Market Cultures: Society and Morality in the New Asian Capitalisms

Market Cultures: Society and Morality in the New Asian Capitalisms

Market Cultures: Society and Morality in the New Asian Capitalisms

Market Cultures: Society and Morality in the New Asian Capitalisms


Market Cultures examines the spectacular growth of capitalist enterprise among overseas Chinese & Southeast Asians. It does so, not through formal models, but by way of the varied cultures & organizations in which Asian capitalism is embedded. Eschewing talk of a uniform Asian "miracle," the book shows that there existed complex precedents for & against market capitalism in East & Southeast Asia, precedents that reflected subcultural heritages of religion, ethnicity, gender, & class. The case studies illuminate a cultural variety unacknowledged in most analyses of modern capitalism but vitally important for anyone wishing to understand one of the great economic transformations of our time.


"But after so many failed prophecies, is it not in the interest of social science to embrace complexity, be it at some sacrifice to predictive power?"

--Albert Hirschman (1986:139)

From an economic historical perspective, the fin de siècle through which we are now passing is the most remarkable of times. Industrial growth and living standards once restricted to a handful of Western countries--and regarded by not a few Westerners as realizable only within the framework of Occidental civilization--have taken hold in numerous non-Western settings. Nowhere is this development more striking than in the industrializing countries of East and Southeast Asia. For the better part of twenty years in Southeast Asia and thirty in East Asia (outside Japan), economies throughout this region have expanded at a rate of 5 to 8 percent per annum; over much the same period manufacturing has grown at two to three times this pace. For a while, some observers dismissed this expansion as a form of dependent development or as "ersatz" capitalism. In these critics' eyes, the ranks of real capitalist powers were limited to the industrial West and its honorary exception to the rule, Japan. Today, however, such a narrow view of modern capitalist growth no longer seems tenable. Driven at first by export-oriented manufactures, the scale of growth has now led to the creation of substantial domestic markets with the heightened standards of living, restless middle classes, labor disputes, and commercialized culture they inevitably imply. Barring some unexpected catastrophe, it now seems clear that the ascent of East and Southeast Asia will figure as one of the defining features of the twenty-first century.

Caught as we are in the midst of this great transformation, we sometimes attribute to it an inevitability that obscures its complexity and human drama.

There is little formally wrong with this first kind of account. Moreover, some of the policy issues to which its more sophisticated exponents direct our attention--such as money supply, currency exchange rates, and the costs of inefficient regulation--do figure among the requisite terms for understanding the new Asian capitalisms. If these are part of the story, however, they are only one part. As numerous case studies have demonstrated ( Haggard and Kaufman 1992; MacIntyre and Jayasuriya 1992; MacIntyre 1994), to say that growth occurs because the market can "get prices right" still does not explain why some societies easily achieve this state of affairs and others fail miserably. Similarly, though the narrative of market magic pretends to be free of social or cultural variables, a number of its key concepts--including the ideas of the "firm" and economic "rationality"--in fact sneak in a good deal of unaccounted and ungeneralizable social baggage. How do firms work? Are they really everywhere the same? What is their internal structure and how are they related to external business networks? Most basic of all, why do people in some societies find it easy to accept the cultural logic of capitalism, whereas others find it morally repugnant? If we are really serious about understanding capitalism and its consequences, we have to open our analysis to such troublingly empirical questions and develop a more culturally and sociologically realistic understanding of market actors . . .

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