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Review of “Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” by Kohei Saito

by Adam Benden
“The book is of interest for Marxist scholarship but also clearly seeks to catalyze a shift in politics in ecology and environmental politics as well. An ecosocialist Marx is being excavated to return to the necessity of his analysis to challenge capitalism’s destruction of the environment.”

Every revolutionary struggle must fight not just for the future but also for the past. Marx’s work has been foreclosed by its detractors as backwards and naive; if Walter Benjamin was right that even the dead shall not be safe if the enemy is victorious, then Marxists today must accept their defeat.The past is declared a dead realm and Marxist critique has become frozen and irrelevant. This is especially devastating when anti-capitalist Marxist critiques in the realm of ecology are claimed to be trapped in the assumptions of the mid-19th century. However, what is always obscured in this move to foreclose the past is the dynamism and constant change in Marx’s thought and the scope of his life’s work. This holds true whether in ecology or in his understanding of capital’s relation to race and colonialism which destroys alternative modes of economic and social organization as escape routes out of capitalism. Just as Juliet Mitchell returned to Freud to correct and expand feminist analysis of patriarchy and psychic development for women, ecosocialists have increasingly returned to Marx to carve out a new path to the future by returning to the past. Reappraisals of his thought have revealed a more systematic ecosocialist vision than initially thought even by those sympathetic to Marx’s own ecosocialist tendencies. This is a version of Marx whose environmental/ecological analysis of capitalism is no longer jettisoned due to its flawed, Enlightenment-era assumptions of infinite progress and deified technological development that could overcome all material boundaries. Laying dormant in the past is a Marx whose insights into the destructive tendencies of capitalism on the social and material world have still yet to be exhausted.

Kohei Saito’s Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017) enters this struggle for Marx’s ecological legacy with a wealth of research and sober analysis that extends on prior work over the last decade in this same vein. In conducting this excavation project of Marxist ecosocialism, Saito builds on the legendary contributions by those such as John Bellamy Foster and pushes their insights even further. What emerges from his research is a rejuvenated Marxist vision of the necessity of an ecosocialist future with analytical rigor and historical grounding. Saito’s novel contribution to this project primarily comes from piecing together a radically systematic view of Marx as an ecological thinker. Saito’s advantage comes from asuste analysis of an expanded repertoire of primary source materials and recent publications of Marx’s journals from the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). The MEGA is the largest collection of writings from Marx and Engels in existence in any language and is constantly being updated and revised with new translations of manuscripts, journals, and letters. Saito expands past the work of Foster and others who could only interpret Marx’s ecological critique of capital as being sporadic in his writings and requiring a greater analytical leap due to a lack of available or complete sources. The newly published MEGA writings allow for a reorientation of Marx’s critique of capital as being defined systematically by ecological crises rather than treating them as a secondary concern. 

Saito goes even further and argues that based on the trajectory developing in Marx’s studies of the natural sciences, ecological crisis would have been more fully developed as the core contradiction in capitalism had not Capital Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 been incomplete due to his illness and death. Due to a lack of sources and the sporadic nature of Marx’s comments on ecology in his most commonly known writings, Marx’s critique of capital has been quickly dismissed as productivist for its Promethean character. Reading limited sources of Marx at an earlier point in his theoretical development has led to an assumption that he had complete disregard for environmental concerns or thought they would be eventually overcome through technological development. Marxist critique in total is hand-waved away due to its perceived “naive acceptance of the common nineteenth-century idea advocating the complete human domination of nature.” (Saito, 2018, p. 9) It might even surprise the reader that this is accepted even by those famously associated with Marxist ecology. What this dismissal obscures is the fact that Marx never stopped to rest in developing his analysis of capitalism, even in the final moments of his life, as he always was revising and reshaping based on new scientific study and political and economic thought. In Saito’s skillful hands, MEGA provides ample material to show his evolution in understanding capital’s relation to ecology. 

