Joel Kovel was born in 1936, in Brooklyn, NY, and spent his early years there and on Long Island. He attended Yale College and then studied medicine at Columbia University (MD, 1961) and psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, eventually becoming Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Residency Training at that institution. He also holds a diploma in psychoanalysis from the Downstate Medical Center Institute. After practicing psychiatry and psychoanalysis for twenty four years, he left these professions in the mid-1980s, in part because of dissatisfaction with the health care system. Since 1988 he has been Professor of Social Studies at Bard College, Annandale, NY.
Joel Kovel is both a scholar and an activist. In the former capacity he has published nine books and over a hundred articles and reviews. His books include White Racism, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972; A Complete Guide to Therapy; The Age of Desire (in which his work in the psychiatric-psychoanalytic system is detailed); Against the State of Nuclear Terror; In Nicaragua; The Radical Spirit; History and Spirit(1991); Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), a study of anticommunist repression in America; and The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or The End of the World. Since 2003 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism.
As an activist, Joel Kovel has been engaged in struggles for peace and justice since the Vietnam War era. He has worked within the antiwar and antinuclear movements, the solidarity movements in Central America and the Caribbean, the movements for democratic media, and, increasingly, for ecological transformation. He lived in Nicaragua for a period in 1986, and accompanied Pastors for Peace as they broke the US blockade on Cuba in their 1994 Friendshipment. He has acted in films, worked frequently with the Bread and Puppet theatre, and lectured on four continents.
Kovel joined the Green Party since 1990. In 1998, he was the Green Party candidate for US Senator from New York, and in 2000 sought their Presidential nomination.
Kovel is married, has three children, three stepchildren and five grandchildren. He lives in Willow, a rural district of Woodstock, in Ulster County.