Flattened Worlds, Modest Reforms and Utopian
Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (NY; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005); and Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (NY; Columbia University Press, 2005).
Like Oscar Hammerstein’s Kansas City, everything’s like a dream in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. The brave new world of instant communication, uniform standards and easy capital mobility is better than a magic lantern show. Except this sleight of hand comes without human intervention or conscious planning, and certainly without the capacity to dream languorously or think deeply or value much beyond the technical innovations that raise the bottom line.
Less an overview and more a thin veneer making capital flight seem attractive, Friedman’s book has all the zip of a hall monitor’s oral report. Yet this silly Panglossian screed has stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for much of the year. That’s a lot of top-shelf success for a cut-and-paste job of transcripts, interviews, and e-mails, stitched together with gee-whiz enthusiasm for the serendipitous confluence of excess fiber-optic capacity, Netscape, the 1996 telecom deregulation and an unemployed meritocracy in India. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from Friedman, and not just in his New York Times columns in praise of self-sacrifice. If his 1999 The Lexus and the Olive Tree was a tone poem to corporate domination, this one is an infomercial. It’s not so much even a book as a series of advertising slogans.
Perhaps the punchiest is “1989: The Wall Went Down, Windows went up,” at least assuming you agree that the collapse of the East German commandist regime and the triumph of the Microsoft standard over the Mac OS represented progress, instead of the implosion of a police barracks and the victory of a derivative and easily hijacked operating system. So Friedman can bask in the glow of unfettered capital mobility without even a nod to how workers benefit—outside of some praise for open-sourcing and for the libertarian geeks who promote it. He isn’t even sure that in a fight between the 400-pound bully Microsoft and its plucky open-source opponents he knows which side he’s on.
Working people surely don’t figure in his account, either, where globalization and standardization are prized but the donkey work gets outsourced anyway. GE’s “Neutron Jack” Welch foresaw a goldmine in outsourcing software development to India, a nation that featured, as one source tells Friedman “a talent pool that could be leveraged.” What Friedman leaves out is the chief attraction of South Asia’s lumpen intellectuals to Welch: they worked cheap. For that insight and for other innovations in job cutting at home, Welch was named Manager of the Century by Fortune magazine. Does globalization set the stage for worldwide solidarity and international labor cooperation? Is any resistance valid?
Friedman is silent if not clueless.
Why be surprised? The book runs along the same lines as his “Manifesto for a Fast World” (NY Times Magazine, 3/28/99), where he urged the U.S. public to brace its weak knees and accept that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.” There, the security of, for example, Silicon Valley was vouchsafed by U.S. military might. That essay at least preached tough love. In this one he just hucksters for the four horsemen of neo-liberalism: globalization, deregulation, outsourcing and a race to the bottom among those desperate for the remaining onshore jobs. Reading this book in the wake of the G8 meeting in Edinburgh is surreal. There the agenda focused on opening markets and privatizing, but only a pittance of the massive Third World debt was canceled and the group couldn’t agree that global warming is a fact, let alone a danger. A flat world? More like an iron heel.
What he does, as the saying goes about journalists and other critics, is come down from the hills after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.
But if Friedman glories in the “good society” that is here today, or could be if competition were untrammeled, Russell Jacoby says what protesters at G8 meetings around the world say: that another, better world is possible. In Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age, Jacoby, a onetime bookstore clerk at Cambridge’s fabled Red Book in the 1970s (the only one with a sense of humor, as I remember) and now professor of history at UCLA, asks the big, subversive questions. He asks them in an age when big questions and comprehensive answer are old hat, even on the Left. Like his earlier 1999 book The End of Utopia, where he buries postmodernism, here he slashes away at the Left’s retreat to fixing and fine-tuning existing social institutions instead of naming and opposing the system. He bemoans how social policy formulation trumps politics and scandal mongering substitutes for commentary.
Jacoby calls his ideas “utopian” -- despite a history of its being seen as a term of abuse on the left where posing alternatives isn’t always distinct from thumb-sucking. He makes a useful distinction between what he calls the “blueprint tradition” over planned castles in the sky and commodes on the ground with what he identifies as the “iconoclastic tradition.” These latter were, “not idolaters” but “protesters and breakers of images...who could ‘hear’ the future but not see it” and “who are essential to any effort to escape the spell of the quotidian.”
He disparages the anti-Marxists Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt, whose critiques of “totalitarianism” helped develop a 1950s cult of pluralism by assuming that any all-embracing ideology for good devolved into a radical evil. While much utopianism does come from a non-democratic impulse -- something Jacoby doesn’t acknowledge -- he does wisely say there are multiple roads to genocide, too. Where was the utopianism in the Spanish Inquisition, he asks? Or in Britain’s manipulating of the Irish famine? Or in the U.S. slaughter of Native Americans? Or in the anticommunist rampage in Indonesia after the fall of Sukarno? The list of evil acts non-ideological forces commit goes on, unaided by any utopian impulse, something Arendt would admit only after her essay on the Nazi everyman Eichmann.
Jacoby’s utopian vision isn’t without its problems, either. Who would want a nation of iconoclasts, or even a DSA filled to overflowing with George Orwells and Russell Jacobys (Groucho Marx’s observation that he would never join a club that would have him as a member comes to mind)? And he spends far too much time rooting the sensible Marxian refusal to imagine a worked-out, fully mapped egalitarian society of the future in the Hebrew invocation that “you should make no image of God.” You don’t have to be Jewish to hear the chimes of freedom. You don’t have to have monotheism as your patrimony to reject idolatry.
But he’s right that the problem with the modern age isn’t an excess of imagination or social engineering; it’s an excess of routinization and acquiescence. Today, the Left is mired in formulating even the most moderate social policies as the Right dreams the impossible (and, for us, terrifying) dream. It’s that dream that millions follow, as Thomas Frank has brilliantly argued, in the absence of any alternatives. Because if the center-Left won’t speak to people’s economic needs, the hard Right will pretend to speak to their values. Even on the democratic Left, it’s Sweden’s problematic Meidner plan (a proposal to tax corporate profits in order to create socially-owned investment funds) -- not the abolition of wage labor -- that makes comrades salivate. It’s where reforms—no matter how difficult to achieve -- threaten to become ends in themselves rather than vehicles for mobilizing and positioning and empowering. Meanwhile, many of DSA’s sister parties in the Socialist International scarcely qualify as reform parties. Jacoby wants to “connect a utopian passion with practical politics,” something he admits is both an art and a necessity. As he writes, “without a utopian impulse, politics turns pallid, mechanical, and often Sisyphean; it plugs leaks one by one, while the bulkheads give way and the ship founders. To be sure, the leaks must be stanched. Yet, we may need a new vessel, an idea easily forgotten as the waters rise and the crew and passengers panic.”
That’s a good, big thought worth holding.
Michael Hirsch, a labor journalist, is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee and the Editorial Committee of Democratic Left.