Joel Kovel Battling Nader for Green Party Presidential Nomination

Joel Kovel is a new entry on the national Green scene, running for president for the first time this year. But to certain sectors of academia and of left political activism, Kovel is widely known for his many writings analyzing the effects of capitalism on human relations, social development and even sprirituality.Formerly a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, Kovel is currently a professor of social studies at Bard College in New York. Kovel ran in that state as a Green candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998.He now appears on the ballot as an alternative to the only other Green presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, who, at press time, has not yet officially announced whether he is in fact running.]In the interview below, Kovel lays out his vision of the Green agenda, his differences with Nader, and why he sees socialism as a necessary component to Green Party politics and program.Ralph Brave: What would you say is the main thrust of your message as a Green Party candidate? What distinguishes you from Al Gore or Bill Bradley?Joel Kovel: Well, there is a very striking difference. I believe that the established two party system is hopeless and can't meet the needs of humanity and the earth. The reason for that is the ever expanding, ever destructive global reach of the capitalist system of which Al Gore and Bill Bradley are basically paid servants. So, it's that clear and that simple. I also have a rather complex and elaborate platform that has maany different planks and programs in it.RB: It sounds you believe there needs to be an alternative to capitalism?JK: Yes. And that's I guess the audacious thing to come forward with at this time. There are those who believe, like Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative. This is it, this is the way the world has to be. This is the only way history can unfold. And that's become an article of faith for people, an automatic assumption. And it's to unsettle that assumption, to breakdown its terms and to show that it has to be different or else we're really tremendously in trouble, that I'm in the running. And its basically in the form of an assumption which is an article of much ecological and Green thought that our society is as they say unsustainable, and cannot keep going in this direction, breaking down its own natural foundations without widespread havoc and much more to come.RB: So what's the alternative to capitalism?JK: I don't have any magic blueprints. I think its something that has to be worked out. It's something that requires, just a national raising of consciousness, international global raising of consciousness that will get people to begin thinking along these lines instead of just numbly accepting the status quo. But, what I call for is something called ecological socialism. In other words, I'm willing to raise the "S" word that nobody wants to use. You can call it cooperative commonwealth if you like, which is what many socialists called it over the last century. But, you have to get the fundamental point that its not about regulating the capitalist system, but its about basically altering it by changing the ownership and control of great institutions that now run our world.As we all know, and have been told innumerable times, what went under the name of socialism failed and cannot be the organizing principle of our society. I absolutely agree with that. What went on under the name of socialism was a huge disaster. However, that also was not socialism by any coherent definition of the term true socialism. What passed as socialism within the Soviet world and the Marxist Leninism world was basically an attempt to rebuild capitalism under conditions of scarcity and low development. And we need to rid ourselves of the notion that it was really socialism and start thinking about what socialism could really be.Here's where the term ecological comes in. I believe that if you place those two words together, you start thinking in terms of fundamental changes -- not just ownership of the means of production, which is part of a socialist society, but actually the way production is carried out, the way human relations are ordered, the way democracy becomes a much more fundamental principle in society.RB: I think people interested in developing an alternative would want to have a notion of what kind of model, even at a micro-level, Joel Kovel has in mind.JK: Well, first of all, the model is that there are many models of enlightened ecological production. Beginning with organic farms. The pathway towards a radically new production is fairly well laid out. I mean there's lots that has to be discovered, but we know that it involves decentralization of the unit of production. We know that it involves dealing in organic relationships rather than synthetic ones, and so on and so forth. We know also, that where and when these have been given a chance, to enlighten political action, they thrived. Organic farms always produce much better than non-organic farms, et cetera.RB: I'm wondering where the Green Party and Joel Kovel in terms of agricultural biotechnology?JK: My position is that we need a moratorium on the release of transgenic material into the environment. This is not to say that I am totally against technology. I know, some Greens are more fundamentally against then I am, but because I used to be a physician and I have scientific training, I just don't believe that we can turn away from technology. But, I do believe that we must stop the control of these technologies by the capitalist private sector who inevitably is going to abuse them, because it's a monster that can easily, easily get out of hand. And when it's produced for profit rather than the welfare of the earth, you have a ready-made situation for abuse.I'm also against the patenting of lifeforms. Pure outrage, that you should patent genes, that this most fundamental domain of nature should become the province of commodity capitalism. As for the moriatorum, my principle is just that it's not an absolute ban, but it's a stopping it in its track, so that we can have a really genuine dialogue on