Marxism for the age of climate emergency: On Kohei Saito's degrowth communism


[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]

First published at Spectre.

Kohei Saito’s 2020 book Capital in the Anthropocene became a surprise bestseller in Japan, demonstrating a wider thirst for anti-capitalist analyses of environmental catastrophe and a popular openness to degrowth-oriented solutions. In Marx in the Anthropocene, released in English last month, he grounds his argument more deeply in Marx’s own writings.

In both these books, building on his earlier Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito advances a compelling case that the growth imperative is innate to capitalism and not, as liberal degrowthers would have it, an option. Its progressive negation would be communism, a form of society that, with its democratically-planned resource allocation, common ownership, and solidarity ethic, appears uniquely able to manage the downscaling of rich-world material and energy use that human survival now urgently requires. Along the way, he develops critiques of “productivist” interpretations of Karl Marx, of the fetishism of productive forces, of “techno-utopianism” and the idea that technology is “neutral” between social formations, and of the “flat monism” and eco-modernism of Bruno Latour. And, finally, he asks Marxists to set aside a century of productivist growthmania and to recognise that in this age of ecological cataclysm, any clear-eyed communist strategy, at least in the rich world, must involve degrowth. This, moreover, was the conclusion that Marx was reaching in his final, post-Capital, years. Saito has uncovered a Marx for the age of environmental emergency.

Saito’s case for degrowth, though the most urgent of his arguments, is the least original so need not detain us for long. He portrays the extreme gravity of the multi-stranded environmental crisis, summarizes the usual laundry list of pseudo-solutions (green growth, efficiency and technology, climate Keynesianism, circular economy, etcetera) and then, with a sharp knife, dissects and dispatches each one. Instead of accumulation and growth, the primary goal of production should be meeting people’s—all people’s—basic needs. Given that the mother of all human needs is a habitable planet, we must re-evaluate what sufficiency means within a limited materials and energy envelope. The case, in essence, is for private sufficiency but public luxury and abundant leisure.

Saito’s next step goes beyond the orthodox degrowth account. For him, growth is not its own cause. The line of causation flows from the form of value in capitalist society to GDP, not the reverse. At the root of the growth imperative, and the growth paradigm, is capital accumulation. I find this a refreshingly direct approach, in contrast to some degrowth manifestos that fudge the question of capitalism. Possibly some do so for reasons of “capitalist realism” (the gerbil cannot or dare not imagine the grasslands and mountains beyond its cage), but more often it follows from seeing the Soviet economies as non-capitalist. This obliges them to seek the roots of the growth compulsion in something other than the mode of production, whether that be a vague descriptor for the era of high growth (“industrialism,” “modernity”), a cultural attribute, or a psychological drive. Saito, rightly in my view, sees China and the USSR and other so-called Communist economies as state capitalist, and accordingly theorizes the core of “industrial modernity” as the compulsive, systemic drive to accumulate capital.

Saito’s books represent the next step in a transformation of our understanding of “Marx’s ecology.” For his Marx, human society arises from nature: it is simultaneously of it and against it, in that humans are conscious of their relationship to nature and consciously shape it, in a relationship that develops historically. The term that captures this is metabolism, referring to humanity’s interaction with nature through social labor—a relationship that becomes increasingly riven the more it is subsumed under capital.

Marx’s concept of metabolism has been explored and developed by a number of Marxist thinkers over the last hundred years: by Georg Lukács in the 1920s, Alfred Schmidt in the 1970s, István Mészáros in the 1980s, and Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster at century’s end. It featured in Saito’s 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, and in Marx in the Anthropocene he elaborates the concept, with attention to its three dimensions: disruptions of natural processes, spatial rifts, and the rupture between nature’s temporality and that of capital. These correspond to three forms of “metabolic shift” by which capitalists “fix” or displace the ecological crises that their system occasions: technological shifts (e.g. developing chemical fertiliser to maintain soil fertility), spatial shifts (e.g. displacing ecological burdens onto the Global South), and temporal shifts (e.g. displacing the full consequences of carbon dioxide emissions this century onto our descendants in the next).

Saito shows that towards the end of Marx’s life, his thought shifted quite radically in respect to all three of these dimensions. When poring over Marx’s notebooks from the 1870s and 1880s, Saito noticed that the German communist, who we would suppose would be busy completing the second and third volumes of his masterpiece, Das Kapital, was in fact reading biology, chemistry, and geology. This was not a leisurely pastime, an old man’s crossword puzzles. He had not forgotten the unfinished volumes. Rather, he was deepening his understanding of what he was coming to see as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: its tendency to ravage and despoil nature, to saw off the branch on which it sits. He recognized that the productive forces, as Saito puts it, “do not automatically prepare the material foundation for new post-capitalist society but rather exacerbate the robbery of nature.” And with exploitative practices come instrumental ideologies: the reification of the natural environment, positing it as dumb resources for use rather than as a realm of vital life within which we coexist. Humanity’s alienation from nature, which Marx had discussed abstractly in his early works, was now redescribed, with the benefit of new findings from the natural sciences, as the metabolic rift.

