Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Cambridge University Press 2023), 300pp. Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (Cambridge University Press 2023), 300pp.

Kohei Saito’s thesis that Marx was a ‘degrowth communist’ is mistaken on theoretical grounds, but also offers nothing in terms of political strategy, argues Feyzi Ismail

In Marx and the Anthropocene, Saito claims that ‘Marxism now has a chance of revival if it can contribute to enriching debates and social movements by providing not only a thorough critique of the capitalist mode of production but also a concrete vision of a post-capitalist society’ (p.2). Why Saito believes that Marxism has anything to offer if it needs reviving – the essential precondition for which, according to Saito, is the ‘radical reformulation of its infamous grand scheme of historical materialism’ (p.2) – points to the central paradox of this ultimately unsatisfactory book; Saito can only claim Marx for his brand of ecological politics by arguing that Marx renounced the fundamentals of his own method.

Saito argues that the primary reason for why Marx’s ecology was ignored until now is, essentially, Engels. It was Engels who contributed to ‘the unfinished character of [Marx’s] critique of political economy’ (p.16) and deleted the word ‘natural’ before ‘metabolism’ in a footnote, and it was Engels who rewrote Capital in a way that indicated ‘decisive theoretical differences’ (p.6) between himself and Marx, which meant that Engels could not fully appreciate Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift. Engels, unlike Marx, ‘did not cherish Liebig’s theory of metabolism’ (p.56). Critiquing Engels is somewhat of a tradition amongst a certain section of Marxists and, although Saito spends considerable time critiquing this tradition – and sympathetically outlines the problems Engels had in putting together Capital – he overemphasises the ‘intellectual division of labour between Marx and Engels’ (p.45), despite warning against this.

Instead, Saito aims to put forward ‘a wholly new Marxian vision of post-scarcity society adequate to the Anthropocene’ (p.4). He focuses on three main debates: metabolic-rift theory and the relationship between humans and nature; Prometheanism and the development of productive forces; and degrowth and elaborating Marx’s ecological vision of a post-capitalist society. While these are potentially valuable debates to pursue in themselves, they are used to build a case that is unconvincing – that Marx was, in fact, a ‘degrowth communist’ (p.6), whose ecological understanding was the foundation of his political economy: ‘Marx’s theory of metabolism is the central pillar of his ecosocialist critique of capitalism’ (p.17). At the same time, Saito manages to neglect almost entirely the kernel of Marxism: the capacity of the working class to change the world.

Consciousness, agency and the metabolic rift

While most Marxists have ignored the concept of metabolism, there are notable exceptions, Saito argues, including István Mészáros and Rosa Luxemburg and, especially, Georg Lukács, all of whom did pay attention to the relationship between humans and nature. Mészáros argued that capital only recognises the pursuit of profit as necessary, and therefore natural, conflating historical and natural necessity. At a certain point, capitalism is no longer able to secure the conditions of own reproduction, causing ‘the breakdown of the overall social metabolism (Mészáros in Saito, p.22). Following Mészáros, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett developed the theory of the metabolic rift: that the organisation of capitalist production and capitalist agriculture, and divisions between urban and rural, create a material rift between humans and nature, threatening both humans and the planet. Saito claims that although there are only sporadic references to the metabolic rift in Marx’s writings, Marx nevertheless developed it in a systematic way and would have elaborated upon it if he could have finished Capital.

For Saito the key question is the metabolic rift, and he outlines the rift in three interrelated dimensions – technological, spatial and temporal. The technological draws on Marx’s observation of the material disruption driven by the exhaustion of the soil as a result of industrial agriculture. Marx famously drew on the work of German biochemist Justus von Liebig to argue that nutrients are robbed from the soil through processes of urbanisation. Soil fertility cannot be replenished because the organic waste produced in the cities does not return to the soil in rural areas from where it originated in the form of crops. The rift between rural and urban is the spatial dimension, while the temporal dimension refers to the pace at which humans operate, as opposed to nature. Saito gives the example of the time it takes for the formation of fossil fuels compared to the demand for them by capital. These rifts are compensated for through the development of technologies, which nevertheless fail to repair them; instead, the rifts are shifted onto the periphery.

