Ecosocialism as a Human Phenomenon


~by Joel Kovel~

This was delivered as the Keynote Address at the International Ecosocialist Conference Quito, Ecuador, June 2013 (modified, July 2013)

Dedicated to Chico Mendes

We live in an epoch of radical crisis. From the economic side, we see intractable stagnation and vicious class polarization. And from another side, which I shall call the ecological, we find that the dominant system of production appears hell-bent on destroying the natural foundations of civilization as it thrashes about in response to economic difficulties. Generally speaking, the two aspects are treated separately from each other. I would argue, rather, that they are faces of a much deeper crisis, an estrangement from nature stemming back to the origins of civilization, which has now reached global proportions and appears to be on a trajectory headed toward a Dark Age such as has never been known before and that could even foreshadow our possible extinction as a species.

Needless to say, a great deal of attention has been paid to various aspects of these matters. However, virtually all of it misses the fundamental unity arising from our relationship to nature itself. Make no mistake, there is plenty to be studied in the complexities that exist in different countries and zones of the planet, in the relations between North and South, or empires and the imperialized, or in distinct problems of energy, agriculture, water, climate change, toxic pollution, technology, and so forth. The subject matter is inexhaustible. All of these problems are important, indeed, essential to solve if we are to have a worthwhile future. Some will be brought forth here to exemplify a point; a goodly number will be debated in this conference; and any real solution to our predicament must engage them. Yet they must be bracketed for now while we attend to the deeper currents that agitate our troubled times. Thus my argument sets aside the prevailing focus on what can be called the “environment,” that is, the world as viewed outside of us, as “inputs,” “resources,” in other words, as analytically separable substances and mechanisms. It is, as stated above, essentially “ecological” in character, where Ecology connotes the connection between elements of nature—organized, as we would also say, into “ecosystems,” the coming into being of the structures of nature itself. As we are part of nature, so do the “connections” connect us as well in ecosystems. Thus the ecological crisis ought to be seen in existential terms as well as those of physical inputs. Yet because we are also alienated from nature and see it primarily in environmental terms this does not happen—a fatal rupture the overcoming of which is a prime goal of radical eco-politics.

Two focal points configure this talk. The first denotes the structure of the world as it is, hurtling toward the abyss; the second concerns the world as I would have us struggle to bring about. The word, capitalism widely serves for the first point. We know it only too well, and yet scarcely at all, even though capital is what Marx called the “all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” surrounding and penetrating our lives from every angle Grundrisse [243]. The second I would have us call ecosocialism. It is a word that does not appear so far as I know in any established dictionary, while those who are concerned with its development are scattered loosely across the world.

Capitalism is the reigning, or we might say, hegemonic, economic system built about the systematization of profitability. It is equipped with an elaborate class structure and a vast apparatus of institutions to establish its global reach and penetration into lives. In this sense capitalism is the “mode of production” characteristic of our epoch, where production signifies our human-specific trait of transforming nature in in our image. In this sense, capitalism refers to the means installed in order to produce “capital” as the core activity of the system. The “economy,” broadly conceived, comprises said means. Capitalism is therefore not simply an economic system; it is the systematization of the economy and its promotion into the leading institution of society. We consider, then, capital to be the “efficient cause” of our crisis, that is to say, that cause the overcoming of which is the focal point of ecosocialist politics.

Looking more closely at the capitalist system, we observe something that its greatest critic, Karl Marx, called attention to, namely, the tendency to grow without end. Marx was not above using colorful language rich with references to antiquity and the Bible. I think that we should take these seriously at face value and not reduce them to the terminology of economics, a discourse he spent much of his life deconstructing. There were times when Marx would heuristically use metaphoric language, as when he referred, in Capital 1, to the human labor process by the production of the architect and the bee, in order to make the point that production was a specifically human agency entailing the imagination. But at times his language went far beyond the figurative and into another zone of human existence. One of these occurred when Marx referred to that central feature of capital, its endless accumulation, as: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!”

