Revolution #60, September 10, 2006
A Jagged, Unjust, and Obsolete World:
A Critique of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat
The World Is Flat (Updated and Expanded Edition)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
IMPERIAL TUNNEL VISION AND THE REAL WORLD
Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over a year now. The paperback version will be out soon. The World Is Flat is an undisguised celebration of globalization—chock full of conversations with CEOs like Michael Dell and Bill Gates and politicians like the former president of Mexico, and brimming over with dumbstruck accounts of info-tech gadgetry and tributes to the cutting-edge (read: cut-throat) business models of companies like Wal-Mart.
This is imperialist globalization as seen at the top. This is imperialist globalization from the perspective of those controlling and benefiting at the top.
The World Is Flat has gotten enormous play in the U.S. media and has become the stuff of National Public Radio specials and business school curriculums. But the book is more than clever cheerleading for corporate capitalism in the 21st century. The World Is Flat has an ideological subtext. Friedman’s take-home message is that this “flat world” is the best and only of all possible worlds…and the world that must be sustained and defended.
The Contours of the World
The incredible hype surrounding this book is understandable given the scale and temerity of Thomas Friedman’s ambition.
We live in a world of enormous inequalities: the rich countries have 20 percent of the world’s people but 80 percent of its gross domestic product (or income), while the 20 percent living in the poorest countries have 3 percent of world income. This is a world that is stalked by disease, malnutrition, and life-destroying poverty: some 2.6 billion people, about 40 percent of the world’s population, live on less than $2 a day, and 850 million suffer from hunger and malnutrition.1 This is a world in which thousands of lives can be mangled by a single computer keystroke taken in electronic trading rooms, as globe-straddling investors shift capital from one profit-opportunity to another.
If we had the capacity to look at planet Earth from above with the aid of an economic and social telescope, we would find a landscape marked by staggeringly high peaks of controlling wealth and power, by vast valleys of exploited and impoverished humanity, by a deep fault-line between rich oppressor and poor oppressed nations, and by cruel geographies of uneven and unequal development. We would see rivers of blood and bone-littered canyons carved out by colonial conquests and annexations, imperialist interventions, two inter-imperialist world wars, and imperialist-sponsored proxy wars in places like Africa.
But seated in the business class of his analytical jetliner, Thomas Friedman does not see these inequalities and horrors. He gazes out at this same world and declares, like a conjuror, that it is flat.
What Is the “Flat World”?
Now when Friedman says the world is flat, what he means is that the world economy is fast becoming a “level playing field” in which opportunities are converging. Friedman’s book is basically a theorization of how this “level playing field” came about, what its implications are, and how it might further develop.
Friedman points to several related factors that have produced his “flat world.” He discusses “networked” production and trade. Companies do less and less “in-house” and on their home shores. They carry on “offshore production” in affiliates and subsidiaries and outsource to subcontractors in many different countries around the world. Friedman alleges that this global dispersion and scattering, this creation and management of “global supply chains,” is bringing down the “vertical” walls (like protectionist policies) of national-states and indeed undermining the dominance of national states.
Another factor he cites: the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the capitalist restructuring of China (along with the further “opening” of India’s economy and other parts of the Third World) have brought huge populations into a single global marketplace.
Most importantly in Friedman’s account: new “technological platforms” associated with computer, Internet, search engine, and wireless technology now allow entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs to enter the global market from anywhere in the world.
According to Friedman, this new globalized economics is “flattening” the world, connecting people to one another in entirely new ways. Central to Friedman’s whole account is that this process of global flattening, as it further develops, will be increasingly driven by individuals. This is a world, as Friedman presents it, of interconnected individuals—collaborating and competing individuals. Those who think big and jump at opportunity will, he says, become winners.
What Is Wrong With This Picture?
There is so much that is wrong, so much that is missing, from this picture.
