It has been over a year and a half since I wrote a modestly critical review of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat â€“ A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Friedman’s book has managed to be on the New York Times Bestseller List for most of that time.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that Friedman’s book is flawed.
Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo have tried to set the record straight with their blistering critique, The World is Flat? â€“ A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller. While Aronica and Ramdoo’s book is not full of Friedmanesque anecdotes, or anointed by a catchy title like the ones Mr. Friedman is so adept at coming up with, just to take the two examples, Lexus and the Olive Tree to The World is Flat, what their book does offer is a richly supported, step by step, dismantling of each of Friedman’s arguments.
The vision of the globalized world that Friedman offers in his book is a rose-tinted, cheery, bullish version, one that has little to do with reality, according to the authors. Friedman’s ‘golf course account’ of globalization revels in accounts of successful businesses and people. Friedman proffers a vision of a globalized world that has an essentially ‘flat’ meritocratic global playing field, and provides limitless opportunities for profit for people who are intelligent or who choose to invest in schooling. He seasons his ‘analysis’ with accounts of his unmitigated fascination with gadgetry, and unbridled confidence in technology. Friedman’s conjuring of this globalized world is in fact so utopic that even the familiar hindersome ‘olive tree’ is missing – only rearing up its head in the Middle East to let you in on the fact that its only the backward culture that’s holding the Arab civilization back from the wonderful riches of the flat world. There are no losers in Friedman’s flat world – only people for whom it may take a little longer to get their piece of the pie, for example the Chinese sweatshop worker who saves up to educate his kids who then go on to get better jobs and better pay. And sometimes it looks that way but looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.
Aronica and Ramdoo talk about a variety of substantive problems that afflict the current global economic regime including how the massive account deficits of US that underpin the global economic system, and how the middle class is increasingly losing out. They argue that Friedman’s book is a testament to how you can be a peripatetic and still be basically a resort town to resort town peripatetic who never really visits the vast global ghetto made of upwards of 3 billion people with limited access to potable water and surviving on $2/day. Ramdoo and Aronica describe the vast underclass that dots the globalized world. The simple fact is that the world is not flat (or even ‘flattening’, except at the center) because it is patently laughable to compare the opportunities of the millions born into starvation and penury with children from the first or third world elites who get to buy $100 sneakers (made of course by the starving children).
Throughout the book, Ramdoo and Aronica are concerned about the shrinking white collar jobs, the vanishing health and retirement benefits, and the simultaneous mass exploitation of the poor in the global third world. This attrition, this slide to the bottom, on both sides of the globe, argue the authors, is due to one single mechanism â€“ the transnational corporations whose gargantuan profits have been fuelled by leeching the job security from the white collar workers in the west and extorting labor and resources from the unprivileged.
The message that I could distill from this book is that this kind of rampant predatory capitalism is not sustainable. The global economic regime is trying to cut off its nose to spite its face or in other words, corporations are willing to sacrifice the middle class for their hunt for profit. Profit is not the global good but often times pursuit of it is left unmonitored based on the argument that it somehow is.
There is a popular saying that a capitalist will even sell you the rope that you need to hang him with and that seems to be becoming increasingly true. We must disassociate global good from corporate profit and argue and work stridently towards a sustainable future before it is too late.
Aronica and Ramdoo’s sobering account is an important addition to the literature of globalization and a necessary therapy for all who have read Friedman’s glib book.