Reviewed by Ulv Hanssen
Kohei Saito has improbably managed to write a Marxist bestseller in Japan, one of capitalism’s bastions. His Hitoshinsei no Shihonron [Capital in the Anthropocene] has sold almost half a million copies since its publication in September 2020. It has won numerous prizes and has been discussed extensively in Japanese media. As a result, Saito has gone from being a relatively obscure academic to becoming something of a Marxist superstar in Japan.
Saito’s main argument in the book, which is still only available in its original Japanese, is that capitalism, with its perpetual pursuit of growth, is the underlying cause of the intensifying climate crisis. Rejecting the possibility of ‘green growth’, he convincingly argues that only degrowth – a planned reduction of material use – can ensure a sustainable future. Saito fully dismisses the idea by some degrowthers that capitalism could be made compatible with degrowth. The attempt at removing the growth imperative from capitalism, Saito states, is like trying to ‘draw a circular triangle’ (133). Nothing less than systemic change will do. Recognizing capitalism as the greatest cause of climate change, Saito is unambiguous about the danger it poses to us all, warning that ‘if we don’t stop capitalism by our own hands, the history of humanity will come to an end’ (118).
Looking only at the capitalist critique, there is not much that separates Saito from other degrowthers. In fact, Saito’s book is similar to Jason Hickel’s Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, which came out at the same time as Saito’s book. Using many of the same examples and statistics, both authors detail how ecological disaster is unavoidable as long as we stick to a capitalist system that is premised on growth. Both authors consequently see a transition to a non-capitalist economy as the only way to achieve degrowth. There is, however, a key difference between Saito and most other degrowthers: Saito unabashedly characterizes himself as a Marxist. This is a rather unusual position in the degrowth camp where it is common for writers to allude to Marx and perhaps even use certain Marxist terms, but not to identify as Marxists. This is arguably because degrowthers are attracted to Marx’s criticism of capitalism, but find his obsession with the forces of production difficult to reconcile with their vision of degrowth. Hickel, for example, clearly draws on Marx in his analysis of capitalism, even going so far as to use Marx’s famous M-C-M’ capital formula. But by strangely failing to mention the model’s originator, he clearly seeks to obfuscate this intellectual connection (2020: 84). Saito, on the other hand, unapologetically situates himself in the Marxist tradition. The stated goal of his book is to ‘present a new image of Marx for the Anthropocene’ (141), the latter a popular label for the present geological era in which humans massively impact the planet’s ecosystems and geology. In other words, Saito seeks to show that Marx’s ideas are relevant for overcoming today’s climate crisis.
In the face of intensifying climate change, Saito proposes a transition to what he calls ‘degrowth communism’. While he is somewhat vague about what this entails, he is clear about what it does not. He stresses repeatedly that his degrowth communism is nothing like the state-driven ‘communisms’ of the Soviet Union or China, where state officials essentially took over the role of the capitalists and sought to maximize production while suppressing the freedoms of the workers. Degrowth communism, he insists, is a far more free, democratic and sustainable system. The central function of this system is a planned effort to degrow the economy. However, he stresses that degrowth must primarily take place in the countries of the global north, which have the highest living standards and the biggest responsibility for today’s climate crisis. Poor countries in the south, he writes, must be allowed to keep growing until they have reached a decent standard of living. This is a common argument in the degrowth literature. According to Saito, degrowth communism would radically change the production process so that it revolves around use values rather than exchange values. A degrowing economy would also entail shorter working hours, less alienated labor, democratic control over the means of production and greater appreciation and renumeration for essential work. Such an economy would radically increase equality and reduce material output. ‘Degrowth communism’, Saito ambitiously writes, ‘will save the world’ (277).
As mentioned, unlike most degrowth advocates, Saito is an unapologetic Marxist, so it becomes important for him to show that his vision of degrowth communism is compatible with the thinking of Karl Marx. In fact, the fourth chapter is entirely dedicated to demonstrating this compatibility. This is a tough task since Marx is commonly associated with a glorifying view of production, development and humans’ mastery over nature – aspects that are not easily married to degrowth. Saito readily admits that Marx’s most famous work, Capital, is largely incongruent with ecological strategies. In Capital, Marx lauds the human capacity to subjugate nature for the purpose of production and development. In fact, he viewed the development of the productive forces under capitalism positively, as he believed they constituted a condition of possibility for the transition to communism. So how does Saito reconcile Marx with the goal of degrowth?
