The labor movement brought you the weekend. Thomas Friedman wants to take it away.
Even as he serves as a leading champion of corporate globalization, the New York Times columnist and flat-world author has a way of highlighting how ordinary people hardly have reason to be thrilled by what transnational capitalism has on offer. Case in point: in his most recent column, Friedman argues that “Average is Over.” Those with merely par-for-the-course skills and education, he tells us, are bound to find their jobs replaced by foreign workers or by new technology.
In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation, and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra—their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.
We should have seen this coming, especially since Friedman used the same title for a chapter in his latest book (That Used to Be Us, with Michael Mandelbaum). But the column still irks.
Many people (Marie Burns at the NYTimes Examiner being just one) have already beaten me to the inevitable Lake Wobegon reference. Others, such as Dean Baker, have taken on some of the economic misconceptions in the column—about productivity, for instance. (In a well-aimed parting shot, Baker remarks that “average” is apparently not over among high-paid professionals; “Thomas Friedman does a good enough job of demonstrating this directly twice a week in the NYT.”)
The point that I would add is that the column reflects a contempt for workers’ rights—and for established standards of decent living—that has become recurring feature in Friedman’s writing. In a key paragraph of the piece, he writes:
What the iPad won’t do in an above average way a Chinese worker will. Consider this paragraph from Sunday’s terrific article in the Times by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher about why Apple does so much of its manufacturing in China: “Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. ‘The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,’ the executive said. ‘There’s no American plant that can match that.’”
Friedman puts all this in a suspiciously positive light. If you hold your breath waiting for him to denounce the exploitation inherent in this description of labor conditions, you’ll suffocate. Nor will you find his mention of the repression of any Chinese workers who would dare to advocate that they and their coworkers should be able to form a democratic union, or his sentence about how managers at the factory in question have had to install safety netting in the dormitories to break the falls of employees moved to attempt suicide.
This absence of concern for workers fits a pattern for Friedman. Faced with tales of gross exploitation in the globalized labor market, his consistent response is not to insist that we find a way to protect human rights internationally. Rather, it is to argue that employees in the United States and Europe need to work harder.
This attitude was perhaps most clearly expressed in Friedman’s 2005 column about the thirty-five-hour workweek in France. There he derided “French voters [who] are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.” He ridiculed the European six-week vacation as a hopelessly passé and argued,
The dirty little secret is that India is taking work from Europe or America not simply because of low wages. It is also because Indians are ready to work harder and can do anything from answering your phone to designing your next airplane or car. They are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top....Yes, this is a bad time for France and friends to lose their appetite for hard work—just when India, China, and Poland are rediscovering theirs.
Friedman somehow frames all this as a “race to the top.” However, as I have previously written:
It is unclear what Friedman sees as getting to the “top” if paid vacations, unemployment insurance, and retirement—benefits traditionally regarded as signs of a civilized economy—must be sacrificed. In The World Is Flat, he approvingly quotes a Microsoft “team member” in China describing his group of recruits: “They voluntarily work fifteen to eighteen hours a day and come in on weekends. They work through holidays, because their dream is to get to Microsoft.”
That Indian and Chinese workers are willing to sell themselves into bondage for Microsoft, of course, is a dubious sign of global progress. But, Friedman tells us, that is the new reality. His recipe for success in this climate is to “work harder, save more, sacrifice more.”
This brings me back to the weekend. Why stop at attacking the thirty-five-hour workweek? If you’re pitted against someone working fifteen- to eighteen-hour shifts, seven days a week, an “average” forty-hour workweek is nearly as indolent and outmoded. So you can kiss those lazy Sundays (and Saturdays) goodbye.
What Friedman seems to miss in all of this is that saying “average is over” (as in his most recent column) or arguing that those who will succeed in the global economy are those who are willing to “sacrifice more” (as in The Lexus and the Olive Tree) is merely another way of stating that labor conditions are worsening for a distressingly large number of people. Even while marveling at the wonders of corporate globalization, he has made the critics’ point for them.
The only remaining debate, then, is about solutions. I appreciate Friedman’s call in his column for expanded public support for higher education—something that would be helpful, if insufficient, in shoring up what remains of an American middle class. But until we’re willing to address the imbalance of power between working people and those transnational corporations that are free to roam the globe in search of tea-and-biscuit sweatshops, we will live in a world in which exploitation is the average.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.