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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why We Need “Degrowth”

Leading philosopher Kohei Saito defends the controversial idea of “degrowth communism.”

Marxist philosophers do not often write bestsellers, but as the New York Times wrote in a profile of Kohei Saito, his work has unexpectedly taken Japan by storm:

“When Kohei Saito decided to write about “degrowth communism,” his editor was understandably skeptical. Communism is unpopular in Japan. Economic growth is gospel. So a book arguing that Japan should view its current condition of population decline and economic stagnation not as a crisis, but as an opportunity for Marxist reinvention, sounded like a tough sell. But sell it has. Since its release in 2020, Mr. Saito’s book “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold more than 500,000 copies, exceeding his wildest imaginings. Mr. Saito, a philosophy professor at the University of Tokyo, appears regularly in Japanese media to discuss his ideas. … Mr. Saito has tapped into what he describes as a growing disillusionment in Japan with capitalism’s ability to solve the problems people see around them, whether caring for the country’s growing older population, stemming rising inequality or mitigating climate change.”

Prof. Saito’s book has caught on in Japan because it is a powerful statement of an important and challenging set of ideas. Saito points out the ecologically and socially destructive tendencies of capitalism, and argues for an alternative way of structuring the economy and society that could leave us (and the planet) better off. He calls these ideas “degrowth communism.” Today he joins us to explain what he means, to respond to myths and challenges, and clear up misconceptions. Saito’s book Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto is now available in English. 

Nathan J. Robinson 

Let’s begin with the crisis to which your book is a response. Lay out for us the basics of the fundamental crisis that you are trying to address.

Kohei Saito 

The book discusses the fundamental crisis of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a geological epoch where human activities, especially economic activities, have radically transformed our planet by massive consumption of fossil fuels, for example. A representative crisis of the Anthropocene is the climate crisis, and this crisis will be worse and worse in the coming decades. It will create increasing economic inequality, and also resource scarcity and accelerating inflation, and that will also destabilize this geological order, leading to conflict and war. So, the crisis we are heading in the Anthropocene is a public crisis—the combined crisis of capital accumulation, ecological crisis, and crisis of democracy. This is something that we didn’t experience for many years. Maybe it’s the first time, so we need radical ideas to challenge this crisis.


You use this term, the Anthropocene, and perhaps some of our listeners and readers have heard it before, perhaps some haven’t. We’re used to these geological epochs, like the Holocene and so forth, with the Anthropocene being this kind of era where, as I understand it, humans are so transforming the natural world that the world itself is now defined by our relation to it. Could you tell us a little more about it?


Geology is usually considered as some kind of natural formation or natural phenomena that has nothing to do with human activity. But the situation has completely changed because our economic activities have so much impact—building streets and dams, radioactive waste, plastics in the ocean—all the things created through our economic activities under capitalism have such a profound impact upon the entire ecosystem. So, there is no nature as such anymore. Everything is mediated by our economic activity. This is the new age of Anthropocene. We are transforming nature. We are transforming the planet.


There are many people who will hear what you’re saying and will agree with you that obviously human activity is causing a great deal of environmental breakdown, but their response will be, this is why we need sustainability. They might point to what you start the book with: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. And what you argue is essentially that this idea of “sustainability” as the solution doesn’t get us nearly close enough to understanding the deep roots of the crisis and what it will actually take to fix it. Why is that?


Yes. Ecological behavior often advocated in the media is only about reducing our plastics and maybe using bicycles more and buying electric cars, and these are all reduced to individual behavior—changing a little bit about your behavior so that we will be more sustainable and so on. But what is ignored under such discourses, including SDGs, but also ESG [environmental, social, and corporate governance] and so on, is the ecological crisis is not an individual issue. It is a system issue. So, the Anthropocene is, as I said, created through our expanding economic activities, but this is also driven by capitalism. Capitalism is a system of constant profit making, and is also accompanied by expanding production, consumption, and waste, and has an impact on the planet. If we don’t challenge this desire of infinite growth and capitalism, all the sustainable proposals are not effectively introduced.


Some people would say, and have said, that while it may be true that our current rate of growth is not sustainable, if we can decouple carbon emissions from economic growth, we can continue to have the growth of economic activity without necessarily destroying the precious planet that we happen to live on. You critique that idea, and you say, no, the entire model leads us inevitably towards disaster. Why is that? 


