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The World Is Round


The belief that a process of globalization is underway which is bringing about a fundamental change in human affairs is not new. Marx and Engels expressed it in 1848, when they wrote in a justly celebrated passage in The Communist Manifesto:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with his sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind. The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Marx and Engels had no doubt that they were witnessing the emergence of a global market—a worldwide system of production and consumption that disregarded national and cultural boundaries. They welcomed this development, not only for the increasing wealth it produced but also because they believed it enabled humanity to overcome the divisions of the past. In the global marketplace nationalism and religion were destined to be dwindling forces. There would be many convulsions—wars, revolutions, and counterrevolutions—before the Communist order was securely established; but when global capitalism had completed its work a new era in the life of humankind would begin.

The centrally planned economies that were constructed to embody Marx’s vision of communism have nearly all been swept away, and the mass political movements that Marxism once inspired are no more. Yet Marx’s view of globalization lives on, and nowhere more vigorously than in the writings of Thomas Friedman. Like Marx, Friedman believes that globalization is in the end compatible with only one economic system; and like Marx he believes that this sys-tem enables humanity to leave war, tyranny, and poverty behind. To his credit Friedman recognizes the parallels between his view and that of Marx. He cites an illuminating conversation at Harvard in which the communitarian political theorist Michael Sandel alerted him to the fact that the process of global “flattening” he examines in his new book was first identified by Marx, quoting at length from The Communist Manifesto—including the passage cited above—and praising Marx for his prescience. This acknowledgment of the parallels between his view of globalization and Marx’s theory of history is welcome and useful.

Friedman has emerged as the most powerful contemporary publicist of neoliberal ideas. Neoliberals have a wide variety of views on political and social matters, ranging from the highly conservative standpoint of Friedrich Hayek to the more rigorously libertarian position of Milton Friedman; but they are at one in seeing the free market as the fountainhead of human freedom. Though in some of his writings he shows a concern for the casualties of deregulated markets, Thomas Friedman is a passionate missionary for this neoliberal faith. In his view the free market brings with it most of the ingredients that make for a free and humanly fulfilling society, and he has propagated this creed indefatigably in his books and in columns in The New York Times.

Friedman’s views have been highly influential, shaping the thinking of presidents and informing American policy on a number of issues, and it may be instructive to note the matters in which he shares Marx’s blind spots. Because they were on opposite sides of the cold war it is often assumed that neoliberalism and Marxism are fundamentally antagonistic systems of ideas. In fact they belong to the same style of thinking, and share many of the same disabling limitations. For Marxists and neoliberals alike it is technological advance that fuels economic development, and economic forces that shape society. Politics and culture are secondary phenomena, sometimes capable of retarding human progress; but in the last analysis they cannot prevail against advancing technology and growing productivity.

Friedman is unequivocal in endorsing this reductive philosophy. He writes that he is often asked if he is a technological determinist, and with the innocent enthusiasm that is a redeeming feature of his prose style he declares resoundingly: “This is a legitimate question, so let me try to answer it directly: I am a technological determinist! Guilty as charged.” (The italics are Friedman’s.)

Technological determinism may contain a kernel of truth but it suggests a misleadingly simple view of history. This is well illustrated in Friedman’s account of the demise of the Soviet Union. Acknowledging that there “was no single cause,” he goes on:

To some degree the termites just ate away at the foundations of the Soviet Union, which were already weakened by the system’s own internal contradictions and inefficiencies; to some degree the Reagan administration’s military buildup in Europe forced the Kremlin to bankrupt itself paying for warheads; and to some degree Mikhail Gorbachev’s hapless efforts to reform something that was unreformable brought communism to an end. But if I had to point to one factor as first among equals, it was the information revolution that began in the early- to mid-1980s. Totalitarian systems depend on a monopoly of information and force, and too much information started to slip through the Iron Curtain, thanks to the spread of fax machines, telephones, and other modern tools of communication.

What is striking in this otherwise unexceptionable list is what it leaves out. There is no mention of the role of Solidarity and the Catholic Church in making Poland the first post-Communist country, or of the powerful independence movements that developed in the Baltic nations during the Eighties. Most strikingly, there is no mention of the war in Afghanistan. By any account strategic defeat at the hands of Western-armed Islamist forces in that country (including some that formed the organization which was later to become al-Qaeda) was a defining moment in the decline of Soviet power. If Friedman ignores these events, it may be because they attest to the persistent power of religion and nationalism—forces that in his simple, deterministic worldview should be withering away.

