News & Politics

Sorry, Thomas Friedman, the World Is Round

In an excerpt from the new book, <i>Wolves in Sheep's Clothing</i>, Stephen Marshall takes on liberals like Friedman, who would have you believe that our capitalist system is inherently just and self-regulating when, in reality, it is anything but.
The following is an excerpt from Stephen Marshall's new book, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing: The New Liberal Menace in America.

Now every true revolution has a scribe, someone who is able to channel the zeitgeist into a passionate, living chronicle that fuels the insurgency and propels it to its ultimate historical destiny. The French Revolution had Voltaire, the American had Thomas Paine. For the new capitalist revolution, there is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. I know this because as I walk through the business class cabin of my United Airlines flight, passing all the young legionnaires of the jet-set globalist contingent, I count four copies of his bestselling book, The World Is Flat, and that's just in the first three rows. Seeing the books reminds me that Friedman was the only major figure to refuse my interview request. It's a drag, because there is probably no other liberal who fits the description of a wolf in sheep's clothing than America's preeminent globalization advocate.

Friedman was one of the first A-list liberals to peddle the idea that Iraqis would treat American soldiers as liberators. He believed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein represented the very best aspects of American liberalism. Six months after the invasion -- the same week I was interviewing Sgt. Hollis in Samarra -- Friedman declared, "This is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched -- a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world." Like so many of his other liberal peers, Friedman denied there was economic dimension to the conflict. This war was different from past wars that their generation had protested. "U.S. power is not being used in Iraq for oil, or imperialism, or to shore up a corrupt status quo, as it was in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Arab world during the cold war," wrote Friedman in his column.

And yet, as many Iraqis told me during my time in-country, the imposition of democracy from a foreign power seemed to contradict the very essence of political freedom. Especially when the Americans were doing everything in their power to control the new system. Overwhelmingly, Iraqis seemed to believe that the creation of an authentic democratic structure would mean adoption of Islamic (sharia) law, which a great majority of them want. But for American liberals like Thomas Friedman, sharia represents a major failure; it would mean having spent billions to liberate a society only to see it retreat from the secular freedoms imposed by its former dictator.

To protect itself from this outcome, the United States stacked the newly liberated nation's political deck with as many pro-Western Iraqis as possible. But this only strengthened the convictions of many who saw the invasion and its promise of delivering true freedom as a wedge to open Iraq for U.S. corporate and military goals. A few days before leaving Baghdad, I listened to Rana al Aiouby, a young Iraqi translator, argue over tea with Hesham Barbary, an Egyptian businessman who had come to cash in on the new reconstruction contracts.

"So the Americans came here to save the Iraqi people?" al Aiouby asked incredulously.

"Partially," Barbary replied.

"They didn't come here to help the Iraqis. Everyone knows why the American came here ... because their economic system just collapsed. So they have to help themselves, and even if they'll make a disaster for the others, just, they want to survive. That's it."

Voices like Rana al Aiouby's are not present in Thomas Friedman's real-time history of globalization. They can't be. Prowar liberals like Friedman, architects of the new millennial liberal project, cannot afford to second-guess the motives driving America's War on Terror. From the outset, Friedman believed implicitly that Bush's Iraq War plan was a high-stakes gamble based on ideological motives, "the greatest shake of the dice any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan." Others echoed the sentiment -- "This is Texas Poker," as arch-conservative Robert Novak put it -- pushing the idea that Bush had risked billions of dollars and thousands of lives like some Vegas roller. The analogy is instructive. Who bets the house on an abstraction? No one. So we're to believe that Bush and Cheney went for broke to bring democracy to Iraq? That's insanity. This is an administration so mired in cronyism and conflicts of interest that to believe they would take such a huge bet on a political ideal is delusional. And yet that is exactly what the pro-war liberals have done. The question is: why?