The development of Marx’s ecological critique, Saito reveals in an astute and indispensable passage of Marx in the Anthropocene, was tightly connected to his re-evaluation of the progressive character of capitalist modernity, including his earlier optimism on technology and economic growth and on the potential of capitalism to bring emancipation to colonized peoples. When Marx “jettisoned productivism as the essential component of his view of human history,” Saito argues, he had to also reconsider the other side of the same coin: Eurocentrism. If industrial capitalism demolishes the natural world, devastates communities, and plunders and brutally subjugates the Global South, the sense in which the high-tech West can in any way represent history’s vanguard was called into question. Against this backdrop, Marx began to reconsider the process of communist transition, notably in his 1881 Letter to Vera Zasulich. It is only one letter, but one of significance that Marx redrafted again and again. In it, he advocates a return of modern society to the “archaic” type of property found in Russia’s communes, and rails against the suppression by British colonialists of indigenous communal land ownership in India. The letter should be read, Saito concludes, as the crystallisation of Marx’s “non-productivist and non-Eurocentric view of the future society,” a view that is best characterised as “degrowth communism.”

That Saito reads Marx as a degrowth communist is eye-catching, but it should not come as a bolt from the blue. It builds on decades of extensive research that has steadily undermined the perception that Marx was simply a booster for economic growth and material progress. Before Saito’s book, some were familiar with the “ecological Marx”: a critic of the growth paradigm and of the trampling of nature under capitalist “progress,” an advocate of careful stewardship of the environment—including a concern of environmental limits and a commitment to emancipation not only of the working class but of “the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth.” However, given that for well over a century, Marxists have gravitated toward projects for overseeing capitalist states (social democracy, Stalinism), with the growthphilia and biophobia that these invariably entail, Marx was generally read through a productivist lens, with his “degrowth communist” side prismed out. This has even influenced translations of his work into English.

In view of the weight of these readings — the leaden presence of which, we shouldn’t forget, drew from the massive power of capitalist states — Saito is sensible to formulate his case adamantly, even provocatively. In response, some have sought to rebut his thesis with productivist quotes from Marx. Yet these are invariably from his earlier work, which is to miss Saito’s point. His case is not that Marx avoided all productivism and techno-utopianism but that he evolved. The more he learned of ecology and the ecocidal power of capital, the more he turned to “green” and anti-colonial positions—initially “eco-socialism” (the subject of Saito’s first book) and, in his final years, “degrowth communism” (the subject of Marx in the Anthropocene). Those today who share Marx’s philosophy, having seen more of capital’s Earth-shattering power than he, would logically follow the same trajectory.

I’ve been immensely impressed and largely persuaded by Saito’s trio of books on Marxism and degrowth, but on two points I would like to probe a little.

First, Saito raises the question of why, if Marx proposed degrowth communism, Marxists historically have tended instead to endorse “productivist socialism.” His answer is entirely textual and Engels-centric. Friedrich Engels “largely determined”—no less—“the course of Marxism in the 20th century.” This is a staggering claim, and one that sits uncomfortably with the facts—which is why the chapter on Engels in Marx in the Anthropocene has a pernickety feel. By Saito’s own admission, Engels co-wrote (or at the very least signed his name to) texts that he flags as “degrowth communist,” notably the 1882 preface to a Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. Moreover, Saito is critical of the earlier (pre-Capital) Marx himself for his “productivist socialism.” All this has left this reader puzzled as to why culpability for Marxist productivism is piled exclusively on the quill of Engels. Would not a materialist response to the question make more sense? It could begin with the absorption of Marxist theory, from the 1870s onward, into projects that rest either on an accommodation between classes within capitalism (such as trade unions) or on the management of capitalist states (by social democracy and the various official “Communisms”).

Secondly, we should turn to Saito’s treatment of political strategy and the capitalist state. Saito’s books are formidably sharp and thorough in their delineation of capitalism in its economic and ecological and imperial aspects. He persuasively mobilizes Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s concept of the “imperial mode of living” to portray the world’s division between a dominant North with its unsustainable consumption levels based on resource transfers from, and the environmental ruination of, the Global South. But when turning to politics, and in particular the capitalist state, the grip falters. Nor does Saito explore how Marx’s conception of agency—workers in struggle, with allies from other oppressed classes and populations—could be updated and reimagined today. How can the goal of degrowth communism be squared with the strategy of proletarian revolution? What obstacles confront it and how can they be addressed?

