The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman
A Columnist of Awesome Vulgarity
by Vijay Prashad
October 22, 2002
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is, as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffery St. Clair write, “a columnist of awesome vulgarity.”
A forthright mouthpiece for big business, Friedman reveals how parochialism can pretend to be cosmopolitan.
No one doubts that the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree is well traveled. He was recently in Iran where he, correctly, made a mockery of the Bush administration's axis of evil speech, but with barely any analysis of contemporary Iranian society (for a good discussion of today's Iran, try to find the Summer 2001 issue of the Cyprus-based journal Global Dialogue). Then he jetted off to India, specifically to Bangalore, from where he offered a few tepid columns on subcontinental relations. As a tourist-journalist, Friedman found a few corporate fat cats and spilled their gospel. On one occasion, he reported that the recent Indo-Pak fracas did not result in warfare because of the power and intervention of the software lobby in India. Savvy about globalization and the power of software exports, the government of India, by Friedman's estimation, tried its best to hold off from an assault on Pakistan. No mention that India and Pakistan went to war in 1999 when the software industry was stronger than now, none that the two countries have been in an endless state of war on the border for at least a decade, and none that the US pressured both sides to stand down because US troops sat on both sides of the border (in Pakistan, to continue the Fifth Afghan War, and in India, to conduct a massive exercise with the Indian army in Agra - the site of the last Indo-Pak summit).
What was most insidious about Friedman's argument, apart from the fact that he was wrong on so many points, is that after Enron he has the temerity to argue for more not less corporate control over government.
The very next column from him extolled the power of Indian democracy, but now with no mention that 'democracy' for Friedman and the fat cats means the interests of the corporate classes alone. Indeed, in a startling column about Enron, it was our globetrotting columnist who essayed perhaps the most parochial defense of US capital: 'What distinguishes America [from other crooked countries] is our system's ability to consistently expose, punish, regulate and ultimately reform those excesses [of capitalism] - better than any other. How often do you hear about such problems being exposed in Mexico or Argentina, Russia or China? They may have all the hardware of capitalism, but they don't have all the software - namely, an uncorrupted bureaucracy to manage the regulatory agencies, licensing offices, property laws and commercial courts.'
As an exercise, let us stop at the four examples and see if they do not have the capacity to “expose, punish, regulate and ultimately reform” economic criminals. [the citations and more details are available in my new book, Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism, from Common Courage Press]
(1) Mexico. In 1995, the Swiss authorities revealed that Raul Salinas, the brother of Mexican President (1988-1994) Carlos Salinas de Gotari, had siphoned more than $130 million of drug money into secret bank accounts (the sum was later increased to between $500 million and $1 billion). The Mexican media, notably La Jornada, had earlier detailed some of the sleazy transactions, but it could not find support among the plutocracy. Initially, the only scandal in the story was for the Salinas family and for the Mexican plutocracy. Soon, however, details of the story drew in the financial power of Citibank who, it seems, worked to clean-up Salinas' money and make it relatively untraceable. While his brother was President of Mexico, Raul Salinas worked for the Mexican government's grain monopoly, Conasupo, and drew an annual salary of $160,000. Yet he was able to get his hands on hundreds of millions of dollars that he took to Citibank in Mexico City who transferred it via New York to Swiss banks. Amy Elliot, the agent in charge of the Salinas money, vouched for the money and oversaw Citibank 'specialists' who created Swiss accounts in the names of fictitious Cayman Island corporations. When the scandal broke, Citibank quickly said that it had done nothing illegal. Indeed, Elliot claimed that to doubt the Salinases 'would be like asking the Rockefellers where they had got their money.' In the context of how the global system works, she had a point: the money of robber barons is above suspicion. Especially when they are so closely connected to our power structure. Citibank chairman John Reed had a close friendship with the Salinases, spending his visits in Mexico under the presidential roof of Carlos Salinas. But sections of the Mexican press and some parts of the Mexican regulatory authority broke ground and went after Salinas. One could argue that the software of popular discontent produced the end to the one-party rule of the PRI and brought the maverick Right (led by Vicente Fox) to power a few years later.
