McWorld

 

 

 

Revisiting McWorld vs. Jihad and Other(mostly) Prophetic Nuggets of Truth

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First, let’s set the stage: The year was 1995. O.J. Simpson’s trial finally reached its dramatic conclusion after months and months of prosecution bumbling, defense grandstanding, crude gossip, and racial intrigue.  A perky and bright-eyed Monica Lewinsky, having recently completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, had just been hired as a White House intern.  Boris Yeltsin, teetering and very likely drunk, held the reigns of Russian “democracy” with a three-fingered hand.  The European Union—with a mere twelve member states—celebrated its second anniversary, while its currency, the Euro, was still just an idea.  It was still half a decade before Y2K would come in like an overhyped, techno-apocalyptic lion and leave like a shorn, docile lamb.  Also five years in the future was George W. Bush’s dubious chad-hanging election, conveniently decided in his favor by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court.  The Twin Towers still stood tall, and the number of Americans who had ever heard of Osama bin Laden could probably be counted on Boris Yeltsin’s hand.  Saddam Hussein, sufficiently recovered from the Kuwait fiasco, enjoyed his power, decadence, and well-groomed mustache in a non-burning Baghdad.  It was three years before even the founding of Google, and nine years prior to the advent of Facebook.  Social Media wouldn’t even come into existence as a term until 1997. The Internet was a “thing,” of course, wherever the hell it was, but we were patiently listening to dial-up modems shriek and beep and hiss.  We were still dazzled by the first e-mails—and I mean the very idea of them—and actually wrote long ones with complete sentences in response.  The World Wide Web still felt both sort of fathomable and controllable.  Either you remember this well or were a mere twinkle in your parents’ eyes, a Millennial in the making.  1995 was long before the financial collapse, the coining of the word “one- percenters,” or the Occupy Wall Street semi-movement. It was so long ago that there have been two tsunamis since, an Olympic bombing, and god knows how many real estate bubbles that have burst. This was thirteen years before the election of Obama, long before the rise of Trump and his tumbleweed coif and vitriolic twitter politics, and twenty-one years before the Brexit vote.  Just think of how distant 1995 feels, how much our daily reality has changed.  We’ve seen Bennifer and Brangelina both rise and fall, and SUVs and mp3s and iPods and iPads and drones and more cyber-this and cyber-that that you can shake an LED stick at.  More videos have gone viral than viruses have gone viral.  So here’s the question: Could a genius or lunatic or insightful prophet, with or without a smart watch, somehow have seen this all coming? And would anyone have listened to such a Cassandra?

 
The answer to the first is possibly and to the second dunno.  I mention 1995 because it was then that Benjamin Barber published his amazingly prescient Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy.  In so many ways he accurately saw then what was on the horizon, the terribly dark places where we as citizens of the U.S. and the world now find ourselves.  Although a bit prone to exaggeration and showy rhetoric, Barber is far from your average wild-eyed and woolly-haired oracle.  In the end he is more like a studious political scientist, albeit one passionately committed to democratic ideals, making a clear-headed diagnosis of worldwide ills at the sign of the very first symptoms.  Some parts of his discussion seem dated or even quaint to be sure, such as when he rails against MTV (as a symbol of the globalization of style and the commodification of music) or Walkmans, but his basic point would certainly apply now to most cable channels or iPods and smartphones, respectively.  It is difficult to find any place in the text where he is wrong or even vague, and that alone would rank him far above the great prophets of history.
 
The book has a misleading title, however, as two enemies to democracy are presented—Terrorism is the obvious one, but “McWorld” is perhaps the more serious and insidious—and their dialectical relationship is astutely revealed.
 
Welcome to McWorld
 
“McWorld” is Barber’s shorthand for what is more commonly known as globalization, the “overarching market” that comes to dominate all society—that is, the international spread of market culture and market norms,  “economic reductionism and its commercializing homogeneity” or what he decries as “economic totalism” (xiii, 295).  There’s capitalism, of course, but also capitalism as culture.  Think of the Kentucky Fried Chickening of China, the T.G.I. Fridaying of East Berlin, the red roof of Pizza Hut looming in Moscow’s Red Square, the Disneylanding and Cocacola-nization of the whole world, but one could just as well as speak of any global (particularly American) brand, be it cars, clothes, computers, or now smartphones.  Microwave ovens and microwaved brains.
 