1) In Friedman’s “flat-world,” the powerful, monopolistic transnational corporations and banks that dominate world trade and investment have somehow receded into the shadows and unbundled themselves. In fact, the 300 largest capitalist firms in the world control about 25 percent of the world’s productive assets. Of the 500 largest corporations in the world, 95 percent are based in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.2
Monopoly Capital and Class Domination
What Friedman obscures is that in almost every sector of the world economy, huge agglomerations of capital, in alliance and principally in competition with each other, are shaping and dominating new structures of production and management. They are driving the “outsourcing” and “networking,” the ways in which “work flows” are organized, and the sophisticated logistics systems that Friedman sees as “empowering” of individuals. It is these firms that are the “system integrators,” playing suppliers off against each other and squeezing labor costs to the minimum all the way down their “supply chains” as they seek to expand and penetrate markets.
With his template of the (entrepreneurial) individual, Friedman blots out the hierarchies of capitalist class domination and class exploitation. It’s truly amazing. When Friedman talks about the Dell “supply chain,” he takes the reader on a breathless ride through several countries, most in the Third World, as an order is filled and a computer put together—but, strangely, there are no workers, there is no labor, and there is no exploitation.
2) In the “flat world,” there are no imperialist and neocolonial states. Products, services, finance, and ideas just seem to flow effortlessly in Friedman’s increasingly “frictionless” world. Power relations seem to vanish.
The Imperialist State
In fact, the imperialist nation-state functions as the main support for imperialist capital— which operates on an international level but which remains rooted in distinct national markets. This state support takes the form of subsidies, rescue operations, fiscal and monetary policies, etc., and the guarantee of “law and order.” The imperialist state protects and enforces the global framework within which the process of capitalist accumulation takes place. The state does this through political and diplomatic means (negotiating trade agreements, for instance), by deploying a large arsenal of economic weaponry involving state agencies like the Treasury Department and the Agency for International Development, and through military basing, military pressures, and military interventions.
In the imperialist era, accumulation-which is the production of profit and more profit on the basis of the exploitation of wage labor—proceeds through competition and rivalry: among corporations, banks, financial groups, etc., and, most sharply, among national imperialist states. And in response to strategic necessity and opportunity, imperial powers have at certain historical junctures set out to forcibly recast that global framework.
The United States is certainly the major economic power in the world. But it is not only that. It is a military colossus. It spends some $400 billion a year on military expenditures. It has 700 military bases girdling the globe. It has carried out countless interventions and wars of suppression (such as in Vietnam).
Here it must be said that when Friedman talks about the transformative power of new information-communications technologies, how the global market harnesses all of this, and what he calls the “secret sauce” of America’s open capital markets and flexible labor markets, he is being disingenuous with his readers. Back in 1999, he declared: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”3 This is one of the only true statements Thomas Friedman has ever made. Now he chooses to hide that hidden fist from conceptual view.
Imperialism and State Structures in the Third World
Friedman visits Bangalore, the high-tech center in India, where IBM is heavily invested. How does U.S. capital arrive there (or in China for that matter)? And how is it able to operate in an environment favorable to its development? Through the mere workings of an “open global market”? No, U.S. capital passes through the Indian state, which is a dependent client state serving imperialism (although the Indian ruling class has its own regional ambitions). This state guarantees certain wage and labor standards and terms of ownership for foreign capital, as well as the ability of corporations like IBM to repatriate profits back to the home country.
In China, which Friedman regards as a success story of a “flattening world,” the Chinese state has created “export-processing zones” that enable foreign capital to super-exploit Chinese labor—where teenage girls are living in barracks-like conditions and which have gained notoriety as environmental disaster zones in the making.
Throughout the Third World, imperialism structures and props up the neocolonial state: through economic aid, military treaties and assistance, training of technical and administrative personnel, and many other mechanisms. Friedman complains of the state of development and the masses’ hatred towards the West in the Arab world. But he seems to forget that the U.S. government has propped up brutal and oppressive regimes in the Middle East (from the Shah of Iran to the Saudi royal family) to serve its geopolitical interests.
