In Defense of Degrowth Communism: A Talk with Economist Saitō Kōhei

People Society Economy Lifestyle

Saitō Kōhei has been a hot commodity in Japan since the surprise success of his Marx-inspired Hito shinsei no shihonron, published in English as Marx in the Anthropocene. In a candid interview, Saitō defends his vision of a postgrowth, postcapitalist society and explores practical steps toward that ambitious goal.

Saitō Kōhei

Associate professor, University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Born in 1987. Received his PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University of Berlin with a focus on economic and social thought. His 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy won the 2018 Deutscher Memorial Prize and has been translated into nine languages. His 2020 Japanese bestseller Hito shinsei no shihonron (Capital in the Anthropocene) won the Asia Book Award. Other publications include Zero kara no “Shihonron” (“Das Kapital” from Zero) and Boku wa Ūbā de nenza shi, yama de shika to tatakai, Minamata de naita (I Injured Myself in an Uber, Fought Deer in the Mountains, and Cried in Minamata).

In his 2020 book Hito shinsei no shihonron (published in 2023 in English as Marx in the Anthropocene), Saitō Kōhei examines the ravages of economic inequality and the climate crisis, identifies capitalism as the fundamental problem, and offers up his vision of a postcapitalist, postgrowth order. (Anthropocene, a geological term, denotes the period in the earth’s history in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the environment.) The book has sold an astonishing 500,000 copies in Japanese, pushing the young scholar into the media spotlight in Japan and, now, overseas. But can ideas rooted in Marxism really put human society on the path to sustainability?

Marxism and the Pandemic

Although Saitō’s specialty is Marxist studies, his work is grounded in the real world as well as academic theory. Convinced of the importance of learning from conditions “on the ground,” he spent two years during the COVID-19 pandemic traveling around Japan, immersed in labor of various kinds, from driving for Uber to butchering deer—experiences vividly recounted in his 2022 memoir, Boku wa Ūbā de nenza shi, yama de shika to tatakai, Minamata de naita (I Injured Myself in an Uber, Fought Deer in the Mountains, and Cried in Minamata).

Following on the success of Marx in the Anthropocene, Saitō’s Zero kara no “Shihonron” (Understanding Das Kapital from Zero), published in January this year, sold more than 150,000 copies in just three weeks, a remarkable accomplishment in today’s sluggish market. How has a scholar writing from a Marxist perspective managed to score successive bestsellers?

COVID-19 was a contributing factor, in Saitō’s view. “The stresses that had been building up in our society became highly visible during the pandemic,” he says. Environmental destruction and the wildlife trade were widely blamed for the initial outbreak of COVID-19. And as the pandemic raged, people saw how badly society treated its essential workers, forcing them to stay on the job despite the risk of infection. The incomes of 99% of the world’s population fell during the pandemic, yet the rich grew even richer. Today, those in the top 1% own 38% of the world’s assets.

“People are wracked with anxiety about the future as they confront the challenge of making ends meet amid growing job instability. They’ve begun wondering whether there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way our society works,” says Saitō. “I think my book, which calls for an end to economic growth, resonated by identifying capitalism as the basic problem and revealing to people the source of their malaise.”

Toward a New Understanding of Marx

As a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Saitō was struck by the gap between rich and poor in a country considered one of the world’s most affluent. It angered him to see how society’s most vulnerable suffered in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. In 2009, he enrolled in graduate school in Germany and devoted himself to the study of Karl Marx.

In the course of his graduate studies, Saitō came across unpublished notebooks from Marx’s later years, in which he critiqued capitalism from an ecological standpoint. Saitō’s dissertation on the subject was published in 2017 as Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, which won the 2018 Deutscher Memorial Prize. At the age of 31, Saitō became the youngest person ever to receive that award—the top international honor for writings in or about the Marxist tradition—as well as the first Japanese recipient. He was also tapped to help edit Marx’s notebooks for MEGA, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, an ongoing international project to publish the complete works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in an updated critical edition.

Saitō is one of the editors of volume IV/18 of MEGA, an updated critical edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels (primarily in German). The volume includes previously unpublished notes that shed light on Marx’s views on capitalism’s environmental consequences. (© Hanai Tomoko)
Saitō is one of the editors of volume IV/18 of MEGA, an updated critical edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels (primarily in German). The volume includes previously unpublished notes that shed light on Marx’s views on capitalism’s environmental consequences. (© Hanai Tomoko)

Not surprisingly, Saitō’s call for “degrowth communism” has drawn criticism. Many detractors simply dismiss Marxism as a bankrupt theory discredited by the failures of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China.

Saitō counters that it is a serious mistake to equate Soviet and Chinese communism with Marx’s vision. “Those systems were not examples of socialism so much as state-controlled, bureaucratic, top-down capitalism,” he insists. “Too many people think, ‘Well, we don’t want socialism, so the only choice is capitalism.”

The vision Marx embraced in his later years, says Saitō, was that of a communal society that evolved through the bottom-up expansion of the “commons” (public goods) and workers’ mutual aid associations. Saitō maintains that this ideal—which he calls “degrowth communism”— is the ultimate goal of Marxism.

GDP No Gauge of Well-Being

Capitalism insists on ceaseless economic growth, explains Saitō, and humanity can never resolve the climate crisis while it continues to pursue growth. He dismisses the work of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—including recent pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050—as “greenwashing.”