this, free from the control of the agribusiness and the capitalist formations of the world. So that we can really have an enlightened dialogue and approach using the very best of science and ecological thought and democratic institutions put together.RB: Most people, when they hear about the Green Party, assume that it's anti-technological, even anti-scientific. It sounds like your position is actually more complex than that.JK: Oh, much more. I appreciate the Luddite impulses, because I think that people try and defend their life space against the encroachment of destroying technology. But on the other hand, it's human nature to make tools. We're the tool-making animal, that's who we are. The question is how those tools are to be socially organized and constructed. Not just used, but the whole way in which the social relationships enter into the making of the tools and the whole history that enters into that. But, I absolutely am not for a kind of neo-primitivism. Besides that of my valued position, it is simply inconceivable that you could deal with the existing state of the world by pulling back from a great deal of the technological aspects of the world, like computers. While I do think that in ecologically socialist society, there has to be much more actual human hands entering the production of things, that's different from saying that you should destroy our machines and not think intelligently about technology.RB: Is your experience though that much of the Green Party constituency is made up of a neo-primitivism, back to the earth approach?JK: No. My experience of the Greens is of a very diverse group. Most Greens are people that concerned to defend their communities and public spaces from encroachment. Most Greens have a basically anti-capitalist point of view because they're always fighting a power plant or the tearing down of forests or whatever. All of which is very clear and obvious function of capital accumulation. Most Greens are people who are defending community values. Defending the values of localism, intact, small economic systems. Most Greens are basically from an anarchist tradition, of defending the integrity of democratic processes and spontaneous face to face interactions. That's really where they come from. I believe they are increasingly moving in a more anti-capitalist direction. I think the biggest limitation on the Greens is the Greens have a lot of work to do to overcome class differences, to overcome differences in ethnicity, racial distinctions and so on. They need to go a lot further in that direction. They need to build many more bridges to communities of color for instance. And many more bridges to the labor movement.RB: Many people don't believe that a Green government would be particularly good at producing the wealth that Greens want to redistribute.JK: Well, you know, it depends on what you mean by wealth. I would hope that a Green government would be very good at producing true values. I think the Green government, would not, should not, produce certain forms of what's called wealth. Sports utility vehicles, things like that, Barbie dolls. Not that Barbie dolls are bad in themselves, but in mass amounts are cultural junk.We have by any reasonable economic analysis now a tremendous problem with overproduction in our society. In fact, one of the hallmarks of capitalism is that its main virtue -- its only virtue -- is producing wealth for the sake of capitalism. So it, produces, produces, produces. And there is a constant flood of commodities and constant overproduction of everything. A sane society, whether you call it Green or Eco-socialist, would be free of that compulsion. It's that compulsion, that reckless growth compulsion, that really cancerous growth compulsion, that's causing the ecological crisis, that's making our society unsustainable. So, yes indeed, a Green society, a sane society, does not overproduce the wealth that fills Wal-Mart and strip malls and our highways.RB: I want to turn briefly to the existence of your name on the ballot and Ralph Nader's as Greens. Is there something that distinguishes you from Nader as a Green candidate?JK: Talking about Ralph Nader, you're not talking about Bill Bradley, Al Gore, but someone who's made very fundamental, heroic contributions to our society. And who's definitely on the side of the angels. I would ask voters to insist that Nader and I have one or a series of debates. Not so much to see "who is the better man," but to sharpen awareness of the fundamental issues. While I think what Ralph is doing is tremendously valuable, I would have people go further. I think that what Ralph is doing is based on the assumption that the capitalist system can be regulated. My assumption is that it can't be regulated and it has to be fundamentally changed. So, you'd have to say that Nader is what you would call a progressive populist. He believes that citizen movements can offset the power of corporate capital. I believe those movements are all necessary, but they're not sufficient. I believe you have to go beyond that to also think of a transformation of the system.RB: Now I hate to do this to you, but if you had a thirty second message to voters about why they should vote for you, what would that thirty second message say?JK: I'd say, "Look beneath the superficial signs of prosperity. Look at the deep contraptional problems that our society faces under its present state of organization. Look to the future, look to save the future for our children. Look to save the children of the future. And make a fundamental change in the way in which our society is organized."RB: How do you find the response to what sounds like a very conscious effort to reintroduce some version of socialism into the political debate?JK: Well, I certainly think that people are more responsive than they used to be. I don't think that I could really state as to how far that's going to go. I do believe, to borrow an old song title, that times are a-changing. I think that we're turning and not just American society, but the global situation is changing. And, in a very broad sense, that's why I'm running. I'm responsive to those flickers of hope.


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