See how clean our factory is, see the good lighting, see the happy workers
July 9, 2000
AUSTIN, Texas -- We're at an interesting point in our discussions of
globalization, since we are just starting to think about how to think about
it. And we're also at one of those rare points when you can see the
conventional wisdom start to harden into something akin to an ideology. Or
we could just think of this as The Tom Friedman Problem.
Thomas Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and
one of the smartest, best-informed and most persuasive people around. His
columns are usually irresistibly sensible, and he is in the Golden Rolodex,
making frequent appearances on television chat shows. He is also the author
of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, a book I
believe will be featured in the intellectual histories of our time.
What Friedman has done is give many people -- especially in government,
business and journalism -- a framework in which to think about
globalization, which is one those things, like global warming, you'd
probably rather not think about. Friedman not only reports on globaliztion,
he is something of an enthusiast about it. In fact, from a certain point of
view, he's in some danger of becoming the Rudyard Kipling of a new form of
Which is not fair to Friedman, who is far too bright not to see the
complexities, dangers and sheer, bloody unfairness of much of "The One Big
Thing'' he touts. But it does bring us to the problem of the public debate
over all this. Bob Ozer, a lawyer and something of Friedman fan, notes that
the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle sent
Friedman into the screaming meemies. The reaction, of course, was to the two
dozen violent protesters who got 98 percent of the media attention, not the
tens of thousands who spent several days in Seattle listening to a splendid
program of speakers and debates -- but that's showbiz.
Since Friedman is the Establishment media guru of globalization, others
took his lead, and it is now chic to dismiss anyone who raises questions
about globalization, much less condemns it, as too hopelessly retro, they
don't get it, just afraid of change, and so forth. Organized labor, so
passe, just wants to protect those union jobs. Bunch of nuts like Ross
Perot, talking about that giant sucking sound and all that. All the
forward-looking people, all those bright, high-tech movers and shakers and
Wall Street wonders are fully in favor of globalization and think we just
need to work out a few kinks along the way. Alan Greenspan kindly advises us
not to be afraid of this brave new world.
But what if all those forward-looking people are wrong? What if we should
be looking at all this in another framework entirely? What if we are seeing
not some wondrous new world order, but the same old capitalism we know so
well, only this time unrestrained on a global level? This alternative
framework is well-presented by, among others, William Greider, who is also a
superb journalist, in his book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of
You could say that Friedman and Greider are the two polarities of this
debate, although that would be simplistic, since you will find they also
agree to a remarkable extent. But if their descriptive analyses are similar,
their prescriptive analyses are not. Greider thinks we needs some checks on
the unrestrained flow of capital around the globe and the recent financial
disaster in Asia certainly suggests he may well be right.
What annoys me is not that some agree with Friedman and some agree with
Greider, but that the Friedman faction, if not Friedman himself, has taken
to condescending dismissal of all those who are not chipper and gung-ho
about globalization. It has yet to be shown that we are not witnessing a new
form of colonialism.
To descend from these lofty macro-economic realms to the dreary particular,
let's take the case of sweatshops. As you know, sweatshops are becoming an
international symbol of what's wrong with globalization. They have touched
off a wave of activism on college campuses and even spurred concern by some
of the international corporations that run them because they make for very
bad public relations. It's not nice to have it widely reported that your
workers in Third World countries make a miserable pittance, work in abysmal
conditions and are forced to run around in the sun for punishment, and so
Ever on the qui vive on the PR front, something called the Apparel Industry
Partnership in turn gave birth to the Fair Labor Association, which was
supposed to be a lovely cooperative effort by concerned companies, labor and
human rights groups to ensure our clothes are not being made by Chinese
slave labor. Unfortunately, this outfit was just a wee, tiny bit imbalanced
in favor of industry. So much so that both the labor representative on the
board and the largest church group both quit. And as Alexander Cockburn
pointed out in a recent column in The Nation, this toothless watchdog is set
up so information on overseas factories is kept secret and a company can get
a "No Sweat" endorsement for a product even if 95 percent of it is from
Further, apparel companies like Nike have now taken to making large
contributions to some of their former critics, leading to a distinct
quieting of the criticism. Meanwhile, defenders of globalization assure us
that all is now hunky-dory on the sweatshop front, since they have this
dandy new system in place. See, say the Friedmanites gleefully, they fixed
Anyone who has ever done the maquiladora two-step on the Texas-Mexican
border knows exactly how this mismatch between public relations and reality
works. Of course International Mega Corp. would be delighted to have you
visit their model factory with all the happy, smiling workers, who are so
well paid by local standards. See how clean our factory is, see the good
lighting, see the happy workers.
Try coming back sometime when the PR guy isn't giving guided tours. Try
talking to the workers at home instead of in front of their bosses. This is
a very old game. In my experience, many international corporations would a
hell of a lot rather spend money on public relations than on paying their
workers. And shame on those who allow themselves to be fooled by this old PR
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out
more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers
and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
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