Saito: the metabolic rift and de-growth communism

Kohei Saito is an associate professor at Tokyo University and an erudite Marxist scholar.  Not a candidate for a best-seller in the non-fiction book world, you might think.  But you would be wrong in this case.  Saito’s new book (currently in Japanese), which analyses the relationship between capitalism and the planet, has been a smash hit in Japan, with over half a million sales already.

In the English version out shortly, the book is entitled, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism 

The book’s message is stark and clear.  Capitalism’s rapacious drive for profit is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth.  Humans need to find a “new way of living”, and that means replacing capitalism.

Saito is deeply sceptical of some widely accepted strategies for tackling the climate emergency. “In my book, I start a sentence by describing sustainable development goals [SDGs] as the new opium of the masses,” he said in reference to Marx’s view of religion. “Buying eco bags and bottles without changing anything about the economic system … SDGs mask the systemic problem and reduce everything to the responsibility of the individual, while obscuring the responsibility of corporations and politicians.”

He continues: “We face a very difficult situation: the pandemic, poverty, climate change, the war in Ukraine, inflation … it is impossible to imagine a future in which we can grow the economy and at the same time live in a sustainable manner without fundamentally changing anything about our way of life.  “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.”

Saito reckons it is necessary to end mass production and the mass consumption of wasteful goods such as fast fashion.  In his earlier more academic text in English, called Capital in the Anthropocene, Saito also advocates decarbonisation through shorter working hours and prioritising essential “labour-intensive” work such as caregiving.  In effect, Saito promotes what could be called ‘de-growth Communism’.

Saito’s uncompromising message has seemingly captured the imagination of Japan’s youth.  “Saito is telling a story that is easy to understand,” says Jun Shiota, a 31-year-old researcher who bought Capital in the Anthropocene soon after it was published. “He doesn’t say there are good and bad things about capitalism, or that it is possible to reform it … he just says we have to get rid of the entire system.”

In his academic work, Saito has followed John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, in showing that it is wrong to claim, as some Greens do, that Marx and Engels ignored the impact of capitalism on the planet and the environment.  In particular, Saito won the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2018 for his learned analysis of Marx’s notebooks on agriculture and the exhaustion of the soil revealing Marx’s deep interest in ecology.

In this earlier work, Saito points out that his approach “is a clear continuation of the “metabolic rift” theory advocated by Foster and Burkett.” Saito argues that it is quite apparent today that mass production and consumption under capitalism has tremendous influence upon global landscape and causes ecological crises. So Marxist theory needs to respond to the situation with a clear practical demand that envisages a sustainable society beyond capitalism. Capitalism and material conditions for sustainable production are incompatible. This is the basic insight of ‘eco-socialism’.  The antagonism between red and green needs to be dissolved.

In his earlier book on Marx’s notes on agriculture under capitalism, Saito reckons that Marx attempted to analyze how the logic of capital diverges from the eternal natural cycle and ultimately causes various disharmonies in the metabolic interaction between humans and nature. Marx analysed this point with reference to Justus von Liebig’s critique of modern ‘robbery’ agriculture — Raubbau — which takes as much nutrition as possible from the soil without returning any. This ‘robbery agriculture’ is driven by profit maximisation, which is simply incompatible with the material conditions of the soil for sustainable production. Thus, there emerges a grave gap between the logic of capital’s valorisation and that of nature’s metabolism, ie ‘metabolic rifts’ in human interaction with the environment.

In the key passage on the concept of the metabolic rift, Marx wrote that the capitalist mode of production “produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process between social metabolism and natural metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of the soil. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, and trade carries this devastation far beyond the bounds of a single country (Liebig).” With an expansion of capitalist accumulation, the metabolic rift becomes a global issue.  So for Saito eco-socialism argues that the ecological crisis and metabolic rift is the central contradiction of capitalism.

According to Saito, in The German Ideology, written in 1845, there was a turning point in Marx’s travel towards an ‘ecological dimension’ in his critique of capitalism. Saito reckons this is when he begins to use the term ‘metabolism’ and refines his understanding of the concept as the general metabolic tendency of capital. Saito argues that Marx progressively realises that capital’s continuous expansion exploits not just labour, but also nature in the search for profit, leading to the destruction of the soil, deforestation and other such forms of the degradation of natural resources. Capital wants more and more value and, in particular, surplus value. That becomes the purpose of production and the metabolic harmony that existed between humans and nature before capitalism is broken. There is now a metabolic rift caused by capitalism.

Now there is a debate arbout whether using the term ‘metabolic rift’ is useful because it suggests, at least to me,  that at some time in the past before capitalism there was some metabolic balance or harmony between humans, on the one hand, and ‘nature’, on the other. Any emphasis on rifts or ruptures has the risk of assuming that nature is in harmony or in balance until capitalism disturbs it. But nature is never in balance, even without humans. It is always changing, evolving, with ‘punctuated equilibriums’ to use the term of Marxist paleaontologist Stephen Jay Gould – such as the Cambrian explosion, with many species evolving as others go extinct. The rule of the dinosaurs and their eventual extinction had nothing to do with humans (despite what the movies may depict). And humans have never been in a position to dictate conditions on the planet or with other species without repercussions. ‘Nature’ lays down the environment for humans and humans act on nature. To quote Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past.’

