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Why the world looks flat to Thomas Friedman

Review by Elizabeth Terzakis | October 28, 2005 | Page 8

Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 488 pages, $27.50.

ABOUT 50 pages into The World Is Flat, you start to wonder how New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman found the time to write so much about so little. Surely his usual activities as a mouthpiece for the Pentagon and corporate America --playing free-trade apologist for global sweatshops, promoting U.S. imperialism, hypocritically calling for fatwas from Arab leaders between Islamophobic rants--leaves him too busy to natter on for hundreds of pages about nothing.

You would think. Tortuously, you would be wrong.

Thomas Friedman has had an epiphany. He has discovered the Internet. He has found a ruling metaphor. He has places to go, rich people to kiss up to, poor people to ignore. He has something to say, and he will not rest until he has said it over and over and over again, using the same set-up question--Where were you when you discovered the world was flat?--until you want to send him to the dictionary to discover the meanings of the words "gimmick" and "annoying."

Where were you when you discovered that the gap between rich and poor was growing, both within and between countries? Wherever it was, Friedman hasn't been there. Or if he has, he was too busy chanting, "Ricardo was right! Ricardo was right!" (which he actually does, during a moment of doubt over the impacts of outsourcing on American workers) to recognize the dynamic of global capitalism: that the phenomenal wealth of some is the direct result of the vicious impoverishment of others.

David Ricardo, the 19th century capitalist economist, argued that free trade would benefit all nations, eventually. But not all individuals. Not to worry. Friedman has something to say about this too, and he doesn't even have to give up his metaphor. It will no longer make any sense, of course, but it is clear by the middle of the book that, for Friedman, rationalizing injustice takes precedence over making sense.

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ABOUT 350 pages into Flat, Friedman admits that the title is a misnomer: The world is not, actually, flat--not yet, anyway. Matter of fact, says Friedman, there are two worlds--a flat world made up of professionals and the ruling class where everything is clean and bright and shining and zinging without friction through fiber optic cables, and an "unflat" world where working-class people and the poor live in circumstances ranging from quiet desperation to downright squalor.

It is only by bracketing this unsightly "unflatness" that Friedman can claim that free-market capitalism has entered into a brave new world of horizontal rather than hierarchical power structures, of collaboration rather than competition.
Digital commerce, says Friedman, has undermined the significance of time and space, of wealth and poverty. Bill Gates, as quoted in Flat, takes this absurdity to its illogical extreme: "The kid who is connected to the Internet is as [empowered] as me."

Well, now. I thought Gates got his power from capitalizing on other people's ideas, exploiting his workers and monopolizing the computer industry. When all this time it was as simple as logging on. Golly. I guess some people just are smarter.

And yet, somehow, as even Gates admits, there is hunger amidst all this wonder. "Yes," Friedman agrees, "the middle and upper classes are taking off, but the 700 million who are left behind [in India alone], all they see is gloom and darkness and despair [sic]."

Friedman offers up two equally improbable explanations for these pockets of stubborn unflatness. One is that the impoverished themselves are responsible for their own "gloom and darkness and despair," largely due to a lack of character, whether national or individual. The other is that the newly minted, technologically driven international ruling class just needs to hone its skills when it comes to paying fair wages and providing adequate benefits.

This means that Wal-Mart workers, according to Friedman, need to stop complaining about discrimination against women, being locked into the stores at night and receiving no overtime pay and just start up their own clever little businesses in their own snug little houses. All they have to do is think flatter--think flatter, work harder, study longer. Oh, and buy houses.

This means that Wal-Mart--sued by the state of Oregon for paying its workers so poorly they are forced to rely on public aid--is simply "not as good at" treating workers fairly as it is at perfecting its supply chain. Whoops. Because Wal-Mart's hyper-exploitation of its workforce is just a temporary oversight, Friedman believes that the bad publicity generated by these practices will discipline the retail behemoth into making changes for the better.

After a while, this out-of-touchness gets irritating. Even more irritating--and no less out-of-touch--are Friedman's oddly naïve and excruciatingly detailed explanations of Internet services (eBay! PayPal! Google!) that seem to produce within him a sense of wonder reminiscent of George Bush I's first encounter with a bar code scanner in a supermarket some 10 years after said scanners were introduced.

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FRIEDMAN'S FAITH in the flatness of power rests awkwardly--one might even say unflatly--on the history of U.S. imperialist adventures in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America. He seems to have forgotten his own claim in 1998 that McDonald's "cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas."

In all of its almost 500 pages, Flat never once mentions the role of the U.S. military in ensuring that poor people all over the world are "too sick," "too disempowered" and "too frustrated" to be "flat." Not once.

Rather than talk about U.S. imperialism and its pernicious effect on the "flatness" of Baghdad, Friedman blames terrorists with "unflat" minds while recycling racist stereotypes about Arabs, Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, African Americans and Native Americans.

He does provide an explanation for this omission: Flat is, according to its subtitle, "a brief history of the twenty-first century." This allows him to pin any vestigial defects in the capitalist system on George W. Bush as the feckless leader of the "free" "flat" world.

The problem, according to Friedman, is that, since 9/11--now apparently the beginning of history--the U.S. has been "exporting fear" instead of hope. As if preceding administrations from Kennedy to Clinton hadn't done a splendid job of exporting fear in the form of the war in Vietnam or the decade-long sanctions against Iraq that killed more than half a million children.

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IF FRIEDMAN is right about one thing (and I read the whole book just in case), it is about the wonders of (some) technology.

It is wonderful whenever tedious, awful work can be done by machines rather than by people--as long as those people are not forced to starve as a consequence. If Wal-Mart's distribution methods could save one person from performing a manual inventory and guarantee that person a living wage, we would indeed enter a brave new world.

Marx's conclusion that, ultimately, the capitalist mode of distribution would hold back the possibilities of cooperative production is also demonstrated by Friedman's chapter on open source software. If engineers are willing to innovate for free, Friedman asks, how will capitalists amass capital to invest in further innovation? If engineers are willing to innovate for free, one might respond, why don't the capitalists just go home? Unfortunately, they won't go home unless we make them.

Fortunately, the working class is not as easily bracketed as Friedman would like. Lenin (who Friedman misrepresents completely) (of course) pointed out long ago that the global spread of capitalism would both progressively enslave and progressively empower the international working class--and not only or even primarily by providing them with Internet connections.

If Friedman thinks that the working class in Asia or anywhere else will settle for quiet desperation or downright squalor over the long term, or that they will be willing to wait indefinitely for corporations to "get better" at justice, he should direct his attention to China's Zhejiang province where workers blockaded the Tian Neng Battery Factory to publicize concerns about high levels of lead in their children's blood.

He should take a look at the Wal-Mart workers who realize, even if he doesn't, that the only way they are going to get decent pay and benefits out of the Walton family is by organizing a union.
The bottom line: if you have nothing better to do and are short on ways to demonstrate how out of touch with reality the U.S. ruling class is, read this book. But if you really want to know what is going on in the world, read Arundhati Roy's Power Politics or Doug Henwood's After the New Economy or Alfred Molano's Stories of the Dispossessed.

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