The Anti-Thomas Friedman Page

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Posted by Sadie from D007232.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Monday, August 25, 2003 at 10:55AM :

More evidence that Friedman is a dirty, stinky rat!
Thomas Friedman is the international affairs columnist for the New York Times. His best-selling book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (hereafter LOT), has been hailed as "A brilliant guidebook to the new world of 'globalization'". Friedman is frequently mistaken for an authority on globalization.

Friedman has been among the most outspoken critics of the new social movements which have arisen to challenge neoliberal globalization, and which had their coming out party in Seattle in November-December, 1999. In a column entitled Senseless in Seattle (NYT 12/1/1999), Friedman called the protesters "ridiculous," "crazy," "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix", who if they only "stopped yapping" long enough to think "would realize that they have been duped by knaves like Pat Buchanan". And, as subsequent protests have occurred in Washington, Prague, Davos, Quebec, and elsewhere, Friedman has continued to heap calumny upon those refusing to consent to the globalization of neoliberal capitalism.

This page is dedicated to demonstrating that Friedman's understanding of globalization is in fact extremely narrow, one-sided and misleading. His frequent and vociferous denunciations of those protesting against neoliberal globalization, and the arguments which Friedman advances in his book, are singularly ill-informed, poorly reasoned and, in many cases, demonstrably false.

For starters, Friedman's book avoids contact with evidence or analysis as if these carried the Ebola virus. Readers may search in vain for a footnote, table, or chart; and there is no engagement with the vibrant scholarly literature on globalization. Instead, facile metaphors and platitudes are piled relentlessly one on top of the other, illustrated with anecdotes from Friedman's travels amongst the world's rich and powerful and (no kidding) corporate commercial advertisements.

"The reader will notice that I quote a great deal from two outside sources. One is The Economist, which has been far, far ahead of every other news organization in understanding and reporting on globalization [here the reader may also notice the heavy ideological baggage with which The Economist's "understanding" of globalization is freighted]. The other is ads from Madison Avenue. For some reason [!], advertising copywriters have a tremendous insight into globalization, and I have not hesitated to draw on their work" (LOT, p. 381).

Friedman here affects bafflement as to why his views of globalization should correspond so closely to those of corporate advertisers. Perhaps advertisers have some extraordinary intuitive understanding, some inscrutable knowledge of globalization, which then finds its validation through the objective labors of the professional journalist. Or perhaps the explanation for this coincidence is much less mysterious than Friedman would care to admit; perhaps they're both expressions of the same class-based world view.

Friedman's acknowledgements read like a who's who of global capitalism; there he makes explicit his intellectual debts to Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin of the US Treasury, the super-human Alan Greenspan, James Wolfensohn of the World Bank, Klaus Schwab and Claude Smadja of the fabulous World Economic Forum, the editor of Foreign Affairs, as well as various corporate honchos and financial heavy-hitters (LOT, pp. 379-81). With remarkably little self-consciousness, Friedman comes close to acknowledging the one-sidedness of his sources and the effect which their market-centered world-view has had upon the way he conceives the practice of journalism: he refers to international hedge fund managers as his "best intellectual sources" and happily describes his own enterprise as that of "information arbitrage" (LOT, pp. 21-2).

Not surprisingly, then, Friedman's book is uncritical toward globalizing capitalism in general, and passionately embraces the interests of investors in particular - i.e., those interests most closely associated with the agenda of neoliberalism - which Friedman represents as avatars of a universal interest in freedom, progress and prosperity: "A fundamental truth about globalization" is that it "emerges from below, from street level, from people's very souls and from their very deepest aspirations. Yes, globalization is the product of the democratizations of finance, technology, and information, but what is driving all three of these is the basic human desire for a better life - a life with more choices as to what to eat, what to wear, where to live, where to travel, how to work, what to read, what to write and what to learn" (LOT, p. 285).

Friedman believes that advances in information technology and new financial vehicles and practices - the forces he believes are driving globalization - have combined to make globalizing capitalism egalitarian and democratic: "For the first time in American history both Joe Six-pack and Billionaire Bob are watching CNBC to see how their shares in the market are faring" (LOT, p. 105). This kind of thinking leads Friedman into the most bizarre hallucinations: "Soon everyone will have a virtual seat on the New York Stock Exchange" (LOT, p. 58).

Friedman's flights of fantasy notwithstanding, the ownership of wealth in the USA is more unequal than at any time since the late 1920s. According to Federal Reserve data for 1998, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans owned over 82 percent of stock and 86 percent of bonds owned by individuals (including indirect ownership through mutual funds), as well as 91 percent of business assets. And ownership of these financial and business assets is even more disproportionately concentrated in the stratospheric regions inhabited by the wealthiest half of one percent of the population, who owned over 31 percent of stocks, almost 32 percent of bonds, and almost 55 percent of business assets. Happy news, perhaps, for an information arbitrageur and his "best intellectual sources"; but hardly a liquidation of class-based inequalities of wealth and their attendant differentials of social power. Likewise on a global scale inequalities continue to mount as the neoliberal project has unfolded: according to the UN Development Program, in 1997 the 20 percent of the world's people living in the wealthiest countries received 74 times as much income as the 20 percent in the poorest countries; up from a ratio of 60 to 1 in 1990, and 30 to 1 in 1960. Only in Friedman's imagination is globalizing capitalism egalitarian or democratic.

