“A new way of life”: the Marxist, post-capitalist and green manifesto that captivates Japan

Jhe climate crisis will spin out of control unless the world applies ’emergency brakes’ on capitalism and invents a ‘new way of life’, says a Japanese scholar whose book on Marxism and the environment has become a surprise bestseller.

The message of Kohei Saito, associate professor at the University of Tokyo, is simple: capitalism’s demand for unlimited profits is destroying the planet and only “degrowth” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and the sharing of wealth.

Concretely, this means the end of mass production and mass consumption of unnecessary goods such as fast fashion. In Capital in the Anthropocene, Saito also advocates decarbonization by reducing working hours and prioritizing essential “labour-intensive” jobs such as caregiving.

“I was as surprised as everyone”

Few would have expected Saito’s Japanese-language solution to the climate crisis to have much appeal outside of left-leaning academia and politics. Instead, the book – which draws on Karl Marx’s writings on the environment – has become an unlikely hit, selling over half a million copies since its publication in September 2020.

As the world faces mounting evidence of the effects of climate change – from floods in Pakistan to heat waves in Britain – to runaway inflation and the energy crisis, Saito’s vision of a more sustainable post-capitalist world will appear in an academic text to be published soon. year by Cambridge University Press, with an English translation of his bestseller to follow.

Kohei Saito
Kohei Saito is a Japanese philosopher and researcher. Photography: Courtesy of Kohei Saito

“It’s basically about what’s happening in the world…the climate crisis and what we should be doing about it,” Saito said in an interview with The Guardian. “I plead for the decline and the overcoming of capitalism.”

The mere mention of global shrinkage conjures up negative images of wealthy societies plunged into a dark age of declining economies and falling standards of living. Saito admits he thought a book that draws on Marxism as a solution to modern-day ills would be a tough sell in Japan, where the same conservative party has dominated politics for nearly 70 years.

“People accuse me of wanting to go back to [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868] … and I think the same kind of image persists in the UK and the US,” he said. “In this context, that the book has sold over 500,000 copies is amazing. I was as surprised as everyone. »

The 35-year-old didn’t have to worry about using the language of radical change; As the world emerges from the pandemic and confronts the existential threat posed by global warming, disillusionment with the economic status quo has given it a receptive audience.

The pandemic has amplified inequalities in advanced economies and between the north and the south of the world – and the book has touched the nerves of young Japanese people.

the cover of Saito's academic text, Marx in the Anthropocene
Saito’s academic text, Marx in the Anthropocene, will be published later this year, with an English translation of his bestseller to follow.
Photography: Courtesy of Kohei Saito

“Saito tells an easy-to-understand story,” says Jun Shiota, a 31-year-old researcher who bought Capital in the Anthropocene shortly after it was published. “He’s not saying there’s good and bad in capitalism, or that it’s possible to reform it…he’s just saying get rid of the whole system.

“Young people have been hit hard by the pandemic and face other big issues like environmental destruction and the cost of living crisis, so this simple message resonates with them.”

Saito agrees that growing inequality has given his writing more immediacy. “A lot of people have lost their jobs and their homes and rely on things like food banks, even in Japan. I find that shocking. And you have essential workers who are forced to work long hours in low-paying jobs. The marginalization of essential workers is becoming a serious problem.

The response to Covid-19 has shown that rapid change is not only desirable, but possible, he says.

“One thing we’ve learned during the pandemic is that we can drastically change our lifestyle overnight – look at the way we started working from home, bought fewer things, flew and ate less in restaurants. We’ve proven that working less is kinder to the environment and leads to a better life. But now capitalism is trying to bring us back to a “normal” way of life.

“Marx was interested in sustainability”

Saito is deeply skeptical of some widely accepted strategies for dealing with the climate emergency. “In my book, I start a sentence by describing sustainable development goals [SDGs] like the new opium of the masses,” he said in reference to Marx’s view of religion.

“Buying eco-friendly bags and bottles without changing anything in the economic system… The SDGs mask the systemic problem and reduce everything to the responsibility of the individual, while obscuring the responsibility of corporations and politicians.”

“I found out how Marx was interested in sustainability and how sustainable non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies are because they do the stationary economy, they are not growth oriented,” Saito said.

Since the release of the book, Saito has made Japan much less sensitive to the ideas of the German philosopher.

Conservative public broadcaster NHK gave him four 25-minute segments to explain his ideas for his Masterpiece in 100 Minutes series, while bookstore chains cleared space for special exhibitions of Marxist revivalist literature.

He now hopes his message will appeal to an English-speaking readership.

“We are facing a very difficult situation: the pandemic, poverty, climate change, the war in Ukraine, inflation… it is impossible to imagine a future in which we can grow the economy and at the same time live sustainably without fundamentally changing our way of life.

“If economic policies have failed for 30 years, why not invent a new way of life? The desire for it is suddenly there.

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