A critical exmaination of Joel Kovel’s eco-socialism as set out in his book The Enemy of Nature. That book has recently been updated and republished to include more emphasis on the effects of global warming, which Kovel argues has “become the defining issue of the ecological crisis as a whole”.
Joel Kovel is probably the world’s best known eco-socialist. In 1998, he was the Green Party candidate for US Senator from New York and in 2000 sought their presidential nomination, losing to Ralph Nader. He is the editor of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism — a leading journal of green socialist politics — and a member of the US socialist organisation Solidarity, which publishes Against the Current magazine.
Kovel’s starting point is basically sound: that capitalism is the cause of the ecological problems we face in the 21st century and that an eco-friendly socialist society offers the only way out. However the problem with Kovel’s writings, as I shall eleborate is he fails to identify the social agency that will carry through this revolution. In this respect it represents the kind of unanchored classless anti-capitalism that has come to dominate much of the left over the past decade.
The nature-society nexus
In Chapter 5 Kovel states: “the natural world has been substantially rearranged by human influence, to the extent that one would be hard-pressed to find any configuration of matter on the surface of the earth, and a good ways above and below it, that has not been altered by our species-activity.”
Later he argues in similar vein: “What we call ‘nature’ is to some degree a human product itself, so that ecology and history have a common root. If evolution is mediated by the activity of creatures through ecosystems, should not the consciously transformative activity that is the human trademark, also be an evolutionary force?”
He argues that the “environment” is marked everywhere by human hands, and what we call nature has a history. Therefore “if nature has a history, then it is not ‘out there’ disconnected from humanity. It is not, in other words, an ‘environment’ surrounding human habitation and useful to us”. He goes to argue that, “our ‘human nature’ is to be both part of the whole of nature and also distinguished from it by what we do to it. This boundary is called production; it is the species-specific activity that defines us”.
This conception of the production of nature, which originated in Marx but was developed by the Marxist geographer Neil Smith in the 1980s, seems to me to be the best way to express the nature-human relationship at the most abstract level. Although Kovel does not refer to Smith’s interpretation, he represents it well enough in the book.
This stance also allows him to avoid anti-humanist arguments used by some deep ecologists. He says “far from being a congenital enemy of nature, the human can be a part of nature that catalyses nature’s own exuberance”.
The enemy of nature is capitalism and political conclusions
Kovel argues that capital is “the culmination of an ancient lesion between humanity and nature”, similar to what Marx described in Capital as the “metabolic rift”. Again, I think this grounds the fundamental relations correctly.
Kovel describes capitalism as generalised commodity production and that one feature defines it above all else, “the commodification of labour power”. He says that capital represents a regime in which exchange value predominates over use value and that under such a regime, “the economic dimension consumes all else, nature is continually devalued in the search for profit along an expanded frontier, and the ecological crisis follows inevitably”.
Kovel argues that “the really inconvenient truth” about climate change is that “capitalism has led us into this nightmare and does not have the least clue as to how to free us from it.”
Kovel is sharply critical of most forms of existing green politics. He says, correctly, that however capital may restructure and reform itself to secure accumulation it is incapable of mending the ecological crisis it provokes: “There is no compromising with capital, no scheme of reformism that will clean up its act by making it behave more greenly or efficiently”.
As such, Kovel is dismissive of the various forms of eco-gradualism. He is scathing about Al Gore’s record as vice-president, especially for his close links with industry. Gore oversaw over a period of rising carbon emissions when he was in a position to do something about it.
Kovel rejects individual lifestyle voluntarism as well as the obsession with techno-fixes. He is contemptuous of the pretensions of ecological economics, stuck within the boundaries of private property, which proposes market mechanisms such as emissions trading rather than tackling ecological problems directly. Kovel has zero time for mainstream green lobby groups who legitimate capital, nor for the localist, small capital project or anarcho-cooperatives that dominate green discourse.
Kovel critiques deep ecology, eco-feminism, progressive populism, the social ecology of Murray Bookchin as well as right-wing and proto-fascist ideologies which incorporate some ecological arguments, such as the German green Herbert Gruhl, who invented the expression that greens were “neither left nor right but ahead”.
Probably the best polemic in the book concerns the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Kovel rightly argues that, “the purpose of the regime [is] to turn over the control of global warming to none other than the capitalist class… This immense superstructure, with its ramifications all over the world rests on two guiding assumptions: give the corporate sector and the capitalist state the leading role in containing global warming; and do so only by making the control of atmospheric carbon the site of new markets and new modes of accumulation. These are two sides of the same coin: to keep capital in control of a process that would otherwise by its inherent logic bring it down; and in doing so make money out of reducing emissions”.
The Enemy of Nature is therefore useful in terms of its materialist premises, its attack on capital as the root of ecological problems and for its political hostility to market-based political economy. However the shortcomings somewhat overshadow these qualities. In particular, its conception of ecological crisis, its critique of earlier revolutionary socialists and the hiatus of a revolutionary agent make the book at best lopsided and at worst incoherent.
