Thomas Friedman is Wrong

In his latest New York Times column entitled “All Together Now“, 3-times Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, Thomas Friedman puts forward an interesting notion – and not one I believe he is at all mistaken in believing: the geo-political and economic climate is changing. Yet Friedman is fundamentally wrong when he talks of four “ruling bargains”, claiming radical shifts are in the pipeline.

Friedman’s four core premises are as follows:

CHINA: The relationship between the authoritarian Chinese government and their populace is changing. The Chinese economy is also changing – making the transition from being manufacturing-oriented to service-focused. More “freedom” and a better-sense of “rule of law” are inevitable.

MIDDLE-EAST: The Arab Spring is just the beginning. “In time, virtually every Middle East autocrat will be deposed or forced to share power.”

EUROPE: “One way or another, the European Union is going to get smaller or tighter, but in the process it could go through a chaotic, world-shaking transition that is not priced into the market yet.”

AMERICA: “Either our two parties find a way to collaborate in the center around this new hybrid politics, or a third party is going to emerge.”

Not to sound at all dystopian, but I feel Friedman’s piece is wildly optimistic in a world that frankly looks a lot more like one on the verge of anarchic chaos.  Allow me to address his points individually:


ON CHINA

 

To steal a malapropism from George Bush – any real hope that the Chinese government is about to open their doors to democracy, become any more transparent than the opaque great-wall they presently hide behind, or endow “freedoms” upon their people would be a serious “misunderestimation”of the state of affairs in China.

Yes; journalists are doing their best to organise resistance to government censors (best evidenced by the albeit still-limited internal coverage of the train crash near Wenzhou this July) – but to assume that an increasingly restrictive Orwellian-style “ministry-of-truth” – led by Li Changchun – would be willing to give up the reins of power at a time when their international influence, military might and soft-power capital is rapidly outgrowing any other world-power’s, at a time when America’s own grip on world affairs is slackening, weakened by a multi-faceted “war on terror”, “war on drugs” and insatiable desire for liberal-interventionism… is quite frankly absurd.

Since Mao Zedong established the PRC in 1949, China has been ruled with an unwavering iron fist. Economic reforms in 1978 changed the nature of the country, but it remains strictly authoritarian and the idea of an uprising or insurrection is unthinkable in a state that is one of the most restrictive on earth. The press, the internet, freedom of religion, reproduction and assembly are all overseen by the state.

Localised, Twitter-like microblogging websites offer some hope for the spread of information in China, as the state recognises that these have grown to such proportions that pulling the plug on them is simply no longer an option (as with past developments online), however that isn’t stopping government agencies from censoring the debate and discussion itself that takes place on sites such as Weibo and state-media from decrying the sites’ potential for the spread of “unsubstantiated malicious foreign rumors and lies” (aka. criticism of the government and damaging truths that would more conveniently be buried). Local governments however, quick to appear transparent, are signing up en masse. The Chinese government views the internet as yet another medium for the spread of propaganda, but also as a threat to be contained.

Exactly how Friedman’s predicted democratic freedom will emerge is anybody’s guess, as he fails to elaborate beyond his blue-sky thinking (in the “out-of-touch with reality”, “ungrounded thinking” sense of the word). This, after all, is a country whose people are subject to such propaganda and repression that in spite of poor average living-conditions, a 2008 Pew Research Center survey pegged public satisfaction “with the way things are going in their country and with their nation’s economy” at 86%, the highest in the world.


ON THE MIDDLE-EAST

 

A nice thought, for sure, the overthrowing of dictators across an entire continent, but his claim that “the old model can’t hold” simply ignores the reality of the situation in the Middle East- a part of the world that has never known true democracy. The big winners of the revolutions have not been pro-democracy, secularist revolutionaries (although they may have been the cause of the overthrow), but the military-rulers and Islamists- evidenced particularly well in Egypt, a point made by Slavoj Žižek.

No liberal, secular democracy is around the corner. Though the dictatorial figureheads may have all but disappeared in Libya and Egypt- the old ruling classes still pull the string- supported by different sections of society. Whilst Mubarak may have been staunchly anti-Islamist and looked to other segments of society for support, the Egyptian military is capitalising on the present situation, and the rapidly emerging (formerly banned) Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt can hardly be seen as representing Francis Fukushima’s “end of history” that Friedman so clearly subscribes to.

