A New Imperialism? Free Markets Have Cultural Costs

By Pfaff, William | Commonweal, March 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

A New Imperialism? Free Markets Have Cultural Costs


Pfaff, William, Commonweal


A war between economic societies is going on. It is a war which may prove as important to modern history as the rise and fall of imperialism and colonialism. The United States, ambivalently backed by Europe and Canada, is attempting to force the replacement of crucial economic and social institutions in the non-Western world with institutions drawn from its own experience and that of Western Europe.

This campaign is inspired by American economic theory, promoted by American economic and business publicists, and waged by America's industry, commerce, and government. Its goal is deregulation and integration of the world economy, so as to impose the economic standards and practices, and, in important respects, the manner of life, of the capitalist West.

The campaign originated in the struggle against the Communist economic model. Until the 1980s, many in the West believed that the Communist model, in its Russian and Chinese versions, could defeat the West. Such was the concern of an influential 1975 Trilateral Commission study. However, a decade later Soviet Communism collapsed of its internal contradictions, both political and economic, as George Kennan and a few others had foreseen. Many then argued that the East Asian economic model in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan was superior to the Western model, and that the United States should try to adopt its practices.

In purely economic terms, the centrally directed East Asian model for national industrial mobilization was a much more serious challenge than the Leninist planned economy had been. But it, too, had, and has, an internal contradiction: its dependence upon export-led growth is ultimately irreconcilable with its protectionism.

In Japan, where the East Asian model originated, the nation's ability to adapt its economic system to changing circumstances in the 1990s was handicapped by the country's political lethargy, a legacy of World War II and of the cold war. Japan's success in the future will undoubtedly depend more on political reform than on economic adaptation.

The East Asian model, of course, should not be confused with the essentially feudal economic system which exists in Indonesia and some other Southeast Asian countries. In these countries, resources and industry are controlled by family or clients of the ruler, or of the ruling political class, who in turn enrich Western investors prepared to pay the required tribute. …

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