The idea of degrowth communism was Marx’s last breakthrough — and perhaps most important

Kohei panel

[Editor's note: Kohei Saito will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2023 over July 1–2 in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. For more information about the conference, visit]

Even if Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito had not written Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, the left today would still need to take the idea of degrowth seriously. This is because, economist and anthropologist Jason Hickel explains, “while it’s possible to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, we cannot do it fast enough to stay under 1.5°C or 2°C if we continue to grow the global economy at existing rates.”

It’s not just reliance on fossil fuels that imperils the planet, but capitalism’s chronic pursuit of economic growth. Unlimited growth means more demand for energy. And more energy demand makes it more difficult to develop sufficient capacity for generating renewable energy in the short time left to avert catastrophic warming.

This is why Saito’s re-reading of Karl Marx’s life work is crucial for socialists today. As he argues, ecology wasn’t a secondary consideration for Marx but at the core of his analysis of capitalism. And as he neared the end of his life, Marx turned increasingly to the natural sciences and became deeply convinced that the endless growth associated with capitalism could not be harnessed for human or environmental purposes. Rather, as Saito details, Marx understood that communism would deliver both abundance and degrowth.

More than global warming

Today, environmental activists typically focus on global warming. But the problem is deeper than that. Scientists such as James Hansen and Paul Crutzen have identified a number of  “planetary boundaries” beyond which disaster is all but certain. Climate change is one of these. However, tipping points also exist when it comes to the loss of biodiversity or forested land, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus loading in water and the depletion of fresh water.

For example, atmospheric carbon concentration should not breach 350 parts per million (ppm) if the climate is to remain stable — and we already crossed that boundary in 1990. Now, it is 420ppm. Similarly, disaster threatens if the proportion of the Earth’s land surface that is forested drops below 25 percent or if the extinction rate exceeds ten species per million per year.

From the deforestation of the Amazon to extinctions caused by climate-change driven bushfires in Australia, the root cause remains the same — unchecked economic expansion.

However much the evidence demands degrowth, the proposal nonetheless raises difficult political questions. For example, socialists in the developed and developing worlds are united in demanding improved living standards. And it’s hard to imagine a mass movement against capitalism gaining traction unless it can offer a better life.

These, however, are not insurmountable problems. As both Saito and Hickel argue, because of imperialism’s role in systematically passing ecological costs to the global South, economic growth needs to fall sharply in the wealthiest countries while continuing to grow in the global South.

But this does not mean that ordinary people in rich countries have to suffer a sharp drop in their quality of life. By radically restructuring the economy to prioritize social needs and ecological sustainability, it’s possible to improve life for the majority even while reducing production.

As Saito argued in Marx in the Anthropocene, later in life, as Marx deepened his research into political economy and natural science, this idea became more crucial to his vision of a post-capitalist society. However, it’s a perspective that was in part lost given that Marx did not live long enough to incorporate the analysis into planned but uncompleted later volumes of Capital. And this is not just conjecture. Saito builds his case on the basis of his deep knowledge of previously unpublished notebooks and writings that have now been published as part of the new complete works of Marx and Frederick Engels, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA).

Marx, Saito writes, came to realize that the “capitalist development of technologies does not necessarily prepare a material foundation for post-capitalism.” This meant, as he continues, that 

Marx not only regarded the “metabolic rifts” under capitalism as the inevitable consequence of the fatal distortion in the relationship between humans and nature but also highlighted the need for a qualitative transformation in social production in order to repair the deep chasm in the universal metabolism of nature.

The productive forces of capitalism

Saito identifies in Marx's work four reasons why the productive forces developed under capitalism cannot be adopted in a post-capitalist ecosocialist society. 

Firstly, because much technology is designed partly to subjugate and control workers, much of it is unfit for a non-exploitative society. Secondly, as Saito explains, “capitalist technologies are not suitable to the socialist requirement of reunifying ‘conception’ and ‘execution’ in the labour process.” This is to say, a socialist society must ensure that the utilization of technology is in accordance with the purpose for which it is designed, and that these work together for human and ecological ends. 

Thirdly, according to Saito, Marx noted that “the capitalist development of productive forces undermines and even destroys the universal metabolism of nature.” This is to say, by disrupting and destroying whole ecosystems, capitalist development inhibits nature’s ability to renew itself. And fourthly, Saito argues that Marx predicted the development of technology that separates means and ends, as described above, would necessitate the rise of a “bureaucratic class.” This new class “would rule general social production instead of the capitalist class,” and “the alienated condition of the working class would basically remain the same.”

For these reasons, Saito argues, Marx started to question his earlier view that capitalism plays a progressive role by increasing society’s productive forces. As a result, as Saito contends, Marx was “inevitably compelled to challenge his own earlier progressive view of history.” 