What kind of crisis?
Kovel starts by arguing that capital is the cause of the ecological crisis; “The ecological crisis is the name for the global eco-stabilisation accompanying global accumulation… Capital cannot recuperate the ecological crisis because its essential being, manifest in the ‘grow or die’ syndrome, is to produce such a crisis and the only thing it really knows how to do, which is to produce according to exchange value, is exactly the source of the crisis”.
This is fine, but Kovel subscribes to the formulation of the ecological crisis associated with James O’Connor, that it is principally a crisis of the conditions of production.
In Natural Causes (1998) and in earlier essays, O’Connor argued that previous discussions of capitalist crisis focused on what he called the “first contradiction”, namely accumulation crises are due to the failure to realise the surplus value objectified in commodities through commodity sales. O’Connor then argued that capital accumulation suffers from a second contradiction that is manifested in profitability problems due to rising costs. In this view, the second contradiction more directly involves the natural and social conditions of production.
Paul Burkett has written extensively on the problems with O’Connor’s conception of crisis. In his book Marx and Nature, Burkett argued that by treating the conditions of production as “external” to capital’s exploitation of labour, O’Connor’s “two contradictions” dichotomy tends to soften the distinction between the conditions required by capitalist production and the conditions required for human development. The effect of this softening is to artificially divide labour and ecological struggles — with the latter still basically defined as “non-class” struggles.
A similar objection would apply to Kovel’s book. Having removed the dualism between nature and humanity and having understood the common root of human exploitation and ecological destruction under capitalism in the cell-form of the commodity — namely the distinction between use value and exchange value, Kovel reintroduces it at the level of capitalist crisis.
A second problem lies with Kovel’s appreciation of the nature of the threat posed by dangerous climate change. Although he is not a complete catastrophist, i.e. arguing that global warming will not bring about human extinction, he nevertheless says that “global warming is an objective reminder that it is either the end of capitalism or the end of the world”.
Kovel quotes Luxemburg from the Junius pamphlet (1915) — that it will be “socialism or barbarism” — but he does not conceptualise the nature of barbarism.
As such barbarism could still mean a functioning capitalist social formation, even in restricted thermal conditions and with limited growth. No doubt capitalists could buy up the temperate lands least affected by flood and drought — and no doubt construct states to enforce their rule against the millions displaced by climate change. If so, the task is still to overthrow bourgeois rule, all the quicker to prevent further ecological damage.
If capitalism is the problem, what is the solution?
Kovel understands that capitalism is essentially a class society, arising from the ownership of the means of production but also encompassing states organised to represent the interests of capitalist ruling classes. He accepts that class divisions are the most basic feature of capitalist societies and that class structure conditions other splits and divisions such as gender and race.
He also wants a revolution to overthrow capitalism and replace it with eco-socialism. Eco-socialism is “that society in which production is carried out by freely associated labour and with consciously ecocentric means and ends”
However Kovel is quite explicit that the working class is not the revolutionary agent, as it was for Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and other classical Marxists. He writes that the agency of eco-socialism “can be found almost anywhere” and that there is “no privileged agent of ecosocialist transformation”.
Kovel argues against Marxists like the AWL: “One at times hears complaints from this quarter that the argument advanced in this work undercuts the ‘privileged’ role to be played by the international proletariat in socialist revolution. Well yes, it is true that the imminence of planetary eco-collapse reconfigures the project of resistance to capital. That is simply a manifestation of the need for Marxists to keep in touch with reality”.
This is completely disingenuous. If capitalism is essentially a system in which waged labour is exploited by capital, then the working class remains, however much it has evolved, the revolutionary force for change. If the root of the degradation of nature is also the root of exploitation, then the working class has a material interest in both ending its own exploitation and in mending the rift with nature i.e. in creating an ecologically sound society in which its needs are met.
Kovel cites a number of examples of prefigurative eco-socialist struggles in the present. The book contains a strange description of “communism” of the Bruderhof sect [Christian religious communities], despite the patriarchal and homophobic relations that place it far from any emancipatory project most socialists would recognise.
He points to solidarity provided to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the people of the shacks in South Africa, the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Gaviotas in Colombia. These struggles are important, but none of them are centrally about the millions strong working class and its daily battles. Kovel’s book is notable for its almost complete disregard of the labour movement, where debates range about incorporating ecological concerns with other, traditional demands.
The closest he gets to the unions is the mention of the idea of “just transition”, of making the state rather than workers pay for the costs of environmental changes such as the shift to a lower carbon economy. But here workers are treated as passive recipients of wages or handouts, rather than active agents who can intervene and shape the process.
Instead Kovel calls for an eco-socialist party grounded on communities of resistance. Although he criticises Green Parties for accommodating to capitalism, he also rejects Leninist parties.
The ecological critique of socialism — or of Stalinism?
