[BOOK] AMY CHUA’S ‘WORLD ON FIRE’ – ‘market dominant ethnic minorities’ and ‘how rapid switches to majoritarian rule and free-market democracy in many Third World countries benefit certain ethnic groups over others and lead to vicious sectarian strife’


Yale Global Online
A Review written by Pat Sewell

Many Americans trust that unleashed markets and universal suffrage elsewhere will yield general material betterment, domestic tranquillity, and amity among democracies old and new. Thomas Friedman proclaims a “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, asserting “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other”.

But do freer markets and oxygenated “democracy” instead defy established expectation by mobilizing the wrath of the many? Do open markets and popular incitement sometimes kindle backlash and serve to excuse suppression by the few? Amy Chua contends that when injudiciously introduced, as most often happens, wide open markets and hot-housed majoritarianism form “a principal, aggravating cause of group hatred and ethnic violence throughout the non-Western world”. On regional and global planes, too, the dynamic of World on Fire augurs ill for stability, not to mention peace.

Chua outlines this dynamic early and with characteristic clarity: “When free market democracy is pursued in the presence of a market-dominant minority, the almost invariable result is backlash. This backlash typically takes one of three forms. The first is a backlash against markets, targeting the market-dominant minority’s wealth. The second is a backlash against democracy by forces favorable to the market-dominant minority. The third is violence, sometimes genocidal, directed against the market-dominant minority itself.”

This study illuminates widespread global patterns of violence without oversimplifying them. It exposes and highlights the ethnic underpinnings of world politics. Chua maintains that Western globalists and anti-globalists alike miss the “ethnic dimension of market disparities” by seeing only class warfare rather than recognizing ethnic struggle. She pulls no punches in arguing an array of cases buttressed by evidence carefully drawn from a variety of sources. Testimony based on her personal experience lends further strength to the work. World on Fire offers fascinating as well as luminous reading.

“Ethnicity” here invites characterization. The concept enjoys quite a wide scope in the present context. Identification with a group transcending primary face-to-face relationships keys a “shifting and highly malleable” sense of belonging to a kinship web projected over time and across space. Physical differences, geographic origin, linguistic, religious, or alternative cultural lines may mark this identity. Examples of Chua’s ethnic market-dominant minorities include Chinese in Southeast Asia; “Whites” in Latin America; Jews in Russia; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Ibos, Kikuyus, Tutsis, Indians and Lebanese, among others, in Africa. Numerically preponderant “indigenous” peoples likewise take on distinct ethnic identities. Their persistent poverty relative to the conspicuous enrichment of others, indignities on a grand scale and in interpersonal relations, and the apparent prospect of instant change, when aroused by electoral encouragement to popular participation and heralded by a charismatic leader, provide conditions apt to trigger confrontation. “Ballot boxes brought Hitler to power in Germany, Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe, Milosevic to power in Serbia — and could well bring the likes of Osama bin Laden to power in Saudi Arabia.”

Identity in Chua’s predominantly ethnic usage faces its sternest test when applied to Americans as a planetary market-dominant minority. We become a “close cousin” of ethnic minorities, “a national-origin minority” relative to the world’s other peoples. Like the market-dominant minorities that stir reaction within state ambits, Americans, “wielding disproportionate economic power”, let alone brandishing military might and flaunting political domination, build resentment and prompt vindictive acts throughout the world. Chua suggests that, ironically, U.S.-driven laissez-faire capitalism and supercharged populism feed a polyglot global majority’s convergent anti-Americanism.

World on Fire considers Israeli Jews as a regional market-dominant minority. As such this regional minority contributes to a familiar pattern underlined by Amy Chua’s prediction: “if popular elections were held throughout the Arab world, Israel would be a common whipping boy among vote-seeking politicians.” The book does not seek to relate Middle East instability to mondial instability, or to take note of the widespread if not worldwide identification of Israeli Jews with Americans as a single global market-dominant force. A chapter entitled “Why They Hate Us” focuses upon the U.S. Chua does classify Ashkenazi Jews as a market-dominant minority within Israel, and touches upon Palestinians as a potential entrepreneurial factor throughout the region.

