When Globes Deflate
The World is Flat tackles geopolitics, not geography
by Jonathan Frey
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication…compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst….” This 150-year-old, strikingly prescient Karl Marx quotation looms large over the entirety of New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman’s bestseller The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Pantheon, $28).
Marx may’ve been describing the beginning of end-times that foreshadow a global Communist revolution. However, for Friedman this same quotation signifies the beginning of a bright new “flat” age: “It is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate and compete in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world—using computers, e-mail, networks, teleconferencing, and dynamic new software…which—if politics and terrorism do not get in the way—could usher in an amazing era prosperity and innovation.”
As a work of reportage, especially its summary of recent industrial, technological and geopolitical change, The World is Flat is a must-read—the last several decades’ newspaper headlines enumerated and exuberantly summarized. If you weren’t aware of these events before, you ought to be, and Friedman’s volume is an easily absorbed corrective. In summary, it appears we in the West have won the culture war, while other parts of the globe (especially in the Far East) are thoroughly sold on our lifestyle and means for achieving it and now pursue the same with a vengeance. Unfortunately, Friedman’s analysis of this reportage falls short, revealing an alarming myopia with respect to world history as well as the cultural and environmental consequences of the flat world he describes.
Many of Friedman’s assertions have historical precedents. A century ago, minus the speed of today’s communications, Europe was flat, lacking capital and foreign exchange controls, customs barriers, or even passports. People, goods and currency flowed across borders even more freely than they do today. Moreover, comfortable fin de siécle Edwardians foretold—as does Friedman here—the end of war and the decreasing importance of government. Just a few years later, European governments were at each others throats; entire battalions of men were being wiped out at two-minute intervals, and recorded history’s most violent century had commenced.
It’s actually equally arguable that more government will be required in this new flat world not only to establish trade and market transparency (which even Friedman concedes were required for India and China’s recent emergence) but also to maintain the rule of law and to ameliorate the effects flatness causes, i.e., job loss, cultural upheaval and environmental exploitation.
There’s a narrow ethnocentrism contained in Friedman’s claim that “the more your culture easily absorbs foreign ideas and best practices and melds those with its own traditions—the greater advantage you will have in a flat world.” Governments of developing countries may choose to adopt wholly the methods of the West; however, history is rich with cautionary tales of political instability resulting when local culture, the fundamental fabric of a nation’s social structure, is threatened by foreign substitutes.
Probably the most disturbing and neglected consequences of the flat world Friedman so enthusiastically endorses are environmental. Imagine “people, particularly in rural India, rural China, and rural Eastern Europe, who are close enough to see, touch, and occasionally benefit from the flat world but who are not really living inside it themselves,” now aspiring to live the same wasteful and energy-demanding lifestyle the West presently enjoys.
Such an outcome would require, by Friedman’s own calculations, the discovery of another Saudi Arabia-sized source of oil, and presumably the resulting polluting emissions as well. Moreover, despite Friedman’s persistent use of China as an example of a country successfully negotiating our brave new flat world, the disaster there is already well-documented: China has few environmental regulations and no enforcement, six of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and over a third of the country is affected by acid rain.
From these facts one is inclined to conclude that the utopia Friedman envisages a flat world inaugurating is in fact a contaminated dystopia, precariously situated on the banks of an ever-widening chasm formed by a toxic river Styx.