Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

America's current conflict with Islamic fundamentalism has breathed new life into several nearly forgotten geopolitical metaphors, including Samuel P. Huntington's notion of a "Clash of Civilizations", Robert D. Kaplan's theory of a "Coming Anarchy", and Benjamin Barber's juxtaposition of "Jihad vs. McWorld."   As discussed in earlier reviews, the first two, though problematic, seem to have some legitimacy, but the third, Barber's, is only accurate to the extent that it is misunderstood.  If by "McWorld" Barber meant the liberal democratic capitalist nations of the West and meant by "Jihad" the totalitarian nations of Islam, then the image of these two worlds being in conflict would be true.  However, he means something quite different, and he is quite wrong.

Barber's main concern is with something that he refers to as "participatory democracy" or "civil society", a kind of political system in which each individual takes an active role in nearly every decision of government.  He sees both Jihad and McWorld as threats to this system, Jihad because it represents a cultural sectarianism "rooted in race" which :

    ...holds out the grim prospect of a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened balkanization of
    nation-states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe, a Jihad in the name of a hundred
    narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and mutuality: against
    technology, against pop culture, and against integrated markets; against modernity itself as well as the future in which modernity

McWorld because it represents :

    ...onrushing economic, technological, and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize peoples
    everywhere with fast music, fast computers, and fast food--MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's--pressing nations into one homogenous
    global theme park, one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment, and commerce.

In essence then, Jihad is a threat because it overemphasizes our differences; McWorld is a threat because it eliminates those differences.  Never mind the fact that the U.S., where McWorld is most advanced, would seem to have ample diversity as it ranges from Anchorage to Honolulu to New Orleans to Miami to New York City to Boston, perhaps the oddest aspect of Barber's whole analysis is that, while he dislikes both, he actually favors Jihad over McWorld.  He does so because he thinks that the peoples of Jihad are at least likely to be actively involved in their cultures, while the people of McWorld have become nothing more than passive consumers.  But, at any rate, Mr. Barber is less concerned with the clash between these two systems than he is with the clash between each of them and the participatory democracy that he thinks we should have instead of either.

There are so many problems with Mr. Barber's understanding of the world that it is hard to know where to begin and impossible to address them all, but we'll try to take on a few of the bigger misconceptions.  It may be that his biggest mistake is to view Jihad and McWorld as anti-democratic forces when, in fact, they are precisely the aspects of democracy which conservatives have for so long warned about.  As far as Jihad, or sectarianism, is concerned, the Founders quite consciously set up a representative, rather than a direct, democracy, with extensive checks and balances and express limitations on the power of government, in order to protect minorities from what they well understood would otherwise be a tendency of the majority to impose its own ideologies and practices on unwilling dissenters.

Equally important, but less well understood,  is the conservative tradition of criticizing democratic capitalism, not because it won't work, which is the Left's view, but because it will work so well that unless we cultivate other facets of the culture, the great mass of people will decline into a comfortable but meaningless affluence.  It was the great Albert Jay Nock who perhaps put this best when he said :

    [Edmund] Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase.  'For us to love our country,' he said, 'our country ought
    to be lovely.'  I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself.
    Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material
    well-being.  It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that
    loveliness wields.  Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own
    hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

Nock's "economism" is something akin to Barber's "McWorld", a kind of unfettered consumerism.   But where Mr. Barber assumes that this consumerism is somehow imposed from above by all-powerful multinational corporations that manipulate the people, Mr. Nock understood that, on the contrary, the people are likely to eagerly embrace this fate.

