Is Asian capitalism different?

[A cross-posting from my Quote Unquote blog.]

Last March, an FT journalist called K. Mahbubani wrote a piece claiming – quite rightly for the moment, perhaps – that there are various distinctively Asian versions of capitalism, all of which are a good deal more conservative than the ‘western’ model. Asian societies have much higher levels of savings, since the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 have restored a degree of government regulation, they have largely ignored the IMF’s market fantasies, and so on.

Which is very sensible indeed. But how sustainable is it? As Mahbubani notes, the high savings level is the product of centuries of economic and social uncertainty. But the same might be said of westerners, whose personal prudence in these matters was once legendary. Indeed, some economic historians have claimed that our high ‘propensity to save’ was one of the foundation stones for capitalism itself. Likewise for regulation: it is not so very long ago that no one in the West would have dreamed of deregulating our economies to anything like the extent that we have.

But things change. Once consumerism – rapidly emerging in the east as in the west – takes command, the vast marketing machines will make sure that savings are quickly eroded. There will come a time when Asian economists will recommend the deregulation of markets, and there will come a time when Asian governments will be so exposed to global economic pressures that they will be unable to resist. That’s how capitalism works – not western capitalism or Asian capitalism – just capitalism. After all, what we have in the west is not a specifically western model at all – it is simply capitalism completely let off the leash. When it is let off the leash in Asia too, they can fully expect the same tribulations.

And plainly Asian capitalism can be fooled into playing along with the western model, because for a long while they did. In 1997-8 they learned better – but to what extent did even that happen because there are at least two major global players in Asia – India and China – neither of which has really been absorbed not the global capitalist network at every level of society? They are both heading – indeed, sprinting – that way, so why should we expect them not to succumb to the ‘western’ model?

There is an answer. It’s a combination of peak oil, global warming and the ecological devastation that is already making itself felt all across Asia. But Asian capitalism? No, I doubt very much that that can resist effectively on its own. Why should it? ‘Western’ capitalism didn’t, even though philosophers and historians and politicians and pundits of every stripe claimed the same virtues for the west as Mahbubani does for Asia.

[1] Mahbubani, K. (2009). Lessons for the west from Asian capitalism. Financial Times, March 19 2009.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

Leave a Reply