In Friedman's case, I believe it is because he implicitly understands that America is facing an insurmountable challenge to its global economic hegemony. His research for The World Is Flat brought him around the world to investigate the new paradigm emerging in transnational business. What he finds is that the old vertical ("command and control") systems are being replaced by horizontal ("connect and collaborate") ones and, in the process, blowing away walls and ceilings that were once integral to the rigid hierarchical structure of global commerce. He first made this discovery in Bangalore, India, where menial data entry and phone operator jobs in the accounting and banking fields are now being performed by English-speaking workers. This has been going on for years but, as Friedman explains, he was too busy covering the War on Terror to notice. It's not until Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys -- India's equivalent to Microsoft -- tells him "the playing field is being leveled," that Friedman realizes what he has stumbled upon.

Over and over again he exclaims: the world is flat, the world is flat, the world is flat! Capitalism is undergoing its new revolution, one that will be as transformative as "Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, the rise of the nation-state, or the Industrial Revolution."

But, like all revolutions, this one will have its winners and losers. Of the former, most obvious are corporate CEOs who will fatten their bottom line by tapping into the vast reservoir of cheap foreign labor. On the other side is Joe Six Pack, who will suffer from a net loss in American jobs. Much of the success of Friedman's book lies in his dire warnings to Americans that they are on the verge of a major crisis. Not only are hard-working, low-wage Indian workers stealing their jobs, but hard-working, tech-savvy Chinese students are increasingly taking seats in top undergrad and graduate college programs. And, Friedman frets, if America doesn't wake up, it will face a potentially disastrous decline: Or, as Infosys's CEO Nilekani later explains, the American middle class "has not yet grasped the competitive intensity of the future. Unless they [do], they will not make the investments in reskilling themselves, and you will end up with a lot of people stranded on an island."

So what does his support of the invasion of Iraq have to do with his The World Is Flat thesis? Everything. Like any good writer, Friedman understands that America loves a disaster movie, but only if it has a happy ending. So while the outlook may be grim for average workers, he is careful to paint a picture that is ultimately reassuring. The coming storm, he explains, will catalyze the transformation of America. "Each of us as an individual, will have to work a little harder and run a little faster to keep our standard of living rising." But this is never applied to the realm of U.S. foreign policy and how it might be shaped by these new threats to U.S. supremacy. Instead, a sort of delusional picture of globalization is presented, one in which the government plays no role whatsoever. And in this omission, in his obscuring of such an obvious force in world finance, we are given a hint at the lengths to which Friedman will go to deny the truth. Placing his Iraq coverage side by side with The World Is Flat, the message is that government is driven by a mission to liberate and democratize the world, the vast majority of whom will, like the post-Saddam Iraqis, joyfully embrace American-style capitalism. Not only is this a verifiably distorted vision of reality, it is a dangerous one. Because it keeps the millions of readers who bought Friedman's book from understanding why so much of the world has turned against America. And how dire the consequences of this ignorance will prove to be.

Pox Americana

Slipping into my window seat, I smile to myself. There, in the adjacent seat pocket, with a gold sticker shouting its status as "the bestselling nonfiction book in the world today," is another copy of The World Is Flat. I nod hello to the young female executive sitting next to me and pull out the book I have brought along. It's a thin essay by the 75-year-old Marxist intellectual Samir Amin that issues its own grim warnings about the future of our globalized world. Titled The Liberal Virus: Permanent War and the Americanization of the World, the cover photo shows a Chinese kid dressed in army fatigues, standing on the Wall of China holding a Coke can.

If Thomas Friedman is the prophet of 21st century capitalism, then Samir Amin is his anti-Christ. But to hear Amin tell it, Friedman is the only one leading humankind into the depths of Hell. Writing from Dakar, Senegal, where he runs the Third World Forum, Amin's thesis is essentially that liberalism, if allowed to continue on its path of creative destruction, will lead to an apocalyptic end. He likens the globalizing force of liberalism to a virus that has destroyed all ideological competitors and that is now making its final assault on its host species. According to Amin, the ethic of liberalism -- "Long live competition, may the strong win" -- is now ravaging societies of the Third World, causing further "social alienation and pauperization of urban classes."