3) In Friedman’s “flat world,” imperialist-led institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank play a minor role. Friedman wants us to believe that “deregulation” and opening of domestic markets to foreign capital and goods, “privatization” of economic activities, and the adoption of “intellectual property rights” standards are all part of an inexorable and natural process of globalizing economics.
The World Bank and IMF as Instruments of Market Restructuring
In fact, the world that Friedman is hailing would not exist were the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) not engaged in the brutal restructuring of Third World economies. By the late 1990s, some 90 Third World countries were subjected to IMF “structural adjustment” programs. Many of these countries had to cut subsidies to the poor for basic necessities like tortillas, cooking oil, and health care as conditions for stretching out repayments of loans and getting new loans.
This very real flattening of social protections has been carried out in the name of “market-efficiency” and is designed precisely to make these economies more hospitable to imperialist investment capital.
India: An Example of What?
Friedman’s journey to India is perhaps his masterstroke of imperial tunnel vision. He sings praises to information-technology companies in Bangalore and the MP3-playing programmers who can speak American slang. He would have us believe that this is India’s wave of the future. But what is the larger reality?
Only a miniscule fraction—1.3 million out of India’s working population of 400 million—is employed in the information and business processing industries. This sector is oriented towards the world market and to the U.S. market in particular. It is a kind of enclave that has limited technological linkages to and employment effects on the rest of India’s economy. And at the same time that this information-knowledge sector has prospered (and, yes, some people are doing very well), facilities for primary education have collapsed in large parts of India—as the Indian state has pressed forward with its program of “market reform.”4
Two-thirds of India’s population lives in the countryside. But Friedman has little to say about the plight of tens of millions of India’s farmers and peasants facing the pressures of the imperialist world market and the penetration of Western agro-business. This translates as low crop prices, heavy debts, and the withdrawal of government supports for small farmers. The situation has grown dire. Between 1993 and 2003, 100,000 farmers committed suicide.5 And during India’s “globalizing decade” of the 1990s, food-grain available per Indian fell almost every year.
A Dangerous Rationalization
The World Is Flat is being widely looked to as a comprehensive, highly readable, up-to-the-minute account of seismic economic trends. For this reason alone it would be important to summarize and answer some of its key theses and mystifications. But there is more at stake.
Friedman is writing mainly for the educated middle classes in the U.S. Many of these readers are anxious and concerned about what the U.S. is doing in the world, and to the world. And this is what makes the work especially poisonous.
Friedman is offering people a comforting narrative and rationalization: a deregulated global capitalism is good for the world and self-correcting.
Towards the end of this sprawling 593-page book, Friedman tersely acknowledges that there is still great poverty in the world. But to people concerned about deprivation, mistreatment of workers, and environmental degradation, Friedman shouts a loud “worry not.”
He advertises efforts by Hewlett-Packard to “lead the way” in establishing labor standards in its supply chains. He heaps praise on McDonalds for its efforts to establish environmentally friendly standards for its food suppliers.6 He assures people that open and competitive markets and the initiatives of Bill Gates will solve the problems of world poverty.
Friedman’s “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”
But there is more. Friedman offers the balm that the world’s economic interconnectedness will create such wealth and common stakes that violent conflicts will disappear. He calls this the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention”: no two countries will go to war if they are both part of the same globalized supply chain. These supply chains, according to Friedman, will make all nations’ economies so locked into and dependent on each other, that they will have no reason to go to war.
Here too, there is so much that is wrong. A supply chain is not a collegial coming together of people in order to share information, technology, and wealth for bettering the world. These chains are built to extract wealth. They are forged and re-forged only insofar as they serve the interests of fiercely competing capitals. Further, these global supply chains, though vast and interconnected, have not merged into a single unit of capital. These chains are part of large, competing agglomerations of capital. They are wielded as weapons in the battle for market share and market control.
