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Joel Kovel and Quincy Saul: Apocalypse and Revelation Are the Same Word

December 18, 2012

The founders of Ecosocialist Horizons discuss climate change, the collapse of capitalism, and building a new world in the shell of the old.

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Image from Flickr via mikelehen

The end won’t come with a bang, or even the sound of a 5,125-year clock ticking to a stop. The end will be a long death-ridden slog through decades of withering ecologies and shrinking landmasses. So predict Quincy Saul and Joel Kovel, co-founders of the New York-based leftist group Ecosocialist Horizons; they insist both on the dire urgency of addressing climate change and on capitalism as its irredeemable cause. In an interview at Kovel’s Harlem apartment, we discussed not only the pair’s bleak vision of what the capitalist system will leave behind when it dies—they contend that it’s dying already—but also the emerging potential they see to create a “new world in the shell of the old.” Kovel, for example, touted the Occupy movement’s relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy and pointed to the proliferation of dirt-cheap homes in the wake of the last decade’s housing crisis as providing “tremendous opportunities for reconstitution of society from below.” Intellectuals as well as activists, both have been involved in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism—Kovel recently retired as editor in chief; Saul is a senior editor—and they are part of an artists’ collective called Scientific Soul Sessions. We discussed the meaning and origin of ecosocialism, the task of making scientists out of leftists, and climate change as both apocalypse and revelation.

Reed Cooley for Guernica

Guernica: In 2011, you were both part of a conference panel at the New School called “Transition to Ecosocialism.” What is ecosocialism? What do you mean when you talk about a transition?

Quincy Saul: Ecosocialism is an emerging movement and ideology that has taken shape over the last twenty or thirty years in an explicit sense. In terms of what it draws on, it goes back as far as you want to go, in the same way that socialist ideas hearken back to biblical times and the praxes of first peoples—it’s that old. As a practice, it’s really emerged, mostly in the Global South around struggles where social justice and environmental justice converge: for instance, Chico Mendes in Brazil who was a rubber tapper, struggling for the right to live in the forest. There’s an ecosocialist manifesto, which Joel co-wrote in 2001, and a second version from 2009. It would be wrong to say that the manifesto sparked the movement. It really spoke to a movement that already existed. It helped that movement come to know itself. In terms of the transition, it’s a big question with a long history. It’s a question that you could approach from a lot of different angles: change of consciousness, political economy, revolutionary strategy.

Joel Kovel: To supplement what Quincy said, I think that ecosocialism comes out of the conjunction of a global crisis and the realization of what that crisis is about. The crisis is the tension between humanity and nature [that has lead to] the breakdown of ecosystems. The other side of it is: what’s causing this? Here, in contrast to many people who recognize the ecological crisis, we also hasten to identify the driving force behind it, which is the capitalist system. And that puts us in a very different place from, obviously the system itself, but also a lot of well-meaning and conscientious, hard-working and productive environmentalists, who are unwilling to make that step.

Guernica: Did ecosocialism as a theory evolve in the Global South as well? Was the term coined there?

Joel Kovel: It first appeared in Brazil in the ‘80s, which is a manifestation of the centrality of the Brazilian landmass, so to speak, in global ecology. It’s a society of enormous numbers of first peoples and tribal peoples that are still living. We had a World Social Forum in Belém in 2009, when the second manifesto was written; there were a number of people who just came in dugout canoes to the forum, wearing headdresses, looking quite different from the ordinary folk you meet.

Guernica: So more specifically, what would it look like once the transition has been realized?

Quincy Saul: As Michael Lebowitz said, “Socialism isn’t going to fall on us from the sky.” Neither will ecosocialism. It’s something that has to be built over time. There’s no blueprint for an ecosocialist transition, but we do know the conditions we’re going to have to transition in: collapsing ecologies and collapsing societies. We can see the seeds of it, not only inside these movements that are struggling against Monsanto or for workers rights or for rights of nature in Bolivia or trying to stop mining projects, but we can also see it in attempts to create the new world in the shell of the old. All the people out there who are creating a world outside of the force field of the capitalist system, meaning that the basis for their primary interaction with other human beings is not the exchange values of commodities. Now, how do these things all coalesce into an ecosocialist government? I think it’s a very tricky contextual question that you really have to go to each country and see. Electoral politics: would that work in some places? How far can you change society before the revolution must take precedence over everything else? To what extent is reform possible?

There’s no blueprint for an ecosocialist transition, but we do know the conditions we’re going to have to transition in: collapsing ecologies and collapsing societies.

Guernica: During the New School panel, Joel, you said that the old order is dying and we have to participate in speeding its death. Why speeding the death? Aren’t resources better spent preparing for the world that’s left once it dies?

Joel Kovel: Definitely. If I gave that impression, it was a mistake.

Guernica: But why speeding?

Quincy Saul: Well, I would agree with that statement in terms of the climate science. Non-radical, actually pretty politically conservative scientists are predicting things like the Earth being uninhabitable for human life within a couple generations. But I think a lot people keep climate change in the same place in their head that they keep advertising jingles. In 2010, during this historic economic crisis, we had the highest ever carbon emissions rate. We have a system that’s cancerous, eco-cidal, by every empirical standard you can draw up. We shouldn’t even be having the argument anymore. Either it ends, or we end. In that context you can say, we need to speed the destruction of the capitalist system. Does that mean that we leave helpless and hopeless the half of the world population that lives in the city? No, we have to find a way to create a new order.

Joel Kovel: Just to clarify, I don’t mean it was a mistake to say we should hasten the death, but the job is also to build alternatives in the collapsing framework of the current order. That’s a very core ecosocialist perspective. It means finding areas of the commons that are the original mode of human interaction on the earth—basically primitive communism, like collective ownership—and build them in the zones of a collapsing civilization. That’s in a way what the Occupy movements are doing with Occupy Sandy.