It’s true that Marx refers to the robbing of the soil by capitalist production. In Capital, Volume I, Chapter 15 on machinery Marx says: “Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasingly the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development … the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker. “(Marx, 1995 [1887])

Saito argues that “Marx’s critique of political economy, if completed, would have put a much stronger emphasis on the disturbance of the “metabolic interaction” between humanity and nature as the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.” That may be Saito’s view, but was it Marx’s?  Is the ‘metabolic rift’ the “fundamental contradiction of capitalism”?  In my view, Saito does not offer a justification for this claim.

For Marx, capitalism was a system of “brutal exploitation” of labour power in production for profit, not one of robbery or dispossession. For Marx, agriculture under capitalism is a sector that exploits labour in the same way as industry. Marx rejected the Ricardian theory that the profitability of capital tended to fall because of diminishing returns in agriculture. Marx’s law of tendency of the rate of profit to fall depended on a rising “organic” composition of capital (the word “organic” perhaps taken from Liebig, as Saito suggests), where the material value of machinery and natural materials rises in cost relative to the exploitation of labour power. But contrary to Saito’s conclusion, Marx rejected Liebig’s soil exhaustion theory of the limits of capitalism and rejected the implied Malthusianism that population would outrun the availability of food and the necessities for human life.

Saito’s book is subtitled: ‘Towards the idea of de-growth communism’.  De-growth has become increasingly popular among many environmentalists and leftists. Jason Hickel, a prominent proponent of de-growth, defines it like this: ‘The objective of degrowth is to scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per-capita consumption.’

There is a big debate here – as expressed in the critique by ex-World Bank chief economist and expert on global inequality, Branco Milanovic.  Milanovic argues that any proposal to redistribute income and wealth to the global South by stopping or even reducing accumulation and GDP growth in the rich countries is economically irrational and politically infeasible.  De-growth proponents like Hickel says Milanovic is misrepresenting the de-growth argument because he has a ‘blind faith’ in economic growth.  I leave the readers here to consider the arguments. 

Suffice it to say now  that, under capitalism, accumulation happens for accumulation’s sake, to invest more and thus to make more profits without a plan and purely in the interests of private profit. When workers are in control of the surplus, will we not develop and grow the productive forces to make life better and easier for ourselves and more sustainable for the earth and its inhabitants? Wouldn’t we especially expand ‘green’ productive forces to build say, more (and better) schools, public transportation etc.? Shouldn’t socialists strive to repair the underdevelopment created by imperialism by assisting in the development of productive forces in the formerly colonised world?

“Yet for all its stinginess, capitalist production is thoroughly wasteful with human material, just as its way of distributing its products through trade, and its manner of competition, make it very wasteful of material resources, so that it loses for society what it gains for the individual capitalist.” (Marx). The wasteful and environmentally unsustainable consumption patterns of the working class are not produced by ‘personal’ choice but are system-induced.

But the proponents of de-growth seem to argue that there are absolute ‘planetary limits’ and a fixed ‘carrying capacity’ that cannot be surpassed by humans if we want to avoid ecological collapse.  Here there’s no distinction between socially produced limits and natural limits. But degrading nature, exterminating species and threatening to destroy the atmosphere of the planet are the result of the contradictions to be found in the capitalist mode of production itself, not in some existential threat from outside the system. Increased rates of pollution and environmental degradation occur because capitalists pursue profits at the expense of the environment, not because of the technologies themselves. Socialists should distinguish between the instruments of production and their use under capitalism.

In a socialist de-growth scenario, the goal would be to scale down ecologically destructive and socially less necessary production (what some might call the exchange value part of the economy), while protecting and indeed even enhancing parts of the economy that are organised around human well-being and ecological regeneration (the use value part of the economy).

Saito is right that ending the dialectical contradiction between humans and nature and bringing about some level of harmony and ecological balance would only be possible with the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. As Engels (1896) said, “To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge.” Science is not enough. “It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order” (ibid.)

45 thoughts on “Saito: the metabolic rift and de-growth communism

  1. Malthusian socialism, thinly disguised as Marxism. We see the machinations of western Marxism come to bear fruit finally, a kind of sublation of finance capital that advertises itself as a new form of socialism. Gone is the explosion of the forces of production, replaced by Liberal soothsayers claiming to be Marxists who will guide us to living in pods and eating bugs. This is the end trajectory of Western Marxism, which was never Marxism to begin with. Saddens me greatly that no one can see this dystopian scam of finance and rentier capital dominating production.

    1. I’d say it’s first world parasitism thinly disguised as “de-growth” for everybody. There is obviously a hard limit on the resources only producible in the global south and vital to the development and maintenance of capitalism in the global north.

      But that is a non-issue if the global south is able to use them to develop itself on its own terms. For example, conditioning access to its resources on the global north allowing billions of people to emigrate to it (esp the USA) and receive allotments of agricultural land. Even from a liberal perspective that would be adequate compensation for the historical transfer of resources and unpaid labour between south and north, which was disastrous for the latter and can be accurately called de-growth or de-development.

      1. Jupiviv, I agree that unrestricted immigration from the oppressed world to the imperial core should be implemented (I am a British Marxist, for others who feel uneasy, I suggest Nadine El-Enany’s ‘Bordering Britain’, the border is the equivalent of settlerism for “old world” capitalist imperialism, guarding the accumulated (and still accumulating – a process also facilitated by the border via the suppression of ‘southern’ wages) loot).

