A couple of weeks ago, I posted a minor diatribe responding to the related claims – which I had perceived in a number of recent blog commentaries – (1) that corruption is not really that big a problem for economic development, and (2) that the emphasis on corruption had more to do with the desire of Western countries to feel superior to the allegedly misgoverned countries in the so-called Global South. One of the targets of my critique, Michael Dowdle, has posted an interesting response that deserves careful consideration.
Dowdle explains that his original post did not claim “that everyone involved in the anticorruption movement is infected by” the impulse to claim moral superiority, did not claim that this impulse “is the only or even the predominant motor behind the global anticorruption movement,” and indeed did not claim that this impulse is “a distinctly Western mindset.” After making these helpful clarifications, Dowdle explains the root of his concern that the desire to claim moral superiority may (partly) explain (some of) the global anticorruption movement: the invocation of a particular kind of corruption – “crony capitalism” – to explain the failures of the neoliberal model of global capitalism, most prominently in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
In a nutshell, Dowdle’s argument goes something like this (and I apologize in advance for what I’m sure will be a bit of an oversimplification, but I think this is basically faithful): (1) the rapid growth of the Asian economies in the 1980s and 1990s, with their allegedly distinctive approach to government involvement in the market, posed a challenge to the purported superiority of American capitalism; (2) the Asian Financial Crisis delegitimized this alleged alternative model of capitalism, and so was greeted “with a clear degree of glee” from many American commentators; (3) commentators (mostly Western) claimed that a root cause of the crisis was “crony capitalism” – the alleged tendency to make loans based on political or social connections rather than expected returns – as part of an emerging narrative about how the “Asian Alternative” had failed; (4) in fact, however, crony capitalism had nothing to do with the crisis; and (5) the global anticorruption movement more generally “was strongly catalyzed by the discourse of corruption that American observers used to describe and explain” the Asian Financial Crisis.
For the moment, let me put aside that last point about the alleged causal relationship between the discourse of crony capitalism in the context of the 1997 crisis and the emergence of the global anticorruption efforts more generally – except to say that I’m skeptical that this was more than a minor factor. (Certainly Dowdle doesn’t point to any evidence, beyond the timing, that would substantiate this claim.) I want to focus instead on his intriguing and provocative arguments (A) that crony capitalism had nothing to do with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but (B) that the emphasis on crony capitalism in some quarters reflected a desire to delegitimize a perceived Asian challenge to American/Western capitalism. I find this narrower version of Dowdle’s hypothesis much more plausible than the much broader version I (mis)understood him to be advancing in his original post. But I still find myself somewhat skeptical, so in the interests of continuing what at least for me has been a very stimulating exchange, let me push back against certain aspects of Dowdle’s argument here.