We see here the fundamental difference between conservatism and liberalism; where liberalism proceeds from the assumption that Man in the state of Nature was some kind of idyllic being, willing to share in the Earth's abundance while devoting himself to ethereal pursuits, conservatism accepts that Man, in the absence of societal restraints and institutions, is a selfish being wholly devoted to the self.  Mr. Barber is correct that the McWorld we saw ourselves rapidly becoming in the 1990s was unlovely, but the fault lay with us, the American citizens, not with some dastardly multinational conglomerates.  No one was forcing us all to obsess over stock prices and stock up on electronics and drink $4 cups of coffee.  The burgeoning economy gave us a period of extravagant wealth and we chose to indulge ourselves.  Not surprisingly, at a time when the livin' was easy, other concerns--the political, the cultural, etc.--were shunted aside while we spoiled ourselves rotten.   I say not surprisingly because as a conservative I would have expected this behavior.  Mr. Barber's problem is that, because he expects people to behave selflessly, he must find a culprit to blame when they act selfishly.  And so, on the basis of little more than an apparently visceral dislike, he settles on multinational corporations as his villain.

In fact, Mr. Barber's repeated demonization of corporations as some kind of omnipotent antidemocratic force reflects a really disturbing failure to understand the very nature of the corporation, which is, after all, nothing more than a business owned by stockholders.  And who are those stockholders?  Increasingly, particularly since the advent of the 401k, we are all stockholders and, thus, all owners.   Here again, Mr. Barber's quarrel should be directed not at the imagined antidemocratic nature of the corporation but at its actual democratic nature.  Just as it is we consumers who choose to consume, it is we stockholders who choose what it is that companies produce, how they market these products, how they are run.  And companies do not create demand, they chase it.  They do not dictate to consumers; they slavishly follow popular tastes.  Mr. Barber may be right, almost certainly is, that our entertainment has been dumbed down, our food homogenized, etc.  But that has been a result of the demands of the consumers and, ultimately, of the decisions of stockholders, of democracy in action, however ugly that action may be.

Even if we set aside the issue of whether Man is naturally greedy or altruistic, we still have to question Mr. Barber's seeming belief that democratic government is an end in itself.  He apparently believes that, in an ideal world, most of us would like to devote ourselves to governance and would like to participate to the greatest extent possible in every decision of government.  But the American system presupposes the opposite, that government is a necessary evil, the less it impinges on our lives the better for all concerned.  As Henry David Thoureau said in Civil Disobedience :

    That government is best which governs least.

For Mr. Barber to place government at the very center of man's concerns seems to run counter to the very foundation of the American experiment, an experiment that has been working pretty well so far.

All of these errors are especially disappointing because, though he is very imprecise about solutions, he is very nearly right about threat that McWorld poses, not to democracy, but to our culture.  McWorld--if we understand it correctly, as the demand for freedom generally and free markets specifically that is the driving force of globalization--is going to bring about global prosperity on a nearly unimaginable scale.  It is going to require nations to become more democratic, more capitalist, more pluralistic, more free, but what will we do with that freedom?  Will we be content merely to live in luxury, or will we also preserve a culture that offers "savour and depth"?   If we do desire a culture that is "lovely" we must rehabilitate our badly damaged non-governmental (pre-democratic) institutions.  We must restore the nuclear family, by making divorce more difficult, marriage more attractive, child rearing easier, etc.  We must also bring back the extended family, by discontinuing government funded nursing homes.  We must reprivatize education, to get parents back involved in the schools and schools back in the business of providing a moral education with a cultural grounding.  We must turn charitable functions--like social welfare--back over to churches, making them central once again in all our lives.  We must stop trying to impose standards of political correctness on voluntary organizations and let people, once again, associate with those they choose to, and exclude those they choose not to, in their private lives.

You'll have noticed that, counter to what Mr. Barber believes, nearly all of these measures involve reducing the role and importance of government in our lives.  Government, particularly in the New Deal and Great Society years, became so enormous and extended its reach so far, with our eager acquiescence, that it made many of these institutions seem superfluous.  The delusion that government could attend to our every need made it difficult for the traditional alternatives to compete.  America was fortunate to have such an abiding distrust of government that we traveled a shorter distance down the road to statism than did many other nations, which is the main reason we've emerged from this period as the world's lone superpower.  But make no mistake, we did incur some serious cultural damage.  We would do well to start repairing that damage immediately.  We need not Jihad but a reinvigoration of traditional Western culture.  Not only would it be good for the health of our society, it is likely to make our economy even stronger, as government gives up duties that it has not performed particularly well and hands them back to institutions in the private sector that have historically been more efficient and successful.

