The modern versions of the Soviet New Economic Policy (NEP), which are in effect in China, Vietnam and seemingly also in Cuba, have a fundamental assumption that key economic resources should continue to be socially owned.
Although they also consider that state systems should continue under the hegemony of the party (civil bureaucracy and armed forces) and forms of market economy are allowed, both for private property and for rules which affect the same public sector of the economy.
The National People’s Congress of China just approved the 14th Five-Year Plan that, as well as keeping their market socialism as a basic strategy, proposes “moderate prosperity” as a central objective to which the seven great reforms, that will drive them in the next five years, will contribute in various ways.
“Moderate prosperity” would allow the whole population of the country to benefit from uncontrolled growth of the economy but in such conditions that it would avoid the current consumerism, especially in some social sectors.
Somehow it returns to the traditional debate on socialism as a phase that does not have overcoming capitalism through greater production as a purpose, but through a different way of production and consumption.
The culture of consumerism as a capitalist ideology would be opposed by another culture that has overcome the predominance of the quantitative.
For socialism, it is not simply about producing more but doing it in a different way, liberating work from the capital’s control and resolving, in a suitable way, the contradiction between nature and society.
Freedom, human emancipation, would not consist of consuming more but in doing it a different way, suppressing production to human needs and adequately resolving contradictions with the natural environment.
The needs of accumulation to ensure the plans of material development necessarily suppose limitations on popular consumption. That was, in many respects, China’s situation after the revolutionary triumph.
The need to promote industrialisation to overcome the backwardness meant very high priorities to ensure necessary accumulation, as well as inevitable restrictions on popular consumption; a situation overcome in the present time, when the idea is to quickly reach a satisfactory standard of living for the whole population.
And it is in this context that the so-called “moderate prosperity” should be understood, as the types of market economy that are now compatible with the socialist order unavoidably generate tendencies towards consumerism which, among other things, would affect the necessary accumulation to finance the plans of the 14th Five-Year Plan. It seeks to increase domestic consumption in a moderate way so that key investments are not put at risk, which would ensure the construction of socialism and resolve the contradictions of nature through a combination of ecological measures.
The objective of “moderate prosperity” then has a very special relationship with the same goal of building socialism, as a step before the installation of an essentially new and superior order.
However, without a doubt and from a wider perspective this slogan equally renews the classic debate about the very meaning of this new order.
It is about radically changing the relationship between capital and work, and between this and the natural environment. In capitalism, the priority is always capital, above work and nature.
Certain civilised forms of capitalism manage to temporarily moderate the harmful effects of this relationship but do not manage to eliminate them.
Thus, the so-called Welfare State has succeeded, now very weakened, and even eliminated in many aspects by neoliberal policies.
Introducing market forms to facilitate the advance of productive forces and to strengthen social property allows advances but also fosters consumerist ideas, which the Chinese government tries to limit to the maximum with their policy of “moderate prosperity”.
In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, the debate is presented in other terms but with key similarities.
Here it is about achieving a suitable relationship between investment and consumption, achieving development and not just simply growth.
Therefore, it is not just about increasing the GDP but ensuring, at the same time, that wealth contributes to the development of productive forces and to satisfying the demands of the social majorities.
The “moderate prosperity” of China could have its own version in Latin America if the progressive governments design development programmes which manage to make the satisfaction of these basic needs, barely satisfied in the past, compatible with the greater accumulation of capital possible to finance this development.
The necessary balance between production and consumption with a similar formula to this “moderate prosperity” may thus be reached, generating a healthy relationship between investment and public spending.
In Latin America, changing the current structure of consumerism would especially affect the bourgeoisie and sectors of the petite-bourgeoisie used to living standards that in some respects look like those recorded in the metropolis. Surely in China the “moderate prosperity” will also provoke discontent and rejection in similar sectors.
Moderating consumption also means radically changing the current relationship between economy and nature.
The Chinese government is very conscious of this and in the Five-Year Plan, the need to correct the negative impacts that development brings is emphasised. In Latin America, the neoliberal model, for example “extractivism”, is a case that stands out from the destructive impact of the capitalist economy about nature and about the population itself.
It would then be about harmonising production and consumption, of making satisfying the needs of society compatible by reasonably using resources but taking into consideration the demands of the present and the future.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, it would be necessary to gain social majority to take on this objective as their own and accommodate their consumption at the same time. A simple life for all is perfectly compatible with human happiness.