In many ways, his book is a type of revisionist intellectual history with a clear ideological purpose for our own times. Its focus on excavating a new vision of Marx must be contextualized in the face of ongoing climate change and its apocalyptic implications. In the first chapters, Saito’s argument is dense yet clear. It is obvious this book originated from his doctoral thesis, and the reader should not expect anything less than a methodical and painstaking approach to the material. Yet there is much that is exciting and novel for non-academics which counteracts the technicality of the writing. Perhaps most fascinating is the discovery of an ecosocialist current in Marx from his earliest writings in 1844. Additionally, his drawing on Japanese scholarship of Marx’s work from the Kuruma School exposes non-Japanese Marxists to a thriving area of Marxist scholarship and to key insights that are pillars of Saito’s own project. 

The book is of interest for Marxist scholarship but also clearly seeks to catalyze a shift in politics in ecology and environmental politics as well. An ecosocialist Marx is being excavated to return to the necessity of his analysis to challenge capitalism’s destruction of the environment. Any critique of capital as the driving engine of ecological destruction would surely require its most trenchant critic’s contributions as foundational. Using newly published writings of Marx as a cudgel in a current political struggle is no new phenomenon. In much of the same way, Marxist humanists of the mid-20th century utilized The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 to combat Stalinist orthodoxy and the ossified corpse of Soviet dialectical materialism. Saito seeks to avoid their error of allowing Marx to be subsumed into their own particular political struggle. For him, their mistake was in obscuring his highly economic focus in the first part of the manuscripts to focus on alienation. By re-engaging and reuniting the economic and philosophic threads of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Saito includes other MEGA sources to show how at this earliest point, the core of Marx’s project was already present. 

In his move away from Feurbach’s brand of materialism, Marx was driven by how humanity regulated its interactions with the earth through labor and production were primary. Despite how radical of a step this was in the context, he could also see the limited explanatory power of simply stating that ideal categories were the appearance of material relationships in society (such as God being an ideal that represents the alienated capacities of humanity). Marx’s radical analytical move was to push further to analyze how social forms and abstract categories relate to particular material relationships with the earth which sustain human existence. Saito’s Marx does have some sort of epistemological break— as was attributed to his development by Louis Althusser— but he shifts to the materialism of Feurbach while maintaining a clear theoretical consistency over time. Unique, historical social forms are always grappling with the transhistorical challenge of regulating our metabolic exchange with the earth. The interaction between the two is where capitalism’s greatest destructive capacity is revealed for Marx and for Saito. Marx’s trajectory of thought moved from an abstract formulation of “humanism = naturalism” to one of concretely analyzing nature itself in relation to production and labor through the concept of metabolic processes. Saito essentially seeks to reorient the reader to early Marx’s writings by showing that he bases alienation in capital’s reification of relations through commodity production and how money fundamentally separated producers from the land as their primary means of production. The implication is that Marx’s communist vision always aimed at reuniting producers with the earth as their objective conditions of production. Metabolism between the two becomes the key point of analysis and process for Karl Marx’s ecosocialism. Capitalism’s greatest threat is subordinating this relationship to the process of reification. This allows a violent, irrational metabolic relationship to be instantiated between humanity and the earth and eliminates any check on managing this process sustainably.

With this sharp reanalyzing of Marx’s theoretical foundation, Saito meticulously seeks to pull Marx away from a conceptualization of metabolism as being rooted in natural scientific materialism. Instead, the concept will possess a unique theoretical approach focused on both the materials and forms of physiological metabolism in understanding how capitalism had severed the link between humanity and the earth. This directly challenges critiques of Foster’s work as simply stating that Marx knew capitalism was bad for ecology. Essentially, the study of political economy for Marx would yield the specific social forms of this process while the natural sciences would provide the materialist basis to physically understand these processes. Metabolism comes to be the defining concept to understand the transhistorical relationship between humanity’s production and the earth. It also shows the radicality of capital’s severing of this relationship in prior modes of production. 

