Capital in the Anthropocene – by Saito Kohei


Japanese scholar looks to Marx’s theory to explain pandemic, climate change

Japanese scholar looks to Marx's theory to explain pandemic, climate change

A Japanese academic has penned a surprise bestseller that is prompting a new generation of readers to consider the ideas of German philosopher Karl Marx.
Saito Kohei says Marx’s ideas in his late years tell us about the kind of society we should forge in a post-coronavirus era.

Saito Kohei says the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as evidence of “a paradox” of global capitalism. His “Capital in the Anthropocene” has sold about 400,000 copies in Japan since its 2020 publication.

In it, he takes Marx’s warning about unrestrained capitalism issued 150 years ago, to explain the climate crisis we now face.

Saito, a 35-year-old associate professor at Osaka City University, had already made a name for himself as a translator of Marxist ideas for the modern world.

In 2018, he won the Deutscher Memorial Prize—an annual award that honors new and innovative writing about Marxism—for a book titled “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” that draws on some of the philosopher’s unpublished notes.

Author Saito Kohei argues that to fully understand the scope of Marx’s critique of political economy, we should not ignore its ecological dimension.

NHK World interviewed Saito to find out more about how he believes Marx’s ideas can explain the modern world in which he says capitalism has reached its limit.

Limits of Capitalism

“This age, Anthropocene, is a geological epoch during which human economic activities are affecting the entire earth, destroying the planet. Through global capitalism, we have achieved a prosperous society by mining new resources, and promoting mass production and consumption. But we know now that has caused a paradox,” he says.

“It’s a paradox that has emerged in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic. The bad news is that COVID-19 is not the last, or the worst, of the crises we face. Climate change is something even more severe.

“Capitalism forges ahead as developed countries relentlessly open up new frontiers to get access to cheap labor and natural resources. Capitalism as defined by Marx is this endless process of increasing values and wealth.”

Saito says developed countries have passed on the costs of their growth, like pollution, carbon emissions and destruction of the ecosystem — on other regions.

“In this age of the Anthropocene, there are no more frontiers left to cultivate. Now, we see tornadoes in the United States and extreme weather in Europe, just like in any other part of the world. Even if you live in a developed country, there is no escape from a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, or climate change.

“What if capitalism still tries to expand just to maintain its system? That’s where we need to apply an emergency brake,” says Saito.

Saito Kohei says a paradox of modern society is evident in the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.

Saito has openly expressed skepticism about “green new deal” policies that try to promise both economic and environmental benefits.

“Consumption of energy and resources keeps increasing as an economy develops. To tackle climate change, we need to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions. But I don’t think we can manage economic growth at the same time. Those of us who live in developed countries, must find a way to slow down to steady-state, sustainable economies,” he says.

“If we produce large quantities of electric vehicles, or solar panels, or wind turbines, we will need to exploit limited resources, like lithium, that are mainly sourced from less developed parts of the world. I am concerned that such a situation could eventually give rise to a new form of imperialism.”

Marx and “eco-socialism”

Saito and other scholars are studying Marx’s unpublished manuscripts written in his late years. The notes include Marx’s study of natural science. Specifically, they show his keen interest in the types of societies that existed before the rise of capitalism, including a self-governing agricultural commune in Russia and a medieval community in Germany.

“In these notes, I see Marx trying to draw a vision of a society after capitalism. There is an idea that could be referred to as ‘eco-socialism,’ which places importance on sustainability and social equality,” he says. “I’m trying to imagine a future society by returning to his philosophy.”

Saito Kohei discovered Marx’s ecological ideas in unpublished notes written in his later years.

Saito says Marx has an idea called “commons” that refers to things that are essential for our daily lives, like water, electricity, education, and medical care. They were managed together by a community, accessible to anyone and anyone before capitalism.

“We now find ourselves in a position where capitalism has commodified or enclosed everything on earth for profit-making accessible only for the wealthy,” he says.