        I reject the idea that this amounts to compensation or reparations however, for the simple reason that moving billions of people from one area to another impoverishes the former and enriches the latter.

        Open borders are an obligation for the core, but immigration is also a benefit derived from imperialism (the accumulation of human resources, in the scenario you describe this is very direct, small agriculture improving food security, restoring nature, embedding and developing various techniques/knowledge…), it increases rather than decreases the debt imo.

        We need to look also to the abolition of intellectual property, and the assigning of a significant portion of output per year for no strings transfers to the oppressed world. It is possible for the core to achieve this and improve the quality of life for the majority of its population, but not while geared to the production of exchange rather than use value (capitalism vs (hopefully) socialism). Political action from the masses is required, so the question for those of us in the core is how to develop and contribute to that?

        On growth in general, we should stop talking abstractly. Growth of what? Not of the current system, production for it’s own sake, but the growth and development of human life and society(ies) on their own terms. In that sense, we want both growth and de-growth.

  2. It’s worth reading Schmelzer et al. “The Future is Degrowth” (Verso, 2022) for an authoritative and nuanced explanation and exploration of degrowth, orientated to a leftist audience. It deals with many misconceptions while acknowledging the heterogeneity of the concept and movement. It is certainly not Malthusian in any sense. As for the planetary limits, as developed by Johan Rockstrom and colleagues, the concept is physical. A number of authors, including Hickel have worked with the notion of the “safe and just space” for human activity and development, bounded above by the planetary limits and below by minimum standards for a livelihood with dignity. The overshooting of the planetary boundaries is indeed the result of the ‘great acceleration’ under capitalism and therefore a rational system of production and distribution according to real human needs is the answer, i.e. socialism. But those boundaries are indeed physically absolute and can’t be wished away.

  3. Nature – in the sense of the biosphere – is not a closed system, therefore is not, was never and will never be in equilibrium (“harmony”). Planet Earth itself will cease to exist in some billion years time when the Sun becomes a red star.

    There is a hypothesis called the Gaea Hypothesis, which states that life in general (the biosphere), once started, has some mechanisms that retard some geological processes that would extinguish life as a whole. But that mechanism is just a countervailing force, not an absolute one: life can just preserve itself up to a certain point, after which the cosmological forces predominate and eventually extinguish all life on the universe.

    Philosophically, we can state that the Universe is a closed system by definition, since, as the name suggests, it is everything that exists (including time itself, hence I’m only using the verb exist in the present tense). But physicists are still debating if the observable universe (the part of the universe we can scientifically observe and study) really is a closed system or not; the evidence we have nowadays is inconclusive.

    Primitive communism (hunter-gatherism) is the most stable economic system in human existence: it existed for some hundreds of thousands of years, until slavery was created, in some river civilizations (Egypt being the most famous to us), some five thousand years ago.

    The problem is we cannot go back to primitive communism because the mega fauna and the dense forests and fields of the late Ice Age don’t exist anymore. Entropy still apply to humanities, we cannot elaborate some Weberianic category that absolutely violate logic and the laws of physics and biology just because we’re in humanities. Traveling back in time is impossible; the only way to go in time is forward.

    We should not reinvent the wheel. Marx was very clear about socialism and communism: they’re the superior stage to capitalism, not their alternative, not their rival. That means they must be a superior stage of the development of the productive forces. To state socialism/communism are an inferior stage of the development of the productive forces is the same to state that capitalism is the ultimate stage of the development of the productive forces, which makes de-growth simply an End of History theory.

    –//–

    Now the interesting thing about Saito’s theory is why de-growth is so popular in the West right now (Japan is, geopolitically, part of the Western Civilization).

    As I stated earlier in this blog, in a non-revolutionary situation, economic decline is always followed by its correspondent ideology(ies) of decline. Since a communist revolution in the West has become impossible, the only way out for Western Marxism to survive right now is to continue devolving into idealism, in order to cope with the economic decline. In this sense, de-growth is the leftist mirror image of traditionalism (i.e. the revival of religious fanaticism and racial supremacism).

    There is, therefore, a literal race to the bottom in the intellectual arena occurring right now in the West.

    1. The “development” of socially productive forces can be understood as a dialectic between quantitative and qualitative “development”. I’m referring to William Morris of course, but especially to Istvan Meszaros, who, for example, viewed capitalism’s development of its productive forces as evolving from constructive destruction to its present stage of destructive production, the latter of which has aesthetic as well as an economic facet: late capitalism is physically and morally ugly as hell.

  4. I suggest those commentating are missing the point Michael is making. Half a million books bought means millions of Japanese are now realizing that global warming cannot be reversed without abolishing capitalism. They join the tens of millions of workers around the world won to this understanding. We are talking of the emergence of a huge anti-capitalist movement. And it will reach a crescendo over the next three years as El Nino and Solar 25 scorches our planet.

    Michael it is easy to understand Marx’s metabolic rift. If I may be crude. It is based on the fact that humans and animals shit out crap from food which has been produced elsewhere. Thus, the waste which needs to renourish the area where it has been produced is lost, while it pollutes the area where it is consumed. While this problem existed before, it was insignificant, but now in the era of ships, trains and trucks enabling a new international and regional division of labour, it has become a big problem.

    I agree with you, degrowth is a guilt trip, not a journey of scientific exploration in search of solutions.

    1. ….Well, I don’t know what “degrowth” means, but if it’s an expression of guilt, I’m not a degrowther.