Even some left-wing or liberal people also advocate, for example, for the Green New Deal, and that is also kind of based on the assumption that with the development of new technologies, and with more green jobs, green growth is also possible, so we don’t really have to challenge capitalism as such, or we don’t have to give up economic growth thanks to new technologies, but we maybe need the intervention of the state in the market. So, neoliberalism is bad, but capitalism as such is not necessarily evil.

I argue differently. Of course, neoliberalism is bad. It is characterized by increasingly economic inequality, austerity, and more precarious jobs and so on. These things need to change. If we create better jobs and a better energy system and so on, but at the same time try to produce and consume more—the workers start to consume more because they are getting some better wages thanks to new green jobs—it will probably destroy the planet in the end. The problem is the climate crisis. I’m not denying the necessity of massive investment in renewable energies and green kinds of technologies and so on, but at the same time, the climate crisis has a time limit. We have to reduce, for example, half of the carbon emissions in the next 10 years, and we also have to decarbonize our entire economy in the next 20–30 years. That means we need a very rapid transition to decarbonize the economy.

But the problem is, if you look at history, economic growth is always characterized by increasing energy and resource consumption. Even if we have green technologies like electric vehicles, for example, electric vehicles use a lot of resources and energy, and they also require electricity to drive. So, as long as we do not, at the same time, try to reduce the number of cars on the street, it will not be sufficiently rapid. Basically, we need to talk about reducing our consumption and reducing production, and that is the basic idea of degrowth. Degrowth is, however, incompatible with capitalism, so I advocate degrowth post-capitalism.


The first thing I think that plenty of people will hear when you say “we need to reduce consumption” is “reducing living standards.” You critique a culture of ceaseless production and consumption, and you say that we need to “slow down,” that we need degrowth. What people will interpret and portray that as is austerity. You say that our comforts are unsustainable, and we need to give them up. And I think the argument will be made that you can’t possibly convince people to adopt this because it will make life worse. But you argue that this is a total misinterpretation of what you’re actually saying needs that to happen. Could you clear this up for us? 


Yes. Degrowth is often associated with austerity, that we have to give up all the luxuries we have. But, not everything, I would say, and we also gain something instead. So, here’s my explanation. First of all, I’m not saying, as I said, that we have to give up all the technologies. I explicitly admit we need renewable energies and electric vehicles. These are the things that we need to develop even more. So, degrowth is not about going back to nature without any kind of Zoom, computer, iPhone, and so on. But at the same time, we have to question whether we need to buy a new iPhone every two years—that’s probably excessive, and we can repair things.

Or another question would be, do we really need fast fashion? Do we need so much meat consumption? I’m not saying we should all be vegans immediately. But at the same time, we can start questioning whether our level of consumption might be actually excessive, and there are some people who are actually consuming much more in an excessive way, people that are super rich. So, first, advocate reducing economic inequality because the super rich do not simply exploit workers, but also they’re quite responsible for the current ecological crisis. The top 1% of rich people are responsible for 15% of carbon emissions. So, that’s something that must be reduced.

For example, I advocate banning private jets. Do we really need so many private jets? And we should probably reduce cruise ships and industrial meat production. These excessive things must be reduced. That’s my first proposal. And the second proposal is, if we give up some of those things, we will have different kinds of abundance. I argue in my book that this will be an abundance of public goods. In the U.S., for example, education is commodified, and we have to pay a lot of money to go to university, and students have loans. Also, we have to pay a lot to go to a doctor because medical care is privatized and commodified. Public transportation is poor, so we have to buy cars, and we again have to have loans and so on.

So, our entire economy is commodified, and that means that we have to pay for everything, no matter how necessary these things are for everyone. And so, you need money and have to work harder, but jobs are precarious; wages are low, so you work longer hours, and when you still don’t have enough money, you have little time to spend with your family and friends, and so you’re unhappy. So, my proposal is in a degrowth economy, all those basic services and goods must be decommodified. Education should be free. Medical care, public transportation, electricity—all these things should be as cheap as possible.

And then you don’t really have to work so hard, and you don’t have to worry so much about your housing, future, and applications. These are the things that can make you feel much more happy and secure. That kind of public abundance can actually be realized without constant economic growth. Degrowth is a kind of new radical abundance.


You’re talking about increasing abundance and the standard of living while decreasing consumption. And I want to go back to what you said about buying an iPhone every two years, or fast fashion where your clothes wear out within a few months, and you have to get new ones. These are instances where we might consume more, but if we had clothes that lasted us 20–30 years, as they can be made to, if we didn’t have these things made as commodities where companies had an incentive or needed to keep selling us things, we could consume less and also be better off. I want to dwell on that because I think that’s a paradox for some people. It’s certainly a paradox in a world that sees GDP as the measure of social welfare.


