Benjamin Barber 1939-
American political philosopher.
The following entry provides an overview of Barber's career through 1998.
Barber is a widely known political philosopher who has written extensively on democratic theory, particularly on the rift between politics and political philosophy, and on participatory democracy and civil society.
Barber was born in New York City in 1939. He received a broad education, attending such institutions as Albert Schweitzer College in Churwalden, Switzerland, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Grinnell College, and Harvard University. He has lectured and taught at Albert Schweitzer College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University, where he holds the position of Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science and serves as the director of the Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy.
With Superman and Common Men (1971), Barber set the stage for a career examining the ideas of democracy and democratic theory. In this work, he directly questions how democracy can become more accessible to people and how the stalemate between beneficiaries of the status quo and younger members of society can be broken. Barber takes these ideas further in Strong Democracy (1984), insisting that “at the heart of strong democracy is talk.” Here, a pet theme which becomes a focus in later works emerges: that common people should be entitled to participate in a political process that is inclusive and directly relevant to their lives. Barber addresses a related theme in Between Philosophy and Politics (1986), which bemoans what he views as a major rift between politics and political theory. Similarly, in The Conquest of Politics (1988) Barber insists that politics are a necessary component in the lives of every citizen. Here he addresses the theories of Bertrand Russell, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bruce Ackerman, Michael Oakeshott, and Alasdair MacIntyre, insisting that the science of politics is inexact, replete with subtle negotiations and constant bargaining, and should not be subject to theorizing or manipulation by philosophers. In Barber's opinion, political actions are meant to foster social action, and this action should be a tool of the common citizen, free of the criteria typically imposed on philosophical endeavors. Barber turned his attention to education in An Aristocracy of Everyone (1992), and continued to focus within the context of participatory citizenship. In this work, he argues that freedom is a shared American value and also an evolving concept that merits study in the community as well as the classroom, in order to discern what citizenship truly means. In the highly scrutinized Jihad vs. McWorld (1995), Barber presents an extended metaphorical polemic pitting his own version of “Jihad,” an adaptation of Islamic holy war which he uses to signify isolated but common outbursts of worldwide violence, against his concept of “McWorld,” representing America's rampant consumerism and homogenizing tendencies. Barber contends that tribal, militia-type conflicts are waged daily by forces who unconsciously embrace the consumer influences of “McWorld”—a primarily American form of capitalism. His contention is that the fate of democracy lies in a balance between a world connected by commerce but which is also threatened by the distinctions that multiculturalism favors, diversities that can ultimately fragment and disintegrate society. In his works, Barber insists that the solution to such problems is a strong civil society. He elaborates further in A Place for Us (1998), in which he addresses massive global expansionism. Here, Barber presents three models of civil society: one led by the market (“merchant”), one influenced by a New Deal form of government (“prince”), and one of his own creation that falls somewhere between private commerce and big government.
Barber has many supporters among students of contemporary political theory. His work consistently address liberal political thought, democracy, civil participation, and citizenship, making him a forerunner among democratic political theorists. Barber's theorizing often leads to a discussion of concrete suggestions for political and social improvement. In An Aristocracy for Everyone, for example, he advocates a national service program in which citizens would participate. In several works Barber puts himself in the uncomfortable position of being a respected theorist who also criticizes political theory and those like himself who create it. This hypocrisy is not lost to many critics, who demonstrate that for all of Barber's heated rhetoric, he neglects any considerations of a real course of action—the very thing he claims citizens need to be discussing. Jihad vs. McWorld, in particular, drew ample criticism. According to Philip Green the main observation Barber makes in this work is that “culture is not an abstraction but an economy.” In general, critics accept Barber's “McWorld” concept much more readily than that of the “Jihad,” which has been called prejudicial and in need of more precise analysis. Nevertheless, Barber is often credited with initiating debate on significant topics related to democracy and its future in a rapidly transforming world.
Superman and Common Men: Freedom, Anarchy, and the Revolution (nonfiction) 1971
The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton (nonfiction) 1974
Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (nonfiction) 1984
Between Philosophy and Politics: The Alienation of Political Theory (nonfiction) 1986
The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times (nonfiction) 1988
An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America (nonfiction) 1992
Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet Is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together and What This Means for Democracy (nonfiction) 1995; reprinted in 1996 as Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World
A Passion for Democracy: American Essays (nonfiction) 1998
A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong (nonfiction) 1998
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SOURCE: A review of Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, in American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 1341–42.