The end of the Cold War, for all its promise of freedom, democracy, and a glorious new era of human rights, mainly allowed for the spread of a worldwide contagion, an infestation of materialism. Barber has nostalgia, if not for East Germany or the Soviet Union per se, then at least for the hope that existed in those places when the the Eastern bloc fell.  For all their faults, the GDR and USSR were never frivolous and, if nothing else, being a political dissident before 1989 meant something.  And while the West “won,” all may be lost.  One wall came down, another encircled the world.
 
Now everywhere, the market: Despite the illusion of consumer choice in the McWorld, in truth there is a monocultural conformity of vapid materialism, not true variety or diversity.  Yes, we can shop ‘til we drop (or to borrow two of Barber’s memorable metaphors, choose the toppings for our baked potatoes or select from among “eleven models of pickup truck” and all the fake empowerment this represents) but that is not genuine autonomy. The right to shop is a hollow one.  McWorld is everywhere—the market itself, its symbols like those damn golden arches—but in it we are nowhere.  It transforms all of us from citizens into mere shoppers or worse: puerile, narcissistic beings, obsessed with personal gain and recreational indulgence.  As he writes, the choruses of “I want, I want, I want” and “Gimme, gimme, gimme” are “favorites from the Consumers’ Book of Nursery Rhymes” (93).  McWorld’s ascendance marks the triumph of infantilism.  Its global citizens are shallow, selfish, alienated creatures of purely materialistic desire and physical pleasures.  What has occurred is the ultimate sinister brainwashing, “a soft imperialism” in which the victims get everything they think they want, where “those who are colonized are said to ‘choose’ their commercial indenture” (xxi).
 
To Barber, the temples to this modern unspiritual reality are theme parks, since “McWorld itself is a theme park—a park called Marketland where everything is for sale and someone else is always responsible and there are no common goods or public interests and where everyone is equal as long as they can afford the price of admission and are content to watch and consume” (128, 136). This existence where everything can be bought and sold is nothing new; in the mid-19th century Karl Marx termed it commodification. What Barber highlights, rather, is the disappearance of the “citizen” in a civic democracy, and all the informed commitments that entails, replaced by the mere consumer in an abstract and heartless trans-national market.  For all its vastness, it’s a small, inhuman world after all.
 
The Tangled Web; Artificial Intelligence and Genuine Non-Intelligence

Barber already realized in 1995 that “McWorld is a kind of virtual reality, created by invisible but omnipotent high-tech information networks” and the market (26), heading toward even more mechanization, whether through robot workers or automated telephone responses, etc.  Technologies such as cyberspace and its illusion of power and freedom only increase our misery and sense of alienation, as all of us are mere cogs in the profit machine.  The information superhighway is a crisscrossing road to an abyss. The “infotainment telesector” and the web just create more fake needs as both our bodies and soul wither away, becoming mere vehicles for consumption.  He invokes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: “Virtuality displaces reality…where flickering shadows dancing on a smoky wall are our only clue to the ‘real,’ becomes the whole of our world,” comprised of “equal parts of pretense, illusion, and deception” (127).  There is more and more and more techno-cultural gunk, but we are lesser beings for it.  Ray Kurzweil’s singularity—where the lines between computer and human become completely blurred, resulting in a kind of “immortality,” Kurzweil’s personal obsession—would not appeal to Barber in the least.
 
Never have we been such voluminous consumers of information, but never has the information been so degraded and superficial.  Still, Barber thinks “Technology is a neutral tool: allied to democracy it can enhance civic communication and expend citizen literacy” (274).  He even hopes for new virtual Committees of Correspondence, akin to those of the American Revolutionary War era.  Although he acknowledged the potential of the information revolution to undermine despotic regimes from within and without and to transform democracies in positive ways, anticipating Arab Spring—and to “turn the entire globe into a wired town of potential neighbors” (271)—generally it seems that he foresaw no cyber-communities worth a damn.   The Internet overall does not nourish or build.  The emerging technologies, he felt, would instead just be new vehicles for demagoguery, government surveillance and repression, and corporate manipulation/propaganda, leading to the further “cultivation of artificial needs rooted in lifestyle ‘choices’ unconnected to real economic, civic, or spiritual needs” (274). He envisioned this all pre-WIFI, no less.  The years since the book was written have shown that governments will not or simply cannot control the technology of the Internet and the associated cyber-gadgets of early 21st century life.
 
McWorld Without Borders
 
Whether or not these techno-beasts can be held on any sort of leash, Barber was right to note that “[t]he invisible hand thus takes on new significance in the setting of invisible cyberspace, where virtual corporations defeat real nations” (32).  Most of us can perceive that in McWorld global corporations are the ones actually running the show, while nation-states have been enervated and basically rendered obsolete.  Of course, probably anyone versed in 20th century history could have predicted, as Barber did, that “[f]urther down the road…it is not increasingly less sovereign nations quarreling among themselves but multinational firms and their global markets that will dictate to America and other countries what is and is not possible” (221).  Wal-mart went from the fourth largest company in the U.S. to the largest in the world in the interim, but otherwise the Fortune 500 is the same hydra it has always been.  Still, we should give Barber credit for noting twenty years ago—before the Web made international borders even more irrelevant—that nations have become so interdependent on each other and reliant on their corporate masters that they cannot keep the plutocrats in check.  This was revealed all too clearly by the financial meltdown of 2009.  Garrett Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor, always problematic, could not even come close to holding water today; nations mean little and “sovereignty” is just a word.  Barber would also lament this, though, as he believes that corporations need to be firmly tethered to democracy and community to ensure safety (public and environmental) and social justice.  Aggressive and irresponsible global capitalism has “run wild because it has been uprooted from the humanizing constraints of the democratic nation state” (xxii).  In this new ocean, this vortex, First and Third World countries are both fucked, one way or the other.  Capitalism helped lift the democratic nation-state into existence, and now in its mature global form drags it down into a watery grave.  ‘Tis a nasty gyre.
 
This speaks to not only economic imperialism but also the monoculture mentioned earlier, where “[t]he word foreign has no meaning….[A]s far as production and consumption are concerned, there is only one world and it is McWorld” (29).  McWorld isn’t exactly an interchangeable term with “America,” but it sure seems to come close.  Moreover, McWorld has “globalized many of our vices and almost none of our virtues” (xxvii), spreading the worst of what is not simply a toxic but a “radioactive” American popular culture and lifestyle as gospel, without the protective foundation of traditional U.S. civil society or civic responsibility. Barber points to Hollywood films and American TV shows in particular as examples of this plague.  In other words, McWorld’s main export is the ideology of McWorld itself, reinforcing its decadent values, preaching “Consumers of the world unite!  We have everything you need in our chains!” (78).  It is a message of wealth, shopping, dumb “fun,” etc., spread by the idiot box.
 
That’s Infotainment!
 
McWorld has witnessed a proliferation of news media, as we know, but there is no true news or information, Barber argues, only “infotainment,” led by “stealth tyrants” like Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, and other spin doctors and image brokers.  He offers the wry remark that “Children have been known to drown in just a few inches of water: television’s shallows are more perilous still” (113).  His rant against television for murdering attention spans and the written word in particular is no revelation and seems a bit exaggerated, however, especially considering the much worse threat posed by the Internet, which has been the true death blow to books and newspapers.  But few could argue with Barber’s assertion that “Where democracy thrives on words—conditioners of rationality and commonality and equality—commerce prefers pictures” (128), as video images especially speak to immediate visceral responses rather than reason.  And if you start thinking, you probably won’t buy whatever unnecessary product or bullshit image is being peddled.  Certain genres of books continue, but TV “tends to make books illiterate” (120), especially when blowhard pundits like Rush Limbaugh (a particular target of Barber’s scorn) become best-selling authors.  But it is probably too much when Barber follows with a claim like “When a single picture of a brutally abused soldier’s corpse takes the place of careful debate and the reasoned discourse of words in forging political foreign priorities, democracy itself as a deliberative practice is jeopardized” (120).  Eek, a photograph, run for your life?
 
Like seemingly everything and everyone else, though, politicians are sucked into the infotainment telesector, as we have seen all too (un)well in the election of 2016.  Barber quotes Norman Ornstein’s insightful observation concerning the “blurring of the lines between Hollywood, New York, and Washington about who the celebrities are” (122).  Time for your makeup, Mr. Trump?  McWorld, with or without the Donald, is clearly an enemy of democracy and reasoned civic discourse.
 
Jihad and Community
 
Jihad borrows from the familiar Islamic concept, but by it Barber is referring to any kind of reactionary (especially militant) religious fundamentalism or aggressive ethnocentrism.  (Note that 1995 was during the Yugoslavian wars and just after the Rwandan genocide.)  In other words, it is not limited to Islam or even to religion. Jihadist movements emerge as McWorld’s shadow, an inescapable byproduct of McWorld’s soulless materialism and insipid multiculturalism.  They represent a protest against global consumerism and economic imperialism in the name of restoring an idealized pre-industrial existence and faith, “an attempt to recapture a world that existed prior to cosmopolitan capitalism and was defined by religious mysteries, hierarchical communities, [and] spellbinding traditions” (157). Jihad of any stripe is thus characterized by a narrower, tribal, “remystified,” intentionally divisive and fragmentary (Barber would even say anarchic) sense of Us, as opposed to the monoculture of McWorld’s global market or its postmodern paperdolls.  Jihadists are rightfully xenophobic, Barber would be the first to admit, since McWorld is after their spirit and very identity, not just their money.  Think of the familiar quip of how it’s not paranoia if someone actually is out to get you.  The movement as a whole reflects a parochial hunger for community and meaning, along with the moral direction and behavioral focus that religious commandments and ethnic enclaves can so readily provide.  Responding to this demand, Jihad thrives not just at the frontiers of McWorld but also within its bowels, even more so today with the added pressures on Europe presented by immigration and the similar American paranoia.
 
As the above suggests, in the background of Barber’s dialectic is the classic division between “Liberals” and “Communitarians” and, to probe even deeper, rival conceptions of what truly defines a human being.  Liberals in the classic sense of the word appeal to Enlightenment universalism.  It is a worldview that begins with rationality, individual rights, freedom, and seeks to protect the democratic institutions that ensure the rights of all humankind (such as the press, the secular state, etc.). It is the broadest sense of “us” traditionally also called Humanism.  But the Liberalism of today has reduced us all to little else but consumers, Internet users, and politically correct sheep, a sham form of the Enlightenment dream.  It is too tolerant, a freedom without substance.  The Communitarian perspective, on the other hand, identifies humans as fundamentally members of groups, be they religious, racial, ethnic, nationalistic, regional, special interest, families, you name it.  In other words, Communitarians think more in terms of allegiance to a much more limited “us” and look outward to the “them” with hostility.  A Communitarian is all too prone to sacrifice the self (often with a ka-boom) and certainly any outsiders in the name of some greater collective body; he demands recognition, respect, and group power as opposed to the rights of all.  We are better, we are right, we are the righteous; others are not equal to us and should not be.  It is not a question of any rationality or universal standard—or even any actual historical support, with nationalistic and other communities being so often based on “a contrivance of willed grievances, drawing on an invented past,” as Barber observes (162).  Rather, it is a tribal mentality that can only lead to division and violent conflict, or at best a tenuous isolationism.
 
Barber does not condone the types of communities that Jihad engenders or their methods of battle, but he does agree that McWorld is spiritually and moral bankrupt.  The Jihadists are not inventing imaginary bogeymen or fake problems:
 
“Are these aroused and zealous camp followers of Jihad then really so nutty in their censuring of materialism and their call for modes of living more commensurate with the needs of the human spirit? . . . The complaint against McWorld represents impatience not just with its consumption-driven markets and its technological imperatives, but with its hollowness as a foundation for a meaningful moral existence.  These absences translate into profound civic alienation that disconnects individuals from their communities and isolates them from nonmaterial sources of their being” (275).
 
