World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Violence and Global Instability , by Amy Chua. Doubleday, 340 pages, $26.
Hub Culture: The Next Wave of Urban Consumers , by Stan Stalnaker. John Wiley & Sons, 197 pages, $27.95.
How often, Dear Reader, do you hold the key to perdition in one hand, the key to salvation in the other? By a strange turn of fortune, I’ve ended up with copies of both Hub Culture: The Next Wave of Urban Consumers and World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability . The two make unlikely deskfellows. Hub Culture is a sleek monograph by “a multinational executive with the world’s largest media and entertainment company.” World On Fire is a serious work by a well-respected legal academic. Hub Culture is a slapdash, hipster quickie-it seems stitched together from soggy beer coasters. World On Fire ‘s watertight thesis first appeared in the tweedy and hyper-smart pages of the Wilson Quarterly . Each in its own style approaches the same question: How should we live on islands of prosperity in an age of globalization?Whichanswerwe choose will make all the difference.
Hub Culture is by Stan Stalnaker, an AOL Time Warner marketing director. He argues that a post-yuppie social type now defines the upmarket consumer landscape-the “global urban modernist,” who lives, as the back cover tells us, in a “post-national frame of mind.” This person is a “Hub,” one of a new class of savvy but restless knowledge professionals who thrive in the urban oasis and have more in common with their counterparts in other world cities than with their fellow countrymen. Mr. Stalnaker’s tripped-out tone is almost impossible to convey-it’s as if Marshall McLuhan had been kidnapped, beaten senseless with a copy of Shampoo Planet, then given half an hour to produce a best-selling marketing primer.”Even shock-oriented branding campaigns that appeal to our more base senses,” Mr. Stalnaker tells us, “such as sex with underage sluts in the family recreation room, or the famous nineties classic ‘heroin chic’, appeal to a certain, and let’s admit it, admired, portion of our collective psyche.”
That’s Hub Culture : over-generalized, muzzy, filled with Jungian bromides delivered with a splash of Aqua Velva and horse tranquilizer. As a barefaced play to make its author the next Next Wave poster boy, it’s plenty amusing; but Mr. Stalnaker engages a new gear when he turns to our inner life. The quest for deep meaning, as it turns out, is ineluctable; once we’ve tidied up the family rec room, we must “recognize that our true inner selves are eternal.” Written with solemn, tin-ear glibness, Hub Culture seems intent on living down to the worst caricature of Western life as spiritually bankrupt. “The seeds of … a branded religion are around us in an infant state,” writes Mr. Stalnaker, his pupils now dilating to some strange rhythm. “The attempts of Scientology to create a religion that is ‘cool’ have been very successful, but have left most people with a feeling that the organization is more about mind control than personal development. Poor branding.”
O Lord, make all our enemies so ridiculous. Hub Culture will hit the pulper faster than you can scream “Goodbye, cruel world”-why even pause to consider it? Fatuous though it is, the attempted shift from mindshare to soulshare is revealing. Mr. Stalnaker is obsessed with our spirituality because he believes it represents the deepest possible reserves of our consumer ego, where the buying and the believing self come together in absolute longing. Skin-crawling as it is to consider, every marketer would love to tap into that reserve. But for Mr. Stalnaker and his newfangled yuppie, the stakes are even higher. Out there, in the more far-flung Hard Rock outposts, the Hubs now need the most soul-consuming narcissistic preoccupation to continue blindly avoiding the economic reality that surrounds them.
No one has done a finer job of honestly tracing out that reality than Amy Chua. In World On Fire , her superb new book, she gives a more precise name to Mr. Stalnaker’s Hubs: They constitute a “market-dominant minority.” Market-dominant minorities are everywhere, from the ethnic Chinese who dominate business life in Indonesia, to the Koreans who have cornered the grocery business in the predominantly African-American inner city. Whether by entrepreneurial gusto or outright theft-and Ms. Chua points out it’s often a complex mixture of the two-in many developing economies, relatively tiny ethnic elites have ended up in control of the few lucrative industries. This elite then disproportionately reaps the benefits of globalization. But just as free-market reforms concentrate more wealth in the hands of the minority, democracy suddenly hands the political franchise over to the majority; and decades, or even centuries, of pent-up grievance are suddenly unleashed. “[I]n numerous countries around the world,” Ms. Chua writes, the most lurid examples being Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Serbia, “the simultaneous pursuit of free markets and democracy has led not to peace and widespread prosperity, but to confiscation, autocracy, and mass slaughter.”
Ms.Chua’sisnoAmerica-last screed; it arrives glowingly blurbed by both the Brookings and Hoover institutes. Instead, it’s a richly imagined formula for understanding a seeming paradox: Why has a raging backlash often accompanied the rising standards of living brought on by globalization? The answer is that desire is elastic, and envy often insatiable. A South American campesino may now earn a few more pennies a day, but his television vividly depicts a 24-hour consumer paradise from which he has been excluded. Ms. Chua deftly ranges over several cultures-from the intricate tribal jealousies of Africa to the Jewish oligarchs of post-Communist Russia-describing how market-dominant minorities lead over and over again to the lowest racial demagoguery: The minority is routinely portrayed as bloodsucking outsiders; the majority flattered as the one true indigenous people.
In a chapter entitled “Why They Hate Us,” Ms. Chua argues that “Anti-Americanism around the world is, among other things, an expression at the global level of popular, demagogue-fueled mass resentment against a market-dominant minority.” In the face of this, America has been exporting a crude version of “one-person, one vote” democracy and raw laissez-faire economics, forgetting that the first took us nearly two centuries to lead up to, and that the second all but disappeared soon after the Gilded Age. In short, Ms. Chua’s book moves us beyond post-9/11 bickering, beyond a mindlessly triumphalist right and a mindlessly self-loathing left. She encourages us to confront the world as it is, and our actual place in it, with a humane and intellectually formidable imagination.
Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.