Like a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader

John Lloyd

  • The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman
    HarperCollins, 394 pp, £19.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 00 257014 9
  • Global Transformation by David Held and Anthony McGrew
    Polity, 515 pp, £59.50, March 1999, ISBN 0 7456 1498 1

Thomas Friedman is so much the kind of American that the rest of the world likes to despise that it’s a fair assumption he has, at least in part, adopted the pose consciously. He calls himself a ‘tourist with attitude’ and his attitude is that of the know-it-all, ‘wise up, you dumb cluck’ American journalist who is here to tell you your economy is blown, your politics stink and you haven’t a hope in hell of making it in today’s world. Given that he is writing about the most important political-economic development in the world today – globalisation – it is a shame that he spoils his case by wrapping it in the Star-Spangled Banner.

His voice is born of a century or more of American exceptionalism, of the belief in America as the city on a hill to which all yearn to travel, the superpower whose fin-de-siècle worries that its imperial powers were atrophying as those of other empires had done (see Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers) were allayed by victory in the Cold War and the subsequent discovery that its economy is the driving force for the rest of the world and a model nearly everywhere. After telling a little parable (this is a book of parables) about how surly and overpaid the staff at petrol stations are in the rest of the world, compared to their clean, helpful and cheap US counterparts, he intones:

what is going on in the world today, in the very broadest sense, is that through the process of globalisation everyone is being forced toward America’s gas station. If you are not an American and don’t know how to pump your gas, I suggest you learn. With the end of the Cold War, globalisation is globalising Anglo-American style capitalism. It is globalising American culture and cultural icons. It is globalising the best of America and the worst of America. It is globalising the American revolution and it is globalising the American gas station.

The need to learn to pump one’s own gas is not directed only at the developing world, but at us, the other rich countries:

As long as the Western Europeans stick with their rigid, protected welfare systems which, by making capitalism less destructive, also make it less creative and enriching, they won’t be a challenge to America. But the further ahead that America gets in this era of globalisation, the more I expect these countries will seek to mirror and mimic America. The inevitable adjustment will be enormously painful, but they will be forced to do it in order to maintain anything like their current standards of living.

Who, you may well ask, are the Americans to tell us how to pump gas or distribute welfare? Friedman does nothing to make himself more amiable; he is the kind of journalist who likes to tell you not only that he meets the top people, but that he parades his ego before them:

In the winter of 1998 I interviewed the Prime Minister of Thailand, Chuan Leekpai. Half joking, half serious, I began the interview by looking across the table at him and saying: ‘Mr Prime Minister, I have a confession to make. I helped oust your predecessor and I didn’t even know his name. You see, I was sitting at home in my basement watching the Thai baht sink (and watching your predecessor completely mismanage the economy). So I called my broker and told him to get me out of East Asian emerging markets. I could have sold you out myself via the Internet, but I decided to get my broker’s advice instead. It’s one dollar, one vote, Mr Prime Minister. How does it feel to have Tom Friedman as a constituent?’

In many European eyes, but especially those of left-wing intellectuals, Friedman is deeply objectionable; but is he also right? Is it the case that we are remaking ourselves, the world over, in the image of US capitalism, because the only alternative is North Korean autarchy? Clearly he isn’t always wrong, though much of what he says in the course of this enlightening and infuriating book can and should be contested. It is best read in conjunction with Global Transformations, which is as dry as The Lexus and the Olive Tree is racy, but far more considered. It was almost ten years in the making, and is so comprehensive in its description of the globalising process as to be indispensable. Friedman has had a lot of fun – he tells us his job, as foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, is the best in the world – but Held et al. have done the reading, the cross-referencing and the pondering.

Friedman goes wrong in the way that good, attention-grabbing journalists often go wrong when they set out to write at length. He tends to fall back on the belief that the world he is describing started only when he began to cover it. The modern era of globalisation, he asserts, dates from 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down; before that, there had been the imperial and financial globalisation of the 19th century, and then two periods of freeze: the post-First World War depression and the post-Second World War division of the world into two blocs. But this is wrong: read the first chapter of Global Transformations for a densely woven account of the huge expansion of global institutions after 1945, and the equally massive increase not only of human rights treaties but also of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in the human rights and ecological spheres. By the end of the Eighties we had seen a definitive shift ‘marked by the internationalisation and transnationalisation of politics, the deterritorialisation of aspects of political decision-making pertinent to states, the development of regional and global organisations and institutions, the emergence of regional and global law and a multilayered system of global governance, formal and informal, [which] has profound implications for the nature of the democratic political community’.

This insight into what has been as much an extension as a dilution of government power is largely missed by Friedman, though he alludes to it in asides. One of the many phrases he coins is the ‘Golden Straitjacket’, which he uses to describe the assortment of policies and attitudes that favour privatisation, low inflation and low budget deficits, the deregulation of financial and other markets, free trade and foreign investment. Once the straitjacket is put on, he says, ‘your economy grows and your politics shrink.’ This is, to say the least, misleading. Even if the economy grows, politics do not simply shrink: they are displaced from former centres like the industrial ministries, to reappear in transnational guise, or in local dress, or in the strategies of NGOs and pressure groups, or in the new zones of conflict round the family and reproduction. To be sure, countries which have put on the Golden Straitjacket tend to lose any socialist politics as traditionally defined, since it inhibits anything more than brief departures from the policies listed above. But politics do not live, or die, on economic differences alone; and even in economic policy, major differences persist, as they do between the Labour and Conservative Parties in Britain on membership of the Euro – and of the European Union.

Friedman delights in finding tiro Americans everywhere he goes. On a trip to China in 1998, he fetches up with a team of international election monitors at a small village in the north-east of the country, called Gujialingzi. In that village and others like it, he finds peasants who believe in the ‘need to get more enterprises here and speed up procedures for generating wealth’ because ‘the whole world is turning into one big market for merchandise.’ In Amman in 1995, he meets a young man who hands him a business card reading ‘Jihad al-Wazir, Managing Director, World Trade Centre, Gaza, Palestine’. His father was Abu Jihad, commander of Palestinian military operations on the West Bank. On meeting him, Friedman thought to himself: ‘That’s amazing. From Che Guevara to Dale Carnegie in one generation.’

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