The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 16, 2000

Nepotism, cronyism and globalisation
By Jeremy Seabrook

ONE of the most significant obstacles to the establishment of ‘true capitalism in Asia is the presence there of networks of mutual support between people which the West refers to disdainfully as ‘cronyism’ and ‘nepotism’. This means that personal preferences and relationships of blood take precedence over the majestic impersonality of those based upon money.

Much has been made — particularly by Francis Fukuyama — of "trust" in societies in which capitalism functions well. This means societies in which those who are strangers to each other accept the rules of the economic game.

Commenting on the alarm created in the USA by the breakdown of the family, Fukuyama says. ‘The earlier social theorists who saw the strong family as an obstacle to economic development were not entirely wrong....In the West many observers believed that family ties had to weaken if economic progress was to occur.’ In other words, those who give priority to ties of friendship and blood are regarded as unfit for participation in the great scheme of things known as the global economy.

  Such sentimental and obstrusive bondings as those between human beings must all be swept away so that ‘pure’ capitalism may assume its place in governance of the entire world: as the extended family was wiped out at an earlier stage of industrialism in the West, so now, the nuclear family is following it to extinction.

On the other hand, Fukuyama concedes that in the United States, the family may have become too weak to perform its basic task of socialisation. It seems that ‘familismust’ be destroyed so that great corporations may form, but that its decay must be arrested before the family disintegrates totally; to whom this noble task is to be entrusted remains a mystery.

For here is a curious contradiction. The pluralism and diversity beloved by the West is strictly not to be tolerated in economic affairs. There is clearly only one way of doing things: business culture is a true monoculture, and it is being propagated across the world by the West with remarkable assiduity and single-mindedness. Despite the ruin of its own family structures (or perhaps because of this), it is determined that every country in the world will follow the same pathological course.

The swift dissolution of the family does not appear as an urgent necessity to the people of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and other societies which have not yet seen the wisdom of allowing all human relationships, bonds and ties to be superseded by those governed by the purity and clarity of monetary relations.

Inconvenient, no doubt. But it does offer a real test of the dedication of pluralism by the West. Similarly, "cronyism" is only a pejorative word for friendship. In South Asia, there are distinctive homo-affective social relationships, often forged in youth, and in part, a product of the de facto sexual apartheid which exists, at least in Bangladesh and India; while strict segregation of the sexes is observed in most Muslim countries. Bonds forged in youth often survive into adulthood; and for people in those societies, it is only natural that they use them to further the interests of relationships which they take very seriously indeed.

What appears as the cronyism of elderly men making mutually beneficial deals in a fog of cigar smoke and whisky fumes, may actually be the outcome of avowals of lifelong friendship made in early youth, the redeeming of ancient promises; sentimental attachments which their Western counterparts have, doubtless, outgrown, and whose equally private deals will be for the same mutual advantage, only with strangers.

So it is with families; Kinship and ties of blood have not decayed as they have in the more ‘advanced’ West. Indeed, ‘Asian values’ were cited as one of the great strengths in the economic strength of the sometime Asian tigers — in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere — at least until the crisis of 1998 temporarily silenced the admirers of self-reliance, discipline and a wholesome rejection of State welfare. But when these interfere with the even more sacred bonds as defined by commerce, they become something quite different — the nepotism and corruption which are abhorrent to the candour of economic relationships.

Another way of looking at cronyism and nepotism would be to say that these are human values; and to give these priority over everything else could be seen as a kind of resistance to the impersonality of the market. Of course, revulsion against these things is selective. It applies only to those who are in a position to advance their friends and relations, to promote them to positions of eminence in the business world, to facilitate their self-enrichment, and elevate them to places of power privilege in the society.

When it comes to the poor, it is considered wholly proper that a young woman in a garment factory or in the sex industry should sustain an extended family in the village by her labours. It is regarded as admirable that a migrant labourer, a construction worker or a cycle-rickshaw driver should work 15 hours a day in order to remit to his kin in the village in Issan or Barisal a few hundred precious baht or taka each month. Then, it becomes a question of wholesome and highly salutary family ties; such people offer no competition to foreign free marketeers who, often with the power and wealth of some transnational conglomerate behind them, seek to take possession of the resources of the Third World.

The values which keep people off welfare and preserve them from throwing themselves on the mercy of the state become something quite different when Suharto gives his crony ‘Bob’ Hassan control over whole industries, or entrusts to his relatives the superintendence of the trucking industry or cement or the forests of his country. But this is only an expression of the same phenomenon towards which Western observers and commentators displayed measureless admiration when practised by the poor

Does this mean, then, that all cultural alternatives must be snuffed out in the interests of a single global economy? What if compelling other countries to play by the rules actually represents a violent infringement of their traditions and ways of life? Where does this leave respect for cultural diversity? Where is Western pluralism then?

The truth is, there is no pluralism in business or economics. Pluralism is an idea fit only for acceptable cultural manifestations of other societies, like a folkloric dance troupe, or an ‘original’ sound that can be taken out of its context in Brazil or Angola and marketed in the West, a traditional drama that will enthrall the jaded audiences in New York, a singer from Ivory Coast or Senegal who will play to packed audiences in Paris.

It has no place in the business culture which is now the object of proselytising vigour, the most stringent control and rigorous discipline by all the international financial institutions, governments of the G-7, transnational companies and all the experts concerned with transparency, good governance and all the other high-sounding ideals with which the West is currently re-making the world in its own image.

Fukuyama’s cultural distinction between societies that have a high degree of trust between strangers, such as the USA and those based upon familism (such as those in the Chinese diaspora, from Hong Kong and Singapore and Taiwan to Chinese minorities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand), is an attempt to read into globalisation a richness and variety which are historical, vestigial and fading.

It is a desire to give luster and unpredictability to the predetermined path on which globalisation has set the world; charming archaisms, nostalgic nuances, the pre-industrial residue of other ways of doing things in societies that have been transformed in the space of a single generation; all destined to be melted down in the blinding explosion that comes from the fission of the nuclear family and the splitting of humanity into isolated atoms, experiments which have illuminated the United States and much of Europe with such an eerie and surreal light.

(Third World Network Features)