The word “degrowth” caught my attention in the title Marx in the Anthropocene—Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism by Kohei Saito. For many years, I’ve been speaking against the blind pursuit of efficiency, so it sounded like a book I should read.
Saito explains how nature has absolute limits, but capital does not, which leads to the so-called “metabolic rift.” The most glaring example today is nature’s limit for how much greenhouse gases can be absorbed. In contrast, our capacity to produce them has no limit.
For me, a more immediate “rift” is in our ability to learn new skills and the rate at which the job market evolves. The former has absolute limits because our bodies function within biological limits. The job market, on the other hand, can keep evolving faster endlessly. Soon enough, a new skill will be obsolete by the time we learn it.
Blue-collar workers have been feeling the pain for a long time. White-collar workers, particularly tech workers, have been raking in by eliminating blue-collar jobs through computer automation, but now artificial intelligence is threatening their jobs too. At least it is close enough for them to imagine their own pain. It’s time for them to start asking some existential questions.
We are motivated to increase our efficiency so that we can have time to enjoy life, but it doesn’t actually work that way. Take, for instance, graphic design. What one designer can do in an hour today used to take a team of people a week. If efficiency can lead to more free time, a graphic designer today should be able to work for an hour and take the rest of the week off. Just as you increase your efficiency, the market adjusts expectations, meaning you must keep increasing efficiency just to survive.
Although many people like Elon Musk are seen as heroes for saving the planet through innovation, it was innovation that created the problem in the first place. Even medical problems like obesity were created by innovation (in food science). What problems are we solving today that we didn’t create ourselves? It is no wonder many intelligent people are beginning to question the point of our endless drive to grow our economy.
A “degrowth” economy, as Saito defines it, is a steady-state economy. Japan has been in that state for decades, although it wasn’t intentional. Many European cultures value the quality of life over relentless growth. Among the advanced economies, America is the indisputable champion of capital accumulation.
Some critics of degrowth argue that America is lifting developing countries out of poverty through innovation, but let’s be real; the goal of capitalism isn’t to make everyone happy, not even to coexist in harmony. If that were the goal, there would be better ways. Goodwill can be leveraged as a PR tool, but ultimately it does not drive capitalism. As Saito explains well in the book, there is only one goal: capital accumulation. Zealous capitalists will push it as far as natural and human limits allow, and even when they reach those limits, they will attempt to innovate their way beyond them. Regardless of how you define “happiness,” it certainly isn’t the goal of capitalism, even if it occasionally happens as a side effect.
So, to get to the bottom of it, let’s ask a more fundamental question: What drives someone to endlessly accumulate wealth? This is the question neither Marx nor Saito answered, and, in my view, this is where communism falls short or apart. You might say, “greed,” as Gordon Gekko said in the film “Wall Street.” Well, let’s take his words seriously. Could greed be actually “good”? We know now that capitalism at least has worked better than communism so far. Why is that? Sigmund Freud had an answer.
Towards the end of his life, he began noticing human behaviors that could not be explained by his “pleasure principle.” We have a tendency to keep doing something even when it does not support our own survival, which he termed “death drive” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. He didn’t live long enough to develop this idea, but Jacques Lacan did.
Communism would work in theory if the pleasure principle were the only organizing force of human behavior. We would stop making money if we saved enough to satisfy our needs. We wouldn’t keep polluting our environment or depleting our natural resources. Production and consumption would reach a natural stop, like the way we put on a jacket if it’s cold outside and take it off if it’s warm inside. We do not keep putting on more and more layers. “Pleasure” indeed governs our behavior in this way. There is a finite goal, homeostasis, when we behave according to the pleasure principle. In other words, “pleasure” governs what is good for our survival.
But in what came to be known after his death as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” he noticed soldiers returning from WWI compulsively reprised the scenes that traumatized them in their dreams. This behavior did not fit into his principle. Why would anyone deliberately repeat something that causes distress? Take gambling, for instance. Even when compulsive gamblers realize that their addiction is destroying their lives, they won’t stop.
A more mundane example is complaining. Nobody likes to listen to someone complain, yet we all do, and some won’t stop. To be known as a complainer is not good for our survival either. We know it’s not helpful or productive, but we cannot help ourselves. It’s because there is a sense of enjoyment in complaining. And, because this enjoyment does not support our survival, Lacan differentiated it from “pleasure” and called it “jouissance.” Jouissance is ultimately self-destructive, and it has no finite goal or limit. The process itself motivates the behavior, so it is inherently repetitive.
Whether it’s “good” or not, Gordon Gekko has a point in recognizing that it is part of human nature, and we cannot simply wish it away. Communism does not account for this (at least not consciously), and we cannot blame Marx because Freud only began formulating the concept half a century after Marx died.
For college professors, it is hard to understand why some people keep accumulating billions of dollars because money as financial capital does not interest them personally. But money isn’t the only form of capital. If we consider other forms of capital, it becomes easier to relate. Professors are primarily interested in cultural capital. If they have more financial capital than they need to survive, they would rather exchange it with cultural capital—by buying time to write a book, for instance. They value peer recognition and awards like the Nobel Prize. They want to be recognized in history. If cultural capital were quantifiable, we would see how “greedy” some academics are. They always feel they need more cultural capital, no matter how much recognition they receive. They do not try to “degrow” their cultural capital.
The key reason for communism’s failure was the relentless pursuit of political capital. For some political leaders, no amount of political capital is enough, and they would not relinquish it even if doing so would benefit their societies.
The definition of jouissance may sound scary, but without it, we wouldn’t be human. We would nap all day on a couch like a dog until something unpleasant motivates us to achieve homeostasis. Even for billionaires like Warren Buffett, money is not the ultimate object of desire. Making money is an end in itself, just as peer recognition is for professors. Marx himself pursued an endless accumulation of knowledge. I’m sure he wasn’t going to stop once he learned “enough.” For many, learning too is an end in itself. A specific piece of knowledge may appear to be the object of desire, but it is only a decoy of sorts—what Lacan called “objet petit a.”
The pleasure principle governs our nature or our biological selves. Jouissance governs our culture, our society, and our symbolic activities. A viable political system must account for both. (For instance, term limits prevent endless accumulation of political capital.)
If not communism, what is the solution? My answer: collective awareness of the difference between pleasure and jouissance. Without this awareness, we all will behave like compulsive gamblers. The only difference is that some activities are more culturally acceptable (or even respectable) than others. We’ll begin to see the silliness of the endless accumulation of any form of capital.
Through his forensic analysis of Marx’s notebooks, Saito convincingly shows how Marx abandoned his central thesis, historical materialism, later in his life. If the pleasure principle were the only organizing principle of our behavior, history would indeed naturally gravitate towards a positive outcome for our survival, but unfortunately that is not true. As Freud did, I believe Marx also sensed there was another, a self-destructive one.
“Death drive,” or just “drive” for Lacan, is oblivious of natural or biological limits because it strives to live forever in the symbolic, like the words of Marx in his books. The greed to accumulate, whether money or knowledge, is “good” to an extent, but we do not exist only within the symbolic. What Lacan called “the Real” is an inescapable aspect of our lives. When we ignore it, we create a “rift,” not unlike the mind-body split. The problem Saito describes in his book is within each of us, which means the solution is also there.
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