Right enemy, wrong strategy

Issue: 118

Martin Empson

Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (Zed, 2007), £14.99

The extent to which capitalism can save the planet from ecological disaster is a hot topic. Discussions rarely examine the limits of the political and economic system, but every time someone questions the cost of building wind farms or asks if it is possible to live in a low carbon society, the question of capitalism is unspoken in the background.

This updated and expanded edition of Joel Kovel’s 2001 book is a welcome addition to the debate. Its first half explicitly asks why capitalism causes environmental destruction. Kovel takes as a case study the chemical leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, in 1984, which killed at least 8,000 and left perhaps half a million injured. He argues that cutting corners on safety, ignoring warnings and failing to complete routine maintenance did not simply cause the accident: they are extreme examples of the way corporations seek to maximise profits by cutting costs.

Union Carbide might have been a particularly nasty example, but it is this priority that means capitalism’s general direction is towards ecological destruction. The system’s need to continually expand is in contradiction with attempts to limit pollution or introduce environmental legislation.

The second part of Kovel’s book asks how we can move towards an “ecosocialist” society. For Kovel, ecosocialism must be a step onwards from what he calls the “disgraced socialist tradition”. This sentiment might be understandable if the word “socialism” conjures up images of the environmentally catastrophic Stalinist societies that emerged from the destruction of the Russian Revolution, but Kovel also critiques attempts to build socialist movements based on genuine Leninist or Trotskyist principles.

Such principles, Kovel argues, led directly to dictatorship and ecological chaos. Leon Trotsky’s “worship of technology was of messianic proportions”. Both Trotsky and Lenin are criticised for their perceived lack of an authentic “ecocentric way of being”. Other revolutionaries are lauded for a more environmentally friendly outlook—Rosa Luxemburg in particular, though Kovel argues that this is connected with her gender. This view of society, in which men find it particularly hard to be “open to nature”, is one of the weaknesses of the book.

Kovel clearly believes that we need a revolutionary transformation of society. However, when he considers how this might take place he really comes unstuck. He examines a series of historical moments in which there has been a “relative absencing of state authority”. The first is the 1871 Paris Commune, which, Kovel says, looked back to “medieval methods of self-organisation, and beyond that, in the deep recesses of time, to the original classless societies”.

Similar historical moments have occurred when the absence of state authority has offered a potential alternative society, argues Kovel. One was in the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; another was in South Africa in the wake of the ANC’s electoral victory; a third was in the “reclaimed commons” of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico.

Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that people in New Orleans began to rebuild a “civil society outside the baleful influence of the degenerate capitalist state”, I think Kovel misunderstands what made the Paris Commune different from his other examples. This was not the absence of a state, but the imposition of a new form of state power—one controlled and organised by those attempting to create a new form of society. Rather than looking backwards, the Commune heralded a completely new way of organising society.

Later in his book, when imagining how a revolutionary process might occur, Kovel fantasises about how the “state apparatus passes into new hands”, being taken over by pre-existing “communities of resistance”. But the group best placed to change the world, the working class who create the wealth in society, don’t get a mention.

This book provides a useful critique of capitalism, but the kind of transformation of society envisaged by Kovel will leave readers disarmed for the struggles needed to create an environmentally sustainable society.