This tells us that capital is not metaphorically like Moses and the Prophets: it is Moses and the Prophets. The insight is fully communicable only in religious terms. It has mediations in class structure and competition, but these do not account for its unique force. At the core, therefore, capital is not even an economic proposition, but one dictating that the economy rules over society as God rules over the world. It also tells us that the capitalist ruling class, which sits atop the world as has no previous ruling class and wields power unimaginable to the Pharaohs, Emperors and Czars of the past, does so directed by a delusion of religious compulsion.

Marx also describes the workings of the mechanism by means of which the world is coming undone. For if religious compulsion rules over an economy which is the leading institution of society, it overrides all else. The implications are profound, as this dynamism puts to the lie all efforts to control carbon emissions within “market” relations, as by cap and trade, or by trying to regulate the financializing frenzy of the great banks. It disproves the conventional logic that accumulation is regulated primarily by a calculating logic of profit or loss—or from a different standpoint, it undermines the idea that profit-seeking is a rational mode of operation. For what can be rational that so plainly conduces to generalized ruin? Is cancer a rational response of the organism?

The annals of history are full of instances in which humans have used their rational endowment as a means toward fanatical ends. But nothing surpasses what the capitalist does when he forces “reason” down the world’s throat with an immense ideological apparatus and turns it into the instrument of world destruction. The supreme example lies with the supreme economy of the United States—leader of the Western Powers and their military wing of NATO–now stopping at nothing to become the world’s leading hydrocarbon producer (having just passed Saudi Arabia) and using all the instruments of so-called advanced technology to do so even if it means literally tearing the earth apart through hydro-fracking, mountain-top removal, deep-sea drilling—with many other examples in Nigeria, Ecuador and related countries, and over it all, the promise of doom by climate change. Or consider the activities of the Monsanto Corporation, fully protected by the Obama administration, as it engages in lethal forms of production that will, in just one instance of depredation, finish off honeybees world-wide through its nicotinamide pesticides. Thus we anticipate a future without pollinators, sacrificed on the alter of accumulation. The disregard for what nature has evolved over four billion years beggars the imagination. Indeed, if corporations are persons, as the US Supreme Court insists, then the Exxon’s and Monsanto’s of the world are better described as suicide bombers in the service of accumulation than as rational economic actors. Like Melville’s Captain Ahab who says to himself that “all my means are sane, my motive and object mad” [202]—the capitalist system displays itself as a pure culture of nihilistic destruction.1

Marx’s conception of accumulation puts into a deep shade all efforts at liberal reform of the capitalist system, for when reform becomes the goal it works to improve, even perfect, the functioning of the system along with remedying its damages—an iron contradiction in the case of capital. There is much we do not know about overcoming this crisis, but we know enough to not settle for partnerships between environmental and green groups and Wall Street, for example, the efforts of activist Bill McKibben has made to build partnership with Ceres Investors, referred to as their “Wall Street friends,” in divestment campaigns to check the power of the hydrocarbon industrial complex. Who would you believe: Bill McKibben or Karl Marx, in light of the world-destroying activity of capital?

This is not the place for a definitive treatment of the questions of reforming abuses inherent to capitalist production, a certain degree of which is necessary in the face of overwhelming misery or immediate threats to life. The key point is whether a means becomes an end. If a century of reform has left us with monsters like Monsanto in command, we need to declare that in face of the existing system, we need to trans-form, not re-form, capitalism. For no reform is justifiable insofar as it contributes to the endless expansion of the economic product. We need to build, therefore, a new mode of production, that transforms nature without directing the product toward the goal of accumulation.

The mode of production of any society embodies the rules of transforming nature and translates these into every facet of existence. Thus a Mode of Production is a form of thinking and a way of being. Under capital’s regime the supreme, godlike mode of this logic is to accumulate at all costs. Where capital reigns, so must the economy dominate society as the instrument of accumulation. Our obligation—to our children and grandchildren, to life, and the future itself—is to find a way of society whose productive logic does not impose accumulation on the world.

Such is the core principle of ecosocialism, the prime goal of which is to generate a mode of production, necessary and sufficient to overcome the combined accumulation crisis and ecological crisis we now suffer. Ecosocialism does not settle therefore for anything less than the extirpation of capitalism as a mode of production, and whatever reforms it tolerates are not seen as ends in themselves but as means to its end.