We’re planning a convergence in Troy, NY in March. I have a good friend who runs a community center there. He’s buying up urban lots for $250 each. Troy used to be very prosperous because it was the terminus of the Eerie Canal, and all the produce from the west passed through there on the way down to New York. My friend said that are six hundred abandoned houses just in that town. Six hundred! And they’re just sitting there. They’re being vandalized and so on. But they also pose tremendous opportunities for reconstitution of society from below. I see these as little points for island building—literally, [laughs] because the seas are rising—and that the islands will form an archipelago. If ecosocialism works, its foundation will be the firmament created by these new islands being put together all over. The housing crisis—of course it’s a horror and it’s a sign of how awful capitalism is—but again it creates a lot of spaces. The city of Detroit is returning to the land. There are foxes in Detroit now; there’s apparently a lot of wildlife, new forms of vegetation are growing, and people are growing food. So, all those are kinds of movements that are intrinsically ecosocialist. But they have to be seen not just as simple survivalism, or as withdrawal from the world, but as part of an active, transformative and, if you like, utopian movement.

Guernica: A lot of leftists are drawn to role of artist/intellectual, but you would obviously need some hard skills to have a complete transition. Is there an idea to make hard-skilled people out of leftists, or leftists out of hard-skilled people, or both?

Quincy Saul: I was at a panel recently where somebody said, “Why aren’t more scientists socialists?” The easy response is obviously, “Why aren’t more socialists scientists?” We can use nice metaphors and mythical ideas that help us move forward, and I think we should be visionary and use prophetic language. But we also have to get into the nitty-gritty of it. There’s a long literature—not long enough—but there is a literature on this question. The classic example is the Russian revolution. I think it turned out that in most places 90 percent of the skilled, educated workers who worked for the Tsarist regime started working for the Bolshevik regime.

Joel Kovel: Which is one reason why the Bolshevik regime went the wrong way. Lenin didn’t have cadre. He had to use the existing bureaucrats, and that was a major force that held them back. It was just the Tsar, the aristocrats, and a huge mass of peasants.

Quincy Saul: It’s a question that we need to get serious about. One thing I heard someone say recently is, “If you want to have a revolution, you really need to have a phonebook of names to call.” You really need thousands and thousands of people to fill all these rolls. It poses in some ways a more difficult challenge in the First World than in the Third World, in the sense that you have for instance in the city where we’re sitting right now millions of people who are happily domesticated by the capitalist system. It’s like that scene in the Matrix where Morpheus says to Neo, “These people don’t want to be unplugged.” There are many more of these people in places like New York than in, for instance, Nicaragua.

Guernica: In that vein, I think many people can imagine the kind of ecological devastation you’re talking about, but can’t conceive of a total transformation of our economic and political system and might consider the idea of working toward as almost absurd…

There’s no real End Times moment when there’s a flash and suddenly everything’s over. It’s actually much worse than that. Things are just going to keep grinding on. It’s like Dr. Manhattan says in the graphic novel The Watchmen, “Nothing ever ends.”

Joel Kovel: Well, a lot of people are going to die from this, and if they have no vision they’re going to die.

Quincy Saul: I’ll be the good cop. [laughs] I think that we’re in a pivotal moment where people are willing to change their minds. Not in an instrumental, crass way, but we have to take advantage of the moment. I don’t think there’s much way you can really argue with it: We’re facing these climate tipping points in which you have catastrophic changes—70 percent of the world’s cities going under water and almost a 100 percent correlation between carbon emissions and gross domestic product. You’re also saddled with an economic crisis. And, in that economic crisis, what do we do? Do we reindustrialize America and bring back auto industry jobs? Well, that’s a suicidal project. It’s suicidal in a way that I think your average liberal, middle-class person can understand. There are parts of this constituency who are going to become very radicalized in the years to come, and they could be radicalized in different ways, which is why this is such a pivotal moment. The tendency toward a kind of ecofascism is just as possible as the tendency toward a kind of ecosocialism. One of our jobs, one of our historical duties, is to educate and organize around this.

Guernica: Many people have an Armageddon fantasy. As activists working toward an End Times of capitalism and predicting a potential global End Times, what do you make of, for example, the excitement around the Mayan apocalypse?

Quincy Saul: We did an event recently called “Apocalypse and Revelation,” which are both the same word in Ancient Greek. I think there are two sides to this: the disaster and the opportunity. One year ago, Joel and I were in Durban, South Africa at the climate change meeting of the United Nations, and I wrote a series of reports, which [included the assertion that] the real apocalypse is that there is no apocalypse. That they’re going to be having meetings like this one while islands disappear and while forests vanish. There’s no real End Times moment when there’s a flash and suddenly everything’s over. It’s actually much worse than that. Things are just going to keep grinding on. It’s like Dr. Manhattan says in the graphic novel The Watchmen, “Nothing ever ends.” It’s not like this is the big ecological crisis that’s going to deliver a transformation to us. There’s every possibility of this going in awful ways that we say we can’t imagine, but that we already see taking form. We have to reconcile with the apocalypse that’s happening. Then there’s the other sense of it, which is important to emphasize, the more revelatory way [of looking at it]: that there’s a reckoning that calls upon all of us. I think that this definitely gets us into a kind of metaphysical/spiritual territory, and it’s not a coincidence because that’s what you do when you’re about to die; [laughs] you start to think about the civilization and what’s next.

Reed Cooley is an Editorial Intern at Guernica.

More End Times explorations:

Bill McKibben: Planetary Emergency

Erika Anderson: Apocalist

Meaghan Winter: Extinction is the Rule

Anne McClintock: Too Big to See With the Naked Eye

Nathaniel Flagg: Apocalypse Illustrated

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