As Kohei Saito conclusively demonstrated in his path-breaking contribution to eco-Marxism, the only way to achieve real progress today is to problematize the very notion of progress which dominates not only our ideology but our actual lives. Just think about Oxycodone, a prescription pain medication, an opioid drug like morphine, codeine and methadone. Its most popular form was OxyContin (also known as “oxy”), developed in 1995 to provide long-lasting pain relief, so people with severe pain would not have to take pills as often. OxyContin was widely prescribed and became associated with abuse and addiction problems: when the tablet was crushed, the drug released into the body more quickly, which increased its effects. When OxyContin’s patent expired, similar products were put on the market.
OxyCodone is not new: it was discovered in Germany back in 1917 and then widely used by the Nazis to keep the soldiers impervious to pain and suffering during WWII (Hitler’s doctor Morrell was giving it to regularly Hitler himself). It comes as close as we can imagine to an ideal capitalist commodity: it is effective, i.e., it does what it promises (killing pain), but it is extremely addictive and generates strong side-effects. (Here, the EU was better than the US: it strictly limited the use of OxyContin only for terminal cancer patients.) As such, OxyCodone condenses the logic of capitalism at its worst AND at its most efficient—and any affirmative notion of progress today should find ways to exclude from the market a free distribution of products like OxyCodone.
What this means is that we should think like Hegel here: progress is never a linear approximation to some pre-existing goal since every step forward that deserves the name “progress” implies a radical redefinition of the very universal notion of progress. The worst thing that can happen is to allow opponents of authentic progress to define the terrain of what counts as progress. That is why one should reject the notion of progress that continues to impose itself today, namely the need for the “modernization” of the Left, which should get rid of old topics like class struggle. So, on Sunday, September 24, 2023, the Syriza party elected former Goldman Sachs trader Stefanos Kasselakis as its new leader; till now based in Miami, he is the son of a shipowner and CEO of a shipping company, with all the symbolic weight that that implies in Greece. Gay, “modern,” he declared that his entry into politics is just a temporary detour between his previous and next business engagement… In short, Syriza is now fully integrated into the “modern” post-political space—yet another nail into the coffin of the traditional Left.
Insofar as today’s global capitalism is defined by the hegemony of Western powers, many (not only) outside the developed West see BRICS as a sign of progress – but is it? In his speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov portrayed “Western countries’ efforts to cling to outsized influence in global affairs” as doomed:
“‘The rest of the planet is sick of it. They don’t want to live under anybody’s yoke anymore.’ That shows, he said, in the growth of such groups as BRICS – the developing-economies coalition that currently includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and recently invited Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to join next year. ‘Our future is being shaped by a struggle, a struggle between the global majority in favor of a fairer distribution of global benefits and civilized diversity and between the few who wield neocolonial methods of subjugation in order to maintain their domination which is slipping through their hands.’”
The claim is thus that, with BRICS, we don’t get another bloc opposing the hegemonic Western bloc but a new version of non-aligned movement, a multiplicity of different cultures peacefully coexisting and collaborating for a global benefit… But what kind of progress is this? In spite of all the horrors it is responsible for, Western Enlightenment set certain standards which also open up the space for self-criticism. Without these standards Uganda (which has just outlawed homosexuality), Iran (which has just squashed a big rebellion driven by women’s rights), Afghanistan (with its fundamentalist terror) and North Korea are just parts of the anti-colonial “civilized diversity”.
The paradox is that the most radical idea of authentic progress comes from Kohei Saito whose eco-Marxism tries to get rid of the “progressist” aspect of Marx’s theory (Communism as the project of unrestrained growth), replacing it with the idea of “degrowth Communism.” Saito’s vision of “degrowth Communism” is obviously rooted in his Japanese origins: did Japan not already enact a unique collective decision of isolating itself from the outside world and “slowing down” in 1603, when the chaos of the Sengkoku period ended? The Edo period (or Tokugawa period) between 1603 and 1868 (Meiji restoration) was characterized by strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, perpetual peace, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. Despite all the problematic aspects of what took place in Japan in 1603, the Edo period provides a unique case of how the development of a society can be determined by a big conscious political decision – a thing needed more than ever today.
And is something vaguely similar not taking place in today’s Japan where signs abound of people getting tired of crazy productive mobilization, of preferring a slower rhythm of life, which allows space for more refined cultural pleasures? Traces of such a desire for a slower rhythm of life are found even in Hollywood – recall The Last Samurai (2003, Edward Zwick), the story of Nathan Algren (played by none other than Tom Cruise), an American captain whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of the Meiji Restoration in 19th century Japan. He decides to participate in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigō Takamori, against the Westernization of Japan. Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety that the film is “content to recycle familiar attitudes about the nobility of ancient cultures, Western despoilment of them, liberal historical guilt, and the unrestrainable greed of capitalists.” In the film’s ending, after the rebellion is squashed, Algren asks the emperor to remember the traditions for which the rebelling samurai fought and died, and the emperor realizes that while Japan should modernize, it cannot forget its own culture and history – a formula much more ambiguous and problematic than it may appear because it also points towards the “conservative modernization” that characterizes Fascism.