[In the following review, Mansbridge argues that Barber “distorts opposing views” such as representative government and anarchism. Mansbridge claims that Barber “argues by destroying straw monsters—caricatures of ideas that their adherents would never recognize.”]
In Strong Democracy Benjamin Barber argues powerfully for a government in which “all of the people govern themselves in at least some public matters at least some of the time” (p. xiv). With verve, style, passion, and insight, Barber explains how this ideal is possible, why we have never practiced it, and what conceptual and practical innovations might make it work.
Rejecting the “liberal” idea of a natural, pre-political state whose inhabitants are endowed with liberty, equality, and rights, Barber insists, correctly, that we acquire these goods through the process of governing ourselves in common. Rejecting as well the static, aggregative liberal conception of citizenship, Barber insists that citizens become capable of common purpose through the process of common governance rather than through the simple coincidence of preexisting interests. Such a politics involves activity, energy, and work. It involves institutions that help people...
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SOURCE: “Fine Word: ‘Legitimate’,” in National Review, Vol. XL, No. 18, September 16, 1988, pp. 48–50.
[In the following review, Sobran writes that Barber's argument in The Conquest of Politics—that politics is an autonomous sphere that should not have to answer to philosophical ideals—is confounded by the lack of definitions of words such as “democracy,” “social justice,” “public,” and “private.”]
Benjamin Barber wants to rescue politics from philosophy. “Inverting Aristotle's prudent dictum calling for a method appropriate to the subject under study,” he says, contemporary political philosophers “have sought a subject appropriate to the philosophical method at hand. When that subject—in this case, politics—has resisted the method, it is the subject and not the method that has been adjusted.” The result is “a distortion of our sense of the political,” harmful to both politics and political philosophy.
The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times concentrates on six recent political thinkers: Bertrand Russell, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Bruce Ackerman, Michael Oakeshott, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Barber, who teaches political science at Rutgers, hopes to discredit “foundationalism”: the attempt to derive political theory from certitudes of epistemology or any other pre-political branch of philosophy....
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SOURCE: “Responses to Benjamin Barber: I. Politics and the University,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 82–83, Spring-Summer, 1989, pp. 360–67.
[In the following response to Barber's “Cultural Conservatism and Democratic Education,” Nachman challenges Barber's assertion that truth is a reflection of individual interest.]
Benjamin Barber has ostensibly come here today to defend two decades of leftist innovations in the university from the ‘cultural conservatives’ who stubbornly refuse to recognize how much better a place the American university has become. I say ostensibly because I see no effort on Barber's part to engage the thought of those he attacks. They provide him with names to invoke to audiences such as this one on occasions such as this. The mention of Bloom and Bennett will put the house in the right mood, so there is no need to consider the content of what they say. After all, it is almost a quarter of a century since the left in America foreswore talking to any one other than itself. It was its sacrifice for a long Lent.
And so Barber pronounces [in “Cultural Conservatism and Democratic Education”],
To the extent that they are children of the sixties, they believe in equality, in disarmament, in tolerance, and in social justice, gender justice, and a variety of other contemporary justices for which Bloom and company apparently...
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SOURCE: “Responses to Benjamin Barber: II. The Old and the New,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 82–83, Spring-Summer 1989, pp. 368–74.
[In the following response to Barber's “Cultural Conservatism and Democratic Education,” Boyers argues that the 1960s were not as revolutionary for universities as is commonly assumed, and that traditional figures studied in universities—such as Walt Whitman, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx—should not be considered irrelevant or archaic, and certainly not “dangerous.”]
There's a lot in Ben Barber's [“Cultural Conservatism and Democratic Education”] to admire, but there are many things in it I'm inclined to challenge and resist. Since I can't take the time here to launch a full rejoinder, I'll briefly cite what seem to me a few flaws in Ben's case.
