Friday, August 10, 2007

Toward a Dialectical Humanist Ecology - A Review of Joel Kovel's "Enemy of Nature"

NEWS & LETTERS, November 2002
Philosophic Dialogue
Toward a dialectical humanist ecology
by Joe Swoboda

There are a number of reasons why I am excited by the release of Joel Kovel's new book THE ENEMY OF NATURE. The first stems from my long-held belief that Marx's humanism contains an implicit (if not explicit) ecological dimension. Shortly after my "'conversion"' to Marxist-Humanism in the late 1980s, which was largely the result of my reading Marx's 1844 ECONOMIC AND PHILOSOPHIC MANUSCRIPTS, it occurred to me that though Marx had done a wonderful job of describing man's/woman's alienation from his/her labor, from the product of his/her labor and from other men and women under capitalism, Marx had hinted at, but did not develop, the theory of alienation as it related to the splitting of men/women from this thing we have come to call "Nature." I felt the 1844 MANUSCRIPTS (and other of Marx's most important works) were ripe for an ecological interpretation. I feel Kovel has finally taken up this project, and I would argue that chapters 3, 5 and 6 of THE ENEMY OF NATURE are the best attempts at connecting Marx's humanism with an ecological vision.

My second interest in Kovel's book derives from my hope that it might provide some philosophic vision to the green movement. Like Kovel, I am a member of the green movement and the Green Party. I joined the Green Party in the Summer of 2001 because I saw that many young people and people who had not otherwise been involved in left activism were being drawn to this new political movement. When I discovered there was a Green Party local active in the Latino immigrant community in which I live, I was also excited by the potential for community-based organizing around issues like housing, gentrification, and immigrants rights.
However I joined with strong reservations. Most prominent among them was my awareness that the Green Party was a reformist organization aimed at working mostly within the confines of the established political process and was therefore self-limiting. I was well aware of the fact that the Green Party could easily become as much a part of the problem as had European social democracy, especially without a more revolutionary vision. This had already happened with the Greens in Europe.

Kovel has tried to provide the green movement with a philosophy of revolution that points beyond purely electoral green politics. Chapters 7, 8 and 9 of the work address this issue most particularly. There is another reason that a work like Kovel's is important at the current moment. There are two grim possibilities facing us currently and two potentially great movements that have arisen in response to this situation. The push toward complete corporate world domination (i.e. globalization) has been met with an exciting, if poorly named, anti-globalization movement. Likewise, a new stage of permanent warfare seems to be the likely outcome of the current "war on terrorism." This has been met with a renewed anti-war movement. Both of these movements suffer from a serious lack of theoretical perspective and humanist principals.

With the anti-globalization movement, the problem lies in its pragmatism. A broad-based movement involving every shade of the left from the labor bureaucracy to youth anarchists, it has generally avoided developing any kind of philosophic perspective. The only serious attempt at an anti-globalist philosophy has been Hardt and Negri's EMPIRE--a great book with serious flaws. Kovel's work does a better job addressing many of the issues Hardt and Negri neglect--the reality of state-capitalism and the failure of so-called 20th century "communism" being one of the most important.

In the case of the anti-war movement it is more a dearth of any humanist vision. The most unprincipled and reactionary of left political ideas have seemed to find their home in this movement. What Kovel attempts to offer us is a much-needed philosophy of revolution, and one grounded in the fertile soil of ecosocialism.

Kovel wishes to prove that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological. He tries to make the case that capitalism is the "efficient cause" of the present ecological crisis. Kovel's primary argument is that it is in capital's nature to "grow or die" and that this endless process of self-expansion pushes beyond the ecological limits that are necessary for stable ecosystems. He also argues that at the root of this crisis is the domination of exchange over use-value and the transformation of human beings and other elements of nature into exchangeable commodities. He writes in chapter 3 (pp. 39-40) that capital represents that regime in which exchange-value predominates over use-value in the production of commodities--and the problem with capital is that, once installed, this process becomes self-perpetuating and self-expanding.