      ….However, to live in the belly of the decaying beast and not feel guilty about one’s inability to substantively resist its continuing destruction of human lives everywhere, including the lives of the many homeless in my own neighborhood, is to be heartlessly inhuman. All I can do is give local victims token money and real respect (but not my comfortable, privately owned home!).

      There are many ecosocialisms. My belief, however, in the idea of a globally distributed ecosocialist mode of production as a powerful organizing principle against the dying beast is an expression of my reading Mazoyer and Roudart’s “A History of World Agriculture” (published by Monthly Review), the works of JB Foster, and others–which is to say, based on my historical materialist way of thinking. Not on my guilt.

  5. Okay, personally, I am all for it. There is one little question that remains: how to get from here to there?
    Shall we storm the palace? How?

    1. Hi Dordi, me too!

      The most convincing answers I’ve come across so far come from the analysis of Chris Wright, an absolute gem. Take a look at these:

      https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/08/17/an-updated-and-improved-marxism/
      https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/05/15/revolution-in-the-twenty-first-century-a-reconsideration-of-marxism/

      No shortcuts or magical recipes, just pure logic following Marx’s own explanation of how capitalism arose from within feudalism. So this has to be long term too, revolution won’t do (especially now that almost nobody really wants it, plus the capitalist state is way too strong). Just good old getting together in socialist cooperatives producing use values and interacting with capitalism the bare minimum necessary to survive. A tough road indeed

  6. “Socialists should distinguish between the instruments of production and their use under capitalism.”

    That statement leaves me in despair — not because I disagree with it but because I can’t conceive of any way to engage in a dialogue with someone who presents that as a “Marxist” rebuttal to what “seems to be” the degrowth argument. What seems to me to be Marx’s argument is that the political economy of the working class is diametrically opposed to the political economy of the bourgeoisie. Marx characterized the political economy of the working class as “social production controlled by social foresight” and the “first victory” of that principle was limitation of the hours of labour. The resolution of the International on the eight hour day stated that “the limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive.”

    Some Marxists today might argue that the struggle for the limitation of the working day was won and that it is now just some archaic artifact of 19th century labour struggles. Other “Western” Marxists would point to the Grundrisse and the significance of passages there relating to “disposable time.” Considering Marx’s discussion of disposable time in the Grundrisse, how might a socialist “distinguish between the instruments of production and their use under capitalism.” Wouldn’t that socialist view the instruments of production as “the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development”?

  7. I haven’t read Saito’s latest book, but to claim that the production of a metabolic rift with nature is capitalism’s basic contradiction is to misuderstand Marx’s understanding of metabolic rift. But he’s better than most of his shoot from the hip, more marxist than Marx critics–“He sounds like Klaus Schwab”?

    Saito’s new understanding of metabolic rift is not a continuation of John Bellamy Forster’s, whose views (consonant with Engels’ ) are pretty much the same Roberts’, as expressed in the last paragraph of this post..

  8. @Michael:

    “For Marx, agriculture under capitalism is a sector that exploits labour in the same way as industry.”

    That is of course true for capitalist agriculture, but “agriculture under capitalism” would include colonialist and neocolonialist arrangements, which are certainly not capitalist. In fact Marx gives a very precise reference to the British drain of wealth from India in an 1881 letter to Danielsen, which he hadn’t mentioned before in any of his writings.

    “In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, is in store for the British government. What the English take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus; pensions for military and civil service men, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc., etc. – what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England – it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the sixty millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! This is a bleeding process, with a vengeance!”
    http://hiaw.org/defcon6/works/1881/letters/81_02_19.html

  9. “Global conventional crude oil production peaked in 2008 at 69.5 mb/d and has since fallen by around 2.5 mb/d.” Page 45 of the World Energy Outlook 2018 by the International Energy Agency.
    Degrowers have nothing to worry about, it’s just a matter of time. Remember this line? “Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop… ever, until you are dead!” Well, for the industrial society (capitalist or not, who cares?), the Terminator is out there: OIL DEPLETION. “You still don’t get it, do you? He’ll find her! That’s what he does! That’s ALL he does! You can’t stop him! He’ll wade through you, reach down her throat and pull her fuckin’ heart out!” But there is a second one at large, his cousin climate change who will make agriculture impossible. Lucky of me I am almost and old man already.

  10. One thing that is always amusing is confronting western Marxists on the validity of basing any environmentalist policy on Marx’s actual writings. Most of this comes from Foster’s extremely thin theory of Marx’s 1844 writings in the Manuscripts about soil metabolism in reference to British problems. Basically, Marx developed a theory that the soil fertility was limited and capitalist industrial production didn’t care, and that it would eventually lead to imperialism and land conquest abroad.

    From this basic analysis Foster (and later Hickel and Saito) extrapolate this insane degrowth theory. They slowly build up to it making all kinds of bizarre logical jumps (that were built on interjected environmental theories from the 1960’s environmental movements). We’re supposed to accept that Marx was postulating the Capitalist mode would lead to all kinds of natural disasters and eventually devastation of the planet.

    Even Malthus really didn’t go this far, on a global scale, of indicting production leading to this level of destruction. It’s a clear case of the tenets of “anti big oil” and “anti-nuclear” post war movements projecting back through time a continuity of thought that never existed. The environmental movements funding by big oil as a PSYOP to capture profits and demote any viable energy source other than itself is a more defendable theory than any “degrowth” fantasy based on Marx’s intuition.

