Nobody here but us flat people, living here in this flat world. That’s the message Thomas L. Friedman wants to convey after we finish reading The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.
It’s not true, of course: the world is plenty vertical—hierarchical, bumpily uneven in the distribution of resources, power, and controlling secrets—and it’s becoming more so. But Friedman has history on his side, or at least his sense of an inevitable history, derived from a perhaps surprising, albeit well-known, voice from the 19th century.
In Friedman’s telling, you and me, plus blue-collar workers, Third World farmers, New York Times columnists, and Bill Gates, are all living in a flattened planet on which the forces of globalization are buffeting and transforming us. And, oh yes: each of us, regardless of wealth or power differentials, should do our part to accelerate the progressive rush of the future.

In his 469 pages, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner scopes out the planet’s new contours, offering this considered judgment: “Both classic economic theory and the inherent strengths of the American economy have convinced me that American individuals have nothing to worry about from a flat world—provided we roll up our sleeves.” Note the jaunty “we,” as in, we’re all in this together, folks, here in Flatworld.

Yet for all his propagandizing for flatitutude, Friedman seems to spend his time in the far pavilions, atop the commanding heights. The inspiration for the book, he tells us in the first few pages—beginning a long skein of name-dropping—came from Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies Limited in Bangalore. And the rest of the book features a cavalcade of corporate leaders, from Reuters to Wal-Mart to UPS to Intel to Rolls-Royce to JetBlue to Dell to eBay. In between CEO-fluffing, Friedman shares the names of favorite airlines, cool family friends, and TV networks that have paid him money.

Not surprisingly, such chumminess with chieftains has softened, not to say dulled, his critical faculties. Wal-Mart, for example, gets slapped around more in the pages of Fortune than in Friedman’s book. Similarly, Boeing’s decision to outsource aeronautical jobs to Russia is treated as unalloyed good news because, he is assured, there’s a “shortage” of such engineers in the U.S. Then the unnamed honcho of a major European multinational reveals “we are a global research company now”—which revelation the Times-man treats as a scoop—and former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo takes Friedman aside and shares this pearl: Mexico and Latin America have “fantastic potential.”

Of course, high-level hobnobbing yields up some good stuff, too. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell recalls that when he wanted to examine old treaty texts, he simply Googled them; in other words, technology enabled him to bypass the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy. And Microsoft’s Bill Gates shares a mini-insight: “When you meet Chinese politicians, they are all scientists and engineers. You can have a numeric discussion with them—you are never discussing ‘give me a one-liner to embarrass [my political rivals] with.’”

Friedman has done his homework on such just-in-timely topics as how computers are made, how supply chains operate, and how browsers function. This behind-the-scenesing and inside-the-machinesing will be familiar to readers of business magazines and perhaps an issue or two of Wired, but Friedman wields a deft pen as he provides both anecdotes and historical context. In the ’50s, he recalls, the Interstate Highway System flattened America, making it “so much easier for companies to relocate in lower-wage regions, like the South.” Today infrastructural improvements are flattening the world as a whole, such that “3 billion people who had been frozen out of the field suddenly found themselves liberated to plug and play with everybody else.”

One might suppose that Joseph “creative destruction” Schumpeter has been an influence on Friedman, but in fact the Austrian economist is nowhere to be found in this book. Instead, Friedman provocatively—and revealingly—gives maximum intellectual credit to an earlier German-speaker: Karl Marx.

It first occurs to the reader that Friedman is playing name-games with communist lore in chapter two, titled “The Ten Forces That Flattened the World.” That label seems like an inside-jokey play on John Reed’s eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World. But then in the next chapter Friedman brings in Marx big time. According to the author, “reading The Communist Manifesto today, I am in awe at how incisively Marx detailed the forces that were flattening the world during the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and how much he foreshadowed the way these same forces would keep flattening the world right up to the present.” Which is to say, the phenomenon of world-flattening is nothing new; it’s been going on, albeit accelerating, for more than two centuries.

Such an admission might seem to undercut the cutting-edginess of Friedman’s book, but the author doesn’t seem to care; he’s too busy reveling in Marx’s purple prose, which stretches, unedited, over more than a full page. Indeed, Marx made Friedman’s argument long before Friedman: “All fixed, fast, frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away,” Marx wrote a century-and-a-half ago, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Meanwhile, even as capitalism is pulverizing tradition, the bourgeoisie, per Marx as quoted by Friedman, is chasing after markets “over the whole surface of the globe.” The bottom line is that “all old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.”

Friedman is no communist, not at all. If anything, he is the opposite; as in his similar book from 2000, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, he is something of a cheerleader for billionaires and their value system. But for all their vast differences in economic ideology, the two writers from two different eras share a similarity as they prophesy the deterministic destiny of the world. And that’s the debt, only partially acknowledged, that Friedman owes to Marx. Like his predecessor, Friedman works from a materialistic worldview, a vision of history in which events unfold in certain ways—ways that are inevitable as well as desirable. It’s a secular utopianism, promising a near-heaven here on earth.

And the path to such a possible semi-paradise, Friedman maintains, is closer economic and social integration across the planet. He notes that the familiar social contract “has been ripped up with the flattening of the world,” but he scorns most attempts to reweave that contract—“don’t try to build walls,” he commands, referring to trade barriers. So what to do instead? Friedman endorses a Clintonish litany of programs to build “human capital,” aimed at bolstering the middle class—although he never pauses to consider that maybe, in a flattened world of near-perfect competition for the cheapest possible labor, there’s virtually no limit to the downward pressure on wages. That’s a basic point that Friedman fails to acknowledge; to do so would cause ordinary Americans to question his econo-utopianism.