Saito, however, neglects a discussion of how the notion of a rift is essentially the product of alienation and a lack of control within the unplanned nature of capitalist production. Lukács most clearly articulated this lack of control as reification. Insofar as Saito references the concept of alienation, it is mainly to argue against the development of productive forces; that their development ‘only increases the alien power of capital by depriving workers of their subjective skills, knowledge and insights’ (p.150). However, Saito implies that Lukács believed reification was in some sense inherent in modern forms of mass production, rather than a product of capitalist relations. Saito argues, for example, that ‘when the development of productive forces is not purely formal and quantitative, but is deeply rooted into the transformation and reorganization of the labour process, one can no longer assume that a socialist revolution could simply replace the relations of production with other ones after reaching a certain level of productive forces’ (p.156).

Reification was a foundational idea for Lukács because it explained how workers at least partly accept exploitation most of the time. However, the whole of History and Class Consciousness is an account of how reification can be overthrown by mass collective action under the right circumstances. Lukács, like Marx before him, believed a workers’ revolution would herald the era of the end of exploitation, replace it with democratic workers’ control of production and, in the process, end reification too. In these circumstances, all sorts of fundamental changes would be made to the productive process, including the abandonment of ecologically dangerous structures of production, and no doubt the development of new ones that are not damaging to the environment. Indeed, no new and harmonious relation with the natural world is conceivable without the end of reification. Saito’s wish to reduce this new relationship to degrowth is to miss its essence as a conscious, democratic, planned and multifaceted relationship that cannot be extrapolated from existing tendencies, and which cannot happen under conditions in which the capitalist class are in control.

Prometheanism, productive forces and historical materialism

Saito is right to argue that the capitalist system does not offer an alternative to overproduction and overconsumption. However, the consequence of this is the need for an analysis of the interests of the capitalist class: the ruling class have no interest in alternatives, which isn’t a moral question. That much is clear given that the capitalist class continues to exploit and plunder at top speed, despite now daily warning signs of ecological breakdown. No amount of persuasion to abandon GDP will work.

For Saito, the development of productive forces means simply ‘an uncontrollable destructive power over the planet’ (p.137). Saito effectively rejects the notion that technology can be progressive under capitalism, arguing that Marx came to critique the destructive capacity of technology. After studying pre-capitalist and non-Western societies, Saito maintains that Marx effectively went through a ‘theoretical crisis’ (p.8), abandoning his earlier view of history and of ‘traditional’ historical materialism. This is a wildly bold claim to make, which can only be made if one argues that ‘Marx’s view of historical progress appears hopelessly outdated’ (p.2) and that Marx started out as productivist and ethnocentric. Saito claims that Marx only realised the concept of limits in the 1860s after the publication of Capital, when he was ‘compelled to rethink his optimistic view of history and to reflect more seriously upon its negative implications’ (p.155). This, he claims, was the basis for Marx’s realisation that the future is degrowth.

Marx then ‘corrected his understanding of capitalism and learned to envision a path to communism in a fully different way’ (p.37). This is the basis for Saito’s argument that Marx ‘had consciously abandoned the productivist idea of history that was remnant in the Grundrisse’ (p.138), along with historical materialism as formulated in the preface to his 1859 Critique of Political Economy. Arguing that Marx abandoned his theory of history – of how change happens – is quite a claim for a Marxist. It is only possible at all because Saito gives the ground over to critics who argue that Marx glorified the conquest of nature, was uninterested in the natural world, and assumed a linear technological determinism.

Human emancipation for Marx was about scientific developments, upon which cultural progress was advanced and individual potential could be realised. In the Grundrisse he notes that progress includes ‘the full development of human mastery over the forces of nature’, which Saito argues ‘is incompatible with environmentalism’ (p.155). However, this was not an argument for the exploitation and exhaustion of the natural world, as Saito concedes elsewhere, quoting Engels in Dialectics of Nature: ‘our mastery of [nature] consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws’ (Engels in Saito, p.55). The problem for Saito was that Engels emphasised ‘nature’s revenge’ instead of metabolism. As Andreas Malm argues, historical materialism distinguishes human agency from the natural world and is essential for understanding ecological crises precisely in order to use that agency to intervene and address them. In that sense, we need more human intervention, not less.

