The Enemy of Nature

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Ansar Fayyazuddin

The Enemy of Nature
The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?
by Joel Kovel
Zed Books, 2007, 2nd edition, xvi + 329 pages, $27 paper.

IMAGES OF THE rapidly melting polar icecaps, the receding snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and human suffering at the hands of ever more violent storms all over the world occupy central places in our present-day collective culture.

These are symbols of the devastation of our planet wreaked by human activity. In our understanding of the crisis, the ground has shifted greatly over the last few years. It is no longer possible to deny the fact or nature of the devastation, nor the urgency with which humanity must act to change our ways if we are to survive and live on a planet that possesses more than a passing resemblance to the place we consider home.

The environmental crisis as expounded by mainstream outlets is narrowly conceived. In its most basic form, the crisis is identified with global climate change driven by excessive emission of greenhouse gases.

Conceived in this way, the problem identifies a particular set of causal agents whose elimination is necessary to halt and hopefully reverse climate change. These agents, inanimate as they are, connect to human society as the results of unfortunate choices made by consumers and producers in our economy.

Thus the solution is to make a different set of choices that do not result in the emission of greenhouse gases. The changes necessary, localized by their nature, require no major restructuring of human society or its priorities.

Joel Kovel’s book The Enemy of Nature: the end of capitalism or the end of the world? is an important and wide-ranging contribution that bears significantly on the environmental crisis, while at the same time rejecting the too narrow focus of “environmentalism.”  Kovel conceives the problem, as we shall see, much more broadly and deeply, through a sophisticated argument that places the environmental crisis in the context of a larger picture of ecological destruction.

Kovel makes clear that to view greenhouse gases as the ultimate cause of climate change is to be satisfied with an incomplete and ultimately misleading answer. Capitalism is the cause, the efficient cause in Kovel’s philosophically sophisticated phrase, of the ecological crisis we face. The environmental disaster is but one glaring aspect.

The book potentially addresses itself to two distinct audiences. The first is the community of environmental and ecological activists. Kovel sets out to show that an ecologically viable capitalism is a contradiction — that capitalism is inherently “eco-destructive.” The second set of arguments are directed at Marxists and other socialist activists. These arguments aim to show that socialists historically have inadequately addressed questions of ecology and its relationship to the socialist project.

These latter arguments breathe fresh life into Marxist thinking and provide some serious questions that we must wrestle with in approaching socialist transformation and activism.

Ecology vs. Environmentalism

Kovel’s self-conscious use of the word “ecology” is based on his insistence that the environmental crisis cannot be understood in isolation from the ecological destruction of which it is one part.

Ecosystems can be thought of as provisionally self-contained sets of elements and their relationships. Useful analogs for ecosystems are the subsystems that constitute the human organism — the human digestive system, the cardiovascular system or the nervous system, for example.  Each refers simultaneously to functioning subsystems of a human organism that are relatively self-contained, and yet dependent on the others as parts of the organism that they help constitute. A malfunction in one can disrupt the functioning of the others.

In ecological thinking, we may choose to consider geographically defined ecosystems — a region, a community, or even the substrate (e.g. marine) in which the system thrives — while keeping in mind the interconnectedness and webs of relationships among the subsystems.

To speak of “the environment,” without reference to a particular component of an ecosystem, is not sensible. Its wide use, however, implies a worldview that places humanity outside of nature itself. Ecology, as elaborated by Kovel, includes relationships between humans as well as those between humanity and nature. There is an ecological crisis, as Kovel argues, one that penetrates every aspect of life on our planet. Our ecological system is broken; the cause is capitalism.

To get a sense of what is subsumed by Kovel’s conception of ecology, one might turn to his humane and moving description of Juarez, Mexico, a place just south of the U.S. border. One hesitates to call it a community, rather it is individuals torn from communities, brought together to be exploited by large corporations.

