Right theme, great research, bad philosophy: a review of the works of Kohei Saito
Davy Jones reviews  Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism and Marx and the Anthropocene, by Professor Kohei Saito

Marxists often look at the climate movement and ask, “why don’t we have more pull here?”

Admittedly, we do this on a lot of things but, let’s face it, this one’s a biggie, the climate crisis poses a threat to life on earth as we know it. The left, in the sense of any coherent socialist presence, has been marginal at best, generally grumbling from the sidelines about the middle-class nature of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, while failing to pose a viable alternative.

Three decades ago, Marxist academic Ellen Meiksins Wood attempted to address our difficulties with such existential questions:

"The issues of peace and ecology are not very well suited to generating strong anti-capitalist forces. In a sense, the problem is their very universality. They do not constitute social forces because they simply have no social identity." (quoted in Saito 2022 p4)

Kohei Saito’s work contests this, tracing a thickening green thread through Marx’s work, to “put forward a wholly new Marxist vision of post-scarcity society adequate to the Anthropocene” (Saito 2022 p4). Saito is an associate professor at the University of Tokyo. He has also helped with the gargantuan task of editing the complete works of Marx and Engels, the Marx-Engels-Gesamptausgabe 2 (MEGA 2). As such, he has had access to a wealth of Marx’s writings that most do not, and the richness of these materials informs his work.

His two books published in English – Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017) and Marx and the Anthropocene (2022) – argue that Marx’s work is extremely relevant for the current climate crisis: more, that Marx “came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production” (Saito 2017 p13). These works aim to move ecological concerns from the periphery to the core of Marxist theory.

There are two accusations that can be levelled at such a project: that of bandwagon hopping, and the almost opposite sin of Marxology: you’ve spilled blood, sweat and tears proving a long-dead guy actually pondered more on this than he’s given credit for. So what? 

Saito acquits himself on both counts. Anyway, if this is a bandwagon you are letting trundle by, you’ve really not been paying attention to the catastrophe engulfing us. If you’re not on board already, get the fuck on. But Saito shows that Marx’s analysis of the relationship between humanity and nature increasingly grounded his more specific critique of capitalism. As such, Saito is not simply blowing the dust off some neglected manuscripts, but demonstrating the necessity of this aspect of such a critique, whether in revolutionary strategy in the 19th or 21st centuries. That’s not to say I think he’s right on all counts, but his is an important contribution.

Saito shows that Marx’s analysis of the relationship between humanity and nature increasingly grounded his more specific critique of capitalism.

1.   Metabolic rifts and epistemological breaks

1.1.         Marx: from Promethean to degrowth communist?

Saito provides a detailed textual analysis of Marx’s view on how capitalism necessarily comes into conflict with natural limits, to the detriment of both the natural world and humanity. Marx’s notebooks after the publication of Capital vol I in 1867 are of particular importance here.

Saito charts Marx’s development from ‘Prometheanism’ – envisioning a post-capitalist society as necessitating accelerating growth – which Saito argues characterised his outlook in the 1840s and 50s, to an eventual adoption of “degrowth communism” towards the end of his life. “Marx consciously parted from any forms of naïve Prometheanism and came to regard ecological crises as the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist mode of production” (Saito 2017 p13). This is Saito’s core thesis. 

He does a thorough job of demonstrating that Marx was well aware of the constraints imposed on humanity by nature, and how this awareness strengthened over time, emphasising developments in his thought after the defeat of the European revolutionary wave of 1848, and following the publication of volume I of Capital. Indeed, Saito contends it was Marx’s increasing awareness of natural constraints that prevented him from completing the work. His joint rejection of productivism and Eurocentrism meant “he strove to learn new things in order to complete Capital” (Saito 2022 p198).

Taking into account the deepening of Marx’s theory of metabolism, it is plausible that Marx in 1881 recognised not only non-Eurocentric, multi-linear ways to socialism but also developed a more ecological vision of socialism. However, the expansion of Marx’s interest made it extremely hard to complete his project of Capital. (Saito 2017 p265)

Which, I suppose, makes for a more interesting narrative than bunions.