This is a revolutionary claim but not a utopian one. I know as well as anyone the powerful obduracy of this system, and its deep-rootedness. I know we are fated to live within it and that we cannot wish its successor to magically appear but must instead find ways of struggling for it within the given, fallen world. Nor should we permit ourselves the illusion that we are bound to triumph in the long run over the beast—for, as everyone can see, the system becomes more murderous and fascistic as its crisis deepens, whether in increasingly reckless extraction of resources—energy and otherwise, increasing division between rich and poor, increasing surveillance, militarism, state violence and repression, indeed, perpetual war.

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, as shall be developed later on. First we need to talk further about some of the preconditions of ecosocialist organizing.

Each circumstance demands understanding of the mutual relationship of different historical phases. Once appropriated ecosocialistically, the horizons/zones of Commoning converge and become capable of being integrated with each other. Thus occurs a widening process toward ecosocialist transformation. We call this the principle of prefiguration. It is an essential notion in order to grasp the abundance of paths that define the ecosocialist way and to not get discouraged by the scale of our challenge. There is no switch to turn the particular locations of ecosocialist development on. It is made steadfastly, over time and space, and universalizes itself as it goes.

Success depends, however, on how well the paths are made. This entails a process of self-reflection and also of self-criticism. Marx insisted upon this as far back as 1843 when he wrote his friend and co-editor Arnold Ruge that, not being able to predict the future, our rule must be to proceed fearlessly in the present, neither sparing the powers that be nor our own conclusions. For Ecosocialism this takes on a new meaning today, as awareness is finally sinking in that the world is in desperate straits, and, among a growing minority, that the capitalist system is structurally implicated in the trouble. Thus, where mentions of ecosocialism were once as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth, now they proliferate on the left—such as it is. Conferences, blogs, news services, now spring up all over the landscape using this new word. This is no doubt a good thing, so long as it is met by a sharply critical eye. For the “left—such as it is” is deeply burdened with generations of failure to contest, much less overcome, the onslaught of capitalism and its genius of co-opting resistance. Seduced by social-democratic parties, trapped in the irrelevancy of academia, lost in the bureaucracy of NGOs, deluded by fantasies of Leninist glory, mystified by deep-ecological escapism, and lulled by the easy consolation of the so-called ‘Green Alternative,’ left opposition today is united chiefly by its failure to transcend capital, in thought as well as deed. It is all very well to march around, as do certain socialist groups in the US under banners shouting “We want system change, not climate change,” but tell us—exactly—what is the system, and what is the change, and what is the burden of your complicity in capitalism?

One obstacle—and also opportunity—exists between different points of the historical continuum. Simple reflection tells us as a general rule that the earlier the social structure, the less estranged from nature. Thus a gradient exists between pre-modern and modern society according to which the latter, in conquering the former, destroys its relatively greater integration with nature in the service of accumulation and empire. Thus significant discontinuities in development are a feature of all societies. In particular, each capitalist society exists in relation to its own indigenous precursors. Notwithstanding, indigeneity serves as an important index of ecosocialist potential. Societies like Western Europe, where both the actual presence and the cultural trace of the indigenous past are the most suppressed, also have the weakest potential for ecosocialist transformation. They are also the most likely to produce the “3R’s” of ecological governance–a highly regulated, rationalized, and reformist code subsumed within late capitalist efficiency.

By contrast, in the Northern Andean nations of South America the power of the indigenous is relatively intact; and it is to this, I believe, that we owe the occurrence in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, of advances in an ecosocialist direction that are relatively greater than anywhere else in the world. Thus the Bolivarian government of Venezuela has been the first anywhere to proclaim ecosocialism as a national goal. Throughout this zone the we see proclamation of the Rights of Mother Earth, in which Ecuador has pioneered. This has served as an inspiration around the world for people of an ecosocialist persuasion. I know it was received with electric enthusiasm by myself and my friends.