To borrow a phrase from Barber, one is a negation (“the spiritual poverty of markets”), the other an affirmation, of community.  But perhaps more aptly, one is the function of “animal greed,” the other of “animal fear fear propelled by anxiety in the face of uncertainty and relieved by self-sacrificing zealotry—an escape out of history” (215-216).
 
Yin and Yang, Flim and Flam
 
Ironically, though, at the same time Jihadists are fashioned in McWorld’s image.  Put succinctly, “Jihad needs McWorld as the shadows do the sun” (293).  Jihad of course requires McWorld as an enemy/devil to justify and further its own existence, but it also needs McWorld’s technology and markets to compete in this battle.  Think of ISIS videos on the Internet or fundamentalist Christian web pages.  This dialectical relationship is thus better described as “Jihad via McWorld rather than Jihad versus McWorld” (157).  Jihad is its rival but also its bastard child.  The two are “locked together,” (157) requiring each other as a raison d’etre, yin and yang.
 
But the white yang has the black colored yin eye or seed, and the black yin has the white.  As much as Jihad’s message may be anti-modern, it can’t avoid McWorld’s corruption.  Just watch a show like Breaking Amish if you think any sectarian, anti-modern community can remain unsullied.  Osama bin Laden not only had his World Wide Web missives but also his porn collection, after all.  Writing in the 1990s, Barber uses the more timely example of Serbian snipers in Adidas sneakers listening to Madonna on headphones while they blow women and children to smithereens, but it’s the same idea: The technology and alluring vices of global culture are always there as a seduction, weakening the Jihadists from within.  McWorld appeals so effectively to the soft underbelly, the desire for creature comforts and fun, and this, he thinks, will be Jihad’s undoing.  Likewise, since Jihad has such wide appeal, McWorld at some point will commercialize and market jihad and also undermine it that way: “The world continues then to fall apart and come together; and, however newsworthy the disintegrative forces may seem, the integrative forces still seem poised to overwhelm them.  Hezbollah is no match for Wal-Mart” (295).  And McWorld will never leave a place like Iraq or Afghanistan alone to burn or do its own thing—those are consumers, potential markets, with Walmartistan waiting to rise past the landmines.
 
Ultimately it will be a conquest.  Barber does not see much hope for a peaceful coexistence between McWorld and Jihadism, particularly the Islamic variants.  While the Muslim religion is not without its traditions that might allow for democratic rule (albeit within the framework of theocracy), the anti-modernism of fundamentalist Islam would presumably always be a problem.  He presents it as follows: “Either the Qu’ran speaks the Truth, or Truth is a television quiz show.  History has given us Jihad as a counterpoint to McWorld and made them inextricable; but individuals cannot live in both domains at once and are compelled to choose” (216).
 
Unfortunately, it is the choice between one enemy of democracy and another—and for each of us, whether to be a shallow creature of consumption or a divisive, destructive creature of hate.  Between the two evils, Barber actually favors Jihad over McWorld, as “Tribalism is little less hostile to civil society than consumerism.  Without civil society, there can be no citizens, and thus no meaningful democracy” (234).  Put bluntly, “McWorld is the problem, not the solution” (267).
 
In examining the McWorld-Jihad dialectic, Barber devotes significant attention not just to the Islamic world and Eastern Europe, but also the Far East and to a lesser extent South Asia.  By 1995 the Japanese economic “miracle” had already faded, of course; it has been replaced by the decadence of Japanese youth, spoiled by wealth, themselves the enthusiastic agents of McWorld’s corruption.  China faces its own internal jihadist threats in the remote west and north from minority and subject peoples like the Uighurs and Tibetans, but prosperity itself is probably the greatest enemy of the PRC.  Eventually it will erode the authority of the regime from within, Barber believes.  McWorld seeps in through the pores with the increasing wealth brought by free enterprise and participation in the global market: “the cultural mosquitoes are more likely to bring down the regime than the political butterflies that are captured” (186-188).  It is those very same mosquitoes that sting Jihad awake throughout the world.  There will be blood.
 
Democracy Now?
 
