(A response to Friedman’s Flat earth hypothesis)
The project of corporate Globalisation is a project for polarising and dividing people – along axis of class and economic inequality, axis of religion and culture, axis of gender, axis of geographies and regions. Never before in human history has the gap between those who labour and those who accumulate wealth without labour been greater. Never before has hate between cultures been so global. Never before has there been a global convergence of three violent trends – the violence of primitive accumulation for wealth creation, the violence of “culture wars”, and the violence of militarized warfare.
Yet Thomas Friedman, describes this deeply divided world created by Globalisation and its multiple offspring’s of insecurity and polarization as a “flat” world. In his book “The world is Flat” Friedman tries desperately to argue that Globalisation is a leveller of inequalities in societies. But when you only look at the worldwide Web of information technology, and refuse to look at the web of life, the food web, the web of community, the web of local economies and local cultures which Globalisation is destroying, it is easy to make false and fallacious arguments that the world is flat.
When you look at the world perched on heights of arrogant, blind power, separated and disconnected from those who have lost their livelihoods, lifestyles, and lives – farmers and workers everywhere – it is easy to be blind both to the valleys of poverty and the mountains of affluence. Flat vision is a disease. But Friedman would like us to see his diseased, perverse flat view of globalisations polarisations as a revolution that aims to reverse the revolutions that allowed us to see that the world is round and the earth goes round the sun, not the other way around.
Friedman has reduced the world to the friends he visits, the CEO’s he knows, and the golf courses he plays at. From this microcosm of privilege, exclusion, blindness, he shuts out both the beauty of diversity and the brutality of exploitation and inequality, he shuts out the social and ecological externalities of economic globalisation and free trade, he shuts out the walls that globalisation is building — walls of insecurity and hatred and fear — walls of “intellectual property”, walls of privatization.
He focuses only on laws, regulations and policies which were the protections of the weak and the vulnerable, on barriers necessary as boundary conditions for the exercise of freedom and democracy, rights and justice, peace and security, sustainability and sharing of the earth’s precious and vital resources. And he sees the dismantling of these ecological and social protections for deregulated commerce as a “flattening”.
But this flattening is like the flattening of cities with bombs, the flattening of Asia’s coasts by the tsunami, the flattening of forests and tribal homelands to build dams and mine minerals. Friedman’s conceptualization of the world as flat is accurate only as a description of the social and ecological destruction caused by deregulated commerce or “free – trade”. On every other count it is inaccurate and false.
Take Friedman’s description of their waves of globalisation. According to him, globalization 1.0 which lasted from 1492 when Columbus set sail to 1800 and shrank the world from a size large to a size medium, with countries and governments breaking down walls and knitting the world together. Globalisation 2.0 which lasted from 1800 to 2000, which shrank the world from a size medium to a size small, and the key agent of change was multinational companies. Globalisation 3.0 started in 2000, is shrinking the size small to size tiny, and it is being driven by individuals.
This is a totally false view of history. From one perspective in the south, the three waves of globalisation have been based on the use of force, they have been driven by greed, and they have resulted in dispossession and displacement. For native Americans or globalisation 1.0 started from 1492 and has still not ended.
For us in India the first wave of globalisation was driven by the first global corporation, the East India Company, working closely with the British team, and did not end till 1947 when we got Independence. We view the current phase as a recolonisation, with a similar partnership between multinational corporations and powerful governments. It is corporate led, not people led. And the current phase did not begin in 2000 as Friedman would have us believe. It began in the 1980′s with the structural adjustment programmes of World Bank and IMF imposing trade liberalisation and privatization, and was accelerated since 1995 with the establishment of World Trade Organisation at the end of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs.
Friedman’s false flat earth history then enables him ake two big leaps – results of coercive, undemocratic “free trade” treaties are reduced to achievements of information technology and corporate globalisation and corporate control is presented as the collaborations and competition between individuals. The WTO, World Bank and IMF disappear, and the multinational corporations disappear. Globalisation is then about technological inevitability and individual innovativeness, not a project of powerful corporations aided by powerful institutions and powerful governments.
Neither e-commerce not walmartisation of the economy could take place without the dismantling of trade protections, workers protections, environmental protections. Technology of communication do not make long distance supply of goods, including food products cheaper than local supply. Low wages, subsidies, externalisation of costs make Walnut cheap, not its information technology based supply chain management.
In 1988, I was in Berlin before the Berlin wall fell. We were part of the biggest ever mobilisation against the World Bank. Addressing a rally of nearly 100,000 people at the Berlin wall I had said that the Berlin wall should be dismantled as should the wall between rich and poor the World Bank creates by locking the Third world into debt, privatising our resources, and transforming our economies into markets for multinational corporations. I spoke about how the alliance between the World Bank and global corporations was establishing a centrally controlled, authoritarian rule like communism in its control, but different in the objective of profits as the only end of power. As movements we sought and fought for bringing down all walls of power and inequality.
Friedman’s flat vision makes him blind to the emergence of corporate rule through the rules of corporate globalisation as the establishment of authoritarian rule and centrally controlled economies. He presents the collapse of the Berlin wall as having “tipped the balance of power across the world toward those advocating democratic, consensual, free-market-oriented governance, and away from those advocating authoritarian rule with centrally planned economies.”