Much of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism is a detailed treatment of Marx’s immersion in this work. “The argument between the mineral-fertiliser people and the nitrogen-fertiliser people” is every bit as exciting as this fragment of a quote makes it sound (Marx, in Saito 2017 p220). To be fair, nobody can accuse Saito of not being thorough. 

Saito also relates Marx’s increased interest in capitalism’s destruction of the natural environment with a growing pessimism as to the progressive potential of capitalism as it pushed aside other social formations through its viral spread via colonialism (Saito 2017 pp 202-212). Saito argues that this led Marx to a view of communism that, far from unfettering the productive forces that capitalism had developed, conflicted with those forces and technologies, not just the relations of production. Informed by his extensive research into both the natural sciences and non-capitalist societies, this led Marx to see communism as a necessarily degrowth society. It is, unsurprisingly, the degrowth aspect that is one of Saito’s most contentious claims, and this is something that really needs an article of its own. Saito has a new book coming out in English translation in 2024, addressing how this would look today, so best leave that till then.

1.2.        The core concept of metabolism

The key concept through which Marx expressed the contradiction between capital and nature, argues Saito, is metabolism (Stoffwechsel), a phrase adapted from the biology of his day. This metabolic relation between man and nature is mediated by labour:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature (Capital I, quoted in Saito 2022 p19)

Saito looks at this through two different lenses. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, this is done with reference to Marx’s engagement with the agricultural science of the 19th century (those fractious fertiliser people); while in Marx and the Anthropocene Saito looks at how later Marxists picked up on the theory of metabolism, from Luxemburg to Lukacs and beyond.

For example, Saito draws on Hungarian Marxist Istvan Meszaros’ work, where capital’s ‘second order mediations’ (the social form, which must expand ceaselessly) come into conflict with the essential first order mediations (natural/physically defined limits), bringing about a rift in this essential metabolic relationship, thus causing ecological crisis. 

Saito argues this metabolic rift appears at three different levels:

  1. Capitalism’s disruption of natural cyclical processes 
  2. A spatial rift, characterised by the contradiction between town and country, or between the Global North and Global South: imperialism (Saito 2022 p32)
  3. A temporal rift, where “nature cannot catch up with the accelerating speed of capital” (Saito 2022 pp24-8).

However, it’s important to understand that such mediations are not themselves separate processes: we mediate with nature through historically specific social forms of organisation. These in turn determine, to a degree, natural/physical limits (for example, the nutritional yield for a given piece of land will not be the same for a hunter-gatherer as for a pastoralist or a neolithic farmer, let alone between the latter and a modern farmer). As such, first- and second-order mediations are the same process and cannot be separated out, other than analytically. 

It shouldn’t therefore be taken that there is a ‘good’ or ‘authentic’ first order content that can be preserved by discarding a ‘distorting’ social form. 

We mediate with nature through historically specific social forms of organisation. These in turn determine, to a degree, natural/physical limits

1.3.        Form contra content

This conflict between the capitalist social form and the constraints imposed by the physical environment is an unfolding of the contradiction between exchange value and use value; the capitalist drive for ever-expanding value, and the natural limits with which this must inevitably collide:

"This juxtaposition of Formwechsel and Stoffwechsel in Capital also indicates Marx’s original methodological approach to treat the objects of his investigation from both ‘material’ (stofflich) and ‘formal’ (formell) aspects." (Saito 2017 p75)

Not only does the relationship between these two aspects render capitalism crisis-prone, as capital seeks to continually expand without regard to any material limitations, it undermines the conditions of life itself by disrupting the metabolic relationship between humanity and nature. Any attempt to transcend capitalism must therefore be based on a sustainable metabolism between humans and nature:

Marx’s demand for the conscious regulation of the metabolic interaction between humans and nature consists in the insight that precisely due to natural limits social production must be radically reorganised… This rational intercourse with nature is, however, not possible in capitalism, because the whole social production is organised by private labour, and, accordingly, the social metabolic interaction is mediated by value. (Saito 2017 p161-2)

The destructive outcome of the contradiction between use value and exchange value is not a new idea, by any means, but Saito does a convincing job of both focusing it on ecological issues, and grounding this in Marx’s own work. 