Are such proclamations mere figures of speech to rouse the spirits of people fighting the capitalist Leviathan? After all a government steeped in a global system of accumulation, debt, and extraction of resources will strive like any other to serve capital. Proclaiming the inherent rights of Mother Earth appears to fit into this category. It sounds like an empty gesture, rather like a progressive version of the greenwashing and other image building stunts employed by corporations, fr example, when British Petroleum repackaged itself as Beyond Petroleum even as it was ravaging the ocean-bed of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

There is much truth to this charge, which can readily be extended to the extractivist government of Ecuador, where as we speak the state corporation, PetroEcuador, is ravaging the rainforest just as Texaco and Chevron did thirty years ago. Further, and even worse, has been the news, just received, of the destruction of the status of the Yasuni reservation as an extractive-free zone by President Correa. Now is not the time to dissect the details of this betrayal of one of our best hopes for inhibiting capital’s predatory invasion of nature. All we can do at present is to underscore the resolution of never resting until capitalism—and the capitalist state—are brought down once and for all.

Nor do we turn away from the proclamation of the rights of Mother Earth as an essential component of this, or of the necessity for indigeneity to be at the center of ecosocialist struggle. These are the emerging into consciousness as of one of humanity’s dreams, ancient, long suppressed, and empowering. They need to be expanded rather than abandoned, and to extend beyond the slogan of Earth as a mother into the core of its meaning.

Let us begin by shifting the subject of discourse from the fanciful Mother Earth to the notion of Nature itself. Mother Earth certainly belongs to nature—and so do we. What does it mean, then, to stand for the rights of nature, which is the source of our being yet eternally beyond us? If nature has no rights, then we have no rights, either—except for those granted by human authorities, which are arbitrary and mere derivatives of worldly power and the legitimized violence of states. An authentic ecosocialism has to appeal to a source greater than this, a source of right that surpasses the Market, however godlike and sanctified this is made to appear under capitalism. Anyone who does not recognize this has no right to be called an ecosocialist, nor can he or she realize the identity essential to a project of overcoming accumulation.

Nature is the totality of the universe, and we are but one odd creature within it, though we have a contradictory power that exists nowhere else in the universe so far as is known, of being capable of harming ourselves by willfully harming nature, while also being able to care about this fact and struggle against it. Because we are conscious beings, and because the violation of Nature can make us feel responsible for what has been done in humanity’s name, we can also be led to reconcile ourselves with nature, to identify with it, and to achieve the status to heal the wounds that capitalist society has inflicted on it.

To affirm the rights of Mother Earth means then to affirm our right—and power—to defend what “Mother Earth” signifies to us. This is to connect the majesty of Earth to the life-giving power invested in the figure of Mother, that all-encompassing being from which each individual being arises, and to extend this into nature. Nature in itself is no being, yet it generates beings—individual creatures with boundaries and boundary phenomena, including human beings who have an internalized, subjective self and a variable subject-object boundary. Living beings, human and otherwise, in the context of surrounding nature, come together to form ecosystems. From this perspective, nature may be said to be the integral of all ecosystems.

First peoples and their indigenous successors all the way up to the onset of capitalist modernity experience ecosystemic being, and with it, the generativity of nature, in their own being. This provides the foundation from which the notions of earth, and nature, as Mother arise. Thus the naming of Nature as mother expresses a more or less universal activity of First Peoples and their successors. It reflects a condition in which spirit and matter are experienced as interpenetrated with each other. In the case of European society this extended well into the second millennium of the Common Era, after which capitalism and the onset of Western empire supervened. The process ground to a halt once capitalist modernity became hegemonic and introduced a generalized de-spiritualization. As this happens spirit is turned over to the Disney Corporation and the other culture industries, where it is rendered into commodities like racing cars, sides of bacon, and supermodels. Clearly, a social order such as this is set up to produce human beings so spiritually confused as to be incapable of ecosocialist transformation.

