World on Fire by Amy Chua, Book Review Example

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Book Review

World On Fire by Amy Chua

The idea that free-market economies actually reinforce oppression and racial prejudice is one which can be found in various political, economic, and social theories. However, the idea that free-markets are, in fact, dominated  by ethnic minorities is a compelling refinement in regard to the way that race and economics connect on a global scale.  In her book World on Fire (2004) Amy Chua forwards a thesis that so-called “market-dominant” minorities have emerged throughout the world and these market-dominant minorities are not only a source of anti-democratic and anti-free-market sentiment among indigenous people around the globe, but that these same groups have caused an increase in both ethnic hatred and global-political instability that threatens all economic and political systems.

The book provides a world-wide account of the hostilities and backlash against free markets that have concentrated  wealth into the hands of non-indigenous races. One of Chua’s more provocative ideas is that because the ideas of  free market economies and democracy are so often connected both in theory and in practice that the backlash against the economic injustices that is inherent in  market-dominant minorities has resulted in a prevailing insurrection against unjust economic conditions. The following discussion will show that Chua’s assertion that unjust economic  conditions have exacerbated racial tensions and caused global instability is correct and that political intervention in regard to the redistribution of wealth is indicated in almost all cases where market-dominant minorities have taken hold.

As mentioned by Davis, Trebilcock, and Heys in their article “Ethnically Homogeneous Commercial Elites in Developing Countries” (2001), the redistribution of wealth is a key component of reducing ethnic tension and violence. the authors observe that “states in developing countries with ethnically homogeneous elites should focus their efforts primarily toward redistributing the wealth generated by elites rather than attempting to alter their composition.”1 This idea fits squarely with Chua’s extended survey of the ethnically-charged economic realities which are currently facing the world. What may appear less apparent, at least at first, is the way that Chua ties in the idea that the spread of democratically based free markets incites a simultaneous resentment and rejection of economic disparity with a corresponding embracing of democratic freedoms. According to Chua, it is, in fact, the combination of democratically instilled self-government and the economically unjust practices associated with ethnically based market dominant minorities that have resulted in the spread of ethnic conflict and global instability.

Chua’s assertions that democracy and capitalism have been inextricably tied, globally, to racist attitudes is substantiated by research, as his her claim that racially selective groups control the wealth of the free market in contrast to the poverty which is experienced by the mass population of indigenous people around the world.  According to James H. Mittelman in his book Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity (2010)  the basic thesis put forward by Chua consists of two main ideas: that free markets have enabled racial elites to exploit indigenous ethnic groups and that the simultaneous spread of democracy has strengthened the resentment against this concentration of wealth. Mittelmen writes that Chua’s “thesis is that free markets have concentrated large amounts of wealth in the hands of nonindigenous ethnic groups [while]democracy augments the political power of the destitute majority.”2 This idea may seem simple on the surface, but the ways in which Chua relates the conflation of ethnic prejudice with both the liberating aspects of democracy and the forceful backlash against democracy is studied and complex. Chua builds her argument through a detailed examination of economic conditions in every area of the world and steeps her discussion in an examination of racial and economic realities while also adding anecdotal evidence.

One of the important observations that Chua makes about the nature of ethnicity is that it is, like economics, a fluid reality that is sometimes difficult to quantify  or predict. This idea of the subtle (or radical) alteration of ethnic identity is one of the nuances that gives Chua’s study a feeling of comprehensiveness and insight. She writes that “Ethnic identity is not static but shifting and highly malleable.”3 This is an extremely important point to keep in mind while examining the rest of Chua’s argument and ideas because her intention throughout the book is to show that the changing ethnic identities she mentions are actually tied to economic conditions and particularly those which are associated with market-dominant minorities. Race and ethnicity are therefore, in terms of the larger geopolitical backdrop, as much elements of the economic picture as elements of the racial and cultural picture.