Barber confronts a world where democracy, its institutions “fractured and weakened” and “antiquated and superfluous” (250), is being pushed into irrelevance by both McWorld and Jihad—and is truly on the edge of oblivion.  Democracy, “government by, for, and of citizens” (223), is something equally foreign to McWorld and Jihad.  Again, “neither Jihad nor McWorld promises a remotely democratic future,” he declares, as “each in its own way obstructs the path to human liberty” (220, 232).  McWorld turns us all into mere consumers, less than human; a citizen, in contrast, is a participating member of a community of intelligent, informed individuals.  Such a community is the enlightened polis of Athens or more like the Jeffersonian ideal of civil society, a world of Liberals in the classical sense. Picture, perhaps, a society full of public intellectuals, where everyone either listens to or belongs on NPR and cares deeply about social justice.  To be a citizen is to be a part of a demanding world of thoughtful and informed social commitments and “deliberative public debate,” not the individualistic pursuit of empty pleasures or the proliferation of mindless slogans.  In another passage presaging the age of Trump, Barber memorably writes, “Consumers are poor substitutes for citizens…just as corporate CEOs are poor substitutes for statesmen” (xxix).  Indeed.  Civic virtue is not the profit motive.  Freedom of the press is not the one-sided punditry of Fox News.  Freedom of speech is not tweeting about penis size.
 
Yet Barber does not think all is lost.  Democracy—call it the democracy of Jefferson or Tocqueville—can survive or return from the dead, whichever best applies, but its resuscitation will not be easy or quick.  The public institutions necessary for this kind of democracy (school, church, town halls, the press, NGOs, etc., not private interest lobbies) have been in place since our country’s founding, they have just been neglected, ignored, or abused.   Citizenship must be nourished and civic society cultivated from the ground up; it cannot be top-down.  Echoing John Dewey, Barber refers to democracy as a “way of life” before it is a way of government (279).  And when it is government, it is not the leviathan of the socialistic bureaucratic welfare state one the one hand (the New Deal behemoth) or the chaos of laissez faire leeches and plutocrats on the other.  Rather, it is a state of and for empowered people who are invested in the community.  Barber imagines a revitalized public sphere in a more confederal arrangement, hearkening back to the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution, believe it or not.  He even thinks this is possible at the global level.
 
His message of hope is worth quoting at length and could have been written today:
 
“If the democratic option sounds improbable as a response to Jihad (it is!), think of the ‘realist’ solutions currently being debated—peace and stabilization through foreign invasion, expulsion, partition, resettlement, United Nations Trusteeship, military intervention, or simple dismemberment.  Will they contain the spreading global fires of Jihad?  And if the democratic option sounds utopian as a response to the infotainment telesector with its infectious videology and its invisible electronic fingers curling around human minds and hearts wherever satellite transmissions can be received, think of the alternative: surrender to the markets and thus to the least noble aspirations of human civilization they so efficiently serve; and the shrinking of our vaunted liberty to Regis Debray’s wretched choice between ‘the local Ayatollah and Coca-Cola.’

In a nation at war, Abraham Lincoln saw in democracy a last and best hope.  On our paradoxical planet today, with nations falling apart and coming together at the same moment for some of the very same reasons, and with cowering national governments and toothless international law hardly able to bark, let alone bite, democracy may now have become our first and only hope” (291-292).
 
As that last sentence mentions, international political organizations—too often punchless or even feckless [“After all, the nations that are signatories to the Genocide Convention include all the Western countries that have sat by and dithered while genocide is being committed in places like Rwanda—itself also a signatory nation!” (230)]—won’t be the ones step into to take the helm, despite how much they are needed to protect human rights, worldwide economic justice, the environment, and “the global public good.”  Markets are not the answer either, since
 
“Markets simply are not designed to do the things democratic polities do.  They enjoin private rather than public modes of discourse, allowing us as consumers to speak via our currencies of consumption to producers of material goods, but ignoring us as citizens speaking to one another about such things as the social consequences of our private market choices (too much materialism?  too little social justice?  too many monopolies?  too few jobs?  what do we want?).  They advance individualistic rather than social goals, permitting us to say, one by one, ‘I want a pair of running shoes’ or ‘I need a new VCR’ or ‘buy yen and sell D-marks!’ but deterring us from saying, in a voice made common by interaction and deliberation, ‘our inner city community needs new athletic facilities’ or ‘there is too much violence on TV and in the movies’ or ‘we should rein in the World Bank and democratize the IMF!’  Markets preclude ‘we’ thinking and ‘we’ action of any kind at all, trusting in the power of aggregated individual choices (the invisible hand) to somehow secure the common good.  Consumers speak the elementary rhetoric of ‘me,’ citizens invent the common language of ‘we.’

