Is this what Marx wanted? (Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

January 18, 2024   6 mins

A spectre is haunting the West — the spectre of degrowth communism. Or so Kohei Saito, the rising star of contemporary Marxist thought, would have you believe. Saito is the author of Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism Can Save the Earth, which was a huge success in his home country Japan, selling over half a million copies, and has now just been published in English.

Saito’s argument is pretty straightforward: capitalism is destroying the planet, and the only way to pull civilisation back from the brink of extinction is for “the entire world, without exception, to become a part of a sustainable, just society”. In other words, to embrace degrowth communism — a radical reorganisation of society based on the elimination of mass production and consumption, the prioritisation of use-value (social utility) over commodity value, and the total decarbonisation of the economy.

According to Saito — and this is what puts him at odds with most Marxists — Marx himself, towards the end of his life, embraced this kind of back-to-Earth communism, rejecting his earlier “productivist” iterations of communism. Indeed, Saito goes to great lengths in the book to rehabilitate Marx’s ideas in the light of contemporary progressive sensibilities, offering what some would describe as a “woke” interpretation of the German philosopher.

Several pages, for example, are dedicated to absolving Marx from the accusation of Eurocentrism — the idea, undeniably present in Marx’s most famous works, that every nation was required to follow the path of capitalistic industrialisation laid out by Western Europe, because this would eventually prepare the ground for revolution. “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” Marx writes in Capital.

According to Saito, Marx, in his later life, made a clean break with this view, acknowledging that the archaic, steady-state communal societies of the non-Western and pre-capitalist world actually represented a powerful alternative to capitalism — one that contained the seeds of revolution, and held important lessons even for the industrialised countries of the West.

This may very well be true. Yet, for all his criticism of Marx’s early Eurocentrism, Saito seems oblivious to his own Eurocentrism — or perhaps I should say Western-centrism. Even though Saito claims to speak “on behalf of the Global South and future generations”, and insists that the problems we face are global in nature, the truth is that Saito’s concerns reflect a very particular worldview: that of relatively affluent Westerners, especially young millennials and members of Generation Z.

Saito’s entire worldview, after all, is informed by a deep concern with the climate crisis and its allegedly existential threat to humanity. Throughout the book, he often repeats the quasi-millenarist notion that “human civilisation is facing a threat to its very existence” as a result of climate change. But this apocalyptic, doom-laden approach to the climate issue, which is at odds with climate science itself, is a specifically Western phenomenon.

This is understandable: post-material concerns such as ecology tend to take hold in places where basic material concerns have already been satisfied — that is, in affluent countries, first and foremost Western ones. It is no coincidence that Saito comes from Japan, which enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. But for most people on the planet, especially those living in poorer countries, climate change systematically ranks among the lowest policy priorities — well below more pressing material concerns such as hunger and poverty, access to water and sanitation, and education.

To the billions of people who still live in extreme poverty, and the millions who don’t even have access to electricity, Saito’s vision of degrowth communism, and his plea to scale back production and consumption, is unlikely to be very appealing. In fact, Saito’s insistence that countries in the Global South should refrain from pursuing growth — even “green growth” — might very well be seen as a form of Western eco-imperialism. Or, indeed, Eurocentrism: isn’t Saito implying that every country in the world should simply conform to the worldview of Western middle-class environmentalists?

In this sense, degrowth communism suffers from the same drawback of old-school communism: it’s an intrinsically universalist worldview, one that purports to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for all human societies, regardless of local cultural and civilisational specificities. This globalist outlook is typical of post-Nineties leftism, which Saito harks back to in several respects. This is also evident in his rejection of the nation-state, viewed as a reactionary, quasi-fascist construct, rather than the framework through which virtually all the major social, economic and political advancements of the past centuries were achieved.

