Featured Reviews

Kohei Saito – Slow Down [Feature Review]

Slow DownOur Only Hope for Surviving the Climate Crisis?

A Review of

Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto
Kōhei Saitō

Hardback: Astra House, 2024
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]

Reviewed by Leroy Seat

This book is the English translation of the original Japanese version, which was published in September 2020 and has sold over half a million copies. Author Kōhei Saitō was greatly surprised and gratified by his book’s success.

It will be interesting to see how well Saitō’s book will sell in the U.S., for after all, as the publisher writes on the back of the title page, the author “delivers a bold and urgent call for a return to Marxism in order to stop climate change” (v). Further, on the first page of the Preface to the English Edition, Saitō himself asserts that “capitalism is the ultimate cause of climate breakdown.” Will a book with such an assertion, even though it is most likely correct, do well in the U.S.?

Saitō (b. 1987) was born in Japan but was a university student in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009 and then in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in 2016. After a few years teaching at a university in Osaka, in 2022 he became an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo, the highest-ranked university not only in Japan, but in all of Asia.

The title of the English translation is quite different from the original Japanese title, which (translated) is “Capital” in the Anthropocene. The latter term, which is becoming increasingly used, is still not familiar to many people. Saitō explains in the Introduction that “we humans have changed the nature of the Earth in ways that are fundamental and irrevocable.” Thus, this new geological era “in which human economic activity has covered the surface of the Earth completely” is called the Anthropocene.

Saitō is a Marxian scholar. “Nature against [or versus] Capital” is the English translation of his German Ph.D. dissertation title, and in 2017 that work was published as an English book under the title Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. So, it is certainly not surprising that Marxism and Marx’s ideas about communism are prominent in the book under review—and that may make most Americans evaluate it quite negatively.

In Japan, however, Marxism is not considered a religious (atheistic) ideology but an economic theory. Accordingly, most Christians in Japan have not stigmatized Marxism/communism the way it has been so widely denigrated in the U.S., including by most Christians. Not long after this reviewer went to Japan as an educational missionary (over 20 years before author Saitō was born!), an older colleague surprised me by saying that Christians were more likely to support the Japan Communist Party (JCP) or a socialist party more than the Liberal Democratic Party, which had been in power continuously since its formation in 1955.

The JCP was founded in 1922 and is the oldest political party in Japan, but it has always had only a small number of its members elected to the national legislature (there are 21 now). The JCP currently advocates the establishment of a democratic society based on scientific socialism and pacifism. I was surprised, however, to learn in an email exchange with author Saitō that he is not and has never been a member of the JCP. That is because his emphasis is on Marx’s advocacy of communism rather than Communism, and he declares that the latter was a “distortion of Marx’s thought” that “resulted in the birth of the monster known as Stalinism” (93).

With his repeated emphasis on social justice and the need for people of the Global South to be freed from exploitation by the Imperial Mode of Living so common in the Global North, Saitō sounds very much like a progressive Christian and quite harmonious with the liberation theologians of Central and South America. Despite his emphasis on Marx’s advocacy of communism, he is certainly an economic thinker whose work progressive Christians can largely affirm. In reality, his political position is far closer to democratic socialism than to the Communism of Stalin or of Mao Zedong.

The concept of “greenwashing” is one of the key emphases in Slow Down, and in his English preface, he asserts that “greenwashing is everywhere.” That term refers to “the optimistic belief in green technologies and green growth,” which “may be nothing more than a ploy to buy time for capitalism” (xi). This leads to the surprising title of the Introduction: “Ecology Is the Opiate of the Masses!”

In his explanation of “the form of deception known as greenwashing,” Saitō writes, “Long ago, Marx characterized religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’ because he saw it as offering temporary relief from the painful reality brought about by capitalism. SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] are none other than a contemporary version of the same opiate’”(xvii-xviii).

The first chapter is titled “Climate Change and the Imperial Mode of Living,” and this is a good and important chapter. Here he states one of the book’s “most fundamental assertions,” namely, “Capitalism uses humans as tools for accumulating capital but can profit from the natural world by simply plundering its resources directly” (11).

[Unfortunately, in the first printing of the English translation, all references to global temperatures should be disregarded, for they are all incorrect. I was able to exchange emails with author Saitō about this matter, and he said it was “a stupid conversion  error” that has already been fixed on the Kindle version and will be corrected in the subsequent printings of the published book.]

Saitō’s Chapter 2 is mainly a negative critique of the Green New Deal (GND). The latter, he asserts, “promises a sustainable future without having to change our Imperial Mode of Living,” but this is “nothing more than wishful thinking” and thus “the road to extinction is paved with good intentions” (52, 55). The only possible solution to the problem of global warming is degrowth, which is the main theme of his book.

In the following chapter, then, he explains how degrowth under capitalism is impossible, but he calls for bringing about “a free, equal, just, and sustainable society that overcomes class divides of exploitation and domination and that radically revolutionizes labor” (83). Such, he believes, is possible by implementing the communism advocated by Karl Marx in his later years, and this is the subject of Saitō’s lengthy fourth chapter, “Marx in the Anthropocene,” which is the heart of his book.

Following the next two chapters denigrating capitalism and praising Marxian communism, Saitō’s eighth chapter contains his primary assertion for his book as a whole. It is titled, “Degrowth Communism Will Save the World.” Here (on pages 189-199) he elucidates the five “pillars” of degrowth communism—and these all sound quite appealing. And then on the first page of the four-page Conclusion, the author asserts that “the only hope humanity has left for surviving the climate crisis and bringing about a sustainable just society is degrowth communism” (230). If that is true, however, then humanity’s survival is most unlikely, for capitalism is far, far too entrenched in the Global North to countenance such a shift.

Despite Saitō’s forwarding a completely unrealistic solution to the current climate and ecological crisis, his book is so well-written and his exposition of communism based on Karl Marx’s ideas from his later years so persuasively stated, it deserves to be read, thought about deeply, and widely discussed.

Leroy Seat

Leroy Seat, Ph.D., was a Baptist missionary to Japan and a full-time professor of Christian Studies and theology at Seinan Gakuin University from 1968 to 2004. He is now retired in his home state of Missouri. After 65 years as a Baptist church member, he joined a progressive Mennonite church in 2012. Find him online at: https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/

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