The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism Or the End of the World? by Joel Kovel, Zed Books, 2002, 273 pages
“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?
Kovel came bearing a simple yet urgent message. Behind the assault on nature and democracy, powering the extractive industries, the waste industries, and all the industries in between, the animating spirit behind IMF, G-8, and WTO, 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 an up-close examination of the dragon, its mode of operation, the historical factors that gave birth to it, and our prospects if we remain under its dominion.
The stage is set in 1984 in Bhopal, India, where a “chemical plant” coughed up a toxic cloud one night that killed thousands. Executives at Union Carbide claimed the facility was so well designed that the giant vat of methyl isocyanate could only have exploded with the assistance of a deranged saboteur. Yet the vat that blew had been “stewing” for a week, and management did nothing. The corporation wasn’t just lax in safety standards, it actually docked the pay of workers who refused to deviate from safety guidelines. Instead of trying to remove the hazard, employees were too busy generating surplus wealth for their masters.
Methyl isocyanate (MIC) serves no function except to reduce the cost of manufacturing a pesticide, Sevin, which serves no purpose other than increasing profitability in 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 into silence, the company’s stock rose by $2 a share when New Dehli announced, predictably, that it was dropping its criminal prosecution. The Bhopal Ripper wasn’t a batch of MIC or the people who concocted it or even Union Carbide. The killer was capital.
The market is traditionally a means by which individuals sell commodities to get the money to buy 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 so he can turn around and sell it for profit to someone else, yielding yet more cash for more purchases and more sales at 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 offer intrinsic value to someone who needs to take a walk. But when you buy shoes only to sell them at a mark-up, their entire worth is a number.
Marx described capital as self-reproducing money. Originally, it served to facilitate trade. But when the trade itself, and not the good exchanged, became the basis of economy—when reality was no longer labor but its monetarized quantification—mild-mannered money transmuted into an all-consuming monster. No longer bound up with the limitations of actual people, land, and resources, it sprang 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. Marx believed the only way to cut off the capitalist feedback loop was communist insurrection. Now we know there’s another, far more permanent, solution: The end of the world.
Capital is like a writer who doesn’t care what’s written on the pages so long as they keep piling up. Though humans can privately and collectively derive all sorts of intrinsic meaning from life, capital understands only its own numerical increase. 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 far more servile 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 eradicate the remnants of the world’s traditional—and relatively nonpolluting—economies by integrating them into the streamlined production-consumption circuit. “As globalization propagates the mechanism of accumulation around the globe, society after society is swept into the vortex of eco-destruction.”
As Kovel emphasizes, ecology isn’t just nature but the diversity and integrity of human cultures. The tripling of per capita fat intake with the rise of McDonald’s culture is every bit as ecological as the hole in the sky over Antarctica. Our own bodies contain delicately balanced ecosystems made of nervous, endocrine, and immune tissues, and these 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 the human mind. 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 seems driven to submerge us in it. Yet the meaning of nature is that a self-contained reality exists outside of and in contrast to the artifice of our imagination. While it’s true that social interaction is fundamental to 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 that it’s 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 that “parallel, imagined universe” of human thought.
He sinks deeper in the conceptual quicksand when he tries to articulate an alternative to the standard, “mechanistic” view of life. “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.”
Which is a roundabout way of saying nothing in particular.
The question befuddling the professor is how living things can exist intrinsically, whereas nonliving things have no self-nature. The trouble with Kovel’s answer to the conundrum of the self is that the “some-things” that internalize their “is-ness” already exist “of themselves.” Nothing has been explained. Sometimes the sleight-of-hand even fools the magician.
The issue may seem peripheral. It is not. Without a theory that makes sense of the intrinsic value of life, the tragedy of cultural and natural devastation is rendered moot. What difference does it make if species are liquidated and humans automated when we’re all just “organic machines” in the first place, blindly following the programs in our brains and gonads? Kovel’s valiant but failed effort points to the crying need on the left for a theory of life as it truly is, not an imitation theory that substitutes life with organic engineering and then tries (and fails) to explain that.
When underemployed hunting bands began raiding human settlements ten to twelve thousand years ago, killing the men and enslaving the rest, something fundamental to our spirit was suffocated. If we can’t describe this in a way that coheres with scientific knowledge, our social analysis 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.
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 insulate themselves and 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.” Alas, the apparent panacea of free, unlimited supplies of energy can 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 way 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.
Be it anarchism or socialism, our goal is a free association of producers. The question is how to get from here to there.
Dr. Kovel’s prescription? 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. Indymedia centers constitute “prefigurations of the new society.” Enlightened teachers are steering the education system into the “production of eco-systemic use-values.” A global anti-poverty movement can set in motion a “self-generative and nonlinear dialectic” culminating in ecosocialism.
Strategy? More like the “optimistic denial” of economists. Towards 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 legions of consumers who are trapped “under its spell.” When we’re reduced to “corpuscles in the circulation of capital,” and the country is 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. 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...”
On the contrary, we must do as the bourgeois 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, and the rest 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.
Kovel does concede that economic activism is required alongside political activism, but he fails to appreciate its importance.
Capital’s greatest strength is also its fatal weakness. A system unable to sustain itself without vast quantities of production will surely generate vast quantities of waste. An economy that produces only what it needs cannot help but outcompete such a stupendously inefficient system. Cooperatives can’t overcome the pressures of capital because they don’t function holistically, in terms of a self-contained economy.
The key is a community of producers who share each other’s goods and sell the excess for profit. As our social economy expands, it diversifies production. The less dependent we are on the wasteful economy, the lower our collective cost of living. This leaves more wealth that can be put toward further expansion. The more we grow, the more consumers and workers we siphon off from the corporations. Under capitalism only capital generates movement. People don’t join the revolution just because they’ve “seen the light.” They line up because our magnetic field is more attractive.
As Kovel remarks, what’s generating eco-catastrophe is the wastefulness of capital. An economy of sufficiency requires far less “load” and is easily maintained in the face of high populations. Capital is inherently unsustainable. Our job is not to attack it but merely to accelerate its natural demise.