Benjamin R. Barber - Jihad Vs. McWorld

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Money and Freedom: Jihad vs. McWorld, by Benjamin Barber

Dec 1, 1999
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great diagnosis: Barber asks the right questions.

Cons:Lousy follow-through: His answers are too vague.

Many Western observers assumed that the collapse of the Soviet bloc signified the ideological triumph of the democratic nation-state. As conventional wisdom a la Francis Fukuyama saw it, the introduction of unfettered markets into the former Communist countries would augur an unprecedented golden age of world democracy.

Yet, as evidenced by ethnic turmoil in the former Yugoslavia and the Communist resurgence in Russia, the expected "new world order" has yet to materialize. Although the fall of the Iron Curtain has meant plenty of revenues for Western corporations, cheeseburgers and tennis shoes have yet to beget universal free elections and constitutional governments. Moreover, the recent "Battle in Seattle," in which angry protesters took to the streets to rally against the (clearly inevitable) idea of global trade, only underscores how contentious the Fukuyama proposition has become after a decade, and how unrealistic our initial post-Cold War Utopian euphoria seems to have been.

Indeed, as political scientist Benjamin R. Barber points out in his recent book Jihad vs. McWorld, democracies now face an even more momentous challenge than the once-mighty Russian bear. Rampant consumerism and ethnic tribalism -- i.e. McWorld and Jihad respectively -- now threaten to dissolve the relevance of the nation-state, "the only guarantor of conditions that have permitted democracy to fluorish." As Barber envisions it, democratic nations may still be heading toward Orwellian ruin despite the presumed death of totalitarianism. These days, however, it is not Big Brother but Big Business that's the problem. In other words, citizens, Ronald McDonald is watching you.

Barber's rampant McWorld, "a product of popular culture driven by expansionist commerce" and the emerging "infotainment telesector," clearly plays a large part in our modern civic crisis. His most telling point is that, while "everyone is a consumer...no one is a citizen"; and, "without citizens, how can there be a democracy?" Ok, so it may NOT be a good time for the great taste of McDonalds. Nevertheless, the explosion of consumerism and the demise of the civic arena is not really a groundbreaking discovery -- writers from Lester Thurow to Michael Sandel have made the same point in their recent works. Moreover, Barber's contemptuous critique of the "American ghetto culture" glorified worldwide by profit-seeking corporations (he keeps emphasizing the international success of hip-hop and Michael Jordan), smacks of intellectual elitism, if not even more unsavory traits.

Neither is Barber's discussion of Jihad, his sound bite for the ethnic fragmentation of identity, particularly illuminating. Barber seems on the verge of something when he blames McWorld's frantic materialism for the renewal of ethnic tribalism -- Jihad offers our impoverished souls the elusive sense of community so undermined by our current frenzied capitalist excess. Yet, he neglects to drive home his argument by examining the tribalisms within our own society, choosing instead to invoke the same old platitudes about ethnic hotspots like Bosnia and Rwanda. Had he used his insights on Jihad to diagnose the civic myopia of America's balkanized Left, he would have done much more to prepare democracy for the coming clash ahead. As it is, Barber is spinning his wheels, endlessly pontificating about a dire problem without really contributing much to the necessary dialogue.

Even if Barber's book is not the best answer to our civic crisis, at least he did his part in addressing the fallacy of a sadly too-popular assumption these days. Free markets are compatible with democracy -- indeed, free markets are borne of democracy, but, despite what knee-jerk laissez-faire conservatives say about "intrusive government," free markets do no equal democracy. The former serves only our material appetites, the latter our earnest need for community. If our generation of Progressives does not find a way to rekindle America's civic enthusiasm, we stand the chance of losing not only the ex-Communist nations, but ourselves as well.


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