DOS Capitalism

Culture and technology.
April 18 1999 3:30 AM

DOS Capitalism

Thomas Friedman embraces the forces of globalization.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization

By Thomas L. Friedman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 320 pages; $27.50

Book Cover

Writers have long sought metaphors to capture the conflict of new and old worlds. Henry Adams posited an antithesis between the Dynamo and the Virgin--the mysterious electrical generators he saw at the Great Exhibition of 1900 and the religious devotion that built Chartres Cathedral. Adams saw the new technological forces of a century ago as awe-inspiring, destructive, and almost beyond comprehension. His opposition has been revised many times since. Recently, for instance, the political scientist Benjamin Barber described the contest as "Jihad vs. McWorld." As one may gather from his terms, Barber is hardly enamored of either globalism or tribalism, the modernizing principle or the medievalizing one. Both, in his view, undermine the viability of participatory democracy.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

The newest entrant in this contest of symbols is Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, who offers a somewhat sunnier pair in his new book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The Lexus, a luxury car made mostly by robots in a state-of-the-art Japanese factory, stands for progress--"all the anonymous, transnational, homogenizing, standardizing market forces and technologies that make up today's globalizing economic system," as he puts it. The olive tree, which grows in the Middle East, where Friedman was stationed for several years as a correspondent for the Times, stands for nationalism, religion, tribe, community--gnarled, rooted things that cling to the soil. Friedman believes that the clash between these two principles defines the post-Cold War era in international relations. "The Lexus and olive tree [are] wrestling with each other in the new system of globalization," as he puts it, energetically compounding his metaphor.

Friedman is a Lexus man himself--he lets it be known that he drives one of these sublime sedans around the Washington suburb where he lives, when he's not trading Internet stocks on the Internet, communicating with CEOs by cell phone, or eating a Big Mac in some far-flung capital. He avers that he respects olive trees and aspires to preserve as many as possible but that there's no stopping, or even slowing, technological advancement, market integration, or American cultural hegemony.

His point of view is that of the Treasury Department, the Economist, and the Davos World Economic Forum. Capital now moves swiftly and freely around the globe--a phenomenon Friedman calls, in one of his catchier coinages, an "electronic herd." Because this herd can stampede at will, if not at whim, developing nations, now known as "emerging markets," no longer have much discretion about which economic policies to pursue. If your country lacks a capitalist-friendly financial structure with a convertible currency, "transparency" of information, and protections for private property, First World investment money will simply go elsewhere. As the leader of a country, you can choose to conform to international economic norms or you can choose to be poor. Friedman makes this point various ways, saying it, quoting others saying it, and quoting himself saying it to others. He calls this dilemma "the golden straightjacket."

But rather than consider whether we should be altogether pleased that the entire world seems to be converging upon the same economic model, Friedman simply declares it a nonissue. The integrated world market is coming, no one can do anything about it, so the question of how we like it is irrelevant. You might call Friedman's foreign policy market realism. Capitalism, not liberal democracy, emerged triumphant from the Cold War. And though a free economy tends to open up a society over time, growth and democracy aren't necessarily connected in the short term. To Friedman's way of thinking, the question of whether a government has elected leaders or respects human rights has far less effect on its immediate prosperity than the question of whether it listens to the International Monetary Fund. Russia and India, which have something resembling free elections, are stagnating because they refuse to liberalize their economies. China, which has a thriving capitalist economy but doesn't have free elections, survived the Asian economic crisis largely unscathed.

The problem with Friedman's book is not that he's wrong about economics or international relations. I think he's largely right, though as I'll argue in a minute, he overstates the ease with which the Lexus and the olive tree can happily coexist. The problem is that he has distilled the conventional wisdom of the enlightened financier circa 1999 without adding much thinking of his own. Financial metaphors running away with him, Friedman describes his journalistic method as "information arbitrage." He sees himself acquiring knowledge at wholesale from the top diplomats, hedge fund managers, and central bankers to whom his Times column grants him access, and selling at retail to general readers. Reporting on things seen and heard while globe-trotting, with a bit of opinion thrown in, works well in Friedman's biweekly Times column, but a book needs to do more than endorse the wisdom of others--especially if the wisdom is as familiar and widely accepted as that of Robert Hormats of Goldman Sachs and Lawrence Summers of the Treasury Department. The fact that Friedman agrees with these guys is no excuse for neglecting challenges from such skeptics as George Soros, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman, or the aforementioned Barber, none of whose views he considers.

A subsidiary fault is rhetorical hyperventilation. The less Frieidman has to say of his own, the more he relies on slogans and strained neologisms. Countries, he tells us, have economic operating systems of different degrees of sophistication, which he dubs DOScaptial 1.0, 2.0, etc. "Globalution" is the way the "electronic herd" creates pressure for democracy. "Glocalism" is a culture's ability to profit from what's good about other cultures without soaking up what's bad. Backward countries and companies suffer from "Microchip Immune Deficiency" or MIDS. At times, Friedman manages to sound like Jesse Jackson at a rally. "The United States can destroy you by dropping bombs and the Supermarkets can destroy you by downgrading your bonds," he writes.

This penchant for Toffleresque gimmickry finally gets the better of him in the chapter titled "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention." Friedman's "insight," as he calls it, is that "no two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's." A variation on the theory that democracies don't go to war with each other, the golden arches hypothesis was proved false even before his book's publication date by the war between NATO and Serbia (where the Belgrade McDonald's franchises were promptly vandalized). An ethnic and territorial conflict that doesn't have much to do with globalization at all, the war in Kosovo defies Friedman's notion that international relations is now an extension of international economics.

As an evangelist for globalization, Friedman is intent on demonstrating that it's compatible with a respect for identity and tradition, that olive trees can grow next to Lexi. His Clintonian instincts tell him that any difficult choice must be a false choice. His happy-go-yuppie sensibility tells him that we can have our cake and eat it too, that technology can uphold tradition instead of undermining it. Thus Friedman spills over with hopeful juxtapositions garnered on his travels. He describes Muslims on a flight from Bahrain using the plane's global positioning system to pray toward Mecca, Kuwaiti feminists in veils and on the Internet, Kayapo Indians in a hut in the Brazilian rain forest watching soccer and monitoring the value of their gold-extraction rights on a satellite TV. This last example Friedman describes as "Lexus and olive tree in healthy balance."

Friedman is almost certainly correct in his belief that globalization is likely to make life better for people in remote places. But it won't do it while preserving their local cultures. It will do it by partially or completely obliterating them. That's what market capitalism does. It uproots and homogenizes as it enriches--like a Ronco appliance, as Friedman might say. I don't know anything about the Kayapos, but I'd wager that if they keep watching that satellite TV, they won't be in loin cloths and huts the next time the foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times helicopters in for a visit.