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O My America: Imagining Socialism, Chapter by Chapter, Part 2

March 27, 2014

Joel Kovel on Eco-Socialism

by Lawrence Bush Click here for previous entries in this series. BUTTERFLYI find it heartening that Imagine Living in a Socialist USA begins its actual discussion of socialism, after Paul Street's rousing condemnation of capitalism, with a discussion of our planet's environmental crisis — "The Future Will Be Ecosocialist, Because Without Ecosocialism, There Will Be No Future," by Joel Kovel. A psychiatrist, anthropologist, professor, and political activist-writer, Kovel argues that the logic of capitalism, which commodifies everything and drives for profit as its fundamental goal, is disastrous for the planet, particularly as our human capacity to consume its finite resources and disrupt the balance of the ecosphere is at an all-time peak. "The test of a viable and humanly worthwhile post-capitalist society," Kovel writes, is therefore "whether it can move from the generalized production of commodities to the production of flourishing, integral ecosystems. In doing so, socialism will become ecosocialism" — which Kovel describes as being "primarily about 'commoning' . . . creating communities of production outside of hierarchical capitalist relations . . ." There is a critical process of transformation that Kovel is ignoring, however, when he simply declares that "As we break loose from the capitalist rat race, we will recognize ourselves as natural creatures and part of nature." How will that recognition come about? Indigenous peoples in places ranging from New Zealand to North America, for example, without the logic of capitalism driving them, have shown themselves capable of producing ecocide and species extinction, with only their technology as a limiting factor — and efforts at building and sharing "the commons" have often ended in the "tragedy of the commons," the overuse and neglect of common property. BearEach of the Abrahamic religions, moreover, which predate capitalism by centuries, place human beings at the very center of creation as (in Judaism's term) b'tselem elohim, made in the image of God, responsible for the environment, yes, but as stewards of a world that was created entirely for our benefit. Those faith traditions have had enormous influence upon the human race's self-perception, and the self-centeredness they have produced will not be so easily overcome, even among so-called "humanists." In a midrash often quoted by Jewish environmentalists, for instance, God walks Adam through the Garden of Eden and urges him: "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world — for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah). It's a lovely warning — but true eco-socialism would require humanity to shift beyond "For your sake I created them all," beyond a utilitarian perception of nature that seems deeply engrained in our evolutionary heritage. How do we even begin to achieve such a shift? Tears happyOne path is through the cultivation of social and spiritual awakening. Kovel is not inclined to use the word "spiritual" in his essay, but when we are speaking about the awakening of people to the interconnectedness of life — which is, after all, the most basic insight of ecology — the word fits. I have defined spirituality without supernatural trappings of any kind (in my book, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist), simply as the emotional surge we feel when our apprehension of the reality of interconnection is enhanced — which often involves a softening of the self, a lowering of ego-boundaries, a feeling of open-heartedness, and a growth in wonder at the exquisiteness of the world's structure. Building an eco-socialism requires the conscious, well-funded cultivation of such spiritual moments — really, a spiritual education — through art, dance, and song, through the exploration of nature, through communal gardening and farming, through science education (revealing the wonders of genetic evolution, the Fibonacci series in nature, the vastness of both outer and inner space, the sentience and intelligence of many life forms), through cooperative adventure, and through many other means. An eco-socialist culture might include the (voluntary!) therapeutic use of psychedelic substances as tools of spiritual awakening; the creation of public art, and public honors, to expand our capacity for social feeling and lessen our individualistic ambition; national and international holidays that celebrate the Earth and are observed through environmental cleanup and social joy; billboards, movies, and messages of all kinds that make wasteful consumption seem truly shameful. A second path to ecosocialism — one that many environmental activists might see as going in the very opposite direction from spiritual development — involves the privileging of science and scientists as learned advisors to society. Norman Levitt proposed this in his 1999 book, Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture, suggesting that science be granted "a social authority commensurate with its astonishing success in living up to its own ambitions." As a model of this kind of authority, he pointed to the Federal Reserve Board, a regulatory organ of government that has evolved into "an extra-constitutional 'fourth' branch of government. . . . A modest step in that direction with respect to the policy organs concerned with science would actually be beneficial." Participating scientists would, of course, have to renounce political ambitions, limit their advisory roles to the fields of competence, and credibly distance their judgments from any financial or institutional self-interest. The goal would be to develop greater freedom and influence for scientific objectivity by insulating it from both the anti-scientific fears and pseudoscientific biases of the majority and the profit-motivated sponsorship and manipulation of corporations. Add in some ethicists, psychologists, gerontologists, anthropologists, elder stateswomen and men, and out-of-the-box thinkers, and you might have the beginnings of an advisory system that helps increase the intelligence and objectivity of planning in our "planned economy" of eco-socialism. My point is that capitalism's rapacity is a reflection of human drives. It's true that capitalism cultivates, exalts, and rewards those drives — competition, fearful greed, hierarchical display, distrust, overweening ambition, etc. — while disempowering other human drives towards cooperation, social bonding, reverence, nurture, etc. Achieving a sustainable eco-socialism that permits our planet Earth to rebalance itself, however, will take a lot more than socializing the means of production. It will take asking the questions — production for what? production of what? — and the cultivation, over several generations, of the human capacity for restraint, stewardship, nurturance, and cooperation. Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and JEWDAYO. (Click here to read Part 3. Click here to read Part 4.)