Kohei Saito's Communist Degrowth
12 October 2023
"Anyone who believes that the world can continue to grow indefinitely exponentially has either lost his mind or is an economist."
In the last three years, a new interpretation of Marx has emerged: the idea of "degrowth communism" by Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito. The author has published three books so far, including his manifesto Capital in the Anthropocene (Penguin Random House, 2022), which has sold more than half a million copies in Japan and Asia, making him probably the most widely read living Marxist today.
The importance of his reading of Marx, both theoretically and politically, allows for a novel dialogue with various environmental movements and ecosocialism, which in turn allows for a forceful defense against various critiques of Marxism and a critique of various environmental solutions within the framework of capitalism.
In the following text, I will try to recapitulate his main theoretical and political postulates, summarizing some of the arguments of his works, including Nature Against Capital [La natauraleza contra el capital] (Ediciones Bellatierra, 2022) and Marx in the Anthropocene (Cambridge University Press, 2023). This is because Capital in the Anthropocene, despite being his most accessible work, contains a number of assertions and shorcuts that are only sustained and justified historically and theoretically with the development of his other two works. Likewise, I will briefly discuss what I consider to be questions and limitations of his proposal.
1. A New Reading of Marx's Theory of Metabolism
A recurring criticism of Marx (and Marxism) is that it lacks an ecological dimension and is therefore useless in explaining environmental problems. In other words, the German philosopher is accused of assuming that his vision of communism requires the domination of nature in order to increase production and achieve abundance, all within a Eurocentric and teleological conception of history. That is, the development of the productive forces of European-style capitalism throughout the world will lead to socialism and ultimately to communism. Criticisms that are not unjustified if one reads only a few texts by Marx and Engels.
Saito refutes these criticisms based on the basis of a study of Marx's intellectual development throughout his life and, in particular, of his workbooks written during the last years of his life -recently published as part of the MEGA 2 project1 - which focus on a broad study of the natural sciences. In this way, the Japanese argues that Marx had a developed, non-Eurocentric and non-teleological conception of the environmental problems of history, and that, based on this, the German developed the idea of degrowth communism.
In principle, Saito takes up the concept of metabolism developed by Marx, according to which there is a series of exchange process and material interrelations between social production and nature, which he calls metabolism between man and nature (Saito, 2022a, p. 336). The mediation between the two takes place through human labor. Marx argues that "labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature." (Saito, 2023, p.19).
In this sense, capitalism imposes a particular mediation of labor with nature through the search for a continuous and unrestrained generation of value, which in turn objectifies nature without taking into account the ecological limits to maintain natural resources over time. For this reason, the capitalist system of production generates rifts in natural cycles that prevent equilibrium. He calls this "metabolic rift", an idea already recovered by István Mészáros (1995), John Bellamy Foster (2000) and John Burkett (1999) but deepened by Saito.
Kohei distinguishes that metabolic rift occurs in three ways: (i) with the disruption of the natural material cycle, as when water is extracted from a lake faster than it is naturally replenished, causing it to dry up; (ii) with a spatial rift, as when natural resources are taken from one place and taken to another far away without being replenished, as happens in agriculture. And (iii) with a temporal rift, which occurs when capitalism rewards short-term production and prevents the replenishment of resources for future generations.
These metabolic rifts can affect the process of capital accumulation by depleting the finite resources of nature, so capitalism can respond by generating "metabolic changes" of three kinds. The first change is technological, allowing the extraction to continue in a more productive way, but generating other types of negative externalities, as could be the case with oil extraction through fracking, which allows this fossil fuel to be extracted from places previously considered impossible but contaminating underground water bodies.
The second change is spatial, which involves shifting the location and scale of natural resource extraction from rural-urban natural resource extraction in Western countries to resource extraction between the global North and South, creating ecological imperialism.
And finally, a temporal change, which means pushing environmental costs and burdens into the future. In other words, achieving maximum profits in the short term, regardless of the environmental consequences for future generations, as summarized in the phrase: "After me, the flood.”
Saito also calls this ability of capitalism to modify its metabolic relationship with nature in the face of crises the "elastic power of capital," which is based on the characteristics of the material world that can be exploited intensively or extensively according to capital's own needs in order to overcome the barriers of accumulation. "Hence the exploitation of the whole of nature in order to discover new useful properties of things; the universal exchange of the products of all climates and foreign countries; new (artificial) elaborations of natural objects in order to give them values of new uses" (2022a, 131). Marx's theory of metabolism thus provides the basis for political economy to consider environmental problems within capitalism.
On the other hand, Saito recalls that Marx adopted anti-colonialist positions and that at the end of his life he studied archaic European and non-Western societies, where he found examples of communal production systems with a certain natural balance that did not imply a metabolic rift with nature. For example, the ancient Germanic communities where they reached a stationary state of production, which included a rigid control over the land and over trade outside the community, which allowed them to preserve the nutrient cycle in agriculture and thus avoid generating a metabolic rift.