“At COP27 in November last year, there was no progress at all on the timetable for phasing out fossil fuels. There’s no longer any hope of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above which global warming will have a dire impact on human society. So we just have to resign ourselves to frequent floods, killer heat waves, and other extreme weather of the sort that used to occur only once every few decades. The global environment is on the brink of disaster.”

Capitalism has driven the global expansion of industry, which has greatly accelerated environmental degradation. Multinational companies have plundered developed countries’ resources while taking advantage of their cheap labor. And while globalization has benefited consumers in the developed world, the “global south” remains mired in poverty. According to Oxfam International, the richest 10% of the world’s population accounted for over half of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015, while the poorest half of humanity accounted for less than 10%.

“The wealthiest people fly around in private jets, own any number of lavish homes, even take trips into outer space. The least they could do is invest some of their wealth in the health of our earth. We should be imposing heavy taxes on the super-wealthy and redistributing that wealth with an emphasis on our essential workers.”

Capitalism’s dependence on growth fuels the ever-increasing production and consumption that cause such environmental havoc. And the use of gross domestic product as the measure of an economy’s success epitomizes this misplaced emphasis, says Saitō.

“We’re preoccupied with GDP ranking and growth, but GDP is a poor measure of a nation’s well-being and happiness. Here in Japan, we have delicious food, the world’s longest lifespans, safe streets, and excellent public transportation, not to mention the considerable attractions of our culture and art. These assets aren’t reflected in GDP. The adoption of value indicators unrelated to GDP would be a positive step toward degrowth by itself.”

Expanding the Commons

The key to overcoming the climate crisis and reducing economic inequality, says Saitō, is expanding the “commons.” He argues that capital has monopolized resources and wealth that should belong to the people: “I believe that such basic infrastructure as education, healthcare, housing, water supply, and electric power should be liberated from the market mechanism and the logic of speculation and investment and be made the common property of the people.”

He points to encouraging developments in European cities like Paris and Barcelona. In 2010, the publicly owned Eau de Paris took over water management and supply from two private firms, inspiring other cities to take similar action. Barcelona, meanwhile, is working toward decarbonization by enhancing public transportation while imposing tight restrictions on passenger cars and adding more urban green space. He sees these initiatives as forward-looking examples of the expansion of the commons.

Acting locally, Saitō recently joined with about 30 other activists to establish the Common Forest Foundation. The group purchased 3.5 hectares of land near Mount Takao in far western Tokyo, part of a precious ecosystem threatened by development and overuse. There they plan to launch an experiment to test the commons concept. The project will focus on restoration and protection of the forest as a public good, saving the land from both overuse and the neglect that so often befalls woodland with no commercial potential. The foundation also plans to hold public events like guided nature tours and workshops in hunting for wild edibles. The aim is to gradually expand participation and purchase more land.

Makings of a Movement?

Harvard University political scientist Erica Chenoweth has claimed that any nonviolent movement that mobilizes 3.5% of the population has an excellent chance of bringing about major social or political change. Does Saitō’s vision for degrowth communism have that kind of potential? How much ground has it gained so far?

“Intuitively, I would estimate support at about 2 percent,” says Saitō. “But I don’t see any signs of a rising social movement yet.”

In the West, impassioned millennials and members of Generation Z, led by activists like Greta Thunberg, have joined in school strikes and other protests against the older generations’ weak response to climate change. But in Japan there is little sign of rebellion against the status quo, even with half a million copies of Marx in the Anthropocene in circulation.

“In Japan the sense of urgency is still too weak to fuel a mass movement. Even among environmentalists, the prevailing view is that we can reduce carbon emissions within the current system through the use of renewable energy and technological innovation, while also creating jobs and maintaining growth. They’re not facing the reality of excessive production and consumption. I used to think it was possible to work with them to pressure the government for tighter environmental regulation over the ultrawealthy and the fast-food and fast-fashion industries. But I’ve felt more and more often in recent years that the gap is unbridgeable.”

Nonetheless, Saitō has hope for grassroots activism in Japan. “By small steps, we’re working to build a social movement for an equal, environmentally friendly, prosperous society.”

Marx’s Relevance Today

With the environmental crisis and the war in Ukraine calling into question the very future of humankind, Saitō is well aware that there are no easy answers.

“As the crisis deepens, a lot of people tend to embrace conservative values, anxious to protect what’s theirs. Launching a mass movement dedicated to a new vision of communism is certainly not easy in this climate. Furthermore, bottom-up initiatives can only go so far in addressing a crisis on this scale. In fact, there’s a growing risk that people will turn to authoritarian government. But at such a time, there’s all the more need for theoretically sound thinking on the way to go about changing powerful institutions like the state and the market.

“It’s a complex issue. But one thing we can say for certain is that capitalism has reached an impasse. That’s why we have to be more imaginative in our visions for a movement and a society that can preserve democracy and protect the well-being of the socially vulnerable.”

Saitō believes that a reassessment of Marx is needed to convince more people that capitalism is at the root of their feelings of economic stress, alienation, and struggle. That is why he continues to advocate “degrowth communism.”

“How should we go about changing the current system? Once we reach the point where everyone is asking that question, a breakthrough is bound to occur. I believe we’re at a crossroads, and what we do in the next ten or twenty years is going to determine the fate of humanity.”

Saitō Kōhei at the University of Tokyo's Komaba Campus
Saitō Kōhei at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba campus. (© Hanai Tomoko)

(Originally published in Japanese on February 28, 2023. All photos © Hanai Tomoko.)

environment ecology Economic growth Communism climate change COVID-19 pandemic capitalism