Book review: ‘Maonomics’ by Loretta Napoleoni

BACK in the 1930s, a certain breed of starry-eyed European leftist was eager to make the case that the USSR somehow represented ‘a new civilisation’.

Proof of the superiority of Stalin’s economic policies, they insisted, was to be found in continued expansion, even at a time when western capitalism was deeply mired in depression. The techniques by which this was achieved could therefore felicitously be overlooked in polite Fabian circles.

Fast forward to now and you find several writers ready to take a parallel stance in the case of China, and Loretta Napoleoni is a prime example. ‘Maonomics’ sits alongside Jenny Clegg’s ‘China’s Global Strategy’ as a typical representative of the genre.

They provide the intellectual underpinnings of an outlook widespread inside the British labour movement, exemplified by the regular favourable coverage of China carried by the Morning Star, and the propensity of some leftwing bloggers to get slightly turned on by pictures of hunky rifle-clutching men in Chinese navy uniforms.

Let’s be frank from the outset; Ms Napoleoni’s book is a bad one. The writing style is meandering, to put it kindly, and the translation from Italian frequently clunky. She doesn’t even deliver on the title, which should surely be ‘Dengnomics’, in honour of the chief architect of China’s turn to the market.

But perhaps clarity of exposition would be a tall order, given that the underlying thesis of this book – summarised by the sub-title ‘ Why Chinese Communists Make Better Capitalists Than We Do’ – is just plain wrong.

It isn’t particularly difficult to generate vast profits from hundreds of millions of people ready to toil for long hours at minimal pay, in sweatshop conditions that drive some to suicide, and without recourse even to independent trade unions.

The double digit GDP growth clocked up in recent years was the product of a specific conjuncture in the world economy, and it would be lazy to assume that it can simply be extrapolated in the decades ahead.

With the majority of the population now living in urban areas, the supply of cheap rural labour will not prove indefinite. The future health of its primary export markets is another factor that could easily derail optimistic scenarios.

Nevertheless, Napoleoni has bought into the official line that in China ‘the state serves the people’ and represents a progressive alternative economic model in which the labour force is somehow happy to suffer super-exploitation in the national interest.

Indeed, she frequently drags Karl Marx into the argument, repeatedly asserting that Beijing has succeeded where Moscow singularly failed in grasping the true meaning of Marxism, and even that it is realising the dictatorship of the proletariat.

But despite the name checks, Napoleoni never buttresses her case by referencing any works of Marx, generating the suspicion that her familiarity with his work may not be intimate.

There is no recognition, for example, of the class dynamics at work in one of the most unequal societies in the world, following the arrival of a capitalist class that personifies capital as surely as its counterpart in nineteenth century Britain.

As a result, China is one of the most unequal societies in the world, as measured by Gini coefficient for the distribution of wealth, which runs from zero for perfect equality to one in the hypothetical case of one person owning everything and everybody else nothing.

In Britain, the net effect of Thatcherism followed by New Labourism has seen the Gini coefficient reach 0.36 on the most recently available figures to which I have ready access; in China, it has topped 0.47, making the country fractionally more inegalitarian than the US.

Yet not only does Napoleoni brush all this under the carpet, but goes to great length to shield the regime from attacks on its human rights record, slamming attempts to uphold basic liberties as hypocritical given the West’s own failings in this sphere, without considering the possibility of simultaneously walking and chewing gum.

To top everything, ‘Maonomics’ is littered with elementary errors, sometimes two and three to the page, highlighting a sloppiness so pronounced that it alone would be enough to undermine any confidence in the author’s conclusions.

For example, China’s maglev railway network is pretty damn fast, but it is hardly ‘supersonic’. Whatever Napoleoni would have readers believe, the trains travel at only around a quarter of the speed of sound.

Nor could Scottish thinker James Mill have been much of an influence on the first American presidents; that would have been impossibly precocious of him, given that he was only born in 1773.

And while Hull struck me as a pretty run-down place the last time I visited, the description of it as ‘a desert inhabited by wolves and stray dogs’ surely exaggerates the deleterious impact of Thatcherism on the city. However, its residents are likely to be even more offended by the claim that it somehow forms part of the Midlands.

But in the political sense, incidental howlers are neither here nor there. Napoleoni’s principle error is this; the legacy of the twentieth century forces the left to make a stand against authoritarianism whatever its guise, and all the more so when it purports to come from our side. And in this, she simply fails.

  1. This knockabout stuff unintentionally reveals a deep ignorance of economics, or even logic.

    “It isn’t particularly difficult to generate vast profits from hundreds of millions of people ready to toil for long hours at minimal pay, in sweatshop conditions that drive some to suicide, and without recourse even to independent trade unions.”

    The existence of hundreds of millions of people is not a sufficient condition for growth, otherwise the reveiewer would be forced to explain why that didn happen pre-Deng, or indeed under either the Japanese or British colonialists.

    In 1978 Chinese and Indian per capita GDP were almost exactly the same. India has its hsare of hundreds of millions of rural inhabitants, swetshop conditions, a high Gini coefficient and suicides. It also has trade unions. 30 years later, despite very strong growth (India per capita GDP grew at twice Britian’s rate over the period), Indians have a per capita GDP less than half that of the Chinese.

    Evidently, economic policy has some role to play. If that is a capitalist economic policy then we are forced to conclude that capitalism retains enormous vitality, and therefore remains in that sense progressive.

    If instead it is an economy in the very earliest stages of socialism, where nevertheless the land, the banks and a large proportion of industry is in state hands, then we have cause both to celebrate this and learn from those economic policies.

  2. A better starting point might be to read

    “Demystifying the Chinese Economy” by Justin Yifu Lin. Chief Economist and Senior Vice President, the World Bank; and an academic at Beijing University.

    Dave Osler seems to add neither insight not wisdom in his review of Napoleoni’s book.

    Another recent work worth looking at is Hu Angang’s “China in 2020, A new Type of Superpower”. Hu is China’s most prominent leftist public intellectual.