Chua’s basic thesis is that the sort of austere economic policy (such as no safety net, etc.) promoted by certain organizations and entities (free markets), in conjunctions with democracy (universal suffrage), when certain conditions arise, leads to a situation similar to a powder keg ready to blow up. The certain conditions are the presence of an ethnic minority that is disproportionately wealthy and economically successful. Chua calls them “market–dominant minorities”. When the previously–mentioned economic policies are implemented, any economic benefits that arise flow exclusively to the market–dominant minority. In a democracy, a demagogue arises and riles up the poor majority against the minority, using this to come to power. The result can therefore be a backlash against the democracy (where the minority takes over, sometimes with the help of a majority dictator), a backlash against capitalism/markets (nationalization, expropriation, and so on), or a backlash against the market–dominant minority itself (leading to genocide and the like).
Chua provides several examples to support her thesis. Some examples seem more supported by her evidence than others. For example, she uses the example of her own people (ethnic Chinese in the Philippines), including a discussion of a relative’s murder that was motivated by ethnic resentment. On the other hand, several examples seem like she is stretching her thesis. One example she used was the Russian oligarchs. As a number of them were Jewish, she attributes (qualifying her conclusion that it is only a partial explanation) anti–Semitism in Russia to resentment of the oligarchs. But anti–Semitism in Russia goes back way before the oligarchs arose, and it remains after many oligarchs have been weakened. For example, in the nineteenth century, members of the intellectual class routinely used anti–Semitic terms in correspondence, and agents in the czarist secret police plagiarized a novel to create that hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For those and analogous reasons, I did not find all of her examples convincing.
To the extent to which Chua’s thesis holds, she suggests mitigating both halves of the causation equation; more redistribution and social safety net, a slower democratization process. I’m not sure a slower democratization process is necessarily the best way to go. Democracies are more peaceful than non–democracies, and hybrid (between autocratic and democratic) regimes are the least peaceful of all. Hence, there could well be a possibility of a long period of democratic transition blowing up spectacularly. And if that happens no one will be better off.
And I am not sure that demagogic backlashes even require there to be a wealthy, market–dominant minority. (Although Chua pretty conclusively demonstrates that they certainly help cause them, at least). For example, consider the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. One of the challengers to Roosevelt was Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey “Kingfish” Long. He came up with the political platform of “Share Our Wealth”. As its name implies, it was an explicitly redistributionist movement. This was popular enough that, if Long ran in the 1936 election, he would have split enough votes to swing the election to the Republicans. And what did Roosevelt do in response to this left–wing threat? He adopted some of their rhetoric and co–opted enough of their leaders to defuse the threat enough so that he would win the election. The net result of this was that there was no socialist of communist revolution. In other words, FDR saved capitalism.
The key point to draw from the above is that it is entirely possible to have a (nascent) backlash against capitalism, where there is no group that can be considered a market–dominant minority. And another conclusion to draw from this is that the typical wingnut response of “resort to private charity” does not work. In many of the countries where such backlashes have occurred, private charity has been ineffective at preventing backlashes. The fact that several international organizations (in some cases, used to) be against almost any sort of social programs will inevitably lead to the backlashes Chua describes. Hence, actual government programs ought to be tried. Even if it fails to result in some sort of egalitarian utopia it would likely do enough to allay resentment and kill any backlashes. Chua provides examples to support this. And anyone who advocates policies like no safety nets, no redistribution etc. is only asking for trouble and is taking a step on the royal road to socialism (or worse). It’s a complete fantasy that people will continually cheer on their plutocratic overlords and gleefully accept forever having no future. Eventually something will give.
I explicitly decline to firmly recommend or not recommend this book. World on Fire is a much better and more impactful book if the qualifications I mentioned above are kept in mind. If that is done so it will be a good read.