www3.nhk.or.jp/ 2-2022 Japanese scholar looks to Marx’s theory to explain pandemic, climate change – by Iwasaki Atsuko
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innovative writing about Marxism—for a book titled “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” that draws on some of the philosopher’s unpublished notes.
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 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 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.
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.”
twitter/JasonNickel 7-2022 Saito Kohei
cambridge.org 2023 Marx in the Anthropocene – Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
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.
more on Kohei Saito – reviews, interviews
theguardian.com 9-9-2022 ‘A new way of life’: the Marxist, post-capitalist, green manifesto captivating Japan – Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene has become an unlikely hit among young people – “If economic policies have been failing for 30 years, then why don’t we invent a new way of life? The desire for that is suddenly there.” – by Justin McCurry
tandfondline.com 7-2022 Kohei Saito: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy – by Ning Zhang
marxandphilosophy.org 7-2022 Review by Ulv Hanssen
internationalviewpoint.org 1-2022 Was Marx an ecosocialist? A reply to Kohei Saito – by Daniel Tanuro
ras.org 2022 Marx on the Environment – by Michael Roberts
youtube 2021 Futures of Sustainability
ppesydney.net 9-2021 Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism – by Anna Sturman
resilience.org 9-2021 Karl Marx in the Anthropocene – by Brian Lloyd
https://www.nippon.com/en 5-2021 Put Brake on Capitalism, Says Popular Marxist Book Author
mainichi.jp/ 5-2021 IT giants’ business more feudalism than capitalism, says bestselling Japanese critic
…”…Mainichi: In terms of the global environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pursue unlimited growth, isn’t it?
Saito: There is an illusion that going digital will reduce the impact on the environment, but in reality, electricity is consumed in huge amounts to cool servers, and as long as we depend on cars, electric vehicles will still cause the same problems like traffic jams, accidents, noise, and waste. Large amounts of rare-earth elements like lithium and cobalt are consumed to manufacture computers and electric cars, and it has led to competition over resources in developing countries, just as in 20th century imperialism.
In this era of environmental crisis known as the Anthropocene, when human activities have covered the entire Earth, it is not enough to only reduce our environmental impact while maintaining the same lifestyle as before. We need to rethink what wealth means to us. To shift to a sustainable economy and stop the crisis our planet faces, we have no choice but to take drastic measures that correct capitalism itself, which relies on economic growth. …”…
nippon.com 11-2021 Put Brake on Capitalism, Says Popular Marxist Book Author
mronline.org 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.
- Kohei Saito
- Interview with Saito on Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism
- Comrade Adam’s Review of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism for Houston Review of Books
- Cosmonaut Magazine
- Cosmopod’s Ecology Cast Series
- John Bellamy Foster
- Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA)
- Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life
- Review of Kevin B. Anderon’s Marx at the Margins
- Ludwig Feuerbach
- Helena Sheehan
- Christopher Cauldwell
- Alexander Bogdanov
- Roland Daniels
- Justus von Liebig
- Karl Fraas
climate+capitalism 2019 The ecosocialist views of Karl Marx – An interview with Kohei Saito
fscienzeafilosofia.com 2019 KOHEI SAITO – ANTHROPOCENE AND ECOSOCIALISM: A PERSPECTIVE
tjayaraman.wp 2019 Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism by Kohei Saito — A Critique
counterfire.org 2018 Marx the ecologist – Some criticise Marx as anti-environmental, but understanding his ecology is essential to grasping his critique of capitalism – by Elaine Graham-Leigh
monthlyreview.org 2018 review of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
…”…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.” …”…
greenleft.org.au 2017 Pathbreaking new books on ecosocialism
“Over the past three decades, US-based Marxist journal Monthly Review has stood out as a major source of ecosocialist analysis. This has been especially evident in recent months, with the publication by Monthly Review Press of three pathbreaking books:
- Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy;
- Ian Angus’s A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism; and
- Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams’ Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation.
Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism is an extraordinarily important work that deepens and extends our analysis of how Marx sought to integrate ecological materialism and an understanding of ecological crisis into his critique. …”…
isreview.org 2018 Marx’s essential contribution to ecosocialism – Review by Hannah Holleman
Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.
In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different
relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.
Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.
One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.
This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it. As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”
Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.
Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”
In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.
Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.
Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.
But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”
New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually. In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?
The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.
More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.
Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.
As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like 350.org, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1
Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2
What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?
Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.
Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity. Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”
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.