Friday, March 22, 2013

Thomas Friedman and the religion of Progress

I have just read Thomas Friedmann's 3 books, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, The World Is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Crowded. I was surprised that he is not an ideologue, but a thinker who sees in shades of grey. He is pro globalization but sees some of the problems. I am writing this in the hopes that I can alert him to something essential that he missed. Not due to stupidity but to history, a cultural accident.

The fact is that most Jews (except recently a few in Israel) have lost touch with a sense of place, not just by being nomadic, but by not participating in a local economy, which involves ecological (as opposed to industrial) agriculture and crafts and domestic services, not just information juggling. Of course by now this has become part of global culture, not just Jewish culture, but I think the origin of this loss is part of the Jewish experience of exile and a need to be mobile in one's livelihood. Tom talks a bit about Olive Trees, but in nationalistic terms, or in terms of identity and defending identity. He (and most of his race and class) have no idea of what it means to have a job that contributes directly to one's well being and the well being of one's family and community, instead of indirectly through money and what money can buy. They think that manual work is somehow devoid of intellectual components and is inferior to information juggling work. That competitiveness and speed are superior to cooperation and slow, methodical craftsmanship, relationship and nurture. That predation and escaping predation are the essence of life (the lion and the gazelle are used as metaphor for the "fast" world). I am very familiar with this worldview, as I was raised by two secular humanist, Jewish scientists, and became a scientist myself for a while. I have nothing against information juggling, except that it can lead to a very incomplete worldview. Not only is this worldview destructive of nature and community, but there is not much joy in it, especially in old age, when one is isolated from the sources of life.

I wish Tom could live for a week at the Possibility Alliance or some villages (if they still exist) where the local economy has not been devastated and people can still take care of themselves, each other and their land without money or aid from the industrial economy. Maybe if he could just watch the initial scene in Fiddler on the Roof, he would get the idea that wealth does not come from money, but from nature, manual (and intellectual) work, and relationships. This could be done through both globalization and localization, but localization does it better: nature is respected and seen as a partner or a mother, instead of a resource, an "environment" and a dumpsite, work is done by people (instead of machines and dehumanized slaves), the relationships are real instead of abstract (through money or an impersonal market). Once people have been stripped of their ability to take care of themselves in a local economy, globalization is an appealing choice. This certainly happened to the Jewish people in their diaspora, who made the best of it and developed a cosmopolitan, liberal, diversity-embracing, information juggling culture, the light side of globalization. But some people did not adapt to the destruction of local economies as well. They took sweatshop and help desk jobs. The situation is also analogous to Jews who have a choice between going to Auschwitz and working in Schindler's factories. Just because they choose the latter does not mean it is a good choice.

The Lexus is not a symbol of global tolerance and diversity or a higher standard of living. Those who have a vibrant local economy have no need for a Lexus or any other car, and for most modern conveniences such as computers, electricity, indoor plumbing, washing machines, television (though they might still choose some of these as luxuries). I say this based on my experience at the Possibility Alliance and from what I've read about craftspeople of old, who have very only a weak similarity with modern tradespeole (e.g. carpenters, electicians and plumbers).  I have tried blacksmithing and it is very intricate and takes lots of skill, both manual and intellectual. I have learned electrical wiring, which is much simpler, but still requires intelligence. I am still learning weaving, which is no less complex than theoretical physics. Industrialization destroyed the crafts and much information may be gone forever (are there any skilled coopers left?), in this so called age of information and progress. The surviving crafts are mostly for luxuries and baubles for a few rich people. This was opposed early on, but the industrial victors can now semantically control history and call it Progress and pay homage to it. A future topic for this blog will be on the history of the crafts after industrialization.

There is a myth that goes with Progress. It says how terrible life was before industrialization. If it was terrible in certain cases, it was because of tyranny, and ignorance of hygiene and perhaps a few other things, not because of lack of industrial technology. It did not take me hours to do my laundry (as the myth goes) and a washboard is not as good as a tub with a special hand-agitated plunger. The supposedly lifestyle improving technologies only become necessary once people's local culture and economy is destroyed. Tom knows that local cultures are destroyed by global capitalism (local market capitalism, if we can call it that, and trade are more benign), but he sees not their real value. In this he is complicit with Marx (quoted twice on this topic in two separate books) and the Bolsheviks.

Culture and economy are deeply intertwined. Tom gives feeble examples of community, such as attending PTA meetings, voting in local town meetings and meeting one's neighbors face to face (he is missing on even the disappearing local distributors of goods, such as pharmacies, hardware stores and local coffee shops and restaurants, though he mentions in one anectdote the disappearance of a local tomato variety). This is because that is all he knows. He is missing the richness of community and culture that an interdependence born of economic ties produces. Not the kind of abstract ties through money and computers that are produced by the global economy, but the real ties of producing food, processing food, cooking food (I am pretty sure he doesn't cook, and wonder whether his wife does, and if he is home enough even if she does) , producing tools, producing clothes, producing a home and all the hardware involved, producing medical care for oneself, family, neighbors and visitors from out of town, and producing music, art, and spiritual expression. For Tom, it's all about finances, real estate, and the manipulation of global information, software. If you don't really know what is being destroyed by these, you will just continue the destruction.

The world is flat? What about empires which have a net direction of wealth flow towards the center of the empire? Why does he not take a job in a sweatshop or a help desk if it is such a great job? Because the world isn't flat and he can take advantage of his priviledged position high up in the american empire. Some people are forced to take shit jobs (which is not equivalent to skilled manual labor), while others can be galavanting on jet planes for their job. If there is any flattening it is the increase in stupid, alienating shit jobs across the globe. The goal of empires is not to flatten but to suck resources in one direction. This is why India is in such a sorry state, because first the British empire sucked it and then the American empire finished the job, with help of national (not as bad as global but not as good as local) corruption. If it's a choice between the corpse of a vibrant village economy left by empire, and the middle class job doing stupid help desk stuff and the middle class comforts available to a few, most villagers will choose the latter. But if the goal is to improve the lives of the villagers, then one would attempt to recreate a local village economy, which is what Gandhi and Kumarappa were trying to do and perhaps succeeded if Gandhi hadn't been killed and Nehru decided to go with industrialization.

In The World Is Flat and especially in his latest book, it finally dawned on Tom that "wealth creation" (the kind of wealth I like does not destroy the earth) is not independent of the earth (something most stadard economists  do not teach and would be hard to learn through computers) and that the earth has limits. Congratulations for having an inquisitive open mind. Perhaps he can use it to study native cultures and pre-industrial societies. I recommend Jarred Diamond's latest book (since I know he reads J.D) as well as Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics, and anything by Wendell Berry. Also, Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, which debunks the desireability of flatness.

Nature and culture evolved cells, individual organisms, species and cultures by the use of membranes and other boundaries, because this is the way to reduce entropy. Otherwise we would have a flat world with no individuals, just tubes for information, which would quickly end in a "heat death", a high entropy state not conducive to life. Total isolation is not possible or desirable either, and a sweet spot has to be found between exchange of energy and information and the ability to contain them within boundaries, to establish (unflat) gradients. Perhaps globalization for some like Tom is another expression of frustration with too much isolation and ego. Another way to deal with this imbalance is mystical union with the divine (or other people and nature) or ego transcendence.

It is a bit of an irony that I have not found a place to settle down, after 7 years of trying.