Exactly. Degrowth also demands abandoning GDP as a measure of social progress and prosperity. Because if you stick to GDP, sending more fast fashion is good for our society because GDP increases and companies make profit and so on. But if you look at the different perspective, for example, ecological or social wellbeing perspective, fast fashion really pollutes the entire planet, and is often based on the severe exploitation of workers in the Global South. And also, the consumers are not necessarily happy after buying those clothes because when you wear it, you are already bored, so you buy new ones.

This is a distinction that Marx actually made, between exchange value and use value. Exchange value is presented in GDP: you sell more, and then you gain more wealth, and so on. But the use value has to do with satisfaction. Fast fashion doesn’t really bring you use value because they are simply produced and wasted, and so on. So, my advocation is that actually the fashion companies need to reduce the production amount, but they never talk about it because that’s, again, the logic of capitalist companies. Instead, what they do is talk about recycling, about organic cotton, about some kind of new materials that are more ecologically friendly, and so on. But the problem is, they produce more of those clothes and end up using more resources and energy, polluting the entire planet. We need to seriously talk about reducing consumption and production because they are really polluting the entire planet, but they’re also not making us happier. We have clearly different ways of satisfying our desires.


You mentioned Marx, and I want to get to the role of Marx in your book, but you also touched on the exploitation of the Global South. The imperial mode of living comes up a lot in your book, that underneath our consumption in the West is often a vast mountain of exploitation elsewhere that we prefer not to look at, even though it’s a major part of the economic system. Tell us a little bit more about that. 


Exactly. For example, the reason why I criticize the Green New Deal in my book is it could work very well for people and the working class in the Global North, say in the US. So, you produce more cars, solar panels, and other new technologies, and that creates jobs that will probably increase GDP, and that can also reduce carbon emissions. I doubt actually that reduction could happen fast enough, but it’s theoretically possible, so we accept that. But even that is not enough. That kind of discourse ignores the global inequality between the Global North and South. Where do all the resources come from to produce electric vehicles? Lithium, cobalt, nickle—these rare metals are often located in the Global South.

So, what’s happening right now is already happening, and now, what will accelerate in the coming decades under the name of green transformation will most likely be the massive exploitation and extraction of resources in the Global South—in Latin America, Africa, China, Russia. All these places will be massively destroyed as a result. Indigenous people’s lives, ecological systems, biodiversity, deforestation—all these things will accelerate and be accompanied by these things like child labor, excessive exploitation, severe working conditions and so on, carried out under the name of ecological transformation or SDGs. I would say that’s critical.

So, it simply could accelerate different kinds of imperial domination by the Global North of the Global South, and I think we really have to overcome that kind of injustice and inequality. The governments, or the societies, in the Global North have to think about reducing the number of cars because resources are limited, and those things must be produced somehow. Then we have to reduce and give up that kind of excessive consumption and production after all.


What alternative ways of measuring progress might there be? I feel like one reason that GDP persists is because it’s easy. It’s easy to see the line going up and say society is becoming better off. You’re talking about degrowth, but degrowth certainly doesn’t mean we just want GDP to go down instead of up. That’s not what we’re talking about. But if you supplant the traditional measures of success and economic well-being, what instead do you pursue? What do you move towards, and how do you know that you’re moving towards it? 


There are many discussions about replacing GDP with a new measure, and that’s not coming simply from the heterodox economic side, but from mainstream economists like Joseph Stiglitz, who is also very critical of GDP. And many people, for example, propose measures such as Genuine Progress Indicator or Human Development Index. These measures actually emphasize education, equality, and also environmental sustainability. So the simple example will be if you destroy the planet, you can measure that by ecological footprint or carbon footprint, then you subtract those amount from GDP. So, the US economy obviously has the largest GDP from today’s calculation. But if you actually subtract the ecological impacts from GDP, the US ranking goes down because the United States is also the biggest polluter in the world in terms of the environment.

But we can also add other measures about equality. The US will go further down because the US economy is characterized by enlarging economic gaps and so on. Looking from this perspective, it’s interesting because the US has, as I said, the biggest GDP, but at the same time, so many people have died from COVID. So, the higher GDP doesn’t necessarily mean a good medical system, and so your GDP is actually wasted. Japan was much more protective from the consequences of the pandemic. Japan is smaller in terms of GDP, but they have better ways of protecting people from the pandemic.