But the parallel with Saito’s theory stops here: Saito’s aim is neither to prevent the rise of capitalist modernity nor to combine it with conservative social values and practices but to propose a radical alternative to the devastating ecological and social consequences of unbound capitalist modernization. “Degrowth Communism” is really a misnomer; Saito does not advocate a project of new austerity. “Degrowth” is meant in a precise sense of rejecting the unconditional drive towards expanded progress that marked even Marx:
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
And for Marx the same holds for the transition from capitalism to Communism: this transition becomes a necessity when capitalist relations become an obstacle for the further development of productive forces… In Saito’s well-known reading of Marx, he demonstrates that from 1868 on Marx abandoned this progressist approach and focused more and more on how ruthless capitalist exploitation of nature poses a threat to the very survival of humanity. Saito doesn’t mince words here: the problem is capitalism as such. Saito is well aware that today ecology is part of the mainstream capitalist ideology: (almost) everybody pays lip-service to it. Which is why Saito’s main target are not outright deniers of global warming but advocates of “sustainable growth,” the central organizing principle in global responses to climate change. Saito is particularly critical of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), describing them as “the new opium of the masses”: SDGs disavow the brutal fact that these goals cannot be achieved under a capitalist system.
Instead, Saito promotes degrowth, a slowing of economic activity through the democratic reform of labor and production: the transition to use-value economy, against affluence society; decarbonization through shorter working hours for a higher quality of life; abolition of the division of work, towards more creativity and meaningfulness; the democratization of the work-process, so that the decisions will be left to true customers; the appreciation of essential work like caregiving against bullshit jobs. Ecosocialist degrowth thus implies the elimination of some sectors of production (arms, advertising, etc.), radical reduction of other branches (individual automobiles, for example), but also the growth of some activities (education, healthcare, adequate housing, electrical and water infrastructure in the poorer areas or countries, etc.). Here, however, problems arise. First, Saito
“embraces the vision of local cooperative and municipal initiatives as an alternative to capitalism and state centralism. It is hard to see how Saito’s municipal socialism can paralyze the process of capitalist accumulation, nor is it clear how such local inititives can provide a coherent alternative if the relations between them are structured through the market, in other words, lacking some form of centralized planning. Ecosocialism requires far more than cooperative or municipal initiatives: it demands democratically centralized planning.”
To reach the goal described by Saito, strong centralized and even dictatorial measures will have to be taken. So, the paradox is that, to effectively slow down, we will have to mobilize in an unheard-of way. Saito knows we need to rehabilitate planning, but this will have to be done in a much stronger sense than envisaged by him. Just think about the strong global measures necessary to cope with global warming, immigration, and dangers of war, not to mention the traps of the exploding digital control over our daily lives.
The next problem is that Saito seems to ignore is how, with the latest trends, global capitalism itself is changing its basic structure to such an extent that it is doubtful if it should still be called capitalism. Or, to quote Yanis Varoufakis: “Capitalism is dead. Now we have something much worse.” Varoufakis’s name for this new epoch is techno-feudalism. The question is: can the notion of capitalism on which Saito relies still cover neo-feudal phenomena?
The third problem is an even more basic one: is the vision of future society imagined by Saito desirable at all, desirable in the simple sense that the majority of people would find it satisfactory to live in it? Saito imagines a society in which desire is divested of its constitutive excess and is satisfied by its self-limitation, and in this he comes close to a position advocated by Buddhism, also in economy. As the partisans of Buddhist economics repeat tirelessly, Buddhism does not advocate ascetic renunciation of worldly pleasures but the proper measure between wealth and poverty, between individualism and communal spirit: wealth is good if it serves our collective well-being. The Buddhist notion of the right measure, of “just the right amount,” does not refer only to individuals: it aims at not harming oneself or others, where others are not only other human beings but all that lives. In contrast to Western individualism, Buddhism advocates a holistic approach: my well-being depends on the well-being of all others around me, but also on a balanced exchange with nature. No wonder, then, that Buddhist economics advocates a constrained/limited desire, a desire controlled by spirit, deprived of its excessive nature: it relies on the distinction between true desires and false desires. False desires are desires for pleasure attained through the consummation of sensual objects or through their possession, and they are by definition insatiable, never fully satisfied. True desires are desires for well-being, and, to attain well-being, a rational mind has to regulate and contain sensual desires. We thus arrive at the opposition between limitless sensual desires and the spiritual desire for well-being:
“Consumption may satisfy sensual desires, but its true purpose is to provide well-being. For example, our body depends on food for nourishment. Consumption of food is thus a requirement for well-being. For most people, however, eating food is also a means to experience pleasure. If in consuming food one receives the experience of a delicious flavor, one is said to have satisfied one’s desires.”
