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...
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