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Confronting Capitalism's Contradictions: A Meditation on Saito's Degrowth Imperative

By Brian Cody Wibowo

March 13, 2024

In Response to Degrowth as the Imperative in the Age of the Polycrisis

Kohei Saito’s incisive analysis of the polycrisis and his case for degrowth as an imperative deserve a deeper reflection. His critique of the inherent pathologies of capitalism—its inefficiency in meeting human needs, its relentless drive to externalize costs, its reliance on exploitation, and its unequal exchange—is trenchant and persuasive. Equally compelling is his argument that reformist measures tinker at the margins while the core logic of accumulation and growth remains untouched, accelerating ecological and social collapse. Saito’s vision of a society that subordinates the economy to human well-being and ecological sustainability, rather than the reverse, is powerful and necessary.

However, while the degrowth diagnosis is convincing, the prognosis raises tricky questions about political economy that require further interrogation. The hegemony of growth is deeply entrenched not only in the circuits of capital and the corridors of power, but in the subjectivities and aspirations of citizens. Dislodging it would require a profound cultural and ideological shift, a “decolonization of the imaginary,” as Serge Latouche puts it, on a scale seldom seen outside of wartime. It’s unclear what social and pedagogical conditions could catalyze such a shift, or what role degrowth advocates could play in fostering it. The risk is that without a viable alternative vision and a broad-based movement to support it, the default response to crisis will be a doubling down on growth and a descent into eco-fascism, a very outcome it seeks to avoid.

Moreover, even if the political will for degrowth could be mustered, the challenge of managing a just and orderly transition is formidable. Proponents of a socially just sustainability like John Bellamy Foster have argued that simply slowing down the “treadmill of production” risks causing massive dislocations and upheavals, particularly for the working classes. The Global South degrowth, if mishandled, could look a lot like austerity, with all its attendant social costs. This is especially true for the South, where many economies are dependent on exporting to Northern markets. A rapid decoupling could pull the rug out from under these economies, while a sudden influx of wealth and technology transfers from North to South could exacerbate internal inequalities and neo-colonial dynamics.

What is needed, then, is a carefully managed, equitable transition that decouples livelihoods from growth while empowering the South to chart its own autonomous, post-development pathways. This will require new forms of global solidarity and cooperation, as well as transitional policies and institutions designed to redistribute resources, support alternative livelihoods, and build resilience in the face of inevitable shocks and backlashes. It will also require grappling with difficult questions of global justice and reparations for ecological debt. None of this invalidates Saito’s central thesis—that degrowth is an existential imperative. But it underscores the magnitude of the task and the need for clear-eyed strategic thinking. As Gramsci said, we must combine the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will. Charting a degrowth course in an age of polycrisis is perhaps the most urgent task facing humanity today—and also the most daunting.

Brian Cody Wibowo (SFS’25) is a junior at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Qatar.