Why Capitalism Loves Degrowth

Justin Aukema

Image for article: Why Capitalism Loves Degrowth
March 7, 2023
Illustration: Scott Menchin

Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
By Saitō Kōhei
Cambridge University Press, 292 pages, $22.99

Once the dream of neo-Malthusian elites and a fringe of ascetic environmentalists, the notion of “degrowth” has lately been embraced by many on the left, including some Marxists. This should raise eyebrows: Marxism has generally been understood as a “Promethean” political philosophy that aims at fully developing productive forces to generate widely shared abundance. How did this unlikely convergence happen? Saitō Kōhei’s new book, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, offers some valuable clues. The book’s original 2020 edition was a smash success in Japan, and its English debut has already begun to make waves.

Saitō’s basic premise is simple enough: The capitalist drive toward “growth” is destroying the planet, so we must rapidly adopt what he terms “degrowth communism” if humanity is to survive the climate crisis. The author’s conclusion that “degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, and it is essentially an anti-capitalist project” is sure to resonate with a younger generation favorably disposed toward socialist ideas and inundated with warnings of impending climate disaster.

“The purpose of capitalism is not ‘growth.’”

But Saitō’s pretense to offer a path beyond our present political impasses is misleading on at least two accounts. First, the purpose of capitalism isn’t “growth,” but value creation and capital accumulation, and capital needs both expansion and contraction to realize this process. As the previous three decades of economic stagnation, austerity, and crisis indicate, degrowth is already an integral part of our economic paradigm, not a means of moving beyond it.

Second, Saitō’s conceptualization of “communism” entirely discards Marx’s understanding of class struggle and, more astonishingly, denies almost any role to the working class. This is because for him, the primary struggle is between capitalism and the planet, rather than workers and capitalists. But in abandoning the notion of a revolutionary working class as the agent of change, Saitō ends up tacitly endorsing something that sounds much like what we already have today: an elite-led green movement embraced by, rather than at odds with, the capitalist class.

Saitō and degrowth proponents take for granted that the purpose of capitalism is growth. But among mainstream economists, the idea that constant growth isn’t just possible but also desirable only dates back to the 1950s. Matthias Schmelzer, himself a prominent degrowth advocate, makes this clear in his 2016 book, The Hegemony of Growth. As Schmelzer admits, economists had long understood that capitalism goes through cyclical periods of boom and bust, expansion and contraction, growth and degrowth. Perhaps more important, despite paying lip service to the ideology of growth, most of the ruling class today tacitly accepts that degrowth and austerity defined the economic reality of the past 30 to 40 years.

Marxism offers a way of making sense of this apparent contradiction. Its adherents have typically argued that the goal of capitalism isn’t growth, but the creation of value and the accumulation of capital. These concepts are easily confused, but they aren’t the same. “Growth” is a chronological increase in the total or aggregate social product and its market value. In contrast, “value creation” is the increase of surplus value that can be obtained from the production process. This is calculated as the rate of surplus value, or the portion of total value created by workers minus the amount they retain as remuneration. It varies in proportion to factors including the length of the working day, the rate of productivity, the militancy of labor, and so on.

The implication of all this is that “growth” can remain low while the rate of surplus value is high. And as it happens, this is precisely the situation of advanced economies in recent decades: “secular stagnation” alongside high profits and increasing wealth for the owners of capital.

The other Marxian concept of interest here is capital accumulation, which is also frequently confused with growth. Capital accumulation does result from constant additions of surplus value. But it also paradoxically requires subtractions from time to time. How does this work? As Marx and others, including Rosa Luxemburg, showed, capitalism’s quest for value leads it to create more surplus than can be consumed. When capital accumulation, therefore, exceeds the rate of demand, capital is threatened with its own devaluation. On one level, this is obvious from the perspective of economics. If too much of something is produced, its value will decline.

“Degrowth is capitalism’s own method of dealing with overaccumulation.”

Capital thus deals with the excess accumulated portion by way of self-destruction. Paradoxically, it must reduce itself in size so that accumulation can continue and its value can be maintained. This occurs through various means, including luxury consumption, war, militarism, austerity, and—you guessed it—degrowth. In other words, degrowth is capitalism’s own method of dealing with overaccumulation. It represents a retrenchment of the capitalist mode of production, not an overcoming of it.

Already in the 1930s, the Japanese economist Kawakami Hajime devised a simple analogy to illustrate this very issue. Capitalism is like a balloon, he said. More and more air is blown into the balloon. This is like capital accumulation. But eventually, the natural limits of the balloon are reached. The balloon is full, and no more air can be put in. At this point, one of two things must happen: Either the balloon itself must pop, spelling the end of capitalist social relations, or air must purposely be let out of the balloon. Capital must be destroyed so that capital accumulation can continue. Readers of Marx will already know this from the Grundrisse, where he noted that the annihilation of “a great part of the capital violently lead[s] it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide.”