One dictator is down, but will a replacement government be any less despotic? This is a situation that may be replicated across the middle-east and North Africa, although the Arab Spring itself seems to be petering out as it becomes clear no further NATO interventionism is incoming (certainly in the Gulf, at least). More governments may fall yet, but who will assume their place?

In his 1995 book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, Friedman himself argued that when challenged, culturally Islamic (or specifically Middle-Eastern leaders) must respond violently in order to preserve their strength, authority and position. This we have seen across the continent, during and following the Arab spring- but such violent oppression has always been a function of the state in these countries, as evidenced by the leaked caches of intelligence documents from Egypt and Libya- as well as the State-Department wires released by Wikileaks.

In his 1999 book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, Friedman argued that the greatest danger in the 21st century would come not from competing superpowers or rogue states, but from the angry masses, empowered by globalisation. This proved prescient in the wake of 9/11- but in a sense is also relevant today. Friedman’s underlying argument was that “empowered… angry individuals” don’t want to “change the world”, they just want to “destroy” it.

The riots here in England this year are a good example of this frustrated hopelessness, but countries like Egypt, Tunisia and perhaps especially Libya, all run the risk of descending into this anarchic chaos on a more permanent basis, with the restoration of law and order more of an Afghanistan-sized problem.

From the the unrest and insurrection seen, a series of fail-states are more likely to emerge than a true democracy- and so long as this lack of democracy persists, as Friedman points out in his book “Longitudes and Attitudes”, Arab governments will continue to deflect criticism of their political freedoms (or lack-thereof) and economic failings on an all-encompassing enemy, the United States of America, providing a get-out “explanation” for the withholding of democratic freedoms. It is therefore in our interests to push for a democratic Middle-East, left with no choice but to accept responsibility for its own mistakes, left with no choice but to serve the electorate, rather than oppress it.

Another point made in the book is the resilience of the House of Saud, who in the wake of 9/11 only increased their co-operation with funamentalist groups, promising to allow them free reign to fundraise for the likes of Bin Laden in exchange for not challenging the ruling regime.

In Syria, too, Bashar al-Assad is only copying out the playbook of his father Hafez, who ruled Syria for 29-years until his death in 2000, surviving a February-1982 revolt by Sunni Muslims by shelling the ctiy of Hama, killing between ten and fourty thousand civillians.

My skepticism of Friedman’s claim that continent-wide democracy really isaround the corner, is at least partly vindicated by history.


ON EUROPE

 

The Council for the Future of Europe (aka. CFE – whose members include Nouriel Roubini and Joseph Stiglitz), may disagree with Friedman on that.

Let’s be clear: when Friedman says Europe will become smaller or tighter, he’s actually right. These are the two options Europe faces- but the former is extremely unlikely. As he acknowledges, it would be detrimental for Germany to leave as its exports would suffer greatly as a result- and to prevent stepping on the slippery-slope to eurozone collapse, at this point in time a PIIGS-abandonment of the Euro seems equally improbable.

The reason for the eurozone’s current North/South divide, the notion that there are a group of responsible states (namely France and Germany) having to bail out many of the remaining nations (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), stems from an economic union lacking in political unity. The expectation of fiscal responsibility, the idea that all states would spend within their means and take a German-style approach to spending, without fiscal union to ensure it, was obviously a mistake in the formation of the monetary-only eurozone.

Far from letting these problems bring it down, or shrink its membership or remit, the result of the economic turbulence in Europe will lead to tighter integration- and quite possibly, in the long-term, to prevent a repeat- more ceding of powers to Brussels in matters that concern eurozone states economically. In order to assure orderly resolution of outstanding debts and prevent rapid devaluation of the euro, a Europe-wide solution is necessary.

Additionally, as highlighted by the EU2020 Strategy, growth and employment is necessary for the continent to move forward. Whilst austerity is accepted as necessary, it should not jeopardise the economic recovery of European nations (see: IMF warning on the matter). There is growing agreement that medium-term austerity of the kind we see today across Europe and the US should be coupled with short-term stimulus to prevent a double-dip, or growth recession.

Multilateral action and co-ordination is needed when it comes to macro-economic policymaking, and even those outside the Eurozone but within the EU (the UK, for instance) should not expect to be exempt from part-taking in the effort to head off a double-dip recession. Nouriel Roubini agrees; countries like the UK who still have market access “can stop a second depression”, with sensible policy-making (although that may be asking a bit much from a Liberal-Conservative coalition).

