Capitalism has Failed and Degrowth Communism is the Future

An Interview with Kohei Saito

Kohei Saito, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo, seems poised to become the new Thomas Piketty, winning scores of converts to anti-capitalist economics within mainstream Western culture. His new book has just been released in the United States as Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto

Adbusters: Degrowth, as an economic game plan, is still a fairly fringe idea. But the traction your book is getting suggests it’s maybe it’s about to win mainstream acceptance. Are you surprised by the impact of the book?

Kohei Saito: The book sold more than a half million copies in Japan, which is a huge number — especially for something connected to Marx. It’s been translated into 14 languages now. In Germany the book came out in summer and had a very good reception there, high on the der Spiegel list.

AB: What’s going on?

KS: Well, a few things have contributed to a kind of revival of Marxist thought. During the Covid pandemic, the contradictions of capitalism — like economic inequality —became quite manifest; the treatment of (low-paid) health workers was really bad in Japan. At the same time, people have been struggling with the climate crisis. But they do not find convincing solutions to these problems within mainstream discussions. So they’re reaching for more radical ideas. And they’re investigating Marx. This new interpretation of socialism – what I call degrowth communism, or “eco-socialism” – is kind of enriching our imagination.

AB: The big reveal of your recent work is the contents of these newly discovered notebooks that Marx wrote late in life. We learn that he had a nuanced understanding of ecology and earth systems. I think it’s a big surprise to many that Marx had any kind of environmental sensitivity at all! But you’re sort of dusting him off for a new generation.

KS: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people believed that Marx had nothing more to say. But then a few things happened. One was the economic crisis of 2008. Then three years later we had the Fukushima nuclear disaster. At that point the problems with capitalism were becoming hard to ignore. I started thinking... okay, capitalism has something to do with this — the maximum use of energy and resources is a characteristic of our daily economic activity under this system. But Marx seemed so outdated.

Then I was lucky enough to get invited onto a project to edit these late notebooks of Marx. And I saw this deep investigation of natural sciences: biology, agriculture, chemistry, geology. Marx dove into so many different topics, from soil erosion to deforestation to extinction of species at the hands of humans. I was like: wow. Because we think of Marx as basically focused on the exploitation of workers. But looking at these notebooks, another concept emerges: metabolism.

AB: Metabolism?

KS: Marx understood that humans and the environment area natural system, a metabolism unto themselves; humans interacting with nature is a circular process. But capitalism is a system of constant expansion and acceleration. The result is economic inequality and ecological catastrophe.

AB: How do you reconcile the early Marx, as people understood him, with the much more... enlightened guy who emerges in these notebooks?

KS: We often think of these philosophers – not just Marx, but Kant, Hegel and other thinkers — as having some kind of consistent theory of the world. But they are also human. So they change their minds. We think of Marx pushing this idea that constant growth is good and technology is always liberating. But these were ideas expressed while he was still young. And these notebooks were late Marx. In between the publication of The Communist Manifesto and Capital was a gap of almost twenty years. During that time he started studying this global metabolism. And what he realized was, okay, I thought that technology is always good, it brings about more growth and it solves the problems of poverty, inequality and hunger and so on. But then he came to realize, wait: these technologies are used to control the worker. And they exploit nature, too. And then he starts to question these technologies. Maybe they are not emancipatory at all. And that’s when he started using the term “robbery.”

AB: Robbery?

KS: The robbery by humans of nature. He started to think about how human technologies could become more sustainable. And by the end of his life, these ideas compelled him to abandon his optimistic view of growth.

AB: Was he specific about how it could all work?

KS: He didn’t integrate these ideas into Capital — the best known of his works — before he died. But by looking at these notebooks we can get hints of the direction his thinking was going. So we have a new way of reading Marx and re-imagining socialism. And that’s important, because capitalism is not working very well and we need some fresh ideas. I’m not saying we should immediately implement these ideas. But we should at least discuss them.

AB: Some have described degrowth as a kind of “middleway” between capitalism and communism.

KS: Yes, that kind of discussion about degrowth has been there since the ‘70s... you know, limits to growth, the Club of Rome and so on. And in France there was a rich discussion along these lines, with people like Serge Latouche. Latouche presented degrowth as “a middle path” – not socialism, not capitalism. A third way. I’m much younger than Latouche. What I’m trying to do is overcome the antagonism between Marxism and degrowth – or more generally, I’m trying to overcome the antagonism between Green and Red – between the environmental movement and socialism.

