Degrowth and revolutionary socialism

review by Paul Fleckenstein

Degrowth and revolutionary socialism

A review of Kohei Saito’s Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto

Degrowth in broad terms rejects capitalism’s ever-expanding aggregate production and consumption, which is both socially and ecologically destructive and ultimately catastrophic for the planet.  In Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, Kohei Saito aims to fuse degrowth and Marxism to “update our vision of the post-capitalist world” as a contribution to the struggles of global social movements facing the intertwined crises of capitalism, democracy, and ecology. First published in Japan, where it became a best-seller, Saito’s book taps into deep concern about runaway global heating and dire threats to our life-sustaining biosphere.

Slow Down begins with an international perspective, arguing that the normal operation of capitalism generates inequality between wealthy core states in the North and the global South. At the center of this is the “Imperial Mode of Living” which describes the ecologically destructive high-consumption economies of the North that operate based on extraction in the South characterized by exploitation, environmental destruction, and dramatically lower consumption. There is also a useful overview of fake solutions to ecological breakdown including greenwashing, myths that economic growth can be dematerialized, green Keynesianism/Green New Deal, so-called “sustainable growth,” degrowth capitalism, and the Left techno-optimism of eco-modernism advanced by some on the social democratic Left.

The middle part of Slow Down advances Saito’s politics of degrowth communism. Saito is best known as a Marx scholar who contends that late in life Marx rejected earlier ideas about the progressive nature of capitalism and the path to revolutionary transformation. Marx’s new position, which Saito calls degrowth communism, fundamentally challenges the credentials of both state-capitalist (the USSR and China) and social democratic versions of Marxism to understand and respond to ecological catastrophe.

Saito argues that predominant notions of Marxism based on Marx’s early thinking celebrate a progressive view of history, where capitalist development, exploitation of workers, and despoliation of the environment raise productivity and spur technological innovation that establishes the conditions for everyone to lead a rich, free lifestyle that solves environmental problems. But Marx ultimately saw that capitalism is no longer progressive because rather than providing the material basis for meeting human needs and socialism, capitalist growth destroys the conditions of production and the reproduction of human life itself:

The raising productivity under capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to the liberation of humanity. Indeed, it disrupts and eventually creates a rift in the metabolic link between humans and nature that forms the base conditions for life itself. Capitalism does not bring about progress toward communism. Rather, capitalism destroys the “natural viability” necessary for society to thrive. (114)

For Saito, Marx also provides a basis for rejecting Eurocentrism and a linear view of history that sees all paths toward socialism running through Western-European-type capitalist development that lays the basis for communism. Alternatively, Saito sees in communal society (what Marx purportedly discovered about the Russian Mir, or commune) that is detached from economic growth as a potential basis for a metabolic relationship between humans and nature that would be life-sustaining and equal. In the commons, Saito sees the potential for radical abundance based on the marginalization of markets and cooperative social management, or communal wealth.

These insights, breaking with productivism and ethnocentric unilinear development, provide a basis for Saito’s reformulated materialist conception of history which he calls degrowth communism.  For Saito,

The most crucial thing, above all else, is the revolutionary transformation of labor and production. This is the main difference between the form of degrowth proposed by this book and that of earlier degrowth theorists, who studiously avoided engaging with Marxism and workers’ movements and thus failed to address the dimension of labor in their arguments. (183)

This is different from simplistic degrowth views focused on buying less and from conventional views of communism based on economic nationalization. Saito argues that “only revolutionizing the site of production can empower us to transform the system as a whole” (184).

To provide anchors for the degrowth movement, Saito presents several pillars of degrowth communism: transition to a use-value-based rather than exchange-value (profit) economy, shortening of working hours, abolishing the uniform division of labor, democratizing the production process, and prioritizing essential work. It’s a degrowth program Saito says doesn’t require wholesale rejection of capitalist technology and scientific developments while leading to a slowing down of the economy—and a host of related social and ecological benefits. Given that every pillar threatens capitalist control over production, we need to add that it is also one that requires a socialist revolution.

Saito’s interpretation of Marx in degrowth communism reflects important insights about the destructive character of economic growth and the contributions of indigenous resistance to ecological destruction. It’s debatable that this requires the radical reconfiguration of Marxism, since Marx understood and frequently noted the contradictions of capitalist development, progress accompanied by destruction. Puerto Rican ecosocialist Rafael Barnabe has written an excellent critique of Saito’s views along these lines for readers wanting to dig deeper here.