Many people in Japan, however, complain that the Japanese economy is stagnating. Germany became number three, and then Japan ran down, so they actually worry that Japan is simply becoming a smaller country. But I advocate in Japan a different kind of narrative. Look at your society. Japan is very safe, and has a very good transportation system. Japan has clean air, and many forests. Japan has good food, good anime and cartoons—


You have culture!


These things are not necessarily reflected in GDP. Even if Japan is going down in terms of GDP because we have a smaller population now and innovation is stagnating, indeed that’s something, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean that we are losers. We have different things. These are not simply reflected in GDP. So, why don’t Japanese people invent new measures, and maybe something will come out in the next 10 years. 


This is interesting because you read news stories about Japan’s economy. You use the word stagnate—the way these things are often framed is that there was so much growth, but then it slowed down and is now stagnant, and the country is getting older. These are phrased like a country is failing. But as you point out, there’s a lot of richness in Japan. And if you look at different aspects, you could, in fact, say that you’re doing very well, and everything depends on what you’re looking at. So, you draw our attention to the way that we choose how to measure what exactly the good society is, what a good society has, and what a bad society has.


Exactly, we have a valuation system, and we usually value what is measured by money and GDP. But what I advocate in my book is the evaluation of value. This is what Karl Marx was trying to do. His immanent critique of capitalism was to ask, are we really free? Are we really equal? If you look at the market exchange, it looks like that. But if you really look at the production sphere, there is a lot of exploitation, inequality, and so on.

Capitalism creates massive wealth and is associated with growth. But from the ecological perspective, it is often accompanied by destruction of our planet, and from the perspective of global sales, it is accompanied by imperial colonial exploitation and destruction of Indigenous life and so on. So, if you really look from a different perspective, the development of capitalism looks also very different. It is actually to regress to more barbarous stages of life, and this is actually happening. Why don’t we put more importance on wellbeing and equality, and not necessarily massive consumption of fast fashion, iPhones, and technology?

In Japan, the politicians are obsessed with growth, and they’re trying to introduce new technologies and nuclear fusion, carbon capture and storage, and AI—all the things that could be invented and introduced to society. But the introduction of this technology could reinforce the domination by capital and increase economic inequality. So, that means it could increase our unfreedom and inequality in the long run. Technology will not save us automatically. So, we should also talk about slowing down a little bit because acceleration in the last 30 years under neoliberal globalization didn’t make many of us happy. It’s simply making the life more miserable. 


I take this to be a kind of fundamental part of what you call degrowth communism. As you mentioned, you don’t even have to be a particularly heterodox economist to critique the GDP as a measure of well-being. But where you go further and introduce a kind of radicalism is to say, if we start looking at these alternative standards of what constitutes well-being, and we think about what it would take to actually achieve these things, we are led to the conclusion that we have to radically transform the system of production and decommodify many things. Tell us a little bit more, not just about how we measure the good, but what we have to do to get there. 


Degrowth is incompatible with capitalism. That’s why I advocate the term degrowth communism. Capitalism is a system of constant expansion, accompanied by excessive waste of energy and resources. Communism is based on very different logic, the logic of mutual aid, sustainability, justice, and so on. I understand communism in many countries has a very bad image because of China, Russia, and so on, but I go back to the tradition of socialism and communism in the 19th century, and that has nothing to do with the image of communism and socialism usually established in the 20th century. For example, looking at Karl Marx—he’s the most famous one—he doesn’t talk about the kind of strong bureaucratic state with undemocratic rule over people’s way of life. Rather, he’s saying that capitalism is characterized by constant expansion of market exchanges, so everything becomes commodified.

And as I said, no matter how much you need water, medical care, and education, once these things are commodified, these things are only for people with money. This is making our life more precarious and miserable, and increasing economic inequality and so on. Marx says we need to decommodify and to make those goods public goods—common goods—again. And so, the society based on commodification is capitalism, but the society based on commonwealth—the society based on commonification of social wealth—is communism, in my sense.

So, where do we begin? We can begin by, as I said, decommodifying education and public transportation—meaning free public transportation, free internet, free public housing—and we can expand, and we can imagine the society where many things become decommodified. And no matter what, these things are already introduced in Scandinavian countries—Germany, France, and many countries—but they’re still capitalist. So, we can make that kind of transition already today, and that’s already happening in Europe more.

