Despite of these academic texts, millions of people actually know Saito's name for an incredibly popular work which has been translated into English as Slow Down. It has been a bestseller in Japan, selling literarily millions of copies and translated into multiple languages.
At the start it must be said that it is very welcome that Saito has found such a large audience for popularising Marx's ideas. It is a sign of the times that many people understand that capitalism is destroying the world and concluded that revolutionary politics are needed. But, I have to caution, that I think the Marxism Saito is offering has been shorn of its revolutionary kernal. It is an analysis that doesn't go far enough into using Marx's insights to analyse capitalism today, nor develop a revolutionary strategy for the 21st century.
Let us, however, start with the strengths. Saito offers an uncompromising approach. In the preface he writes:
Proponents of degrwoth are often abbivalent about the need to transcend capitalism. I am not ambivalent. In my opinion, degrowth must clarify its critical position against capitalism.
When discussing actions to "prevent global warming" such as reusing bags, water bottles and electric cars, he says "these good deeds are meaningless... thinking such actions are effective countermeasures can prevent us from taking part in the larger actions truly necessary to combat climate change."
The best parts of Slow Down are Saito's exploration of why capitalism destroys the environment, and the way that capitalist accumulation drives that process. It is a fairly convincing demonstration for the need for revolutionary anti-capitalist politics or, in Saito's words a "great change" which is "nothing less than a challenge to the capitalist system itself".
The problems begin to develop however when Saito explores Marx's work. Early in the book Saito writes that "the object of capitalism's exploitation is not just the labour power of the periphery, but also the environment of the entire earth." Similarly, he later writes, "capitalism is a system that explots not just humankind but the natural environment as well". I mention this, not to nitpick, but because Marx's understanding of exploitation was very specific - relating to the extraction, by capitalists, of surplus value from workers' labour.
In Saito's telling this relationship is downplayed into an act akin to how a capitalist uses natural resources. It means, I think, that Saito begins from the wrong starting point - failing to grasp precisely how workers' power arises from the nature of exploitation under capitalism. In particular it encourages him to use the concept of the "Imperial Mode of Living", a currently popular academic idea that argues that workers' in the Global North essentially accept the environmental destruction and imperialist destruction of the Global South, because it materially benefits them. The problem with this is that it undermines how much workers globally have shared interests in fighting exploitation and environmental destruction. [Space precludes me developing this point, so I shall point readers to yet another article that critiques the Imperial Mode of Living theory very well.]
Why is this important? The phrase "theory of change" has become popular among radicals these days, and the criticisms above are important because they relate directly to Marx's revolutionary politics (his theory of change!) and Saito's arguments. After "rehabilitating Marx" Saito writes about a "third way", the importance of "the commons" as an alternative to "US-style neoliberalism and Soviet-style nationalization". Saito arges that the society's infrastructure (electricty, transportation) and natural environments
should be managed and operated socialistically, exempt from market norms and national regulations. It's an ideas that's beasically identical to that of 'the commons'. The main difference is one of emphasis, with the commons prioitizing shared managemet by citizens in a democratic, equal way, rather than leaving administration up to specialists as advocated by the concept of social common capital. The other decisive difference is my aim to gradually expand the commons until... they overcome and displace capitalism entirely.
Now Saito has an idea of his socialism - a world we were have redefined abundance, seeing it as arising out of common ownership and the common good, rather than out of the chaotic, unplanned market. One where humans rationally use natural resources. He also, as the above quote shows, emphasises the need for democratic control. But the change he outlines here, and reflected throughout Slow Down arises out of gradual social change. As such it is inadequate. Compare, for instance, Saito:
The means of production must be returned to the commons as well. I'm talking here about workers' co-operatives - organisations allowing workers to invest jointly in the co-ownership and co-management of the means of production without interference from capitalists and shareholders.
with Marx's vision of the "self government of the producers" inspired by the Paris Commune, outlined in his Civil War in France:
In a rough sketch of national organization, which the Commune had no time to develop, it states clearly that the Commune was to be the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, and that in the rural districts the standing army was to be replaced by a national militia, with an extremely short term of service. The rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies to the National Delegation in Paris, each delegate to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandat imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents. The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal and thereafter responsible agents.
Marx emphasised that workers power arises out of workers' revolutionary struggle which simultaneously destroys the old capitalist state and institutes the democratic organisations through which workers control the means of production. But when Saito talks about "workers' self-management", drawing on the liberal writer Thomas Piketty, he emphasises "worker-led social ownership and particpatory management" in contrast to "workers' power". While he is right to highlight the difference between "participatory socialism" (Piketty) and Soviet-style socialism, Saito is completely wrong to argue that "Piketty's position and that of the late Marx are closer than they have ever been." Marx never lost his commitment to the idea of workers' power arising out of the smashing of capitalism.
Saito calls for a "revolutioanry transition to communism", but does not really articulate what Marx understood this to be. Here, I venture, it would have been instructive to look at the revolutionary process in Russia through the year of 1917. Not because the Stalinist counter-revolution offers us an alternative, but because for an all too brief period, workers' power through revolutionary institutions was a real thing.
Instead of this radical history, Saito's revolutionary change is surprisingly passive. He quotes Erica Chenoweth's idea that only 3.5 percent of the population are needed to "rise up sincerely and non-violently to bring about a major change to society." But this is far from Marx's own ideas of revolution. In contrast Marx wrote in the German Ideology that a mass revolution was needed :
Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
Kohei Saito's book is a readable and energetic critique of capitalism and its ecological catastrophe. It is wonderful that it is being widely read. But it offers a limited view of Marx's revolutionary ideas. The poly-crisis that we are facing in the 21st century demands much more.
Saito - Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
Saito - Karl Marx's Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature & the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
Chenoweth & Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works
Callinicos - The New Age of Catastrophe
Harman - Revolution in the 21st Century
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution