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Issue No. 65 (March 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: Where’s the depth?

Mr. Friedman, meet Michael Hardt, Amy Chua, and Walter Truett Anderson

If you want to know what’s happening in the world politically and economically, there’s no better place to turn than Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (Farrar Straus, 2005).

It is more substantial than a hundred breathless blogs, it is NOT a mere sequel to his 1999 bestseller The Lexus and the Olive Tree (reviewed in Radical Middle #2), and it’s wonderfully written, a perfect balance of the factual and the personal.

Friedman will convince you -- in thunder -- that the world is becoming more transparent and interconnected (“flatter”) by the minute.  At the same time, though, the book lacks a certain depth.

The gathering rage of much of humanity is too glibly written off, pop-psychoanalyzed away. And our positive longings -- for better kinds of democracy, for an end to human suffering, for a realm beyond status-seeking -- are given short shrift.

If “holistic” means connecting the dots, then Friedman’s book is admirably holistic. But if “integral” means identifying all the relevant dots (as well as connecting them all), then Friedman’s book is less than integral -- less than what we need now.

Fortunately, at least four authors have spent the last couple of years identifying and describing the principal dots Friedman misses: Amy Chua, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and Walter Truett Anderson. Add their contributions to Friedman’s and our real problems -- and our soaring possibilities -- will tug at your heart.

The flattening

Increasingly, says Friedman, the world is becoming One. And if we handle the transition right (by no means guaranteed), everyone on Earth will be better off.

The ever-increasing Oneness -- the flattening -- is in some sense out of our hands. It’s a product of 10 more or less technologically determined “forces.” Friedman’s extensive (125 page) description of them is the core of the book, and it is entirely convincing; even if you’re not a high-tech junkie you’ll be gripped by Friedman’s thoroughly informed, first-person, from-the-field type accounts of our “flatteners,” as follows:

#1 -- coming of the IBM personal computer

#2 -- coming of the Netscape web browser

#3 -- development of software programs that would allow computers to commmunicate effortlessly with one another anywhere

#4 -- development of “open-sourcing,” allowing for self-organizing collaborative communities to spring up on the Net

#5 -- outsourcing (certain tasks go elsewhere), given its biggest boost by Indian computer technicians’ hypercompetent & affordable contributions to solving our Y2K computer problems

#6 -- offshoring (whole factories or businesses go elsewhere), given its biggest boost when China joined the World Trade Organization

#7 -- supply-chaining (what Wal-Mart does so well)

#8 -- insourcing (what UPS does so well)

#9 -- in-forming (what Google, Yahoo!, Amazon.com, etc. do for us)

#10 -- coming of wireless technology

Put these flatteners together, says Friedman -- and they are increasingly being put together across the planet -- and you have an essentially new world.

One one level, it’s an exciting new world, increasingly transparent and accessible to all. On another level, though, it’s an increasingly volatile world.

The rich and the poor can see each other all too clearly now. And we are not just making new foreign friends online. We are increasingly competing with our foreign friends for jobs, status, and power.

Up to us

Friedman admits to being a “technological determinist” in the sense that technology determines what’s possible for us. But he goes on to say we have many possibilities in an increasingly flat world -- some benign, some not so benign -- and those we choose are up to us.

The bulk of the book explores our possibilities, and in many ways Friedman is on the side of the radical middle angels. He terms himself a “compassionate flatist,” and his so-called “compassionate flatism” agenda, which he spells out throughout the book (but especially on pp. 280-303), is very similar to what you can find in Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s Radical Center (2001), Matthew Miller’s Two Percent Solution (2003), and my own Radical Middle (2004) (see Five Books That Would Make a Radical Middle Revolution elsewhere on this website).

Some of his proposals -- such as the one for a “grand China-United States Manhattan Project, a crash program to develop clean alternative energies” -- represent the radical middle at its boldest best.

But for all his imagination and compassion and elan, Friedman's portrait of the world we're entering is a lot less attractive than he seems to realize.

Even under the best of circumstances -- even if all the best radical middle proposals for energy independence, health care, education, etc. were voted in by Congress (an inconceivable thought c. 2005) -- we Americans would all be running faster and faster to stay just ahead of the competition from India, and the Indians would be running faster to stay ahead of the Thai competition, and so on down the line.

Do we really want to live this way?  What is the endgame?

Friedman laments the “dirty little secret” that outsourcing is becoming increasingly popular in America not only because of cost considerations, but because foreign workers are often more competent than their American counterparts. Of course they are -- they see themselves as being lower down the totem pole, so they’re motivated to work harder and achieve more. Exhortations and education of American workers won’t change that.