This book will not appeal to ideologues. Those who wish their exports of markets and democracy pure — purely American, notwithstanding the logical difficulty of embracing exceptionalist notions too — may well discount Chua’s nuanced treatment of the interplay among key variables across a wide range of situations. Or they may condemn nativist demagoguery abroad while overlooking the economic shock therapy which World on Fire cogently shows may contribute significantly to the rise of mobocracy. The book courageously advances its argument in the face of people who glorify “American parochialism” and celebrate a song that salutes “not knowing ‘the difference between Iraq and Iran'” in a land some of whose lawmakers pride themselves on never having held a passport.

By setting terms for a fresh debate on the dire side effects of liberalizing economies and developing polyarchies, Chua might be thought to incur responsibility for suggesting what alternatives best to undertake. A vivid and compelling alarm sounded about a raging global inferno calls for guidance on measures of containment. World on Fire introduces several: “‘leveling the playing field’ between market-dominant minorities and the impoverished ‘indigenous’ majorities around them;” giving majorities “a greater stake in global markets;” the promotion of “liberal rather than illiberal democracies;” and initiatives by market-dominant minorities “to forestall majority-based, often murderous ethnonationalist backlashes.”

Readers of their elaboration will differ on which of these proposals appear desirable and feasible. Some will probably find none suitable, for one reason or another. I find appealing the “controversial strategy” of majority-backed governmental intervention to “‘correct’ ethnic wealth imbalances” through programs similar to those called “affirmative action” within the West. This would seem effective and feasible, given a popularly-elected government. But it would violate free-market expectations and, immodestly used, threaten the individual rights (including property ownership rights) or rights of the minority that liberalism associates with majority rule. Both attributes of feasibility and those of questionable desirability may be displayed today by the Hugo Chavez presidency of Venezuela.

Desirable yet less feasible may be reliance upon acts of magnanimity by market-dominant minorities. History seems replete with instances in which such did not occur. However, Chua may have in mind rather modest concessions, at least those by market-dominant Americans. She sees the wisdom of making more beneficent contributions (toward health care, family planning, and alleviating chronic environmental problems such as lack of potable water, for instance) to lie “in their potentially far-reaching symbolism.”

Beyond her brilliant diagnosis, Professor Chua, who teaches at Yale Law School, makes an auspicious start toward rectification by broaching provocative proposals. But maybe the process of prescribing remains near its beginning, leaving the application of remedies pending. One senses that a dialogue on what to do, taking full account of World on Fire’s path-breaking findings, has only begun. Clearly this dialogue warrants urgent continuation of the work here so ably initiated.

 The above Review written by Pat Sewell
Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization
MONDAY, JAN 13, 2003

“World On Fire” by Amy Chua

A new book argues that when Third World countries embrace democracy and free markets too quickly, ethnic hatred and even genocide can result.


The case Amy Chua makes in “World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability” is so clear and persuasive it almost seems as if it had been obvious all along. Yet her argument, that rapid switches to majoritarian rule and free-market democracy in many Third World countries benefit certain ethnic groups over others and lead to vicious sectarian strife, is quite new, if occasionally overstated. Writers such as Robert Kaplan have long argued that the Western obsession with exporting democracy to countries without the institutions to support it is naive and often dangerous, fostering demagogues and communal hatreds. Chua builds on this argument in an essential way, showing how expanding markets exacerbate the problem by enriching already-dominant minority groups even as democracy empowers angry majorities.

“World On Fire” is about a phenomenon Chua calls “market-dominant minorities,” groups like the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Jews in Russia, whites in Zimbabwe and Indians in East Africa and Fiji. Market-dominant minorities control hugely disproportionate percentages of their countries’ resources. Filipino Chinese comprise just 1 to 2 percent of the Philippines’ population, but control all of the country’s major supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and large department stores, and all but one of the nation’s banks. A similar situation obtains in Indonesia. Jews make up a similarly tiny proportion of Russia’s population, but of the seven “oligarchs” who control virtually all of the country’s business, six are Jewish. Lebanese dominate the economies in Sierra Leone and Gambia, while Indians dominate the economy in Kenya, along with a smaller, indigenous minority tribe called the Kikuyu. Similar examples abound worldwide.

