Needed: An ecosocialist cosmovision

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It isn’t enough to replace capitalism’s destructive social and economic relations. We must develop new ways of thinking about humanity and nature.

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Chris Gilbert argues that it isn’t enough to replace capitalism’s destructive social and economic relations. We must develop new ways of thinking about humanity and nature.  

An important and provocative article: comments are encouraged!

by Chris Gilbert

Capitalism has the dubious honor of being the first civilization lacking in a cosmovision. From original communitarianism forward, we encounter societies that see man as part of a more or less inviolable socio-natural order: these ordering systems range from the totemic structures of original communitary societies to medieval conceptions such as the “great chain of being.”

The best explanation for this nearly universal characteristic is that in all previous societies human beings were in the dominated pole of the society-nature dyad. As a consequence, there evolved rich mythological apparatuses. Myth served to mediate the relation to a natural world that could not be controlled or dominated.

Socio-natural ideas of order even informed practices of governance in as much as rulers inevitably sought to maintain – and were responsible for – a harmonious relation with nature. The classical scholar George Derwent Thomson refers to how Chinese emperors of the Zhou Dynasty were charged with maintaining a correct relation with the elements:

“If the emperor did not govern in harmony with the celestial movements – Thomson writes – bad omens would appear and society would fall into disorder. At the same time, the society’s good government was a necessary condition for maintaining the natural order.” [1]

In the modern world this type of relation is relegated to literature. For example, in the Elizabethan drama King Lear, the political crisis is linked to an environmental one. A real tempest runs parallel (with its “fretful elements”) to the political and social disorder unleashed in the kingdom.

With capitalism, for the first time, the societal pole of the society-nature dyad becomes the unquestionably dominant one. Myths go into retreat. Nature is thought to dissipate in importance before the enormous productive capacity of capitalist societies. This gives way to the Promethean vision, in which capitalist society imagines that it can generate all of its own conditions.

This new vision contrast sharply with that of precapitalist societies in which non-produced elements (land, water, sun) were always acknowledged as necessary conditions of production, often of divine origin, as Marx explains in the Grundrisse. [2]

It hardly needs mentioning that these days (in spite of our almost complete domination of nature) the apparent irrelevance of the natural pole is regularly belied by unprecedented natural calamities such as floods, storms, and droughts. Now, as the very conditions of human life are threatened by profound interventions in nature and its metabolic cycles, the natural pole in the society-nature dyad insists with ever greater urgency.

Is it time, then, to return to a cosmovision? To recover or invent ideas of a natural order of which man is a part? This seems inevitable and – it must be pointed out – far from extravagant, in as much as every society up till now has been guided by a socio-natural ordering system, making capitalism the extravagant, historically aberrant, exceptional society.

Three kinds of things

The contemporary philosopher Santiago Alba Rico has identified a minimal ordering scheme that operated in all human civilizations from the Neolithic revolution forward. During the whole of this long period human beings distinguished among three basic orders of things: things to eat (consumables), things to use (fungibles), and things to look at (miribilia).

According to Alba Rico, food, which is ephemeral and individual by its very nature, belongs to the first category; tools, as vehicles of human knowledge to be employed over a long period of time, belong to the second; public goods and artworks, which are to be neither eaten nor used but rather marveled at, belong to the third. [3] This three part ontological order was ended by the capitalist revolution – in which all three orders were brutally regrouped into the first: everything becomes “eatable,” consumable.

Alba Rico’s idea – the philosopher implies that we need to recover this kind of three part ontological division – would combat capitalism’s tendency toward a radical and unprecedented homogeneity, which is a step back for humanity.

In effect, capitalism reduces everything to a single ontological status: the commodity. As the commodity becomes more and more dominant, all finer ontological distinctions disappear. In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations… are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air….” Both poetic and scientific, this is a very good assessment of the conceptual blender that capitalism generates.

Alba Rico is not alone in this kind of proposal. Many philosophers, from Martin Heidegger to Stanley Cavell and Cora Diamond [4], have dealt with conceptual loss and recovery (though usually with slight interest in capitalism’s role in producing the amnesia). For example, according to Cavell, analytic philosophy’s frequent claim that moral statements are merely emotive might not really reveal anything about moral decisions. Instead, it might simply indicate that the concept of morality is lost or absent altogether. [5]

In a similar way, philosophers of the Heideggerian tradition have argued that conceptual loss occurs with modern ideas of space and time: infinite “Cartesian” space in the first case and an eternal succession of uniform moments in the second. These modern concepts of space and time are not themselves the problem. Rather what is problematic is the disappearance of more primordial concepts such as place or abode (in regard to space), as well as the limited period that one is allotted (in regard to time).

Following Heidegger, Felipe Martínez Marzoa points out that these primordial concepts were, in fact, the only ones used in Archaic Greece to talk about space and time. Delimited space (filled and never empty) is the early reference of the Greek word khóra; though sometimes translated as space, the word, as Homer would have used it, at best refers to a space. Likewise a specific or allotted (even destined) moment of time is the original meaning of khrónos and aión. [6]

What is the importance of this to socialists and environmentalists? It seems abundantly clear that only if man recovers concepts of place and moment that imply belonging, limit, and orientation will it be possible to establish a reproduction of human life that is harmonious with nature and therefore sustainable.

