With the US and China, Two Types of Capitalism Are Competing With Each Other

Capitalism’s global victory has been achieved through two different types of capitalist systems: the liberal meritocratic capitalism that has developed incrementally in the West, and the state-led authoritarian capitalism that is exemplified by China. Regardless of who wins, it is unlikely that one of the two will come to rule the entire globe, writes Branko Milanovic in his new book.



A statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh’s High Street. Photo by Charles Clegg [CC BY-SA 2.0]


The fact that the entire globe now operates according to the same economic principles— production organized for profit using legally free wage labor and mostly privately owned capital, with decentralized coordination—is without historical precedent.


In the past, capitalism, whether in the Roman Empire, sixth-century Mesopotamia, medieval Italian city-states, or the Low Countries in the modern era, always had to coexist—at times within the same political unit—with other ways of organizing production. These included hunting and gathering, slavery of various kinds, serfdom (with workers legally tied to the land and banned from offering their labor to others), and petty-commodity production carried out by independent craftspeople or small-scale farmers. Even as recently as one hundred years ago, when the first incarnation of globalized capitalism appeared, the world still included all of these modes of production. Following the Russian Revolution, capitalism shared the world with communism, which reigned in countries that contained about one-third of the human population. None but capitalism remain today, except in very marginal areas with no influence on global developments.


The global victory of capitalism has many implications that were anticipated by Marx and Engels in 1848. Capitalism facilitates—and when foreign profits are higher than domestic, even craves—the cross-border exchange of goods, the movement of capital, and in some cases the movement of labor.


It is thus not an accident that globalization developed the most in the period between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I, when capitalism largely held sway. And it is no accident that today’s globalization coincides with the even more absolute triumph of capitalism. Had communism triumphed over capitalism, there is little doubt that despite the internationalist creed professed by its founders, it would not have led to globalization. Communist societies were overwhelmingly autarkic and nationalistic, and there was minimal movement of goods, capital, and labor across borders. Even within the Soviet bloc, trade was carried out only to sell surplus goods or according to mercantilist principles of bilateral bargaining. This is entirely different from capitalism, which, as Marx and Engels noted, has an inherent tendency to expand.


The uncontested dominion of the capitalist mode of production has its counterpart in the similarly uncontested ideological view that money-making not only is respectable but is the most important objective in people’s lives, an incentive understood by people from all parts of the world and all classes. It may be difficult to convince a person who differs from us in life experience, gender, race, or background of some of our beliefs, concerns, and motivations. But that same person will easily understand the language of money and profit; if we explain that our objective is to get the best possible deal, they will be able to readily figure out whether cooperation or competition is the best economic strategy to pursue.


“It is an old idea, argued by writers as distinguished as Plato, Aristotle, and Montesquieu, that a political or economic system stands in harmonious relation with a society’s prevailing values and behaviors.”

The fact that (to use Marxist terms) the infrastructure (the economic base) and superstructure (political and judicial institutions) are so well aligned in today’s world not only helps global capitalism maintain its dominion but also makes people’s objectives more compatible and their communication clearer and easier, since they all know what the other side is after. We live in a world where everybody follows the same rules and understands the same language of profit-making.


Such a sweeping statement does need some qualification. There are indeed some small communities scattered around the world that shun money-making, and there are some individuals who disdain it. But they do not influence the shape of things and the movement of history. The claim that individual beliefs and value systems are aligned with capitalism’s objectives should not be taken to imply that all of our actions are entirely and always driven by profit. People sometimes perform actions that are genuinely altruistic or are driven by other objectives. But for most of us, if we assess these actions by time spent or money forgone, they play only a small role in our lives. Just as it is wrong to call billionaires “philanthropists” if they acquire an enormous fortune through unsavory practices and then give away a small fraction of their wealth, so it is wrong to zero in on a small subset of our altruistic actions and ignore the fact that perhaps 90 percent of our waking lives is spent in purposeful activities whose objective is improving our standard of living, chiefly through money-making.


This alignment of individual and systemic objectives is a major success achieved by capitalism. Unconditional supporters of capitalism explain this success as resulting from capitalism’s “naturalness,” that is, the alleged fact that it perfectly reflects our innate selves—our desire to trade, to gain, to strive for better economic conditions and a more pleasant life. But I do not think that, beyond some primary functions, it is accurate to speak of innate desires as if they existed independently of the societies we live in. Many of these desires are the product of socialization within the societies where we live—and in this case within capitalist societies, which are the only ones that exist.


It is an old idea, argued by writers as distinguished as Plato, Aristotle, and Montesquieu, that a political or economic system stands in harmonious relation with a society’s prevailing values and behaviors. This is certainly true of present-day capitalism. Capitalism has been remarkably successful in imparting its objectives to people, prompting or persuading them to adopt its goals and thus achieving an extraordinary concordance between what capitalism requires for its expansion and people’s ideas, desires, and values. Capitalism has been much more successful than its competitors in creating the conditions that, according to the political philosopher John Rawls, are necessary for the stability of any system: namely, that individuals in their daily actions manifest and thus reinforce the broader values upon which the social system is based.


