Dr. Joel Kovel, a Founder of Ecosocialism, Is Dead at 81

Joel Kovel

Dialogue but no compromise

Joel Kovel, a former Freudian psychiatrist who evolved into an apostle of what he called ecosocialism, a so-called green-and-red agenda against the environmental evils of globalization and in favor of the nonviolent eradication of capitalism, died on April 30, 2018, in Manhattan. He was 81.

In his book “White Racism: A Psychohistory,” published in 1970, racism, he wrote — whether overt bigotry in the South or cold aversion in the North — is built into the very character of Western civilization. “Far from being the simple delusion of a bigoted and ignorant minority,” he wrote, racism is “a set of beliefs whose structure arises from the deepest levels of our lives.”

“White Racism,” which was nominated for a National Book Award, publicly heralded his radicalization.

Under ecosocialist theory, income would be guaranteed, most property and means of production would be commonly owned, and the abolition of capitalism, globalism and imperialism would unleash environmentalists to vastly curtail industrialization and development whose pollution would otherwise cause catastrophic global warming.

“Capitalist production, in its endless search for profit, seeks to turn everything into a commodity,” Dr. Kovel wrote in 2007 on the socialist website Climate and Capitalism. “It is plain that production will have to shift from being dominated by exchange — the path of the commodity — to that which is for use, that is for the direct meeting of human needs.”

Dr. Kovel was the Green Party candidate for the United States Senate from New York in 1998. He unsuccessfully challenged Ralph Nader for the Green Party’s presidential nomination in 2000.

His works include: A Complete Guide to Therapy (1979), The Age of Desire (1982), Against the State of Nuclear Terror (1982), In Nicaragua (1986), The Radical Spirit: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Society (1988), History and Spirit (1991), Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), The Enemy of Nature (2002), and Overcoming Zionism (2007). He was the Editor-In-Chief of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. His last work, published in 2017, was a memoir entitled The Lost Traveller’s Dream.

The Enemy of Nature

Kovel criticized many within the Green movement for not being overtly anti-capitalist, for working within the existing capitalist system, for voluntarism, or for reliance on technological fixes. He suggested that ecosocialism differs from Green politics at the most fundamental level because the Four Pillars of Green politics (and the Ten Key Values of the US Green Party) do not include the demand for the emancipation of labor and the end of the separation between producers and the means of production.

Kovel was highly critical of those Greens who favor working within the system. While he recognized the ability of within-system approaches to raise awareness, and believed that “the struggle for an ecologically rational world must include a struggle for the state,” he believed that the mainstream Green movement is too easily co-opted by the current powerful socio-political forces as it “passes from citizen-based activism to ponderous bureaucracies scuffling for ‘a seat at the table.'” For Kovel, capitalism is “happy to enlist” the Green movement for “convenience,” “control over popular dissent” and “rationalization.” He further attacked within-system green initiatives like carbon trading, which he sees as a “capitalist shell game” that turns pollution “into a fresh source of profit.”

In addition, Kovel criticized the “defeatism” of voluntarism in some local forms of environmentalism that do not connect: he suggested that they can be “drawn off into individualism” or co-opted to the demands of capitalism, as in the case of certain projects where citizens are “induced to provide free labor” to waste management industries who are involved in the “capitalization of nature.” He labeled the notion of voluntarism “ecopolitics without struggle”.

Kovel noted that “events in nature are reciprocal and multi-determined” and can therefore not be predictably “fixed;” socially, technologies cannot solve social problems because they are not “mechanical.” He posited an analysis, developed from Marx, that patterns of production and social organization are more important than the forms of technology used within a given configuration of society. Under capitalism, he suggested that technology “has been the sine qua non of growth” – thus he believed that, for example, even in a world with hypothetical free energy the effect would be to lower the cost of automobile production, leading to the massive overproduction of vehicles, collapsing infrastructure, chronic resource depletion and the “paving over” of the “remainder of nature.” In the modern world, Kovel considered the supposed efficiency of new post-industrial commodities is a “plain illusion,” as, e.g., miniaturized components involve many substances and are therefore non-recyclable (and, theoretically, only simple substances could be retrieved by burning out-of-date equipment, releasing more pollutants). He was quick to warn environmental liberals against over-selling the virtues of renewable energies that cannot meet the mass energy consumption of the era; although he still supported renewable energy projects, he believed it is more important to restructure societies to reduce energy use before relying on technologies alone.

In the short-term, Kovel advocated activities that have the “promise of breaking down the commodity form.” This includes organizing labor, which is a “reconfiguring of the use-value of labor power;” forming cooperatives, allowing “a relatively free association of labor;” forming localized currencies, which he saw as “undercutting the value-basis of money;” and supporting “radical media” that involve an “undoing of the fetishism of commodities.” He advocated economic localization in the same vein as many in the Green movement, although only as a prefigurative step rather than an end in itself. He also advised political parties attempting to “democratize the state” that there should be “dialogue but no compromise” with established political parties, and that there must be “a continual association of electoral work with movement work” to avoid “being sucked back into the system.” Such parties, he believed, should focus on “the local rungs of the political system” first, before running national campaigns that “challenge the existing system by the elementary means of exposing its broken promises.”

Ecosocialism Comic
What ecosocialism is

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