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New world

Joel Kovel . Published by Zed Books . 2002 . Price: not stated

By Pratap Pandey
Published: Monday 30 September 2002


Joel Kovel . Published by Zed Books . 2002 . Price: not stated


An average Indian radical (naturally also an environmentalist) wanders into a bookshop. He slips his cellphone into the pocket of his wrinkle-free shirt, and searchingly peruses bookshelves. The Enemy of Nature. Aah, he nods. Seems worth a dekho.

On the back-cover, he notices that Istvan Meszaros (who?) has praised the book. Also, Walden Bello (yes! yes!): "Full of insights into the relationship between ecological degradation and capitalist expansion...." The radical winces, turns to the cover. The end of capitalism or the end of the world? "Naah," he says, putting the book back. "Too stark a choice."

Joel Kovel's argument begins right here. "Capitalism bestrides the world because of its fantastic ability to produce wealth - and to induce the wealth-producing side of human nature." What it has also produced is "poverty, insecurity, eco-destruction, and finally, nihilism".

So, what's new? What's new is his emphasis that with the current, globalised phase of capital expansion, "the escape routes are sealed...there is no room to externalise". It is with globalisation that capital's "cancerous character is revealed". Capitalism is not only destructive of ecological existence, but is a logic, and a process, that is inherently unreformable:

"The ecological crisis is the name for the global ecodestabilisation accompanying global accumulation. Capitalism has shown a phenomenal ability to absorb all contradiction in its logic of exchange...In the ecological crisis, however, the logic of exchange itself becomes a source of destabilisation... Capitalism cannot recuperate the ecological crisis because its essential being, manifest in the 'grow or die' syndrome, is to produce such a crisis."

Kovel's argument sutures, in the main, two strands of thought: classical Marxism and radical ecology. A classical Marxist understanding of the world is re-interpreted in order to make methodological space for ecological rationality. The capitalist exploitation of labour and the ecological crisis are two aspects of the same problem. There is today an ecological crisis, environmentalists have shown. Capitalism, as Marx has shown, is utterly incapable of solving it.

The choice, in short, is not stark but logical. The name of this choice is revolution, not a "first-epoch" proletarian revolution with its attendant Stalinist heavy-duty baggage, but an eco-socialist one. Kovel truly comes into his own in laying out the rudiments of change as imagined from the eco-socialist perspective.

After an empirical argument in Part I of the book where capital is indicted, Kovel moves on to talk about his conception of nature. Nature is an integral part of ecosystems, within which is included the human being. Both nature and humans within it possess dialectical qualities: an ecosystem possesses an integrity, that is, the ability to remain distinct yet connected; humans can foster the evolution of nature while evolving themselves, but can also "quarrel" with nature.

Capital introduces profound changes in both nature and humans. It "splits" ecosystems, so that they disintegrate and lose their ability to produce forms. And it induces humans to reduce their trans/formative powers into labour-power, for sale in the market. Moreover, human nature itself splits into class, race and gender-based existence.

At the root of Kovel's argument here is a creative re-interpretation of some classical Marxist categories. As productive being, humans are not merely homo economicus. The notion of 'production' is reimagined as "nature's formativity as expressed through human formativity". 'Alienation in the labour process' now becomes a splitting in and between human-nature relations. "Exchange-value" and "Use-value" become concepts with subjective registrations.

Having presented in Part II the nub of his re-interpretation, Kovel goes on to tackle, in the last and most speculative part of his book, the question of a future that would be ecosocialist. The human-nature relation has to be re-imagined, Kovel says, in a way that restores to ecosystems their integrative abilities and gives humans the powers to co-evolve with nature. "The hope of socialism is to overcome exploita-tion and bring down the regime of exchange-values. Ecosocialism develops this further through the realization of use-values and the appropriation of intrinsic value (ecosystemic integrity)."

This is not a matter of thought. It is, primarily, a politics for a future.

It involves creating ecological ensembles - a community, or a party. It involves, not merely the 'negative' politics of confrontation, but the 'positive' politics of re-building connections within, and between ecological ensembles.

And this process has to begin in the present. Kovel is very clear that he is not interested in formulaic magic. Ecosocialism imagines a future, and will take shape only in the future.

To be sure, we live in a world where Che Guevara is the name of a beer brand, but, asks Kovel, isn't there a world to be won? Definitely worth a dekho?
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