First, let me say that I applaud Ben's attack on conservatives—neo and otherwise—who defend American culture and society at the very same time that they indict the professoriate for corrupting the young. Quite as Ben says, the values of the young—such as they are—do not in the main reflect what they hear in the classroom: “Their attitudes mirror the popular culture in which they live and the economic cultures in which they make their careers.” If conservatives are unhappy with what they see in the young—here too I think Ben and I would agree—they have got to address...
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SOURCE: A review of An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, in MultiCultural Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 79–80.
[In the following review, Showalter argues that although Barber is right to attempt to redefine “the usual paradigms in discussing education,” his lack of concrete suggestions severely weakens his position.]
The strength of [An Aristocracy of Everyone] lies in its author's determination to transcend the usual paradigms in discussing education. Instead of concentrating on questions of finance, curriculum, or administration, Barber argues that public education must be understood as education for citizenship. This means the educator's essential task is teaching liberty: helping men and women acquire the skills necessary for freedom. For Barber, the first of these skills is “temporality.” Students, he argues, must acquire a sense of their identity as a process of history; liberty cannot exist apart from its origins. A second crucial requisite involves establishing the American story—not as patriotic myth, but as an exercise in struggle and hope. To be an American, Barber asserts, is not to have secured equality and justice. It involves rather the opportunity to strive for these things, to seek some deliverance from fear and tyranny.
Barber is an advocate of what he calls “loose canons,” structures...
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SOURCE: A review of An Aristocracy of Everyone, in Amerasia Journal, Vol. 21, Nos. 1 and 2, 1995, pp. 197–200.
[In the following review, Chang supports Barber's critique of postmodernists and of those who are overly nostalgic, and lauds Barber for noting that the presence of political ideals in America make the country unique. The problem, Chang argues, is that Barber “gives too much credit to democracy's idealistic promises.”]
The challenge facing modern proponents of a just and inclusive America remains how to hold the diversity of groups and liberty of individuals without surrendering social unity. On the one hand, an under-differentiated America pretends to a unity that actually excludes many groups from participation. On the other hand, an over-differentiated America falls to pieces, sacrificing what it means to be an American to a passion for inclusiveness.
Benjamin Barber undertakes this challenge and offers a thoughtful solution in his book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America. He frames the “unity and diversity” debate within the political war over the canon of our nation, fought between two opposing camps—loosely defined as neo-conservative and radical left. For Barber, what is at stake is democracy—the principles of freedom, liberty, and justice—which ironically has been overlooked in the passionate...
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SOURCE: “History: To Be Continued,” in Nation, Vol. 261, No. 9, September 25, 1995, pp. 318–22.
[In the following review of Francis Fukuyama’s Trust and Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, Green applauds the fact that Barber “understands that culture is not an abstraction but an economy,” but feels that the traditional battle between national capital and the working classes might pose a greater threat to democracy than McWorld does.]
How is it that some people become famous while others do not? Of course, it smacks of sour grapes for one of the latter to ask this about one of the former, but Francis Fukuyama's career begs for the question. How exactly do you get ahead by boldly making one of the worst predictions in the history of social science? In case anyone has forgotten, six years ago he wrote that, with the fall of Communism, we've reached an “end of history,” marked by a “worldwide convergence in basic institutions around liberal democracy and market economics,” in which “the broad process of human historical evolution culminates not, as in the Marxist version, in socialism but rather in the Hegelian vision of a bourgeois liberal democratic society.” This is also a world in which “modern technology … shapes national economies in a coherent fashion,” so that “the world's advanced countries have no alternative model of political and economic organization other...
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SOURCE: A review of Jihad vs. McWorld, in Washington Monthly, Vol. 27, No. 11, November, 1995, p. 57.
[In the following review, Cook agrees with Barber's “McWorld” idea—particularly in regard to mass communications—but contends that Barber's concept of “Jihad” is more complicated than what Barber presents it to be.]
Last year, I went to Middleboro, a small town in southeastern Massachusetts, to write a piece about Rwanda. It had all the makings of your classic “shrinking planet” story. Here was Manzi Kanobana, a Tutsi teen from the heart of Africa, now an exchange student at a small New England high school. To these kids, Manzi seemed strange at first, but he played a mean game of soccer and quickly made friends. His home country's quirky customs caught on—like the midnight candy Christmas tradition—and, before long, he had plenty of friends with whom to watch TV—usually CNN's “International Hour.” Middleboro, meet Kigali.