Meanwhile, Friedman is determined to block wall-building, expressing the same fervor as the British economist Richard Cobden, who declared in 1857, “Free trade is God’s diplomacy. There is no other certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace.” Indeed, the Cobden quote graces one of the volume’s chapter headings.

No wonder Friedman is disdainful of the emerging anti-globalization coalition, dubbed the “Wall Party,” which will shuffle existing partisan and cultural alliances as it opposes what might be called the Flat Party. There is no doubt whose side he’s on as he arrays old value systems, represented by blue-collar workers and traditional religion, against new value systems, represented by the world-flattening forces of capital and technology:

Let’s face it: Republican cultural conservatives have much more in common with the steelworkers of Youngstown, Ohio, the farmers of rural China, and the mullahs of central Saudi Arabia, who would also like more walls, than they do with investment bankers on Wall Street or service workers linked to the global economy in Palo Alto, who have been enriched by the flattening of the world.

He’ll take Goldman Sachs and Hewlett-Packard any day.

And while Friedman evinces a certain amount of sympathy for Third World left-behinds, as any reader of his Times column knows, he has no patience for the platform of the Religious Right. Continuing on the same kulturkampf-y theme, he adds:

‘The Passion of the Christ’ audience will be in the same trench with the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO, while the Hollywood and Wall Street liberals and the “You’ve Got Mail” crowd will be in the same trench with the high-tech workers of Silicon Valley and the global service providers of Manhattan and San Francisco. It will be Mel Gibson and Jimmy Hoffa Jr. versus Bill Gates and Meg Ryan.

But of course, there’s something deeply flawed about the Friedman vision of free trade. In a word, it’s not free. Let’s consider the three elements of true free trade—mobile capital, mobile goods and services, and, just as importantly, mobile labor. Do all three elements obtain today? Will they ever? Of course not.

It is true, thanks mostly to the barrier-busting World Trade Organization, that investment capital today is pretty much mobile anywhere in the world. And as for goods and services, the WTO has lowered many of the barriers; Toyota and Aetna aren’t totally free to go wherever they want, but they’re substantially free. Yet the third category, labor, is relatively immobile. Yes, there’s more migration than ever, but human beings are sticky and illiquid compared to money and manufactures. That is, workers and their families, rooted in one place, will always be stolidly vulnerable to factory closings—and their paychecks vulnerable to the mere threat of such closings.

So while the world might look flat from the Fortune 500’s windows or from Friedman’s laptop, those near globalization’s millions of ground zeros find the environment looking rather steep. Moreover, one might ask, does the ever-growing American government look as if it’s getting flatter—or is it fatter? In Washington, the government veils itself ever further inside the folds of “national security,” as federal buildings look increasingly like kremlins. Nationwide, the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, and other bureaucratic proofs that war is the health of the state continue to multiply, if not metastasize.

Friedman has little to say about this sort of de-flattening. Nor does he talk much about foreign policy, which has been his stock-in-trade for a quarter-century now. In his terse treatment of a flattened world’s foreign policy, he devotes considerable attention only to transforming the Middle East, which is the area of the world, he tells us, that is most in need of American ministrations.

Yet interestingly, one would never know from this book that Friedman was a strong proponent of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yes, he has bashed George W. Bush as often as he could over the past five years, but in the moments when it mattered most, he maintained his support for Bush’s war policy. On September 13, 2003, for example, he told Tim Russert on CNBC that there had been three “great bubbles” in the past decade—Nasdaq, Enron, and Arab terrorism. And so, he continued, “We need to go into the heart of their world and beat their brains out, in order to burst this bubble.”

But now, two quagmiring years later, the bubble that has burst is optimism about American policy in the Middle East. No wonder Friedman’s book does not mention his support for the Iraq War; his entire policy prescription for Iraq is merely a single phrase in a long sentence, urging America to work toward “stabilizing Iraq.” Well, who destabilized it?

Yet the author has faith in himself and his judgment—and it’s his book, after all. So he tells us that he was visiting Cairo when a young man came up to him and said, “Keep writing what you’re writing.” Thus Friedman joins all the other point-makers who have miraculously found cab drivers who agree with them—and state their agreement in perfect sentences.

The author will no doubt write more about the Middle East in his next book, in which he will perhaps explain why the Arabs so stubbornly resist the inevitable logic of world-flattening. But as for the rest of the globe, he has a two-part dream.

The first part, as we have seen, is a kind of inverted Marxist utopianism, in which capitalism has replaced communism as the wave of the future.

The second part of the dream is transferred Lennonist lyricism—as in John Lennon, the late Beatles musician. In the concluding chapter of the book, simply titled “Imagination”—adapting the name of Lennon’s best-known song—Friedman quotes an IBM scientist-sage: “We need to think more seriously than ever about how we encourage people to focus on productive outcomes that advance and unite civilization.” Continuing, the IBMer declares, to Friedman’s obvious approval, that peaceful imaginations are needed to “minimize alienation and celebrate interdependence rather than self-sufficiency.” Wow. In other words, Marx, who always worried about capitalism-caused alienation, has gained new disciples to carry out his utopian destinarianism.

That’s a world that’s not flat, nor even vertical. Instead, it’s totally dream-weaving Friedmanism, with a little help from his friends.


James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday and a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He served in the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.