The world famous founder of Alibaba may be a billionaire CEO, but the words he is repeating around the world contain echoes of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong. It may be difficult for the untrained ear to identify it, but it should be no surprise that this rock star of China’s centrally planned economy is on good terms with the deeply ideological ruling Party. For those with a deeper understanding, Marxist undertones can be found all throughout Ma’s technological optimism.
Many people have opened the Communist Manifesto, expecting to find a blueprint for an ideal world scrawled out before them. However, very little was written by Karl Marx or his associates about the supposed nature of the future world. Instead, the focus of Marx’s writings was on the philosophical concepts he coined, dialectical and historical materialism. In essence, Marxism is an understanding of world history as being driven forward by a struggle to advance living standards, and achieve a higher mode of production.
Speaking at Valdai Discussion Club in October, Jack Ma harshly criticized those who responded to the birth of the internet with fear. He said “where other people worry, we figure out ways to solve the worry.” He reminded those of us in the audience of the many fears that accompanied the invention of the automobile. He says “If we have more imagination and creativity we will feel much better.”
At the time of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, Marx’s perspective was the same. While criticizing capitalism, Marx hailed the birth of the industrial economy and the earthshaking social revolutions that destroyed feudalism. Marx saw the end of serfdom, and the birth of the industrial working class or the “proletariat,” preceded by huge breakthroughs in technology, as a tremendous leap forward.
Jack Ma did warn the audience about the potential danger associated with advances in technological progress. He went as far as to point out that the first and second world wars both followed technological leaps.
In doing so, Ma was pointing toward an understanding of Marx’s concept of overproduction and the falling rate of profit. Indeed, both the first and second world wars were preceded by economic downturns and periods of depression, and both of these prolonged hard times were the direct result of advances in technology.
In “Capital” Marx laid out the understanding that the owners of factories and businesses are constantly seeking to revolutionize the means of production in order to produce goods more efficiently than ever before. However, in the process of making production cheaper and more efficient, the spending power of the workers is decreased. Eventually the abundance created by technological advances creates mass poverty. Marxists around the world described the political developments that eventually resulted in the two world wars as a response to the economic crisis, created by overproduction.
Yet, despite his ominous warning, Ma seems to point to a potentially different outcome for the computer revolution. In 1848, Marx pointed out that the industrial revolution reduced workers to being “an appendage of the machines.” In 2017, Jack Ma says “we made people like machines, now we make machines like people.”
Ma argues that education can be completely changed as humanity witnesses the birth of Data Technology (DT) to replace Informational Technology (IT). According to Ma, with the birth of DT what he calls the “stupid jobs” in which human beings are made to suppress their intelligence can be eliminated. In the new economy, human creativity must be unleashed to do what machines cannot do, because “a machine cannot have a soul.”
“Not G20, We Need G200”
Much like Karl Marx, Jack Ma is not an opponent of globalization. Contrarily, like Marx did in 1800s, Ma hails the rise of the global economy as a step forward, saying “where trade stops, the world stops.”
However, while Ma is not critical of globalization as a concept, he has spoken up against the lopsidedness of the world economy. Describing the unfair nature of the world market he said “20% of countries succeed, while 80% don’t have a chance.”
Here, Ma is directly opposing the narrative about globalization pushed by adherents of neoliberalism. The “global south” is not getting wealthier as a result of trade with Europe and the United States. Free market reforms, and penetration by the World Bank and the IMF are not “developing” the underdeveloped countries. Trade policies pushed by western leaders are not having the effect that figures like Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Sachs claimed they would.
With his words, Ma is echoing an understanding the world economy similar to that which was articulated by Vladimir Lenin prior to the Russian Revolution. This is a world view that understands that the richest countries of the world have rigged things in their favor, so they can remain the top 20%, enriching themselves as monopolies while the 80% remain poor and become poorer, as captive consumers. This was Lenin’s concept of “Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.”
Ma doesn’t oppose globalization, but insists it must change its structure. In his words: “not G20, we need G200.” Ma’s words accompany a Chinese foreign policy, the “One Belt, One Road Initiative,” aimed at bringing impoverished countries out of poverty with infrastructure. As it continues to expand its presence across the underdeveloped world, China builds up its trading partners with high speed trains, hospitals, and educational programs. As these poor countries become richer, China becomes richer, with more of an economy to trade with. This model of “win-win” globalization, as opposed to corporate monopolism from London and Wall Street is a big contrast.
Ma argues that multipolarity should be welcomed, and that rather than facing off with each other, countries should work together to solve global problems. “The enemy should be poverty” he explained.
History Marches Forward, With or Without You
“The technology revolution is coming, no one can stop it!” Jack Ma warns his audiences. More than just be aware of history, Jack Ma is urging his audiences to actively be part of it, “Young people don’t just want to get informed, they want to get involved!”
In his ominous warning that technology is advancing, regardless of our fears, and society along with it, we are reminded of Mao Zedong’s groundbreaking essay “Report on the Peasant Movement in the Hunan Province.” In this essay, Mao warned that the peasantry of China were in revolt against the landlords, and that China’s communists should either join and lead them or else “be overtaken by it.” Mao wrote: “When the people are in motion, you can oppose them, you can follow behind them gesticulating and criticizing, or you can stand at their head.”
This heated polemic with the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership at the time contains many of Mao’s most well known quotations. Mao warned his readers that advances and explosions can be unpredictable saying “a single spark can light a prairie fire.”
When Mao Zedong wrote these words in 1926, with the same optimistic but cautious tone as Jack Ma projects today, China was a deeply impoverished, agrarian society. Today, lead by the political organization Mao Zedong built, it has become the second largest economy on earth.
“Friendly Environment for Business”
While one may expect a billionaire to think of himself as a “self-made man” and bemoan government interference in economic affairs, Ma’s perspective seems to be the opposite.
At the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Ma praised the recent efforts of the Chinese Communist Party, when asked about its historic 19th National Congress which took place simultaneously in Beijing. He spoke of how the anti-corruption “Mass Line” campaign launched by Xi Jinping is a good development that has “helped clean the business environment” and worked to make China a “friendly environment for doing business”
Indeed, some whose understanding of Marxist ideology is simplistic may scoff at the idea that a billionaire like Jack Ma would have anything in common with it. The same people would laugh at the idea that China is socialist, when so many private corporations exist, and so many people have become wealthy.
But Deng Xiaoping famously said “poverty is not socialism, to get rich is glorious,” and these words simply echoed Marx’s understanding of historical materialism. History is advancing due to human innovation and brilliance, and yet, as capitalism has emerged, the irrational drive for profits has hindered the ability to march forward.
“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has evolved into an economy that has raised 700 million people out of poverty. In 21st Century China, each day another person becomes a millionaire. Yes, to get rich is glorious, but all this wealth in China has not been created by irrational greed and selfishness. China’s road toward greater wealth and prosperity has been society functioning in a disciplined manner, led by a strong political organization, which places increasing the prosperity for all the people, not just a wealthy few, at the top of the agenda.
Originally Published in New Eastern Outlook