The process entails a twofold degradation. In the first place, "We have the commodification of nature, which includes human beings, and their bodies," Kovel writes. "However... nature simply does not work in this way. No matter what capital's ideologues say, the actual laws of nature never include monetization; they exist, rather, in the context of ecosystems whose internal relations are violated by conversion to the money-form. Thus the ceaseless rendering into commodities, with its monetization and exchange, breaks down the specificity and intricacy of ecosystems. To this is added the devaluation, or basic lack of caring, which attends what is left over and unprofitable. Here arise the so-called 'externalities' that become repositories of pollution."

Kovel's argument that capitalist self-expansion is ecologically unsustainable is easily made. As he points out, even bourgeois ecologists have called for "limits to growth," seemingly uncomprehending that limits are anathema to capital and that capital will always extend commodity production past any limitations in order to survive. He uses a couple of eco-catastrophes to illustrate this. The most important is the 1984 tragedy at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Kovel does an admirable job of explaining how this "industrial accident," which resulted in the death of over 8,000 people, was ultimately a product of the logic of capital and not just an isolated incident. He also points out that the plant's very existence in Bhopal was the result of the ecologically devastating "green revolution" of the 1970's, which foisted dependence on pesticides upon the developing world.

The case is perhaps better made by his critique of the culture of "automobilia." Kovel describes how automobile production has created a situation where its "limitation" or lack of growth as an industry would create a global economic crisis but its continual expansion creates massive ecological devastation worldwide. He also points out how the production of this single commodity results in and feeds on the warping of human needs/desires while deepening the process of alienation.

Unfortunately, Kovel's historical case examples could be stronger. Other ecologists and ecological historians--William Cronon is one who comes to mind--have done a better job of capturing how commodity production transforms human and "natural" communities. Indeed, Kovel's "science" is at times a bit too simplistic, as when he explains that his interest in global warming was originally sparked by one exceptionally hot summer in which his home garden was laid to waste.

The strength of Kovel's work is not in its description of the impact of capital on ecosystems. Instead, its brilliance is in understanding how alienation is at the root of capitalism's eco-destructive character and that only by overcoming this alienation in its multifaceted forms can a society of ecological "sufficiency" be achieved.

What makes Kovel's ecosocialist vision so exciting is that it is firmly grounded in Marx's humanist philosophy and dialectics--which Marx himself described as a "fully-developed naturalism" and a "resolution of the antagonism between man/woman and nature" in the 1844 MANUSCRIPTS. This is evident early on in the work, when Kovel explains why his philosophy is based on an ecological and not environmental perspective:
"The environment is by definition a set of things outside us, with no essential structure, while an ecology is a whole DEFINED BY INTERNAL RELATIONS. Environments can be listed and numerically evaluated. Ecologies offer no such packaging and the boundaries between them are sites of active transformation, without a fixed line between inside and outside. In particular, the boundary between humanity and nature becomes highly dynamic, and a matter to be understood historically and transformed politically" (p. 17). Though the focus of much of the work is on the "grow or die" nature of capitalism, Kovel is careful to avoid a narrow "economistic" interpretation of this phenomenon. For Kovel, the imperative to self-expansion is inherently linked to alienated labor, the heart of the capitalist production system:
"It follows that the ecological crisis is not simply a manifestation of the macro-economic effects of capital, but also reveals the extension of capitalist alienation into the ecosphere. And as this alienation, and the whole structure of the system, is grounded in the relation between capital and labor, it also follows that the ecological crisis and capital's exploitation of labor are two aspects of the same phenomenon" (p. 132).

Kovel continually points out that "Separation/alienation/splitting is the fundamental gesture of capital" and that "the phenomenon of separation expresses the core gesture of eco-disintegration" (pp. 131-32). Indeed, the concept of nature as a static, quantifiable other, separated from humanity, is a part of this alienation and at the core of our society's anti-ecological character.