The poverty, violence and filth in which the inhabitants of Juarez live constitutes an ecosystem that is in the process of destroying itself. The ecodestructive quality of what is taking place there penetrates every fiber of life from the environment down to personal human relationships.

Juarez is one version of an ecodestructive arc that communities throughout the world are on. Its peculiar features — the ramped-up violence and sheer inhumanity — derive from its location in the so-called “developing” world. The essential features of profit-driven exploitation of workers and nature alike, checked and tempered momentarily by surges in struggle, characterize the global system of capitalist “development.”

The power of Kovel’s analysis lies in dissecting the totalizing influence of capitalism. Starting with Marx’s analysis of alienation, Marxists have long recognized the penetration of the economic into the personal sphere. Kovel devotes some time to elaborating how the consumerist drive, experienced as individual desire, is a necessary element of life under capitalism.

Despite the obvious environmental destructiveness of rampant consumerism, mainstream environmentalism, far from eschewing consumption, tries to direct it in the direction of “green” products that supposedly do less harm to the environment. When megacorporations sell so-called environmentally friendly products in places like Walmart, the contradictions of green consumption become hard for even the most gullible to swallow. [Consumption and the environmental crisis are discussed in a particularly insightful way by Heather Rogers in her essay “Garbage capitalism’s green consumption” in Socialist Register 2007 and her book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, New York: New Press, 2005.]

Capitalism and Eco-destruction

Kovel’s analysis of capitalism is a traditional Marxist one but with some important elaborations and innovations. Marx conceived of capitalism as a system that is characterized by “generalized commodity production.” Thus commodities have a dual character: a qualitative aspect that Marx called their use-value, and a quantitative one known as their exchange value.

As use-values, commodities fulfill needs, while as exchange values commodities are repositories of value (essentially their price) that allow them to be exchanged for other commodities in strict proportions. Essentially all production under capitalism is for the purpose of producing exchange value.

We know that capitalist production is based on the motive to enhance the value of an initial investment. Marx called this process valorization: “[The capitalist’s] aim is to produce not only a use-value, but a commodity; not only use-value, but value; and not just value, but also surplus value.” (Capital v. I, 293)

Surplus value is essentially the part of the value created by workers that is not paid in wages and is directly responsible for the valorization of capital. Marx summarized this process as M-C-M,’ where M represents the initial investment, C the commodities produced in the intermediate step to be sold, and finally M’ the value realized by the sale of the commodity. The value M’ would be greater than the value M in a successful capitalist process. The purpose of production thus is not so much the production of a commodity but only the value realized in it.

Marx contrasted M-C-M’ with C-M-C’ production, which characterized all previous forms of commodity production. In the latter, a commodity is exchanged momentarily for money in order to buy a new commodity C’ to fulfill a need. Thus in this process the purpose of exchange was not the enhancement of value but to acquire a use-value, i.e. to satisfy a need. The acquisition of C’ was the end of the process.

In contrast, M-C-M’ is a never-ending process since M’ serves no need, but is only a transformation of M into itself except of a greater value. The final step is then the first step of a new cycle of valorization.

According to Kovel, the never-ending drive to accumulate capital is what makes capitalism eco-destructive, according to Kovel. There is no sustainable level of production, for that would imply a limit to capital (an M’ that would signal an end to capitalist greed). Curbing consumption to protect nature would be to deprive capitalism of its life-force.

The reason, then, why capital accumulation is ecodestructive is its need to grow endlessly. Overproduction is a peculiarly capitalist malady and illustrates Kovel’s thesis. The crisis arises because production is not geared to satisfy need, but instead to produce profit. Capitalists produce with the hope of gaining as large a share of the market as possible, and in the process, they collectively produce too much.

The wastefulness of capitalist production is as much a strain on nature as it is on the fabric of society. Overproduction leads to destroying already produced commodities that cannot be sold, but also to periods of intense “restructuring” of the workforce. This leads to shattered lives, inadequately captured in unemployment figures, stress-related disease and violence in domestic and public lives.

