Degrowth Communism

Degrowth Communism June 12, 2024

Capitalism creates economic growth.  But economic growth puts ever-more carbon into the atmosphere.  Therefore, capitalism is ultimately responsible for the climate catastrophe that awaits us.

The only way to avoid that catastrophe is by reversing economic growth.  That means abandoning capitalism.  Instead, we should adopt communism, which has the additional virtue of being able to control people to force them to curb their environmentally-ruinous behavior.

So argues Kohei Saito, a Japanese Marxist who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.  He is the author of Slow Down:  The Degrowth Manifesto, a book that is receiving wide acclaim in academia.

Christopher Beam has written an article on Saito and his ideas for The Atlantic entitled Is America Ready for ‘Degrowth Communism’?

Beam points out that economic growth is a principle that has been addressed by conservatives and liberals alike:

Economic growth, the French economist Daniel Cohen has written, is the religion of the modern world. Growth is the closest thing to an unalloyed good that exists in politics or economics. It’s good for the rich, and it’s good for the poor. It’s good if you believe inequality is too high, and if you think inequality doesn’t matter. Deciding how to distribute wealth is complicated, but in theory it gets easier when there’s more wealth to distribute. Growth is the source of legitimacy for governments across the political spectrum: Keep us in power, and we’ll make your life better.

“Degrowth” is not a new idea.  Environmentalists have called for it for decades.  But Saito adds to that concept a means, he thinks, of achieving it:  Communism.

Here is how Beam describes Saito’s thinking:

The degrowth movement has swelled in recent years, particularly in Europe and in academic circles. The theory has dramatic implications. Instead of finding carbon-neutral ways to power our luxurious modern lifestyles, degrowth would require us to surrender some material comforts. One leading proponent suggests imposing a hard cap on total national energy use, which would ratchet down every year. Energy-intensive activities might be banned outright or taxed to near oblivion. (Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, and your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays.) You’d probably be prohibited from setting the thermostat too cold in summer or too warm in winter. To keep frivolous spending down, the government might decide which products are “wasteful” and ban advertising for them. Slower growth would require less labor, so the government would shorten the workweek and guarantee a job for every person.

More orthodox Marxists say that Marx was in favor of economic growth, which he thought would empower workers in the socialist paradise.  I would add, conversely, that the lack of economic growth under communism was a major factor in its collapse in the Soviet Union.  Saito turns the failure of communism into a virtue.

Another even more important failure of communism that led to its collapse is the kind of totalitarian government that it requires.  Beam’s article says virtually nothing about this, and Saito is cagey when he is asked about democracy:

At the end of our dinner, Saito told me he’s working on his next book, about the role of government when it comes to implementing degrowth. “The state has to intervene, but how can we make a democratic transition?” he asked rhetorically. I asked if he had an answer. He said, “Not yet.”

Democracy is one of those “liberal” ideas–along with liberty and free market capitalism–that communism has no use for.  Will people willingly give up prosperity, upward mobility, personal freedom, and the ability to eat hamburgers, drive SUVs, fly home for the holidays, and set their thermostats?  I think not.  They would have to be forced to.

It’s surely significant that in the name of averting climate change Saito and all of his fans “particularly in Europe and in academic circles” are calling not for some kinder and gentler form of communism, but communism at its worst.

 

Photo:  Kohei Saito by Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136235270

 

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