Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World

Benjamin R. Barber
New York: Ballantine, 1996
432 pp., $15.00 pb

Colleen Mack-Canty
Political Science

Benjamin R. Barber, Rutgers University Whitman Professor of Political Science, is a leading thinker regarding the subject of democracy. For Barber, as he argues in several of his works, democracy should be both participatory, far beyond the act of voting, and inclusive. In Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber worries that the very existence of democracy and the nation-state, on which it has primarily depended, are threatened. This threat results from what he describes as the two core tenets of our age: globalism and retribalization. These are the forces of "McWorld" and "Jihad" that he describes, in a related Atlantic Monthly March 1992 article, as "operating with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one recreating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without" (252).

Barber sees globalization as indifferent to democracy, while retribalization is inhospitable to it. What they have in common, however, is "[n]either Jihad nor McWorld cares a fig about citizens" (223). Even the attractions of McWorld and Jihad have nothing to do with democracy. McWorld, while it often advocates harmony and affluence, only supports these attractions to the degree necessary to promote proficient economic production and consumption. Barber reminds us that tyrants who massacre their own people pose no problem for McWorld as long as they don't make war on their neighbors or disrupt the functioning of the market. Jihad, while it can both promote the diversity of multiculturalism and provide solidarity and community among kinsmen and neighbors, also frequently brings parochialism, bigotry and an absolute submission of the individual to the group and its leaders. As Barber argues, these are hardly the attitudes required for developing democratic perspectives.

The drive for ever-expanding markets in the globalizing economy of McWorld requires national economies to press against the borders of nation-states in their continuing struggle to be more and more competitive. This process erodes national sovereignty, giving rise to extra-national entities, such as international banks, transnational lobbies, and multinational corporations, that do not respect nationhood as a regulative principle. In addition, Barber finds nothing that looks particularly democratic in the liberalization of globalizing markets. The free market, despite the claims made by advocates of a Milton Friedman approach, is not necessarily democratic. The consumer society is not synonymous with an open society. In Barber's words, "[M]arkets are [not] surrogates for democratic sovereignty because they permit us to 'vote' with our dollars or...[Euros]...or yen" (296). Citizens must also be free to make meaningful political choices: "There is no better refutation of the libertarian argument than the wildly successful controlled capitalist economies of Vietnam, China, Singapore, and Indonesia"(185).

The forces of Jihad work in the opposite direction from globalization and/or one world; they work instead towards global breakdown and national dissolution. They pursue smaller territories, usually ones resistant to modernity. These forces are comprised of dissenting minorities that constantly resist integration into nation-states that too often require homogeneity. Barber favors the nation-state structure, because it has been pivotal to democracy in the modern era. Nationalism was a catalyst for unifying culturally differing clans and tribes. Here, however, Barber should give more emphasis to the colonial origins of most third-world nation-states. Eurocentric cartographers too often drew national borders in the third world that separated ethnic or tribal groups, while joining them with age-old rival groups. Iraq, for example, was formed in this way by the Allies, victors of World War I, who reneged on their promise to create one Arab state in return for Arab military support. While Barber does say that Jihad is a rabid response to colonialism and mentions the work of Western cartographers in passing, he does not extend the explanation to the degree I find necessary for readers to understand that the nation-state as a political structure was largely a Western imposed and disruptive phenomenon for much of the third world.

Barber's use of term "Jihad" is somewhat problematic to me also. For Barber, "Jihad is...[a] term...[that] betokens religious struggle on behalf of faith, a kind of Islamic zeal" (9). But then he further states, "I deployed Jihad as a generic term quite independently from its Islamic theological origins..."(299). The cover of this book, showing a heavily veiled Muslim woman holding a can of Pepsi, provocatively suggests his former definition. It leads the reader to expect a singling out of the Islamic world, but Barber's concern in this book is more with retribalization generally.

Barber does strongly emphasize cultural imperialism, which is without a doubt, a very powerful force in subduing non-Western cultures. As he states,

[T]here is little in McWorld that...[is] not philosophically adumbrated by...the Enlightenment: its trust in reason, its passion for liberty,...its fascination with control, its image of the human mind as a tabula rasa to be...encoded by governing technical and educational elites, its confidence in the market, its skepticism about faith..., and its cosmopolitan disdain for parochial cultural. (156)

I would also give more space here to economic imperialism and the accompanying environmental devastation caused by many neocolonial projects in the third world. These numerous, often very large, boondoggles have left these countries debt-ridden to first world money lenders. The World Bank normally will only refinance such debts if the poor debtor country accepts stringent repayment terms that involve the neoliberal restructuring of its economy. Among other ill effects, what little money was available for needed social services in these countries is then siphoned away to debt maintenance.

On the other hand, Barber's work provides a far more discerning analysis than the work with which it is often associated: Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Barber's analysis does include both economic and cultural categories, together with discussions of ethnic conflict within civilizations. Huntington's analysis is weak by comparison. He writes about civilizations in their entirety and makes use of the category "culture," thinly described, to consider the differences among them. Further, the only solution Huntington offers is a shrouded call to arms. Barber, ever the democrat (small d), proposes an organizational structure that he views as holding the greatest potential for the numerous segments of a (probably inevitable) one world being able to choose how to effectively govern themselves and, at least in part, maintain their cultural uniqueness. For this arduous endeavor, Barber proposes regional confederated forms of government, as historically existed nationally in the U.S. under The Articles of Confederation and exists today on a regional basis in the structure of the European Union.

While we are still left with the fact that the first world countries hold considerable economic power over other countries and would, therefore, have considerably stronger regional confederations, Barber's proposal (for which I am not able to do justice here), it appears, would have been the preferable one to begin pursuing in the earlier nineties, when his and Huntington's work first appeared. It's a safe guess that our State Department never considered Barber's proposal, while Huntington's solution, if not directly considered, was (is) nonetheless "business as usual." Only the (cold war) names (categories) were changed in Huntington's model while the inevitability of conflict remained. Today, the U.S. has been attacked on its own soil, Afghanistan has been bombed (and bombed), and the U.S. President has submitted a 2.1 trillion wartime budget proposal to continue warring indefinitely. Would it have been different if Barber's proposal had been taken seriously by policy-makers in 1996? Given the dire events much of the world is now experiencing, I suggest this question is at least worth considering.

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