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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Sino State Capital and the Strengthening of Serbian Stabilitocracy

Chinese labour workers and their team manager laying the tracks on the Belgrade-Stara Pazova section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway. Source: author’s own.

The Belgrade-Budapest Railway has been lauded as the flagship Belt and Road project of the wider Central and Eastern European (CEE) region, and as such is promoted by Beijing as a successful template for Sino-CEE cooperation concluded via the 17+1 initiative, established in 2012 to foster relations between China and 17 CEE countries. In its host context of Hungary and Serbia, the investment has been politicised from the get-go, wherein criticism has largely focused on the project’s violation of EU public procurement rules, which require competitive dialogue and open-tender processes for projects of substantial size.

We would expect the Belgrade-Budapest Railway to be subject to greater scrutiny in both Hungary, as an EU member state, and Serbia, where external legitimacy of the EU is an important cornerstone of regime legitimacy, stemming from broad-based support for EU integration and cooperation. While this has played out in Hungary where there have been protests and where the EU launched infringement proceedings against the construction for non-compliance, the Serbian section has proceeded relatively unhindered.

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Debating ‘State Capitalism’ in Turkey: Beyond False Dichotomies

Following the 2016 failed coup attempt, and in the context of increasing mistrust towards the West, Turkey’s president Erdogan reflected his discontent with the EU and argued that Turkey should instead join the Shanghai Five, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led primarily by China and Russia. Soon after, despite being a NATO member, Turkey signed a deal with Russia to buy the S-400 air defence missile system. Taken together with Turkey’s other ‘adventures’ in its region, these developments were perceived as manifestations of a changing political economy of Turkey, and were deeply disturbing to Western powers. After all, since the end of the Second World War, Turkey had been a close ally of the US-led Western capitalist bloc, it continued to be one during the Cold War; and had remained very close to US and EU interests following the end of the Cold War in 1991.

For some accounts[i], these developments are related to the changing world order and global power shifts following the 2008 crisis, as the decline of the ‘liberal international order’ and the rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) marked transformations of the global political economy. Hence, there is a tendency to explain Turkey’s late political economy in this context. It is argued that, in this ‘post-liberal international order’ where two competing political economies come to the fore, Turkey is moving towards the ‘East’ or ‘non-West’ – mainly China and Russia. As such, Turkey’s engagement with non-Western ‘great powers’ (which are generally characterised by ‘authoritarian state capitalism’ as opposed to the ‘neoliberal political economy’/liberal democracy/’democratic capitalism’ of the West), shapes Turkey’s political economy and paves the way for ‘authoritarianism’, ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘state capitalism’. Put differently, as the legitimacy crisis of ‘Western neoliberalism’ makes it less desirable for countries like Turkey, Turkey is regarded to have deviated from neoliberalism and liberal democracy and moved to state capitalism and authoritarianism.

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Developmental Agency under the Radar: Developmental States and Coalitions in Dependent Market Economies and Low-Tech Sectors

In a recent paper co-authored with László Bruszt and published in a Special Issue of Review of International Political Economy, we identify a developmental state in the least likely  of times – the period of hegemonic neoliberalism in the 1990s and early 2000s –  and the least likely of places, namely the post-socialist Central Eastern European (CEE) economies conventionally described as FDI-dependent Dependent Market Economies (DMEs). 

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The return of the visible hand: How struggles for economic and political dominance turn state capitalism into authoritarian capitalism

budapest-parliament-hungarian-parliament-building-hungary-people-politicians-viktor-orban-hungarianBy Gerhard Schnyder and Dorottya Sallai

The state has made a return with a vengeance in economic matters in the past decade or so. Mainly due to the success of the Chinese model and the – less permanent – strong economic performance of countries like Brazil and Russia, the erstwhile Washington Consensus of the superiority of markets over states as mechanisms of economic coordination has been put in serious doubt.

Scholars have picked up on this trend by increasingly referring to the term (new) ‘state capitalism’. Some consider it an undesirable threat to the existing economic world order, while others show how states can effectively promote development and economic growth.

While the term state capitalism has been useful to bringing the state back in yet again into debates in political economy, the term itself is not unproblematic. Indeed, there is a risk that it perpetuates, rather than surpasses, the sterile debate about the state versus the market. Put bluntly: If there is such a thing as state capitalism, what does non-state capitalism look like?Read More »

Separated under the Same Roof: The Revived Relationships of State-Market Institutions. 

