Joel Kovel's "The Enemy of Nature"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Apr 8 16:52:53 MDT 2002

I want to thank our friends at Zed Press for sending me a review copy
of Joel Kovel's newly published "The Enemy of Nature: The End of
Capitalism or the End of the World". It is sent with the
understanding that I would say a word or two about it, plus as a
token of their appreciation for Marxmail, which they read regularly.

Zed Press ( is one of the finest left
publishing houses in the world. Of the many books already bearing
their imprint on my shelves at home, three stand out. 1) Harry
Shutt's "The Trouble With Capitalism," which is a sort of a more
readable and compelling version of Robert Brenner's NLR 1998 article.
2) Bill Blum's "Rogue State" that I reviewed for Phil Ferguson's
magazine. 3) Robert Biehl's "The New Imperialism", which I have
posted excerpts from here (it effectively refutes the sort of
argument put forward by people like Colin Leys and company.)

After attending a seminar by Kovel at the Brecht Forum in NYC over 6
years ago, I became committed to ecosocialism. He likened the
capitalist system to metastasizing tumors, a metaphor that has stuck
with me ever since. He said that to uncritically celebrate more cars,
more fast food, and more suburban housing despite their negative
environmental consequences is akin to celebrating brain tumors, just
because they too are "growth".

In addition, Kovel is also a dedicated activist, which is a bit
unusual for those contributing to the literature of ecosocialism. As
a Senatorial candidate for the NY Green Party, Kovel has translated
many of the key issues of the ecological crisis, such as global
warming, into easily understood campaign issues. Along with Marxmail
lurker Howie Hawkins, Kovel is working overtime to maintain a class
outlook in the US Green Party, which is facing the same kinds of
pressures that have served to disorient the European counterparts.
You can read some of Joel's work at:

Most people understand that between the two camps developing a theory
to support ecosocialism, I line up with John Bellamy Foster and Paul
Burkett against the sort of Frankfurt school influences found in
Joel's writings. Despite that, I cannot recommend "The Enemy of
Nature" highly enough.

It is not only the most thoroughly articulated presentation of that
viewpoint; it is also a highly moving critique of bourgeois society
that reflects Kovel's insights into the kind of consumerist pathology
that makes the whole thing work. No doubt his training as a
psychiatrist helps him see things this way. His book on the
psychopathology of anticommunism is a classic in this vein.

This passage on "automobilia" from "The Enemy of Nature" is the kind
of thing that Kovel excels at:

"As the logic of automobilia unfolds, new levels of disintegration
appear, and even people deeply acculturated into the ways of
motorcars crack under the strain of contemporary vehicular life. Road
Rage, a new 'mental illness', is one outcome, resulting directly or
indirectly in some 28,000 traffic deaths a year caused by 'aggressive
behaviour like tailgating, weaving through busy lanes, honking or
screaming at other drivers, exchanges of insults and even gunfire'.
This figure, though provided by chief federal highway safety official
Ricardo Martinez, may be speculative; another more recent survey,
however, describes 1,500 homicides a year whose instigation is
directly traffic-related. According to Leon James, a psychologist
from Hawaii, 'Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually
inseparable. This is the age of rage mentality.' James cites as
contributing factors, a 'tightly wound "controlled" personality type'
for whom driving provides a release from 'normal, frustration filled
existences' and gives rise to 'fantasies of omnipotence'. Observe
that the personality type in question is itself an adaptation to the
capitalist marketplace, while the second factor, the omnipotent
release from frustration provided by driving, is a basic component of
the use-value of automobiles, hammered home by car chases in movies,
and the romanticization of auto advertisements. In short, a mental
illness Road Rage may be, but one completely within the universe of
capitalism's automobilia."

There is only one flaw that I have been able to detect in "The Enemy
of Nature." To be honest, I am not sure that Kovel could have caught
it since it involves issues that lurk beneath the surface. I speak
here of his interesting discussion of the "Bruderhof", followers of
Jakob Hutter (d. 1536), the Christian founder of a pacifist branch of
the Anabaptists, who have built commune-like agricultural and
industrial enterprises in the USA and Canada. They are also known as

Kovel finds them interesting because they are "radically
non-capitalist." He writes:

"The 'value' added on to and extracted from their learning aids
derives from the capitalist market at large. Surplus value from the
point of production does not figure in this picture. No value is
added from their own labour, for the plain reason that the Bruderhof
are communists. In the enterprises from which their money is made,
they are all paid the same amount: nothing. Nor is there any
hierarchy within the factory; there is division of labour, of course,
but no boss."

Unfortunately, the Hutterites are not viewed so benignly in Blackfoot
country, where their religious and economic cohesion has allowed them
to buy huge parcels of reservation land for farming. While sitting
with a Blackfoot Indian in a restaurant in Montana, I was treated to
a tirade against a group of Hutterites who had just walked in.
Basically, the resentment toward this religious group was not that
much different than what I have heard from blacks living near the
Lubavitcher Hasidim in Brooklyn, whose tight-knit structures and
messianic exclusionism work for them, but at the expense of their
racially oppressed neighbors.

Of course, what this militates for is an ecology that takes
indigenous demands into account. After all, it is indigenous people
who were the original stewards of this continent. Without indigenous
justice, there can be no environmental justice. And without
socialism, there can be neither.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 04/08/2002

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