It's nothing new from the far, far left. There are shelves full of books by anti-globalization writers from the developing world. What made me pick up Samir Amin's essay, though, was the striking specificity of his warning. In Liberal Virus, he argues that liberalism's most decisive effect will be to divide the world into an apartheid system that sees 3 billion peasant farmers pushed from their land and forced into the cities where they will die. This, he explains, will result from the implementation of a 2001 World Trade Organization (WTO) mandate that all agricultural markets be opened to the expansion of commercial agribusiness producers. Without the ability to make a subsistence living from their own land, half the world's population will have to migrate to the urban centers where there is no work for them. And thus, he concludes, they will be trapped in an "organized system of apartheid" on a global scale.

"What is going to become of these billions of human beings, already for the most part, the poor among the poor?" Amin asks. You don't have to be a red-blooded socialist to intuit his answer. "Capitalism," he concludes, "has become barbaric, directly calling for genocide." In this drive to satisfy the insatiable hunger for new markets of its Western clients, the WTO is sanctioning a process that will "destroy -- in human terms -- entire societies." Writing in a style that starkly contradicts Friedman's cheery cartoon of the flat world, Amin paints an ominous image of capitalism as a force that is in constant need to consume itself and the communities that lie in its path. Through his eyes, the agents of globalization bear an eerie resemblance to the Borg that battle Star Trek's Jean Luc Picard and his Enterprise crew. American liberalism echoes the Borg with the claim that it only seeks to "improve the quality of life for all species" through the spread of democracy while simultaneously warning the world that "resistance is futile -- you will be assimilated." But that is not to say Amin views liberalism as the victor. Rather, he describes it as a "senile system" that ultimately cannot stop the horror of its destiny.

Again, it isn't hard to find doomsday prophecies about the evils of capitalism. But what is interesting about Amin's book is that he offers an explanation for the phenomenal success of Friedman's ideas. Expanding his metaphor, Amin describes the liberal virus as one that "pollutes contemporary social thought and eliminates the capacity to understand the world, let alone transform it." So there is a kind of delusional episode occurring within the mass American psyche, one that has obscured what Amin terms "really existing capitalism" and replaced it with a fictitious model based on an "imaginary capitalism." According to Amin, liberals like Thomas Friedman conjure the illusion of a system that is inherently just and self-regulating while, in reality, it only creates permanent instability and requires constant intervention and protection by the armored shield of the state. "The globalized 'liberal' economic order," he writes, "requires permanent war -- military interventions endlessly succeeding one another -- as the only means to submit the peoples of the periphery to its demands."

I started reading Amin's book a few weeks after finishing The World Is Flat. And what struck me was that his description of the forces driving globalization was far closer to that of Sgt. Hollis, the tank commander I met in Iraq, than to Thomas Friedman's. What's more, his theory about the impact of the liberal virus on our ability to interpret the world drove me back into Friedman's book, where I found a quote that basically mirrors Amin's. Just before the halfway mark, Friedman writes: "The perspective and predispositions that you carry around in your head are very important in shaping what you see and what you don't see." Of course, he's not applying this to himself. Rather, it's a blunt critique of the fearful, knee-jerk reactions that American politicians and union leaders have thrown up to "protect" the U.S. economy from a genuinely "open" market. But the point is that, as we well know, everyone is the captive of their perspective. It frames and defines our worldview. Hence, for Friedman, the liberal business columnist, globalization = good, while for Amin, the African Marxist intellectual, globalization = bad. And for millions of readers who aspire to be a part of the new capitalist revolution, Friedman's vision is far more appealing than Amin's. Who can blame them?

But what if he's wrong? What if Friedman is as short-sighted and ill-informed as the military and government leaders who claimed to have had no forewarning of the Sept. 11 attacks? Beyond the sheer tactical breakdown of that day, much of the blame for the failure rests in a kind of voluntary blindness assumed by a great majority of Americans. It was that myopia that prevented so many brilliant and influential foreign policy analysts, defense experts and journalists from foreseeing the coming threat. And they continued to ignore the messages being sent from the developing world, collectively evading the difficult work of questioning what aspects of American foreign policy might have brought on such an attack, even after thousands of Mexican soccer fans chanted "Osama" at a post-9/11 match against the United States. Proving how little he has learned from his worldly travels, Friedman repeats the hollow mantra in his book, describing the terrorists as "angry, frustrated and humiliated men and women." And not far behind them, in his estimation, are the anti-globalization protesters -- comprised mostly of Trotskyites, anarchists and old hippies -- who are influenced by a heavy dose of anti-Americanism and defined by their denial of the inevitable triumph of flatness, arguing over the moot point of "whether we globalize." Naturally, Samir Amin is one of these people.

