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Socialism with Saito Characteristics: Reflections on Kohei Saito’s Degrowth Marxism

By Dung Tran

March 12, 2024

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

Kohei Saito, a Japanese philosopher who ushers in an era of neo-Marxist thinking on how to combat the encroaching apocalypse of global warming, invites us to think about degrowth as the antithesis to capitalism’s destruction wrought on the welfare of humanity. In his brief essay, Saito envisions a new world not dictated by McKinsey consultants on swanky pay: a world that rejects the powers of ESG (environmental, social, governance) corporate pledges; a UN panel on climate change held in air-conditioned, hyper-luxurious pavilions of Dubai; electric vehicles produced from cobalt mined by Congolese child slaves; and the consistent externalizing of climate change costs by developed economies to others to absolve their roles in three centuries of colonialism-fueled industrialization.

Degrowth, Saito argues, does not denature demand and supply; it embraces basic forces of economics so as to not deny countries the right to rise above abject poverty. Saito presents a nuanced proposition for degrowth, integrating rebuttals to worn-out critiques of Marxist economics. For the most part, he calls out humanity’s hubris: our blind beliefs in techno-wizardry magic bullets, plus the change-opium fed to us via corporate ESG propaganda. A ban on conspicuous consumption is also attached: you have been warned, the morally corrupt elites.

But insofar as those fighting the climate apocalypse face an uphill battle against consultants and the oil lobby, especially the grip energy flows have on global politics (see Russia and Saudi Arabia), as with Saito’s wholesale rejection of capitalist productivity/competition-fueled world, we might head to a brave new world. This zeitgeist features technology being deployed for good, vis-à-vis nuclear energy, and a psychological adjustment to economic supply and demand, as well as the continuation of private enterprises. He does not address the state, but his model probably alludes to some form of “state”: wherein there exists an ultimate provider of basic goods such as human rights from commanding heights, like water, housing, and electricity. In short: this is “Socialism with Saito Characteristics,” a limited market economy that rejects overconsumption and deploys forces like technology to provide basic goods in high quality to everyone, (probably) under the purview of the state. This might work as the solution to the polycrisis, Edgar Morin’s description for a cascading system of catastrophes.

Though Saito’s proposition may be sound, let’s not fill in the blanks for him. His main quibble is with GDP as a reductionist measure of wellness and how the elites control all the resources. He started off well but jumps to a more convoluted ending. For the most part, palpable non-economic indicators of well-being like human development, literacy rate, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy are all reported along GDP to paint a picture of economic well-being. We hear much about how India is an economic powerhouse along with stories of its woes: dilapidated slums next to skyscrapers in Mumbai. Stories go in tandem: I posit most of the world isn’t poisoned by GDP-opium, as Saito argues.

Finally, Saito’s argument has a tension: he is fine with countries without a Global North membership to go through economic growth and its fallouts insofar as they suffered from colonialism. While principally sound, issues with state capture, corruption, and oligarchies are most acute in the developing world. An ideal world without any inequality means Saito must annul all growth: there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism. There are no long-term solutions; in the long run we are all dead (Keynes). A radical challenge to capitalism is non-capitalism: degrowth for all and a wealth transfer, Peter Singer-style, from the developed world towards nations of the Global South to be lifted out of abject poverty.

As I’ve argued, “Socialism with Saito Characteristics” only works when there’s degrowth for all. For us youths, this means continuing to fight for basic goods as human rights and rejecting the change-opium world concocted by consultants. Maybe, this brave new world under Saito’s socialism might save us.

Dung Tran (SFS’26) is a sophomore in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.