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Endpiece: Tiger 'flu


When the basics of the Communist Manifesto appear as analysis in the New York Times,
Steve Eckardt reckons it's time to take another look at the economic crisis in Asia.


How ironic that opinion-makers, trying to prevent panic as Asian markets and currencies plunged to unplumbed depths, settled on the phrase ‘Asian ’flu’.

Bad choice. For at that very moment a ’flu virus in Hong Kong poultry was making an extraordinary mutation that enabled it to leap from chickens to humans – a dangerous ‘zoonotic’ mutation of the type that gave us the spectacularly deadly Ebola virus. The Asian ’flu, it seemed, might ravage the world like the Black Plague.

Oops. Could its financial equivalent do the same to the world’s economy? Frankly, it could.

It’s the conjuncture of global ‘over-capacity’ and the collapse of unsustainable Third World economies that account for the sudden appearance of phrases like ‘extremely acute financial panic’ in normally staid publications like the New York Times and The Economist.

After all, lots of poor nations allegedly ‘emerging’ into First World status have been belly-up for many years now. Northern lenders, with glowing assurances, press Big Plans – dams, superhighways, nuclear reactors – on impoverished nations. The poor countries plunder their resources and pump out their cash in a fruitless race to keep up with interest charges. More loans are piled on to help pay for earlier ones. At last, currencies – the economies behind them now bled white – plummet and the entire venture collapses.

Back home, the bankers get bailed out by (mainly working-class) taxpayers. Seen from ‘overseas’ the bail-out looks more like an enforcement visit from a loan-shark: companies and natural resources are signed over at fire-sale prices and austerity measures are imposed to squeeze even more from the poor.

And so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If you’re a lender, it’s a great system – at least until you submerge a region like Asia that accounts for a third of all world trade. True, previous bankrupted countries weren’t quite the financial size of South Korea (the world’s 11th largest economy) or the human size of Indonesia (the world’s fourth-most-populous country).

But it was the coincidence of the Asian disaster with what New York Times financial writer Louis Uchitelle describes as ‘a developing worldwide crisis driven mainly by a phenomenon called “over-capacity”’ that got even staid knees shaking. Uchitelle quotes another analyst as saying that the global economy ‘produces more goods even as it suppresses wages... in both industrial and developing countries. You cannot do that – producing more and cutting the wages of those who buy – forever.’ Uchitelle adds that ‘the global economy appears, in effect, to be capable of self-destruction’.

Now that’s news – when the basics of the Communist Manifesto are printed as analysis in the New York Times.

Of course, none of this is news to those who never bought all that nonsense about the ‘triumph of capitalism’, or ‘trickle-down’ wealth ‘raising everyone’s boat’. Nor is it news to the vast numbers of people enduring an economic calamity far worse than anything that has yet befallen the world’s financial capitals. After all, nearly 70 per cent of humanity have never made a phone call, more than 50 per cent lack access to a sanitary toilet and almost a quarter regularly go without enough food.

No, the real news – regardless of what happens with the immediate crisis – is that millions of people in Asia will not accept placidly the draconian cuts in their living standards now being dic-tated by international lenders. Already, what the Financial Times calls the ‘infamously militant South Korean workers’ are on the move. So, too, are the peoples of Indonesia.

Our New York Times analyst declares: ‘There IS something to worry about.’ Sounds like some people have started killing chickens – whether you call the disease Asian ’flu or not.

Steve Eckardt, a Chicago-based writer, invites readers to visit his website [ http://www.SeeingRed.com ] and leave comments or questions there.

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New Internationalist issue 300 magazine cover This article is from the April 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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