“We are presented with two models of capitalism that differ not only in the political but also economic and, to a much lesser degree, social spheres.”

Capitalism’s mastery of the world has been achieved, however, with two different types of capitalism: the liberal meritocratic capitalism that has developed incrementally in the West over the past two hundred years, and the state-led political, or authoritarian, capitalism that is exemplified by China but also exists in other parts of Asia (Singapore, Vietnam, Burma) and parts of Europe and Africa (Russia and the Caucasian countries, Central Asia, Ethiopia, Algeria, Rwanda).


As has occurred so often in human history, the rise and apparent triumph of one system or religion is soon followed by some sort of schism between different variants of the same credo. After Christianity triumphed across the Mediterranean and the Near East, it experienced ferocious ideological disputes and divisions (the one between Orthodoxy and Arianism being the most notable), and eventually it produced the first big schism between the Western and Eastern churches. No different was the fate of Islam, which almost immediately after its dizzying conquest split into Sunni and Shia branches. And finally, communism, capitalism’s twentieth-century rival, did not long remain a monolith, splitting into Soviet-led and Chinese versions.


The worldwide victory of capitalism is, in that respect, no different: we are presented with two models of capitalism that differ not only in the political but also economic and, to a much lesser degree, social spheres. And it is, I think, rather unlikely that whatever happens in the competition between liberal and political capitalisms, one system will come to rule the entire globe.


The Rise of Asia and the Rebalancing of the World


The economic success of political capitalism is the force behind the second remarkable development mentioned above: the rise of Asia. It is true that the rise of Asia is not solely due to political capitalism; liberal capitalist countries like India and Indonesia are also growing very fast. But the historical transformation of Asia is without question being led by China.


This change, unlike the rise of capitalism to global supremacy, has a historical precedent in that it returns the distribution of economic activity in Eurasia to roughly the position that existed before the Industrial Revolution. But it does it with a twist. While levels of economic development of western Europe and Asia (China) were roughly the same in, for example, the first and second centuries, or the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the two parts of the world barely interacted at the time and generally lacked knowledge about each other. Indeed, we know much more about their relative development levels now than contemporaries knew at the time.


Today, in contrast, interactions are intense and continuous. Income levels in both regions are also many times greater. These two parts of the world, western Europe and its North American offshoots, and Asia, which are together home to 70 percent of world population and 80 percent of world output, are in constant contact through trade, investment, movement of people, transfer of technology, and exchange of ideas. The resulting competition between these regions is keener than it would be otherwise because the systems, while similar, are not identical. This is the case whether competition takes place by design, with one system trying to impose itself on the other and on the rest of the world, or simply by example, with one system being copied more readily by the rest of the world than the other.


This geographical rebalancing is putting an end to the military, political, and economic superiority of the West, which has been taken for granted during the past two centuries. Never in history had the superiority of one part of the world over another been as great as was the superiority of Europe over Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century.


That superiority was most evident in colonial conquests, but it was also reflected in income gaps between the two parts of the world and thus in global income inequality among all citizens of the world, which we can estimate with relative precision from 1820 onward, as illustrated in Figure 1.1.



In this graph, and throughout the book, inequality is measured using an index called the Gini coefficient, which ranges in value from 0 (no inequality) to 1 (maximum inequality). (The index is often expressed as a percentage, ranging from 0 to 100, where each percentage point is called a Gini point.) Before the Industrial Revolution in the West, global inequality was moderate, and nearly as much of it was due to differences among individuals living in the same nations as among the mean incomes of individuals in different nations. This changed dramatically with the rise of the West. Global inequality increased almost continuously from 1820 to the eve of World War I, rising from 55 Gini points (roughly the level of inequality that currently exists in Latin American countries) to just under 70 (a level of inequality higher than that in South Africa today).


The rise of income levels in Europe, North America, and later Japan (coupled with the stagnation of China and India) drove most of this increase, though rising income inequality within the nations of what was becoming the First World also played a role. After 1918, there was a short drop in global inequality caused by what—on the broad canvas on which we operate—appear as the blips of World War I and the Great Depression, when Western incomes failed to grow.


“The economic rebalancing of the world is not only geographical; it is also political. China’s economic success undermines the West’s claim that there is a necessary link between capitalism and liberal democracy.”

After the end of World War II, global inequality stood at its highest level ever, at about 75 Gini points, and it remained at that high plateau until the last decade of the twentieth century. During this time the gap between the West and Asia—China and India in particular—did not grow any further, as Indian independence and Chinese revolution were setting the stage for the growth of these two giants. These two countries thus maintained their relative positions vis-a-vis the West from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. But those positions were highly skewed in favor of the rich countries: the GDP per capita of both India and China was less than one-tenth that of Western countries.


