There Is No Greater Responsibility for Intellectuals

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Niccolo and Donkey
There Is No Greater Responsibility for Intellectuals


Joel Kovel

December 28, 2010


Beaten down by the great defeats of utopian and social ideals, few today even bother to think about the kinds of society that could replace the present one, and most of that speculation is within a green paradigm limited by an insufficient appreciation of the regime of capital and of the depths needed for real change. Instead, Greens tend to imagine an orderly extension of community accompanied by the use of instruments that have been specifically created to keep the present system going, such as parliamentary elections and various tax policies. Such measures make transformative sense, however, only if seen as prefigurations of something more radical – something by definition not immediately on the horizon.

The first two steps on that path are clearly laid out and are within the reach of every conscientious person. These are that people ruthlessly criticize the capitalist system “from top to bottom,” and that they include in this a consistent attack on the widespread belief that there can be no alternative to it. If one believes that capital is not only basically unjust but radically unsustainable as well, the prime obligation is to spread news.

The belief that there can be no alternative to capital is ubiquitous – and no wonder, given how wonderfully convenient the idea is to the ruling ideology. That, however, does not keep it from being nonsense and a failure of vision and political will. Nothing lasts forever and what is humanly made can theoretically be unmade. Of course it could be the case that the job of changing it is too hard and capital is as far as humanity can go, in which instance we must simply accept our fate stoically and try to palliate the results. But we don’t know this and cannot know this. There is no proving it one way or the other and only inertia, fear of change or opportunism can explain the belief in so shabby an idea as that there can be no alternative to capital for organizing society.

At some point the realization will dawn that all the sound ideas for, say, regulating the chemical industries or preserving forest ecosystems or doing something serious about species-extinctions or global warming or whatever point of ecosystem disintegration is of concern are not going to be realized by appealing to local changes in themselves or to the Democratic Party, to the Environmental Protection Agency, to the courts, to the foundations, to ecophilosophies or to changes in consciousness. For the overriding reason is that we are living under a regime that controls both the state and the economy and that regime will have to be overcome at its root if we are to save the future.

Relentless criticism can delegitimize the system and release people into struggle. And as struggle develops, victories that are no more than incremental on their own terms – stopping a meeting of the IMF, stirring hopes with a campaign such as Ralph Nader’s in 2000 – can have a symbolic effect far greater than their external result and can constitute points of rupture with capital. This rupture is not a set of facts added to our knowledge of the world but a change in our relation to the world. Its effects are dynamic, not incremental, and like all genuine insights it changes the balance of forces and can propagate very swiftly. Thus the release from inertia can trigger a rapid cascade of changes, so that it could be said that the forces pressing toward radical change need not be linear and incremental, but can be exponential. In this way, conscientious and radical criticism of the given, even in advance of blueprints for an alternative, can be a material force because it can seize the mind of the masses of the people. There is no greater responsibility for intellectuals.

From Joel Kovel’s Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? Joel Kovel is the editor of Capitalism Nature Socialism , a journal of ecosocialism.