1.4.        Formal and real subsumption

This contradiction between form and content also appears in Marx’s concepts of the ‘formal’ and ‘real’ subsumption of the labour process by capital. This is where Marx takes a dive into (mainly English) history: when capitalism first gains traction, it doesn’t do so with organisational forms that are themselves characteristic of capitalism: mechanised factories, etc. It does so through pre-existing forms of organisation; for instance, the ‘putting out system’ of production, where capitalists would supply the raw commodities and buy the finished products from home-based workers, organised in fundamentally the same way they had been for centuries, around the home. The ability to enhance productivity is limited: the labourers are dominated by capitalist social relations, but the form of that domination is essentially pre-capitalist. This is formal subsumption, eventually succeeded by essentially capitalistic factory production: real subsumption.

Capital takes the world as it finds it in the first instance, before transforming – deforming – it in its own image. In doing so, capitalism strives to develop forms of organisation and technologies that better suit its need for both profit and control, so allowing it to totally dominate the production process:

"By modifying the entire labour process not only through the application of science and technology but also through the social organisation of labour – the way that workers work – capital overcomes the external relationship between Form and Stoff that can be seen in formal subsumption." (Saito 2022 p147)

So home production gave way to factory production; hand tools to mechanisation; the merchant to the industrial capitalist; the sale of commodities by artisans to the sale of labour power by wage labourers. 

Harry Braverman, in Labour and Monopoly Capital, describes this development as the separation of conception from execution, where workers lose the subjective conditions of performing their labour. A managerial caste is interposed – those who plan, oversee and discipline – rendering actual production as free from conscious direction by those who perform it as possible. Subject and object are inverted (and we will come to this issue of inversion in section 2.1): workers become mere appendages of the machine.

Saito argues that capitalism similarly transforms the natural world, extending Marx’s treatment of formal and real subsumption to nature:

"The cause of modern ecological crises is not the insufficient level of technical development but economic form determinations of the transhistorical process of metabolic interchange between humans and nature." (Saito 2017 p133)

That’s an important point, particularly when it comes to how one conceives post-capitalist society. However, make a mental note of that transhistorical reference, as we’ll come back to it with Saito’s analysis of abstract labour. It’s problematic.

2. The revenge of philosophy

There are important implications of this Formwechsel versus Stoffwechsel analysis, which impact on Saito’s consideration of such diverse subjects as his transhistorical conceptions of both metabolism and abstract labour, and his framing Marx’s supposed methodological shift from his early focus on “essence/appearance” to “the inverted world” and fetishism (other important areas include Saito’s take on monism versus dualism and the determinacy of social relations versus material conditions of production. But, again, space prohibits.).

To unpick this, we need to turn to something that Saito reckons Marx junked in the 1840s: philosophy. More specifically, the philosophy of Hegel.

Saito argues that after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, “Marx determinedly parted from philosophy, devoting himself to the study of political economy and natural science” (Saito 2017 p83). This ‘abandonment’ is hard to substantiate, as Marx’s critique of political economy is highly philosophical in nature, and he continued to sharpen this philosophical outlook throughout this critique. For example, in a letter to Engels in January 1858, Marx states: 

"I have overthrown the whole doctrine of profit as it existed up to now. The fact that by mere accident I again glanced through Hegel’s Logik… has been of great service to me as regards the method of dealing with the material." (Marx, quoted in Moseley & Smith 2014 p2)

The contention that Marx made a “break with philosophy in 1845” creates its own philosophical problems (Saito 2017 p259). First, Marx’s economic critique is of a philosophic nature. And if he had abandoned philosophy, what conceptual operating system was he using to frame the subject he was addressing? 

The idea of abandoning philosophy for political economy is something that has gained traction only since Marx’s death, and would have seemed outlandish to him – just as it would have to, for instance, Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill, who situated their political economy within the context of a broader moral philosophy. Indeed, economic enquiry is intrinsically philosophical as it must, every step of the way, defend the coherence of its categories. That modern economics largely sees no need for this reflects on the superficial nature of this discipline. 

You can ignore philosophy, but that doesn’t mean philosophy is going to ignore you. 