But through decommodification, our way of thinking and our way of behavior will change. Because in the US, the tuition is very expensive. So, once you graduate from the college, you look for jobs with higher salary. You are already trapped in the logic of capital accumulation. But if you need to go to college in Germany, tuition is free. So, you spend 10 years at the college, and then you graduate because it’s free, but then you just walk into an NGO, or you just do farming—something good for your society. The way of thinking and the mode of behavior could radically change through decommodification in such a way that we create a sphere of freedom that is independent of the logic of capital accumulation. And why don’t we expand that sphere gradually so that we will have a more anti-capitalist thinking and behavior within capitalism? 


Before we wrap up, I want to get to the fact that you are a scholar of Karl Marx. You’ve worked on editing his collected works. One of the interesting things that you contributed here is to bring him into the discussion. And I think, for some people who understand Marx’s basic theory or think they understand it, they would see it as: you had to develop the productive forces of capitalism to the maximum before you could achieve a higher order, which would be communism or socialism—whatever you want to describe it as—and there would be this kind of linear progression where capitalism would flower and then destroy itself, and then something would come after. And one of the interesting things that you as a Marx scholar have contributed is that by going into his later writings, you’ve figured out that—perhaps you can explain it, but as I understand it—he was leaving that view behind and seeing that maybe you didn’t need to develop the forces of capitalism to the maximum because perhaps they were just inherently destructive.


Yes, I argue in my book that later in life, Marx became a degrowth communist. He basically gave up that the productivist idea of progress: with the development of new technologies, the society becomes richer, but the problem is capitalism monopolizes though the fruits of new technologies, and once we overcome the private properties and so on, workers can live like capitalists in socialism thanks to the new technology. So, the slogan could be, “private jets for everyone.”


Which is something I’ve heard said.


But the problem is still that today, some left-wing people advocate that kind of image or story of progress and revolution. However, the problem is exactly that kind of productivist idea created tension or even antagonism with the environmental movement. This is very unfortunate because Marxists or left-wing people and environmentalists are today both trying to change capitalism. Capitalism is obviously creating economic inequality and accelerating the climate crisis. So, they have something in common: the root cause is capitalism. But because of this productivist image of Marxism, environmentalists are often against learning from Marxist critique of capitalism. That’s unfortunate.

So, I tried to overcome this long-lasting antagonism between red and green. My proposal is basically Marx himself also admitted his earlier failure of falling into the kind of productivist idea. He consciously changed through learning about colonization, about ecological practices in non-western countries, and also learning the natural sciences very intensively in the 1870s and 1880s. He corrected his idea that technologies will emancipate us, and he also corrected the idea that higher productive forces will be the only source of abundance. He changed, as I said. The abundance of commonwealth could be the foundation of a new coming society, and that doesn’t necessarily require the constant increase in productive forces. Abundance of education and culture doesn’t necessarily require the development of suitable AI or something like that. So, we could imagine a very different kind of post-capitalist, post-scarcity society after capitalism. That is what I call degrowth communism, and this is actually coming from Marx. I’m trying to propose that both red and green can learn from each other, and fight against capitalism together.


I have just one final point here, which is that you not only point out that we can and should seek such an alternative, but not to quote a classic neoliberal phrase, in some ways, there is no alternative. You point out the different futures that the climate crisis could take us towards, and if we don’t manage to gain these insights, to think about how we can gain control of the forces of production and put them towards human ends, we could be headed for a future that’s quite dire. Your book is, in many ways, hopeful and constructive. But I think that also, especially when you write about the four futures, it contains a real warning.


Yes, another scenario is climate fascism. When the polycrisis accelerates, there will be more conflict, more refugees, and more economic inequality. That means that super rich people will probably try to protect themselves. They only care about themselves, so they will abandon the rest of us, and that will really increase the tension between the few who have and the many who don’t. So, that will destabilize the entire social order. And I argue that in my book this is the non-democratic dictatorship, which I call climate fascism. So, in order to avoid this worst scenario, we have to invent a new political imaginary to avoid the catastrophe, and this is degrowth communism. It will be the way that we people in the Global North don’t have to exploit the people in the Global South. It will be a way that we can build much more solidarity with other people. And so, I think we have to provide that kind of socialist tradition because we have lost that kind of post-capitalist imaginary after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And what happened in the last 30 years is simply that we have to work for capitalism, and only economic progress is the way to secure our life and so on, but that didn’t work. So, my proposal is basically we have to learn from Karl Marx, and this is the idea of degrowth communism.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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