Flattening Thomas Friedman

IN Media Practice | 29/06/2005
Flattening Thomas Friedman 


Thomas Friedman’s paean to globalization, The World is Flat, has its champions, but the book has left most critics distinctly underwhelmed.



Dasu Krishnamoorty


Thomas Friedman is familiar to Indian readers through his syndicated New York Times column which appears in many Indian newspapers. His latest book, The World Is Flat describes the emergence of a level playing field for the forces of globalization and makes Bangalore a metaphor for that phenomenon. As a globetrotting journalist, he frequently comes to India, particularly to Bangalore. When Indian Express CEO Shekhar Gupta searched Google for ‘Thomas Friedman and Bangalore’ he found 24,000 entries. Obviously, his articles on Bangalore/India boil down to a syllogism: If Wipro and Infosys are thriving, Bangalore is thriving; if Bangalore is thriving, India also is thriving. The articles sound somewhat devout and panegyrical. In a ‘Walk The Talk’ chat in June with Shekhar Gupta, who referred to the book, Friedman spoke expansively of India in the columns of the New York Times. However, his generous account of India and Bangalore does not seem to agree with the picture that emerges from recent reports sent home by New York Times Delhi bureau chief Somini Sengupta. Nor with the Hindu’s rural affairs editor P. Sainath’s assessment, every word of which repudiates Friedman’s optimism-dripping tales. Friedman talks of tiny islands of success, leaving the mainland to be defined by the likes of Sainath.


In the first article (4 June), in a comparison with India, he offended Europe - and France in particular - because he thought they were "trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day." He poured on more scorn by saying that "voters in Old Europe - France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy - seem to be saying to their leaders: Stop the world, we want to get off, while voters in India have been telling their leaders: Stop the world and build us a stepstool, we want to get on." But the French have the same fears as the American people have about losing their jobs to people who undersell themselves, though for valid reasons.


Alexander Cockburn, co-editor of Counterpunch.org, explains (8 June) why this view of Friedman is flawed. He says, "Remember, India has a billion people in it. Maybe, 2 percent of them get to fly in a plane or go online. Around 10 percent are well off, another 10 percent doing OK. On the most optimistic count we’re left with over half a billion of the poorest people on the planet. You could build call centers every mile from Mumbai to Bangalore, stuff teenagers with basic American slang in there working Friedman’s stipulated 35 hours a day servicing American corporations, and you wouldn’t make a dent in the problem which is that you can’t dump an agricultural economy, build a couple of Cyberabads and say with any claim to realism that a New and Better India has been born."


Even if the world were to stop for more than a while, few Indian have the means to help them get on the bus. Their readiness to board the world bus does not match their ability to board it. Can Somini Sengupta’s Anupam or Moni Kumari Gupta get on the bus? Read this Sengupta report (25 June) from Patna: "Anupam Kumar, 17, is the eldest son of a scooter-rickshaw driver. He lives in a three-room house made of bricks and mortar and a hot tin roof, where water rarely comes out of the tap and the electricity is off more than on, along a narrow unpaved alley here in one of India`s most destitute corners. When he grows up he wants to investigate whether there is life in outer space. He wants to work at NASA. For now, Anupam`s sole obsession is to gain admission to the Indian Institutes of Technology, or I.I.T., In Anupam`s story lies a glimpse of the aspirations of boys and girls in India today, Moni Kumari Gupta, 17, is one of the rare girls in (an IIT preparatory) program. She, too, wants to do space research, also at NASA. The I.I.T. exam that Moni plans to take is still 10 months away, and yet she rises at 4:30 a.m. and studies 13 hours a day, seven days a week.


"Regardless of Friedman’s miniature India catching up with China or overtaking Europe, there is a lot of poverty, hunger, illiteracy and other drags that negate his optimism. This can be seen every day on television, in newspapers that do not sell news space and in magazines like the Economic and Political Weekly. Friedman’s, fortunately, is a case of good intentions. He spoke to the wrong people, who are not representative of the India that has little hope of boarding the global bus. Joe Smith of Glovesoff.org says that: "Friedman is a salesman for free-trade interests and an apologist for American imperial power. He spoke to a Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys and to Rajesh Rao, marketing manager of Global Edge. He spoke to Vivek Paul, president of Wipro. These are the kind of actors Friedman champions in his writing on globalization. He likes to think of these figures as a kind of new breed. In his book he refers to them as "super-empowered inDIViduals," people who are able to act without the mediation of the state."