2.1. Pictures of an inverted world

In parallel to Marx’s supposed abandonment of philosophy, Saito contends that Marx took what is effectively a philosophical turn. He argues that Marx’s abandonment of Prometheanism and move towards a recognition of the constraints within which humanity operates also entailed the abandonment of essence and appearance – where one must strip away mystifying appearances to arrive at an authentic essence – to that of the inverted world:

"Marx’s German Ideology… rejected any direct reduction of a phenomenon into its ‘essence’ because it is not possible to overcome the objectively inverted world by simply pointing to its hidden truth and essence on an epistemic level. Thus Marx attempted to investigate the historical social relations that constantly produce and reproduce the inverted world of objective ‘appearance’." (Saito 2017 p83)

It’s not clear why Saito rejects essence and appearance, while having Stoff and Form as core elements of his critique. They’re not entirely interchangeable, but they are conceptually close. Alienation similarly “loses its central role” in the later Marx (Saito 2017 p 27) in favour of inversion, this being a key concept in his treatment of formal and real subsumption (Saito 2017, pp 26, 28, 51). This is achieved through the concept of fetishism in Capital, where “the whole point … is to reveal the uniquely human agency that produces this pathological inversion of the subject and the object.” (Saito 2022 p125).

Now, I’m not disputing the importance of fetishism or objective inversion in Marx’s later work, nor indeed that it’s an improvement on his earlier concept of alienation as expressed, for instance, in the 1844 manuscripts. But fetishism is a development from, rather than a rejection of, alienation. Not to appreciate this is to skate over the richness of Marx’s analysis, and the continuing value of the traditions from which it was drawn. 

Ricardo Bellofiore, in a truly enlightening chapter in Moseley & Smith (2014), shows how the two ways of looking at this are intertwined, rather than mutually exclusive: “The relationship between substance and form, or between essence and appearance, must be thought of as a necessary inner connection, as a non-identity which is at the same time an identity. Essence must appear (this is Erscheinung) but this appearance is a distortion: everything appears upside down.” (p174) 

This, argues Bellofiore, runs right through Marx’s analysis in Capital, from the very beginning of which the “not-yet-developed form of exchange-value is already a mystification of reality, which, however, is the ‘appearance’ of things as they are (it is a ‘manifestation’, an Erscheinung, not a semblance, a Schein…)” (p174). To put it another way, there never was in Marx the idea that a hidden essential truth was hidden by a distorting form, but that distortion itself is a necessary expression of the essence. Both form and essence, if you like, are inverted: or, as Marx writes elsewhere, verrückte – crazy. 

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you. 

There’s a real vibe coming off Saito’s work: he’s not read Hegel, but he knows a guy who has. All those potshots he takes at Western Marxism – and there are a lot – lead back to Hegel (see below). Except, if you read Hegel, they don’t. For example, the concept of the inverted world is itself drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (verkehrte Welt, pars 157-165, within the section ‘Force and the Understanding’). 

There’s an incisive discussion of this “almost unreadable” section - no understatement, believe me - of the Phenomenology in Robert Solomon’s In the Spirit of Hegel, pp376-385: “Verkehrte means upside-down, ‘topsy-turvy,’ or inverted; but it also means distorted, perverse” (Solomon p377). Hegel uses this concept to critique Kant’s distinction between an unknowable world “in itself” and one that is given to us through our senses. 

Now, this is a rabbit hole that is both deep and with many branches, but the point I want to make, from Solomon, is “Hegel’s move here is to deny ‘the thing in itself’ and Kant’s distinction between ‘appearance’ … and ‘in itself’” (Solomon p378). Saito argues that Marx’s shift from the terminology of essence/appearance to that of ‘inverted world’ is a fundamental conceptual change. But Hegel’s concept of inverted world, which Marx would have been aware of and from where it’s likely borrowed, is a way of reframing Kant’s essence/appearance dichotomy, not one of replacing it. 

Hegel doesn’t reject essence/appearance and, arguably, neither does Marx – though the conceptual development is important, and Saito is correct to emphasise it. But Hegel’s conception of essence and appearance isn’t that of a mystifying appearance concealing an authentic essence: counterposing essence and appearance in this way is rather more Kant’s than Hegel’s, for whom appearance is the necessary manifestation of essence. So the question isn’t so much as what’s behind appearance, but why is it manifested in this way? There’s an intrinsic and necessary relationship between the two in Hegel that isn’t there in Kant (or, more precisely, Hegel believes that to be the case). More importantly, it’s not there in Saito either, which is why I believe he so often counterposes a transhistorical content against a socially specific form. 

