Monday, January 1, 2024

Lost in translation: Slow Down by Kohei Saito

Kohei Saito's "manifesto" of degrowth communism was BIG in Japan, selling half a million copies in the first year and a half after publication. It's debut in English is already tarnished, though, by a colossal, cringe-inducing Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion error that repeats throughout the book.

The formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit is: multiply the Celsius temperature by 1.8 and add 32. The addition of 32 is to account for the fact that the freezing point of water is 0° in Celsius but 32° in Fahrenheit. However, when converting a temperature change, such as the IPCC's upper limit of 1.5° C above preindustrial global annual mean temperature, one doesn't add 32. 

In Slow Down, the 1.5°C limit is rendered as 34.7°F, suggesting that the IPCC thinks we would be O.K. with a global annual mean temperature of slightly above 91°F. My advice to the publisher would be to recall the current print run and pulp it.

Aside from that massive error, my main criticism of the book is Saito's creation of a "new Marx" by connecting a few scattered dots from Marx's post-Capital notebooks and a letter he wrote to the Russian activist, Vera Zasulach, shortly before his death. Integral to the construction of Saito's "Marxster" is the depiction of Marx's earlier works as "productivist." 

This depiction cedes ground to earlier environmentalist criticisms of Marx and to traditional Marxism as practiced in the Soviet Union but it begs the question of why anyone should care so much about what Marx may have thought late in his life. In Saito's case, it would appear he has a vision of what communism should be and he wants to invoke his creature's redeemed authority. This is unfortunate because the straw man, productivist Marx that Saito scorns actually articulated many of the points that Saito wants to make and did it better than either Saito or his connect-the-dots post-Marx Marx.

I have already covered some of this material in a previous post, "Growth below zero and the development of the productive forces." A couple of years ago I wrote a series on disposable time as a common-pool resource, which in my view is very relevant to the issues that Saito raises about growth, the commons, and a possible alternative the environmentally destructive imperatives of capital. An even earlier piece, from 2013, Income, GDP Growth and Double Counting touched on some salient criticisms of growth.