by John Kampfner

The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World

Kishore Mahbubani

Cancel The Apocalypse: The New Path To Prosperity

Andrew Simms

It has become commonplace to talk of the global economic recession. But it is a misnomer. The new world is becoming wealthier as the old world declines amid greed, joblessness and rancour. It is almost exclusively a Western crisis.

Reading Kishore Mahbubani's latest grand sweep from the vantage point of London (less still Athens or Madrid), it is hard to recognize the world as he sees it. But Singapore's leading public intellectual has long decried the inability of Europe and the United States to accept the shift in global forces.

In his latest work, Mahbubani strikes a tone of almost messianic optimism. 'Never before in human history have so many people been lifted out of absolute poverty. Nor have there been so many entrants into the global middle class.' He produces some striking statistics. Today 500 million Asians enjoy middleclass living standards. By 2020 this number will explode to 1.75 billion. More than half the world's middle class could by then be in Asia. By 2025, for the first time in history, he says, the number of people in the consuming class will exceed that number still struggling to meet their most basic needs.

Mahbubani , with some justification, suggests that international institutions have long failed to keep track of these changes. It is not just the UN Security Council that is ripe for reform; the IMF, World Bank and other forums are rigged in favour of Western candidates.

The author's central argument is that global power is not just shifting from West to East but that it is converging. In part this is due to the connectivity of technology; but also it is due to the requirement that competing political and social systems will have to find an accommodation. But he ducks the challenge of setting out the new kind of global governance that is needed.

He is right to attack Western double standards, from human rights to the environment, and what he calls its 'black and white posturing' which 'will prove to be a huge competitive liability as we sail into a world of complex geopolitical contradictions'. He appears to advocate a form of moral relativism. Mao might have been bad, but he made China stand tall in the world. The Burmese generals might not have been perfect, but deserve now to be embraced. As for Iran, it needs to be brought in from the cold. 'The tragedy of our contemporary world is that the dominant Western discourse is incapable of mastering such intricacy'.

Any reconciliation of so-called Asian values with Anglo-Saxon capitalism would be anathema to Andrew Simms. Instead, the British academic and author of Tescopoly, a popular book attacking the evils of mega-supermarkets, sees the future not in terms of the spreading of middle-class lifestyles but in a new form of sustainable living.

His book, at almost 500 pages, is an extended essay on the perfidy of this sort of unbridled capitalism. The solution, he says, lies in rejecting excessive consumption. Think small, work fewer hours, recycle more and spend less. The author provides a stream of examples of small initiatives and cooperatives where goods and services are shared.

Simms laments the obsession with growth rates that has put political and economic policy in a straitjacket. That is the opposite of the argument expounded by Mahbubani, as he celebrates the rush to consumer durables.

I wonder whether these positions are as irreconcilable as might first seem. Lifting individuals out of poverty, into a world of flush toilets, cars and refrigerators, is not something to be scoffed at. But what happens when that model, decades later, reaches saturation point, and greed sets in? That the Western model is broken is something on which two quite different authors might actually agree.

John Kampfner is writing 'The Rich, A History', to be published in 2014 by Little, Brown


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