Progress for Marx was anything but linear: the transition from one mode of production to another through the development of productive forces constitutes an abrupt break, under conditions of revolutionary upheaval, the precise outcomes of which cannot be predetermined. Of course, it is true that compared to 1848 ‘capitalism is no longer progressive’ (p.2) and hence we should have no illusions in any liberation through productive forces under the capitalist system. It does not follow, as Saito claims, that ‘the productive forces developed under the capitalist mode of production do not provide a material foundation for post-capitalism’ (p.157), which he argues ‘undermines the general theory of historical materialism’ (p.157). The idea that we ‘must start from scratch in many cases’ (p.158) is both unwarranted and unlikely.

Working to transform society within the confines of the here and now means that any post-capitalist future will inevitably be stamped with the residual technologies of the old, capitalist one. This neither implies a linear view of history nor economic determinism or crude productivism. Saito’s discussion around ‘open’ and ‘locking’ technologies proposed by Andre Gorz – whose most famous book was Farewell to the Working Class – is unhelpful because it lacks a consideration of control: the democratic control over the development, distribution and use of technology to address the ecological crisis. Under capitalism, the requirement for profit is the block against re-organising the forces of production on a sustainable basis. Without that relation of production, the forces of production and their technologies could well be repurposed.

Moreover, the point about 1848 – and why it was a turning point from a socialist perspective – is that the capitalist class was no longer a progressive force because it feared the democratic aspirations of the working class more than the rule of the aristocracy. The emerging working class now had the capacity to realise a more thoroughgoing democratic revolution, which could overturn the rule of the capitalist class. It became a universal class, a historical class that could liberate all of humanity. Vividly elucidated in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist class has no real interest in democracy because it has no interest in giving up its class power. Lukács writes that ‘the bourgeoisie did everything in its power to eradicate the fact of class conflict from the consciousness of society.’

The foundational lens that Saito adopts, however, is not one of class, but the divide between the Global North and the Global South. While this framing has value, and is the main one for most proponents of degrowth, it effectively equates the Global North with the rich and the Global South with the poor – a generalisation that is not only erroneous given stagnating wages, deteriorating working conditions, the use of food banks and increased homelessness in the Global North among the working population, but serves to divide, and therefore weaken, the global working class.

Shifting the focus from production to consumption, Saito repeatedly argues that the working classes in the Global North have adopted an ‘imperial mode of living’ (p.32) and that ‘by externalizing the material conditions of production, the working class in the Global North came to exploit others in the Global South’ (p.32). Not only was it precisely not workers who made those decisions to externalise production, but this formulation lets the ruling classes off the hook. If countries in the Global South have capitalist ruling classes who operate in the interests of exploitation, then this further complicates the devaluation of class in the North/South divide. It also neglects the potential power of the working classes in the Global North and the forms of solidarity that can develop between the working classes of the North and South.

In Climate Change as Class War, Matt Huber points out that while focusing on the extreme consumption of the rich is a seemingly progressive class analysis, it concentrates attention on individual consumption patterns rather than on those who profit from consumption, and suggests that consumer sovereignty is all-powerful. Consumption is not an unimportant question, and lifestyles undoubtedly will have to change. However, before a massive social upheaval of global proportions – in which consumers, as workers, begin to take control of production and where consumption does not automatically mean waste – questions of consumption are secondary; changes in consumption cannot match the speed and scale needed to challenge the crisis.

A focus on consumption also inevitably ends up blaming the mass of the population for consuming at all, since it isn’t the rich who will do the degrowing. In reality, the working classes won’t accept this either. Yet if Marxist proponents of degrowth accept that living standards in imperialist countries are in decline, then the notion of an ‘imperial mode of living’ amongst the working classes in the Global North has to be abandoned and a class perspective must be central. At the end of The Communist Manifesto, Marx – and Engels – call on workers of the world to unite. They didn’t confine the call to workers in one particular region of the world, and they were particularly conscious of the dangers of pitting workers against one another, as in the case of English workers against the Irish, because they grasped the fact that this would only benefit the ruling class.