Rather than limit himself to these kinds of entirely feasible reforms, though he does mention some things like this, Mr. Barber proposes what he calls a "Global Civic Society", modeled after the original Articles of Confederation, which preceded our current Constitution.  This would apparently be a first step toward a kind of global government, though Mr. Barber's intentions remain awfully murky.  Here again we run into one of the ways in which Mr. Barber has completely failed to understand the human experience.  Despite the repeated crumbling of empires, from Rome to the USSR, he still seems determined that enormous social organizations have a future.  This fallacy is one of the reasons he is so fearful of multinational corporations--he envisions a world that will be run, as in the movie Rollerball, by a few corporations that have replaced the nation-states.  This vision has been a staple of science fiction for decades now, but is best confined to the realm of fantasy.  One might recall that in 2001 : A Space Odyssey, a traveler uses a Bell Corporation telephone and the computer is a HAL, the acronym of IBM moved one letter to the left.  Of course, by the time we reached the year 2001, "the phone company" had been shattered and IBM was in deep crisis.

Folks who keep making this prediction, like Mr. Barber, just can't seem to grasp that one of the defining characteristics of free market capitalism is what Joseph Schumpeter referred to as it's capacity for "creative destruction."  Two hundred years ago one might have predicted that large land owners would rule the future.  One hundred fifty years ago it might have been mill owners or colliers.  One hundred years ago, the railroad barons ruled the roost.  Then came steelmakers then oil men then military industrial complex then electronics manufacturers then chemical companies then PC makers then biotech and on and on--each of these seemingly dominant industries left on the scrap heap of history.  Just as size and power did not make for efficient and successful governments, it has not made for efficient and successful corporations.  In fact, where governments often enjoy a monopoly status that makes them difficult to change without revolutions, industries and individual companies can be, and are, destroyed by competitors with extraordinary ease.

In the long run, Jihad and McWorld are not the threats to democracy that Mr. Barber believes them to be.  Instead they are the very democratic forces that will likely lead to a world where freedom is paramount (McWorld) but where cultural uniqueness is still treasured (Jihad).  If we can find ways to balance these competing forces we may well find that we have created a society in which we have both prosperity and the "savour and depth" of a great culture.  'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished--and worked towards.


Grade: (F)


See also:

