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Kovel’s Challenge (July 10, 2002)

“Never has a holocaust been carried out so impersonally.”

In his 2000 presidential campaign, Joel Kovel ran to the left of Ralph Nader. Just as Nader’s campaign was purely symbolic in the context of money-driven politics, Kovel could barely manage a whisper against the roaring backdrop of Green Party enthusiasm for Public Citizen #1. 

Enthusiasm which he himself fully shared. So, why did he run? 

Because he had a message for the progressive community, a simple yet urgent message. Behind the assault on nature and democracy, animating the corporations and banks and WTO, powering the extractive, manufacturing, and waste-disposal industries is an “ubiquitous, all-powerful and greatly misunderstood dynamo” called capital. As J.R.R. Tolkien observed in The Hobbit, “It does not do you good to leave a dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

The Enemy of Nature is Kovel’s up-close examination of the dragon, its mode of operation and the historical factors that gave birth to it, as well as our prospects if we remain under its dominion. On the basis of this analysis, Professor Kovel appraises contemporary social movements, left and right, and points the way toward revolution. 

The stage is set in Bhopal, 1984. Executives at Union Carbide, the owner of the factory that coughs up a cloud of death, blames sabotage. The facility is so well designed, they say, that none of its giant vats of methyl isocyanate (MIC) could possibly have exploded without the assistance of a deranged saboteur. Yet the corporation turns out to be guilty of numerous and colossal safety violations, including docking pay for workers refusing to deviate from safety guidelines. The tank that fires off the lethal round was “stewing” for a week prior to the catastrophe, fully known to management, which duly directed labor to ignore it and continue maximizing profit. 

MIC has no purpose except to reduce the cost of manufacturing a pesticide known as Sevin. Pesticides, in turn, serve only to increase profitability for monoculture agribusiness. Every action that generated the mass death by chemistry at Bhopal was motivated by the search for profit. Even in the aftermath, Union Carbide made a killing. Though investors lost $0.43 a share as a result of a small fine intended to bribe the government of India into silence, the company’s stock rose by $2 a share when New Dehli announced, predictably, that it would drop its criminal prosecution. The Bhopal Ripper wasn’t the batch of MIC or the workers who concocted it or even Union Carbide. The killer was capital.

In traditional societies the market is a means by which individuals sell commodities to obtain the money needed to purchase other commodities. As Karl Marx observed, capital inverts this process. Instead of starting with the product of his labor, the merchant starts with money and uses it to buy a commodity, not because he needs it, but because he can turn around and sell it for profit to someone else, yielding yet more cash for more purchases for more profits.

For the capitalist, the value of a product lies in its exchange, not its use. While “use value” is a quality that belongs inherently to a product, “exchange value” is an abstraction that can only be expressed quantitatively. A pair of shoes offers intrinsic value to someone who needs to take a walk, but if you buy shoes only to sell them at a mark-up, their worth is just a number. 

Marx described capital as self-reproducing money. In its original function money served to facilitate trade. But when the trade itself, and not the good exchanged, becomes the basis of economy — when reality is not labor but its abstract quantification — something weird happens. Mild-mannered money transmutes into a monster that consumes everything in its path. No longer bound up with the limitations of actual people, land, and resources, it springs to life, an abstraction with a will of its own. “Pure quantity,” says Kovel, “can swell infinitely without reference to the external world.” 

There lies the source of our ecological crisis.

Capital is like a writer who doesn’t care what’s written on the pages so long as they keep piling up. Though human beings can derive all sorts of intrinsic meaning from life, capital understands just one thing: Expansion. If it stops growing — if it accepts a limit — it reverts to mere money, as exchange value reverts to use value. “Individuals can step off this wheel — make their fortune and retire to raise polo ponies or cabbages. But they cease thereby being personifications of capital, and others immediately step forward to take their role.”

The meaning of capitalism is that capital runs the world. Human beings are tools for its reproduction. Some prove more adaptable than others. “Only the rabidly self-seeking and ruthless are elected to patrol the higher reaches of capital.” Which means those who have the power to make a difference are precisely those who’ve been fully absorbed into its inhuman logic.

Known as “globalism” the current capitalist project is to dissolve the remnants of the world’s traditional — and relatively nonpolluting — economies, integrating them into the supercharged, out-of-whack production-consumption circuit. “As globalization propagates the mechanism of accumulation around the globe, society after society is swept into the vortex of eco-destruction.” 

