Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution by Karl Gerth
Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution By Karl Gerth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 375.

For historian Karl Gerth, consumption is the way into the history of modern China. His first book explored how consuming "national" goods served as important terrain for fostering nationalism during the Republican era (1912–49). In his second book, Gerth leaped to the post-Mao era (since the late 1970s), documenting the fervent consumerism after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turned to globalization and a market-oriented economy. But how did a socialist country seemingly embrace consumerism so swiftly? In the third installment of his trilogy on consumerism in China, Unending Capitalism, Gerth offers an answer. Bridging the period of his first books, he gives us a glimpse into the material lives of ordinary citizens during the Mao era (1949–76). From desirable household items (wristwatches, bicycles, and sewing machines) to fashion, from proper "socialist" style advertisements to the shopping experience in state-owned stores, from markets of goods looted during the Cultural Revolution to the economy of Mao badges, Unending Capitalism reveals a social world of people, who, just like their global counterparts, negotiated social relations and individual identities through material possessions.

Marx envisioned communism as a stage in history that is built on the rich material legacy accumulated under capitalism. In a country emerging from decades of wars and struggling with economic development, the CCP had to overcome material constraints by prioritizing production through industrialization and controlled consumption. Surplus value produced by the work force went to the state instead of capitalists in a process of primitive accumulation. Gerth argues that this political-economic practice was capitalist in nature. Although the CCP aimed to build an equal society, the continuous struggle against the middle classes paradoxically exposed ordinary citizens to bourgeois lifestyle and consumption practices. Shaped and justified by political priorities and movements, consumption options and [End Page 318] experiences differed according to an individual's socio-political status. As a result, consumerism reproduced a social hierarchy that the socialist revolution vowed to eliminate, thus negating the revolution. Despite the CCP's aim to create socialism, Gerth suggests that the capitalist political economy and consumerism during the Mao era prepared the nation and its people for fully-fledged capitalism and consumerism after Mao's death.

For scholars interested in technology, Gerth's proposal to perceive items like a bicycle as a technology rather than merely a product is intriguing, although this point is lost as his stories of everyday consumerism unfold. Meanwhile, the book's claim that the political economy in Mao's China was state capitalism may provoke disagreement from many historians and social scientists. Other claims that consumerism was expanding during this period and negating the revolution's goals may need more deliberation. After all, it is common for individuals to desire material possessions and for material possessions to differentiate people. Social relations, power structures, and the meaning-making process differ significantly in diverse tempo-spatial backgrounds. Chinese society during the Mao era was marked by material scarcity. The CCP was the ultimate authority, defining what should be produced and how, and who had access to what kind of resources. Despite the institutional hierarchy, as many empirical studies have shown, Chinese society was relatively egalitarian in the late 1970s. This differs significantly from a capitalist society where production for mass consumption is highly developed and the property regime allows and encourages people to accumulate wealth endlessly and protect it. Emphasizing the similarities rather than the differences in consumerism between these two kinds of society may lead to oversimplification of the complex socio-political realities and subjective experiences.

That said, if we step back from these generalizations, we will find that Unending Capitalism provides a rich tableau of material culture at a time when political leaders were trying to turn a utopian vision into a socio-political reality and individuals were expected to become new citizen-subjects of a socialist country. Material culture is the terrain where various actors negotiated and concretized these perceptions, agendas, and objectives of socialism, giving meaning to mundane lives.

Jun Zhang

Jun Zhang, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong, is the author of Driving toward Modernity: Cars and the Lives of the Middle Class in Contemporary China (Cornell University Press, 2019).

Citation: Zhang, Jun. "Review of Unending Capitalism: How Consumerism Negated China's Communist Revolution by Karl Gerth." Technology and Culture 62, no. 1 (2021): 318–19.

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