Benjamin Barber (2 books reviewed)
Benjamin Barber Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Benjamin R. Barber
    - WIKIPEDIA: Benjamin R. Barber)
-INTERVIEW: The civic engineer: Rampant consumerism nearly killed off civil society, says US political theorist Benjamin Barber. But the financial crisis offers us a chance to make amends (Saba Salman, October 8 2008, The Guardian)     -Benjamin R. Barber ( (Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society and Wilson H. Elkins Professor Maryland School of Public Affairs and the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences)
    -Bodies Electric LLC (Chairman, Chief Strategic Officer & Co-Founder)
    -Benjamin R. Barber, "Time, Work, and Leisure in a Civil Society"
    -ESSAY : Jihad vs. McWorld:  The two axial principles of our age -- tribalism and globalism -- clash at every point except one: they may both be threatening to democracy (Benjamin R. Barber, March 1992, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld (BENJAMIN R. BARBER, January 21, 2002 , The Nation)
    -ESSAY : Memo to the President (Benjamin R. Barber, September 21st, 2001, Rolling Stone)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Benjamin Barber: Governments will have to change their approach towards globalization (The Connection, September 2001)
    -DISCUSSION : TAX DAY : Gwen Ifill talks with Amy Gutmann of Princeton University; Walter Williams of George Mason University, Rev. Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University about the philosophy of paying taxes (Online Newshour, April 16, 2001, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Globalizing Democracy (Benjamin R. Barber, September 11, 2000 , The American Prospect)
    -AUDIO LECTURE : The McWorld: Consequences of Economic Globalization (Aventis Forum, September 1999)
    -LECTURE : Which Technology and Which Democracy? (Benjamin R. Barber, talk at the Democracy and Digital MediaConference held at MIT on May 8-9, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Big = Bad, Unless it Doesn't (Benjamin R. Barber, New York Times, April 16, 1998)
    -ESSAY : A Dissenting View: Living Inside The Book Of Disney (Benjamin R. Barber, Summer 1997, Forum)
    -ESSAY : Benjamin Barber deflates the four myths of democracy. (Civnet, May 1997)
    -ESSAY : Global Democracy or Global Law: Which Comes First? (Benjamin R. Barber, Fall 1993, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies )
    -ESSAY : The Civic Mission of the University (Benjamin R. Barber, Higher Education and the Practice of Democratic Politics, Bernard Murchland)
    -ESSAY : The Search for Civil Society (Benjamin R. Barber)
    -REVIEW : of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. By Robert D. Putnam (Benjamin R. Barber)
    -INTERVIEW : The Making of McWorld : Benjamin R. Barber (Nathan Gardels, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -INTERVIEW : The Politics of Education : An Interview with Benjamin Barber (Scott London, Afternoon Insights, WYSO-FM December 14, 1992)
    -INTERVIEW : Silence of the Lambs: Where Have All the Defenders of Democracy Gone? : An Interview with Dr. Benjamin R. Barber (Mark Compton, June 2001, Geneforum)
    -PROFILE : Global Thinker : Benjamin Barber's Ideas on Capitalism and Conflict No Longer Seem So Academic  (Megan Rosenfeld, Washington Post, November 6, 2001)
    -PROFILE : Benjamin Barber (Ghost in the Machine)
    -ESSAY : Citizenship, Democracy and the Changing World Order A Review Essay by Scott London
    -ESSAY : F A L L E N A R C H E S : Reports that American cultural imperialism has enforced a Pax McDonald's turn out to be greatly exaggerated. (James Poniewozik, April 5, 1999, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Anti-American sentiments rooted in history, globalism (Kay Miller, Star Tribune, Sep 22 2001)
    -LINKS : McWorld vs. Jihad Links
    -ARCHIVES : "benjamin r. barber" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "benjamin barber" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : mcworld (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : Jihad vs. McWorld (Gary Rosen, First Things)
    -REVIEW : Jihad vs. McWorld (Brian C. Anderson, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : Jihad vs. McWorld (Darold Morgan, Christian Ethics Today)
    -REVEW : Jihad vs. McWorld (STEVE WASSERMAN, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : Jihad vs. McWorld (David P. Fidler, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies)
    -REVIEW : of THE TRUTH OF POWER : Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House. By Benjamin R. Barber (Alexander Star, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Truth of Power (Alan Caruba)
    -REVIEW : of My Affair with Clinton: An Intellectual Memoir (Benjamin R. Barber (Matthew Cooper, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, by Benjamin Barber and A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, by Benjamin Barber (Loren Lomasky , Reason)
    -REVIEW : of A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong By Benjamin R. Barber (Scott London)
    -REVIEW : of A Place for Us (Anne Kornheiser, Civnet)
    -REVIEW : of A Place for Us (Ralph Stone, Montana Human Rights Network)
    -REVIEW : of A Place for Us (Jerry Kloby, National Housing Institute)
    -BOOK LIST : The Communitarian Bibliography (Communitarian Network)

    -Globalization and Its Critics (Washington Post)
    -Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies
    -ESSAY : Expecting the Worst (JUDITH SHULEVITZ, December 16, 2001, NY Times)
    -LINKS : GLOBALIZATION : Stresses on and within the State System (Thomas Brister, Center for Civic Renewal and Department of Government and International Affairs, Sweet Briar College, Virginia)
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE : David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages William Greider, national editor for Rolling Stone Magazine and author of One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (Newshour Online, MAY 6, 1997, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Brave new McWorld  (Carla Binion, 12/16/00, Online Journal)
    -ESSAY : Zachary Karabell on our brave new world (Civnet)

Book-related and General Links: