August 2, 2005


The World Is Round: a review of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
by Thomas L. Friedman (John Gray, 8/08/05, NY Review of Books)

[Thomas] 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.

Mr. Gray is, of course, right that neoliberals (including neocons) have bought into the same economic determinism that led Marx so deep into error. But the problem is not that we aren't trending toward just one basic economic system but that such a system--roughly free market/capitalist--will not do most nations much good in the long run because they haven't gotten the rest of their culture right. In the absence of a strong monotheistic consensus, they don't have the theological/philosophical/moral underpinnings the system requires--it's just monkey-see-monkey-do. If they imitate us well enough--like Japan and Europe--they can make themselves reasonably affluent for awhile, but that just means they'll die off more comfortably. Liberalizing to reach the End of History is not going to be progress for most folks, just a somewhat pleasant dead end.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 2, 2005 6:14 PM

I'm not certain that the consensus needs to be monotheistic. India and China are not primarily monotheistic societies, but both are relatively certain to survive. If not in their present forms, they'll survive in something similar.

Posted by: Brandon at August 2, 2005 7:50 PM

oj, what's your take on hinduism, is it going to do for india ?

Posted by: cjm at August 2, 2005 9:48 PM

Let's not forget Japan's earlier attempt to pick and choose various aspects of the West and incorporate them into their society. The misery caused touched all of Asia from Burma to New Guinea to Kamchatka, and ended in disaster for the Japanese themselves.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 2, 2005 11:28 PM


China's best long term hope is a deepening and broadening of the current wave of Christianization. But the China it produces will be nothing like China today.


It's hard to see how. India will need to devolve into many separate states and the performance will vary widely. Hinduism will provide sufficient cohesion that some of them will have as good a run as someplace like Japan, but that's a pretty short run in the sweep of history.

Posted by: oj at August 2, 2005 11:53 PM


The militant Japanese nationalism which led to the Greter Co-Prosperity Sphere seemed pretty well rooted in their culture.

They didn't need western thought to come up with their contempt for the gaijin.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at August 3, 2005 12:11 PM

Oh and oj hasn't seen enough Bollywood movies or Indian TV or Indian cricket matches to appreciate the strength of Indian nationalism.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at August 3, 2005 12:13 PM


Nationalism doesn't get you much of anywhere.

Posted by: oj at August 3, 2005 12:50 PM

that nationalism didn't help much with the partition in 1949.

Posted by: cjm at August 3, 2005 12:54 PM

All of you, including the inestimable oj, need to read/re-read Paul Johnson's "Modern Times"

The fallacies/miscontruining of history so evident in this thread will be exposed. Be sure you purchase thru, every little bit helps my favorite blogger, even tho' we vehemtly disagree on the liberalization of Islam!

Posted by: Mike Daley at August 4, 2005 12:25 AM

mike, care to elaborate or give an example ?

Posted by: cjm at August 4, 2005 9:43 AM