Fetishism, rather than being something that replaces Marx’s concept of alienation, is a concrete incarnation of its capitalist form. Likewise, the inverted world is a socially specific form of essence and appearance. To counterpose them only makes sense if essence and appearance are themselves conceived as mutually exclusive: appearance as a veil behind which essence must always be hidden, as was the case for Kant. Hegel, and I would argue Marx, instead saw a necessary relationship between them – essence as nothing other than appearance, an idea that pops up all over Hegel. 

Why is this important? Not properly understanding Marx’s philosophical grounding can lead to misconceiving important concepts, whether that of the inverted world, or alienation, which also plays a significant role in the Phenomenology. This misconception – indeed, dismissal – of core concepts impacts on core aspects of Saito’s own work, such as his idea of post-capitalist society, and his treatment of abstract labour. Of which, below. 

Fetishism, rather than being something that replaces Marx’s concept of alienation, is a concrete incarnation of its capitalist form. Likewise, the inverted world is a socially specific form of essence and appearance.
2.2. Just how abstract is abstract labour? 

Saito’s misunderstanding of Marx’s socially specific categories rips key concepts from their historical and logical context. In other words, it risks rendering Marx incoherent. 

I have a real beef with Saito’s assertion that Marx “clearly maintains that abstract labour is physiological and transhistorical: ‘All labour is an expenditure of human labour power in the physiological sense, and it is in this quality of being equal, or abstract, human labour that it forms the value of commodities’.”  Saito concludes “abstract labour is also as material and transhistorical as concrete labour”. He contrasts this with the interpretation of the Soviet Marxist II Rubin; that abstract labour is a social form specific to capitalism (Saito 2017 p103: see also Rubin 1973 ch14). Though he doesn’t make reference to this in either work, Saito’s interpretation, and critique of Rubin, runs close to that of Makoto Itoh (see Itoh, 1988, ch12). Itoh’s work, however, is more nuanced, acknowledging that Rubin’s position “can find some support in Capital. Marx’s treatment of the dual character of labour embodied in commodities and his distinction between the labour process and the valorisation process may also seem consistent with this position.” (Itoh p114).

To be fair, Marx is inconsistent on abstract labour. In an act of intellectual dishonesty, Saito often picks up an ambiguous statement by Marx, gives it his spin while ignoring other plausible interpretations. After which, Saito’s interpretation is the only tenable one. Sometimes, as with Saito’s interpretation, abstract labour is “an expenditure of human labour power, in the physiological sense”. However, in a revised manuscript to the first edition of Capital, Marx states:

"The reduction of various concrete private acts of labour to this abstraction of equal human labour is only carried out through exchange, which in facts equates products of different acts of labour with each other." (MEGA 2.6:41, quoted in Heinrich p50)

Accordingly, argues Michael Heinrich, abstract labour “is a relation of social validation (Geltungsverhltnis) that is constituted in exchange” (ibid). 

I strongly support Rubin’s (and in this instance Heinrich’s) reading of Marx. This rests on far more than quote-mining from early drafts of Capital. Throughout his critique of political economy, Marx argues for the social specificity of abstract labour. So, in the Grundrisse

"Labour seems a quite simple category. The conception of labour in this general form – as labour as such – is also immeasurably old. Nevertheless, when it is economically conceived in this simplicity, ‘labour’ is a modern category, as are the relations which create this simple abstraction." (Marx 1973 p103)

He’s even clearer in the 1859 Contribution, where he argues:

"From the analysis of exchange-value it follows that the conditions of labour which creates exchange-value are social categories of labour or categories of social labour, social however not in the general sense but in the particular sense, denoting a specific type of society… Furthermore, in exchange-value the labour-time of a particular individual is directly represented as labour-time in general, and this general character of individual labour appears as the social character of this labour." (pp31-32)

And what are those social categories of labour?