One of the key claims in the book is that Marx underwent an intellectual transformation after finishing the first volume of Capital in 1867. This makes it possible to distinguish between an early Marx who valorized productivism and a late Marx who became increasingly concerned with ecological sustainability – or the rift in the ‘metabolism’ between humans and nature. While many scholars, including Saito himself (2017), have previously identified in Marx’s late work a form of eco-socialism, Saito’s most recent work is the first that seeks to uncover a philosophy of degrowth in Marx’s writings. The novelty of the book, according to Saito himself, is its argument that Marx’s ‘final destination’ as a thinker was not just eco-socialism, but the more radical position of ‘degrowth communism’. Saito does not mince his words when explaining the novelty of this reinterpretation:
Upon having abandoned his progressivist view of history, Marx was able to incorporate the principles of sustainability and static economy into his own theory of transformation. Therefore, the concept of communism shifted to something that was completely different from both “productivism” and “eco-socialism”. What [Marx] arrived at in his later years was “degrowth communism”. This is nothing less than a brand-new interpretation of late Marx’s vision of a future society – an interpretation that no one else has proposed. Even his sworn friend Engels completely failed to understand this (197).
Unfortunately, this is where the book’s main weakness appears. The evidence that Saito presents for Marx’s alleged adoption of degrowth communism is simply not very convincing.
Saito almost exclusively bases his claim about Marx’s conversion to a degrowth philosophy on two sources, or rather, a few passages in two sources: Marx’s letter exchange in 1881 with Russian revolutionary writer Vera Zasulich and Critique of the Gotha Programme, which Marx wrote in 1875 but was published posthumously by Engels in 1891.
In the Zasulich-Marx letter exchange, Marx responds to an inquiry about whether the Russian rural communes could serve as the foundation of a socialist revolution, or if the revolution could only come about after the imposition of capitalism. In his response, Marx states that the rural communes could indeed form the basis of a socialist society, without the detour of capitalism, so long as their oppressors were eliminated, thus allowing the communes to develop naturally. Marx clearly struggled with this answer since he wrote four long drafts before finally sending the much shorter letter. It is in this first draft that Saito identifies what he sees as the clearest expression of Marx’s turn to degrowth. In the first draft, Marx argues that the Russian rural communes could, under the right circumstances, form the basis of a new collective form of social organization displaying ‘superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist regime’ (Marx 1881). Needless to say, these rural communes praised by Marx were non-growth economies. Saito therefore attaches considerable importance to Marx’s statement that the end of capitalism will lead to ‘the return of modern societies to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production’ (191). The elevation of ‘archaic’ communal societies is, to Saito, the clearest evidence that Marx in his later years saw degrowth as the organizing principle of a future communist society. In Saito’s words,
Late Marx argues that it is precisely the stasis of the communal societies that can become a force of resistance against colonial rule and, moreover, destroy the forces of capital, and even enable the establishment of communism. This is clearly a major shift. […] In stark contrast to the 1850s, he now holds an affirmative view of a static economy (194).
It can be argued here that Saito reads too much into some select words. Moreover, if this passage truly represented a significant break with Marx’s earlier thinking, why did he not retain it in the final version of the reply?
Saito’s invocation of the Critique of the Gotha Programme as proof of his degrowth hypothesis is perhaps even more speculative. This work, which was written as a critique of the proposed party manifesto for the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Germany, contains the following well-known passage:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! (Marx )
While the last part of this passage is most famous, Saito focuses on the phrase ‘co-operative wealth’ [der genossenschaftliche Reichthum]. He argues that this choice of words might have been inspired by the German pre-capitalist co-operatives [Markgenossenschaft] that tilled the land sustainably and shared the commons among the members. Marx had been obsessed with Georg Ludwig von Maurer and Karl Nikolas Fraas’ works on these communities and their practices. If this interpretation is correct, Saito states, it would mean that late Marx’s vision of communism was modelled after the sustainability and wealth-sharing of the Markgenossenschaft. Furthermore, it would reveal another static economy that served as an inspiration for the late Marx and thus give further proof of his embrace of degrowth communism (202).
This is a stretch. To focus on this one specific phrase, ‘co-operative wealth’, and its possible connection to non-growth communal societies as proof that Marx rejected the idea of growth is unconvincing, especially since the passage in question also explicitly states that ‘the productive forces have also increased’ in Marx’s ideal ‘higher phase of communist society’.
For someone who claims to have come up with a radical reinterpretation of Marx, Saito’s inability to provide compelling evidence is unfortunate. His admission, made in passing, that ‘Marx did not leave behind any texts that describe the form of degrowth communism in any organized way’ (203), perhaps indicates that Marx’s alleged turn to degrowth is more a product of Saito’s loose interpretations than a process that actually took place in Marx’s own mind. This shortcoming is unfortunate because it distracts from the book’s otherwise brilliant demonstration of the incompatibility between capitalism and ecological sustainability.
18 July 2022
- 2020 Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (London: Windmill Books).
- 1881 Marx-Zasulich Correspondence February/March 1881: The “First” Draft https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/zasulich/draft-1.htm
- 1891 Critique of the Gotha Programme https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm
- 2017 Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press).