(2) Argentina. Argentina suffered the woes of neoliberalism when $130 billion fled the country in 1997 as a result of an end to capital controls. This figure was equivalent to the state's debt at the time. The country, once the economic pride of South America, went into a deep recession that, by 2001, had transmuted into a depression. One Prime Minister after another took office to stem the meltdown (de La Rua, Saa, Puerta, Camano, then finally Eduardo Duhalde). From mid-December of 2001 to late January 2002, the people filled the streets in what they call caerolazos, or pot-banging protests by the piqueteros, the picketers. Demanding that the country heed the will of the people and not of transnational firms one hundred thousand people went to the Plaza de Mayo. These people follow a decade of anti-liberalization movements that developed amongst the unemployed in Argentina's main cities, a movement that took action in the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires in the late 1990s against the high electric rates charged by Enron. Statistics are imprecise in the midst of such a collapse; stories circulate that the unemployment figure is somewhere between thirty and eighty percent. 'We are not Peronists or Radical [Party] members or socialists,' said the leader of a Buenos Aires neighborhood assembly. 'We are just the hungry people who for the first time have organized themselves and know their strength.' In response, Duhalde has freed the peso from the dollar (after he allowed Argentina to default on $142 billion of its debt at a cost of forty percent of the peso's value). Again, the software of popular discontent forced the elite to re-bridle corporate power, even if for a moment.
(3) Russia. Since 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, Russia has become the font of jokes about crony capitalism. We know about the disasters, again, because of a citizenry that is actively on the streets against corruption, Enron-style. Gazprom is Russia's largest company, with sales of $20 billion in 2001, accounting for 8% of Russia's gross domestic product, 20% of its export revenues and taxes - all this mainly because Gazprom controls about a quarter of the planet's known gas reserves. When Rem Vyakhirev took power over this state enterprise in 1992, he reduced state ownership to just under forty percent, installed his friends and family to senior positions and bilked the assets of the firm by between $1-2 billion per year (this for a decade). The Russian and German media showed how Gazprom's leadership created shadow companies to siphon its funds to those who ran the vast enterprise. An active media and citizenry, again, provided the software to overthrow the Vyakhirev dynasty. The new CEO from 2001, Alexis Miller, vowed to make severe changes to the accounting practices of the firm
(4) China. The Chinese government is by far the most aggressive agent against corporate corruption, with executions of corrupt officials now the norm. I'm opposed to capital punishment like most of my neighbors, but by Friedman's standards, the PRC certainly punishes its fat cats. In mid-September 2000, for instance, the state executed a former vice-chairman of the Chinese Parliament and former member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, Cheng Kejie. Premier Zhu Rongji had started a campaign against corporate corruption in 1999 that revealed dozens of scandals including, again in 2000, the arrest of two hundred police and customs officials in Fujian province for a $10 billion smuggling operation in the port city of Xiamen. Some of those arrested come from the families of China's senior leadership. In February 2001, the Chinese state executed seven men convicted for graft, the largest such execution at one time.
Even as tales of corporate corruption transform the business pages into tabloid sheets, the mouthpieces of imperialist globalization like Friedman turn on their America First boosterism to high volume. Here, in a typically modern racist fashion, we hear that despite the fluctuations in the Dow, thank god we live in Free Market USA! There is no need to dredge up the offensive Middle America stereotype: Mr. Frequent Flyer is the poster boy for parochialism. His is a new kind of insularity, a cosmo-parochialism, well suited to a columnist of awesome vulgarity.
Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. He is the author of Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism (Common Courage, 2002), Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting (Beacon Press, 2001), and The Karma of Brown Folk (Univ. of Minnesota, 2000). Email: Vijay.Prashad@trincoll.edu