It is an irony of history that a view of the world falsified by the Communist collapse should have been adopted, in some of its most misleading aspects, by the victors in the cold war. Neoliberals, such as Friedman, have reproduced the weakest features of Marx’s thought—its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements and its unidirectional view of history. They have failed to absorb Marx’s insights into the anarchic and self-destructive qualities of capitalism. Marx viewed the unfettered market as a revolutionary force, and understood that its expansion throughout the world was bound to be disruptive and violent. As capitalism spreads, it turns society upside down, destroying entire industries, ways of life, and regimes. This can hardly be expected to be a peaceful process, and in fact it has been accompanied by major conflicts and social upheavals. The expansion of European capitalism in the nineteenth century involved the Opium Wars, genocide in the Belgian Congo, the Great Game in Central Asia, and many other forms of imperial conquest and rivalry. The seeming triumph of global capitalism at the end of the twentieth century followed two world wars, the cold war, and savage neocolonial conflicts.

Over the past two hundred years, the spread of capitalism and industrialization has gone hand in hand with war and revolution. It is a fact that would not have surprised Marx. Why do Friedman and other neoliberals believe things will be any different in the twenty-first century? Part of the answer lies in an ambiguity in the idea of globalization. In current discussion two different notions are commonly conflated: the belief that we are living in a period of rapid and continuous technological innovation, which has the effect of linking up events and activities throughout the world more widely and quickly than before; and the belief that this process is leading to a single worldwide economic system. The first is an empirical proposition and plainly true, the second a groundless ideological assertion. Like Marx, Friedman elides the two.


In The World Is Flat, Friedman tells us that globalization has three phases: the first from 1492 to around 1800, in which countries and governments opened up trade with the New World and which was driven by military expansion and the amount of horse-power and wind power countries could employ; the second from 1800 to 2000, in which global integration was driven by multinational companies, steam engines, and railways; and the third, in which individuals are the driving force and the defining technology is a worldwide fiber-optic network. In each of these phases, he tells us, technology is the driving force: globalization is a byproduct of technologi-cal development. Here Friedman deviates from the standard view among contemporary economists, who see globalization largely as the result of policies of deregulation. Here he is closer to Marx—and to the realities of history.

In any longer perspective what we are witnessing today is only the most recent phase of worldwide industrialization. In the nineteenth century the world was shrunk by the advent of the telegraph; today it is shrinking again as a consequence of the Internet. Contrary to Friedman, however, the increasing facility of communication does not signify a quantum shift in human affairs. The uses of petroleum and electricity changed human life more deeply than any of the new information technologies have done. Even so, they did not end war and tyranny and usher in a new era of peace and plenty. Like other technological innovations, they were used for a variety of purposes, and became part of the normal conflicts of history.

It is necessary to distinguish between globalization—the ongoing process of worldwide industrialization—and the various economic systems in which this process has occurred. Globalization did not stop when Lenin came to power in Russia. It went on—actively accelerated by Stalin’s policies of agricultural collectivization. Nor was globalization in any way slowed by the dirigiste regimes that developed in Asia—first in Japan in the Meiji era and later in the militarist period, then after World War II in Korea and Taiwan. All these regimes were vehicles through which globalization continued its advance. Worldwide industrialization continued when the liberal international economic order fell apart after World War I, and it will carry on if the global economic regime that was established after the fall of communism falls apart in its turn.

There is no systematic connection between globalization and the free market. It is no more essentially friendly to liberal capitalism than to central planning or East Asian dirigisme. Driven by technological changes that occur in many regimes, the process of globalization is more powerful than any of them. This is a truth that Friedman—as an avowed technological determinist—should accept readily enough. If he does not, it is because it shows how baseless are the utopian hopes he attaches to a process that abounds in conflicts and contradictions. Globalization makes the world smaller. It may also make it—or sections of it—richer. It does not make it more peaceful, or more liberal. Least of all does it make it flat.

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