At times, Friedman seems almost to glimpse the anti-democratic implications of the developments he is describing. Almost; but not quite. For example, in a world of globalizing finance and electronic tranfer of funds, Friedman admits, governments are increasingly obliged to weigh carefully their social, fiscal, and monetary policies against the interests of investors who may exit en masse in response to expectations of lower relative interest rates, higher relative inflation rates, or currency depreciation. In Friedman's words, "[government's] main job these days is enticing the Electronic Herd and Supermarkets to invest in their states, doing whatever it takes to keep them there and constantly living in dread that they will leave" (LOT, p. 116). Attracting investors requires adoption of the neoliberal policy package - fiscal and monetary austerity, de-regulation and privatization, openness to international trade and investment - to which Friedman (in one of his many capitalized and cartoonish neologisms) refers as the "Golden Straightjacket".

"Once your country puts on the Golden Straightjacket, its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke - to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, slight alterations in design to account for local traditions, some loosening here or there, but never any major deviation from the core golden rules. Governments ... which deviate too far from the core rules will see their investors stampede away, interest rates rise and stock market valuations fall" (LOT, p. 87-8).

The democratization and enhancement of liberty which Friedman imputes to globalizing capitalism then appears to boil down to an enforced constriction of political horizons such that the most we could hope for would be a choice between Pepsi or Coke. Friedman, however, seems oblivious to the enormity of this irony.

Furthermore, Friedman is eager to authorize the use of US power - including military force - to support this anti-democratic world order. "The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist ... And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps." (LOT, p. 373). In Friedman's twisted world, if people are to realize their deepest aspirations - the longing for a better life which comes from their very souls - they must stare down the barrel of Uncle Sam's gun.

The one-sidedness of Friedman's understanding of globalizing capitalism makes it difficult for him to grasp the arguments of critics and protestors who appear to him either ignorant and irrational, or duplicitous and malevolent:

"this anti-globalization movement is largely the well intentioned but ill informed being led around by the ill intentioned and well informed (protectionist unions and anarchists)" (NYT, 4/24/2001)

"The economic quacks peddling conspiracy theories about globalization; the anti-free-trade extremists, such as Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen; the protectionist trade unions; and the anarchists. These groups deserve to be called by their real name: 'The Coalition to Keep the World's Poor People Poor.' " (NYT, 4/14/2000).

"they offer the third world no coherent plan for how to develop and preserve the environment. Their only plan is that developing countries stop developing." (NYT 4/14/2000)

Here Friedman's assertions imply a chain of reasoning which looks something like this: (1) neoliberalism is the only possible form of globalization; (2) globalization promotes economic growth; and (3) economic growth and trickle-down is the only thing which will help the world's poor. Therefore, we are expected to conclude, neoliberalism is the best friend the world's poor ever had, and anyone who opposes neoliberalism is in effect promoting global poverty! Each link is this implicit argument is deeply problematic. (1) While beloved of the champions of neoliberalism, Margaret Thatcher's slogan, "There Is No Alternative" (TINA), is simply false, as you will see below on this page. (2) The claim that neoliberal globalization promotes growth is dubious. And (3) we have seen above how neoliberal globalization has been accompanied by manifold increases in inequality. Further, even within the world bank there has been controversy over whether economic growth is sufficient to reduce global poverty.

From the perspective of an information arbitrageur, however, questioning the intensification and institutionalization of neoliberal capitalism makes you a backward-looking Bolshevik:

"too many unions and activists want the quick fix for globalization: just throw up some walls and tell everyone else how to live. There was a country that tried that. It guaranteed everyone's job, maintained a protected market and told everyone else how to live. It was called the Soviet Union. Didn't work out so well." (NYT 12/8/99)

"People can talk about alternatives to the free-market and global integration, they can demand alternatives, they can insist on a 'third way,' but for now none is apparent" (LOT, p. 85).

That no alternative is apparent to Friedman and his "intellectual sources" should not be taken to mean that there are none worthy of discussion. Indeed, ongoing transnational dialogues among activist groups, non-governmental organizations, and other elements of an emerging global civil society have generated some remarkable proposals for a more sustainable, egalitarian, and democratic world. For example, the Peoples Hemispheric Agreement of 1998 was drafted by coalitions from Canada, Quebec, Chile, Mexico, and the USA, and reflected previous negotiations among groups from throughout the hemisphere, eventually coming together to form the Hemispheric Social Alliance. The HSA's most recent discussion draft, entitled Alternatives for the Americas, is available from the Alliance for Responsible Trade. On a more ambitious global scale, similar kinds of multilateral proposals have been integrated into the Global Sustainable Development Resolution, which declares as its overriding purpose that "the people of the United States and the people and governments of the other nations of the world should take actions to establish democratic control over the global economy". While the distinction appears to have eluded Friedman, it is nonetheless important to note that the political programs of transnational solidarity and democratization which these documents embody are as different from Buchaninite nationalism and protectionism (premised on the scapegoating of "foreigners") as it is possible to get. Friedman is doubly mistaken here: he is wrong when he says that there is no alternative and he is wrong when he claims that the agenda of critics and protestors is xenophobic and protectionist.

There are indeed meaningful alternatives to the world inhabited by Thomas Friedman and his friends.

Postscript: As of April 2002, Thomas Friedman has won three (count 'em; he does) Pulitzer Prizes. It may then be reasonable to infer that much of modern mainstream American journalism aspires to the level of insight and wisdom he displays.

-- Sadie
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