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Putting Asia in its place

After decades of parading the 'tiger' economies of Asia as models to be emulated, the West has now reacted to the current crisis in the region with a full-scale denunciation of their leaders, their societies and their political systems. Once again, the West appears to have reverted to its providential role of reshaping the South in its own image while at the same time entrenching its own advantages and institutionalising the power of the rich over the poor.

by Jeremy Seabrook


THE crisis in the economies of South-East Asia has met with a kind of triumphalist exultation in the Western press; a far cry from the breathless admiration with which they have been treated for the past decade or more. Perhaps because few of the commentators foresaw the impending disaster, they have sought to cover their embarrassment by becoming know-alls after the event, safely retrodicting a catastrophe that was waiting to happen.

There was always more than a tinge of racism in the threat which the Asian tigers were supposed to have posed to the West: predators roaming hungrily around the safe havens where innocent Westerners grazed, peaceful as gazelles, in the pastures of consumerism.

But since the crash of their currencies, fear and anxiety have turned into a far bolder and more overt racist denunciation of their leaders, their societies and their political systems. 'The bubble has burst and the truth is exposed,' fulminated the Mail on Sunday (28.12.97). The truth is that for as long as there was a chance of high-yielding investments and lucrative contracts, for as long as the casino economies delivered their winnings, no one cared a damn about justice, morality or the sustainability of it. Only when the cardinal sin of capitalism is found out - failure - is criticism permitted. And then there is nothing to stop the fury of denunciation.

That criticism makes a nonsense of all that has been said since the time when the Asian tigers were paraded before the people of the West, prize exhibits in the global menagerie of virulent competition. Their principal role for the West had been as agents of discipline for unruly, featherbedded Western workers and their excessive rates of pay and poor productivity in comparison with the peoples of Asia and their virtuous addiction to superhuman workloads, their tenderness for family values and their disdain of welfare. The loss of this model to castigate us with cannot be underestimated.

Of course, they are not going to admit it. There will always be high-sounding and mystifying explanations for the debacle, usually couched in the most impenetrable language of all the experts, consultants and professionals, those fortune tellers of globalisation, who abound at such times. The Financial Times (30.12.97) magisterially quotes one US authority, Arturo Porzecanski, described as 'head of fixed income research at ING Baring's in New York' (can anyone imagine such byzantine functions in a global division of labour become incomprehensible to most people on earth?), who said of South Korea's fateful reliance on short-term loans, 'The experience of Asia in 1997 is a reminder that the maturity structure of external liabilities should be a crucial factor in the assessment of sovereign creditworthiness.' Which piece of jargon means 'Don't lend to people who are heavily in debt'; a maxim clearly too simple and too stark to be expressed in plain English.

Whatever the official version, it is now open season against the countries involved; and time for revenge against those like Mahathir Mohamad who had criticised Western supremacy and arrogance. 'Asia's geriatric leaders have a lot to answer for', declares the Mail on Sunday, adding their age to the grievous crime of economic mismanagement even though, until recently, it was axiomatic that their 'authority' (that is, their age and venerability) was responsible for the admirable iron hand and the control of their peoples, which were often contrasted favourably with the social disorder and breakdown in the West. 'For decades,' the same article continues, 'the West has overlooked the strong-arm tactics and rigged elections that allowed the old men to preside over economic growth rates the world could only marvel at.'

The right to superintend

This is the story: beneath all the financial gobbledegook, the efforts to extract some kind of coherence from a system which even its most devoted admirers cannot claim to be anything but anarchic, unpredictable and destructive, boil down to this - the right of the West to superintend the world, and the unchallenged supremacy of the G-7 in a post-Communist world. It is the West once more triumphantly reverting to its providential role, appointed to determine what is allowed and what will not be tolerated, and supervising the conduct of the nations of the world.

'We have overlooked ...' This is the language of schoolmasterly indulgence of wayward children, whom we ought to have chastised earlier and sooner. What we lacked in timeliness, however, we will make up for in severity. We have been too lenient, we have spared the rod ...The phrases remain all too available to those who, in their hearts, never abandoned the superiority of an older imperial tutelage. For this view of the world, it is a commonplace that since the dissolution of the European empires, it has been downhill all the way; the spectacular economic growth was only an aberration and an interval in their descent into darkness and chaos.

Even the respectable papers are telling the same story, although they place a slightly less abrasive emphasis on it. The Financial Times (30.12.97) states, 'East Asia's economic fundamentals no longer seem so robust. A large part of the problem lies with weak political fundamentals ... It is essential to understand one thing: there will be no secure recovery until there is political reform.'

The popular press is less inhibited. 'As the myth of limitless growth crashes around them, these old men are reluctant to accept any blame ...The Philippines faces similar trouble next year when Fidel Ramos, 69, who engineered its turnaround, hands over power. A second-rate film actor, Joseph Estrada, is set to take over - hardly a candidate to comfort markets.' Second-rate film actors as presidents clearly only bring comfort to the markets of rich countries.