Kovel is rightly critical of Stalinism. He argues that “actually existing socialism” never made workers central to the key production decisions. He says Stalinism was essentially a system of slavery, though he also describes it as state capitalism, with a special enmity towards nature “beyond what obtains under market capitalism”.
However Kovel makes some extremely loose and inaccurate comments about Bolshevik rule, effectively establishing the continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. He accuses Lenin and Trotsky of “specifically blocking the free development of labour” and goes on to ask: “is it any wonder then that socialism failed to take hold — or that the stage was set for Stalin’s barbarism”.
Trotsky in particular is accused of a “worship of technology [of] messianic proportions”, based on his comments in his book Literature and Revolution (1924) and charged with preparing the ground for Stalin to give these views “official imprimatur”.
Trotsky did write about “re-registering mountains and rivers”, and about rebuilding the earth, “if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste”. He wrote that, “Through the machine, man [sic] in Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans...” However he added that, “Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain”.
No doubt this could read as an anathema to ecologists. But had Kovel read a bit further in the same work, he would find Trotsky discussing the role of human beings as an evolutionary force in terms similar to his own. But the context of Trotsky’s comments is also important: in backward Russia just recovering from years of conflict and civil war, and with an isolated workers’ government hanging on, it was a rhetorical flourish rather than a statement of policy. After all Trotsky was also a leading member of a government that established a nature reserve in 1920 in the southern Urals — the first reserve anywhere by a government exclusively aimed at the scientific study of nature.
During the same period, Trotsky also expressed his admiration for the power of nature. He wrote: “But there are also epochs when the equilibrium between the animal, vegetable and geographical factors is upset, epochs of geo-biological crises when the laws of natural selection assert themselves with all their fierceness and lead the development over the corpses of vegetable and animal species. In this gigantic perspective Darwin’s theory stands before us above all as the theory of critical epochs in the development of the vegetable and animal world.” (Karl Kautsky 24 April 1922, in Portraits: Political and Personal)
Trotsky was also cognisant of the harmful power of humanity, writing: “while increasing the power of man over nature and while arming man with new technological methods and means, natural science makes man himself all the more powerful and consequently, all the more destructive, in the arena of war between nations and classes”. He added that chemistry might help preserve life, it would also serve “the task of the mutual extermination of man by man”. (Science in the task of socialist construction, in Problems of everyday life)
In a speech in February 1926 (Culture and socialism) he also highlighted the division between town and countryside promoted by capitalism and argued that socialism would overcome this antithesis.
Kovel also ignores the fact that Trotsky and his supporters such as Rakovsky developed the first adequate Marxist critique of Stalinism as it smashed the workers’ state and developed as a new exploiting society from 1928. This critique pointing to the tremendous waste and on how industrial development was taking place, but at triple the cost as under capitalism.
At the same time Kovel praises Maoist China for “certain remarkable and brilliant advances, especially in the countryside” and Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1980s for the “inestimable value” of its policies. He says his book “should not be interpreted as blanket rejection of the accomplishments of these regimes”.
These comments suggest he has not understood the real history of the socialist movement, nor has he adequately grasped the (polluted) river of blood that separates real socialism from the Stalinist abortion.
In fact Kovel sets up a caricatured history of socialism in order to claim that his version represents its “logical successor”. According to Kovel, in Marx, nature “is so to speak subjected to labour from the start” and there remains “a foreshortening of the intrinsic value of nature”. Marxism he says is “incomplete” and “flawed” when “grappling with a society such as ours, in advanced ecosystemic decay”.
He accuses what he calls “first epoch socialists”, i.e. those without the “eco” prefix of being “unwilling to follow the radical changes that an ecological point of view implies as to the character of human needs, the fate of industry and the question of nature’s intrinsic value”.
There are hard ecological questions for socialists — such as about the limits of economic growth and on consumption. Kovel raises these only in passing, without showing how a socialist society might adequately deal with them equitably. He believes that the precondition of an ecologically rational attitude towards nature is “the recognition that nature far surpasses us and has its own intrinsic value, irreducible to our practice”.
What “intrinsic value” means is not spelt out in the book. On a trivial level, there is little doubt that classical Marxists personally “valued” nature, as Lenin’s long walks in the countryside, Luxemburg’s concern for birds and buffalo and Trotsky’s rabbits testify. But it is unreasonable to expect them to appreciate the scale of ecological problems like global warming at a time when it was scarcely visible.
As Paul Burkett has pointed out, “the critics who fault Marx for not ascribing value to nature should redirect their criticism to capitalism itself… value as a specifically capitalist form of wealth does not represent Marx’s normative valuation of nature’s intrinsic worth.”
Marxists of course agree that nature contributes to the production of use values; it is capitalism which represents wealth by purely quantitative socio-formal abstraction - labour time in general. Kovel would have been better off identifying the real shortcomings of Marxists on ecology rather than setting up false and misleading amalgams to buttress his own, flawed political shortcomings.