Ecosocialism: A New Discourse

Beyond elaborating the ecodestructive logic of capitalism, Kovel addresses himself to socialists, and initiates the project of conceiving an eco-socialist agenda and practice. Kovel argues that Marxism has not engaged sufficiently with ecology.

He points to tendencies within Marxism that resist compatibility with ecological thinking. Perhaps the root can be traced back to Marx and Engels’ argument that capitalism, through technological advance, creates the conditions for human liberation. Technology developed under capitalism contains the potential, under socialism, for humanity to be freed from menial labor and no longer subject to the forces of “nature” to the same degree as under pre-capitalist society.

Kovel engages with the historical roots of socialist enthusiasm for technology and critiques it well:

“Forged at the moment of industrialization, its [i.e. socialism’s] transformative impulse tended to remain within the terms of the industrialized domination of nature. Thus it continued to manifest the technological optimism of the industrial world-view, and its associated logic of productivism — all of which feed into the mania for growth. The belief in unlimited technical progress has been beaten back in certain quarters by a host of disasters, from nuclear waste to resistant bacteria, but these setbacks barely touch the core of socialist optimism, that its historical mission is to perfect the industrial system and not overcome it. The productivist logic is grounded in a view of nature that regards the natural world as an “environment,” and from the standpoint of its utility as a force of production. It is at that point that socialism all-too-often shares with capitalism a reduction of nature to resources — and, consequently, a sluggishness in recognizing ourselves in nature and nature in ourselves.” (229)

Perhaps the greatest source of resistance to ecology within Marxism is due to the different arenas of struggle emphasized by them. However, ecology understood in Kovel’s wide sense subsumes class relationships, and brings these disparate arenas together as mutually compatible loci of ecosocialist struggle.

Gender, Spirituality and Intrinsic Value

Kovel is not shy about coining new terms to describe phenomena that he finds inadequately served by existing terminology. The book introduces terms such as “life-worlds,” “force-field,” and “gendered bifurcation” to describe sets of phenomena in less reductive or allegedly more ecological ways. While some of these terms, in my opinion, are not well motivated, there are others that follow from genuinely new insights.

The introduction of “gendered bifurcation” and “intrinsic value” are two such substantive contributions. Although I remain skeptical of the first of these in its strongest form as presented by Kovel, both terms warrant some discussion.

Gendered bifurcation is Kovel’s attempt to understand the way in which the female and male gender are constructed, on the one hand, and what Kovel considers to be a parallel split between nature and humanity, on the other. He understands this split as codifying a hierarchy, with one — male and humanity — dominating the other — female and nature — respectively.

Kovel writes:

“The first map of the human species was drawn according to “him” and “her,” in that produced configuration of sexuality known as gender. Gender is the original dividing line within humanity; and the constructions of humankind, whether within humanity or between humanity and nature, are inscribed by it.[…] Out of this matrix (there is that root again) arose the beginnings of domination; and all future dominations, including that affected by capital, are shadowed by that of male and female.” (125)

Kovel goes on to chart a timeline for the establishment of this “bifurcation.” He argues that a sex-based division of labor existed in the hunter-gatherer phase of human society in which males did the hunting while females gathered and engaged in the labor of reproduction.

Kovel believes this division of labor did not involve domination of one gender by the other. Nevertheless, “the original division of labor set forth males as the takers of life and females as life’s giver. Moreover, the death-dealing tools of the hunt […] prepared a way for something worse.” Kovel then argues for a singular break that cleaves this past from what followed. He describes it as follows:

“Here a sporadically occurring event may be postulated of whose existence we are certain even though no concrete first instance can be brought forward. Its agent was masculine, not as individual hunter, but as a subset of the collective: a group, or band of hunters; and its stimulus would vary, being composed, however, of subjective as well as external forces[…] In any case, the event in question was a transformation of the hunt to a raid, with the object being now not the obtaining of food, skins, etc., from animals, but the expropriation of productive labor from other humans, i.e. taking not just the life of another creature, but the life-giving and building power of one’s own kind. This necessarily involved the seizure of women and children from a neighboring collective.” (126)

While I understand and am sympathetic to the motivations behind it, I am not convinced by this narrative. Kovel’s insights into the fundamental devaluation of the female gender in our society and its analogy with nature are powerful and, I believe, correct. However, this narrative runs the risk of not differentiating both gender-based oppression and the construction of gender in different periods of human history. Nor is it sensitive to the varying relationships that existed towards nature over that same history.

