Re: [OPE] Michael Webber

From: Michael Webber <>
Date: Wed Jun 09 2010 - 05:53:12 EDT

thank you dave, for your welcome.

what an easy question to start off with! ah, chinese capitalism...

obviously, many categories of economic life in china are rather like
those we are familisar with in the west - family owned farms
(independent commodity producers or subsistence farmers in a few
cases); small family businesses (which range from the single
owner-worker up to small business people with 6-10 employees or so);
local private and foreign invested (capitalist) enterprises. much of
what happens in these sectors is only loosely controlled by the state
- and often by the same kinds of agencies that we are used to -
planning, environmental, national benefit and the like. growth and
development through them depends on some settings (interest rates,
loan availability) and on the huge labour force to whom other
opportunities are few.

the big questions about chinese capitalism then seem to me to revolve around
(i) the nature of state corporations, and
(ii) the involvement of the state in economic life.

The status of state corporations needs to be clarified - ther is a lot
of empirical work to be done on their operating conditions. I would
claim that corporations are only capitalist or not in the world of
theory. There is a long line that stretches from worker-owned
companies with extensive social obligations that do not hire labour in
a work place through to the purely capitalist corporations that
Friedman extolled, whose only social obligation is to make profit.
One step along that line are the state-owned corporations, with social
obligations (to provide pensions, health care and education) and
bureaucratic allocations of labour that characterised China before the
reforms of SOEs started in the 1980s. Further along that line are
corporatised SOEs. The shares in these companies are majority owned
by the state; other shares trade on stock exchanges; they are forced
to compete in a market, including the market for labour, and they have
been stripped of their social obligations to provide pensions, health
care and education. Their goals reflect the goals of their owners, up
to a point; but their capacities and internal communities also direct
where they seek to work and the manner in which they do so. The
methods of these corporations the ways in which they raise finance,
the manner in which they hire and employ labour, their orientation to
making a profit are almost purely capitalist. Creating such
corporations out of the arms of the various ministries and SOEs is
undoubtedly shifting working conditions and corporation organisation
towards capitalism, even if the corporations themselves can only be
called (almost-) capitalist. In an informal discussion like this, i
would say that i regard such corporations as essentially capitalist.
certainly as far as labour is concerned...

now the state. Time after time i see that the activities of
individuals, private enterprises and the state are complexly
intertwined, so that individual commercial decision taking is not
separable from institutional supervision: in the Yangzi delta,
southeast of Shanghai, some townships have absorbed much of the
communal land, established a development corporation to lease that
land to agricultural research enterprises and universities, and
encouraged farmers to intensify their production of rice, fruit and
milk, while at the same time prettifying their villages to attract
tourists to stay in the homes of those same farmers; in countless
villages across southern Inner Mongolia, the Autonomous Regional
government and large (private) urban milk-processors are encouraging
peasants to switch from traditional crops to intensive milk
production. These developments all involve various arms of the state,
private corporations and individual peasants in development projects,
so tightly bound together that individual decision-taking is
irrelevant. in this sense, the state - central, intermediate and
local - is tightly bound up in organising, funding, directing,
cooperating in development projects that bring together small
businesses (often peasant), capitalists and the arms of the state.
not always, but commonly. and they may or may not be successful.

so, is this capitalism? well, who knows. does it involve capitalist
production? yes, obviously. does it involve increasing shares of
capitalist production? yes. does it involve forms of capitalist
production that are different from private capitalist production of
the kind that we are used to? yes. is it different from USSR-style
state capitalism? yes to that too.

it's complex. it's different in different places (i am a geographer,
after all). it involves different arms and levels of the state in
different places.

may be this raises more questions than it answers. but it's too long already...


On 9 June 2010 05:40, Dave Zachariah <> wrote:
> Welcome Michael,
> On 2010-06-07 08:08, you wrote:
>>> I am an economic geographer. Since the late 1970s, I have been
>>> conducting empirical and theoretical research on:
>>> (i) crisis theory and the evolving structure of the world economy,
>>> particularly using the ideas of probabilistic political economy, first
>>> popularised by Farjoun and Machover. This work culminated in the book
>>> Webber M and Rigby D L 1996 The Golden Age Illusion New York:
>>> Guilford;
> I think that was a very good book. It remains among the most rigorous
> Marxian economic analyses that I've read.
>>> (iii) primitive accumulation in rural China. I have a book in
>>> preparation about this work, on which I have been engaged for the past
>>> 10 years. Some of the principal issues can be found in Webber, M 2008
>>> Primitive accumulation in modern China Dialectical Anthropology 32:
>>> 299-320; and Webber, M 2008 The places of primitive accumulation in
>>> rural China Economic Geography 84: 395-421.
> It would be interesting to hear what you make of Giovanni Arrighi's
> analysis of China? In what sense could one say that the Chinese economy
> is diverging from, rather than converging towards, a fully capitalist
> economy?
> //Dave Z
> _______________________________________________
> ope mailing list

Michael Webber
Professorial Fellow
Department of Resource Management and Geography
The University of Melbourne
Mail address: 221 Bouverie Street, Carlton, VIC 3010
Phone: 0402 421 283
ope mailing list
Received on Wed Jun 9 05:54:49 2010

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