It’s enormously touchy to talk about the economic element of communal violence, especially regarding Jews, since rhetoric about one ethnic group exploiting another is so often a precursor to atrocity. But that’s exactly why Chua’s book feels so urgent. No matter how politically incorrect it is to talk about, her book makes clear that minority market domination is a reality in much of the world, one that’s tied up in many ways with smoldering group hatreds and explosions of mass slaughter, and one that’s made worse by Western policies.

Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is a careful, precise writer, and she makes it very clear that she’s not blaming prosperous ethnic groups for violence directed against them, or blaming capitalism alone for fomenting genocide. It’s a point she makes over and over again. (Her lawyerly penchant for summing up and reiterating her main arguments far too many times is the book’s greatest flaw.)

“The point, rather, is this,” she writes. “In the numerous countries around the world that have pervasive poverty and a market-dominant minority, democracy and markets — at least in the form in which they are currently being promoted — can proceed only in deep tension with each other. In such conditions, the combined pursuit of free markets and democratization has repeatedly catalyzed ethnic conflict in highly predictable ways. This has been the sobering lesson of globalization in the last twenty years.”

Nevertheless, “World On Fire” is not an anti-globalization screed. Chua is a former Wall Street lawyer who worked to help developing countries privatize their resources, and she continues to believe that, in the long term, markets offer the best hope for developing countries. Her scathing assessment of the way the West has foisted liberalization on the rest of the world is driven not by ideology, but by a careful examination of globalization’s unintended consequences.

“Back in the early nineties,” she writes, “I believed that the proceeds of privatization, as a World Bank official put it, would go to roads, ‘potable water, sewerage, hospitals, and education to the poor.’ Like many in the 1990s, however, I was viewing emerging market privatization through a rose-colored lens.” Later, she adds, “Even assuming that free market democracy is the optimal end point for most non-Western countries, in the short run markets and democracy are themselves part of the problem.”

Explaining why market-dominant minorities exist would probably require another volume, and Chua makes only a cursory attempt to do so. In some cases, of course, it’s obvious — the white minority in South Africa and Zimbabwe accumulated capital and expertise at the expense of the grotesquely exploited majority, who cannot now catch up without massive government help. Elsewhere group prosperity is attributable to superior business networks. Cameroon’s Bamileke, for example, “operate an informal capital market so efficient it constantly threatens to put government-owned banks out of business,” Chua writes. The reasons for Jewish economic success are more mysterious — especially in Russia, where they’ve been repeatedly subjected to vicious pogroms — and “World On Fire” does little to illuminate them. Chua is less interested in how minority groups come to dominate than what happens when they do.

She argues that when economic liberalization and democracy are rapidly introduced to countries with market-dominant minorities, the two forces necessarily come into conflict. “Markets concentrate enormous wealth in the hands of an ‘outsider’ minority, fomenting ethnic envy and hatred among often chronically poor majorities,” she writes. “Introducing democracy in these circumstances does not transform voters into open-minded cocitizens in a national community. Rather, the competition for votes fosters the emergence of demagogues who scapegoat the resented minority and foment active ethnonationalist movements demanding that the country’s wealth and identity be reclaimed by the ‘true owners of the nation.’”

In Indonesia, for example, free-market policies undertaken under Gen. Suharto, the U.S.-backed dictator, vastly enriched the country’s tiny Chinese minority, who in turn supported the strongman. By 1998, Chua writes, Chinese made up 3 percent of the population but controlled 70 percent of the private economy. That was the year democracy protests and riots forced Suharto to resign. His fall was accompanied by orgies of anti-Chinese violence — Chinese women began wearing “anti-rape corsets,” locked steel chastity belts. “[T]he prevailing view among the pribumi majority was that it was ‘worthwhile to lose 10 years of growth to get rid of the Chinese problem once and for all,’” she writes. “Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department called resoundingly for free markets and democratic elections.”