This perspective shift guided Marx’s work on planned but unfinished later volumes of Capital — he stepped up his study of both natural science and of pre-capitalist societies. And after 1868, this led Marx to another paradigm shift as he embraced what Saito and others now term degrowth communism.

According to this new perspective, Marx abandoned the idea that a communist society would simply appropriate the ecologically unsustainable abundance that capitalism now offers for a tiny minority. Instead, it would offer a “radical abundance of ‘communal/common wealth’.” According to Saito, Marx clarifies this in the Critique of the Gotha Program, defining it as “a non-consumerist way of life in a post-scarcity economy which realizes a safe and just society in the face of global ecological crisis in the Anthropocene.”

Indeed, if we read Marx’s late work in this light, it helps us understand his famous 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich, a Russian revolutionary. In it, Marx suggests that pre-modern communal land ownership models found in villages across the Russian empire might be transformed into collective, socialist ownership models. According to Saito, this letter ought to be “reinterpreted as the crystallization of his non-productivist and non-Eurocentric view of the future society,” and “should be characterized as degrowth communism.”

Essential work has lower ecological footprint

Saito argues that a socialist society would shift towards essential work that produces basic use-values, and as a consequence, economic growth will slow. An economy refashioned to serve social needs would have a dramatically lower ecological footprint, he adds, and the artificial scarcity that capitalism has manufactured ever since it destroyed the old commons can be overcome.

But is this true? There is research that suggests it is. Hickel’s study of UN data — cited in Less Is More — found that 

The relationship between GDP and human welfare plays out on a saturation curve, with sharply diminishing returns: after a certain point, which high-income nations have long surpassed, more GDP does little to improve core social outcomes.

For example, Spain spends only $2,300 per person to deliver high-quality healthcare to everyone as a fundamental right and also boasts a life expectancy of 83.5 years, one of the highest in the world. Indeed Spain’s life expectancy is a full five years longer than that of the United States, where the private, for-profit system “sucks up an eye-watering $9,500 per person, while delivering lower life expectancy and worse health outcomes.” And much poorer Cuba has long enjoyed a higher life expectancy than the US because of its free and universal health care. During the COVID-19 pandemic this gap grew to three years.

Beyond this, Saito argues there are other good reasons why a post-capitalist society needs to radically refashion the economy. For example, under capitalism, more people are forced to do precarious “bullshit jobs,” a term he borrowed from the late anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber. Examples include telemarketers, parking and public transport ticket inspectors and most middle management. In addition to being meaningless, because they’re wasteful, the jobs contribute to environmental destruction, deepen inequality and worsen our mental health and quality of life.

On a broader level, degrowth communism would radically shorten the work week and liberate human creativity, sociality and social solidarity in the process. To explain, Saito notes that during the 20th and 21st centuries, rapid technological change led to increased productivity. And yet, work hours did not decline, again because capitalism necessitates constant growth.

Ultimately, however, Saito’s point is that we will only gain the freedom to make choices about what we produce collectively and how we do it by liberating the majority from the “despotism of capital.”

Against deterministic Marxism

These arguments mean that Saito makes common cause with a long line of Marxists — including Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Georg Lukács, Antonio Gramsci and others — who have opposed deterministic versions of Marxism. Although such theories of history run contrary to much of Marx’s work, both early and late, there are doubtless passages that lend support to historical determinism by claiming that capitalism will inevitably destroy itself.

For example, as Marx famously wrote in 1869 in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production ... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

As Saito argues, it’s mistaken to read this as narrowly predicting that economic growth will flag, resulting in a big crisis and the necessary end of capitalism. To the contrary, “there is simply no empirical evidence that the pressure on profit rates due to the increasing costs of circulating capital will bring about an ‘epochal crisis’ any time soon.” 

Indeed, capitalism may prove resilient to ecological catastrophe. As Saito explains,

it is necessary to realize net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to keep global warming within 1.5°C by 2100. When this line is crossed, various effects might combine, thereby reinforcing their destructive impact on a global scale, especially upon those who live in the Global South. However, capitalist societies in the Global North will not necessarily collapse.

Compared to more optimistic readings of Marx, Saito’s is sober. Arguably, however, the actual course of history since Marx’s time — which includes growing metabolic rifts — supports his outlook. And it’s why Marx’s late vision of degrowth communism may be a source of hope for our era of multiple, accelerating and overlapping crises.

Peter Boyle is a socialist activist and writer for Green Left. He is also an organizer of the Ecosocialism 2023 conference that will feature Kohei Saito as a keynote speaker. Peter Boyle would like to thank Daniel Lopez for valuable editing suggestions.