It follows that a prime task for ecosocialism must be to produce ecosocialists capable of bringing nature into continuity with humankind’s rootedness. It is a spiritual process at the heart of ecosocialist politics. Ecosocialism entails a kind of identification with nature that fills the self with its grandeur and fires the imagination to realize the vision of William Blake, who wrote that: “all things exist in the human Imagination.” [Jerusalem Plate 69] We are nothing in comparison to Nature and yet everything through our recognition of nature. Thus our affirmation of responsibility and caring for the damaged Earth fill us with Nature’s grandeur and strengthen us for the long march toward an ecosocialist society. This casts light on the prefigurative process essential to ecosocialism, and also calls attention to an urgent need, which is how to combine the necessity for a perspective in which all things are recognized as unified within the imagination with the obdurate fact that they do not only exist in the imagination but also– as Blake was abundantly aware—in the external world independently of our will. It would be a sad shadow of ecosocialism that deeply and imaginatively rooted itself in nature without attending to the extremely urgent matters going on in the fragmented and chaotic external world under capital’s dominion.

Rethinking value theory

I believe that a resolution of this dilemma is at hand through an expansion of the theories of value laid down by Marx in his contributions leading up to the issue of Capital Vol I in 1867. There are two conjoined aspects of this. The first entails a rethinking of value in a framework that goes beyond its insertion into political economy. In actual life values play vital roles in the dynamic relations between the self and the world. This is consonant with the every-day sense of the word, that to value something implies an energetic disposition to bring it about. I would call this the conative model of value, that is, value as an expression of the will.

The other aspect is to add another, third form of value to the two used by Marx in his critique of political economy; the theoretical abstractions corresponding to Use and Exchange. These two positions remain inside the capitalist world-system, for the comprehension of which they are necessary. Use-value corresponding to what production does to nature; while Exchange-value refers to the abstraction from the material world necessary for the development of money. However, the surfacing of notions such as the intrinsic rights of nature, or Mother Earth, are conative forms of value deeper and more ancient in origin than the political-economic notions of Use- and Exchange- value (U-V and X-V ) that enter into Marx’s understanding of the structure of commodities and the dynamics of accumulation. The presence of the two forms of value, dedicated to Use and Exchange, nicely expresses the closed world of political economy under the regime of capital. But this is the world we want to open up, bring down, and get rid of, as it reinforces the delusion that nature is under man’s power and immanently legitimates the degradation inflicted by civilization on nature. Marx says that the process of labor begins in the imagination and proceeds to the transformation of reality. Let us, therefore, prepare the way for socialism and in particular, ecosocialism, by imagining a third form of value that respects the intrinsic worth of nature, and let us bring this into the closed system of political economy so as to foster the breakdown of capital.

Under the regime of capital, the commodity rules, as fetish, or idol, or false god, over an enclosed space. This is but another aspect of Marx’s insight into the false spirituality of accumulation. To transcend this world we would open this space and prepare the way for transformation with a form of value that is neither directed toward use, nor exchange, but is for the intrinsic value of nature or I-V. Values do not exist in nature but in the mind of a nature creature. Let us add to this mind, or to be more exact, strengthen it, by recognizing an I-V that is already present and allow it to enter into the interplay between U-V and X-V. The ensuing relationships with these can be mobilized for the building of an ecosocialist society, from the first, prefigurative baby steps all the way to victory in the confluence of the Commons.

I would define I-V as an assertion that we should value nature for itself, irrespective of what we would do to it—value it intrinsically and thereby as a function of its inherent right, which must be fought for and is thereby established as a dynamic factor in the struggle to undo the curse of accumulation. When I say that values do not exist in nature but in the mind, I do not mean that there is nothing external from which they can be built. Quite the contrary: the mind to which they belong is that of a natural creature, composed of matter in dynamic flux, in communication with the universe, played upon by a host of influences from which a choice must be made to guide life activity. Use values arise in the course of productive activity by means of which nature is transformed; exchange values arise in the course of economic activity and require abstraction from nature. However, the intrinsic value of nature is responsive to a wider and deeper spectrum being bound to neither zone of political-economic activity and therefore reminding us that there is more to existence than the making of commodities and the reproduction of capitalist society. It tells us that there is a kind of primordium that later becomes differentiated into a primarily objective zone which becomes the ground for practical, scientific and technical knowing, and a primarily subjective zone of spirit in and through which the self’s transactions with the world are registered, made conscious and become spiritual modes of being.