Degrowth and post-capitalist society

If degrowth is the answer to this polycrisis, then we are asking the wrong question. Degrowth demands that both the ruling classes and the working classes – targeted specifically at the Global North, no less – must stop endless growth. The danger is that no concrete distinction is made between these classes, since the working classes also enjoy an ‘extravagant lifestyle’ (p.160). Saito rightly observes that the ‘utopians provide powerful inspiration for emancipatory post-capitalist potentials’ (p.137), and he rightly critiques the ecomodernists who hold ‘that there is no strong class struggle to challenge the existing social relations’ (p.160) as pessimistic. Yet, if capitalism without growth cannot exist, and convincing the capitalist classes to degrow is an impossibility, then degrowth ends up in utopian territory.

Famously, Marx never talked much about a post-capitalist society, in part because the process of constructing one needs to be decided on a democratic basis, by the people who build that society. Marx was quite clear about the role of the working class, however, and one of his criticisms of the utopian socialists of the early twentieth century was that the programme was already worked out; there was no sense of the working classes seizing power for themselves, and no sense of strategy to realise a new society.

Lukács too distrusted utopianism and argued against the idea that political change is a question primarily of developing a predetermined programme. The difficult question is how change can actually happen. In the immediate term, given the complexities of the need for speed and scale, the state is indispensable. Of course, ultimately, we don’t want a Green New Deal based on the market – and there are versions of a radical Green New Deal that are important starting points – but a transition without growth in the immediate term is abstract.

Degrowth is also the wrong question because, as degrowthers concede, we do need growth in large parts of the world. If some things need to grow and some things need to degrow, then ‘degrowth’ is not an accurate descriptor of what needs to be done. So it isn’t economic growth that is the issue, but rather the particular form of economic growth under capitalism that is the cause of carbon emissions. If we lived in a classless society that had overturned existing social relations – a society in which we could finally say ‘we’ – we would simply not be producing and consuming in such a way that destroys the planet.

More importantly, it isn’t so much the vision of degrowth that is the problem. There is much that is useful in the degrowth vision, insofar as it means a society based on renewable energy, reduced working hours, democratic control and planning, use values and the like. And everyone on the planet must have access to the requirements of life. However, if there is agreement that overturning capitalist relations is key, then the crucial question is the strategy to get there, as Saito himself and others point out. This does not come down to gradually changing our behaviours or making the case for lifestyle changes to the mass of the population. For all his detailed readings of Marx and Marxist thinkers, for Saito seriously to suggest lifestyle changes as a solution – and this comes out more explicitly in the English translation of his book Slow Down, which sold half a million copies in Japan – reveals the weaknesses of Saito’s vision of degrowth and of trying to squeeze Marx into the degrowth scheme. Slow Down begins with a critique of the problem of individual lifestyle changes, but ultimately argues for those very changes as the solution.

On the surface of it, the notion of limits to growth is compelling, particularly if we are restricting our horizons to capitalist growth. The earth does have finite natural resources. However, as Matt Huber and Leigh Phillips point out with reference to the idea of planetary boundaries, while those limits are real, they are also contingent on technology and social relations. The real question is – what will overturn current social relations? It is the power of the global working class, complex and diverse and changing as it is. Deriding one section of this class will not get us very far. The charges of Malthusianism and of being anti-working class are justified.

Threatening power

Saito does not need to apologise for Marx or argue that ecology was the foundation of Marx’s political economy to argue that capitalism is a destructive force on people and planet, and that it needs to be overthrown for human civilisation to survive. Quite apart from this, the text offers little in terms of a politics able to develop a strategy for how to address the crisis.

The perennial questions about what will threaten the power of the ruling class and who are the agents capable of threatening ruling-class power have already been answered in Marxist theory. The conditions, forms of struggle and the tempo of that struggle is unwritten, but the scientific basis for them had been established in the Marxist method – a framework, not a dogma – that can be applied to the real world.

The context in which the climate crisis unfolds is one of crisis on every level. Yet millions of working people are already fighting. The ongoing genocide in Palestine has sparked huge mobilisations worldwide and, in many parts of the world, these mobilisations are unprecedented. People are making connections between the withdrawal of welfare services and the ramping up of arms sales.

However, Saito neither considers what people are struggling over nor how they organise those struggles: a major omission for an attempt to address the climate crisis from a Marxist perspective. The focus of the book is not the struggles of working people, and it doesn’t need to be, but there is no role for collective movements in the ideas presented if we rely on changing individual behaviours and assigning blame for consumption. That is not a strategy, and Marx would have rightly dismissed it as utopian and anti-working class.

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Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU

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