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A brief conclusion discusses the implications of the book. By illuminating the nature of state capitalism, state consumerism, and their successes and failures in the Mao era, this book contributes to the history of the twentieth century (and since) in four areas: the history of China during the Mao era; the history of “socialist” countries; the history of consumerism; and the related history of capitalism.
Chapter 3 examines the implications of how, in the opening years of the PRC, the CCP officially sanctioned all things Soviet—material, cultural, and ideological. In doing so, the CCP sponsored expansion of consumerism through popularizing Soviet styles. The developing Chinese version of state consumerism thus buttressed the socialist rhetoric that the CCP promoted through imported cultural products such as Soviet films, art, novels, and political ideology, which explicitly called for rejecting capitalism and bourgeois values. But Mao and other Chinese leaders became increasingly disenchanted with Soviet-style policies and economics; and their domestic audience both noticed the implicit endorsement of consumerism behind the socialistic veneer of Soviet fashions and products, and criticized it. The eventual rejection and self-aware turn of the CCP in the 1960s away from the Soviet “restoration of capitalism,” as the CCP labeled Soviet policies, was not enough to counter the growing inequalities associated with industrial capitalism and consumerism.
Chapter 5 reinterprets the CCP’s policies toward retail and distribution to show how the party’s control over retailing not only fulfilled the socialist ideological goal of eliminating a class of people who profited through trade rather than labor (private merchants) but also helped the state better control consumption. Despite the state’s efforts, the definition and practices of “socialist commerce” changed in response to the current economic and political contingencies—particularly the need to accumulate faster. While the CCP attempted to find ways to improve distribution and consumption and adopted and aborted socialistic experiments, it never abandoned its overriding goal of using the country’s limited resources to rapidly industrialize. The state wanted socialistic experiments related to retailing and distribution to maximize control over labor and eliminate the siphoning of profits from the state, rather than to “build socialism” and create an ideal socialist marketplace.
The Introduction introduces the primary questions of the book: what are the implications of the spread of consumerism in the Mao era, 1949–76? The argument is simple: consumerism is a correlate of capitalism. Both depended on each other to expand. The implication: the spread of both define the political economy of the PRC not as “socialist,” as is commonly assumed, but rather as capitalism. As the book demonstrates, the Mao era was a specific variety of capitalism called “state capitalist” because the state attempted to channel and suppress consumerism and consumption generally to facilitate rapid industrialization. The chapter justifies labeling these state attempts to control consumerism with a coined term, state consumerism. The rest of the Introduction explains the specific use of these three key terms: consumerism, capitalism, and socialism. Finally, the chapter suggests how the rest of the book attempts to demonstrate why this reinterpretation of “Communist China” as developing a form of capitalism helps readers understand the history of the era and new and better ways.
Chapter 7 argues that while the Red Guards shouted support for the Socialist Revolution, their everyday actions furthered the practices of consumerism that negated the revolution. The Cultural Revolution’s mobilization of young people helped spread consumerism through the Mao badge fad to demonstrate how widely the Cultural Revolution spread consumerism throughout China. Soon, tens of millions of Red Guards nationwide aspired to attend a rally in Beijing, catch a glimpse of Mao, declare their commitment to Mao and the Revolution, and bring home a Mao badge as proof of their visit. Mao badges, and the symbolic and social value they conferred on their owners, provoked a wave of material desire and a Mao badge fad that eventually propelled the production, distribution, and accumulation of billions of badges across the country and globe. The chapter examines the Mao badge fad in detail because consumer fads are a quintessential example of the self-generating and compulsive nature of consumerism.
Chapters 6 and 7 reinterpret several high-profile events of the Cultural Revolution and argue that the longer-term result of the iconoclasm and destruction of the Cultural Revolution was the further elaboration of the self-expanding and compulsory consumerism of industrial capitalism. The activities of the Destroy the Four Olds movement examined in Chapter 6 did not build socialism; they negated the Revolution by expanding established forms of consumerism. This chapter first examines how Destroy activities specifically targeted visible manifestations of consumerism and reflected an undercurrent of anger at the CCP’s consistent prioritization of capital accumulation over a socialist transformation of relations of production. The chapter then demonstrate how, despite the stated aims of Red Guards, Destroy activities further spread consumption habits across China.
Chapter 4 examines the evolution of three forms of economic propaganda—advertisements, posters, and films—to reveal the move toward greater state consumerism, and reveals the ways the CCP navigated the central contradiction between its socialist rhetoric and its capitalist policies. While the Soviet Union provided ideological cover for the CCP’s embrace of consumerism, the party also used public discourse surrounding consumerism to promote restraint. These forms of discourse all attempted to subordinate people’s material desires under a propaganda blitz of messages proclaiming the importance of hard work and frugal living. The CCP’s brand of consumerism thus attempted to castigate individual material desires as bourgeois and celebrate social consumption in its stead. The CCP’s social consumption celebrated collective achievements that benefited the entire nation, such as expanding production of goods and infrastructure like nuclear weapons, bridges, collective dining and childcare, and health care. The CCP used their growing propaganda apparatus to promote consumerism even as it attempted to shape—and at times even suppress—consumerism’s self-expanding, compulsory nature.
The Revolution of 1949 did not begin the shift to greater state capitalism. Chapter 2 examines the shift toward greater state capitalism in the lead up to and after 1949 by addressing why the CCP decided that facilitating the expansion of industrial production was more important than transforming the social relations of production. In short, military competition required rapid industrialization. Together, the first two chapters show how the CCP built on the pre-existing institutional foundations for the expansion of consumerism. The CCP consistently subordinated the transformation of social relations to the goal of amassing ever greater sums of capital and control over it and tolerated contradictory policies toward capitalists as long as those policies helped facilitate more immediate goals. Two mass campaigns examined illustrate how the CCP instrumentalized class warfare and used it only for greater capital accumulation rather than socialist transformation. Then the final section shows that the same CCP outcome of accumulation over social transformation applies to the countryside.
Chapter 1 provides an accessible introduction to the book’s argument. It examines the self-expanding and compulsory aspect of industrial capitalism and its natural correlate, industrial consumerism, by tracing how Chinese people competed to produce and acquire consumer goods across the Mao era, 1949–76. In the 1960s, consumers demanded three luxury products in particular: wristwatches, bicycles, and sewing machines, known at the time as the Three Great Items. Before the late 1950s, all three of these had been difficult to acquire. As the state continued to expand control over both production and consumption, the Three Greats became increasingly available across cities, towns, and even some rural areas. By the end of the Mao era, so many people already owned these three that industrial consumerism began to replace these with more technologically complex and capital-intensive consumer products, initiating another round of compulsory and self-expanding consumerism.
What forces shaped the twentieth-century world? Capitalism and communism are usually seen as engaged in a fight-to-the-death during the Cold War. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party aimed to end capitalism. Karl Gerth argues that despite the socialist rhetoric of class warfare and egalitarianism, Communist Party policies actually developed a variety of capitalism and expanded consumerism. This negated the goals of the Communist Revolution across the Mao era (1949–1976) down to the present. Through topics related to state attempts to manage what people began to desire - wristwatches and bicycles, films and fashion, leisure travel and Mao badges - Gerth challenges fundamental assumptions about capitalism, communism, and countries conventionally labeled as socialist. In so doing, his provocative history of China suggests how larger forces related to the desire for mass-produced consumer goods reshaped the twentieth-century world and remade people's lives.