I’m often told that degrowth, the planned downscaling of production and consumption to reduce the pressure on Earth’s ecosystems, is a tough sell. But a 36-year-old associate professor at Tokyo University has made a name for himself arguing that “degrowth communism” could halt the escalating climate emergency.
The first edition cover of Capital in the Anthropocene, published in 2020.
Kohei Saito, the bestselling author of Capital in the Anthropocene, is back with a new book: Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism. The book is dense, especially for those not fluent in Marxist jargon who, I suspect, care little about whether or not Karl Marx started worrying about nature in his later years.
And yet, the way Saito mobilises Marxist theory to make a plea for “the abundance of wealth in degrowth communism” (the title of the last chapter of his book) is as precise as it is gripping. This is what attracted my attention as an economist working on degrowth: Saito’s attempts to reconcile Marxism with newer ideas around alternatives to economic growth might bring critiques of capitalism to an unprecedented level of popularity.
Economic growth creates scarcity
Saito turns the concept of economic growth on its head. Many people assume that growth makes us richer but what if it did the precise opposite?
Gross domestic product (GDP), a monetary measure of production, can rise because someone privatises a common good – what British geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”. Fence a resource that people could previously access for free and start selling it to them.
This rent extraction might inflate GDP but it doesn’t create anything useful. In fact, by preventing people from accessing the means of subsistence it creates an artificial scarcity.
The more money accumulates, the more these snatch-and-sell tricks become possible, whether it’s for natural resources, knowledge or labour. In a world where everything becomes a potential commodity (in other words, something which can be bought and sold), the ruling rationality favours lucrative activities over others.
Why would you lend your apartment to someone for free if you can rent it on Airbnb? And that’s the catch: once you need money to satisfy your needs, you are forced to play like a capitalist.
An emergency brake
This self-perpetuating striving for moneymaking pushes us to turn more and more of nature into a commodity. The money companies can make is infinite while the quantities of nature at disposition are getting scarcer.
Degrowth could act as an emergency brake on this vicious cycle, Saito argues, by “terminat[ing] the ceaseless exploitation of humanity and the robbery of nature”.
Academics define degrowth as a democratically planned effort to downscale levels of production and consumption in order to lighten environmental pressures. The democratic part is important: the idea is to do this in a way that reduces inequality and improves wellbeing for everyone.
It’s difficult to imagine this happening within capitalism, a system which must continually expand and generate more. And that’s Saito’s point: communism is much more likely to achieve these objectives.
He reasons that an economy concerned with meeting human need is more likely to avoid producing junk. Without the get-rich-or-perish imperative, many nature-intensive goods and services would cease to be necessary or desirable.
Saito calls this “a conscious downscaling of the current ‘realm of necessity’”. This Marxist term describes what we consider our essential needs. Under degrowth communism, this realm would shrink to exclude things and activities which don’t benefit human wellbeing or contribute to sustainability.
Suddenly, it’s possible to organise work differently. Gone is the industrial model of producing something as cheaply as possible while sacrificing safety and the pleasantness inherent in a shared effort.
Instead of competing for market share, companies could cooperate to achieve common goals like restoring biodiversity. Reducing the importance given to moneymaking would free societies to improve all these things we today trivialise because they aren’t profitable.
Such an economy might be slower and smaller money-wise but it would be more sustainable and more effective in delivering wellbeing, which is all we should be asking from an economy anyway.
Towards a post-scarcity society
Saito’s book is refreshing because it helps end an old feud between socialists who trust that new technologies and the automation of work can deliver an expanding economy with greater leisure time and those who argue for a socialism without growth.
Instead of perpetually growing the economy by making more things private property and saleable, Saito proposes sharing the wealth we’ve already created. This could usher in a new way of living, where people can afford to spend less time and effort producing commodities and turn their attention towards things that really matter to them, what Marxists call the realm of freedom. This should start, Saito argues, with restoring the health of Earth’s ecosystems, on which everything else relies.
No longer forced to obsess over money, people could enjoy the abundance of social and natural wealth outside of consumerism. Imagine trading the new smartphones which arrive yearly for luxuriant ecosystems, thriving communal spaces and vibrant democracies we finally have time to explore and participate in.
Saito breathes new life into Marxist ideas with his book by presenting evidence of life beyond endless extraction, production and consumption. As the author himself argues, this could not have come at a better time:
Although it was never recognised during the 20th century, Marx’s idea of degrowth communism is more important than ever today because it increases the chance of human survival in the Anthropocene.