The association between race and economics extends to the idea of a non-indigenous minority ruling over and exploiting the greater majority. In this regard, Chua is very careful to point out that race is valued above capacity and not because of it. Although Chua reiterates this basic idea throughout her exhaustive survey of global economic conditions, her statement about the nature of the white ruling class in Bolivia is representative of her basic feelings about the correlation between race and capability and competence. She writes that “The market dominance of the white minority in Bolivia does not necessarily imply superior entrepreneurialism  on their part….”4  One reason why she is careful to point out his fact is because Chua means to inform the reader of the true nature of both free market economics and conceptions of  ethnicity. Since both are fluid, it is necessary to look behind the changing dynamics of the surface in order to understand the inherent nature of each.

For example, by examining the results of the free-market economies in the world, it is possible to begin to form an idea of the underlying principles that drive global economics. Chua points out that one result of the proliferation of free market economies around the world is the creation of the aforementioned market-dominant minorities, while another result of the spread of free-market economies has been the generation of vast wealth disparity between the working classes and the ownership class. Chua remarks that “the spread of global markets [have] produced vast, inflammable ethnic wealth imbalances all over the world”5  Since the spread of capitalism and democracy has resulted in a corresponding increase of wealth disparity for most of the people in the world, there are two basic consequences that factor into supporting Chua’s central thesis. The first consequence is that wealth imbalances create instability and civil unrest; the second consequence is that democracy and the free market economy are vilified in the eyes of the  majority of the world’s population.

According to Dwight D. Murphy in his article “Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States” (2005) Chua’s ideas are not only based in a thorough understanding of world history but in a solid conception of how contemporary events are an outgrowth of history — and also a projection of a potential future. Murphy writes that “Chua focuses her discussion on the current features: that globalization of markets is increasing economic polarization, that the stress on ‘democracy’ is inspiring indigenous populations to assert themselves against the few who are economically successful.”6 The key aspect of this statement is that it demonstrates that the majority is intent of overturning all of the oppressive conventions that are enacted by the market-dominant minority, including democracy and the free market economy themselves. Seen in this regard, democracy and the free-market economy have emerged, historically, as their own worst enemies and in some ways may have encouraged a backlash toward totalitarianism and autocracy.

Davis, Trebilcock, and Hays mention that one of the likely outcomes that Chua imagines given the historical and contemporary realities of the free market is that democratic processes will be preserved, but used to enact strict reforms against the market-dominant minorities. They remark that, in Chua’s view, the future of many free-market systems may hold  “an anti-market backlash where democratic processes will seek to curtail the role of the economically dominant ethnic minority through a range of restrictive policies.” 7 This might be termed an optimistic view simply because it sidesteps outbreaks of violence and seeks to reform conditions within the parameters of the democratic process.  That said, the anti-market sentiments alluded to also,a mentioned, apply to democracy itself. Due to this fact, there is a persistent danger of disenchantment with democratic government and a resulting enthusiasm for non-democratic forms of government.

Murphy points out that it is democracy itself which enables both a populist backlash against the economic disparities caused by market-dominant minorities and the spread of ethnic divisions and resentment. He writes that “the worldwide move toward “democracy” provides the fulcrum for populist appeals to the ethnonationalism felt by the impoverished peoples.”8 This is a profoundly significant observation because it shows that the ethnic tension and prejudice that is generated through the market-dominant minorities is one that is based primarily  not on cultural and ethnic oppression, but on economic opportunity. Seen in this light, racism and ethnic exclusivity emerge as aspects of an overall elitism on the part of an economic empowered ruling class that uses ethnicity as a means to enforce an economic hierarchy. While it would be oversimplifying to say that the ruling class creates racial and ethnic division in order to preserve their exclusive rights and power, the fact remains that ethnic tension and resentment continues to be driven by economic disparity.

Chua’s argument is further developed b y her examination of the way in which democracy has been exported as a form of government alongside the economic principles of the free market. In her estimation, democracy has been foisted onto cultures and nations that are so deeply entrenched in non-democratic forms of government that the basic precepts of democracy are not yet fully internalized. Chua calls this form of democracy “raw” democracy and she is adamant about seeing the results of raw democracy for what they actually have been rather than merely gazing  through ideological glasses.  Murphey writes that Chua sees the spread of voting rights across non-democratic areas of the world as a potential hazard due to the coexisting reality of economic suffering and exploitation that is part of the economic system of capitalism currently practice that enables market-dominant minorities. Murphey insists that undeveloped and non-democratic countries “lack the redistributive features that have historically come to be felt essential in Europe and the United States.” 9 According to Murphey, the slow granting of universal voting rights in the United States, along with a wider range of economic opportunity is what helped to lay the foundation for a successful democratic society.

