Book review: Capital in the Anthropocene

Kohei Saito blames capitalism for climate chaos

Adam Powell-Davies, East London Socialist Party

There is a common idea that Japanese people aren’t political. There is certainly nothing apolitical about some of the massive struggles that have been waged by the Japanese working class. For example, two million Japanese workers staged a revolutionary strike movement under the slogan ‘Rice and Peace’ in 1918, and seven million people across Japan protested against the renewal of the US-Japan Security Treaty in 1960.

But, the last three general elections in Japan have seen the lowest voter turnouts since the end of World War Two. Trade union membership is just 17%. And industrial action is still at a very low level.

Many are surprised at the success of a recent book. In ‘Capital in the Anthropocene’, Japanese academic Kohei Saito says that ending capitalism is the only way to solve the climate crisis. Published in late 2020, it has so far sold over 500,000 copies.

But should we be surprised that people are looking for ideas to fight a capitalist system that has increasingly proven itself incapable of meeting the needs of the vast majority of humans, or the planet we inhabit?

Unfortunately, Capital in the Anthropocene gives no real answers to workers and young people seeking a future beyond capitalism. Saito begins the book with a useful conclusion: that capitalism is the cause of the climate crisis. But he fails to put forward any concrete steps for the working class to take economic and political control from the capitalist class internationally. Only then would it be possible, through socialist planning, to halt and then begin reversing climate destruction.

Instead, Saito draws on the work of sociologist Erica Chenoweth to argue that the system change he advocates can be achieved as long as 3.5% of the Japanese population “rises up through non-violent methods”. The same 3.5% figure has informed the tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion.

But this figure does not hold up to scrutiny. For example, how would Saito explain the failure of seven million largely peaceful protesters to stop the renewal of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1960? That was 7% of the Japanese population – twice what Saito says would be necessary to defeat capitalism.

The success of a movement does not depend merely on its size. It also needs a programme to win.

In the case of a movement aiming to overthrow capitalism, that would mean a revolutionary programme that explains the need for the working classes of each country to take the commanding heights of the economy into democratic public ownership, while linking up on an international basis.

In contrast, Saito consistently fails to mention the central role of the working class in changing society. Instead, he divides the working class on a regional basis, distinguishing between “winners” in the “Global North” (more economically developed countries) and “losers” in the “Global South” (less economically developed countries).

He writes: “We Japanese [in the Global North] are complicit in environmental catastrophes in the Global South. Our rich lifestyles would be impossible without the exploitation… of the Global South”. But who are “we Japanese”?

There are Japanese workers, young people, pensioners, and so on. And then there are the Japanese capitalists, who comprise an international class that is ultimately responsible for the economic and environmental crises workers face in all countries around the world.

Rich lifestyles

Saito blames the “rich lifestyles” of workers in rich countries for the exploitation of workers in poorer countries, as well as the climate crisis. At no point does he consider that many workers in countries like Japan and Britain do not actually enjoy such “rich lifestyles”.

Instead, he puts the onus on “us” in the Global North to reduce our consumption on a society-wide basis. Yet at a time when millions of workers are struggling to afford even basic necessities, many will think: “Reduce consumption of what?”

Based on his view that mass consumption, and therefore mass production, is the force driving the climate crisis, Saito argues for capitalism to be replaced by what he terms “degrowth communism”.

Mass production on a capitalist basis will inevitably lead to climate destruction. Different capitalists, and the governments that rely on their profits, compete in a completely unplanned way to extract resources from the planet.

But on a socialist basis, it would be possible for workers around the world to come together and draw up a plan of production based on human need, which would include the need for a safe and healthy environment.

Saito points to ecological devastation that took place in the Soviet Union to argue that that we can’t afford to have “communism based on economic growth”.

Apart from a short period following the Russian Revolution in 1917, up to the bureaucratic degeneration that took place under Stalin, the Soviet Union lacked any element of democratic workers’ control. In a truly democratic socialist system, the tremendous economic growth that took place in the Soviet Union, based on the planned economy, could take place on a far greater scale and in an environmentally friendly way. Far from ‘degrowing’ the increase in the productive forces made under capitalism, such a system would build on past economic gains to develop production far beyond what is possible today.

Saito states: “I don’t want to do rebaked Marxism”. Yet insofar as he neglects a class analysis of the climate crisis, his arguments do not at all resemble Marxism.

Nonetheless, his book can be a starting point for anyone looking to fight back against the climate crisis. It clearly names and shames the system responsible for this crisis. And it points to the need to replace this system with a system based on common ownership, while raising the potential for an alternative to Stalinism.

But this alternative has to be a socialist system, based on international democratic workers’ control and planning of the economy. In Britain, in Japan, and around the world, this means having organisations with a clear programme for achieving socialist change.

The level of working-class struggle is still low in Japan. But the current strike wave in Britain shows that consciousness can quickly change on the basis of events. In 2017, just 33,000 workers took industrial action in Britain – the lowest level since records began. Five years later, millions of workers are now either striking or being balloted, receiving widespread public support.

The same potential exists in Japan, where workers also face deep economic crisis. To take the levers of power from the hands of the Japanese capitalists, the Japanese working class needs its own organisations, including a new workers’ party and independent, democratic trade unions.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) in Japan pushes for the formation of such organisations, as the first step to overthrowing capitalism there. The success of Capital in the Anthropocene shows the appetite of thousands of Japanese workers and young people to engage in this struggle. It is the job of Marxists to connect with this mood and point the way forward to socialism.