It’s a view that is completely at odds with global realities. Simply put, the billion-plus people who still live in poverty in countries such as India, not to mention those in Africa, legitimately aspire to the comforts of industrialisation: round-the-clock electricity, modern housing, heating and cooling technologies, and healthcare. This will inevitably drive up their energy consumption. Western environmentalists such as Saito continue to entertain the notion that the future energy needs of developing countries can be met entirely by renewables, mainly wind and solar, but this is a fantasy.

Many of the world’s poorest nations have no choice but to rely on fossil fuels in the coming years, ideally in combination with nuclear energy, if they want to raise living standards — and indeed are taking steps in that direction, despite demands from rich-world advocates and policymakers for developing countries to abstain from fossil-based resources. This will drive up their emissions, but it will also pull millions of people out of poverty. Insofar as trade-offs go, this should be a no-brainer. But not for Western eco-warriors such as Saito.

Moreover, development and growth in the Global South should be welcomed for reasons other than just poverty reduction; it’s also about shifting the balance of power. For all of Saito’s criticism of the Imperial Mode of Living — the Global North’s reliance on the plunder of the people and resources in the Global South — he conveniently disregards the fact that the only way to for poorer countries to break free from the grip of Western domination is to boost their relative economic strength.

Indeed, Saito completely ignores the biggest story of our time: the shifting of the world’s geopolitical balance of power from the West to the Brics bloc, which was made possible because a country, China, managed to develop its own productive forces, and become a global powerhouse, at breakneck speed. This required the burning of huge amounts of fossil fuels — but has contributed to weakening the West’s stranglehold on the world to a degree that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago. You would expect a critic of Western imperialism such as Saito to welcome this global shift; it isn’t even touched upon in the book.

Instead, Slow Down often reads like it was written in the late Nineties or early-2000s, at the height of the unipolar era. The Global South is described as a powerless victim of Western imperialism. But this is itself a Eurocentric view, one that ignores the huge challenges being mounted around the world against the Western international order — in Ukraine, the Red Sea, Francophone Africa and elsewhere. This includes breaking out of the structural underdevelopment imposed on developing nations by the West.

The fact that Saito completely ignores this trend betrays his Western middle-class biases: for eco-leftists like him, the fight against climate change will always trump the fight against imperialism. They would rather have the masses of the Global South languish in a state of underdevelopment rather than see them develop their productive forces — which inevitably entails the burning of fossil fuels. As it turns out, developing countries have no intention of pandering to Western middle-class concerns.

But while Saito’s message of degrowth has little to offer to the countries of the Global South, it would be a mistake to disregard it entirely. After all, in Western countries, it clearly resonates, and it’s important to understand why. His call for degrowth communism, like other contemporary critiques of capitalism, taps into a growing disillusionment with the Western socioeconomic model. Saito states the obvious when he says that our current system is no longer working for most people: notwithstanding the fact that we live in affluent societies, many of us are overworked, underpaid and lead ever-more precarious lives. Economic inequality continues to rise.

But perhaps even more dramatically, we live increasingly atomised, purposeless lives: there’s no higher meaning binding us together as a society. French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe a society defined by a breakdown in social norms and moral values. Aside from the diminishing returns of abiding by society’s rules — finding a job, creating a family — many young people wonder what the point of it all is. No wonder they are attracted by radical ideas such as degrowth communism, which promise less stuff but richer, fuller, deeper, more meaningful lives.

As Saito writes, under degrowth communism “there will be more opportunities to do sports, go hiking, take up gardening and get back in touch with nature. We will have time once again to play guitar, paint pictures, read. We can host those close to us in our homes and eat together with friends and family.” It’s easy to see the appeal of this vision. Not only does it offer the prospect of a better life; perhaps even more importantly, it offers something to fight for. It offers meaning. And the climate issue only strengthens the project’s secular-theological grounding: it’s not just about transforming society — but about “saving the world”.

In this sense, ideas such as degrowth communism and climate doomerism are, ultimately, the flipside of the anomic societies created by late-stage capitalism. Perhaps Marx was right: capitalism really does end up sowing the seeds of its own demise — not because of ever-rising levels of productivity, but because of ever-decreasing levels of meaning.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.