Paul D. Miller on Mon, 22 Sep 2003 12:52:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> World On Fire: Amy Chua

At the recent Ars Electronica one of the things that struck me was the
simple fact that the whole "code" scenario that it was based on had a
resonance with the way we craft identity and ethnicity - codes of conduct,
codes of creativity... the catch phrase amongst theorists (myself
included) was one of the "socially embedded" values in code.  Amy Chua has
done an interesting take on this kind of thing esp. viz.  the idea that
the "American way" ain't such a golden dream after all.  I wonder what the
reaction in say, Riyadh, would be if you pop the question: "fries with
that shake?" The joke, I guess, would be on you. Pat does a decent job of
explaining the scenario...


In her recent book, World on Fire, Yale University professor Amy Chua
argues that it is the resentment of long-standing minority domination that
has so much of the world's citizens ready to take up arms. Pat Sewell
examines the author's contentions and assesses her sweeping proposals for
solving the most challenging problem facing global society since the
Second World War. YaleGlobal

Mixing Free Market, Minority Domination and Democracy Results in World On Fire

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.

Amy Chua, New York: Doubleday (2003)

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

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.

Pat Sewell conducts the Global Leadership Forum at Mount Holyoke College.

 Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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