    For example, take Marx’s body of work and analyze how much time he talks about the development of humanity through technology, industry, and scientific progress compared to his “metabolic” soil theory in 1844. Are we supposed to believe that Marx cherished or highly valued this criticism of capitalist production over the huge scientific system he created in Capital? That some strange “mother earth” narrative was close to his heart that pitted resources against human population and development? It’s an absolute fraud to suggest contemporary “environmentalism” comes from Karl Marx.

    1. “We’re supposed to accept that Marx was postulating the Capitalist mode would lead to all kinds of natural disasters and eventually devastation of the planet.”

      Whether or not we accept whether or not Marx postulated it, that seems to be a pretty accurate description of what’s going on right now.

      The question is can socialism can increase the productivity of labor and raise the social welfare of all without destroying fresh water supplies, polluting the air and land, and releasing tons of particulate matter, and exposing all to toxic chemicals– all things capitalism can’t do.

      I think socialism can do all those things, while accommodating even more people, and preserving even more of the “natural” environment that will support wild plants and animals.

      For example? Well, the single largest consumer of petroleum in the world is the US Navy. Abolish the militaries of the capitalist states and you’re much closer to the goal of a sustainable environment.

    1. As a contribution to the Merry spirit and intellectual level of those mocking Saito and all other ecosocialists, I add the fact that Schwab isn’t even Santa Klaus…

  11. Wage labour produces capital gain, right? So what Marx and Engels were suggesting is that the workers emancipate themselves from the wage system. At least, that’s how I read what they wrote. That’s what capitalist growth is, the growth of a vast accumulation of commodified wealth based on the abstraction called ‘value’ within the social relation of power Marx called, ‘Capital’.

    Seems to me that social ownership and democratic control of the means of producing useful goods and services might result in our seeing growth in the well being of the associated producers, i.e. us, as being what we cherish. And could the well being of humans be separated from the well being of the ecology? Wouldn’t increasing output per hour of labour be seen as a way to reduce the amount of time we need to spend doing what’s necessary for survival and instead, turning our energies toward doing what we desire with the accumulation of our free-time? Isn’t that what changing the mode of production from commodifying wealth for sale by commodified skills is about? By that, I mean production of wealth for use with distribution based on need i.e. communism or, ‘socialism’, if you will. Marx and Engels used the concepts interchangeably, right?

    The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that the workers don’t want to free themselves from the top down power structure. Most believe that a meritocracy exists and they want to graduate from being its masochists to it sadists. From womb to tomb, workers are totally immersed in top down hire arkies of political power of various labels, some even believing that they live in democracies. Reverse hierarchical domination seems, unnatural, unrealistic, going against the grain of the way in which they are socialised to think about ‘human nature’. It doesn’t occur to most of my contemporaries to see that the homo sapiens would never have made it through the last 350,000 years or so by acquiescing to the notion that the few should hog the wealth the many produce and that we are doing so is itself against our human nature, which like all life is geared toward survival.

    In late October, a report by the United Nations concluded that average global temperatures are on track to warm by 2.1° to 2.9° Celsius by the year 2100. The tropics, where humidity is an issue, make up about 40% of the planet’s surface area and are home to approximately 40% of the world’s population. How 10 billion humans will survive the oncoming wave of ecological collapse of agricultural production is beyond my meagre comprehension. Yet ask yourselves, amongst your friends, how many are aware that we need to do more than wait for market solutions to set matters right? Aren’t most concerned with the latest FIFA match or celebrity scandal? At best, don’t most think that we just need to oust the evil leaders and replace them with good ones?

  12. We’ll, this is one of the more interesting debates on Michael’s unfailingly interesting and thoughtful posts. As usual I agree with my friend the sandwichman when it comes to working time. It’s been heartening to see even some of the most tepid of trade unions endorse a four day week. The “first victory” was a great one and extending it could advance both emancipatory and environmental goals.

    But I want to think a bit more about the existing instruments of labour. We should I think also recall that the means of production are the relations of production. (Panzieri, I think.) Technology developed under capitalist relations of production was built to use workers to meet capitalist purposes – production of relative surplus value and the real subsumption of labour. It can’t necessarily be unproblematically appropriated for socialist ends. The instruments and their uses cannot be so easily separated. Just as “more than mere knowledge” is required for socialism, so too is more than the mere expropriation of the expropriators machinery.

    Lots to think about.

  13. First, Mark Burton: thanks for the reference to Schmelzer et al. I ordered it. 

    If there is anything I object to and despise, it is this hand waving – degrowth is Malthusian and all of that. 
    Michael Roberts (and of course not he alone) has for years explained the theory of the falling rate of profit. There is empirical evidence for this theory. Personally, I think it is correct. Other people have worked on the metabolic rift and, in modern language, the theory of unequal ecological exchange – people like Bellamy Foster and here, in Sweden, Alf Hornborg and Andreas Malm, among others. According to Michael (and others, like Wertkritik) an inherent contradiction in capitalism itself makes it increasingly difficult over time to realise profit (according to Wertkritik, it makes it impossible). According to Hornborg and others, capitalism doesn’t only exploit the worker, but also the soil. The theory, together with examples (for example the import of cotton from the US to England) is to be found in Marx. So, why wouldn’t we consider Marx, among other things like a genius economist, not also call the father or one of the fathers of ecological thought? Or do you think that capitalism does not exploit the soil? What are you people actually even talking about? 

    The situation we are facing is very clear: there is not one reasonable pathway to decrease emissions without cutting back on ‘growth’. It is really that simple. According to Hueting, for Holland to become ‘sustainable’, GDP should fall by 50% at the least. Ah yeah, the Right says – and a lot of the so-called Left – back to the Stone Age (or ‘go to Cuba if you like it that much’). In fact, a reduction of GDP of 50% would result in a world similar in wealth in which we lived during the 1970s. The issue is not to ‘go back’ to that time, it is not possible and it is not what we want because 1970s Holland was not sustainable either. But we could evolve into a world that is similar to that world and with very low emissions. Shouldn’t we start trying – although how I have no clue and nor does anyone else? We should start trying anyway, because nothing else works. What has that got to do with Malthus?

    Politically, degrowth is obviously completely out of the question. It would be great if the Left could at least imagine it. It is going to be the end of human civilization or global degrowth (and sharing), but no one talks about it, except for a couple of academics. In the meantime, it is 4 degrees C in Stockholm today. People look in garbage cans hoping to find something to eat (I see this every day – in this country, once the number 1 on the Human Development Index). Go check the latest articles on methane and you will see that we are done – maybe, just maybe we can avert the very worst. People like Jason Box and Nathalia Shakova have explained it for decades. Capitalist productivism, including the destruction of the soil, caused this problem. In order to remedy it, if it can be remedied or else just as a palliative, we need to tackle capitalist productivism. Call it what you want, regardless of any political configuration, it will be degrowth.  

    1. I think you miss the point. You accept that capitalist production produces the contradiction that it damages the environment and negatively effects everyone (or almost everyone in the aggregate). Then you offer “socialism” as an elective alternative system that solves the problem.

      I say this is idealistic thinking and has nothing to do with Marxism. Marx descriptively analyzed the Capitalist mode and gave us the scientific way of conceptualizing it. It is not a prescriptive system that tells us anything other than how production works. It does not tell us what is good or what or how production should be.

      Indictment of production, however, is exactly where western Marxism ended up. In AES the focus was and still is on production and how it serves the aggregate. The focus of Foster/Hickel/Saito is simply an extension of a larger war on production, one fueled by this basic western phallicy.

      Tabkling “capitalist productivism” is another way of putting it, which is a prescriptive inversion of Marxism. I can only postulate that it’s the combined efforts of finance and rentier capital looking to further the iron grip it has on 1st world production, forever pushing it to the periphery and the 3rd world in an attempt to forever disallow the concept that any revolutionary activity in the west can be stifled. It’s not just the classic overproduction and oppression of wage labor anymore, it goes much deeper. Debt makes this apparent.

      Michael Roberts work on the falling rate of profit shows how capitalism, at it’s very core, cannot control the profit it seeks at all costs. The capitalist sells the noose to hang himself with. If the profit has already been exacerbated by endless need to reduce variable capital the paradox, and dialectic, is already complete. We know the trajectory, Michael has show this in the Long Depression.

      What Saito represents is another final stage, where we abandon LTV and humanity further by denying it production itself, instead ushering in an age of neo-feudalism. It’s the only way the ruling elite can evade the falling rate of profit. If you don’t like the term “neo-feudalism”, fine, make up a new one. What’s happening is undeniable. And according to degrowth all be can do is “implode the forces of production”, a concept Marx would have called Malthusian.

  14. Degrowth??? Let’s cut to the chase. The capitalist class and its retinue including its uniformed mercenaries and enforcers probably consume up to 60% of all articles of consumption measured by labour time. Then we find that up to half of the workforce is engaged unproductively, this time on metabolically circulating and accounting for private property. This means everything else being equal, after the revolution the average worker working for only one hour could consume four times as much as present or work only one quarter as much to achieve their existing standard of living. For the life of me I have never worked out why the timid degrowth folk have not worked this out.

    Currently Global GDP per person works out at $12,500. Livable but not enjoyable and frozen.

    If we understand the following. The current ecological crisis is caused by a mode of production wherein the owners only recognize paid costs of production or what is the same thing, cost price, which they are always seeking to reduce squeezing labour and abusing nature. In a communist society this is done away with and for the first-time actual costs appear. These actual costs include the cost of production and the costs of consumption resulting in a neutral impact on nature. In the meantime, the social fund or as Marx called it the common fund, wherein is found society’s collective effort, will provide the resources to restore the balance between humanity and nature by reversing global warming and specie depletion.

    Comdrades, especially the degrowth folk, understand the contradiction. As capitalism becomes more productive it becomes more destructive. But reverse the contradiction; when in the hands of the workers, this rising productivity becomes increasingly constructive. That is the way the world works. We do not need four planets we simply need one planet freed from capitalism.

    1. I agree with you. In the socialist society we will not have artificial needs promoted by the capitalist to harvest profit. We can recall what Emicurus says the earth has enough to feed all the natural needs of the society. But to feed artificial greedy needs one earth is not enough. In the capitalist system we can’t escape from artificial greedy needs. So as we can’t sustain ecology.

  15. Often I order books reviewed but not this one. The historical analysis seems to omit Alexander von Humboldt and the Malthus whose name is bandied about with such abandon. Marxian political economy establishes why the historical experience of capitalist accumulation is a necessity immanent to that system. But the book seems to omit any discussion of what would impel accumulation under a workers’ owned and guided planned economy. The short answer seems to be, the satisfaction of needs, which includes the need for a habitable world. It’s not even clear what would be the force driving accumulation requiring resources so extensively that only a few could enjoy the products. What “class” would go broke? Nor is it clear how wasteful production that robs the environment, that is, the many, to provide environmentally-subsidized privileges to the few could find a majority to enact it? And the notion that the very law of population is historical (or dialectical if you will) and the socialist system will have a different one. If you don’t discuss demography you aren’t even discussing global ecology.

    It’s not even clear whether Saito’s book engages even with Japan. Is it true that social pressures are so intense young people are starting to disengage from sexual activity?

    Capitalism can be revived for a while if enough of the old production system is destroyed. In the beginning and the end the greatest productive force is people. Kill enough people and the surviving capitalists will have a profitable market.

    A note on morals. It is not accepted I suppose, but I can’t see how morals are anything but rules for how we live together. But when we are fighting for our lives in a catastrophe, the pragmatic sanction for morality—we want to live!—may conflict or seem to conflict with the necessities.

  16. The concept of “metabolic rift” is already contained in Marx’s basic concept of the capitalist exploitation of waged labor power under the dominion of the mode of production’s social relations of production. Marx quite often presented evidence of the destructive effects of the capitalist mode of production upon the ability of the worker to reconstitute their labor power, their essential “life-giving” real property under capitalism. The struggle to reconstitute their labor power, and the capitalist disruption and destruction of the same, occurs over all time frames from daily to inter-generational time, this last then impacting the social reproduction of workers both as individuals and as a class. This last shows the concept also pertains macroeconomically to class social relations as a whole, and is principally expressed in the “consumer sector” whose capitalist form is not merely enormously wasteful, but positively destructive of the social capacity for productive labor.

    Consequentially no special theory of a capitalist macroeconomic relation to “naturally occurring” potential productive forces, including those required for the reproduction of labor power such as healthy air and water, is required. One need only extend the concept of a “metabolic rift” in the reproduction of labor power, to the ecosystem itself. It’s really the same concept.

    As for “Western Marxism”, whatever that is, it appears to be deployed as a bogeyman by counterrevolutionaries who oppose any attempt to organize socialist revolution in the so-called “advanced”, but actually *undeveloping*, countries. It’s corollary is a fetishism of an equally so-called “Global South”, apparently a conceptual ghost of the “development of underdevelopment” theories promoted by Andre Gunder Frank, who later explicitly rejected Marxism. The enormous capitalist development of China, the greatest in capitalist history and the salvation of the capitalist world system these past 40 years, obviously contradicts this thesis, but is explained away by counterrevolutionaries with the chauvinistic expression, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and not as capitalism.

    We live in one united capitalist world system economically speaking, not 2 or 3 separate “worlds” that never shall meet. Politically we still live in world divided into “nation” states. Both comprise an historical era of the growing parasitism and decay of capitalism on the world scale. This is the main tendency everywhere. It is also the objective ground for socialist revolution. Both the post war “golden age” and the “rise of China” were and are temporary countertendencies.

    1. PRC/China are temporary countertendencies to the one true Marxism floating around in the clouds as a guiding light with pure metaphysical certitude? So there is no real objective movement towards the Socialist mode, it’s just Capitalists running the world and temporarily having some success? Yeah, this is “Western Marxism”, for sure.

      1. Here’s how to tell the “counter tendencies” from the “tendencies” toward proletarian revolution. In the current conflict in China, in particular the struggle of the workers at the Foxconn “campus”– which side are you on– strikers or cops?

        If you say cops, or equivocate trying to excuse the cops, then you are an example of what comrade Mayer has identified.

    2. The problem with not only present-day American Western Marxism (Democratic Socialists) and the Postmodern leftists factions (the plethora of identitarian ideologies that roam the face of the USA nowadays) is, structurally speaking, roughly the same that brought the end of the “Old Left” (the traditional, Marxist, trade-unionist Left): it started with good intentions at heart, but was then dragged into self-destruction by the irresistible perfume of American imperialism.

      With the former (Old Left) it was the Vietnam War; with the latter, it was the sequential series of wars in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. The lure of getting things the easy way, of being in the winning side, of being the most powerful side, has so far proven to be the siren’s song to the American Left. The proverbial bee wax is yet to be found.

    3. Can you identify the time and place and the “counter revolutionaries” as well as the socialists “revolutonaries” the counter revolutionaries opposed at that time and place?

    4. Bradley, I have to add the following to the previous question (misplaced under VK) I asked you:

      If appearance is a reliable reflection of reality, then publicity shots of world leaders–gathered together for some meeting all dressed like bankers–is ocular proof that they are all capitalists: Venezuelans, Indians, Bolivians, Iranians, Vietnamese, Russians, Canadians, Cubans, South Africans, Germans, Chinese–especially the Chinese–who saved the capitalist system from revolution and revolutionaries.

      In a nutshell, I think this is your position, which is seductive (especially for the aesthetically sensitive), but it is not marxist. It’s idealist and simplistic. Marx is himself complex, contradictory, as he grew by incorporating the ideas of others –his friend Liebig (who coined the phrase “metabolic rift”), Darwin, Henry Morgan…and in his last years, the ideas of Russian and Chinese revolutionaries.

      Ideologically, capitalism increasingly creates a world of appearances in which we are conditioned to regard material realities such as the objective, complex, materially dialectical difference between the sexes, the existence of classes–and the substantial difference between China and the US–as unreal…Ideally, from the degenerating capitalist perspective, only power and war are real.

    5. The “enormous capitalist development of China, the greatest in capitalist history and the salvation of the capitalist system…” obviously contradicts the thesis of “growing parasitism and decay of capitalism on a world scale…the main tendency everywhere.” It is not clear how the greatest achievement of capitalism can be demoted to “temporary” countertendency in the next photograph. I’m skeptical of the plausibility of explaining the thesis of both a flowering of capitalism *and* the decay of capitalism by imputing racism (“chauvinist,”) to “counterrevolutionaries.” Overthrowing the Chinese government in the name of democracy strikes me as counterrevolutionary.

      As to the notion that China is capitalist, could I suggest that capitalism is not a metaphysical, changeless ideal but both relation and process? The working of capitalism in time is inherently a contradictory process which must be interrupted by crises which are the form of the resolution of the contradictions. There is no capitalist system without a capitalist resolution of its development, the claim otherwise is superficial, vulgar in the Marxist sense I think. Resolving the contradictions in a non-capitalist way is the replacement of the system by a new system, however imperfectly elaborated the new is and however marred by the heritage of capitalism. If as you say at one point, Chinese capitalism is the gigantic triumph of the capitalist mode, then you can detail the ways in which it (and the bourgeois state) are preserving capital, by lowering the cost of labor power and raw materials; preserving the industrial reserve army of labor; supporting finance capital by austerity; military support of the export of surplus capital for more profitable production elsewhere….all of this on an expanded scale suitable to the largest capitalist economy of all time. I’m not at all certain an objective comparative analysis can support this implicit claim at all.

      But tackling the issue from another end, what is the relationship between the various Chinese bourgeoisies in Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines and, according to you, the PRC?

  17. The bind here of course is that limiting the supply of vehicles, packaging, fast fashion, house sizes, energy use, plane flights, meat, building up poor economies – and every other energy suck will not be a big hit with workers politically. To willingly limit yourself through diet, through use of gasoline and gas, through buying things – which I don’t find hard – but which many people used to the commodity way of life will find impossible. Only when conditions are so deplorable that ‘basics’ actually sound like a good idea will a majority come over. And by basics I mean food/clothing/housing/transport/education/health care/child care/communication/less work/everyone with a job, etc. all guaranteed for everyone. See Cuba. See the Dispossessed. Think 1947 in the U.S. before the car economy, suburbia, and ‘big.’ I think this still fits a Marxist perspective because Marx never advocated a luxury communism, just enough productivity so that everyone could work less and be relatively comfortable.

  18. “Think 1947 in the U.S. before the car economy, suburbia, and ‘big.’ I think this still fits a Marxist perspective because Marx never advocated a luxury communism, just enough productivity so that everyone could work less and be relatively comfortable.”

    Really? 1947? Well that includes before the polio vaccine, measles vaccine, dialysis machines, civil rights, voting rights, the breakup of empire in Asia and Africa. The problem with the simplistic interpretation of degrowth is, in part, its nostalgia for “better times” that never were.

    Marx’s notion of communism is one where labor both creates and satisfies new needs for the “species.” It is in truth an emancipation of labor power, not a longing for a “simpler” “cleaner” era.

    There is capitalist accumulation which is destructive and then there is the emancipation of labor which is the process by which, individually and collectively, human being make themselves new “worlds” without destroying the ability to sustain that advance.

    1. 1947 was chosen as a marker because it is right at the time of the ‘great acceleration’ in carbon production. It is a physical plant marker, not a political marker or a necessary technology marker, as was made clear. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. Every present useful advance is to be used. The commodity/ car/ suburban/ big/ war economy took off after that. There is nothing ‘simplistic’ about it, only replies that miss the point. Labor cannot be emancipated when capitalist ‘growth’ and commodities are destroying the environment that labor lives in. Again, all advances and basics guaranteed, all useless or harmful practices and commodities discontinued.

  19. Alienation of the worker from the product of his/her labour is the fundamental contradiction of Capitalist production. The worker by necessity with only their labour to sell has no involvement in determining the efficacy,design, production methods, efficiency thereof, environmental impact, sustainabilty,etc etc of the produce of their labour, ie the engagement with the whole that is the foundation of the human brain and its essential sustenance for its satisfaction and sense of well being and relevance. The human creative potential that is thus suppressed is beyond measure and any notion that somehow the polio vaccine, measles vaccine, dialysis machines required Capitalism is to deny this.

  20. Marxism is a materialist school of tought. The recognition of the absurd of a class society comes first from the truth of the inexistence of gods and every kind of unscientific discourse which pretends to keep the explotation working. Every form of class conscience comes first from the scientific knowlege, actually scientific knowlege have allowed us to know that this form of capitalist production is completely devasting to the planet and a huge part of this damage is completely irreversible.

    Marx doesnt had critized capitalism only for the explotation, he critized it also for their irrationality which was manifested in economic crises, and also actually in ecological crises. If the the extention of human urban and agricultural space as a portion of the planet, and also the consumption of natural resources, are too high and also this very huge productive apparate depends on CO2 emission to function, is off course unscientific yet pretend that degrowth under socialism could not be an option. We know clearly that the human space is completely excesive right know, and we don’t know how to achive an eficient energetic trasition.

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