The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?
by Joel Kovel
For Joel Kovel the revolution is only a matter of time. Marx was right: Capitalism cannot help but prepare the stew in which it will roast. But the old man got one thing wrong. The ultimate antagonist of capital is not labor but nature. If Marx made a fetish of capital’s propensity to generate too much wealth to be profitably re-invested, Kovel does the same in regard to planetary ecosystem crackup. Instead of periodic economic downturn catapulting the proletariat into History, it’s the shattering of life-essential natural processes that’s destined to set off socialist (make that ecosocialist) revolution.
Professor Kovel, who ran to the left of Ralph Nader for the Green Party nod in 2000, wastes no time making the case that capitalism, by its very nature, cannot help but destroy the integrity and well-being of what we call “nature.” No need for yet another inventory of disturbances in the environment, our bodies, and our psychic balance. The enemy of nature is not oil or pesticides or factories or bulldozers but capital, “that ubiquitous, all-powerful and greatly misunderstood dynamo that drives our society.”
While traditionally the marketplace is a means of exchanging goods for money so as to purchase other goods, under capitalism it becomes a way of accumulating money. Reversing the natural order, the merchant starts off with money and buys the product of someone else’s labor, then turns around and sells it at a markup. As long as the laborer is poor and the buyer rich, the trader makes a profit.
What gives a commodity value is not what we do with it, like using bricks to build houses or shoes to walk home in, but the price it commands in trade. In contrast to “use value,” a quality that belongs to any given item intrinsically, “exchange value” is an abstraction that must be expressed quantitatively. When you buy a pair of shoes–or better yet, a thousand pairs–only to sell them for profit, their entire value is a number.
As the basis of economics becomes the trade itself and not the tangible thing exchanged, money is transformed into an all-consuming monster. No longer bound up with the limitations of actual land, people, and resources, it springs 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.
Despite its reputation as the very acme of rational economic exchange, capitalism follows its own imperatives, quite apart from the needs of humans and ecosystems. In its compulsion to grow and multiply, capital “constantly tries to violate” whatever limit is set before it. Success means only one thing: surpassing yesterday’s mark. No matter how big the beast gets, to cease growing further is to die. Yet the one thing we know for sure is that it can’t grow forever. Sooner or later abstraction runs up against reality.
So, is capitalism setting the stage for ecosocialist uprising? “If the argument that capital is incorrigibly ecodestructive and expansive proves to be true, then it is only a question of time before the issues raised here achieve explosive urgency.” True enough, but that doesn’t mean the Revolution is just over the horizon. What Kovel overlooks is the likelihood that worsening environmental conditions will exacerbate the scarcity that already pits us against each other. While the rich compete to survive as rich people, the poor compete to survive, period. If it’s the money-driven struggle of all-against-all that’s pushing us, inexorably, to the edge of the cliff, shouldn’t we expect rising insecurity and the resulting intensification of this struggle to push us right over the edge? Precisely when, between now and doomsday, do the masses finally revolt?
As Kovel himself points out, capitalists are perfectly willing to perpetuate eco-destabilization as long as they successfully insulate themselves and perhaps even profit from the meltdown all around them. He cites an article in London’s Guardian Weekly purporting to show a shift in elite opinion since the early 70s, when the Club of Rome called for “limits to growth.” These days, digging our own grave is the ultimate business opportunity.
Taking Kovel to task in the September, 2002 issue of Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster noted, “We should not underestimate capitalism’s capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation… and to continue to destroy the earth to the point of no return–both for human society and for most of the world’s living species.”
Times are tough? How about a liquidation sale? Like Marx before him, Kovel finds a silver lining where none exists. There’s just no pulling the socialist rabbit out of the capitalist hat.
TED DACE has written for Skeptic, Z Magazine, Make Room for Dada, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org