Chua’s research and thesis are impeccable and ring with a great degree of accuracy. The supporting scholarship is also highly convincing in terms of validating the basic idea that wealth inequality and ethnic bitterness are connected. As previously mentioned, Chua’s assertion that democracy is in danger of being simultaneously embraced and hated by appressed ethnic majorities all around the world is a more difficult claim to support. However, Chua manages to at least lay down a very convincing argument that this is, in fact the case. This means that her prediction of a possible backlash against democracy should be taken very seriously. one of the future outcomes she sees is “a retreat from democracy to autocratic or authoritarian forms of government designed either to contain or suppress ethnic envy and hatred among the immiserated majority.”10 The probability that free markets may result in authoritarian governments is one of Chua’s most astonishing and foreboding claims and one which she has forcefully substantiated.

The preponderance of evidence suggest that Chua is correct in assuming that the world’s economic systems have fallen under the control of market-dominant minorities.  There is also ample evidence to support her idea that this economic disparity extends to racial and ethnic exclusivity and that “There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that in many countries, members of the economically dominant minority group dislike personal interactions with members of other ethnic groups.”11 Such a reality indicates that free-market economies and democratic governments have done little to enact the idealistic precepts of free-markets and democracy. instead, as Chua’s thorough study would seem to suggest, the tools of capitalism and democracy have been sued to maintain and exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions in all areas of the world with the singe objective of using these divisive ideas to enable a minority ruling class of elites.

In many ways, Chua’s book can be viewed as a cynical look at the way in which human-beings fail to reach a level of civilized society that excludes the racial and ethnic oppression of one group over another.   In other ways, the book can be viewed as a celebration of the true nature of democracy and economic opportunity. Chua’s study implies that granting economic redistribution to the majority would facilitate better functioning democratic governments and reduce tensions and instability all around the world.   It could be possible that once the economic disparities were  removed from human affairs, then racial and ethnic tensions would similarly be put to rest. This idealistic remark is based in Chua’s research which shows that even where people are exploited and oppressed, the desire for  freedom and self-empowerment endures.

Notes

 

  1. Kevin Davis, Michael J. Trebilcock, and Bradley Heys, “Ethnically Homogeneous Commercial Elites in Developing Countries,” Law and Policy in International Business 32, no. 2 (2001); p. 331.

 

  1. James H. Mittelman, Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity (Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Series, 2010); p. 35.

 

  1. Chua, Amy. World On Fire. New York,, N..Y..: AnchorBooks, 2004. p. 14.

 

  1. Ibid. Chapter 2, p. 7.

 

  1. Ibid. Part Two, p.1.

 

  1. Dwight D. Murphey, ‘Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States,’ The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 30, no. 3.

 

  1. Kevin Davis, Michael J. Trebilcock, and Bradley Heys, “Ethnically Homogeneous Commercial Elites in Developing Countries,” Law and Policy in International Business 32, no. 2 001; p. 332.

 

  1. Dwight D. Murphey, “Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States,” The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 30, no. 3; 2005.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

  1. Kevin Davis, Michael J. Trebilcock, and Bradley Heys, “Ethnically Homogeneous Commercial Elites in Developing Countries,” Law and Policy in International Business 32, no. 2 2001; p. 333.

 

  1. Ibid.

 

Bibliography

Chua, Amy. World On Fire. New York,, N..Y..: AnchorBooks,, 2004.

Kevin Davis, Michael J. Trebilcock, and Bradley Heys, “Ethnically Homogeneous Commercial Elites in Developing Countries,” Law and Policy in International Business 32, no. 2 2001.

Mittelman, James H. Hyperconflict: Globalization and Insecurity. Stanford, CA: Stanford Security Series, 2010.

Murphey, Dwight D. “Amy Chua’s World on Fire: Worldwide Ethnic Conflict and Its Implications for the United States.” The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 30, no. 3 (2005): 371+. http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-911841971/amy-chua-s-world-on-fire-worldwide-ethnic-conflict

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