Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld, an interpretation

Preface: from Western to Global history

Benjamin Barber's book concerns the decline of the nation-state. Once its statesmen dreamed of autarky (national economic self-sufficiency), and nowhere more than in America, where that ideal was briefly achieved during the nineteenth century. America was a cornucopia of natural riches from sea to shining sea.

The nation-state in the Western world was the jewel on the cutting edge of modern politics. It was liberal in its moral values, democratic in its political principles, and increasingly egalitarian in its dedication to the making of the welfare state in the late 20th century. But today, Barber argues, the nation-state is being squeezed in a vice between forces that threaten to undermine its autonomy and to weaken its real power in global politics.

One force seems primarily economic. Barber labels it "McWorld," a playful image borrowed from the logo of the hamburger colossus, among the first of the multi-national corporations.

The other might seem to be primarily political. He calls it "Jihad," the Islamic term for holy war but here an image of sectarian fanaticism anywhere in the world.

Both "McWorld" and "Jihad" are in fact cultural forces in that their power is derived from their capacity to publicize images that hold the world's attention.

McWorld and Jihad, however different they might appear to be, are called into being by the same process of economic globalization. In their interaction we leave behind the history of the Western world for a planetary history of the contemporary age.

The Making of McWorld

In Barber's interpretation, McWorld is civilization remade to serve the economic ends of the multi-national corporation. Since Karl Marx wrote his critique of capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century, we have known that expanding capitalist enterprise is an insatiable economic force. Now, in its reincarnation in our times as McWorld, it has become a cultural force as well. The ambition of McWorld --- and this is the key to Barber's thesis about its significance --- is to refashion contemporary Western civilization in its own cultural image.

McWorld, Barber contends, is the juggernaut of the information age. Not only has it invented the new technology of communication. It has used it to publicize a new vision of what global culture should be. In the contemporary age, he argues, ideology (the power to publicize ideas) has given way to videology (the power to publicize images).

Like the economic entrepreneurship of an earlier industrial age, McWorld has a marketing and a production side.

the marketing side. To understand the marketing side, we might return to Marx's limited horizons concerning the future of history. In his prophecy of the self-destruction of capitalism in a crisis of overproduction, Marx contended that entrepreneurs would saturate the economic market and so face declining profits and eventually doom. But Marx underestimated the power of advertising to foster the appeal of new acquisitions. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, marketing has focused on promoting a psychology of consumerism. But now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, McWorld has crossed a new threshold in marketing by creating new needs and indeed a holistic mass culture of consumerism.

In McWorld, one is not simply seduced into purchasing a particular product. One becomes immersed in a culture of McWorld's own creation. Imagine a world in which not the political ideals of freedom and equality are our moral imperatives, but rather consumerism reconceived as our destiny. Welcome to McWorld!

Barber explains the making of McWorld as a process sui generis --- image-making begets its own imaginary expansion into a wider world of fantasy, where the line between the real world and McWorld begins to blur. This is the context in which he explains the operation of videology. Videology manufactures the consumer culture of McWorld in the way that ideology once manufactured the political culture of the nation-state. In doing so, it threatens the once dominant cultures of the modern age --- the high culture of the elite (epitomized in 18th century classical music) and of ordinary people (epitomized in romantic folk music). In McWorld, Kundera's "kitsch" is redeployed as a fantasy that consumers actually live. As Barber points out, the old economy was about the body; the new one is about the mind and spirit. It encompasses the move from:

material necessities ---> material creature comforts ---> material luxuries ---> self-indulgent fantasies, which eventually cross the threshold from consumerism to a consumerist way of life, facilitated by an expanding array of marketing devices that saturate everyday life: from the shopping center ---> shopping mall ---> theme park ---> telemarketing ---> internet e-commerce. McWorld redefines culture with such force that it spreads its mass appeal around the world via: film video television the internet This is what Barber calls the "infotainment telesector." It disseminates mass culture worldwide through the invention of cultural icons. In the process, it breaks down the ideological barriers of political cultures (such as Western vs. Third World) with its videological images of transcendent appeal.

Here we find an historical context for understanding the abstruse activities of the philosophers of "deconstruction" in the English and Philosophy departments of American universities. They tease out the pieces of old-world ideologies, making easier their reassembly by the image makers of McWorld.

Such is the siren song of today's global economy of consumerism: Whereas Marx had once challenged "workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains," McWorld soothingly exhorts "Consumers of the world unite. We have everything you need in our chains."

Barber underscores the triviality of consumer choices an manifestations of freedom of choice. McWorld fabricates the icons of the infotainment telesector out of images of famous sports and film personalities. Consider the fate of the American basketball star Michael Jordan whom the infotainment telesector has reinvented as the international consumer icon Air Jordan. Jordan was a willing player in both games. In his heyday, he earned 3 million dollars a year playing pro basketball. Simultaneously he earned 36 million dollars a year as an advertising icon, first for the shoe company Nike (which made some sense), but eventually for the phone company, where he played opposite a cartoon character, Tweety Bird, presumably the playfully diminished icon of Larry Bird.