Slow Down tends to exaggerate the role of ideas, rather than social struggle and material forces. For example, Saito says that Marxism’s failure to understand late-in-life Marx led to the embrace of unilinear conceptions of history and productivism resulting in the nightmare of Soviet communism and the failure to challenge capitalism deepening the ecological crisis. A more Marx-consistent materialist reading of this history is that the counter-revolution in Russia leading to Stalinism and state capitalism, and the predominance of social democratic reformism on the Left in capitalist countries, provided the basis for productivist thinking. In the latter instance, Saito effectively criticizes the problems of technological accelerationism along with eco-modernist and electoralist roads to socialism which he says both lose sight of production—and the need to begin with democratizing labor, the central premise of degrowth communism.

Global heating and resulting climate destabilization are one part of ecological breakdown that also includes oceans, soils, fresh water, forest, species, nutrient cycles, and chemical pollution. These are not only destroying the diversity of life but threatening the basis for survival. Capitalism threatens the Holocene era in which the relatively stable mix of climate, life, and natural cycles provide the ecological foundation for a complex society.

This existential threat developed with fossil capitalism and rapidly advanced in the mid-twentieth century in what is called the great acceleration. Exponential growth of extraction, production, and consumption—and the consequential dumping of wastes—have impacted ecological cycles on a global scale to the point where red-line boundaries have been or will be transgressed if business-as-usual continues. Economic growth is both an accumulation and a biophysical process. Consequently, there must be radical reductions in material and energy throughput to protect conditions of life—and there are no technological fixes that will allow indefinite growth to continue.

For socialists, it should be clear that capitalist growth stems not only from an ideology that links progress and well-being with incessant growth that is celebrated in metrics like Gross National Product (GDP); it is more basically driven by capitalism’s systemic competition, prioritization of short-term profit, and resulting violent exploitation of labor and nature. For individual businesses, and for global capitalism as a whole, the operative condition is “grow-or-die,” which sacrifices the possibility of a sustainable future.

It is not just the undemocratic control over capitalist technological and investment decisions that is the problem. Rather, social relations and related technology undermine the possibility of ecological renewal and thus the revolutionary process toward a new ecological, just society. There must be a break with growth that challenges and re-makes many forms of existing technology.

The former growth enthusiast view rooted in social democratic reform politics ignores the interlinking of growth and biophysical processes noted above. There are ecological limits. Slow Down is strong on this point, correctly criticizing the emphasis on managing nature, rather than understanding ecological limits that require an approach of co-existence. For Saito, this left-wing accelerationist politics ultimately prioritizes electoral politics and policy and “loses sight of the aspect of the transformation that must take place in the field of production–that is, it loses sight of class struggle.”

Unfortunately, Saito inconsistently translates this key understanding into political practice. Saito helpfully identifies production and the oppression and exploitation of labor as central to both understanding and resolving the ecological crisis. These are similar conclusions to pioneering ecosocialists like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. But in projecting this insight to a practice of workers’ co-ops and municipal and other directly democratic initiatives Saito can be less convincing:

[I]nstances of resistance like the rise of workers’ co-ops or the revolt of the caring classes may seem quite small. And indeed, they might be. But there are many similar small instances of resistance to capitalism occurring all over the world. Such isolated incidents have the power to spread until they become a coordinated wave. (203)

We have to ask how localized initiatives can escape capitalist markets and state regulations that pressure alternatives to conform to business as usual. The ruling class has an arsenal of tools including government rules, courts, divestment, and even state-sanctioned violence to isolate and tame alternatives to the status-quo. This is why broader mass struggle and especially disruptive actions like strikes are necessary. Saito clearly recognizes the importance of class struggle in other parts of the book, but it tends to get lost.

Saito’s connection of Marxism, particularly identifying the importance of production and the exploitation of labor in the fight for the future of the planet for a wide audience is welcome. With Saito, we should recognize the contributions of the wide range of indigenous, social, and anti-colonial struggles and practices in our ecosocialist politics. But, specifically, it’s essential to always recognize that Marx went further. Marx and the tradition of socialism from below center the international working class and, crucially, class struggle in the revolutionary process. This is not class struggle invoked in a subordinate role to elections, or invoked by “socialist” rulers taking state power in the name of the working class, but the self-agency of the class in mass democratic struggle leveraging our economic power to interrupt the flow of profits.

While we need to be able to imagine radically different social and economic systems that can govern our relationship with the rest of nature, the central axis to the future must return to the struggle necessary to get us there. Marx’s discovery of the working class as a revolutionary agent remains key. An ecosocialist future depends on mass social and class struggle.

Featured image credit: Christopher Dombres; modified by Tempest.