I first met Joel Kovel in 2011. I had heard of him before, when I was involved in Students for Justice in Palestine at Hampshire College, and somewhere along the way caught wind of his dismissal from a tenured faculty position at Bard College for daring to write a book with the seemingly simple argument that racist states don’t have a right to exist. Such sentiments are not allowed in the liberal arts, and so Joel was cast out; not only from his job but from polite society and the lecture circuit. All the the better for myself, and a coterie of radical artists and organizers who coalesced around his study groups held at St. Mary’s church in Harlem. As we got to know him better, it dawned on us that he was not only a generous teacher and a radical mind, but really a giant – with a dozen seminal books on themes as diverse as psychiatry, nuclear disarmament, political economy, and spirituality, and contacts on every continent. We gradually became friends and comrades, and as time went on decided to join forces in founding an organization, Ecosocialist Horizons, with the modest goal of “advancing ecosocialism as a world-view and as a movement capable of offering real answers to the crises caused by capitalism.”
It was Joel’s book on capitalism and ecology, which clinched the issue for me. It grounds its analysis of capital and capitalism in Bhopal; the scene of the worst industrial accident in history, perpetrated and profited on by the Union Carbide Corporation. Yet reviews of this book often elide what I believe is the most radical point, and the most promising seed for an epistemological breakthrough. Joel’s book goes far beyond the simple argument that infinite growth on a finite planet is both unjust and suicidal. What resonated most with me was his insistence on what he called “the intrinsic value of nature”, which in Joel’s ecosocialist theory takes its place alongside the Marxist categories of use value and exchange value, each to be understood as sites of struggle. For me this was the missing keystone to an arch connecting the revolutionary ideologies of the industrialized world with the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples. Without this critical intervention into its value theory, it is impossible for me to imagine a lasting Marxist solution to our ecological crisis, let alone genuine (as opposed to merely pragmatic or instrumental) solidarity between anarchists/socialists/communists and indigenous/tribal/state-free/First Peoples. With it, we may be able to imagine re-weaving what Black Elk called the Sacred Hoop, and what the Zapatistas called for in their Sixth Declaration; the unity of indigenous peoples with the workers of the cities and countryside
I dug deeper and learned that ecosocialism was not merely an abstract conjecture dreamed up by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy in their 2001 manifesto and revised into the Belem Declaration in 2009, but a living movement with ancestral roots and futuristic horizons, strongest in the global South. Joel Kovel was no armchair theorist. Since that time we have worked in Ecosocialist Horizons towards connecting these ecosocialist movements of the Third and Fourth Worlds with those of us behind enemy lines in the Belly of the Beast; awakening our dreams through convergences, events, publications, campaigns and a radio show. This work culminated last year in Venezuela with the foundation of the First Ecosocialist International, followed by a US tour organized by its adherents (New York, Los Angeles, Jackson, New Orleans, Pittsburgh) to scatter its seeds. Joel passed away from this world on April 30, 2018, but not without leaving us his memoir, “A Lost Traveller’s Dream”. A memorial essay by his friend and Ecosocialist Horizons co-founder Salvatore Engel-DiMauro concludes for many of us: “Ecosocialists such as I may have lost the Lost Traveller, but certainly not his Dream.”
Joel Kovel’s ideas are as much rooted in the intellectual critique of capitalism, as they are in his belief in the primacy of nature, the defining element of human existence on earth. While he exemplified the progressive politics that he inherited as part of his east coast upbringing, he was also a product of the wanderings, both, intellectual and otherwise that he undertook all over the world. Here are two short examples of the ideas he lived for and has left for us to take care of and propagate:
The first excerpt is a brief introduction to his seminal idea of “ecosocialism” and second is a short reflection on India where he found the “Three Aunties” (anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism) to be the best representatives of revolutionary ecosocialism.
Ecosocialism As A Human Phenomenon – The Keynote Address delivered by Joel Kovel at the International Ecosocialist Conference Quito, Ecuador, June 2013.
My claim is simply that there is no worthwhile alternative to the ecosocialist way. I mean worthwhile both in the sense of the only genuinely rational alternative, and also as an ethic for living in the best way possible. The great Rosa Luxemburg, whose masterwork was a critique of accumulation itself, coined the aphorism: “Socialism or Barbarism!” Well, we didn’t get socialism, and so we have inherited barbarism distinguished by ecological degradation of catastrophic proportion—something Rosa Luxemburg could have anticipated, as she stood out among Marxists of her day in taking nature seriously as a category. And so we are obliged to bring Luxemburg’s aphorism up to date, and proclaim: “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe!” Keeping such a principle in mind in a faithful and conscientious way is what is meant by not settling. It means steadfastly recognizing that an ecosocialist world is far off and can appear in many contexts, while at the same time refusing to turn away from the goal of transformation—a goal that applies to ourselves as well as the world.
Ecosocialism makes a very large claim that must be realized in a host of individual and often seemingly disparate instances, or paths. There is, in other words, no privileged agent of ecosocialist transforming. The agents of transformation emerge interstitially, which is a fancy word for anywhere contradictions ripen and manifest themselves as transformative opportunities: a storm, a mine, a pipeline, a toxic dump, even a classroom, or an individual mind undergoing spiritual development. Each ecosocialist path is a place of production—for paths have to be made—as well as one of the resistance against the form of production whose banner is capitalist accumulation. We can also think of these as zones of emergence, as contradictions mature and open up on different vistas; hence we can call them “horizons” of various kinds, as the title of an organization I work with puts it. A horizon is by definition some way off; yet it can also be brought closer, through devising ways of struggle. Often these processes can be formulated in terms of the “Commons,” by which is meant collectively owned and organized spaces, originating in the primordial communistic productive zone whose enclosure is a hallmark of capitalism. Forming new conditions of Commoning unifies productive zones and can come to connect them. All this bears more than a superficial resemblance to the building of ecosystems, which in the ecosocialist mode of production comes to stand in the place that capital reserved for the commodity. Capitalism may be defined as generalized commodity production; just so is ecosocialism definable as generalizable ecosystem production—this being, however, ecosystems of a definite kind conducive to the flourishing of life.
“Passage in India,” by Joel Kovel, Capitalism Nature Socialism, December 2008
“One may reasonably see the ‘aunties’ (a mode of address common in India outside the family) in this context as reincarnations of Kali…. To the Indian activist, then, there can be an alternative to capital; and since her/his civilization is grounded in inclusivity and differentiation, the alternative needn’t be relegated to a transcendant beyond but can exist in this world as a set of intermediate forms directed toward social transformation. This constitutes a radical difference from the position of anti-globalization activists in the Northern countries, less because the latter are affluent than because many tend to have internalized the ways of thought integral to the dominant order. Thus they cannot envision one beyond it and often rest content with tepid reformism when the situation cries out for radical change. We may conclude that the time might have arrived for the North to allow the South to take the lead in changing the world. The framework for this should not be left unstated: that the hope for overcoming global capital lies in building global resistance, a chief component of which is the restoration of female power. This should be seen as the germ of a new planetary society in which the terms “North” and “South” no longer refer to parties in a dialectic of domination but return as points on the compass, orienting the free peoples of the earth.”
Quincy Saul is a writer, musician, and a co-founder of Ecosocialist Horizons. He is the co-editor of Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. Saul has authored “Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World.” He is also the co-producer of The Music of Cal Massey. Saul’s articles have been published by Truthout, Counterpunch, The Africa Report, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Telesur, and more.
Links to some of Joel Kovel’s writings:
An Ecosocialist Manifesto (2001)
The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration (2009)
Five Theses on Ecosocialism (2011)
The Emergence of Ecosocialism
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