The “environmental crisis” is only half the story. Ecological crackup takes many forms. The tripling of per capita fat intake with the onset of McDonald’s culture is every bit as ecological as the hole in the sky over Antarctica. Our own bodies contain delicately balanced ecosystems known as nervous, endocrine, and immune tissues, and they go out of whack right alongside forest and farmland. Though the most visible fissures take place in the outer ecologies, the epicenter of the quake is in our minds. We’ve been torn asunder, traumatized, our sympathetic consciousness cleaved from the self-interested ego that now defines us completely. This is the core of ecosystemic disintegration.

In reaction to the capitalist outlook, which severs us from nature, Kovel finds us completely submerged in it. Yet the meaning of nature is that a self-contained reality exists outside of and in contrast to the artifice of human imagination. While it’s true that social interaction is part of human nature, the particulars of any given society and culture are products of our free expression, not biologically ingrained. Trying to have it both ways, Kovel claims that abstract, quantitative valuation is human and thus part of the natural world but not “the world in itself,” just the world from a particular point of view. But that’s exactly why it’s not part of nature, occupying instead the “parallel, imagined universe” of human thought. 

Though he makes a valiant effort to provide an alternative to the orthodox, “mechanistic” view of life, what he offers in its place borders on gibberish. “The category of existence is occupied by the ‘some-things’ that exist. These comprise beings insofar as they internalize their existence, that is, make their ‘is-ness’ part of themselves.”

You don’t say!

The question befuddling him is how living things can exist intrinsically, in themselves, whereas nonliving things lack any sort of essential nature. Kovel’s “self” is the incorporation of a thing’s particular existence or “is-ness” into itself. But if it already exists in itself, nothing has really been explained, has it? Just a sleight-of-hand that fools the magician.

The issue might seem peripheral. It is not. Without a theory that makes sense of the intrinsic meaning and self-existence of life, the tragedy of capitalist eco-devastation, human and otherwise, is rendered moot. The whole narrative, as Kovel presents it, turns on the ruptures in human societies that throw us off balance and transform economies of sufficiency into nature-devouring juggernauts. If organisms are just accidental machines, as the dominant theory posits, our value as human beings can only be weighed against the far more “rational” machinery of our own creation. The meaning of life is reduced to our ability to transform ourselves into super-efficient engines of accumulation. Splitting up what can only be whole is no big deal when the “whole” turns out to be nothing more than the smooth interfunctioning of parts.

But engines aren’t alive. Life is wholly irreducible. Though Kovel’s alternative view is in no way scientific or even coherent, it points to the crying need on the left for a theory of life as it actually is, not an imitation theory that substitutes life with organic engineering and then tries (and fails) to explain that. 

Human societies began fissuring ten to twelve thousand years ago, first between genders and then between classes. When underemployed hunting bands started raiding human settlements, killing the men and enslaving the rest, something fundamental to the human spirit suffocated. If we can’t describe this in a way that coheres with scientific knowledge, our social analyses will remain firmly rooted in thin air. 

It’s no accident that modern culture has left us with no language for discussing the human soul. Capital is the original alienator. When accumulation commenced, the male ego split off from the object of its domination. The integral human being was replaced by the powerful, acquisitive, and disembodied male intellect vs. the weak, passive, and instinctive female body. History is progressively larger waves of alienation crashing against human societies, tearing them from their roots and washing them out to sea. As European peasants somehow sensed a thousand years ago, the introduction of money signaled the “wedge breaking down the integrity of communal life-worlds.”

From the English “enclosure” of common lands to the rise of maquiladoras along the Mexican border, the means of production are expropriated, and labor is subjected to the regime of exchange value. Our power to transform nature becomes a commodity on sale for a wage, our lifeblood siphoned off and recycled in capital accumulation. Marx wasn’t kidding when he called it a vampire.

Back in 1970 numerous leading capitalists known as the Club of Rome released a report calling for “limits to growth.” In subsequent years elites realized that capital simply can’t be reined in. As reported in London’s Guardian Weekly, by 2000 world leaders seem to have decided to continue inducing eco-destabilization with the idea that they can not only insulate themselves but even profit from the meltdown all around them.