Losing concepts, losing bearings

In the Marxist tradition the proposal of conceptual reform is usually seen as naive at best – but is more commonly treated as heretical and dangerous. This is because it can seem to deny the fundamental importance of transforming social relations (especially relations of production) in establishing a sustainable and just form of production, which is equivalent to socialism.

Does the claim that ontological ordering schemes could contribute to making a sustainable and just society fall into this kind of error? Not necessarily. Although there can be no doubt that profound, revolutionary changes in productive relations are needed for socialism, they are not enough.

This can be argued on the basis of the experiences of real socialism in which superstructural phenomena – such as ideas, concepts and categories – did in fact have an important impact on the productive base. (This was Che Guevara’s claim, and it is now widely accepted.) [7] Further, it is clear that the revolutionary transformation of productive relations, though a necessary step to eliminate exploitation, did not in itself entail the overcoming of all other forms of domination, including the domination of nature.

For those of us who come from leftist progressive or revolutionary traditions there is a need for a profound reconsideration of some of our most cherished ideas. Many of them are effectively idées reçues. Our tradition has long assumed the radical transformability, “remakeability” of everything; human culture and human habits developed over centuries are thought to be infinitely malleable.

This idea, which has generally been part of the modern concept of revolution, has been analyzed by Bolívar Echeverría who points to its bourgeois origin. A revolution that transforms everything is but a mirror of the demiurgic transformative power of the market, particularly the way the market’s commodity regimen effects a drastic abstraction from the most varied use-values, to which it is indifferent. [8]

Importantly, this profound reflection does not lead Echeverría to reject the idea of revolution altogether, only the idea of an absolute revolution. Instead of an absolute (wiping-the-slate-clean) sort of revolutionary change, what is needed is a radical revolution that goes to the roots of the society – including the contradictions at its roots – and extracts a possibility that is latent, though repressed in our society’s evolving.

This is the essence of the Marxist idea that the secular growth of productive forces raises the possibility – which is unrealizable under capitalist social relations – of a nonviolent, harmonious, and emancipated society as an alternative to the actual course of society’s development.

A radical revolution would also propose an alternative way of viewing the world. In lieu of capitalism’s insistence that all ontological ordering schemes must disappear before its inexorable logic of accumulation, one can suppose that these systems could, or actually should, be given new importance.

We should remember that socialism, though it has conditions which are not of its own making, is in a great measure a conscious construction. Part of this conscious construction would be assuming or recovering orientations and distinctions about what can be expended, what needs a special kind of care, what should only be an object of admiration – all of it in the context of a recuperated awareness of the unique, irreplaceable and limited place that we inhabit in the world.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.


[1] George Derwent Thomson, Los Primeros Filósofos (La Habana: Ciencias Sociales, 1978).

[2] See the section “Forms which precede capitalist production” in Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York: Vintage, 1973): 471-515.

[3] Santiago Alba Rico, Capitalismo y nihilismo: dialéctica del hambre y la mirada (Akal, 2007). For a fragment of the book see:

[4] Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts” in Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988): 255-277.

[5] Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (Oxford University, 1979).

[6] Felipe Martínez Marzoa, Iniciación a la filosofía (Madrid: Istmo, 1974): 216-20.

[7] Che Guevara, Apuntes críticos a la economía política (Melbourne: Ocean Sur, 2006): 31.

[8] Bolívar Echeverría, “Posmodernidad y Cinicismo” in Las Ilusiones de la modernidad (Tramasocial, 2001): 39-55.


1 Comment

  • Chris Gilbert’s searching and provocative article raises many question that need further discussion. Here are three:

    1. Does classical Marxism have a cosmovision? What comes to us from the era of the early Soviet state suggests a drive for limitless accumulation of use-values. In terms of the relationship to nature, this bears a certain resemblance to the capitalist drive to accumulate profits, giving rise to the current controversy about “productivism”.

    2. Does the issue of cosmovision have anything to do with gender relations? That may appear far-fetched, but consider the cross-cultural conception of the earth as female (Mother Earth). In capitalism, human activity is imagined as “man conquering nature” — that is, in gender terms, as patriarchal. For a sensitive and, in its way, inspiring presentation of this approach, see the final paragraphs of Trotsky’s easily googled “Literature and Revolution.”

    Abbie Bakan recently cited an evocative presentation of this approach in an early Zionist assessment of Palestine: “The bride is beautiful, but she has another husband” — colonial seizure of the land as theft of a wife.

    3. How will an ecosocialist cosmovision win influence among masses of working people? Voices like that of Chris Gilbert don’t reach large numbers of people. But the fundamentals of the cosmovision that he is arguing for are advanced by movements rooted in survivals of precapitalist social relations, especially those of indigenous peoples and working farmers. For an outstanding expression of this, see the documents of the Cochabamba conference (on the Climate and Capitalism subject list). Viewed from this angle, the ecosocialist cosmovision appears as a “revolutionary return.”