From my Lacanian standpoint, it is here that problems arise. What Buddhism aims at is a desire deprived of its excess which makes it a human desire, enjoyment deprived of its constitutive surplus. When we eat, we almost never do it just for our long-term spiritual well-being; we do it for the pleasure of eating, and it is this pleasure, not its subordination to some higher goal, which makes us human. Recall here Lacan’s example of breast-feeding: a child sucks the breast to get food (milk), but the repeated act of sucking soon turns into the true source of pleasure, so that the child is pushed to it beyond the satisfaction of its needs. The same holds even more obviously for sex: we almost never engage in sex to fulfil its natural goal (procreation) but for the enjoyment it provides. We become human exactly when sex leaves behind its “natural” goal of procreation and turns into an end in itself. And it is totally wrong to characterize this shift as an abandonment to limitless sensual desires: intense sex as an end-in-itself, separated from its natural goal, is arguably our most elementary meta-physical experience: our sensual pleasure is “transubstantiated” into an experience of another dimension, a dimension beyond direct physical reality.
We should thus turn around the opposition between false limitless desires, which only bring suffering, and the authentic spiritual desire for well-being: sensual desires are in themselves moderate, constrained to their direct goals. They become infinite and self-destructive only when they are infected by a spiritual dimension. Is this nonetheless not a form of Evil? Maybe, but, as already F.W.J. Schelling knew, only spirituality is self-destructive in its longing for infinity, which is why Evil is much more spiritual than our sensual reality. In other words, the root of Evil is not our egotism but, on the contrary, a perverted self-destructive spirituality which can also bring us to sacrifice our lives. This dimension is missing in Buddhist economics, which is why its declared goal of the proper measure, when one attempts to practice it, tends to end up in some form of (not always) soft Fascism.
This brings us to the exceptional nature of capitalism. Todd MacGowan provided a Lacanian explanation of the resiliency of capitalism, boldly admitting that, in some (very qualified) sense capitalism effectively does fit “human nature.” In contrast to premodern social orders which obfuscate the paradox of human desire and presume that desire is structured in a straightforward teleological way (we humans strive towards some ultimate goal, be it happiness or another kind of material or spiritual fulfilment, and aim at finding peace and satisfaction in its achievement), capitalism is the first and only social order that incorporates into its functioning the basic paradox of human desire. This is why the imbalance of the system defines capitalism: capitalism can only thrive through its own constant self-undermining and revolutionizing. The paradox is that, because we desire the surplus that eludes every object, our very orientation towards pleasure and satisfaction compels us to permanently sacrifice available satisfactions on behalf of satisfactions to come. In capitalism, hedonism and asceticism coincide. And, once we are in capitalism, there is no way back, which is why, instead of aiming at a return to some version of organic unity with nature, we have to do the exact opposite and denaturalize nature itself.
The true source of problems is not “the most significant event to affect Western culture during recent centuries,” namely the “breakdown of the relationship between man and nature,” the retreat of the relation of confidence. On the contrary: this very “relationship of faith with reality itself” is the main obstacle that prevents us from confronting the ecological crisis at its most radical. That is to say, with regard to the prospects of an ecological catastrophe, it is too short-sighted to attribute our disbelief in the catastrophe to the impregnation of our mind by scientific ideology, which leads us to dismiss the sane concerns of our common reason, i.e., the gut feeling which tells us that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientific-technological attitude.
The problem is much deeper: it resides in the unreliability of our common sense itself which, habituated as it is to our ordinary life-world, finds it difficult really to accept that the flow of everyday reality can be perturbed. Our attitude here is that of the fetishist split: “I know very well (that the global warming is a threat to the entire humanity), but nonetheless… (I cannot really believe it). It is enough to look at my environs, to which my mind is wired: the green grass and trees, the rustling of the wind, the rising of the sun… Can one really imagine that all this will be disturbed? You talk about the ozone hole – but no matter how much I look into the sky, I don’t see it – all I see is the same sky, blue or grey!” The difficult ethical task is thus to “un-learn” the most basic coordinates of our immersion in our life-world: what has usually served as the recourse to Wisdom (the basic trust in the background-coordinates of our world) is now THE source of danger. We should really “grow up” and learn to cut this ultimate umbilical cord to our life sphere.
Greta Thunberg was right when she claimed that politicians should listen to science. Wagner’s “Die Wunde schliest der Speer nur, der Sie schlug” (“The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it”) thus acquires a new actuality. Today’s threats are not primarily external (natural), but self-generated by the human activity permeated by science (the ecological consequences of our industry, the psychic consequences of uncontrolled biogenetics, etc.), so that the sciences are simultaneously (one of) the source(s) of risks and the sole medium we have to grasp and define the threats. Even if we blame the scientific-technological civilization for global warming, we need the same science not only to define the scope of the threat, but often even to perceive the threat. What we need is not science that re-discovers its grounding in pre-modern wisdom; traditional wisdom is precisely something that prevents us from perceiving the real threat of ecological catastrophes, inasmuch as it “intuitively” tells us to trust mother-nature which is the stable ground of our being. But it is precisely this stable ground that is undermined by modern science and technology. So, we need a science that is decoupled from both poles—from the autonomous circuit of capital as well as from traditional wisdom, a science which could finally stand on its own. What this means is that there is no return to the authentic feeling of our unity with nature: the only way to confront ecological challenges is to fully accept the radical denaturalization of nature.
 See Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2023.
 See Todd MacGowan, Capitalism and Desire, Cambridge UP 2016.
 Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007, p. 35.