Despite the fact that it tends to stimulate the growth of capital, technology remains the most popular “solution.” The apparent panacea of free, unlimited supplies of energy could only result in the paving over of the planet, “leaving humanity to kill itself off in a spasm of road rage.” As to countermeasures such as pollution controls, resource substitutions, genetic engineering, etc., “a green and orderly facade conceals and reassures, while accelerated breakdown takes place behind its walls.” 

Kovel assesses numerous movements for social change, not only the progressive populism of the greens but deep ecology, bioregionalism, ecofeminism, social ecology, and anarchism. All are found wanting to the extent that they evade the central issue of the domination of capital over labor. Yet each one contains the germ of “ecosocialism.” 

Socialism is the degree to which labor is self-organized. While the absence of private ownership implies public ownership, this doesn’t necessarily entail a powerful state apparatus. The Soviet Union was in no sense a socialist nation. In fact, Lenin and Trotsky strangled the soviets, or workers’ councils, soon after taking power. A mirror image of the US, the USSR was essentially a vast corporation that accumulated capital through the exploitation of its citizen-laborers. 

Whether it’s called anarchism or socialism, our goal is a free association of producers. The question is how to get from here to there. 

Kovel’s recommendation? A “powerful spiritual movement” involving widespread “recognition of ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves.” Once we’ve learned to bring together our “existential fellow-feeling with a sense of justice,” the revolution will “build from there.” It’s not enough to think nice thoughts. “Our very being needs to be turned towards nature.” 

Not our very being! Anything but that!

Yes, the Consciousness Revolution is hard work. We must not only “ruthlessly criticize” capitalism, we must “spread the news” about the benevolent alternative. Enlightened teachers must steer the education system into the “the production of eco-systemic use-values.” Indymedia centers already constitute “prefigurations of the new society.” A global anti-poverty movement will set in motion a “self-generative and nonlinear dialectic” culminating in ecosocialism. 

Strategy? More like the “optimistic denial” so prevalent among economists. Toward econonsensicalism!

Kovel is at his strongest in capturing the essence of capital in metaphor. The commodification of life “sets going a kind of wheel of accumulation, from production to consumption and back, spinning ever more rapidly as the inertial mass of capital grows, and generating its force-field as a spinning magnet generates an electrical field.” You don’t reform capital any more than you reform electricity. 

Good point. But you also don’t reform masses of consumers “under its spell.” When human beings are reduced to “corpuscles in the circulation of capital,” the country overrun with “scurrying people set into motion by that great force field like so many wind-up toys,” how can we expect to mount a revolution of rational persuasion? 

As much as Kovel derides the methods of progressivism, his own outlook differs only in degree, not kind. We must “take to the streets and join together in global solidarity… bringing normal social activity to a halt, petitioning the state and refusing to take no for an answer…” 

In reality, we must do as the bourgeoisie did when they brought down feudalism. Theirs was an organic revolution — from the ground up. They were the peasants who had escaped their lords and banded together in “communes.” They established trade routes and built up excess wealth that could be invested in productive enterprises. They set in motion a self-perpetuating system whose unstoppable expansion weakened and ultimately destroyed the previous order. 

But the so-called communes were never for real. Right from the early days, the traders were the new masters, while the others comprised a new kind of serf. Our task is to create an economy that’s capitalist on the outside and socialist on the inside. While internal exchange must be truly communal, trade with external society must generate the profit that will expand the community. 

To counter the might of capital, we must generate our own force-field. 

Capital’s greatest strength is also its fatal weakness. Its capacity to produce vast quantities of goods inevitably leads to vast quantities of waste. An economy that produces only what it needs cannot help but outcompete such a stupendously inefficient system. Kovel rightly points out that cooperatives, in their present form, cannot shove aside capital. That’s because they don’t function holistically, in terms of a self-contained economy. 

The key is a community of producers sharing each other’s goods and selling the excess for profit. As the social economy expands we can diversify our production, reducing the number of goods that must be purchased from the outer economy. The more we share, the more our cost of living drops and the greater the profit in outside sales. The greater the profit, the faster our expansion. The more we expand the more we siphon off consumers from the corporations. People join the revolution, not because they’ve seen the light, but because our magnetic field is more attractive. 

As Kovel points out, what’s generating eco-catastrophe is the wastefulness of capital. An economy of sufficiency requires far less load and can easily be maintained with current population levels. Capital is inherently unsustainable. Our job is not to attack it, either violently or democratically, but merely to accelerate its natural demise.

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