For many people under 40, radical or revolutionary politics has become a faint echo from an incomprehensible past. It mainly survives as part of a series of myths: fascism (bad); communism (also bad, but somehow not quite the same); the war (we won); the thirties (no telly); China (that Mao chap); Old Labour (losers). And … er, that’s about it. As paid up members of the consumer order, many such people spend their days under constant media bombardment extolling the benefits of the market economy. That in many cases their grandparents, or even their parents, were strong supporters of trade unions and parties advocating what today seem bizarre anti-market programmes is unimaginable and unimagined. Fifteen years of uninterrupted growth has seen to that.
And of course in the context of the seemingly unlimited expansion of the capitalist economy the old story, which so gripped three generations of working people in Britain, has lost its lustre and its plausibility. True, warning voices have been raised. Some, like the theorists of “social recession” associated with the Compass group, or Richard Layard in Happiness: lessons from a new science (Penguin 2006), claim that increasing income brings no corresponding increase in well-being. Galloping inequality at the national level and globally also give pause, but are largely assumed to be self-correcting as markets penetrate everywhere. The unmistakeable signs of approaching economic downturn are therefore uncharted waters for many.
Then there is climate change. It’s a worry, and nobody quite knows what to expect, but with plans for nuclear power, airport expansion, road building and more and more economic growth, it seems clear the future will not be very different from the past.
Not according to Joel Kovel. In the new edition of The Enemy of Nature (Zed Books 2007), we find an indictment of capitalism that goes beyond earlier critiques. For Keynesians capitalism was prone to crisis, and needed steering by the state. For socialists it was unjust, and working people needed to demand a share in the riches it generated. For communists it was inhuman, and needed to be replaced by an order owned and driven by a society in which class and oppression had been overcome.
In Kovel’s vision, capitalism is much more sinister: it is anti-ecological. That does not mean it is a threat to the rare newts in a pond near you. It means that capitalism in its headlong expansion exploits and pulverises the order of interlocking natural systems. It means that it tips the balance between life on our planet, which essentially uses the Sun’s energy to create organized systems, and entropy, the principle of decay, disorder and decline. By subordinating natural relations to property relations, capitalism represents a "lesion beween humanity and nature". No mere reform of capitalism measures up to the scale of the problem, which demands an ecosocialist transformation in our relations with nature and with each other.
Bringing together physics, politics and philosophy, The Enemy of Nature mounts a powerful critique not only of capitalism, but also of the inadequacy of our responses to it – including the responses of the mainstream green parties.