The high policy of the West is to re-fashion the South in its own image, while at the same time, entrenching its own advantage and institutionalising the power of the rich over the poor.

The economic rapacity of the West is not, of course, permitted to appear as such. This is why the current critique of the countries of Asia expresses itself in the conviction enunciated by the Western powers that good governance, democracy and free markets are inseparable. This is, like much else that is propounded by them to an eager wondering world, wholly false. While the global market was being firmly planted and extended in the Third World during the 1970s and 1980s, Western governments smiled upon the most horrendous tyrannies, and did not repudiate the excesses of the most illiberal and harsh dictatorships, from Marcos to Pinochet, from Zia ul Haq to Viola, for as long as these served their purpose. What is more, when Britain was at an early stage of industrialisation, its governments had precious little to do with democracy, and the franchise was securely restricted to the members of a small elite.

No matter. This is now the pretext for the further involvement of the Western financial institutions in the affairs of states whose sovereignty is as fragile as their currencies. 'Those now suffering economic woes have notoriously opaque, highly regulated and largely unaccountable political systems ... crony capitalism and inefficient financial systems flourish in such unreformed political environments ...' However, not to despair, says the writer, for 'if one stands back, the tide of history is with those who argue that economic development requires more pluralist and institutionalised democracy.'

That is code for 'becoming like us.' Alas for the pluralism of the West, it is a strange form of diversity that cancels all differences between political parties over the governance of the economy. All Western political parties, whatever their rhetoric, now subscribe to an identical programme which, among other things, involves a reduction in welfare and social justice, and a deregulation of the freedom to become abusively rich on the one hand, and ignobly poor on the other; a programme, moreover ,which is being energetically imposed upon every country in the world. Political disputes in the West have now been reduced to struggles of the powerful over the division of the spoils; in which their sometime Asian proteges have heeded them often only too well.

'International community'

The concern to rectify the policies of the errant tigers includes all of this. But there is more. In order to become like us, these countries have to give up control over their resources, and ensure that they find their way into more capable managerial hands. The Financial Times expresses it thus: 'There is sometimes pressure from the international community' (itself another fiction in the name of which the West imposes its will upon the world) in the form of demands for trade liberalisation, better human rights or strict conditions attached to loans from the IMF.' The strictest of these conditions involves opening up the economy, which will permit Western-based transnationals to buy up companies which can no longer service their debts, to take over the crumbling chaebols, the rump of a ruined indigenous manufacturing sector, as well as make new incursions into financial services, banking and insurance.

None of this is expressed so starkly, of course. With due humanitarian emphasis, the West weeps a few tears for the victims of structural adjustment, not for the truly poor, those evicted from employment and forced to make their accommodation with the pavements of Bangkok or Jakarta, but for those social groups who must now renounce their whisky, their Jaguar or Mercedes and their Rolex watches, those, in fact, whose sad descent in the world will have such a disastrous impact on our economy, our exports.

The silver lining for the West is discreetly expressed by the economist at investment bank Morgan Stanley, who confides to the Mail, 'People have focused on the bad news .. They haven't looked at those who have gained, such as UK consumers, distributors and retailers ...' There is further good news for tourists, who have doubled their money overnight; while sex tourists can expect an embarrassment of riches in new flesh arriving in the bars and brothels of Bangkok and Manila, driven by unemployment and poverty ...

Over it all a gloating anticipation that the highly protected Asian economies are now going to get a dose of 'real capitalism'; a piece of savagery that had been in abeyance for as long as the Soviet Union existed to threaten an equally chilling dose of real socialism. Voices have even been heard deploring the excessive tenderness of the IMF moving in with loans; the 'let bankrupt countries go broke' school of thought has made significant headway in recent months.

This will scarcely be necessary. For globalisation will do the work. Globalisation is capitalism without the constraints imposed by threatening and now-cancelled alternatives. Its imperatives sweep through the world, crushing the sovereignty of the nation-state, dragging down labour standards, increasing poverty and exploitation, and denying peoples everywhere the right to determine their own economic destiny.

The lineaments of the millennium are already clear; the emerging contours of the 21st century will bear a sorry resemblance to those of the 19th, not only in the severity of suffering of the people, but also in the revival of imperialism by another name, and the dictatorship of the wealthy in perpetuity.

The palaces and museums of India are full of pictures of 19th century British colonial administrators and high officials on tiger shoots with rulers of the princely states: a blast of guns and the striped pelts of tigers are triumphantly borne back to colonial lodges. The almost extinct tigers of South-East Asia are now also in their place: stuffed and displayed as trophies of the blood-sport that is capitalism. - (Third World Resurgence No.90/91, Feb-March 1998)

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in London.

 


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