The Socialist Market Economy in China, Vietnam and Laos: A development model to embrace?

By Jo Inge Bekkevold, Arve Hansen and Kristen Nordhaug

China, Vietnam and Laos have for three decades been among the fastest growing economies in the world. In other words, three of the best growth performers in global capitalism are authoritarian states led by communist parties with socialism as the official development goal. This fact has received surprisingly little attention, especially when considering their strong performance on a wide range of development indicators. Many claim China and Vietnam indeed represent some of the most impressive “development success stories” the world has seen in recent decades. The three countries claim to have found their own model of development combining a market economy with socialism – ‘the socialist market economy’. According to official definitions, this is not capitalism, but a more sustainable and socially just way of making a market economy work for national development and the improvement of living standards. In The Socialist Market Economy in Asia: Development in China, Vietnam and Laos, an edited volume newly published by Palgrave Macmillan, we engage with the coherence, achievements and failures of this particular development model.

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COVID-19: Dying for Sustainability?

The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.


Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.

Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.

Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growthfirst published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.

Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.

Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complexUneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.

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Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle?

industry-4612432_1920Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo once likened the work of economists to that of plumbers – tinkering and adjusting as necessary as they engage with the details of economic policy-making. The implication in this comparison is that economists generally understand economic systems and behaviour how the pipes come together – and that the main work of the discipline is to fiddle with these components – adjusting the pressure, replacing valves – to see what works and what doesn’t.

A critique of this approach was compiled by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven here. The primary criticism is that the basic premise is flawed – we do not, in fact, have a very complete understanding of how the pipes come together. Often, we don’t even know where they are. The institutional architecture that determines economic outcomes can vary widely from one country to the next. With so much variation at the systemic-level the utility of “tinkering” at the margins is questionable.

This blog series will interrogate some of the prevailing assumptions about the relationship between state and capital and look at why and in what ways some economies are deeply intertwined with the state. The structural conditions that actually exist in developing economies are often ignored in mainstream economic analyses – the prescription for countries with large state-owned sectors is usually some combination of more market liberalization, less protectionism, better enforcement of property rights. This ignores why the economy is structured that way in the first place, and therefore such prescriptions risk being disconnected from the reality on the ground, and thus ineffective.

Indonesia’s economic trajectory helps to illustrate this point. Despite a long history of sometimes violent anti-communist sentiment, massive portions of the economy are either partially or directly controlled by state-owned enterprises. According to Kyunghoon Kim in 2016 there were148 SOEs in Indonesia, and their total assets were equivalent to 56.9% of the country’s GDP.This includes the state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina, three of the four largest banks, the state-owned electric utility PLN which owns the entire national grid, airport operators Angkasa Pura I and II which operate every major commercial airport, the telecom giant PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia and the largest toll road operator Jasa Marga, to name just a few. Read More »

Lost in Technicalities: The Great Indian Slowdown

India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said, while replying to a discussion on the economic slowdown in the Rajya Sabha, ‘growth may have come down, but it is not a recession yet and it won’t be a recession ever’. Drawing on data up until December 2019, I evaluate to what extent India’s economy is indeed slowing down.

Figure 1: Quarterly Rate of Growth of GDP in IndiaScreenshot 2020-01-21 at 09.42.32

No, it’s not a recession, defined strictly in technical terms, i.e. on the whole, the level of activity hasn’t fallen, even though certain crucial sectors, like automobiles, are seeing a fall. What we have instead is a slow down, a severe one at that, with falling rate of growth of GDP for five straight quarters (figure 1). The Indian government is hiding behind economic jargon to obfuscate the reality that is biting the economy. The writing is on the wall. The Indian economy is facing a severe crisis and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better. Based on a recent paper in Economic and Political Weekly, this blog discusses the changing growth levels in the Indian economy, the reasons for the recent slowdown, and some possible short and long term solutions.Read More »

Is Degrowth an Alternative to Capitalism?


The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.Read More »

Economic Development in the 21st Century: A Review


by Ramiro Eugenio Álvarez (University of Siena) and Santiago José Gahn (Roma Tre University)

What drives economic development? What is the nature of the external constraints that developing economies face? What is the role of industrial policy and the central banks in the development process? These were the core questions that were posed in the recent webinar series on Development in the 21st Century, organized by the Economic Development working group of the Young Scholars Initiative (YSI). These four meetings were particularly oriented towards examining notions such as distribution, patterns of specialization, industrial policies and balance of payment constraints. The discussion of such phenomena is especially important in a context of deep academic divides regarding the drivers of economic development.

Following the tradition of the Latin American structuralist school, the meetings placed special emphasis on the inherent challenges of conditions associated with being in the periphery when the problem of development is faced. During the meetings, processes of economic integration that perpetuate asymmetric economic relations of the center-periphery type were examined, as well as the role played by public institutions, e.g. central banks, in the development of industrial economies.Read More »

Secular Stagnation: Short-term Fixes for Long-term Problems


The concept of secular stagnation, first propounded by Alvin Hansen in the 1930s, has enjoyed an academic – and mainstream – resurrection thanks to Lawrence Summers (2014, 2016), who first advanced the theory as an explanation for the subdued recovery and anaemic growth prospects of advanced economies. A surprising criticism recently came from Joseph Stiglitz (August, 2018), who believes that the theory offers a convenient escape away from assuming responsibility for failed policy during the crisis.  An acrimonious debate between Summers and Stiglitz followed.  

On the face of it, Summers – and Gauti Eggertson – are right: the modern theory of secular stagnation does see a central and substantial role for fiscal policy. The problem, however, lies in the fact that a short-term fix for aggregate demand shortfalls – fiscal policy – is being advanced as a long-term solution of the problem of reduced growth prospects. The central question of what drives investment in a capitalist economy is not addressed.Read More »

Revisiting Hirschman’s Tunnel Effect and Its Relevance for China


As within-country inequality is on the rise worldwide, considering how people actually perceive inequality in their societies and how they respond to it is a question worth asking. In 1973 Albert Otto Hirschman proposed an explanation of changing tolerance for inequality associated with different ‘stages’ of the development process. In this post I’ll revisit Hirschman’s theory and link it to emerging studies of how inequality is perceived in China. The Chinese people generally seem to be satisfied with rising inequality, yet it is unclear how long this tolerance will last.Read More »