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The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization

by Thomas L. Friedman [foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times]

Anchor Books, 2000 (revised edition)

Sometime in late 1989 the nature of world society changed. In the bad old Cold War era, governments choked economies, leaving consumers at the mercy of bureaucrats. International conflict endangered trade and investment. Due to sluggish technology, moving or communicating across the globe was hard and expensive. Information and power were concentrated in the hands of small elites. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the old restraints on world markets. As international trade and finance grew, borders faded. Stultifying political division gave way to dynamic economic integration. By coincidence, technology leapt forward around the same time. Computer and communication advances sparked the Internet revolution. Empowered by such technology, individuals experienced a kind of liberation: as consumers and investors they could shape their economic destiny, as citizens they gained access to information and a greater voice in state affairs. The glorious new era of globalization had arrived.

That, in a nutshell, is Thomas Friedman's picture of globalization. In many ways, it expresses conventional wisdom. Globalization, he says, stands for "the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before--in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before" (7). It is made possible, of course, by its "defining technologies," the Internet above all. Its driving idea, he adds, is free-market capitalism, which now has no serious rival. And globalization has all kinds of nice consequences. For example, it aids democracy because in a world of fast connections and open markets, governments must become open and responsive as well. It also gives more people more financial, technological, and symbolic power. It does not serve everyone the same way: unprepared turtles that cannot keep up and olive tree huggers disturbed by change engage in a backlash. But it will not change course: globalization is "almost" as inevitable as the dawn.

"It," one realizes, is and does many things. In fact, Friedman acknowledges, "globalization is everything and its opposite. It can be incredibly empowering and incredibly coercive. It can democratize opportunity and democratize panic . . . . It leaves you behind faster and faster, and it catches up to you faster and faster. While it is homogenizing cultures, it is also enabling people to share their individuality farther and wider. It makes us want to chase after the Lexus more intensely than ever and cling to our olive trees more tightly than ever (406; emphasis in original)".

None of this is new. The very title of Friedman's book echoes, without attribution, Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld. What does he have to add? Drawing on his extensive travels, Friedman offers dozens of anecdotes. He illustrates the "democratization of information" with a story about a colleague's Indian cook, who is able to watch dozens of channels on a pirate cable channel that also enables his wife to learn English. To emphasize that the world economy truly has become more tightly connected, he tells of an interview in which he asked a Thai minister how it feels to have investor Tom Friedman as a constituent. In this way, Friedman gives readers a feel for globalization. He also helps to interpret the process by giving other people's ideas a catchy twist. Neoliberal economic rules that require countries to open up constitute a "golden straitjacket." Investors using computer technology to pursue gains in world financial markets act as an "electronic herd." Pressure from abroad forcing democratic change in authoritarian countries amounts to "globalution." Together with his entertaining stories, such more-or-less memorable labels for general ideas help to account for the book's popularity.

The real secret to its success, however, lies in Friedman's particular take on globalization, the aspect of his book that makes it stand out in a crowded field. To use the lingo of his colleagues in journalism, Friedman is globalization's ultimate spin doctor. Yes, he acknowledges the pain it can cause and the backlash it provokes. As a roving reporter, he is well aware of the rough places where globalization has spread its blessings unevenly. Almost as an afterthought, he identifies some seeds of its possible self-destruction, such as the burdens of being connected and the damage done by unfair intrusion. None of this can dent Friedman's relentless optimism. You want fewer "walls" and more freedom? Greater wealth and more democracy? A less divisive world and more opportunity for self-expression? Globalization is your answer. It leads, says this Dr. Pangloss, to the best of all possible worlds.

Underneath the shiny gloss lies a partial account of globalization that bears a reasonably close resemblance to reality. It does involve many of the revolutionary changes Friedman describes, it does entail many of the beneficial consequences he emphasizes. Still, as the quibbling academic is bound to insist, stories do not an argument make, and anecdotes need not add up to evidence. Friedman's case is not so much wrong as unpersuasive. Take the issue of democratization. Globalization may aid the democratic cause. But where, under what circumstances, to what extent? Dissertations have been devoted to such questions. Friedman considers none of the relevant literature. Instead of weighing arguments and analyzing cases, he cites one of his many friends, the scholar Larry Diamond. A respected authority says x, case closed. And so it goes, with issue after issue. Friedman recounts what "my friend Bob" or "my sister Jane" told him, and expects the reader to nod in assent. By relying only indirectly on the scholarly work of others as funneled through informants, this journalistic practice relieves Friedman of the obligation, perhaps more familiar to the average undergraduate than to New York Times columnists, to credit relevant sources. More importantly, it assumes but does not earn the reader's trust. With respect to democracy, for example, Friedman boldly states that "China's going to have a free press" (183). That would be nice, and one hopes he is right. But is he? Chinese authorities have been doing their level best to disprove his point. Is that only a temporary delusion on their part? Some globally integrated economies like Singapore and Malaysia have managed to restrain the democratic impulses they are supposed to have felt. Why should the Chinese scenario be different? Friedman's monocausal story doesn't say. It lacks any nuance.

That lack is partly due to Friedman's framework. Once he has set out to find instances of "Lexus" and "olive tree" tendencies, he is bound to find them. Every event must be categorized, however awkwardly. Thus, India's decision to resume nuclear testing was not a calculated, though risky, exercise in geopolitics, a deliberate move against Pakistan that also countered rising Chinese influence in the region, but rather a case of "[t]he olive tree trumping the Lexus" (37). As one village doctor explained, it was about self-respect--and Friedman takes his word for it. The lack of nuance also shows in the way Friedman accentuates the positive. Shortly after he published the first edition of his book, the NATO action in Kosovo seemed to refute Friedman's vaunted golden arches theory of conflict prevention, which claimed that "[n]o two countries that had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's" (248). Friedman's response? It's "an exception that, in the end, only proves how powerful is the general rule" (253). World War I proved to be a similar "exception" to Norman Angell, who, as Friedman acknowledges, made a similar case long ago. The point is not that they are all wrong--they do have a case. The problem is that even the most powerful "rules" only partially capture complex historical processes, so that confidently relying on any one of them is bound to lead you astray.

In fairness, of course, Friedman did not set out to produce the definitive scholarly account of globalization. He has succeeded in what he did set out to do: to make globalization come alive for a large audience, and to give an unfinished story a coherent plot. Reading The Lexus and the Olive Tree is rather like catching the Zeitgeist of the 1990s in an act of ventriloquism. As evidence of the spirit of the times, as a smooth expression of the conventional wisdom, it is at least a sociologically useful document. And at a time when the Zeitgeist seems to be turning more pessimistic, Friedman's tale refreshingly balances the sob stories that are becoming all too common.

FL/00

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Copyright 2000-2001 - Frank Lechner