The image of Air Jordan was known not only in America, or Latin America, or Europe or even in such Westernized Asian outposts as Hong Kong or Singapore. Even in the remote hinterlands of central Asia, the most isolated shepherd tending yak was likely to have seen an image of this remarkable basketball phenomenon, now deified in the glittering imagery of McWorld advertising. Incredibly, in a poll asking about the "world's greatest man," Jordan tied China's Communist Party boss Chou En-lai for top honors.

The marketing of the image of Air Jordan was the brainstorm of Phil Knight, the entrepreneur from Eugene Oregon who had already piloted the phenomenal rise of Nike running shoes on the plodding feet of the cult of serious middle-aged joggers. From the commercialization of such mass escapism, Knight moved on to the mass spectator appeal of pro and Olympic sports, where he discovered the midas touch of Air Jordan.

the production side of McWorld. Marketing is the glittering side of McWorld. Production is its seamy side. It too operates on a global scale. It battens not on cultural images, but on the brutal economics of cost-effective production.

In McWorld, production is farmed out to underdeveloped countries. McWorld is imagined but rarely made in America. Rather its commodities are fabricated in Taiwan, China, Korea, Indonesia, and Mexico, at wages far below any that even the most unskilled, entry-level American worker would accept. As Marx had prophesied, profit margins would dictate the conditions of production, and entrepreneurs would go in search of cheap labor in their endless quest for cost effectiveness. The conspicuous affluence of postmodern Western society flourishes thanks to the exploitation of the sweat of the premodern traditional cultures of the non-Western world. Such is the logic of the Marxist critique today, though on a scale and in cultural ways beyond any that Marx himself might have imagined.

Of course the perfect worker for McWorld is not the exploited peasant of Korea or China but the robot, which requires no sustenance at all, and minimal upkeep.

The plight of third-world workers is the inspiration behind the protest of today's idealistic youth (this time in league with unionized workers) against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), demonstrably exemplified in Seattle in 1999.

Some left-wing critics have argued that Marx's prophecy holds in the ecological, if not the economic and psychological limits to production and consumption. The irrational logic of capitalism for endless expansion of production is bound to run up against the natural limits of the earth's resources. But the left's ecologists are not necessarily a match for McWorld's alchemists, who have and may continue to produce ersatz products that will permit the process to proceed, at least for sometime longer.

What is certain is that as the natural resources of the world are depleted (notably the fossil fuels that make McWorld run), the nation-states of the Western world have and will continue to become more dependent on resources outside their own frontiers. In the process, the American dream of autarky may have vanished. But the multinationals of McWorld are only too happy to deliver the needed resources if the West can give them the right kind of backing. In this respect, one may imagine that the Gulf War of 1990 was more than righteous indignation against the Iraqi invasion of the sovereign state of Kuwait, personified in an icon of Jihad, the villain Saddam Hussein.

McWorld, too, is generative as well as reactive in its shaping of the world economy. As Barber points out, the global economy has shifted from the hardware of the 1950s (autos and armaments) to the software of the 1960s (services and communications equipment), which underwrite the infotainment sector. Barber locates the beginnings of McWorld's software giants in the 1970s: Nike was formed in 1972, Microsoft in 1975, Apple Computer in 1976. These are the multi-nationals that are reshaping the global economy today. The old economy was about the body. The new one is about the mind and spirit.

the Making of Jihad

But what of McWorld's dialectical opposite, Jihad? Barber characterizes it as a retreat into tribalism, but one whose culture is more austere, disciplined, dogmatic, fierce and unforgiving, at times cruel in its fundamentalist ways.

In the notion of Jihad, Barber alludes not only to Abu bin Laden and Muslim extremists. He uses the term more expansively to include all that adhere to this new tribalist mentality, such as Serbian and Albanian nationalists, who engage in ethnic cleansing, or Irish nationalist fanatics, who fill one another over trivial differences in religious culture, or American Christian fundamentalists, who bomb abortion clinics and decry President Clinton's once secret and seemingly joyless sexual life.

Barber's point is this --- and it is the key to his historical interpretation --- McWorld and Jihad are dialectically intertwined. McWorld in its pervasive intrusion into the far corners of the globe calls Jihad into being, in angry reaction against its meretricious appeal. But its protest is misdirected to a tangible target --- the nation-state, especially the most visible nation-state that McWorld inhabits, the United States of America.

