[9 October 2012]
When Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree was first published in April 1999, globalization was in, the Cold War was out, the NASDAQ was up, and our computers were about to be eaten by the Y2K cookie monster.
A dozen years later, Friedman’s paean to globalization—and forerunner to his even more successful The World is Flat—is being republished; but history has moved on. Since then, 9/11, disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic crisis on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, Wikileaks, and mounting geopolitical rivalries in the Middle East and Asia have made the world a far less rosy place than Friedman, for all his bet-hedging caveats, had hoped it would be.
His anonymous techie friend was wrong to forecast that by 2010 ‘about 100 million toasters should be online’ (356); the European Monetary Union wasn’t a ‘godsend’ (178) after all; and that ‘flourishing junk bond market’ turned out to be, not a symptom of the ‘democratization of finance’ (55), but of a speculative bubble that ruined many people’s lives. Oh, dear.
Of course, hindsight is easy; but the hazards of predicting the future aren’t the main reason this book fails the test of time. Although Friedman is an accomplished writer—and three-times Pulitzer winner—his grasp of big issues is shaky. Partly, this is because he’s too attached to the current social system to perceive its colossal failures; and partly, it’s because he tries to explain the world ‘through simple stories, not grand theory’ (19). Hence such pseudo-concepts as ‘globalution’, the ‘Electronic Herd’, and ‘Microchip Immune Deficiency Syndrome’—not to speak of his ‘Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention’.
Alas, social and economic phenomena are much too complex and important for this kind of treatment. Friedman’s poor method (hedge-fund managers are some of his ‘best intellectual sources’, p26) and annoying-cheer-leader style quickly fall down. Take his assertion that ‘every inch’ of road in central Hanoi is ‘occupied by people who have traded their sandals for a bicycle, their bicycle for a motor scooter, their motor scooter for a Honda Civic, their Honda Civic for a Toyota Camry and, yes, even their Toyota Camry for the occasional Lexus’ (349). Or his argument that bankrupt European businessmen would be ‘welcomed with open arms in Palo Alto’ (370). Sorry, this isn’t just bogus, it’s cruel.
Hedge-fund managers aren’t actually the worst of Friedman’s sources. ‘Consider Enron’, he urges us on page 387. Well, yes, consider Enron, but don’t listen to a word its former CEO, Kenneth Lay, says in this book. Lay went on to die in 2006, after defrauding his shareholders, sinking his company, and leaving thousands of employees without jobs. (Watch Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room, if you really want to know the truth about this story). Named ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ by Fortune magazine every single year from 1995 to 2000, Enron had been innovative alright; but only at fleecing its customers and cooking the books.
As for the once-fashionable notion of globalization, Friedman mostly uses it to paint a facile and overstated contrast with the Cold War. The Cold War built walls, he says, today’s globalization knocks them down; the Cold War was slow, globalization is fast; the Cold War was about top-down control, globalization is about democracy; and so on. All this ignores the fact that the end of the Cold War left the world’s wider problems and conflicts virtually intact. Look at Russia today, for example, or at any other country for that matter, and it’s still some combination of economic corruption, political repression, and self-interested attempts to either build walls against foreigners, or bulldoze down other people’s walls.
It would be more sensible to think of globalization, technological change, and democratization—interwoven trends Friedman rightly favors—as unfinished processes that began not only before the Cold War, but even before capitalism. When our ancestors spilled out of Africa into the rest of the world, when they invented the plough, when Genghis Khan marched across Asia, the French wielded the guillotine, and the Beatles got bigger than Jesus – those were all steps in a journey towards a more advanced, humane, and, yes, more global society. Yet they were only partial and halting steps, taken in harsh social conditions and often themselves brutal. Friedman is probably correct that the pace is quickening, but even so it’s the same journey, still taking us through rough and contradictory terrain.
Friedman pretends that globalization and the free market are one and the same thing, when they aren’t, and in the process conveniently forgets that today’s markets aren’t really free anyway. He poses as a champion of innovation, but isn’t innovative enough to imagine life without capitalism. (Most people in the Dark Ages couldn’t imagine life without feudalism either, but feudalism came to an end all the same). He’s not even a true globalizer, since his flag isn’t the planet’s, but the stars and stripes (globalization is mostly made in the USA, he argues; and also tells of his ‘covering Secretary of State Baker when he went out on his fund-raising trip for the first Gulf War. All the reporters on the plane pitched in and bought him a tin cup’, p 240).
Globalization wasn’t made in any one country; it’s (gradually) doing away with countries. It’s the work-in-progress of humanity, carried out by people who, in the past, rarely understood the significance of their own actions. Today, we have the chance of making history in a wiser and more civilized manner—but only if we learn to be critical of the powers that be, and respectful of the need for sound thinking. Too bad this book isn’t any of that. Too bad the cookie monster didn’t eat Friedman’s computer back in the year 2000.