To intrinsically value nature means to choose a form of relationship set against all the powers of the historically developed and capitalist world. How this choice develops and how it turns out can vary enormously depending on the balance of forces. We can think of this in terms of freedom or unfreedom along many different axes that cannot be taken up here. But even though we do not have wholly free choice (or will), so do we have real choices,and a will that, however constrained, is still capable of great power. Such is the human condition in its essence as soon as the self crystallizes out of its infantile matrix. It matters a great deal as to whether we become fully conscious of these choices and how we act on them—which is where ecosocialist practice enters the picture. We can, in short, choose whether to value nature intrinsically; and this can matter enormously if we are faithful to it. Our fidelity is itself induced through the suffering and self-discipline that accompanies intrinsically valuing nature.

Nature is primordially constructed across and enters into human existence through many pathways, often quite subtle. This is because I-V is not immediately gratifying as commodities are made to be. More broadly, it is not immediately connected with production, since it is predicated on the “suchness” of nature, a mode of being anterior to whatever human beings do to it and manifest in our receptivity to it. The method consists of refusal to pin down nature with the shallow fasteners of common sense. It is akin to what is sometimes called “negative theology”: definition by the absence of properties. As the Tao Te Ching, perhaps the greatest text setting forth negative theology and hence intrinsic value, states it (4):

Tao is empty—
Its use never exhausted.
The origin of all things.

It blunts sharp edges,
Unties knots
Softens glare
Becomes one with the dusty world.

Deeply subsistent—
I don’t know whose child it is.
It is older than the Ancestor.2

The very real discordance with political economy contrasts with the perfectly obvious fact that I-V enters deeply into human existence, and not just by encountering wilderness, looking at the heavens, or listening to birdcalls on a summer evening. No, it begins from our timeless time in the womb, goes on through the universal givens of infancy, enters the entire panoply of spiritual and religious forms, including those that engage the most selfless kind of love, and ranges to speculative philosophy and the most advanced science (where I-V enters as a perpetual fount of inspiration–consider only one, albeit the greatest, example, that of Albert Einstein). Of these the greatest is love,( as proclaimed by Paul in 1 Corinthians-13), for it is love which generates compassion and the desire to heal the wounds inflicted by civilization. And with love comes, in the degree to which we become open to nature, faith, forbearance and hope as well. All this renders I-V the essential ground from which to challenge the insanity of capitalist accumulation, and upon which the ecosocialism of the future can be built.

I would venture to say that the Intrinsic Value of Nature is the defining concept that differentiates ecosocialism from the various socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries. It does not in the least vitiate the emancipatory drive of these “first-epoch” socialisms, insofar as these are rooted in “freely associated labor,” indeed, strengthens this. But it powerfully challenges the fatal compact that socialisms have made with industrial capitalism and the terrible impact this has had and continues to have upon indigenous folk.

To undo these injuries goes far beyond the logic of reparations—though that is definitely not to be set aside. In any event, the damage inflicted on First Peoples and their world cannot be recuperated absent postulating I-V. Neither can the necessary task of ecosocialism, to bring down runaway accumulation, be accomplished, for to the degree that one feels for nature, to that same degree will one turn away from possessiveness and egoism, and become strong enough for the long march ahead.

Some last reflections. Before his illness foreclosed the possibility, I worked very closely with James O’Connor, founder of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism and pioneer of an ecological reading of Marxism with his 2d Contradiction of Capitalism. Sometime in the late 1990s Jim developed the idea that we needed to amplify the concept of U-V in order to develop a working program for ecosocialism. As he put it, Ecosocialism should be defined as “the struggle for use-value,” that is, it depended on the restoration of production for human needs and enjoyment rather than profit. Moreover, it required an option for Quality to be set against the grim, quantitative accounting driven by the exchange principle, especially its legacy in finance capital. Jim suggested a jointly edited book on the subject, I took up the idea enthusiastically, we began to work, and then his illness took over and brought this project to an end. But he had set in motion the idea that forms of value were also forms of practice—and struggle.