Such a notion of the environment even infects "ecophilosophies" such as deep ecology and bioregionalism. Kovel argues that only in overcoming this alienation can ecosocialism be achieved:
"Recognition of ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves, in other words subjective as well as objective participation in ecosystems, is the essential condition for overcoming the domination of nature, and its pathologies of instrumental production and addictive consumption" (p. 209).
Central to this alienation is what Kovel refers to as the "gendered bifurcation of nature." In chapter 6, he develops a sort of anthropology of man's estrangement from nature, in many ways similar to the ideas of the social ecologist Murray Bookchin. Kovel points out that male domination is integrally related not only to the development of the concepts of property and production relations in human history, but also to the identifying of nature as an Other to be manipulated and subjugated—a female other (p. 121).

This aspect of Kovel's analysis is particularly interesting and insightful and I praise him for making women's exploitation, a central component of his ecophilosophy. However it also presents an almost essentialist notion of men as the violent victimizers and women as passive victims lacking full subjectivity.

Interestingly, Kovel attacks Bookchin's similar anthropology of estrangement for focusing too much on the issue of hierarchy as the fundamental moment in the process. I find Bookchin's description of humanity's struggle to overcome it's domination by natural forces, which leads to humanity's domination of nature, somewhat more consistent and historically grounded than Kovel's. Indeed, I was interested to hear more of Kovel's critique of the philosophy of social ecology, but the few pages he devotes to the subject in chapter 7 focus too much on the supposed shortcomings of Bookchin the person rather than the movement itself.
I find myself disagreeing with Kovel when he places social ecology alongside neo-Smithians under the rubric of community-based economics, and in his claim that critiques of hierarchy and the state don't deserve the central importance they are given by social ecologists and the anarchist tradition.

This brings me to what is the most important weakness in Kovel's work. He attempts to apply Marx's brilliant dialectical methodology to the understanding of the current ecological crisis. For the most part, he is quite successful, particularly when illustrating how alienation is at its root. But Marx's dialectical vision captured not only the crisis and process of domination, but also focused on the subjects of revolt, the forces of freedom, that inevitably arose from this same process.
Kovel has not developed this side of the dialectic fully. Though he makes it quite clear that the domination of nature is integrally related to the alienation of labor and the subjugation of women, he does not fully investigate how these human subjects become agents of the new struggle for freedom.

Many readers I have spoken to feel that the weakest chapters of Kovel's book are the final two. Often they are referred to as a laundry list or a wish list, or as overly formulaic or utopian. I agree and would argue that this stems from a lack of an organic relationship in the book between the objective crisis and the subjects of revolt.
Others have pointed out that Kovel has little discussion about the environmental justice movement that has arisen in many African-American and Latino working class communities in recent years. Perhaps if Kovel had spent more time examining these movements, the subjective side of the dialectic would have been more fully grasped and a more thoroughly revolutionary outlook could have been provided in the last chapters.

A philosophy of revolution is not the same as a blueprint for revolution, and when intellectuals are not firmly connected to the masses in revolt, what often results are utopian schemes rather than revolutionary vision.
The big question remains, does THE ENEMY OF NATURE represent a breakthrough for an ecologically grounded philosophy of revolution that can inform not only the green movement, but also other key social movements in the current period?

I would have to conclude that it is certainly a major step in the right direction. Kovel's development of the ecological potential of Marx's humanist dialectics is brilliant and long overdue. It represents a philosophic perspective that has been seriously lacking in green politics, though his analysis of how to integrate the two is less than satisfactory. I would be very interested to see a dialogue between Kovel, NEWS & LETTERS and the social ecologists, as I think each could offer the others great insights on developing a more complete revolutionary philosophy. But certainly the greatest challenge and the greatest test will be how well Kovel's work resonates with the needs, hopes, and ideas of those who will ultimately rise up to challenge capitalism's eco-suicide.