovel’s ideal future, is to be aligned with natural processes in what Kovel calls “ecological production,” in which “the making and using of technology in ecological production is directed, rather, towards the making of ecosystems and participation within ecosystems” (215)which are to be characterized by what he calls “ecosystemic integrity.”  Kovel seems to have in mind an economy in which artesanal (“handcrafted”) production, rather than technological mass production, is the dominant form.

How we get from here to there, a difficult proposition indeed, is characterized by Kovel as a process based, firstly, upon “prefiguration.”  Kovel suggests that certain “ecological ensembles” have a quality which he calls “prefiguration,” which means to him that they suggest to the members of society a way forward to an ecosocialist future.  An “ecological ensemble,” vaguely, can be any sort of human organization; but as Kovel argues, “ecological ensembles” which fall under capital’s “force field” are useless as such.  What points the way forward are Kovel’s principles: ecosystemic interconnectedness, use-value as opposed to exchange-value, an elemental feminism.  What he suggests, in the end, is that some sort of spiritual movement (divorced from religion per se) will be “necessary to neutralize capital’s force field and provide the protective umbrella to permit ecosystemic development.”  (228)

Ecological ensembles, then, are to develop “dialectically,” through a series of confrontations between “communities of resistance” and the forces of capital, into an “ecosocialist party.”  The fact that no such party exists yet in pure form does not sway Kovel.


What we can see with The Enemy of Nature is an attempt to make marxist ecology feasible by clothing it in an elaborate metaphysics of “force fields” and “prefigurations.”  To a certain extent this metaphysics is justified; if we do not see any sort of “straight shot” to a better world, and if the principles of progress have become clouded and are not apparent, then high levels of abstraction will have to point the way forward.  Other writers, taking their cue from Kovel, should be free to invent conceptual configurations of their own: perhaps the reason why ecological problems look so daunting in this era is that we are hobbled by old ways of conceptualizing what Marx called “the man-nature metabolism.”  At any rate, Kovel’s abstractions acquire a certain degree of flesh in this book; the reader will not find her credulity strained in reading it.

Kovel’s book, however, may not be persuasive to those who still think that some sort of technological solution “on the cheap” can deliver humankind from the ecological crises precipitated by capitalism.  There are, however, far too many points made in this book in which Kovel is right and they are wrong.

Moreover, there is an elaborate literature of socialist ecology out there to discuss these points at length, involving writers such as Teresa Brennan, Maria Mies, and Enrique Leff.  Books such as Simon Dresner’s The Principles of Sustainability, which dismiss Marx with dismissive comments such as “The argument made originally by Marx and Engels that natural limits could always be overcome by science and progress” (without reference to Marx or Engels; Dresner 18) are missing out on a whole genre of literature which may offer the solution to ecological problems which, as of the publication of the IPCC’s “Fourth Assessment Report”, now look a lot scarier to many.  Dresner’s  conclusions, made without reference to this literature, could be a lot less mushy than they are.


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