Adapting the quadrant of ideal-typical scenarios from Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan (2018), Saito sketches alternative futures of “climate fascism” (regimes that do little to mitigate climate change, instead protecting the wealthy and punishing refugees and the socially and environmentally vulnerable), “climate barbarism” (much as fascism but with mass rebellions that fracture social institutions without replacing them, yielding systemic chaos), “climate Maoism” (dictatorships that impose climate mitigation measures despotically but in a relatively egalitarian manner), and “climate X” (a social order that tackles the climate crisis democratically, with major input from social movements and mutual aid). For agency that can begin to steer towards X, he looks to Gen Z and recent climate protests, and finds hope in Erica Chenoweth’s suggestion, made famous by Extinction Rebellion, that if a social movement can mobilize 3.5% of the population the prospects of success are excellent (although Saito recognizes the 3.5% goal is still some way away). In the here and now, he highlights efforts to extend democracy beyond parliament and into production through workers’ coops; the recent “citizens’ assembly” experiment in France; and the revolutionary potential of civic municipalism, exemplified by Barcelona en Comú: local governments in revolt against state-imposed neoliberal policies that sponsor workers’ cooperatives and the “solidarity economy” (which comprises fully 8% of Barcelona’s workforce). He finds inspiration, too, in the public fruit tree initiative in Copenhagen, and in Alberto Garzón, a communist and currently Spain’s Minister of Consumer Affairs, who has drawn attention to the limits of growth and called on the public to reduce their meat consumption. (By per capita meat consumption, Spain is in the world’s top five.) Taken together, these movements prefigure what could and should become “a new Front Populaire (Popular Front) in defense of the planet.”

In striking contrast to his chapters on Engels or Lukács, here the critical scalpel is blunted. The 8% figure is accepted at face value, without assessing which of the cooperatives resemble regular capitalist businesses. (I am writing this on the day that Britain’s biggest co-op, John Lewis, takes another step toward demutualization.) The role of Garzón likewise: we can (and should!) applaud his stand and his rhetoric, but in truth he has been able to do little to alter Spain’s meat consumption, let alone promote degrowth in other sectors. For its part, Barcelona en Comú has indeed promoted the social economy, from major cooperatives to smaller service-sector ventures, but its intentions (say, to abolish short-haul aviation, or to ramp up local production) greatly outweigh its achievements. This is bound up with the fact that on most issues, with AirBnB the standout exception, it avoids conflict with big capital or the central state, and, relatedly, it has been losing support from the radical social movements (such as the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) which had provided the energy behind its original tilt for office. A similar skepticism is warranted apropos the French experiment in participatory democracy.

When discussing trade unions, Saito’s critical edge returns. Although he gives them a significant role in his progressive scenario (X) in leading the battle for reduced working hours and democratised workplaces, he sees unions as a compromised force, co-opted by capital. Yet this only prompts the question: should we not apply the same critical approach to the ‘social economy’ and The Global Municipalist Movement? Can co-ops not also be co-opted?

In these areas, Saito skirts around the problem of the capitalist state, and refrains from supplying his otherwise trenchant Marxological analysis. He could, for example, have drawn attention to how The Civil War in France fleshed out Marx’s commitment to revolutionary democracy and workers’ power—on this issue too, alongside ecology and Eurocentrism, Marx grew more radical as time wore on—and considered how the strategy advanced in that pamphlet, of dismantling the capitalist state, could be updated for the twenty-first century. How, for example, might the accelerating tendencies to environmental breakdown and agricultural disruptions influence the prospect of winning working-class support to a program of communist degrowth? Saito’s reflections in these areas are terse: state power is required to address the climate crisis; an over-reliance on the state however raises the prospect of “climate Maoism”; the solution therefore must be that popular influence on and within the state be intensified (as with municipalist movements) and production be democratized (as with the cooperative movement). There is an unmistakeable flavor of utopian mutualism: the project of establishing islands of socialism within capitalist society through cooperatives, left-led local councils, and the like. It’s a tradition whose roots, in Europe at least, extend back to Owenism, the mutualist Fabianism of Eduard Bernstein, and Proudhonism, although Saito is no orthodox adherent of either mutualism or utopianism, from which he maintains a critical distance.

These wrinkles notwithstanding, Saito’s project has been transformative. It has given a much-needed spur to conversations between degrowth and Marxist traditions; it has shaken up our understanding of the Marxist tradition in an original and meticulously evidenced way; it is helping to reconstruct Marxism for the “Capitalocene,” the epoch of accelerating catastrophe. And it will, I hope, catalyze reconsideration by Marxists of our engagement with movements oriented to “the environment,” the realm that is, after all—it should always have been obvious—the ground on which we stand or fall.

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University and is the author of, most recently, Reconstructing Karl Polanyi. He’s on Twitter at @Gareth_Dale.