Saito moves to show how Capital simply develops Marx’s initial insights by painstakingly reconstructing his arguments of reification and how humanity’s relationship to nature is mediated through processes of labor and value creation. Metabolism comes to shape Marx’s analysis of circulation and value exchange in the social form of capital as well. Saito shows that, for Marx, metabolic processes of commodity production and circulation are corresponding social forms of the logic of reification which capitalism establishes between itself and the earth. What strikes the reader as novel in Saito’s analysis is that labor-power is and must be juxtaposed to soil fertility as they are two sides of the same coin of the metabolic process. Through analyzing reification as a distinguishing feature of capitalist production, Saito finds that ecological crises within capitalism are not due to some insufficient level of technological development which we will someday exceed through scientific progress. It is due to the very economic forms of metabolic exchange in capitalism itself that mediate humanity’s labor and production with the earth. 

In many ways, it feels as if one is rereading Capital by reading Saito’s book. This is a Marx that recognizes natural limits that must be rationally mediated in changing the forms of economic organization of society as a whole. Saito further corrects the view that Marx argued for unlimited technological developments to address all possible physical limitations which could seemingly ground dismissals of him as Promethean. His claims that technological development can address natural limits is more clearly understood as in direct and critical dialogue with Ricardo and Malthus. However, it is not until one delves into his notebooks and extensive writings on soil fertility and agricultural studies that this nuance is revealed— yet again, this is another strength of Saito’s excavation project. Capital cannot overcome its own limits and its tendency to hurtle towards crisis through technological development. For Saito, Marx was absolutely clear about this not long after The Communist Manifesto (1848) was published and never returned to this view except to make corrective points to others he was in dialogue with. As Saito continues his excavation, more radical insights of Marx’s analysis become clear. For example, Saito shows that the law of diminishing returns for Marx is a specific contradiction to the form of capitalist production due to increasing soil exhaustion. How could it be otherwise in a system that constantly smashes limits and seeks to grow and expand at ever increasing rates of production? The rationalized metabolic balance of human labor and the land is destroyed as the search for profit erodes the very material basis for food production itself. The earth is now reified and seen as an abstracted resource to be sacrificed to the voracity of capital.

 Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism also yields specific insights into the historical development of imperialism driven by the need for new markets and resource extraction. Monthly Review Press always excels at Marxist critiques of the material forces driving imperialism, and Saito’s work is no exception. One of the more notable historical points he makes is the importance of soil exhaustion and that the reliance on guano and saltpeter to keep agricultural production rates intact led to the annexation of islands in South America by the United States in the mid-1850’s. The increasing fear of natural resource depletion and soil exhaustion results in violent and destructive imperialist expansion. It is also no surprise that Saito’s focus on metabolism in Marx’s project dovetails with Marx’s analysis of the role of technological progress and development in colonized countries. While Marx made earlier statements that capital smashes colonized countries to prepare the way for later socialist development as a positive aspect of its logic, the ecosocialist Marx quickly matures to see this differently. Capital’s unrestrained logic in the colonized world, as in India for example, is now one of absolute devastation in contrast to a necessary evil on the road to a socialist future. Yet again, Marx’s thought was always on the move.

Lest anyone think that Saito’s analysis lacks nuance, he is clear that Marx thought that these contradictions of metabolism and soil exhaustion were always present and could be simply located in capitalist modes of production. However, the key insight is that capital deepens and intensifies this transhistorical aspect of humanity’s metabolic relation with nature to the point of devastating irrationality. Capitalism is powered by a Freudian death drive that will repetitiously devour the earth unless we can disempower it through a rational metabolic process organized on a mass scale. The only solution must be to make the latent and unconscious ecosocialist vision of earlier scientific thinkers that Marx studied into a manifest one. The communist horizon continues to be where this metabolic process is helmed by an association of producers not operating under the tyranny of valorization and the profit motive. 

