Evan's Reviews > World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability

World on Fire by Amy Chua
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's review
Oct 31, 2007

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Recommended for: those interested in neoliberalism
Read in June, 2004

I did read this book a few years ago, but remembered it today while writing about the May 1998 anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta. In 2004, it was one of the shrewder books I had read disentangling free trade from democratization, and hence arguing against the neoliberal ideology of the Washington consensus.

The basic thesis, which is easy to grasp without reading the book, is that in many parts of the world (especially the so-called developing world), national economies are largely in the hands of "market-dominant minorities." For example, ethnic Chinese in much of Southeast Asia and Lebanese in West Africa. Chua's point, (fairly self-evident, I think, once it is spelled out) is that these minorities gained their economic power through exclusive transnational trade networks, which also tends to make them the "go to" people for multinational corporations. Thus, they tend to benefit disproportionately from market liberalization. In contrast, democratization reverts power to the disenfranchised majorities, who tend to want to use their newfound "civil society" to do a variety of uncivil things to these minorities.

Despite the sensationalist title, Chua actually seems ambivalent about which is worse. There is, no doubt, some justice in the retribution sought by the masses against the few who control their national wealth. On the other hand, the fact that this "justice" often takes the form of racist violence and drives the minority (along with their wealth) out of the country, can't be seen as good for any developing country. As ethnic Chinese with family in the Phillipines, Chua herself is less than thrilled at the prospect of more power falling into the hands of "the people," even as she affirms a belief in democracy.

Chua paints herself a friend both of globalization and democratization, but ultimately flounders in trying to reconcile these commitments with the problem she herself has raised. The strength of the book, however, is in its clear demonstration of the failure of "free market democracy" as it actually plays out in most of the world. Not a problem that's going away anytime soon.
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