Tom Frank article in Salon

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Thu Oct 26 12:30:29 PDT 2000

Michael Pollak wrote:

>BTW, does anyone have a copy handy of that great article Tom Frank wrote
>on Thomas Friedman in Le Monde Diplomatique?

Le Monde Diplomatique - July 1999


Creation myth of the "geo-architect

------------------------------------------------------------------------ Books celebrating the current economic system and the growing power of the markets are on the increase. Rarely however have their authors shown as much zeal as Thomas Friedman, one of the New York Times' star writers. Apart from its impact, his book expresses in an almost emblematic way the thinking of the American ruling classes. As well as that of economic and political leaders elsewhere who dream of imitating the US. by THOMAS C FRANK ------------------------------------------------------------------------

By now most readers have heard of globalisation and have understood that it means something familiar: "capitalism or else." Oh, but it is so much more than just that, declares Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. His goal in his much-celebrated and best-selling book The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1) is not to describe globalisation for us but to help us to understand it. By this he apparently means hammering into our heads the notion that globalisation is the end object of human civilisation, that globalisation is loveable and trustworthy, that globalisation will make us rich, set us free, and generally elevate everything and everyone everywhere.

In recent years cosmic optimism of this sort has become familiar stuff, something we have grown used to hearing not only from superstar journalists but also from CEOs, stock market analysts, politicians, economists, TV commercials, preachers, and even pop stars. It is very much the official American faith of the last ten years. Even so, Friedman's contribution to the subject stands out. After all, he is among the most respected foreign-affairs commentators in the US, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer prize, and once so close to the head of the foreign policy establishment that the American weekly The New Republic described him years ago as a functionary of the "James Baker ministry of information". His contribution to the subject of globalisation can be expected to hew close to official wisdom. What will surprise readers of The Lexus and the Olive Tree is the massive escalation of rhetoric in which that official wisdom is expressed, a tone of arrogance so grandiose that one suspects the author has taken leave of his senses.

The book's ostensible subject is predictable enough. Friedman intends to prove that the global triumph of capitalism has brought democracy to the people of the world. He tells us of the "democratisation of technology" in which we all get computers and telephones; he marvels at the "democratisation of finance" in which we all get to invest in everything; he paints for us a miraculous "democratisation of information" in which we get more TV channels than ever before. All of these forces have combined to subvert top-down hierarchies of all kinds, he asserts, whether Soviet, Indonesian, or old-style American corporate. It's not long before he's hailing the Internet as both the most democratic place on earth and the very "model of perfect competition."

Friedman's path is littered, however, with errors of fact and interpretation so utterly obvious that one wonders how they made it past editors at his publishing house, let alone at the New York Times. For example, he repeatedly and mysteriously implies that the welfare state and regulatory policies instituted in the 1930s were in fact somehow brought about by the pressures of the cold war. He incorrectly asserts that "in the old days" foreign securities "were never traded on an open market" while now "you and me and my Aunt Bev" can all buy South American bonds, which of course figures as spectacular evidence of the democratisation of ownership (Friedman has presumably never heard about the infamous Peruvian bonds which were sold to all manner of middle Americans in the 1920s). He erroneously describes Hong Kong and Singapore as being more "democratic" than South Korea. He offhandedly blames the first world war on the intriguing of Austria-Hungary. He devotes an entire chapter to the absurd notion that no two countries in which there are McDonalds restaurants have ever warred with each other.

Error is one thing; deliberate propaganda is quite another. Start with the car and the tree that are counterposed in Friedman's title. These are meant to refer to excellent globalising economic forces on the one hand and foolish, backward regionalism on the other. It's not an original image. One thinks immediately of Benjamin Barber's infinitely more balanced 1995 treatment of the same subject, Jihad vs. McWorld (2), but Friedman gives no sign that he has read Barber's book. Indeed, Friedman gives no sign that he's read any of the sophisticated expressions of doubt about capitalism or globalisation to appear in recent years - for example, the books by John Gray, William Greider or Doug Henwood (3).

Doubt about globalisation is a sentiment he means to crush utterly and so he insists on attributing it exclusively to dictators, bigots, politicians, the French, and other traditional targets of Americanloathing. Under no circumstances can scepticism about markets be permitted a reasonable articulation. This is a millennial work in the fullest sense of the word. The world is changing ever so fast, Friedman tells us in his gawking, wonder-filled style; no, wait, the world has changed - in American barbershops they are now talking about the Thai currency. Individuals everywhere are "super-empowered", the Japanese are building really fine cars with almost no human labour - and it's globalorious! The book's cover says it all, with its raised golden lettering and its picture of orangey dawn breaking over the globey globe, a bit like a popular religious tract. It's Dianetics for the new breed of international profiteers.