Many other countries share elements of this dynamic, though Chua sometimes seems to be stretching her thesis in order to fit in as many places as possible. She’s overreaching somewhat when she says, early on, “markets and democracy were among the causes of both the Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocides.” Clearly democracy was a factor in both, but the economic factors are much trickier. The gap in status between minority Tutsis and majority Hutus is indeed attributable to globalization, but of the old-fashioned, colonial kind — Belgian colonizers favored minority Tutsis over majority Hutus because of what was seen as their Caucasian-like features. And while Serbian hatred of the Croats was fanned by Croatian economic dominance, the Bosnians they butchered were as poor as they were. Chua makes these caveats herself in the relevant chapters, but they dilute some of the grand claims she lays out in her introduction.

Still, her larger point, that the policies seen as panaceas by the West can actually make things worse, holds true. Electoral democracy is often touted as an antidote to the tyranny and tribalism ravaging much of the globe. “For globalization’s enthusiasts, the cure for group hatred and ethnic violence around the world is straightforward: more markets and more democracy,” Chua writes. She notes that after Sept. 11, Thomas Friedman wrote of the Middle East, “Hello? Hello? There’s a message here. It’s democracy, stupid! Multi-ethnic, pluralistic, free-market democracy.”

This one-size-fits-all prescription for curing the world’s ills is implicated in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As Chua writes, Hutu dictator Juvénal Habyarimana, who ruled from 1973 until the early 1990s, may have been corrupt and totalitarian, but he did protect the Tutsi population. Once he responded to Western — particularly French — calls to adopt multiparty democracy, though, Hutu supremacy became a potent weapon for Habyarimana’s political enemies. The genocidal Hutu Power movement was buoyed on a groundswell of popular support. Meanwhile, Chua points out, the “freedom of the press” encouraged by the West stopped the government from shutting down the hugely influential, rabidly anti-Tutsi newspaper Kangura.

“Sudden political liberalization in the 1990s unleashed long-suppressed ethnic resentments, directly spawning Hutu Power as a potent political force,” Chua writes.

The idea that democracy, America’s most cherished value, has exacerbated the last century’s bloodletting is terrible to contemplate. Yet Chua’s book ultimately supplies a tiny measure of hope. Unlike Kaplan, Chua doesn’t believe that enlightened autocracy is the answer for the developing world. For her, the problem isn’t democracy itself but the speed at which it’s implemented. Rushing it, especially without protections for individual rights or institutions for upholding the law, can be dangerous.

Kaplan believes that the right kind of despots can sustain a stable environment for capitalism to flourish, creating the middle-class institutions necessary to sustain democracy. One of his models is prosperous, undemocratic Singapore. Chua’s analysis, though, shows us that no amount of economic growth will turn countries that have market-dominant minorities, like Indonesia, into countries like Singapore, that don’t. Prosperity and stability won’t come to those countries until they find a way to narrow the chasm between rich minorities and poor majorities.

To that end, Chua argues for sweeping reforms that would give disenfranchised populations a stake in their nation’s resources, as well as massive affirmative-action policies of the kind being undertaken in South Africa and, with notable success, in Malaysia. Such a policy is a huge departure from the free-market evangelism of people like Thomas Friedman, but one more likely to lead to prosperous societies that can, eventually, turn into real democracies.

Of course, it’s not terribly likely that her recommendations are going to be implemented in most places anytime soon. In the end, “World On Fire” is valuable less for its prescriptions than for the perspective it offers on the seemingly incomprehensible violence shaking the world. With the fall of communism and the emergence of al-Qaida, it’s no longer fashionable to see ethnic conflict in materialist terms — the new battles are framed as a clash of civilizations rather than a scramble for resources. It’s a scarier opposition, because it’s so intractably defiant of reason. “World on Fire” suggests these conflicts might not be so primordial and irrational after all. It might be cold comfort to realize how atavistic enmities abroad have been inflamed by our own government’s policies, but at least these policies can, ultimately, still be changed.


One thought on “[BOOK] AMY CHUA’S ‘WORLD ON FIRE’ – ‘market dominant ethnic minorities’ and ‘how rapid switches to majoritarian rule and free-market democracy in many Third World countries benefit certain ethnic groups over others and lead to vicious sectarian strife’

  1. […] the surprise (oops)…but after the whole tale is told, the author –who happens to be Mr. Amy Chua (another favorite thinker of mine, World on Fire etc), reveals that the dialogue between these psychoanalytic titans throughout this fictional tale was […]

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