While Saito certainly connects Marx’s understanding of metabolism to discussions of worker struggles for the eight hour work day in Capital, he quickly moves on to lengthy and dense analyses of specific debates in agricultural sciences and chemistry for large portions in the second half of the book. While this further grounds his analysis of Marx’s centering of metabolic processes as the new core of his capitalist critique developed from studying agricultural and natural sciences, a weakness begins to manifest here. Saito’s lack of further connection points between this conceptualization of metabolic processes and how to organize ways to “crack capitalism” leads to a conceptual rupture between theory and practice. This rupture is glaringly obvious despite his explicit calls for the use of Marx’s metabolic insights to somehow correct the current and past limitations of ecological movements and their corresponding analyses of root causes of environmental devastation. For Saito, Marx’s analysis is no historical relic but is rather an active, living historical force. However, this force must be localized and given practice to make good on the promise of Saito’s project and on direct calls for some type of movement or shared practice to overturn capitalism. This should not be reduced to the common critique that a work of theoretical and historical analysis owes us some type of clear plan of what to do. Saito’s work is obviously a soberly analytical one which emerged from his research as a student involved in particular debates. However, more grounding in the actual historical developments of working class movements and socialist and communist organizations precisely on the basis of his reclaimed ecosocialist Marxism would strengthen his approach. If this ecosocialist Marx can and should be a living force for today, it must help make sense of modern forms of imperialism, ecosocialist politics, and alternative paths out of capitalism as ongoing elements in the historical legacy of his thought. Without this, Marx may yet remain dead and in the past.

Saito’s ultimate call at the end of his reclamation project of Marx’s ecosocialist legacy is for a new radical subjectivity (or at least the potential for one) based on Marx’s insights in metabolic processes between the earth and social and political forms. This subjectivity consciously demands a complete and radical change in the capitalist mode of production and replaces it with something that can rationally and sustainably balance the metabolism of humanity and the environment. This would be the primary political demand of such a radical subjectivity. In between the red and the green currents of socialism and ecology, Saito’s revolutionary subject dialectically relates them to each other, and it does this without any false hope of transcending the limits that sustain life itself. For Saito (2017), this subject emerges from the knowledge that:

Only a systematic analysis of Marx’s theory of metabolism as an integral part of his critique of political economy can convincingly demonstrate, against the critics of his ecology, how the capitalist mode of production brings about various types of ecological problems due to its insatiable desire for capital accumulation. And why radical social change on a global scale, one that consciously constructs a cooperative, noncapitalist structure, is indispensable if humanity is to achieve a sustainable regulation of natural and social metabolism. (99)

Even in a fully communist society, the limits of the earth to provide natural resources would require rational organization. Without them, unsustainable metabolic processes between human labor and the earth would still plague humanity’s organizing of production. No communist utopia ever escapes the realm of material necessity. To not recognize this is to destroy the very material basis for the expansion of social forms which can maximize freedom and cooperation. We can now hopefully dispense with the critiques of Marx as a technological utopian with no concern for ecological limits. Saito clearly wants to construct his Marxist ecosocialism as a rational, realistic way to halt environmental devastation. But what is a vision of associated producers regulating metabolism with nature in rational cooperation on a global scale if not a realistic utopia? It does not seek to transcend contradictions between humanity and the earth but to regulate them sustainably. Perhaps this is where limitations emerge in Saito’s primary focus on scientific analysis for grounding his excavation project of a systematic, ecosocialist Marx. The Marxist humanists may have forgotten the economic components of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts but surely we should not simply jettison the philosophic and (dare we say Romantic impulse) in Marx that circulates through Capital despite the great leaps forward in Marx’s scientific thinking. Saito has done a great service to ecosocialism by reclaiming a Marxist ecology from the historical stasis imposed by those who seek to dismiss it. Let us hope it is not too late to use it for those struggling against capital’s destruction of the very conditions of cooperation and life itself. Marx indeed lives, as Saito ends by saying, but whose Marx? 


About the Reviewer: Adam Benden is an Austin, TX-based political organizer, writer, licensed therapist, and host of Red Library – A Political Education Podcast for Today’s Left. His political theory writings on revolutionary politics today can be found on the blog Capillaries: Theory at the Front and his academic research has been published in the Routledge Journal of Poverty.

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