Gospel & Culture blog
Why Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld is a good conversation starter, but not sound economics or political theory
I wish I could assign Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld for one of my classes on intercultural communication or culture change, but Barber's prolonged rant against Capitalism undoes any usefulness in his theory about the tension between tribalism and globalization. Barber's ground-breaking thesis (twenty years ago) was that globalization (which he calls McWorld) and tribalism (which he calls Jihad) both undermine the nation state. Modern states, in his mind, serve as the checks and balances. Unfettered globalization would undermine freedom by compelling us all to speak the same language (English), eat the same diet (McDonalds) shop in the same stores (WalMart). On the other hand, tribalism undermines the homogenizing nation state by accentuating ethnic and religious differences. "Global economic forces weaken the nation-state in developed areas where it is mos democratic and strengthen it in the Third World where it is least democratic, imperiling liberty in both cases" (56). It was a fascinating theory as globalization was just taking off in 1995.
To develop this idea, Barber assumes that his readers are in agreement with him that capitalism removes individual freedom, and does nothing to promote democracy. He never quite shows how capitalism is inimical to democracy, but keeps assuming the reader sees the connection- despite renowned economist Milton Freedman's decades' long study that shows capitalism ushers in democracy. Most readers would agree that consumerism is unfortunately tied to capitalism- that unfettered capitalism propels us on a trajectory of greed, waste, and viewing humans as purchasers rather than people. But I don't see how consumerism, as bad as it is, somehow undermines liberty. Barber's argument is that full-fledged consumerism doesn't really give us choice. There is no market incentive to promote the public good- just to win the sale. Sure, we think we can choose between Coke and Pepsi, but we still have to consume. His main concern is that with the hegemony of large corporations (who can buy their favorite politician) the persuasive voices will only have their bottom line, not democracy, in mind. So he vilifies Rupert Murdoch for being more interested in making a profit than promoting democracy. Is it really the job of corporations to protect democracy? I don't think Barber's thesis has played out: the forces of Jihad and McWorld are both real, but at times both strengthen the state, and at times both strengthen international cooperation. Probably the idea most missing in Barber's book was glocalization- the way cultures adopt McWorld for their own purposes. But then again, we've had twenty years to see glocalization play out since Barber wrote Jihad vs. McWorld.
I would rather assign Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat but he paints too rosy a picture of globalization's ability to encourage peace, open borders, cooperation...
I think Veseth's Globaloney provides the balanced view, without the rant against capitalism.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor