Theater of Cruelty

"Agriculture leaves deserts everywhere" DECLINE: The

Marx in the Anthropocene
Forfatter: Kohei Saito
Forlag: Cambridge University Press, (USA)
NEDVEKST / The Japanese re-reading of Marx advocates green communism or degrowth. The historical overview is impressive, and the analyzes are inspiring. Will a socialist or communist society necessarily be better, ecologically speaking? And should use value now come into play instead of exchange value?


The young Japanese philosopher Kohei Saito has become something of a sensation in his home country, as his Marxist manifesto about degrowth has become an unexpected bestseller (it will be in English January 2024). The new book Marx in The Anthropocene is a more academically oriented text, which follows up and partly overlaps with the book Marx’ Ecosocialism – Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (2017). In both books, the central Marxist concept is a general metabolism – a 'metabolism' or transformation of materials and energy in which both society and nature participate. According to Marx, work is an intervention in nature's metabolism, where work creates value through the processing of nature . But this intervention in nature's metabolism can in practice also become an attack or assault.

Overfishing, excessive logging and resource extraction with damaging effects that nature cannot repair.

In line with workers, nature can obviously also be exploited and its surplus or 'surplus value' extracted – something Marx also pointed out in a quote about 'the greedy farmer'. The passage about the farmer who thins the earth's own labor force too hard can stand as an example that covers overfishing, excessive logging and resource extraction with damaging effects that nature cannot repair or make up for by its own efforts. The passage has also stood as evidence of Marx's environmental awareness – and has been highlighted by red-green thinkers such as Jason Moore in his Capital in the Web of Life and Bellamy Foster in his studies of 'the metabolic break' or metabolic rift theory, which also becomes absolutely crucial for Saito.

The breach between nature's metabolism and society's material and energy-related processes runs deep. Saito shows via the largely unknown Hungarian theorist Istvá Mészáros that the breakdown of metabolism is also a logical flaw: Capital is blind to its own imperatives, the apparent necessity to expand and accumulate resources, and thus loses sight of nature's elementary and real necessities, its tolerance limits and needs, as dictated by nature's universal metabolism.

The nature household

We all know that the climate, environmental and resource problems can be formulated in such terms – that the problem is a growth economy that neither respects nor takes into account nature's limits. But are growth economics and natural exploitation one capitalist phenomenon? Would a socialist or communist society necessarily be better, ecologically speaking?

Saito points out that these objections come in several forms. Firstly: Historical cases of socialism and communism have also led to environmental destruction, such as in the Soviet Union or Mao's China. Secondly, the left's new utopias, such as accelerationism and luxury communism – which want a hyper-industrial and automated society with surplus and freedom for all – seem completely blind to nature's inherent growth and speed limits. Thirdly, it seems that Marx's own utopias were based on a dubious industrial expansion initiated by capitalism, but which would equally be continued by the classless society under the dictatorship of the proletariat. What about the ecological costs and limitations?

Adene (Fr_SP)-Window of hope

Plundering agriculture

For the record: Metabolism (Metabolism) and metabolism are the same. On an elementary level, it happens when individual cells or the body convert nutrients – or suitable matter – into energy and proteins and excrete waste products. It is not difficult to see how this process can be found in ecosystems – where precisely the flow of energy and matter is decisive – as well as in human society and industry, which precisely 'consume' materials and energy and which 'excrete' waste substances.

The left's new utopias, such as accelerationism and luxury communism, are completely blind to nature's inherent growth and speed limits.

This point was also understood by the German chemist Justus Freiherr von Leibig, who is referred to as one of the founders of organic chemistry and "the father of the fertilizer industry". Leibig realized that the soil was gradually depleted by agriculture, and that man since the first civilizations has depleted his own livelihood. The natural system has a certain rate of regrowth and regeneration, and he understood that this point also applies to other natural systems, such as forests and fish banks. Marx read Leibig's texts carefully and turned this train of thought into a comprehensive study. Engels also woke up to new insights and wrote "agriculture leaves deserts everywhere". The plundering agriculture Marx describes implies that industrialism cannot be understood as a closed circuit, but rather a dangerous growth spiral, where 'resources' outside the domain of capital are constantly being devoured and used up.

Rosa Luxemburg

Saito is inspired by Rosa Luxemburg: For her, capitalist states and external actors constantly expand and consume, exploit and impoverish non-capitalist countries and landscapes in a historical process. In retrospect, we recognize the relationship between city and country, as described by Marx, in a more comprehensive global dynamic between center and periphery, where the peripheries have been systematically thinned out – deprived of both resources and regenerative capacity.

If we follow the trail from Saito to Luxemburg's The accumulation of capital (1913), we see how she constantly repeats that capitalism does not have time to wait for non-capitalist cultures to readjust or disintegrate so that countries and people open themselves up to capitalist exploitation. Instead, the actors of capitalism step in and dissolve societies and all established practices and forms of cooperation. It is quite clear that the same infiltration and dissolution occurs when capitalism intervenes in natural systems. Capitalism's 'metabolism' depends on consuming its surroundings or what Luxemburg calls capitalism's 'environment', whether it is the natural environment or non-capitalist societies or practices.

Growth creates dissolution and consumes potential energy, potential resources. There is an unsolved connection between the metabolism or metabolism thinking that Saito undergoes, and the entropy critique of the economy by Georgescu-Roegen, Jeremy Rifkin, Bernard Stiegler and others, but this is a long canvas to paint – and Saito knows how to limit himself.

Red-green association

The lesson to be learned, as Saito hammers home, is that the ecological track pursued by Marx in his later years has been under-recognized and partly suppressed, first in Engels' editing and then by various Marxist factions. "And so what?" could we ask. Is it important if Marx anticipated the current situation from an eighteenth-century perspective?

There is actually a lot at stake in the attempt to reconcile the environmental issue and Marxism.

There is actually a lot at stake in the attempt to reconcile the environmental issue and Marxism: Red thinkers have often rejected green perspectives as a bourgeois ideology by leading thinkers on the left
- for example as Alain Badiou, (who described ecology as opium for the people) and by Slavoj Žižek (until recently). Defending nature appears as a denial of social justice issues.

And we also find green rejections of red perspectives, typically among moderate thinkers who regard a settlement with capitalism as unrealistic. Conversely, the red-green climate justice movement, with thinkers such as Andreas Malm and Naomi Klein at the forefront, advocates that it is, on the contrary, a climate battle without a settlement with capitalism that is unrealistic. To Saito's great credit, these major discussions are elucidated, analyzed and, to a large extent, convincingly clarified.

The artificial fertilizer

Capitalism leads to a great deal of waste and profoundly irrational overconsumption, we know that, but what is the alternative? Marx says in Part III of capital – and here lies the very point – that a "free association of workers" would be able to "regulate man's metabolism with nature in a rational way and bring it under his collective control rather than being blindly dominated by it" . Getting the metabolism of human society to coincide with that of nature is obviously an enormous task – and perhaps the best we can hope for is a movement in the right direction.

The metabolic rift primarily involves an intervention in nature's material processes. It also involves divisions in rom (between center and periphery) and i time (between our time's overconsumption and pollution, and those who will experience the consequences in the future). The task must, as far as I can understand, involve healing or processing these fractures, and here Saito could advantageously have been as clear in the proposed solutions as he is in the problem description.

When nature presents limitations, capital shifts strategically to overcome the limitations, Saito writes. A typical example is artificial fertilizer that is added to a soil that would otherwise be depleted of nitrogen and nutrients through hard cultivation. We can imagine that the artificial fertilizer is also produced industrially, which contributes to pollution and CO2-discharges that affect the future, while at the same time affecting other places through nitrogen pollution of water, which creates algae blooms and dead zones in the sea around river outlets. An example of a low-growth approach here could be agriculture without artificial fertilizers, which will undeniably also require a population (and farmers) who are willing to work more for less, but who in return may also be paid better for the product to that extent that they are not outcompeted from overproduction in a growth-oriented industrial agriculture.

Nedvekst Communism

A settlement with the competitive society and profitorienteringone will be necessary, according to Saito, and the use value must enter instead of the exchange value, but how this will happen in practice, he says little about.

Saito's best-selling sensation is, of course, not this book, but his shorter book on decline communism, which has not yet been translated. In this book we only get a brief outline of the principles of decline communism. It feels a bit anti-climatic and brief. He attaches great importance to shorter working days and a fairer distribution of work tasks and planning authority, without making it clear how this will improve the natural environment or sustainability. In any case, the main assumption is clear: Capitalism will never be able to limit itself to a responsible and rational relationship with nature, but a green communism will be able to succeed far better.

Saito is open about Marx's own limitations in describing the society of the future, a deficiency that has also always haunted more conventional Marxism. In return, he sees the project as an open and collective task of thought, and a practice that has already begun and is waiting for a superstructure that can withstand capital's solid framework and paralyzing grip on culture and politics. Nor is Saito alone on the theoretical level – and the publisher Verso's recent publication The Future Is Degrowth – A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism (2022) by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan shows that the so far rather empty term 'post-capitalism' is beginning to have a more clarified and positive content – and a more comprehensive theory.

These authors describe the down-growth development as a movement of movements, and it is worth mentioning agroecology, the Zapatista movement in Mexico, the buen-vivir movement of farmers in South America and Vandana Shiva's Navdanya in India as relevant examples. Mention should also be made of the international Degrowth conference in Barcelona in 2010 – and this is a train of thought that undoubtedly has a future ahead of it. In this sense, Saito's success in his native Japan is also a sign of the times.


Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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