There’s a broad feeling that working-class people just want to consume more, that they just care about money and wages and so on. And then Marxists criticize the greens as a bourgeois group with the money to consume organic products and so on. This debate is no longer useful. Because it’s obvious that both workers and nature are suffering from capitalism. So it’s important to build a new alliance between green and red. And my idea of degrowth communism is an attempt to do that. We need a new dialogue, a new way of thinking about post-capitalism.

AB: You’re calling the escape plan ‘degrowth communism.’ Is there such a thing as ‘degrowth capitalism.’?

KS: Well, there are degrowthers, like Herman Daly, who don’t explicitly reject capitalism; they think we could put some regulations on the market and achieve a steady-state economy without really challenging the fundamentals. I’m more critical of how markets function and how money functions – maybe it’s the difference between the older and the younger generation of degrowth. Look, capitalism is about growth. It’s about the constant, endless valorization of capital. This is Marx’s definition. So, no, I don’t think ‘degrowth capitalism’ is possible. Degrowth capitalism is bad capitalism. If degrowth capitalism is happening, you’re in a recession. By definition. Under capitalism, if you’re not growing, you’re failing.

When the economy is no longer growing, you need to distribute the existing wealth. People need to share, in a democratic manner. That means a progressive tax. And you have to share mobility – that means more investment in public transportation. And you have to share telecommunications and education. These are the socialist ideas of guaranteeing a certain quality of life. The idea of luxuries beyond that — everyone gets a second or third car, the latest model of iPhone, which some socialists still try to advocate — that has to be abandoned. We must seek a different kind of abundance: a radical abundance.

AB: That’s a Jason Hickel term, yes? I’d be curious what that means to you. The idea that even if we can’t grow boundlessly in material ways, we can grow in other ways. Like, there’s a kind of richness to be had even in a degrowth economy. What does that abundance look like to you?

KS: Abundance in capitalism looks like a big house, big car, big investment in real estate. It’s about monopolizing – for yourself and maybe your family too. It’s the pursuit of a very individualistic way of life, which has ecological impacts.

When Marx talked about “abundance” in his later years, he meant something totally different. Something closer to what Jason is talking about. Or Kristin Ross’s idea of “communal luxury.” Or as I say, “public luxury.”

So what are these kinds of abundance? They are not consumptionist. For example, we could have abundance of knowledge, through free public education. That’s not monopolizable: knowledge isn’t monopolizable. We could share. And become richer.

Fast free Internet should be available to everyone, everywhere on Earth. That’s the condition for a truly democratic politics. Public transportation should be free and widely available. Other things: Medical care. A decentralized network of renewable energy. More wind and solar power (sunlight is free!). These are the kinds of abundance people need. Abundance of mobility, abundance of education, abundance of health care. These are basic pillars of a good life. So you make them free and everything flows from there. We should treat these things as commons. A society based on the commons is basically communism – that’s the root of the word.

The alternative is what we see (in the capitalist First World). Education is very expensive. Medical care is very expensive in places like the US and Japan. We need to work extra hours to pay for education and health care and housing. And we destroy the planet, we get stressed. And then we try to relieve our stress by consuming more.

AB: When people think of socialism, what a lot of them bridle at is that it’s anti-choice, it’s anti-freedom.

KS: But actually, the opposite is true. When you decommodify basic services, people have more freedom. If you don’t have to work so hard you’re freed up to make choices that are better for the planet and better for you.

That has been my personal experience in Germany and the US. I went to undergrad in the US. And education there is super-expensive. I would see my friends, who had interesting, creative minds and very communitarian impulses, with a staggering debt load at the end of college that forced them to make bad choices. Some of them wanted to work in the non-profit sector, but they couldn’t afford to. So they held their nose and went to work for Morgan Stanley. But in Europe education is free, so they spend eight years in uni. And emerge debt-free. They can follow their dream. That to me is abundance.

AB: But green growth is a lot easier to sell than “degrowth, ”isn’t it? I mean, Americans are just not going to voluntarily give up their capitalist perks. So what do you think it’s going to take before people are ready to say, Okay, you know what, I’m ready to try this crazy-ass degrowth experiment?

KS: You’d think the pandemic might have been a spur. But many people quickly forgot what the pandemic was like. Even a shock like that didn’t change our behavior – that’s an unfortunate fact. But at the same time, without these kinds of shocks, I recognize the young generation particularly – think Greta Thunberg – have started to advocate for radical change of behavior, and even system change.

AB: Millions followed her out of their school rooms.

KS: Something like that was unimaginable even ten years ago. Our standards are changing. And I think our values could also change.

AB: You think?

KS: They already have.

AB: It’s true that a lot of radical ideas have seeped into the mainstream — like (the Korean director) Bong Joon Ho winning the best picture Oscar for Parasite. Or even the success of this new book of yours.

KS: When I started studying these kinds of issues, society didn’t really care about degrowth. My book wouldn’t have got any traction at all. But a new consciousness is spreading. And in the next ten years it may spread all over the world.

AB: Marx has been defanged.

KS: Maybe.

AB: Let’s talk about Japan. Some people have said that the first industrialized country to pull off a degrowth revolution may be Japan. The novelist Ruth Ozeki says Japan infuse sone with a kind of Shinto sensibility of “care for the world.” Might Japan be the bellwether here?

KS: Well, one reason my book became popular in Japan is that the economy has been stagnating for, like, thirty years. So people are thinking, something’s not working. Has our culture hit a wall? Will the economy ever grow again?

In Japan, we often compare ourselves with the US and China, and we feel that we are living a more miserable life because our economy is not growing. But I don’t think so. If you look at economic inequality, the US is much worse. Security? It’s quite safe in Japan. Environment? We have lots of forests and rivers. We have a good culture, and good food. All these things are not reflected in the GDP. So to the Japanese people who are depressed with our slumping GDP, I say, why not just invent another index, one that takes into account air quality, environment, equity, culture, etc. And then Japan can say, Hey, we were just measuring economic progress wrong: Actually, we are Number 1 (Or at least in the top 10.)

AB: Marx was fascinated by non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies – ancient societies – that were sustainable. He found they were “steady state” economies. They seemed to thrive without growth. Everyone maintained a pretty good quality of life. You’ve written about feudal Japan in that way.

KS: People fail to appreciate how sustainable Japanese culture was during the Edo [feudal] period. In recent years, we’ve begun to realize that during this period our country had what we now recognize is a sustainable society. The population was stable, and we did not rely on material inputs from outside.

AB: Some people say, well, you know, the Japanese will be able to pull this off because they know how to “eat bitter.” Self-restraint is in the culture. But maybe ‘eating bitter' is not really what’s required here. Like, if you’re trying to convince people to ‘eat bitter,’ nobody’s going to buy that. Nobody wants to live like that. But someone like Jason Hickel would say, Austerity is exactly the opposite of what this degrowth movement is, at heart. We have to think of it as abundance, not shrinking.

KS: Right. And that’s the tricky part. This society, capitalism, is built on the idea of infinite growth without limitations. It compels us to ignore limitations. It compels us to work harder and harder for the sake of accumulating more money. That’s exhausting. People get burned out. (And then to deal with the stress, they buy more.)

So maybe we should liberate ourselves from the pressure of more consumption and more work. And maybe that leads us to a more satisfactory, a more communal way of living — with more time for reflection, more time to slow down to gain autonomy.

AB: Do you call yourself a Marxist?

KS: Yes, I’m a Marxist scholar. I like to promote Marx and Marxist thinkers. But I’m open to other traditions – anarchism, environmentalism. I’m not dogmatic. If we can vome up with better terms than socialism or degrowth, I’d be up for that.

AB: Has there been any idea that has occurred to you since you published this last book that, if you had thought it, you’d have included it?

KS: One of the issues is war. The war in Ukraine happened after the publication of the book. In a war, people’s priorities shift. War is immediate life-and-death. People don’t think about the environment.

And now the world is split in two – China and Russia (and Iran and a couple others) on one side, and the US, Europe and others on the other side. Degrowth seems less attractive when the world is geopolitically unstable. People in Japan say, if we degrow, we become weak and China will invade us. Climate, inflation, war, populism... all these things are now mixed up. I’m trying to now figure out this more complicated process.

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