Benjamin Barber, the director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, is today’s leading advocate of “participatory” democracy. Not content with mere representation, he aims to make every citizen a legislator, to bring about, as he puts it, “unmediated self-government. ” To this ambitious end, he speaks with remarkable single-mindedness on the academic conference circuit, celebrating the civic potential of the people and sounding, very often, less like a professor than a politician on the stump.
Barber’s writings over the years have been dedicated both to promoting this ideal regime and, still more, to combating the currents of thought that are opposed to it. In his best-known work, Strong Democracy (1984), he criticized those modern philosophers-Hobbes, Locke, and Mill, among others-who define political liberty negatively (being left alone) rather than in positive terms (civic action). In The Conquest of Politics (1988), he denounced such contemporary political theorists as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Alasdair MacIntyre for their “abstractionism,” saying that they ignored the practical concerns of the engaged citizen.
And in An Aristocracy of Everyone (1992), he found enemies of democratic education at both ends of the political spectrum, in the fashionable relativism of the left and in the tradition-minded elitism of the right. In his latest book, Jihad vs. McWorld, based on a 1992 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Barber turns from the intellectual threats to his vision of democracy to the socioeconomic ones. His title refers to what he sees as the two premier global trends of our day, movements that are, respectively, reducing the world to intractable fragments and giving it an unprecedented unity.
The book’s first part concerns McWorld, the ever-expanding service sector of the international economy, especially as it manifests itself in what Barber calls the “infotainment telesector,” American in substance if not always in ownership. He sums it up in a litany of brand names and pop icons: Disney and Paramount, Nike and Reebok, Madonna and MTV, Coke and Pepsi, Homer Simpson and Batman, Kentucky Fried Chicken and, needless to say, McDonald’s.
Relentlessly promoting its “ideology of fun” at the expense of local institutions and folkways, this “virtual economy” of images and lifestyles promises to become nothing less than a world “monoculture. ” For civic life, this is especially bad news, Barber contends. Manipulated by “promotion, spin, packaging, and advertising,” citizens lose all interest in public matters, falling prey to “passive consumption” and devoting themselves exclusively to the satisfaction of their multiplying wants. In the second part of the book, Barber takes up “Jihad. Moving beyond its strictly Islamic meaning, he understands it as any effort by a parochial community to protect itself from the cosmopolitan, universal standards of the West. It is a metaphor for “opposition to modernity. ” Accordingly, Jihad encompasses not only religious extremists like Hamas and Hezbollah but also a range of this-worldly chauvinisms, from Russia’s Zhirinovsky and the Bosnian Serbs to the promoters of language rights and separatism in places like Quebec, Catalonia, and Occitan France. In its more virulent forms, this too is no boon for democracy.
Inward-looking and narrow, the rivals of McWorld tend to favor violence, to disdain basic civil liberties, and to have serious reservations about political equality. In the book’s third and final section, Barber suggests how we might yet salvage a democratic future from the “tribalism” of Jihad and the “consumerism” of McWorld, invoking the much-discussed concept of civil society. In seeming agreement with many other observers, he argues that community groups and voluntary associations provide the “attitudinal resources” that make “democratic citizenship possible” and let “democratic institutions function effectively. It is this fragile social infrastructure that must be bolstered, he insists, but his proposal for doing so-the creation of a “global civil society” whose precise character he leaves to the reader’s imagination-is a disappointing afterthought to the rest of the book. True to his cause, Barber writes here in the language and style of everyday politics. Though telltale bits of academic jargon creep into his prose at points, the book is essentially a journalistic polemic, a running commentary on today’s headlines.
Unfortunately, Barber has failed to notice that most editorials last a mere half-dozen paragraphs. His drags on for several hundred pages, sustained by exaggeration (media corporations control “the defining symbolic essentials of civilization”), repetition (he appeals for “full employment” no fewer than ten times), and an almost encyclopedic recitation of facts (we learn entirely too much about such things as world oil and mineral production and the viewing habits of Belgians and Pakistanis). More importantly, Barber is positively evasive in Jihad vs.