And herein lies the most troubling aspect of Friedman's popularity. He, and his readers, assume that anyone who opposes globalization from the side of the developing world -- either violently or ideologically -- is driven by a deep sense of shame at their poverty and inability to keep up with the West. But, at least as it applies to Samir Amin, nothing could be further from the truth. What Amin is articulating is a detailed warning about the same globalized world for which Friedman is such a wide-eyed proponent. But Friedman, and the millions who buy his books, is immune to it, because from his perspective, the forces of liberalism have only left enriched and industrialized societies in their wake. And this is precisely the kind of shortsightedness that crippled the West's ability to understand, or indeed prevent, the 9/11 attacks. In the somber days after al Qaeda hit New York and Washington, D.C., Americans like Friedman were unwilling to identify the causal forces that had inspired the terrorists. "Why do they hate us?" Friedman rhetorically asked in his column. Because of our freedom, he answered. Because, the liberal answered, we are liberals.

It would be easy to attribute Friedman's blockbuster sales to his orgiastic, gee-whiz, look-ma-no-hands celebration of all things corporate -- he never fails to name-drop his favorite brand names, from eating a Cinnabon while waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight on the way to see his daughter at Yale to the 3M logo'd cap being worn by the caddy of an Indian executive who uses a distant HP skyscraper as a tee-off marker. Or to the fact that it is easy and very profitable to scare the shit out of an entire generation of Baby Boomers by essentially telling them their kids are in a neck-and-neck race to the top of the global food chain and, guess what, they're losing. In those respects, the book is a brilliant and well-conceived product. But I believe there is a much deeper significance to Friedman's success. And it has to do with the fact that America has reached a stage in its quest for global dominance in which it has no choice but to aggressively and openly tap these impoverished countries for cheap labor. And Thomas Friedman has come to put a lipstick smile on that old, twisted visage.

Scribbling notes on a drink coaster as the plane climbs past 10,000 feet, I think of Thomas Friedman writing his book in his own spacious business class seat on Lufthansa. Looking out of my window, I suddenly realize how he came so easily to his revelation. There, below me, the dark blue Atlantic Ocean stretches west for 1,000 miles and darned if it doesn't look flat. I wonder how much of Friedman's worldview has been shaped by the rarefied company of billionaire CEOs he keeps. Perhaps he has fooled himself into thinking that the invisible hand of liberal economics still softens to caress the weary shoulders of the poor, offering the opportunity for all people to reach the heights of corporate domination. We'll never know. What we do know is that it's been a long time since the champions of free market capitalism pretended to have any priority other than their quarterly profits and year-end bonuses. Of course, many of them have started making noises about the environment and poverty, but never in a way that will actually bring them to analyze root causes of these global ills. Until that happens, we can assume that it's mostly PR. And in this regard, Friedman plays a very important role as a kind of useful idiot. If capitalism is the sport of wolves, then the kind of happy-go-lucky globalization heralded by Thomas Friedman is the sheep's clothing. It's a sheath to cover the glint of their blade.

Copyright © 2007 Stephen Marshall from the book Wolves in Sheep's Clothing by Stephen Marshall. Published by The Disinformation Company, Ltd.; April 2007;$16.95US; 978-1932857-42-9
Stephen Marshall is a writer and award-winning filmmaker. A founder of Guerrilla News Network, he is co-author of the book True Lies (Plume) with GNN colleague Anthony Lappé. He is the director of the feature film This Revolution, documentary features such as Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge, and controversial, politicized music videos for the Beastie Boys, Eminem and 50 Cent. Over the span of his career, he has traveled and worked in more than 80 countries. He lives in New York City. Visit www.wolvesbook.com.