To the above, the philosopher adds an environmental re-reading of the correspondence between Marx and the Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich, who asks him about the possibilities of the Russian agrarian communes serving as a basis for the socialist revolution or whether it is necessary to go through capitalism first. To which Marx replied that the model of historical development that he had proposed in The Capital only referred to the Western European countries and that it was possible to use the Russian communes as a basis for communism, that is to say, to give way to a "superior form of collective property" (Musto, 2020, p.90) .
With these theoretical references, Saito points out that Marx broke with the idea of the linear progress of history and Eurocentrism. Moreover, the following passage from one of the drafts of a reply to Zasulich allows the Japanese (2022b, p.159) to put forward his thesis that Marx developed the idea of degrowth communism:
"In a word, facing it is capitalism in crisis which will only end with the elimination of capitalism, with the return to modern societies to the "archaic" type of common property or [...], free from all suspicion of revolutionary tendencies, [...] "the new system" toward which modern society tends "will be a revival in a superior form of an archaic type"."
Considering that the return to superior forms of the archaic type included the idea of returning to a sustainable model of production based on the Germanic example, Saito concludes that Marx had developed the idea of degrowth communism in the last 14 years of his life. That is to say, at the end of his life, Marx made an important theoretical turn, an epistemological cut, in which he proposed to arrive at a communism that would make it possible to repair the metabolic rift created by capitalism, which is only possible with productive degrowth.
However, this idea was lost due to theoretical differences with Engels on the concept of metabolism. In order to produce a work that would be accessible to the proletarian movements of the world and thus strengthen them, Engels made Marx leave the concept aside in the edition of Capital, Volumes II and III, and did not take into account what had been developed in his workbooks.
2. Degrowth Communist
On this theoretical basis, Saito addresses in Capital in the Anthropocene Era the problem of climate change caused by the uncontrolled growth of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from capitalist production. These emissions, moreover, have increased from 1989 to the present, a period in which half of all fossil fuels have been burned (2022b, p.33), and which notoriously coincides with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginning of the collapse of the socialist bloc, and the establishment of the world hegemony of neoliberalism.
In this regard, Saito believes that much of the weight of this phenomenon is due to the fact that the developed Western countries have established an "imperial way of life". That is, the way of life of the developed countries is based on plundering the natural resources and energy of the global South, to which they transfer the environmental costs.
For this reason, developed countries are not an important model of sustainability, so we must avoid falling into the "Netherlands fallacy", which "consists in believing that environmental problems have been solved thanks to economic growth and technological development, ignoring the transfer of burdens and costs to the periphery" (2022b, p.30).
Given the seriousness of climate change, rapid action is needed to prevent the worst predictions from coming true. But for Saito it is clear that solutions within capitalism, such as decoupling energy spending (which implies reducing emissions) from economic growth, are impossible.
On the one hand, emissions reductions would have to be more than 10% per year, a scenario that is unattainable given the rising trend in emissions and let alone left to the global market. On the other hand, capitalism is in a phase of recoupling, where all the gains in energy savings are translated into higher productivity and cheaper goods, increasing total consumption and energy expenditure (known as the Jevons paradox). Even within the same crisis, capitalism can continue to function thanks to the elastic power of capital in the exploitation of nature. While the model can profit from the destruction of nature until a large part of the planet is uninhabitable.
Thus, and due to the above, the Japanese philosopher considers that climate change is practically inevitable and envisions four future scenarios (Saito, 2022b):
Climate fascism, where nation states would protect the rich from the rest of the population with all available means.
Barbarism, which would result from world hunger and poverty, leading to mass uprisings and world chaos.
Climate Maoism, where nations would adopt authoritarian measures against climate change and inequality, abandoning free market and liberal postulates worldwide.
Option "X", where a society based democratic mutual aid, voluntarily developed by each individual to face the climate crisis, would emerge.
It is in the latter that Saito places degrowth communism, since it is the only one that ensures the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the catastrophe of climate change; as well as the only scenario that would allow the repair of the metabolic rift created by capitalism in the long term. Degrowth communism would be based on five pillars:
Replacing the current economy with one based on use-value and abandoning mass production and consumption. In other words, replace today's capitalist production with one based on people's needs (use values) rather than exchange values that create artificial scarcity. This also means abandoning the capitalist view of wealth - quantified by exchange value (money) - and adopting a broader view of social wealth, as conceptualized by Marx, based on culture, skills, leisure and knowledge. This would increase the abundance of wealth generated by society, although natural scarcity will never be overcome.
Improve the quality of life by reducing working hours. This does not only mean reducing the working day to the minimum necessary time per day, but also eliminating "bullshit jobs" as David Graber calls them, prohibiting various activities from being open 24 hours a day, reassigning jobs to necessary activities, and so on.