But that spring, amidst CNN's reports of Coca Cola's move to Prague and the most recent opening of a McDonald's franchise in Budapest, came chaotic stories of Rwanda's self-destruction. The president's plane had been shot down, and the nation's two tribes—the Hutus and the minority Tutsis—fell upon each other with an apocalyptic fury. One afternoon, I sat in a sparsely-furnished apartment, with Manzi's aunt sitting at the table...
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SOURCE: A review of Jihad vs. McWorld, in Tikkun, Vol. 11, No. 1, January-February, 1996, pp. 87–8.
[In the following review, Karabell contends that the civil society Barber advocates never existed and cannot be reproduced, and suggests that the real solution is to use Barber's concept of “McWorld” to change the present political and social climate.]
Several years ago, Benjamin Barber, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote a stimulating essay in The Atlantic in which he posited two alternative metaphors for the future: Jihad and McWorld. He suggested there was a dialectical process at work, in which these apparently opposed forces actually stimulate each other, the anarchic pulls of McWorld modernity sparking a violently dogmatic form of identity politics.
Barber has now turned that essay into a book of the same title [Jihad vs. McWorld], and, fortunately, it maintains the same provocative quality. Yet, in extending and fleshing out the model, Barber adds a starry-eyed view of democracy that was essentially muted in the earlier version. He suggests that democracy and “civil society” are somehow the answer to the otherwise depressing conundrum of Jihad and McWorld. While he is convincing, and depressingly so, about the perils of both options, his solution is built on nostalgia and a poor grasp of history.
For Barber, Jihad connotes any...
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SOURCE: “Paris Is Burning,” in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 4, January 22, 1996, pp. 27–31.
[In the following review of Jihad vs. McWorld, Zakaria argues that people who make legitimate personal choices are more responsible for the “McWorld” phenomenon—which he views to be primarily a beneficial one—than are multinational corporations, pop culture, and global markets.]
Lately, President Clinton seems to have done a good bit of reading. Early this fall he had a highly publicized confessional with Ben Wattenberg about the latter's book, Values Matter Most. And in September, at a meeting with religious leaders in the White House, he recommended another book to the ministers and the assembled press corps. He lavished praise on a “fascinating book by a man named Benjamin Barber,” called Jihad vs. McWorld. Worried that he might have given offense to somebody, he quickly added that “it's not an anti-Muslim book, by the way. Islam is a beautiful religion with great values.”
Benjamin Barber is a professor of political philosophy at Rutgers University who has often written on big subjects. He is best known for his advocacy of “strong democracy.” His book of that name, which appeared in 1984, was an argument for unmediated democratic politics. It advocated greater participation of all citizens in all aspects of social and political life; criticized...
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SOURCE: A review of Jihad vs. McWorld, in Commonweal, Vol. 123, No. 8, April 19, 1996, p. 26–7.
[In the following review, Sigmund examines Barber's definitions of “Jihad” and “McWorld,” Barber's proposals for strengthening participatory democracy, and his suggestion for creating an “international confederalism.”]
The jarring title notwithstanding, … [Jihad vs. McWorld] is a significant book. It juxtaposes two countervailing tendencies in the contemporary world, the universalizing tendencies of global capitalism and the particularizing drives of religious, tribal, and ethnic fanaticism, and argues that both are undermining the fragile structures of democracy.
The first part on the emergence of “McWorld” documents the expansion of a homogenizing, American-dominated worldwide consumer culture. A media mogul like Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, besides owning TV Guide, Twentieth Century Fox Films, HarperCollins Publishers, and the New York Post, controls television chains in the U.S., Britain, and Hong Kong that broadcast to two-thirds of the world's population. U.S. films comprise all or nearly all the ten top-grossing films in every major country except Mexico (six out of ten), Italy, and Japan (five out of ten). In Germany, American-made films have moved from 53 percent of the market in 1981 to 83 percent today. Eighty percent of the films shown...
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SOURCE: A review of Jihad vs. McWorld, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 5, September, 1996, pp. 588–89.
[In the following review, Juergensmeyer contests the adequacy of both Jihad and McWorld as “comparative categories,” questioning whether McWorld can really be called a “global culture” and whether nationalism requires a lack of democracy or of democratic principles and procedures.]
So demonstrable and straightforward was Benjamin Barber's observation about global society that many of us experienced an “aha” reaction simply on reading the title of his provocative article “Jihad vs. McWorld” when it first appeared in The Atlantic several years ago. The thesis of the article—and now the book [Jihad vs. McWorld]—is that two of the most important trends in the world today are antithetical. On the one hand is Jihad, the parochial ethnic, racial, and religious allegiances that tend to balkanize and separate regions of the world. On the other is McWorld, the universalizing economic market that fosters a homogenizing popular culture of consumer items, films, and music that is virtually global in its scope.
Caught between these two forces and virtually crushed by them is a third, the trend toward democracy. It is the perilous state of civil society in both the Disneyland societies of McWorld and the Babel of Jihad that is Barber's real...
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SOURCE: “E Pluribus Unum,” in Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1998, pp. 8–9.
[In the following review of A Place for Us, Mort supports Barber's evaluation of recent federal programs which aim to promote a sense of civic responsibility, and asserts that Barber's ideas for increasing corporate responsibility in the global economy, though idealistic, are laudable.]
“Civil society,” a term once used by a professor at the University of Berlin in the 1800s (one G. W. F. Hegel), means daily life as it occurs separate from the government or the state. Long dormant, the phrase was resurrected by dissident Eastern European intellectuals raging against their totalitarian states in the 1980s.
Today, the phrase has been co-opted by American intellectuals, politicians and pundits. As political theorist Michael Walzer reminds us, through our “unions, churches, political parties and movements, cooperatives, neighborhoods … we have lived in civil society for many years without knowing it.” Yet the path by which we strengthen our own civil society is in dispute. From conservative William Bennett to liberals at Washington's Brookings Institution, many herald the importance of strengthening domestic civil society. In A Place For Us, political scientist and public intellectual Benjamin Barber offers arguments for rebuilding our fraying democracy.
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SOURCE: A review of A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, in New Leader, Vol. 81, No. 8, June 29, 1998, pp. 18–20.
[In the following review, Clausen summarizes Barber's position in regard to Communitarians and multiculturalists and agrees that the communities formed by ethnic groups that multiculturalists encourage often espouse attitudes of intolerance and thus pose a threat to true democracy.]
When Californians decided on June 2 to eliminate most bilingual classes in public schools, the many Asians and Hispanics who voted with the majority were following the lead of virtually every immigrant group since the United States began. Bilingual educators and professional multiculturalists bemoaned the vote as nativist, racist, even imperialistic, but its true meaning transcends those tired clichés. Two new books from opposite ends of the political spectrum examine what is going on as the melting pot unfashionably shows there's a blaze in the old stove yet.
John J. Miller's The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America's Assimilation Ethic lays out its thesis in its title. Though Miller does not tell us so, his title plays off the names of two classic immigrant autobiographies: Jacob Riis' The Making of an American (1901) and Marcus Eli Ravage's An American in the Making (1917). Riis was a Dane, Ravage a...
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Barton-Kriese, Paul. A review of The Conquest of Politics. Perspective 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1988): 136.
Barton-Kriese summarizes Barber's critiques of six major political philosophers in The Conquest of Politics, among them Bertrand Russell, Angus MacIntyre and John Rawls.
Borning, Bernard C. A review of Superman and Common Men: Freedom, Anarchy and the Revolution. Western Political Quarterly (September, 1972): 553–55.
Borning discusses Barber's belief that democracy can be made to be more “equitable, humane, and responsive to the needs and aspirations of all.”
Economist. A review of Jihad vs. McWorld. Economist 336, No. 7933, (23 September 1995): 78–9.
A summary of Barber's main arguments in Jihad vs. McWorld.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. A review of Jihad vs. McWorld. New York Times Book Review (20 August 20 1995): 8.
Ehrenreich praises Barber's “McWorld” concept but contends that his notion of Jihad is prejudicial and not an entirely new idea.
Gunnell, John G. A review of The Conquest of Politics. Journal of Politics 51, No. 3, (August, 1989): 762–63.
An examination of Barber's contention that a political philosophy that truly fosters...
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