Reading the Asian Crisis: History, Culture and Institutional Truths

By Preston, Peter W. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Reading the Asian Crisis: History, Culture and Institutional Truths


Preston, Peter W., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

The financial crisis of 1997-98 in Pacific Asia has been the subject of considerable debate.(1) The attention of political actors and policy analysts has been turned to the immediate issues of financial market instability, economic dislocation and consequent social and political problems. The debate has been politically fraught. At one extreme, advocates of an American-style liberal market system have blamed the political and business elites of the region. The notion of "crony capitalism" has been used. In reply, advocates of the particularity of the development experience of Asia, often summed up in terms of an idea of "Asian values", have spoken of a Western(2) politico-financial conspiracy to undermine Asia's success. However, a more detached social scientific perspective, taken from the classical European tradition,(3) can offer a deeper insight into the 1997-98 crisis and reveal something of its causes in post-Cold War and post-Bretton Woods inter-regional adjustment within the increasingly integrated global system. In this context, it is clear that the Asian crisis represents an acute and transient expression of what is likely to prove to be a deeper and more intractable problem, that is, the process of mutual adjustment between three powerful regions as the economic and political architecture of the post-Cold War, post-Bretton Woods global system, including institutions, law and customary norms and procedures, is assembled.

This article will offer interrelated reflections in three areas: (i) the historical sociology of the development experience of the countries of Pacific Asia, which perspective, concerned with analysing complex change, suggests that the 1997-98 crisis is likely to be transient; (ii) the political sociology of political and policy analytic debate, which perspective suggests that the current debate surrounding the crisis is symptomatic of deeper processes of inter-regional post-Cold War and post-Bretton Woods adjustment, and that these processes and debates are likely to persist; and (iii) the political sociology of the production and legitimation of institutional truths, which perspective suggests that the claims of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to neutral technical expertise in respect of development and regulation are no longer credible, and that the economic and political architecture of the emerging tripolar global system should be discussed directly by all parties concerned.(4)

The Historical Sociology of Pacific Asia

At the present time, in the period following the end of the Cold War, the attention of political actors, policy analysts and scholars has turned away from geo-strategy towards geo-economics. It has been recognized that the United States,(5) the European Union, and Pacific Asia are the three major economic regions within the global industrial-capitalist system.(6) In each region, there is a large population, a sophisticated scientific base, a well-developed industrial structure, and a distinctive cultural mix. In recent years, increasing social scientific effort has been turned to the question of the operation of the global system and its three key regions. One particular strand of reflection is available in the resources of the historical sociology of complex change.(7) The argument strategies of historical sociology allow the dynamics of complex change, their scale, differing rhythms and break-points, to be discussed. It is clear that the analytical strategies of historical sociology generate explanations of the unfolding dynamics of contemporary events, which are quite distinct from the more familiar extrapolations of trends presented by orthodox economic and political commentators. The resources of historical sociology can be turned to the question of the current Asian crisis. An initial review of the scale of the processes involved in the historical development experience of the countries of Pacific Asia can offer a frame within which more particular critical debates can be presented. …

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