Markets are contractual rather than communitarian, which means they stroke our solitary egos but leave unsatisfied our yearning for community, offering durable goods and fleeting dreams but not a common identity or a collective membership—something the blood communities spawned by Jihad, reinforced by the thinness of market relations, do rather too well” (243).
 
In the future at the top of the pyramid it will likely just be more economic conglomerates wielding more power, unless somehow individuals working vigilantly in the form of “civil society” and as a true community can prevent this. Barber warns, “Far more today than in the nineteenth century, the workers of the world need to unite to offset the exploitative consequences of monopoly capital on a global scale.  Yet never has there been less likelihood that they could do so” (242).  Civic democracy, with its institutions returned to health, is in his eyes the only feasible alternative—not just politically, but seemingly also morally and spiritually—to McWorld’s “economism” and excesses on one side and the polarizing hate of Jihad on the other.  Civic democracy alone can return us to a proper perspective.
 
In perhaps his most stirring passage, he asserts, “Their [Jihad’s] message is: ‘Your sons want to live, ours are ready to die.’  Our response must be this: ‘We will create a world in which the seductions of death hold no allure because the bounties of life are accessible to everyone” (xxv).   Perhaps the first statement begs the question of whether those of us in McWorld want to live, in the profoundest sense as citizens, or simply to spend.  But the issue Barber is raising, updated to 2016, might be something like, Would we be willing to sacrifice our lives so that the Kardashians can continue to live like assholes?  I wouldn’t.  The Jihadists have a worthier cause.  It would be one thing if our side was fighting for democracy, but we actually aren’t.  It’s for GM, Apple, and Haliburton.
 
The 14th century Muslim historian Ibn Khaldoun and others have noted that barbarians are needed at the gate to re-energize the civilized, to shake them out of the torpor caused by prosperity.  The dialectic again works both ways.  But perhaps it is already too late, the new Dark Ages are already here, any civilization worth saving long gone, with the true “citizens” (conscientious, community-oriented, educated, rational, moral) far too outnumbered by the shoppers, tweeters, and the fundamentalist crusaders.  Barber’s chilling prediction resonates with truth, that “[u]nless we can offer an alternative to the struggle between Jihad and McWorld, the epoch on whose threshold we stand—postcommunist, postindustrial, postnational, yet sectarian, fearful, and bigoted—is likely also to be terminally postdemocratic” (20).  But where is that third option, only in some idealized vision of the past where the U.S. was still an agricultural economy of about five million people and Jefferson and his buddies somehow weren’t slaveowners?  Or the self-sufficient democratic cantons of 1500s Switzerland?  Please. There needs to be an answer suited to the global realities of today.  But perhaps there is some hope.  I think Barber would have to commend the progress seen with the rise of “citizen shoppers,” as one might call them, a formidable new “we” who have made more informed consumer choices that take into account environmental impact, issues relating to social justice, etc.  Maybe the only significant way people vote in McWorld is with their wallets.
 
Wherefore Trump
 
Regardless, the political song and dance continues, at least at the front of the stage. As I write this, our nation faces the decision in a mere matter of days of whether to elect as President the vulgar scion of both McWorld and Jihad, Donald Trump.  Trump’s isolationist and anti-immigration tirades are a jihadist reaction to McWorld, yet at the same time he is an unapologetic one percenter, the beneficiary of global capitalism.  He is a walking and talking jumble of contradictions, as evident in his convoluted and grammatically incoherent speech.  Perhaps Trump is the last of the breed of patriotic “American” capitalists increasingly made extinct in an era of globalization; hopefully he is not a horseman of the apocalypse signaling the absolute end of Barber’s dream of global civil society.
 
 

–RG

 

 

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