Karl Gerth


On his book Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021

In a nutshell

My book reconsiders the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949 from a novel perspective: the spread of consumerism in a self-proclaimed communist country.

The book title, Unending Capitalism, suggests my interpretation: The Chinese Communist Party’s Revolution aimed to end capitalism but instead accelerated its development. To use a term of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the party “negated” its Communist Revolution by expanding rather than ending capitalism. In my view, the CCP’s self-defined socialist state was not an antithesis to capitalism but rather a moving point on a spectrum of state-to-private control of industrial capitalism.

By examining the spread of consumer products and impacts on everyday life, I argue that the People’s Republic of China was a country closer to the “state capitalist” end of a spectrum of capitalism. This spectrum ranges from a capitalism entirely dominated by the state to one entirely dominated by the private sector. In my interpretation, all countries are on a spectrum of capitalism because all countries, including the PRC, have continually shifted their policies regarding the ownership of capital—sometime public, sometime private—and the allocation of resources—sometimes with greater state planning, other times by using markets.

I make my case with sources focusing on everyday life, using everything from blogs and newspaper clippings to internal government reports and archival documents. These sources reveal what “socialist” policies looked like from the bottom up rather than from the stated intentions of policy elites down.

I document unending capitalism through the spread of consumerism and all the inequalities accompanying consumerism with numerous examples. Take wristwatch production and distribution. In the early 1950s, after decades of relying on imports, China began to produce its own brands of wristwatches. Who got those watches first and why? What does the distribution of those watches say about the priorities of the state? In my analysis, facilitating the expansion of capital—even at the expense of socialist egalitarianism—was always more important. The state allocated those watches to those thought best able to help expand capital, not “build socialism”: managers rather than workers, people in factories rather than on farms, and those living in the prosperous coastal areas rather than the poorer interior. The same distribution priorities of capitalism everywhere with the minor difference of the managers being state employees rather than private businesspeople.

In short, the actual policies introduced and elaborated by the Communist Party manifested the forms of social and economic inequalities associated with capitalism, not socialism.