Karl Gerth


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

Cover Interview of March 10, 2021


I hope my book helps readers reexamine a familiar history of China, and indeed the world since the Second World War. In my book, many famous events such as the Mao badge fad take on different meanings. In doing so, I invite readers to reconsider the history of capitalism through its relationship to consumerism.

My analysis suggests an ongoing need to move past Cold War-era binaries—a world we still imagine was divided between planned economy vs. free markets, dictatorship vs. democracy, interests of the collective vs. freedom of the individual, and public vs. private enterprise. Unending Capitalism suggests that these dichotomies may have become so politicized and inaccurate that they hide more than they reveal.

What emerges is a state capitalism that shifted back and forth along various points on a state-to-private spectrum of industrial capitalism, each permutation affecting consumerism in a different way. During the late 1950s and late 1960s, the political economy moved in the direction of state-controlled accumulation, whereas during the early 1950s, early 1960s, and 1970s the political economy shifted toward market-mediated accumulation and consumerism. These shifts were justified as a necessary part of Communist Party efforts to “build socialism” in order to reach communism. But the existence of such shifts reveals that neither the state’s vision of socialism nor its practice of state capitalism and consumerism were static.

Demonstrating that the terms state capitalism and state consumerism refer not to a fixed but rather to a fluctuating point on the state-to-private spectrum of industrial capitalism provides a reminder that all economies mix elements of institutional arrangements associated with both ends of the spectrum. All forms of industrial capitalism involve attempts to manage consumer desires.

Viewed from this perspective, the “market reforms” since the death of Mao in 1976 that promoted greater consumerism in China appear to be less of a break with Maoist ideology and policy and more as yet another shift in state-led capitalism. Such shifts also suggest that, aside from state capitalism and private capitalism, there are other varieties of capitalism in between these extremes.

I hope that expanding the study of the varieties of capitalism to include “socialist” countries such as China presents an opportunity to render the history of capitalism and consumerism as more truly global, and to think of the Mao era as part of an integrated world history rather than an isolated and exotic “socialist” interlude.