It is clear that Friedman has failed to recognize the effort of the Indian state in building institutions to train scholars whom the Wipros and Infosyses seek everywhere. It is sad that our own media are chary of acknowledging the role of the Indian state, about which we need others to tell us. Writing for Commondreams.org (3 June), Greg Palast says, "The computer wizards of Bangalore (in Karnataka) and Kerala are the products of fully funded state education systems where, unlike the USA, no child is left behind. A huge apparatus of state-owned or state-controlled industries, redistributionist tax systems, subsidies of necessities from electricity to food, tight government regulation and affirmative action programs for the lower castes are what has created these comfortable refuges for Oracle and Microsoft. The economist Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998 for predicting that Southern India, with it`s strong communalist social welfare state, would lead the economic advance of South Asia -- and do so without the Thatcherite sleight-of-hand of pretending that riches for the few equates to progress for the many."


Somini Sengupta’s report from Mumbai shows how, in the rich vs. the poor battle, globalization is always on the side of the rich.  Builders in Mumbai cast their eye on land in the heart of the city that became prime property after the closure of textile mills. This became the bone of contention between land sharks who enjoy the blessings of the country’s corrupt politicians, and citizens’ groups speaking for the unemployed textile workers. With this row as the background, Sengupta asks, "Will it (Mumbai) stand out as India’s global city?" The builders have armed themselves with a McKinsey plan for a 40-billion-dollar makeover of the city, to silence their critics and stifle the efforts of environmental groups to make the city livable for all classes. Yet, as Joe Smith says, "The fact that India’s neoliberal reforms have only benefited the top 20 percent of the population in India goes unmentioned. He (Friedman) also neglects to mention that India is locked into a situation of jobless growth, a condition reported upon by the New York Times."


As we move to the heart of Sengupta’s report we find a picture that is so different from Friedman’s Bangalore. Sengupta says, "More than half of its citizens live in slums. Railroad tracks serve as toilets because there are none for those who do not have proper homes. The sardine-can nature of living means the rich simply cannot ignore the poor, as they can in many other cities. To commute every morning from the fancy northern suburbs is to drive past thousands of shanty dwellers, brushing their teeth in the streets." Has Friedman’s flat world room for these millions spread all over the country? Or at least for the thousands of mill workers who do not know where to go as the result of a court ruling that dismissed an earlier stipulation that a portion of the land vacated by the closure of mills should be set aside as public space? 


In his Bangalore report, Friedman says that there is a huge famine breaking out all over India today, an incredible hunger. He says that it is not for food but for opportunity. But Sainath in his Hindu report says, "As work gets less, more people leave their villages in distress and hunger. Distress migrations are up. Rural jobs are down. Rural debt is up and farm subsidies persist." Also, if Friedman claims that both Wipro and Infosys received more than one million applications last year for a little more than one thousand job openings, it only shows the extent of unemployment that easily translates into the employer’s power to bargain on wages. But he quotes a Rajesh Rao, head of Dhruva, as saying that "this is not about wage differential at all. The whole wage differential thing is going to reduce very quickly." When and how, Friedman does not ask. In his second report (9 June), he infuses a bit of moderation as an afterthought. He says, "India, by contrast, is like a highway full of potholes, with no sidewalks and half the street lamps broken. But off in the distance, the road seems to smooth out, and if it does, this country will be a dynamo. The question is: Is that smoother road in the distance a mirage or the real thing?"


Somehow, it is sad to see Shekhar Gupta sparing him embarrassment by reducing the entire chat to an exchange of pleasantries. Friedman tells Gupta how the title of his book was born as a result of his conversation with Nandan Nilekani. "Tom, I’ve got to tell you something, the global economic playing field is being levelled. And you Americans are not quite ready." I wrote that down in my notebook and on my ride back to the hotel, I kept thinking about what Nandan had said. I realised what he was telling me was that the playing field is being flattened. And then it hit me, somewhere between his office and the Leela Hotel, ‘Oh my God, he’s telling me that the world is flat’." This is how Jack Shafer derides the title of the book: "Even before the book appeared, Friedman was hyping the theme. In 2004, he observed the flatness of the world in December, October, and June columns, when he announced a three-month sabbatical to "finish a book about geopolitics, called The World Is Flat." In an April column, he noted that, "The world is flat—or at least getting flatter." Get it? Flat. Flatter. Flattest. Leveled. Compressed. Deflated. Planed. Steamrollered. Pancaked. Creamed. Smushed. Not hilly. Flat."


Many American critics see his book The World Is Flat as a pamphlet for globalization. Here are some views:


Matt Taibbi, in the New York Press, says, "Friedman`s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country". Richard Adams writes in the Guardian that Friedman is "impregnably armed by his good intentions and his ignorance". In The World Is Flat Friedman has produced an epyllion to the glories of globalisation with only three flaws: the writing style is prolix, the author is monumentally self-obsessed, and its content has the depth of a puddle. According to Roberto Gonzalez (San Fransisco Chronicle), "Friedman`s latest book, The World Is Flat, is culturally misinformed, historically inadequate and intellectually impoverished. Ultimately, Friedman`s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life -- a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress."
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