The opposition of market capitalism to state-oriented socialism and communism was the basic conflict in 20th-century political economy. But like many an economic and political theory, this durable model for delineating the possibilities—free markets vs. a “command economy”—cannot survive today’s Chinese state.
Capitalism and communism, opposed in ideology, turn out to be compatible in the real world. And perhaps the conceptual opposition is also collapsing in the West, as capitalism goes woke and sneaker commercials become indistinguishable from AOC campaign materials except by their production values.
“Leftism” as we know it crystallized in the 19th century largely under the aegis of Marxism, which described capitalism as an exploitative and murderous ideology that lionized greed. Leftists’ solution, as expressed by
“The Communist Manifesto,” was government control of the economy under the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
But the dictators turned out to be people rather than an abstract historical force, so it wasn’t a solution to human greed after all. Turning over all manufacturing and agriculture and trade to the party simply meant concentrating all the wealth and power in a few hands. It made the Soviet government, for example, a new oligarchy.
The Soviet oligarchy was little more effective than the czarist aristocracy it replaced. It didn’t learn enough, or quickly enough, from its capitalist rivals. It was terrible at marketing itself. Many Western analysts concluded that a command economy was unworkable, that the distance between government bureaucracy and real transactions made the economy unresponsive to changing conditions, unable to take advantage of opportunities, and unable to supply its population with what it actually needed.
China suggests that such conclusions were premature. Not that China doesn’t have its own Soviet-style problems, but it has powered through them as the Soviets never could. The Chinese Communist Party is preoccupied with both economic growth and control of its population. It is succeeding at both. But where does it fall on the left-right spectrum? It reclines across the whole thing: It’s communist capitalism or capitalist communism.
If China’s communists have appropriated capitalism, in “woke capitalism” the capitalists have appropriated socialism. This is applied both internally, as companies focus on the ideological re-education of their employees with diversity training and the like, and externally, as those companies relentlessly if implausibly portray themselves as the agents of an egalitarian future. The new voter laws in Georgia will fall, if they do, to challenges not from the Justice Department or the courts, but from Major League Baseball,
which operate at once as profit-making concerns and political organizations. Rather like mini-Chinas.
Woke capitalism is likely a phase, and it will fade if it stops working on the bottom line. But China presents a more enduring and world-historical challenge to our understanding of history. Perhaps the Cold War ended not with the victory of capitalism over communism, but with their merger.
Mr. Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
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Appeared in the April 27, 2021, print edition.
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