Matthew's Reviews > The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman
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's review
Sep 08, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: books-on-pod, real-worldy

Detailed, thorough, and very informative. Friedman has a folksy style of journalism that brings complex business and social processes down to earth (though he also has an undue penchant for coining obnoxious phrases, like "glocalize" or "Islamo-Leninist"). Good for getting a grip on the major issues of globalization, including things that affect you every day and you probably know nothing about.

But you have to read between the lines. Friedman is openly supportive of globalization, and his presentation is generally from a corporate-level perspective with only occasional sorties into the gritty realities of the people who suffer because of it. I find his excessive focus on globalization's winners--India and China--disingenuous and his almost complete lack of any reference to Latin America and Africa disturbing. I find it irritating that he fails to decode the euphemisms that his executive interviewees commonly use, such as Wal-Mart's CEO referring to its "low-cost business culture" (which means no healthcare for employees). He has far too much faith in the magical power of markets to solve problems, breezily dismisses most of the serious objections to the current trends, and refuses to take seriously the social and psychological, in addition to economic, effects of globalization. But that's my political bent; your mileage may vary.

This book has two main problems unconnected to political philosophy. First, proponents of globalization, especially journalistic trendcasters, face an insoluble paradox. By their own accounts, what is happening right now is a drastic reorganization that is an order of magnitude larger than the Industrial Revolution, an order of magnitude faster, and accelerating all the time. Yet they talk about these revolutionary developments as if the changes can be managed by reformed healthcare and education policies. The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by massive dislocation, population migrations, revolutions, colonialism, wrenching poverty, industrialized total war, and so on. If globalization is really so huge and so fast, then pretending that the same--or worse--is not going to happen is just stupid.

Second, Friedman talks a lot about nations like India, China, and the U.S. with detailed policy critiques and prescriptions, but he seems to miss the logical result of globalization: the death of the nation-state. The free flow of capital and the internationalization of labor pools means transnational corporations with more money and more power than governments, with no national loyalties to tie them down and no serious rivals except each other. The erosion of the nation-state, and the imagined communities upon which modern identities are based, is as revolutionary a phenomenon as its formation in the first place, and that will necessarily change everything. I fail to understand why Friedman does not see the implications of the processes that he describes.

Anyhoo. It's worth reading, even if Friedman makes you as angry as he made me, because at the least it brings up some issues that people should really start thinking about more carefully.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
September 8, 2008 – Shelved
September 25, 2008 – Shelved as: books-on-pod
October 14, 2008 – Shelved as: real-worldy

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Matthew I think you should read the new one and tell me. Fair's fair. : )

Marie I like your review..I'm about half way through, and skimmed a lot of the rest for a class, but I came to the same conclusion. I especially was unnerved by his "sorting out" chapter In which, we are supposed to just sort out these little trivial problems like lack of health care, low wages, poverty, etc...

trivialchemy Did you even read this book? I'm not done with it yet, but so far everything that you so meticulously itemize as ignored by Friedman or problematic is in fact discussed at great length. (Wal-Mart euphemisms, health care, cultural dislocation, strife, and poverty as a result of accelerating reorganization, death of the nation-state, etc.)

message 4: by Matthew (last edited Jan 15, 2014 07:26AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Matthew Read it I did indeed. (Of course this was version 2.0, two years ago, and who knows what he's changed in the last few years. Friedman himself has changed a number of important opinions on various policy issues in that time, and I'm not sure how much that is reflected in the current 3.0 version. I'm also a bit weirded out by this book-in-perpetual-progress invention.)

My critique is not based on the assertion that he doesn't notice these things; just that he seems to brush them off. He does not discuss Africa and Latin America, the big losers in globalization, at length; if anything he just uses them as models of what not to do and pretends that there were no external constraints/pressures. He mentions dislocation, but always with the subtext that as long as you (and/or your culture at large) is sufficiently nimble and savvy then you should be fine, and if not then it's your own fault. And honestly I don't remember him even touching on the possibility that there might be problems insoluble (or even imperceptible) by Westphalian nation-states, but I could be misremembering.

Bottom line is that I think it's disingenuous (if not just retarded) to suggest that globalization is, somehow at once, so revolutionary that it puts previous periods of revolutionary change to shame, and simultaneously a thing that can be easily managed with sound public policy. Historical change does not work that way. Especially when you are talking about unprecedented transnational structural changes in the global world-system.

Finish the book and see what you think.

April Lee This is precisely the critique that needed to be written.

Paula I gave it four stars for the writing and interest level. Yet my thoughts are very similar. He's very much a "we're on this ride, let's make the most of it and tough luck of you're not on board".

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