To use a crude analogy, slavery in ancient Greece and in the American South while both slavery, are two different phenomena that are not in any useful sense connected. Similarly, gender construction and oppression during different modes of production have different characteristics.

Stephanie Coontz presents a more powerful way of understanding the relationship between capitalism and the way in which the feminine is devalued:

“Under capitalism, Marx and Engels argued, only labor that is exchanged against capital is productive labor and produces value. If the good is not sold, however, its value cannot be realized, or even be said to exist. The social labor that went into making the good becomes trapped in the unsold commodity. […] Meanwhile, the most important kinds of work that humans do — nurturing, for example, and many other “family”-type activities — produce no value under capitalism and are therefore marginalized and denigrated.” (The Socialist Feminist Project, edited by Nancy Holmstrom,126)

Historical specificity lies at the core of Marxist analysis, and just as class exploitation cannot be comprehended in its generality but only in its specific forms — as feudal or capitalist, say — gender-based oppression in general does not strike me as useful.

Another term Kovel introduces is “intrinsic value” to describe a third property in addition to use-value and exchange value that objects may possess:

“Use-values stand at the juncture of a more original form of value and the kinds of value inherent to an economy. This original, or intrinsic value, may be thought of as the primary appropriation of the world for each person, in two senses: it is the way we first come to appreciate things and relationships in childhood; and it is, throughout life, the value given to reality irrespective of what we do to reality. In terms of reality-as-nature, intrinsic value is a kind of ablation of our productive power; that is, we intrinsically value the nature that we have done nothing to, that will always stand and beckon, that is our primordium and cosmos — not for sale, and not to be made into a commodity, rather, the “suchness” of nature, its intrinsic being, both sensuously intermediate and eternally beyond our ken and grasp.” […]Intrinsic values apply to the spiritual side of things, and also to what is playful, and are manifestations of an attitude we might call an “active receptivity” toward nature. (212-213)

This strikes me as an insightful addition to the Marxist lexicon — it enhances Marxist discourse and puts it in new historical perspective. In identifying a new qualitative property that is not subsumed by “use,” Kovel manages on the one hand to place Marx in historically specific utilitarian discourse, and on the other to free us to explore another form of “value” that no longer refers to the market or commodity production.

Restoring Humanity to Nature

The utilitarian philosophical framework was a 19th century attempt to find a unitary system that simultaneously addressed morality in a non-religious, secular way and economics, in what came to be known as neo-classical economics. In this unifying framework, utility became a quantitative measure of both morality and rational economic behavior. Maximization of this reified quantity became the universal hallmark of both moral behavior and market rationality. While Marx thought of use-value as a qualitative feature and thus different from the quantitative neoclassical economic term, it nevertheless retains important similarities.

Kovel implores Marxists to adopt a different relationship to nature — a relationship that no longer sees nature as a “resource” for production or, more generally, values it for its usefulness. The relationship towards nature that Kovel advocates is one that restores us to nature, healing the rupture that has existed for a long period of human history. Kovel also wants our gendered exploitative stance towards nature reversed to one of a caring and nurturing one.

The Enemy of Nature bursts at the seams with ideas, arguments and elaborations. I have touched on only a few of the book’s themes. The book comes at a particularly important and fertile juncture as the global community begins to comprehend and address the ecological crisis. I am sure that this book will provoke much healthy debate in Marxist and environmental activist circles.

ATC 139, March-April 2009