Saitō’s claim, central to Marx in the Anthropocene, that degrowth is antagonistic to capitalism relies on his conflation of Marx’s notion of “productive forces” with “growth.” Since Saitō narrowly equates “productive forces” with technology, machinery, and increased productive output, he assumes that further developing these things would not lead to human emancipation, but on the contrary, to our increasing subjugation at the hands of techno-capitalists.

Saitō also asserts a novel distinction between the “early” Marx, in which he categorizes the philosopher’s writings through the 1860s, and the “late” Marx. The former, he concedes, was indeed a “Promethean” and “productivist” who naively believed that technological advances would help usher in capitalism’s end. But in his account, Marx belatedly abandoned this conviction. Saitō relies on previously unreleased letters and notebooks to support his claim that in his last years, Marx became a champion of “ecosocialism” and “degrowth communism.”

Further, Saitō claims that the later Marx turned away from the Western model of capitalist development and toward “non-Western and non-capitalist societies” that had a “more sustainable form of human interaction with their environment.” In the process, he tells us, Marx discarded the idea that societies must pass through the capitalist mode of production to arrive at socialism. Rather, says Saitō, Marx recognized the possibility of moving from pre-capitalism directly to socialism “without going through the destructive process of capitalist modernization” (195). It was this transformation, concludes Saitō, that made Marx a “degrowth communist.”

Saitō’s assertions are remarkable, because the ideas he claims Marx abandoned are, by most accounts, fundamental to the theory of historical materialism pioneered by the communist philosopher in the 19th century. According to his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, the necessity of the development of productive forces was, along with the theory of surplus value, Marx’s greatest discovery. This is no obstacle to Saitō, who readily accepts that historical materialism should be abandoned. But his attempt to persuade his readers of all this relies on an erroneous account of the notion of “productive forces.”

Marx’s theory of historical materialism explains how the “productive forces” inevitably come into conflict with prevailing “social relations,” leading to class conflict and struggle, and the eventual toppling of the old social order and its replacement with a new one. However, by “productive forces” Marx didn’t mean simply technological development and economic growth, but rather workers’ labor power and the development of the working class itself.

This is why historical materialism is a theory of class struggle. As the capitalist mode of production and social relations—that is, wage labor—spread around the world, they create and enlarge the working class and bring about its exploitation and immiseration. It is this fundamental contradiction of capitalism that inevitably brings the working class into conflict with the buyers of labor power and the monopolizers of capital (the capitalist class). It is only through the sustained and intensifying struggle between workers and capitalists that the transition to a post-capitalist society can be achieved. This is why development of the “productive forces” ultimately sounds the death knell for capitalism. Again, this doesn’t merely imply more advanced technology, but rather the increased power and class consciousness of workers. This is why Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism produces “its own grave-diggers.”

Considering the leading role that Marx assigned to the working class in the movement beyond capitalism, it is noteworthy that this class is entirely absent from Saitō’s theory of degrowth communism, which instead posits the “true” struggle as that between capitalism and the planet. So who will lead the movement for degrowth? In the postscript to the Japanese edition of his book, Saitō suggests that just 3.5 percent of the world’s population acting in coordination would be sufficient to begin implementing his goal of degrowth communism. He also makes clear that this movement isn’t limited to the working class. (One might add that it sounds quite similar to the minoritarian, elite-directed mode of rule currently in effect, rather than any break from it.)

“Degrowth does not undo capitalism, but helps perpetuate it.”

The consequence of Saitō’s abandonment of historical materialism, then, is his total relinquishment of a class-based view of historical change, as well as the revolutionary role Marx accorded the working class in that process. The question which arises then is how the working class could be expected to benefit from a movement in which it may not have any part.

But there is another, more pressing question to answer. If degrowth, in Saitō’s conception, means the reduction of productive forces, and if this force itself consists of workers and their labor power, wouldn’t this render many workers themselves redundant? To be sure, in the classic Marxian account, a future communist society that produces for need instead of profit will offer workers an abundance of free time. But this liberatory scenario presupposes their prior victory in the class struggle. Saitō seems to propose the reverse order by arguing for degrowth first. But as we have seen, degrowth doesn’t undo capitalism, but helps perpetuate it. In this sense, Marx in the Anthropocene offers a new alibi for the status quo, not a means of moving beyond it.