Labour which creates exchange value is thus abstract general labour. (p29)

Labour which manifests itself in exchange-value appears to be the labour of an isolated individual. It becomes social labour by assuming the form of its direct opposite, of abstract universal labour. (p35: all quotes from Marx 1970)

There’s another reasons why Marx argues that abstract labour is specific to capitalism, and that is that the concept of equality between people that would allow different labours to be equated had not developed. In the Commodities chapter of Capital I, after crediting Aristotle with the discovery of the value form, Marx continues as to why he could not root this in human labour:

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and their labour-powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of popular prejudice. (Marx, 1954, pp59-60) 

Surely it’s clear from this that Marx (here at least) conceives abstract labour as both creating exchange value, and being specific to capitalism? 

The weird thing is, much of Saito’s presentation of the value form following his ‘clearly’ assertion in Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism is pretty much in line with Rubin, until we get to:

"Since social production is nothing but the regulation of the metabolic interaction between humans and nature, value is now its mediator, which means that the expenditure of abstract labour is primarily taken into account in the metabolic process. Other aspects of that metabolic interaction, such as concrete labour and nature, in contrast play only a secondary role and are taken into account only as long as they relate to value." (Saito 2017 p109)

So abstract labour is a permanent characteristic of humanity’s interaction with nature, but only determinant under capitalism. Saito wants to have his cake and eat it: but if abstract labour is a transhistorical category, it’s far from clear why value isn’t. Turning his attentions to philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Saito says: 

"Zizek … claims that abstract labour is historically specific to capitalism. However, this argument conflates value and abstract labour. Value is purely social and specific to capitalism, but abstract labour is an abstraction of one aspect of human labour, which exists as long as human labour. According to Marx’s methodology [as stated where? DJ], there is nothing wrong with separating the transhistorical dimension of abstract labour from its socially specific function in valorisation under capitalism." (Saito 2022 p133 fn12)

This all seems odd: it doesn’t flow logically – why is Saito hooked on this? The penny drops later. The reason for the sidelining of Marx’s ecology by Marxists isn’t because most of us don’t have access to the relevant manuscripts but – at least “partially” – because of Western Marxism, 

"which primarily dealt with social forms (sometimes with an extreme fetishism of Hegel’s Science of Logic), while the problem of ‘material’ or ‘content’ was largely neglected." (Saito 2017 p262) 

How this squares with Saito’s lionisation of the quintessential Western Marxist George Lukacs in Marx and the Anthropocene is not clear. Lukacs is a key witness in Saito’s contention that Marx’s method is dualist. Except that Lukacs, unambiguously, regarded Marx as a monist. Moving away from this digression, Saito attacks Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s concept of “the pure sociality of abstract labour”, where “the socialisation is a matter of pure human composition, uncoupled from human’s metabolism with nature” where Sohn-Rethel “reduces value to a mere social relation existing in the commodity exchange and the abstract labour to a pure social construct. Consequently, value is separated from the metabolism between humans and nature in his explanatory scheme.” (Saito 2017 p117)

It is true that the social power of value does not include any ‘material content’ of the commodity because it is a product of social praxis. However, one cannot infer that the objectivity of value has nothing to do with the transhistorical necessity of human metabolism with nature…

"The concept of abstract labour as a ‘pure social’ category has serious consequences. It makes it much harder to explain why capitalist dominance of abstract labour, to which no material property belongs, destroys various dimensions of the universal metabolism of nature more devastatingly than ever." (Saito 2017 pp118-9)

Why does it make it harder? Let’s have a stab: precisely because capitalism recognises no material boundaries, because it needs permanent expansion of value, it can have devastating effects on the very real boundaries of the natural world. Because that value ultimately has a material embodiment. But none of this implies that abstract labour must be understood as transhistorical. Abstract labour is a real abstraction specific to capitalism. Value, argues Marx, is the congelation of abstract labour. Flipped the other way, abstract labour is the substance of value. Eternalise abstract labour, and you eternalise value. 

Or, to put it yet another way, the ‘pure sociality’ of money provides adequate motivation for people to climb into bulldozers and smash them through wide swathes of the Amazon. “The individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket,” as Marx states in the Grundrisse (p157). This is the devastating material side of the “phantom-like objectivity” of the value form. 

Saito leaves the door open to accepting inherently historically specific and exploitative relationships (such as abstract labour) as inescapable.