And there is more than networked production in the world. Supply chains exist in a geopolitical context. There are contending geoeconomic interests. There are struggles for spheres of geopolitical influence. There is struggle among imperialist states for control over strategic resources. This is part of what is being played out in the Middle East, as the U.S. seeks to establish uncontested hegemony over the region and its oil resources—on which the European and Japanese economies are highly dependent. There is intense jockeying taking place among the major imperialists and regional powers over the Caspian Sea region, home to huge energy reserves.
Cross-country investments and alliances do not obliterate the distinct and contending interests of different national imperialist formations. Just prior to the outbreak of World War 1, there were bourgeois and revisionist Marxist thinkers who were arguing that trade between Germany and England had become too important for the two countries to go to war. (Some years back, Friedman had peddled a similar McDonald’s theory of conflict prevention; as Jeff Faux in a review has pointed out, the war in Yugoslavia, with its many McDonald’s outlets, landed that theory in the dustbin of history.)
What Friedman wants readers to believe is that, left to its own workings and logic, the market imperatives of globalization will lead to progress, wealth, and stability.
An Unacceptable Choice
But with the optimism also comes grim news. Friedman points to forces out there who oppose what he considers to be the life-enhancing, democratizing, and empowering tide of globalization. He lashes out at the progressive anti-globalization movement, which in the late 1990s and early 2000s galvanized tens of thousands and inspired tens of millions around the world as it exposed and opposed the injustices of imperialist globalization.
Friedman discusses other obstacles to unbridled globalization. But right now, he says, the most dangerous enemy to all the promise held out by his mythic globalization is aggressive Islamic fundamentalism.
He analyzes that these Islamic fundamentalist forces (he calls them “Islamo-Leninists” in order to equate this utterly reactionary movement with communism) are resentful of the dynamism and modernity of globalization, able to marshal the passive support of humiliated populations, and have shown themselves adept and unflinching at using new technologies for evil.
What to do? Friedman declares that the U.S. has to lead the way with its “can-do optimism” and with its strength. There is no world government; so, and this is Friedman’s trump card, the U.S. has to play a special role in preserving the “rules of commerce” and the “norms of behavior.” In short, to U.S. imperialism falls a special superpower responsibility.
Up until May of this year, Thomas Friedman was an ardent advocate of another kind of flattening that is taking place in the world: the Bush regime’s bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq. Lately, he seems to have had some reservations about the conduct (not aims) of the U.S. war on Iraq. But in its own perverse way, and against the backdrop of the Bush regime’s “war on the world,” The World Is Flat concentrates a momentous question of our times.
Friedman would have us believe that humanity’s only choice is between imperialist globalization with its advanced technology controlled by and for the benefit of the few, with its sweatshops; with its juggernaut to impose “intellectual property rights” on everything from critical medicines to living organisms; and with its wars…it is either imperialist globalization, or religious fundamentalism, with all that is retrograde and oppressive about that.
Is this the only choice? No, a world without exploitation and oppression, and without ignorance and superstition, a world in which humanity is truly emancipated, is necessary and possible. What stands in the way is the system of world capitalism.
1. Data from United Nations, Human Development Report, 2005. back
2. Data from Medard Gabel and Henry Bruner, Global Inc.: An Atlas of the Multinational Corporation (New York: New Press, 2003). back
3. Thomas Friedman, The New York Times Magazine, March 28, 1999. back
4. Pankjaj Mishra, “The Myth of the New India,” The New York Times, July 6, 2006. back
5. Saritha Rai, “India to Import Wheat After a 6-Year Hiatus,” The New York Times, June 30, 2006. back
6. Friedman lauds McDonald’s partnership with Conservation International (p. 381). For an exposure of this dubious and business-oriented “environmental group,” see Aziz Choudry, “Conservation International: Privatizing Nature, Plundering Biodiversity,” [www.grain.org/seedling]. back
Next—Part 2: What Globalization Is and Isn’t, and Why World Development Is Not Converging
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