Envisioning postcapitalism: Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature

(11 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In pressing forward with the “envisioning postcapitalism” series, today I will re-present an earlier review of the second edition of Joel Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature, revised from the first edition which I reviewed back in 2007.  What gives Kovel’s exposition of ecosocialism a special strength is its ability to identify a weakness in the capitalist system which escapes the notice of “traditional” marxism, and its advocacy of a goal-society (ecosocialism) which resolves the problem of capitalism’s fundamental weakness.  To put paid to the notion that Kovel’s version of ecosocialism is a “utopia,” I intend to critique the argument of his book from the perspective of an overview of the history of power.

(crossposted at Wild, Wild Left)

Prologue: on the history of power

The history of power, I suppose, takes its cue from George Orwell’s notion that “history is written by the winners.”  Now, Orwell was writing in 1944, at a time when the competition of nation-states for global supremacy was at its peak.  Thus Orwell’s idea was that what counts as “history” will depend upon who wins the battles — the Axis powers, the Soviet Union, or the core capitalist nations.

But Orwell’s principle retains some validity in light of historical struggles in general.  The history of the US, for instance, remains largely the history of the domination triumphant rich white males, although efforts have been made to create “alternative histories” from the perspectives of the dominated.  This has, of course, occurred in an era of relative equality as when compared with previous periods of history.

Generally, however, the history of power appears as a series of states of domination: the domination of social classes, of males over females, of old over young, of “white” over “nonwhite,” of “leaders” over “followers” in organizational hierarchies.

The “big leap” of the history of power, the point at which the history of power came into its own, was no doubt the invention of settled agricultural society.  When societies came into being which were capable of growing and storing grain, the silos of stored grain themselves formed a nexus of power.  He (or they) who controlled the silo got to say who would eat, and who would starve, and thus domination moved past the phase of tribal elders into the phase of rulers and ruled, kings and subjects.

In this regard, we should count as further big leaps Europe’s conquest of the planet after 1500 CE, and the various industrial revolutions, both of which made histories of regional domination into a single history of global domination.

Now, most of the histories of power themselves tend to take their cue from the idea of domination as military power.  Volume for volume, most of the history books are about the various successions of Kings, Emperors, Presidents, Prime Ministers and so on as they make their various decisions about what the people should do and about how best to defend their various realms.  History, as such, also reveals the character of domination in everyday life.  Class distinctions in ancient society were overt, and designated — you held a title, and so you were aristocrat or plebe, free or slave, lord or vassal, male or female, adult or child, and so on.

The history of power goes “molecular,” more or less, with the early socialist critiques of capitalism, which in promoting utopian notions of a world without social domination were obliged to confront and analyze the character of that domination itself.  Notable in this regard is Karl Marx’s 19th-century critique of the capitalist system.  Marx is useful today in debunking the false equivalence of “capitalism” with “freedom” that one sees in propertarian thinkers.  Marx established that, whereas “bourgeois society” (society under capitalism, whether democratic or ruled by an aristocracy) established the formal equality of individuals, the actual inequality of individuals is defined under capitalism by membership in either of two classes: 1) the owning class, which possessed a share of the means of production, and 2) the working class, which may have individual possessions of its own (and may even own its homes), but is nevertheless fundamentally dependent upon the sale of its labor-power for its ability to make a living.  Thus property (specifically, ownership of the means of production) defines a world of inequality despite the formal equality of the capitalist individual.

Money also defines inequality — for, as Marx pointed out in Capital, money is the conduit used by the owning class to make more money, and thus to organize the whole of economic life around capital accumulation.  Through capital accumulation, then, the owning class becomes ever-richer while the owning class is held in place.

The hopes of revolutionaries in general, in light of this, were that class society would be abolished and that society would move from the domination of human beings to the administration of things.  This is an ideal held not merely by Marx but rather by a number of socialists and anarchists of various backgrounds.  The actual implementation of “socialist revolution,” however, did not produce this result, this resolution to the history of power — The Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas, for instance, discusses a “new class” of bureaucrats which ascended to power with the so-called “Communist” regimes.  Thus if under “Communism” money and property no longer defined the division between social classes, a new division between bureaucrats and clients could sweep in to take the place of money and property.

Moreover, when the Soviet Union was abolished at the end of 1991, it was a sign that the world’s largest “Communist” regime had given up on bureaucratic domination by a “new class,” because domination through money and property (backed, of course, by armies and cops should the natives become restless) was regarded as a much more efficient method of dominating both society and nature, than mere bureaucratic power.  The project continued, then, of building industrial society as an ever-larger monument to the power of global corporations, nation-states, and organizations of global governance.

Enter Joel Kovel’s The Enemy Of Nature, which proposes to replace the global capitalist regime with another system — ecosocialism.  With it we hope to ask this question: to what extent does Kovel’s goal-society make an entrance into the history of power, 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

The history of power reveals that, with the triumph of capitalism, capital accumulation consolidates its victory over other, cruder, methods of acquiring power.  Thus the triumph of capital is also the triumph of a global capitalist class.  David Harvey, for instance, describes the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its subsequent bailout as a consolidation of financial power.  Is there any reason why capital accumulation would falter, and be replaced?  Kovel’s The Enemy of Nature, suggests that ecosystemic breakdown (23) is the force which will put an end to the capitalist system.  Capitalism’s driving force, capital accumulation, may be responsible for 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)

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.  Here we will view society as working together (“all labor is social labor”) with social connections as the basis of social power, forming 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.


I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the beginning 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.

The overall movement, however, is not envisioned by Kovel as merely the sort of small-scale, mainstream “green” enterprise depicted in Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest.  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.

The ultimate product of technologized destruction, however, is the atomic bomb.  The bomb, however, did not represent the ultimate advance in the history of power, simply for the reason that it could only be used in warfare twice — for the obvious reason that nuclear free-for-alls lead quickly to total ruin.  The same thing can be said about modes of biological and chemical warfare, which produce disasters of equally toxic flavor.  One can only hope that the common sentiment against nuclear/ biological/ chemical warfare will replicate itself in a common sentiment against fossil-fueled industrial society, and that capitalism, the proximate cause of this society, will be recognized as the culprit.

Above, I’ve quoted Kovel as saying that production is an “entropic gamble.”  The idea of “entropic gamble” implies that we might lose, and that the global ecosystem as a whole will radically gamble its way into catastrophe — probably in the form of climate disaster — leaving humanity vulnerable to mass death.  Perhaps the recognition of production as “entropic gamble” is the most important prerequisite for Kovel’s exhortation to, well, to end the history of power as it has proceeded so far.

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.

1 comment

  1. cassiodorus

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