Karl Marx coined the term “commons” for things essential to our daily lives that are managed by the community. Saito says most have now been appropriated for profit-making.

Saito says Marx believed there should be a measure to control and reestablish these “commons,” but not through privatization nor nationalization. Saito says he believes that citizens should now share and manage these public goods of “commons” in a democratic way, rather than left to the market.

“Marx also viewed the earth as one ‘common’, but he was concerned that the forces of production and consumption could eventually destroy that status,” says Saito.

“Based on his thought, I think that there may be enough existing wealth now for people’s demands to share. If we could increase the number of these ‘commons,’ we could achieve a sustainable and equitable society that Marx dreamed of.” 5-2021 More young Japanese look to Marx amid pandemic, climate crisis

Over 250,000 copies of his Japanese book entitled “Capital in the Anthropocene” were published, for which he won the “2021 new book award” selected by editors, bookstore staff, and newspaper reporters.

“Maybe many young people got his book because of the influence of Greta Thunberg, who has accused countries and companies of being involved in environmental destruction,” the book’s editor said.

Winner of the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2018 for another book he published in English–translated himself from the original German–Saito argues that Marx saw the environmental crisis inherent in capitalism but had left his critique of the political economy unfinished.

Marx, in his later years, Saito argues, was keenly aware of the destructive consequences for the environment of the capitalist regime. Saito describes the ecological crisis tendencies under capitalism using the key concept of “metabolic rift.”

“We have reached the limit of passing the buck to the future,” Saito said, suggesting that he is an advocate of the “3.5 percent rule” of small minorities bringing about social, economic and political change through nonviolent protests.

“If 3.5 percent of the population rises up nonviolently, society will change. I want to encourage action,” Saito said. 5-2021 Put Brake on Capitalism, Says Popular Marxist Book Author

more on Kohei Saito

Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy - by Kohei Saito 2017 Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy – by Kohei Saito

Karl Marx, author of what is perhaps the world’s most resounding and significant critique of bourgeois political economy, has frequently been described as a “Promethean.” According to critics, Marx held an inherent belief in the necessity of humans to dominate the natural world, in order to end material want and create a new world of fulfillment and abundance–a world where nature is mastered, not by anarchic capitalism, but by a planned socialist economy. Understandably, this perspective has come under sharp attack, not only from mainstream environmentalists but also from ecosocialists, many of whom reject Marx outright.

Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism lays waste to accusations of Marx’s ecological shortcomings. Delving into Karl Marx’s central works, as well as his natural scientific notebooks–published only recently and still being translated–Saito also builds on the works of scholars such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, to argue that Karl Marx actually saw the environmental crisis embedded in capitalism. “It is not possible to comprehend the full scope of [Marx’s] critique of political economy,” Saito writes, “if one ignores its ecological dimension.”

Saito’s book is crucial today, as we face unprecedented ecological catastrophes–crises that cannot be adequately addressed without a sound theoretical framework. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism shows us that Marx has given us more than we once thought, that we can now come closer to finishing Marx’s critique, and to building a sustainable ecosocialist world. 2016 Natur gegen Kapital: Marx’ Ökologie in seiner unvollendeten Kritik des Kapitalismus – by Kohei Saito

Marx’ Ökologie – dieser Ausdruck klingt wie ein Oxymoron. Hat Marx nicht die absolute menschliche Herrschaft über die Natur propagiert? Angesichts der heutigen globalen ökologischen Krise ist es unumstritten, diese im engen Zusammenhang mit dem kapitalistischen System zu analysieren. Für die Gestaltung einer breiten »roten« und »grünen« Bewegung im 21. Jahrhundert ist deshalb eine Aktualisierung der Marx’schen Theorie unerlässlich. Kohei Saito rekonstruiert systematisch die unvollendete Marx’sche ökologische Kritik des Kapitalismus anhand der neuen Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe. Diese gibt unbekannte naturwissenschaftliche Exzerpte von Marx preis sowie seinen Versuch, den Widerspruch des Kapitalismus als ökologische Krise zu thematisieren.