Capital overthrew the natural economy, as Luxemburg stated, replacing it with the “icy waters of egotistical calculation,” as Marx wrote in the Manifesto. Continuing our figurative model, capital does not simply requires X-V: it requires its hegemony, or to put it more vividly, it requires its mutation into a cancer virus. Therefore the formula for capital is X-V >> U-V. This insight is no more than writing large the ancient adage that “money is the root of all evil.” But that is quite a lot. Marx identifies the precise point of its sprouting from a root, to a toxic plant capable of rendering accumulation into a prophetic demand. This arises in the fetishism of the commodity, that “mystical character” which arises when labor itself has been converted to a commodity and becomes abstract. Then the human being drops out of the equation, commodities become gods—or idols, or fetishes—and we are on the road to ecological ruin. Marx puts this concretely: to understand the fetishism of the commodity, “we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world.” [321] The cancer virus of capital is therefore a spiritual force, albeit of an evil kind. One might even call it Satanic. Whatever we call it, we need to recognize commodity fetishism as the heartbeat of expansive accumulation and the active force in consumerism. Combined with icy egotistical calculation, we have the progressive destruction of nature known as the ecological crisis..

The cancer virus will win every time unless its pathological influence is met by a stronger opposing force. Hence the logic of I-V, which may be called the spiritual antagonist of X-V. We can think figuratively here, as I-V vies for the heart of U-V in the battle ground of ecosocialism. U-V remains conceptually at the center of the struggle for ecosocialism as a mode of prodcution, as this emerges through the collective effort to re-build the Commons, from below and on a planetary scale. Now, however, emboldened with I-V, ecosocialists strive for freely associated labor motivated by ecocentric ethics so that commodity production is phased out and replaced by production of life-flourishing ecosystems, until a global ecosocialist society animated by an ecocentric mode of production has arisen to emancipate U-V and realize the potential of humanity. Since we are part of ecosystems, they cannot be exchanged unless we give up our being. Therefore, when we produce ecosystems instead of commodities, we step outside the demands of exchange—because we are part of such ecosystems and pay homage to nature, now authentically seen as a Good Mother. The associative force pulling this together is the love flowing from the intrinsic value of nature.

No doubt the chances for this occurring on a mass scale are slender given the systematic inculcation by capitalist reproduction of all that is worst in human nature, with its ethos of possessive individualism, machismo, and cold calculation—all those things induced and structurally rewarded by its education and mass culture.

At least they have been until now—when the realization begins to dawn across the planet that this vaunted system, with its stupendous wealth and technological progress, is beneath it all, what the Prophet Daniel once called, the “abomination of desolation, ” thus the tocsin of universal calamity. The unprecedented character of our times sets a limit on the degree to which repetition of the tedious themes of capitalist propaganda can work to reproduce the order itself. For unprecedented times are necessarily times of change and open on new possibility. There will always be opportunists and fools, and they will continue to stumble about the ruins of a dying social order. The rest of us—and our ranks will increase as time unfolds—meanwhile have a world to build.

Some might ask as well: does not the notion of I-V require fundamental changes in Marxism? Well, yes it does; and a good thing, too. Certainly, Marxism can use some work. We should never be enslaved to even the greatest of thinkers lest we bring him or her down with us. Every living doctrine needs regeneration as history unfolds. I am sure that Karl Marx, who thanked God that he was no Marxist, would agree.

I have set forth my beliefs, not to impose them on anyone, but to encourage the opening of vision. These are some principles in which I believe; they include a conviction that the future will hold many unexpected things, wondrous as well as horrific. But there is one thing we can all expect: that there will come a time when each of us dies and passes out of this world. It will happen whether or not we take the challenge posed by the opening to build ecosocialism. From this standpoint our lives now appear extraordinarily fortunate—for what other generation was ever given such a possibility to transform history itself?



  1. Pingback: Scientific Soul Sessionz Manifesto | Moorbey'z Blog - April 14, 2014

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