As the CFE‘s September 5th report concludes, “supporting European integration is not a matter of solidarity but of enlightened self-interest”.


ON AMERICA

 

I agree with the bulk of what Friedman says with regards to America’s immediate problems and future prospects, and I don’t want to nit-pick… but I rather feel he once again presents an “ideal” as though it really a realistic possibility.

He’s right when he cites the rapidly expanding deficit as a major problem, but his failure to pin it on the absolutist brinksmanship of the Republican party, his desire to seem non-partisan and avoid laying the blame with any one group, when one side is clearly at fault; is his failing.

The Obama administration as well as House and Senate democrats, have repeatedly shown a willingness to negotiate. They accept that cuts are required, but also dare to suggest that in a country where (according to the IRS) the rich pay less tax than the poor, perhaps a more progressive system of taxation is required. Obama’s modest budget proposals this year that earned him the moniker of “socialist fascist communist scum” from a frightening number of mainstream Republican commentators (see: FOX News commentary, even today) proposed a hike in taxes affecting only individuals earning over $200,000 and families earning upwards of $250,000 a year – from 33-36% and from 35-36% respectively.

This is a change designed to impact only the richest in society, those who can afford to pay, without hurting the stretched middle-classes at a time of economic uncertainty. This is a change that had the Republicans not blocked outright (citing falaciously and ironically the “economic damage” of any tax increase), would have raised $678 billion over the next decade, going a long way in keeping the United States’ deficit down.

The Republican party today (once a party many would have referred to as the Grand Old Party), represents America’s religious right. In terms of reality it is anti-science, in terms of economics it is anti-reality, its social policies as regressive as its economics. Yet through corporatism, deference and religious manipulation it controls a majority in the House of Representatives and is positioned to seriously challenge Obama for the presidency in 2012.

Agree or disagree with Obama, love or hate his policies- when he assumed office in the midst of the largest financial crisis in eighty or so years, it’s your damned responsibility as a citizen of the United States of America to want him to succeed. After all; a crisis that poses an existential threat to the United States and its future role in shaping world affairs, you’d think would supercede political ambition.

Yet just a year after Obama took office, Mitch McConnell (Senate Republican leader) declared his greatest legislative priority was not rescuing the economy. It was not creating jobs. It was not reforming the financial system. It was not preventing the collapse of the housing market. Rather his focus whilst Obama was in office was to be ensuring Obama a one-term president.

There is no desire to negotiate. The Republican party does not see it in its interests to serve its country whilst Obama is President. Rather, a political point-blank blockade is their tool of choice- all the while Republicans accuse the other side of “playing politics” and the inequality keeps on growing, aided by blatantly skewed policies designed to benefit the upper-echelons of society.

Perhaps I give not the American people enough credit, but in a nation so polarised, so obsessed with its constitution and its Bible, in the grip of a permanent, patriotic superiority complex – even with an evil as great as the Republican party, I fail to see a third party arising out of the ashes to challenge the centrist Obama from the left or the centre-right. The once “common-sense centrist” Republican party has lurched violently to the right with the entryist tea-party movement hijacking their platform.

Friedman envisions a better America, one free from such ridiculous partisanship, where a third party is able to mediate and compromise. So long as commentators like he fail to take the root causes of the problems to task, no such ideal America will emerge. Indeed, the country will be crippled, strangled by the very constitutional arrangements that have made it the super-power it is today. The legislature is not merely divided (the House versus the Senate), but it is dysfunctional, too.

Friedman highlights some very valid problems and makes some good points, but ventures into the realms of feel-good, blindly optimistic thinking all too frequently. If we are to deal with the challenges we face, we cannot assume they will be self-correcting. We cannot hope that things resolve themselves in a manner which perfectly suits are wishes. We actively have to push for democratic reform in countries like China and the Middle-East. We must act on the economy and not simply assure ourselves that a magical third-party will emerge from the dust that piles up over America as she is grounded by inaction. We should not resign Europe to failure and collapse, but focus on realistic measures that can be taken to prevent the eurozone imploding. Times are tough, this we must accept, but there are measures we can take, if only we accept it is not already too late.

I want to agree with Thomas Friedman, but now is not the time for another confidence fairy.