Sunday, June 13, 2010

Synopsis by Marlon MacAllister

This text originally appeared on Marlon MacAllister's blog Another Unprofessional Title.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thesis: Capitalism is Destroying the World; Ecosocialism Will Save It

Yadda, yadda.

I'm not attending the 95 Cent Skool, an experimental writing seminar in Oakland in July, but I've been reading their book list anyway. One of the books is titled "The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?" by Joel Kovel, detailing the dangers of a capitalist mindset. He makes so many interesting definitions and connections that I can't help but provide a synopsis/review of the book and my thoughts.

Mainly, the thesis is that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological, mostly due to the nature of capital.

This requires answering a bunch of questions. Notably:

What is the nature of capital?

We relate to objects through our sense of value. Objects have three forms of value: intrinsic value, defined by our appreciation for and receptivity to the object by itself; use value, defined by what we use the object to do; and exchange value, defined by what we can get through an exchange of the object. While intrinsic and use values are qualitative, exchange value is always quantitative.

Capital is any object for which the exchange value is primary. For instance: money is the ultimate form of capital. It isn't particularly beautiful, we can't use the physical paper or bank balance for much, but it has a lot of exchange value in the sense that we can exchange it for everything else. Notably, capital only has value in the moment of exchange. Capital only has value when you give it away, and then you need more.

What is capitalism?

Capitalism is any system in which human labor is a form of capital. This occurs because the means for production (everything that makes labor possible) are all privately owned. Labor, by definition, is a) owned by each individual human being, and b) used to create value, whether in the form of laying bricks, writing a song, or teaching children. In a capitalist society, laborers give away their labor for a wage, because they own neither the means for creating value for themselves nor the full value that results from their labor. Their labor only nets them the paycheck that the private owners of the means for production choose to give.

To extrapolate, capitalism is any system in which capital organizes all elements of production, from labor to raw materials to all else. Exchange value (money) begins the production process and exchange value (profit) is the end goal.

What defines "ecological?"

Ecology, strictly defined, is a discipline devoted to the study of the relationships between members of a natural system, both living and non-living. As Kovel uses it, natural systems can be anything from a rain forest to a city block to a set of cubicles to the human mind. According to Kovel, ecology also the study of the overall health of a natural system, as a system is comprised of relationships. Ecological morality emphasizes the health of relationships as they pertain to the whole of the system. Healthy relationship, he states, "is any mutual signalling that preserves both connection and individuality."

Why is capitalism inherently anti-ecological?

Kovel asserts that whenever capital organizes production, two things happen. 1) Capital tends to degrade the conditions of its own production and 2) Capital must expand without end in order to exist. By definition, capital only exists at the moment of giving it away, hence it must be constantly renewed, constantly expanding into new markets.

Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological because when these two things happen, they tear apart relationships within ecologies, which operate under fundamentally different rules. 1) requires splitting the ecology into commodities in order to siphon the exchangeable parts from the non-exchangeable parts, while 2) creates so much waste and removes so much of an ecology that it can't restore itself. The whole is ruined by over-focus on certain parts. This can be applied to natural ecologies as well as social or internal human ecologies. Corporate burnout happens by your thirties.

This is a problem, because we can't escape from nature - we're a part of it, and if we don't learn how to treat our lives and our planet ecologically, we're going to sink along with it.

What is an ecological alternative to private ownership of means for and ends of production?

A word that I'm somewhat dubious about: "Usufruct." In a usufructary relationship, all means for production, including machines, living quarters, and the natural world, are for your use and fruitful enjoyment. It's not an "ownership" relationship, however, because ownership is predicated upon capital and exchange value, whereas as usufructs, the means for production are an intrinsic part of the community. They can't be uprooted or sold and so are treated with reverence in an ecosocialist society.

Ownership is predicated on the potential for liquidation and moving on, moving away. In a capitalist way of life, argues Kovel, "nothing is ever really owned, since everything can be exchanged, taken away, and abstracted. This stimulates the thirst for possessions that rages under capitalist rule...and [is] the subjective dynamic of the ecological crisis."

Why are we writers required to read this?

What does it mean to be a productive writer, and what does it mean to hold private ownership of our produced writing, versus taking a usufructary, ecosocialist relationship with it, potentially in the company of other writers, always in the context of shared social struggle? What does that writing look like?

I would argue that to write is to be inherently anti-capitalist, because you're not transforming your labor power into capital. There is no wage, no exchange value for the act of writing. So what does it say about the sort of world you want to occupy if you simply can't help but read; if you simply can't help but write? These are just my own initial thoughts...other readers have to have more!

Ultimately, this book is a blueprint for someone's ideal world. Joel Kovel isn't a writer, really, in the sense of fascination with language itself. Maybe he is, I don't know. But primarily through this book, he's a historian and he's a sociologist and he's a dreamer and he puts forth a beautiful image but there's a difference, because right here, right now, we're writers. Our job is to bring our hearts critically to bear on our language.

So if you read this and like me, you fall all over yourself with desire, the question becomes: what does the writing look like that arises and arrives from its dreaming? Where does it come from and where does it go? And further, once the verbal heart is sated: what forms, methods, and contents for writing does Kovel's blueprint point you toward in the aftermath?

These aren't just academic questions. If this is the 95 Cent Skool, and we are committed to the assumption that "the basis of poetry is not personal expression or the truth of any given individual, but shared social struggle," then how you relate to the social struggle between anti-ecological capitalism and ecosocialism described in this book is of crucial importance to your poetics. How does it enter into your poetic life, process or conclusion? Consider, and discuss.


  1. Marlon, thank you so much for this synopsis. I will still read the book but I'm so excited to see what you've thought of it and what you have gathered from it.

    BTW Your blog rocks.

  2. I agree with the falling over (ie: I fell over also) at Kovel's dream, as expressed in the final section. It reminded me a lot of two novels by Ursula Le Guin which enact the kind of ecotopian leftist society that Koven plots but does not narrate: The Dispossessed (subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia) and Always Coming Home. Science fiction is, of course, utopian in a specific way, but particularly in Always Coming Home, Le Guin practices and describes the practice of an ethical poetic.

  3. You seem to be speaking of ecologies as if, left on their own, they would be in some natural equilibrium. But ecologies constantly disrupt themselves, often in quite traumatic, all encompassing ways.