Friedman quotes, approvingly, a businessman who says, “The accountant who wants to stay in business in America will be the one who focuses on designing creative complex strategies, like tax avoidance or tax sheltering.” Is that the sort of thing most of us want to do in life? Or should ever want to do?

Friedman’s explanations for global terror and the “passive support” for terror among seemingly decent people (strewn throughout the book like tics) are all feel-good explanations -- “envy,” fear of “openness,” lack of “dignity,” etc. Those explanations bespeak problems that are relatively easy to fix, e.g. by lowering the unemployment rate in Muslim countries and the developing world. An alternative explanation is that many people don’t like or trust the course the world is on, and “America” is leading the way.

Friedman concedes toward the end of the book that “hundreds of millions” of people around the world may feel alienated by the flat world imperatives as he sees them. Tom, make that billions of people.

To Friedman’s great credit, he notes that there’s a “huge political vacuum” in the world today, and he calls for a new “global populism.” Also to his credit, he does not hand the task of building that populism over to the traditional left (in The Lexus and the Olive Tree he described himself as a social democrat).

But where, then, does an activist turn?

He suggests we begin with “visioning sessions” in developing countries -- I kid you not; see pp. 389-90. It is a marvelous idea. It is an approach that’s been used in movement circles for years (e.g., by the National Civic League in neighborhoods and cities, and at the founding meeting of the U.S. Greens in 1984), but it may get new traction coming from the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times.

In the interim, which may not be short, I suggest we turn for inspiration to the authors I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Each adds vital depth to Friedman’s portrait of our world.

The let’s-be-real project

What Gen-X Yale Law School professor Amy Chua has to add, in her book World On Fire (Anchor, rev. 2004), is that the world is more thuggish and depraved than globalizers like Friedman care to assume.

The flattening of the world would be problematic enough even in a benign setting, she asserts in so many words. But in real life, everywhere you turn, markets concentrate enormous wealth in the hands of deeply resented “outsider” minorities -- Chinese in Southeast Asia, “whites” in Latin America, Jews in post-Communist Russia, Indians and Lebanese in Africa, and Americans everywhere.

As a result, you don’t have billions of people yearning to breathe free, as Friedman would have it (Chua singles him out for criticism in her introduction). Instead, all over the planet you have demagogues leading three kinds of backlashes:

-- against markets, targeting the market-dominant minority’s wealth, as in Zimbabwe today;

-- against democracy, favoring the market-dominant minority at the expense of the majority, as in the Philippines under Marcos, or as in Kenya today;

-- against the market-dominant minority itself, as in the ethnic cleansing of the Croats in the former Yugoslavia, or the mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda.

One of the great strengths of Chua’s book is she doesn’t make abstract excuses for these backlashes or paper over their ugliness, as so many other liberal academics are inclined to do. Here she is on the Zimbabwe of that great socialist leader, Robert Mugabe:

“Usually by the hundreds, sometimes a thousand at a time, the invaders [of white-owned commercial farms] -- with noms de guerre like ‘Hitler’ and ‘Comrade Jesus’ -- ransack and destroy, hurling stones and gasoline bombs, singing revolutionary songs, drinking crates of looted beer, fighting over bread and tinned beef, beating, raping, abducting. ‘They were really like wild dogs,’ sobbed a terrified victim.”

How to respond? Most of Chua’s solutions are, in fact, similar to those of Friedman and other humane radical middle flatteners:

-- in the long run, “level the playing field” between market-dominant minorities and the impoverished indigenous majority through education;

-- in the medium run, give the majority a stake in globalization and a market economy by encouraging the redistribution of wealth (e.g., by making corporate stock available to all), encouraging entrepreneurship among the poor, and initiating aggressive affirmative action programs;

-- most important of all, and most immediately, urge market-dominant minorities themselves to act -- in part by ceasing their objectionable practices (such as bribery and violation of workplace regulations), and in part by engaging in significant acts of  “voluntary generosity,” especially at the local level.

The flatter the world gets, the more responsible all of us -- all of us -- are going to have to become.

The democracy project

If Chua reminds us that the world is still red in tooth and claw, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri remind us -- in their book Multitude (Penguin, 2004) -- that “a better world is possible,” that we don’t have to settle for the seamier, death-of-a-salesman type values implicit in Friedman’s picture of a world growing ever more obsessively status-oriented and competitive.

Hardt is a Gen-Xer teaching at Duke; Negri, considerably older, has taught at U. Paris and was once jailed in Italy for revolutionary activities. Their earlier book, Empire (2001), an international bestseller, famously described itself as a “new communist manifesto,” and flirted with the notion of revolutionary violence.

But Multitude represents a turn toward the radical middle for these authors in a number of important and life-giving ways.