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When looking at the way contemporary global value chains/global production networks (GVCs/GPNs) and the articulations of globalised capital have been studied, it is clearly visible that the hegemonic power of Multinational Corporations (MNCs) has monopolised the empirical and theoretical analysis. Indeed, their ability to maintain control over the technological, financial and commercial flows through private-led governance has impacted most of the industrial development and underdevelopment of the Global South. Such footloose private operations have often caused undesired consequences such as eroded environmental standards, low wages and scrapped social protection rights. Governments have joined in a race to the bottom on fiscal and labour deregulations in order to attract foreign direct investment in exchange for low and semi-skilled jobs, resulting in very low fiscal revenue, low productivity, balance of payment imbalances and poor social outcomes. 

The underpinning theory was that countries should follow their comparative advantages and let the market determine prices of labour (costs) and goods in order to be competitive in the world market and maximise returns. Yet, such losing game has been criticised since the start by heterodox development economists who widely denounced how theories and policies of development forgot the role of the state in history and in the present. In other words, public institutions have always played a key role not only in the quantitative making of capitalist accumulation, but also in its qualitative distributional and developmental outcomes. 

Building upon the heritage of such scholarship, and in view of multiple and overwhelming ‘market failures’ in the global South and beyond, a new wave of Marxist-institutionalist inter-disciplinary literature spanning from Geography to International Economics and Finance has been trying to untangle the potential synergies between the public and the private domains by connecting the GVCs/GPNs and Developmental State approach. 

In this debate, it has been emphasised that the state should be seen as a facilitator (i.e. assisting firms in smoothing market transactions); a regulator (combined with distributor to mitigate inequality and negative market externalities); a buyer (i.e. public procurement); a producer (i.e. state-owned enterprises) and a financer as a result of state-capital reconfigurations through sovereign wealth funds and development banks. Therefore, such functions should be foregrounded in analyses of development, because they are key to understanding developmental sources and processes within GVCs. Read More »

Neoliberalism’s many deaths and strange non-deaths 

neoliberalismBy Jack Copley and Alexis Moraitis

The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.

In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.

How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »

Financializing state capitalism: Exchanges, financial infrastructures & the active management of capital markets in China

DCE trading floorThe development of capital markets has been a core focus of financialization research. For Epstein, financialization ‘means the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies’, while Pike and Pollard define financialization as the ‘growing influence of capital markets, their intermediaries and processes in economic and political life’. Other scholars also attribute a significant role to capital markets in financialization processes, be it in the dissemination of market-based financial activities and practices, the rise of shareholder value-oriented corporate governance, or ‘the increased ability to trade risk’. At the heart of and as a precondition of many aspects of financialization stand capital markets and their development. 

This is not only the case when it comes to financialization in advanced economies, but also with respect to the study of financialization in developing and emerging economies. Financialization processes are not uniform, they are rather variegated and refracted by national institutional settings that lead to different trajectories of financialization. As Lapavitsas and Powell emphasized, ‘both the form and the content of financialization vary according to institutional, historical and political conditions in each country’. This has also been picked up in debates about the relationship between financialization and the state. Previously, many scholars argued that financialization often results in a relative loss of state power vis-à-vis finance and the effects on developing economies are often described as potentially negative with financialization for instance decreasing their borrowing capacity and thereby policy space or deepening existing power asymmetries between states. But stemming from earlier discussions on transformations of the developmental state, more recent scholarship has highlighted that financial market development has often been actively facilitated by states. It argues that an increasing hybridization of financialization processes takes place in which state and (quasi-)state institutions often co-constitute financialization processes. 

Contributing to the growing literatures on variegated financialization and the state, in a paper titled ‘Financialization with Chinese characteristics? Exchanges, control and capital markets in authoritarian capitalism’ (recently published in Economy & Society) I argue that states are not only important actors facilitating financialization but can also exercise a considerable degree of control over financialization, thereby shaping its very form. Instead of a financialization process that follows a neoliberal logic and constrains state power, what we see in China is a ‘financialization with Chinese characteristics’ where the state actively tries to manage financialization and its social outcomes. Read More »