McWorld about his own notion of democracy, though he uses it as a benchmark throughout. At best, he leaves us with a bundle of adjectives and phrases: authentic self-government is “participatory,” “deliberative,” supportive of a “common culture,” based on the “common will” of “autonomous” citizens. As his account suggests, however, these slogans are far from benign. Ever the disciple of Rousseau, whom he trots out from time to time in order to show the pedigree of his own views, Barber is committed to a democratic project that is both collectivist in its aims and profoundly illiberal in its implications.
One’s suspicions are immediately raised by his refusal to acknowledge the contribution that McWorld-which is to say, international capitalism- has made to political liberalization in recent years in countries like Chile, South Korea, and Hungary. He dismisses the by now well-documented relationship between a prosperous private sector, an independent civil society, and the push for free elections and the rule of law. As he sees it, such change is too slow and indefinite to be credited.
More fundamentally, Barber is unwilling to grant that genuine freedom exists under democratic capitalism: In [East Berlin’s] Marx-Engels-platz, the stolid, overbearing statues of Marx and Engels face east, as if seeking distant solace from Moscow: but now, circling them along the streets that surround the park that is their prison are chain eateries like T. G. I. Friday’s, international hotels like the Radisson, and a circle of neon billboards mocking them with brand names like Panasonic, Coke, and GoldStar.
New gods, but more liberty? As Barber sees it, the availability of such consumer goods, in the old Communist bloc or elsewhere, is a direct challenge to nascent democracy. Such signs of commercial life represent not an expansion of economic opportunity but rather the onslaught of McWorld, which he repeatedly characterizes, without irony, as a new and insidious form of “totalitarianism. ” With its ability to “modify public attitudes” and to “precipitate private behaviors,” McWorld predetermines our every choice, political or otherwise.
Predictably enough, his chief evidence for such indoctrination is the electoral success of those with whom he disagrees, especially in those precincts where McWorld is most firmly established. As he angrily declares, few Western governments today-he singles out the U. S. and Britain-display a proper zeal for “regulation or control in the name of the public weal. ” By contrast, Barber has difficulty disguising his sympathy for Jihad. It is not that he considers himself an antimodern.
Rather, it is that Jihad, on closer inspection, is resistance not to modernity as such but only to a particular strain of it-to the “materialism, solipsism, and radical individualism” of the free market. Against these “more hollow values” of the Enlightenment, Barber arrays not only the outraged protests of reactionaries and fundamentalists but also the West’s “nobler aspirations. ” Thus we discover that the gerontocrats in Beijing and the revamped East German Communist Party also share the jihadic impulse, struggling to maintain their distinctive “cultures” in the face of an aggressive world economy.
In this “holy war,” ayatollahs and commissars see eye to eye. What’s more, though Barber objects to some of Jihad’s nastier political features, he also discovers democratic “potentialities” in it that are lacking in McWorld. With its “toxic exclusivity,” Jihad lends itself to a civic life of “‘we’ thinking and ‘we’ action,” one in which “democratic command structures” might be more fully involved in the “public choosing” of “fundamental social values. ” Barber specializes in such euphemisms for democratic tyranny.
Like many other academic advocates of “communitarian identity politics,” he assumes that there is some easy fit between individual rights and a public sphere that aspires to shape souls in a fundamental way, though history tells us otherwise. It is hard to know whether it is naivete or just reckless indifference that leads him to cite ancient Athens, Puritan Massachusetts, and Jacobin France as democratic models. We would do well to recall the fates of Socrates, the “witches” of Salem, and many a hapless French aristocrat.
Barber’s commitment to so all-encompassing a notion of democratic politics explains his perfunctory treatment of civil society in Jihad vs. McWorld. With its roots in the private domains of family, neighborhood, and religion (and in the material well-being made possible by the free market), civil society can only serve for him as a transitional stage in which “to re-create citizens who will demand democracy. ” As he conceded in his earlier and far more candid book, Strong Democracy, the sort of “parochial” and “particularistic” attachment that is typical of civil society “subverts the wider ties” required by his grand design.
It is this willful indifference to the varied satisfactions available under liberal democracy that makes Barber’s thought so exasperating. For him there is no middle ground, no way of life that can accommodate our many different needs. Every consumer of a Big Mac is a minion of McWorld; every religious believer is an antimodern fanatic; and neither, alas, is a proper citizen. In this hysterical and sloppily composed book, one searches in vain for that spirit of moderation that has made the American system so attractive to the rest of the world in this era of democratic renewal.