There’s also the question of how Saito’s abstraction of labour is achieved. What is the mechanism for this dominance? For Rubin, Sohn-Rethel and Heinrich, it’s clear: through the act of exchange where private labours are socially validated. It’s a process that happens countless times each second worldwide. It has materiality. There’s considerable evidence that Marx (for the most part) thought so to. More to the point, it’s logically consistent with the overarching method and structure of Capital.

Conversely, the abstraction that Saito means is that we can conceive of labour in the abstract, whether it be the labour of the neolithic farmers who dragged bluestones from the Preseli hills to Salisbury plain, or a Foxconn production line worker assembling iPhones today. The abstraction in entirely notional – a point made by Moishe Postone, who criticises “most Marxists”, from Karl Kautsky to Paul Sweezy, for whom:

"Abstract labour has been treated implicitly as a mental generalisation of various sorts of concrete labour rather than as an expression of something real. If such were the case, however, value would also be a purely mental construction, and [Austrian economist] Bohm-Bawerk would have been right in arguing that value is use value in general and not, as Marx had argued, a qualitatively distinct category." (Postone 1993 p146)

What makes labour general in capitalism is not simply the truism that it is the common denominator of all various specific sorts of labour; rather it is the social function of labour that makes it general. As a socially mediating activity, labour is abstracted from the specificity of its product, hence from the specificity of its own concrete form. In Marx’s analysis, the category of abstract labour expresses this real social process of abstraction; it is not simply based on a conceptual process of abstraction. (ibid pp151-2)

This text appears in Saito’s bibliography but is nowhere referenced in the text. That’s a shame, as Postone pretty much demolished Saito’s take on abstract labour more than a quarter of a century before the latter committed it to print. 

So, while I agree that “Capital carefully describes how this neglect of material dimensions in the labour process leads to the erosion of human life and the environment” (Saito 2017 p123), Saito undermines his own case by his transhistorical, and so ultimately notional, treatment of abstract labour. It also weakens his foundational concept of metabolism. That metabolism is always of a historically specific nature; it is never abstract other than, in a commonplace sense, conceptually

Paradoxically, while Saito is trying to ground his theory of metabolism, it ends up floating in the clouds. 

Why does this matter? Most obviously, to bomb-proof one’s outlook: if it doesn’t make logical sense, it cannot be right – ‘all that is actual is rational’, and so on. Not only is Saito’s interpretation at odds with a consistent reading of Marx, it doesn’t even make logical sense, in that de-historicising abstract labour while keeping the social specificity of exchange value renders the theory incoherent. 

Marx offered a critique of political economy. An essential part of that critique was of political economists such as David Ricardo who saw capitalism simply as a technical relationship, and as such necessarily eternal – transhistorical. Modern economics takes that much further.

Saito wants to straddle this divide. This leaves the door open to accepting inherently historically specific and exploitative relationships (such as abstract labour) as inescapable. This perception characterised many of the debates about socialist planning in the twentieth century, the most egregious example being Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Crudely put, if abstract labour is transhistorical, why not value, money, markets, etc?

It doesn’t get to the root of the matter – and, as the old boy said:

"To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself."

To loop back to where we started from, Saito’s work is strongest in demonstrating that ecology and sustainability were increasingly core concerns for Marx, and therefore of justifying a ‘green Marxism’ that is in no way a departure from the revolutionary project as conceived by Marx. He shows that the climate crisis is bound up with the social form of capitalism, not a technical, asocial problem of x-number of people versus y-amount of resources. Marxism therefore becomes important to ecological movements only if ecology first becomes a core concern for Marxists – more than simply pointing to global warming hockey-stick charts and going “that’s capitalism”. Saito has played an important role in grounding this as an intrinsically and necessarily core concern. That how he frames this is sometimes unsatisfying and inconsistent does not negate the importance of his contribution.

The “very universality” that Ellen Meiksins Wood saw as a barrier to ecology being taken up by anti-capitalist forces in Saito’s interpretation of Marx becomes a strength. Marxism is, after all, a universalising, transformational project. The question this begs is how that universality translates into specific agency: from rationality to actuality. 

Davy Jones is NOT a mythological anthropomorphic cephalopod.


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