One dollar, one vote

Friedman's rhetorical strategy is the literary version of the United States' recent stock-market mania. Like day-traders running up the price of Amazon shares, Friedman has simply identified the various fad ideas of the last ten years and bid them up a little more. Take Friedman on countries other than the US. He repeatedly asks readers to imagine their humiliation at the hands of what he likes to call "the electronic herd", otherwise known as buyers of securities, and invents all manner of pithy putdowns that the "herd" might deliver as it leaves a country in the dust. In one chapter he imagines the nations of the world spread out before him like so many stock listings in the daily newspaper; he recommends that we "buy" some and "sell" others.

Or take his definition of democracy. It is not a thing of citizenship and the common good but a simple matter of money. It is "one dollar, one vote" - a system in which the market and corporate interests rightly and naturally dictate to everyone else. Thus even as Friedman whoops it up for the People, he takes pains to warn us that the real boss, the market, will not tolerate any sort of political activity beyond its very narrow spectrum of permissible beliefs.

No country that wishes to participate in the global gloriosity will be allowed to regulate its markets or provide for its unfortunates beyond what Friedman deems appropriate. Their "political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke - to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy Š but never any major deviation from the core golden rules". He even describes the various punishments that the wrong sort of voting would bring down on a country, as investors "stampede away" and stock markets crash.

Most revealing is Friedman's understanding of the US itself, the country in whose image markets quite naturally wish to remake the world. In a closing chapter he asks us to wonder with him at how "a visionary geo-architect" (ie, God) would go about designing the ultimate nation, how He would insist that it had "the most flexible labour market in the world", how He would ensure that all manner of rebellions and zany lifestyle accessories would be tolerated in the boardroom as the signs of creativity that they are. But also (only a few sentences later) how He would be sure to allow corporate managements to "hire and fire workers with relative ease".

Evidently it is no longer enough to see providence in our "fruited plains" or even to claim, as Rockefeller did, that "God gave me my money". In passages like these Friedman is virtually asking us to imagine God descending from the heavens to draft the script for management, send in the strikebreakers, and make Manpower the fastest-growing employer in the land.

In stylistic terms the book seems to belong to that genre of madly triumphalist TV commercials that the software and brokerage industries have been running in recent years. Not coincidentally, Friedman quotes such commercials throughout his book -not as examples of transparent corporate PR or efforts to sell something, but as particularly compelling, particularly truthful bits of shamanistic soothsaying which he evaluates only by appending his fervent Amens.

Thomas Friedman may write like a TV commercial, but he proudly informs us that he thinks like a "hedge fund manager", one of those high-powered international investment bankers. This is because, as he puts it, he finds it helpful to think about the world in six different "dimensions" while everyone else except for him and his friends, the hedge fund managers, thinks only in five, or four, or three (5). Friedman calls his method of cultural reasoning "arbitrage".

When future students of the 1990s seek to categorise his book they will be tempted to understand it as a contribution to that popular genre of business writing known as "futurism," a literature marked by its wonder-filled talk about the ever-increasing rate of "change"; its ranks of neologisms; its homegrown "metanarratives" destined to replace archaic or pitiful categories like social class; and its telltale charts, purporting to explain geopolitics or management strategies or consumer enthusiasm according to some calculus of pop-psychology categories.

But what Friedman has actually written is a veritable dictionary of the shibboleths of our time, awesome in its inclusiveness. They are all there: enthusiasm for the "rebranding" of Britain, casualbadmouthing of France for its efforts to retain its welfare state, facile equating of Great Society America with the Soviet Union. Each of them is monstrous, foolish, and preposterous in its own way, but thrown together here they make a truly dispiriting impression. I can only compare the sensation of reading The Lexus and the Olive Tree to the first time I heard Newt Gingrich speak publicly and it began to dawn on me that this is what the ruling class calls thinking, that this handful of pathetic, palpably untrue prejudices are all they have to guide them as they shuttle back and forth between the State Department and the big thinktanks, discussing what they mean to do with us and how they plan to dispose of our country.

* Editorial director of the Chicago magazine The Baffler ( and author of The Conquest of Cool (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997)

1. Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalisation, Farrar Strauss and Girouz, New York, 1999, 416 pages, $27.50.

2. Jihad vs. McWorld, Ballantine Books, New York, 1996. 3. John Gray, False Dawn, New Press, New York, 1998; William Greider, One World, Ready or not: the Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997; and Doug Henwood, Wall Street, Verso, London 1997. 4. See Thomas C Frank, "France, an unforgivable exception", Le Monde diplomatique, English Internet edition, April 1998. 5. These "dimensions" are politics, culture, national defence, financial markets, technology and environment.

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