Citizens’ movements fighting globalisation advocate democratic, consensual governance and fight W.T.O, the World Bank and global corporations precisely because they are undemocratic and dictatorial; they are authoritarian and centralized. The W.T.O agreement on Agriculture was drafted by Amstutz, a Cargill official, who led the U.S negotiations on agriculture during the Urguay Round and is now in-charge of Food and Agriculture in the Iraqi Constitution. This is a centrally planned authoritarian rule over food and farming.
That is why the democratic and consensual response of citizens’ movements and Third world governments in Cancun led to the collapse of the W.T.O. Ministerial. And it was the so called “flatteners” who were erecting walls – the barricades at which the Korean farmer Lee took his life, the walls that the U.S Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tried to create between “Can do” and “Can’t do” countries. What Zoellick and Friedman fail to see is that what they call “can’t do” is the “Can do” for the defense of farmers in the face of dumping and unfair trade. Their world is shaped by and focussed in Cargill – our world is shaped by and focussed on 300 million species and 6 billion people.
The biggest wall created by W.T.O is the wall of the trade related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement. (TRIPS). This too is part of a centrally planned authoritarian rule. As Monsanto admitted, in drafting the agreement, the corporations organised as the Intellectual Property Committee were the “patients, diagnosticians and physicians all in one.” Instead of telling the story of TRIPS and how corporate and WTO led globalisation is forcing India to dismantle its democratically designed patent laws, creating monopolies on seeds and medicines, pushing farmers to suicide and denying victims of AIDS, Cancer, TB, and Malaria access to life saving drugs, Friedman engages in another dishonest step to create a flat world.
He presents the open source Software Movement initiated by Richard Stallman, as a flattening trend of corporate globalisation when Stallman is a leading critic of intellectual property and corporate monopolies, and a fighter against the walls corporations are creating to prevent farmers from saving seeds, researchers from doing research, and software developers from creating new software. By presenting open sourcing in the same category as outsourcing and off shore production, Friedman hides corporate greed, corporate monopolies and corporate power, and presents corporate globalisation as human creativity and freedom.
This is deliberate dishonesty, not just result of flat vision. That is why in his stories from India he does not talk Dr. Hamid of CIPLA who provided AIDS medicine to Africa for $ 200 when U.S. corporations wanted to sell them for $ 20,000 and who has called W.T.O’s patent laws “genocidal”. And inspite of Friedman’s research team having fixed an appointment with me to fly down to Bangalore to talk about farmers’ suicides for the documentary Friedman refers to. Friedman cancelled the appointment at the last minute.
Telling a one sided story for a one sided interest seems to be Friedman’s fate. That is why he talks of 550 million Indian youth overtaking Americans in a flat world. When the entire information Technology/outsourcing sector in India employs only a million out of a 1.2 billion people. Food and farming, textiles and clothing, health and education are nowhere in Friedman’s monoculture of mind locked into IT.
Friedman presents a 0.1% picture and hides 99.9%. And in the 99.9% are Monsanto’s seed monopolies and the suicides of thousands of wars. In the eclipsed 99.9% are the 25 million women who disappeared in high growth areas of India because a commodified world has rendered women a dispensable sex. In the hidden 99.9% economy are thousands of tribal children in Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan who died of hunger because the public distribution system for food has been dismantled to create markets for agribusiness. The world of the 99.9% has grown poorer because of the economic globalisation.
And it is their rights we fight for. We work to build alternatives for a just, sustainable, peaceful world – a shared and common world – in which our common humanity and universal responsibility links us in earth democracy. The walls of exclusion and discrimination that globalisation has strengthened are made by men in power. Like the Berlin wall, they too must dissolve, because authoritarian rule is inconsistent with free societies, and corporate globalisation is a form of authoritarianism and dictatorship which is robbing us of our fundamental freedoms and our full human potentials.
And the world we are reclaiming and rejuvenating is not flat. It is diverse democratic and decentralised, it is sustainable and secure for all, based on cooperation and sharing of the earth’s resources and our skills and creativity. The freedom we seek is freedom for all, not freedom for a few. Free-trade is about corporate freedom and citizen disenfranchisement.
What Friedman is presenting as a new “flatness” is in fact a new caste system, a new Brahminism, locked in hierarchies of exclusion. In Friedman’s caste system, the “Shudras”, are all whose livelihoods are being robbed to expand the markets and increase the profits of global corporations. They are shut out by invisible social and economic walls created by globalisation while it dismantles walls for protection of people’s livelihoods and jobs.
The Indians being drawn into the U.S economy through outsourcing are not the new Brahmins. They must be satisfied with one-fifth to one-eighth of the salaries of their U.S counterparts, and what is outsourced is “grunt work” “number crunching”, standardized, mechanical operations. Outsourcing is Taylorism of the information age. The control is in the hands of the corporations in U.S. They are the Brahmins who monopolise knowledge through intellectual property. Outsourcing and off-shoring is like the “putting out” work in the industrial revolution. These are old tools for maintaining exploitative hierarchies – not new flat earth linkages between equals, equal in creativity and equal in rights.
Free trade freedom is flat earth freedom. Earth democracy is full earth freedom and round earth freedom – freedom for all beings to live their lives within the abundant, renewable but limited bounds of the earth. We do not inhabit a world without limits where unbounded corporate greed can be unleashed and allowed to destroy the earth and rob people of their security, their livelihoods, their resources. Full earth freedom is born in free societies, shaped by free people recognizing the freedom of all. Diversity is an expression of full earth freedom. “Flatness” is a symptom of the absence of real freedom. Facism seeks flatness.