In fact, the United States and the multi-nationals that constitute McWorld are not one and the same. In fact the nation-state is vulnerable in the face of the McWorld juggernaut, and is often used by it. Consider American governmental sponsorship of American economic enterprise in China and eastern Europe, or the NAFTA as a treaty that benefits McWorld.

So too, Jihad can tie the nation-state down, as it has the United States in the Middle East and the European Union in the Balkans.

the meaning of Barber's historical interpretation

As an historical interpretation, Barber's argument is intriguing because he has brought back the notion of history as a dialectical process, in much the manner that it was once used by Hegel and Marx. He argues that the rival interpretation --- that of the end of history in the collapse of the Soviet empire (as formulated by Fukuyama and Paul Kennedy) --- is inadequate to explain the history of the contemporary age. Historical change in today's world is dramatic and epic in its proportions as McWorld and Jihad unwittingly conspire to wear away the effectiveness of the polity of confederated nation-states, as exemplified in the United Nations or the European Union. Far from leading us to the end of history, the dialectic of McWorld/Jihad has brought to the fore a drama that is transforming the world. Globalization threatens not only to emasculate the nation-state, but also to transform planetary culture in its capitalist image. It will mean that:

the book will become teleliterature the lecture, the videoclip politics, polling the affluent society, a polarization of rich and poor Barber's concern is this:

For all its failings, Western civilization (before McWorld) was reflective and skeptical in the liberal ideology it promoted. It favored competition, but sought to chasten it through regulation and rules of fair play. It favored a hierarchy of ambition, but conceived of it in terms of merit.

By contrast, the culture of McWorld is unreflective and credulous in the videology it employs to manipulate public opinion. It favors instant gratification. It promotes mediocrity.

Meanwhile the nation-state is beleaguered by its ineffective efforts to manage the unruly politics of Jihad, and it expends its energies and resources in doing so rather than address the global problems that McWorld would prefer to avoid:

-the depletion of the world's natural resources

-pollution on a global scale

-the urgency of dealing with global warming

-the polarization of the rich and poor around the world

To abandon the world to the cultural vision of McWorld, Barber maintains, augurs the end of the egalitarian dream of democracy, the collapse of the welfare state, and perhaps the proper working of liberal democracy itself.

Readers of the later chapters of Barber's critique may be surprised to learn that his dialectic of McWorld/Jihad leads him not to favor Marxism but rather a return to the principles of liberalism. His plea is for the reconstruction of civil society --- of a restoration of that "public life" crowded out by big government, giant corporations, and private life. Barber harks back to the principle of voluntarism in liberal theory --- to the civic-mindedness that inspires participation in public projects on a local or regional level through churches, schools, voluntary associations, and independent journalism. His is a call for "free space" in which ordinary people can construct their own society autonomously, at once on a local and a global scale.

He contends that big government has lost touch with ordinary people.

He explains that big business whatever its publicity has only its own vested interests to serve.

Both big government and big business manipulate private life. The remedy, therefore, is not to retreat deeper into privacy (as I have in this course suggested we have) but rather to renew our search for destiny in the public sphere. Barber's essay is not just a critique of mass culture. It is a call to civic virtue of the sort enunciated by nineteenth-century liberal philosophers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill.

Barber claims as his mentors the left-wing humanist philosophers of the contemporary Frankfurt school: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Jurgen Habermas. Like theirs, his critique of contemporary civilization is more persuasive than his proposed solution. But he is seeking to deal with the problem we identified earlier this semester --- the retreat into privacy in our search for destiny out of disappointment with the welfare state.

At the same time, I note how close his proposal for informal groups to renew civil society is to the actual groups that emerged in eastern Europe to prepare for a return to liberalism in the wake of the failed experiment in communism --- groups such as the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, the New Forum in east Germany, the Democratic Forum in Hungary, and the Solidarity in Poland. These groups were remarkable in their return to a discussion of the basic principles of community, civic identity, and voluntary political participation, as they prepared to begin again the pursuit of the liberal experiment abandoned in the face of communist imperialism after the Second World War.

Barber's argument about the importance of the renewal of civic society on a local level makes good sense. But what of global community? Here, once more in the manner of old-fashioned liberalism, he is suspicious of top-down models of political and economic management. He has reservations about federalism because of its tendency to promote bureaucracy. In terms of larger communities he favors confederation, in the spirit of the American Articles of Confederation of the 1780s, or the Helvetic confederation of Switzerland before 1800. The European Union, he suggests, has been more successful in its regional representation in the parliament at Strasbourg than it has in its bureaucratic administration at Brussels.

In sum, we might say that Barber returns to liberalism at its nineteenth-century sources rather than its late twentieth-century trend toward socialism. Here he favors a moderate political middle ground that promotes a civic-minded conception of community based upon freely given public effort in a open-minded, tolerant milieu that knows the value of public space in which to undertake new projects for the future.