To put an end to the uniformity implied by the division of labor and to restore creativity. To eliminate the opposition between physical and mental work, so that work is attractive and allows self-realization. A way of eliminating the alienation of work, which goes hand in hand with the next pillar.
Promote the democratization of the production process and slow down the economy, that is, return the means of production to the workers. This includes democratically deciding what, how and when to produce. This must be accompanied by the prohibition of private technological monopolies that prevent the democratization of the production process.
Move toward a use-value economy and revalue labor-intensive industries, i.e., socially revalue the work of social reproduction that, cannot be automated due to its unpredictability and irregularity. Work such as education, nursing, among others, should be given greater social value.
The achievement of these pillars gives way to communism by returning agency to the workers. In addition, it improves the very human jobs and makes possible to repair the metabolic rift by reducing the speed of production and the need to perform it continuously.
Saito offers several examples that could serve as a basis for achieving this goal, such as the Fearless Citiesmunicipalist movement, the citizens' assemblies in France, Zapatismo, Via Campesina or the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign. These experiences must be disseminated through international networks in order to generate radical change. In the same way, it accepts that States can serve to achieve these goals, avoiding falling into the anarchist anti-statist argument. The viability of the above requires the renewal of parliamentary democracy through the management of the production of the commons, through of municipalism and with citizen assemblies. This would be "...the authentic trinitarian project of overcoming capitalism, renewing democracy and decarbonizing society" (Saito, 2022b, p.303).
3. The Implications of Degrowth Communism
Saito's work is undoubtedly one of the boldest interpretations of Marx ever made. In fact, he makes great contributions by analyzing the philosopher's workbooks, his scientific studies, and his anthropological studies in order to link them with the discussions of other Marxist authors. His contribution to deepening the theory of metabolism is certainly very useful for discussing the current environmental crises generated by capitalism. In the same way, he makes clear that there are limits to the metabolic relationship between humanity and nature that are transhistorical and must be taken into account in the construction of any post-capitalist alternative. In terms of its theoretical and political development, however, I find at least five issues that would be worth discussing in depth.
The first is that the evidence he presents to support the idea that Marx ultimately developed a theory of degrowth communism is weak or questionable. There is even an inconsistency in Saito's texts, since in some passages he claims that the German advanced toward degrowth, giving him direct credit. While in others he admits that it is his interpretation of Marx, who never left anything elaborated in this tenor.
Thus he mentions: "It is true that nowhere did Marx explicitly and concretely set down the image of degrowth communism. But this idea, as the culmination of the last Marx's reflections, emerges simply by connecting his research in natural sciences and communities, which are scattered in the documents collected in MEGA" (2022b, p. 170).
It seems to me that one way to settle this discussion is to accept that it is a unique interpretation and reading of Kohei Saito that is worth discussing. Otherwise, one can easily fall into unproductive arguments that Marx never wrote anything about it, and thus quickly disqualify his proposal without considering what he has to say.
Second, the idea of degrowth communism needs further refinement in practical terms on a global scale. First, it seems to encompass the whole world, which would be unattractive to "developing" countries. While Saito acknowledges the existence of the imperial way of life, the developed countries of the global North transfer environmental burdens to the underdeveloped countries of the global South. In other words, natural resources are extracted from them and the problems associated with capitalist extraction are transferred to them, while climate change will affect them the most, since the developed countries are the main generators of the environmental crisis.
In this sense, the Japanese do not seem to realize that it is still necessary to meet the minimum needs of millions of people in the world who lack even the most basic services. Consequently, there is still a need for a broad production of goods and services in the world to provide water, shelter, medicine, and food, among other things.
On the other hand, although he accepts that production with surpluses must be maintained, taking into account the needs arising from emergencies, disasters and even wars, as well as in necessary sectors, the proposal does not reflect this in the global imbalance generated by ecological imperialism. He even criticizes Kate Raworth's idea of redistributing resources from developed countries to the global South in order to reduce inequality without increasing the environmental burden (in a capitalist environment). For "expecting underdeveloped countries to follow the same development path as first-world countries, so that they can continue to squander resources and find markets to sell their products, is unsustainable by any standard" (2022b, p. 91).
In other words, it is not clear that it is at all possible to begin a degrowth policy on a global scale with the achievement of communism when the material conditions of millions of people do not allow it and even seem to give rise to the second scenario: barbarism.
Third, the above situation makes the proposal politically unattractive to millions of people who lack even the most basic services and things, or in sectors that stand to lose jobs and living standards in an ecological transition, such as the oil industry. Saito's answer, looking at the population of developed countries, is that the revolutionary act would be "voluntary self-control" (2022b, p. 232).
But is it possible for this to be politically attractive to the population? Let us contrast it with the Green New Deal, which Saito criticizes for proposing a green Keynesianism, i.e., maintaining an infinite productivist character that does not recognize natural limits and the environmental emergency (2022, p.81). However, this policy proposal recognizes that a transition is necessary to create (green) jobs and meet the needs of millions of people, which is one of the reasons why it is so attractive.
This is one element that degrowth communism needs to resolve: its political attractiveness. This may be difficult to reconcile if, at the same time as it proposes the redistribution of jobs (Pillar 2), it also proposes the democratization of production (Pillar 4). This situation, if not resolved, would make it very difficult to reallocate jobs (on a mandatory basis) from sectors that are currently highly polluting and well paid, both materially and socially, to less attractive sectors.
It is true that if there were a transition from capitalism to communism, certain goods such as luxury goods, weapons or superfluous consumer goods would cease to be produced, which would imply a degrowth in certain sectors. However, meeting the material needs of millions of people will undoubtedly require increased production in many sectors of the economy. This means that Saito's work still requires a deeper theorization of the North-South spatial divide and the unmet basic needs of millions.
Fourth, Saito accepts the value of technology and the need to use it to address the climate crisis without falling into technical Prometheanism. He says: "After all, it is undoubtedly necessary to intervene and modify the natural world in order to tackle today’s climate change. Recognition of the non-identity of nature is key, lest one falls into the illusion of absolute control of the entire ecosystem. It requires humans to live with the irreducible otherness of nature" (2023a, p. 131).
In this regard, there is an open and unresolved question about the use of existing productive forces, their continue development and the scale of their application to environmental problems within the framework of degrowth. This is because there are a number of problems that may require large-scale interventions with broad environmental impact, both to meet basic needs and to close or repair the metabolic rift.
Similarly, it is worth questioning whether certain technologies are necessary in the long term since their scale of production would not be degrowth. One possible case is nuclear energy, which has proven to be an alternative to fossil fuels but is still highly risky - as demonstrated by the cases of Fukushima and Chernobyl - or it allows the creation of nuclear weapons.
Therefore, from a degrowth perspective, we should ask ourselves whether this technology should be maintained or whether it should be decommissioned. The latter option, however, would require an enormous amount of different resources and technical capabilities just for the decontamination and storage of radioactive materials. This, in turn, would imply a growth of certain sectors in charge of this task. If the first option is chosen, it would also require a continuous technological development and growth of this sector. A situation that does not seem to be entirely compatible with degrowth.
This is not to say that I agree with visions such as Aaron Bastian's "Fully Automated Luxury Communism" (2019), which advocates technological solutions that would achieve human abundance and prosperity. In fact, it is necessary to accept that there will always be effects that escape our hands when we intervene in nature. The larger the interventions we want to make, such as terraforming, the larger the adverse effects could be on an unimaginable scale. So we will have to be very careful with technological solutions.
Finally, degrowth requires a level of coordination at the national and international level that can only be achieved through large-scale governmental or international agreements. For example, in the development of large infrastructure projects to provide water quickly. This is something that municipalism, of the kind it advocates, can create problems of coordination and fragmentation of decision-making, which are, moreover, no small obstacle. There are plenty of examples around the world of metropolitan areas that are politically fragmented by municipal division, preventing them from moving forward on projects.
In this text, I have tried to summarize Kohei Saito's development and present the bases of his theoretical construction of ecosocialism, as well as his political proposal of degrowth communism. In summary, the author contributes with historical and theoretical details developed in three books that should be discussed, since they can be very fruitful and productive to connect with other environmentalist political positions and to renew Marxist theory.
Moreover, Saito reminds in his texts that the critique of political economy is an unfinished work, so it is necessary to return to Marx, to discuss him without Stalinist dogmatisms and to recover the reading of his workbooks, as Marcello Musto (2020) or Kevin Anderson (2016) have also done recently. In conclusion, a return to Marx is once again necessary to face the contemporary environmental crises of humanity.
Anderson, Kevin. B. (2016). Marx at the Margins on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. The Chicago University Press.
Bastani, Aaron. (2019). Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto. London: Verso Books
Burkett, Paul. (1999). Marx and nature: A red and Green Perspective. New York: Palgrave.
Foster, John Belamy. (2000). Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Mészáros, István. (1995). Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Musto, Marcello Karl Marx 19801-1883. (2020). El último Viaje de Moro. México: Siglo XXI.
Saito, Kohei. (2022a). La naturaleza contra el capital. Barcelona: Ediciones Bellaterra.
Saito, Kohei. (2022b). El Capital en la era del Antropoceno. Barcelona: Penguin Random House.
Saito, Kohei. (2023). Marx in the Anthropocene. Cambridge University Press.
 In this text I use the Spanish editions of Saito's texts, since they are not yet published in English, so I make my own translation of some fragments. Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA 2) is the project to collect and publish all the writings of Karl Marx and Engels.