That income gap began to change, and dramatically so, after the 1980s. Reforms in China led to growth of approximately 8 percent per capita per annum over the next forty years, sharply narrowing the country’s distance from the West. Today, China’s GDP per capita is at approximately 30–35 percent of the Western level, the same point where it was around 1820, and shows a clear tendency to keep on rising (relative to the West); it will probably continue to do so until the time when incomes become very similar. The economic revolution in China was followed by similar accelerations of growth in India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia. Although this growth has been accompanied by rising inequality within each of the countries (especially in China), the closing of the gap with the West has helped reduce global income inequality.


This is what lies behind the recent drop in global Gini. The convergence of Asian incomes with those in the West took place during another technological revolution, that of information and communication technologies (ICT)—a revolution in production that this time favored Asia. The ICT revolution contributed not only to the much faster growth of Asia but also to the deindustrialization of the West, which, in turn, is not dissimilar to the deindustrialization that happened in India during the Industrial Revolution. We thus have two periods of rapid technological change bookmarking the evolution of global inequality (see Figure 1.1). The effects of the ICT revolution are not over yet, but they are, in many respects, similar to those of the Industrial Revolution: a large reshuffle in worldwide income ranking as some groups advance and others decline, along with significant geographical concentration of such winners and losers.



It is useful to think of these two technological revolutions as mirror images of each other. One led to an increase of global inequality through the enrichment of the West; the other has led to income convergence among large swaths of the globe through the enrichment of Asia. We should expect that income levels will eventually be similar across the entire Eurasian continent and North America, thus helping reduce global inequality even further. (A big unknown, however, is the fate of Africa, which, so far, is not catching up with the rich world and whose population is rising the fastest.)


The economic rebalancing of the world is not only geographical; it is also political. China’s economic success undermines the West’s claim that there is a necessary link between capitalism and liberal democracy. Indeed, this claim is being undermined in the West itself by populist and plutocratic challenges to liberal democracy. The rebalancing of the world brings the Asian experience to the forefront of thinking regarding economic development. Asia’s economic success will make its model more attractive to others and may inform our views about economic development and growth, in a fashion not dissimilar to that in which the B ritish experience and Adam Smith, who drew on that experience, influenced our thinking during the past two centuries.


For the past forty years, the five largest countries in Asia combined (excluding China) have had higher per capita growth rates than the Western economies in all but two years, and this trend is unlikely to change. In 1970, the West produced 56 percent of world output and Asia (including Japan) only 19 percent. Today, those proportions are 37 percent and 43 percent. We can see this trend clearly by comparing the United States with China, and Germany with India (Figure 1.2). The remarkable rise of Asia during the era of globalization is reflected in popular support for globalization, which is the strongest in Asia, and notably in Vietnam (91 percent of people interviewed think globalization is a force for the good), and weakest in Europe, notably in France (where only 37 percent support globalization).



Malaise in the West about globalization is in part caused by the gap between elites, who have done very well, and significant numbers of people who have seen little benefit from globalization, resent it, and, accurately or not, regard global trade and migration as the cause of their ills. This situation eerily resembles the Third World societies of the 1970s, which also exhibited this dualistic character—with the bourgeoisie plugged into the global economic system and most of the hinterland left behind.


The “disease” that was supposed to affect only developing countries (what was called “disarticulation” in neo-Marxist literature) seems to have now moved north and struck the rich world. At the same time, somewhat ironically, the dualistic character of many developing economies is being diminished by their full inclusion in the globalized system of supply chains.


The two types of capitalism, liberal meritocratic and political, now seem to be competing with each other. They are led, respectively, by the United States and China. But even independently of China’s willingness to make available and to “export” an alternative political and, to some extent, economic version of capitalism, political capitalism itself has certain features that make it attractive to the political elites in the rest of the world and not only in Asia: the system provides greater autonomy to political elites. It is also attractive to many ordinary people because of the high growth rates that it seems to promise.


On the other hand, liberal capitalism has many well-known advantages, the most important being that democracy and the rule of law are values in themselves and both, arguably, can be credited with encouraging faster economic development through promoting innovation and allowing social mobility, and thus providing approximately equal chances of success for all. It is the reneging on some crucial aspects of this implicit value system, namely a movement toward the creation of a self perpetuating upper class and polarization between the elites and the rest, that represents the most important threat to the longer-term viability of liberal capitalism. This threat is a danger both to the system’s own survival and to the general attractiveness of the model to the rest of the world.


Excerpted from Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World by Branko Milanovic, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Branko Milanovic is the author of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization and Capitalism, Alone, both published by Harvard University Press. He is a senior scholar at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. 


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