Instead of attacking globalization, they redefine it as the “creation of new circuits of cooperation and collaboration that stretch across nations and continents and allow an unlimited number of encounters.”

And instead of making excuses for the “working class” or “the People,” they reject those terms entirely. The “working class” is industrial or wage workers, too narrow a concept for today. And “the People” is a big, uniform One, too straightjacketed a concept for today.

They adopt a new term -- “the Multitude” -- to describe socially engaged humanity today. The Multitude is not One but many. Specifically, the Multitude is “an open and expansive network in which all differences can be expressed freely and equally, a network that provides the means of encounter so that we can live and work in common.”

Query: Could the Multitude exist without Tom Friedman’s ten flatteners?

Anyone who wants to change the world for the better is a full-fledged member of the Multitude. In Empire, antiglobalists (or, alternately, the world’s migrating workers) were a sort of vanguard of the Multitude. You had to be an outsider or a loser to fully partake of the concept. In the current book, even corporate lawyers who want to humanize the legal profession are members of the pack.

Moreover, the Multitude has an overarching project in the new book. It is to re-invent democracy for the 21st century, and to re-invent it on a global scale.

A “new science of democracy” is needed, one that would combine Lenin and Madison -- one that would empower “the commons” while at the same time preserving the safeguards built into the U.S. Constitution (so we don’t yet again “wake up in a nightmare of tyranny”).

And the democracy project has a purpose: to address the grievances being expressed all over the planet. People like Friedman may say those grievances are incoherent, but if you hang out with the world’s protesters and love Spinoza too (as these authors do), then maybe you too can boil them down to three:

-- develop appropriate democratic forms for an increasingly diverse and increasingly interconnected commons;

-- end poverty; and

-- prohibit wars against people and the war against the environment.

In Empire, as in revolutionary tracts from time immemorial, there was supposedly a conflict between reform and revolution; but not here. In Multitude, every institutional reform that speaks to significant issues and “expands the powers of the multitude is welcome and useful as long as it is not . . . posed as a final solution.”

I suspect even Friedman -- in his populist moments -- could live with that.

The enlightenment project

Friedman, Chua, and Hardt and Negri all stress our astonishing diversity. But even a love of diversity may not be enough to create deep bonds among all the world’s peoples -- bonds strong enough to induce us to truly end poverty, prohibit wars, etc.

Enter independent political scientist Walter Truett Anderson with his riveting and (among political activists especially) underappreciated book, The Next Enlightenment: Integrating East and West in a New Vision of Human Evolution (St. Martin’s, 2003).

Anderson proposes an “enlightenment project” that could link us together in a deep way. He defines enlightenment not as some religious or spiritual product (though it can be that), but as the most “natural” thing in the world:

“I contend that enlightenment -- the liberation from the illusion of separateness, the deeply felt sense of being an integral part of the workings of the cosmos -- is inherent in human consciousness and never far from the daily experience of every one of us, however well we may conceal it from ourselves.”

The enlightenment project has in fact already begun, Anderson argues -- and, for proof, he spends the bulk of the book expounding on ten forces liberating our hidebound egos. Let’s call them the ten “ego liberators,” as distinct from Friedman’s ten “world flatteners.” They are:

#1 -- European enlightenment (especially Hume and Kant)

#2 -- Darwinian movement

#3 -- psychoanalysis

#4 -- existentialism

#5 -- human potential movement of 1960s and 1970s

#6 -- the new physics

#7 -- the new cosmology

#8 -- contemporary brain research

#9 -- increasingly prevalent notion of social construction of reality (“constructivism”)

#10 -- contemporary redefinition of the person as an “organism / environment field”

Put these all together, Anderson argues, and we have the beginnings of a “culture of liberation” -- a culture that could keep us from buying into the competitive posturing and status-games that Tom Friedman too readily accepts as the price we must pay for sustaining the flat world.

To implement this culture would not take a revolution, Anderson implies. All it would really take is for the public sector to legitimize the transcendent experiences many of us have already had, and to encourage use of certain tools -- seated meditation, “thought experiments,” responsible use of drugs -- that are already available to people in every corner of every continent.

The depth project

Friedman’s flat world is not a done deal. As he himself says, it is an emergent possibility, nothing more. In many ways, it is an exciting and appealing possibility.

But it would be immensely more appealing if market-dominant minorities reformed their behavior (or were democratically constrained), if the multitude of caring men and women across the planet were given the training and tools they need to end poverty and war, and if we all joined together in the understanding that we are more -- so much more -- than our social roles convey.

Friedman and his many admirers (such as Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and a huge swath of the Council on Foreign Relations) have got to realize that a flat world will not last for long unless it is also deep.


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