As evidenced by the title of his March 1992 Atlantic article, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” Benjamin R. Barber begins by charting two contradictory and simultaneous tendencies of neoliberal capitalism. On the one hand, economic and technological advancements are ushering in a new era of globalization. The obvious reference to the fast food chain McDonald’s in his neologism “McWorld” demonstrates the corporate, economic dimension of this globalizing impulse which “universaliz[es] markets” and “make[s] national borders porous from without.” On the other hand, a countermovement comes in the form of an increased emphasis on the local and the ethnic, here embodied in the Islamic theologem of “Jihad” or holy war. This localism resists the homogenizing forces of globalization through “re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders.” According to Barber, these two simultaneous movements spell doom for Western political ideals:
They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad's centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld's centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic....
The push and pull of the "centrifugal" Jihad and "centripetal" McWorld each work against the Enlightenment project of democracy. The former because of its indifference to such a politics and the latter through an outright hostility towards it, according to Barber's argument.
While both trends fail to deliver on Enlightenment political promises, they do offer virtues of their own. As Barber puts it:
These rather melodramatic tableaux vivants do not tell the whole story, however. For all their defects, Jihad and McWorld have their attractions. Yet, to repeat and insist, the attractions are unrelated to democracy. Neither McWorld nor Jihad is remotely democratic in impulse. Neither needs democracy; neither promotes democracy.
While, as "repeat[ed] and insist[ed]," neither is democratic, McWorld's globalization "delivers peace, prosperity, and relative unity," while Jihad (though denigrated almost universally in the West) promises "a vibrant local identity, a sense of community, solidarity among kinsmen, neighbors, and countrymen, narrowly conceived." Barber's phrase "narrowly conceived" both highlights the cosmopolitan impulse of McWorld and his pejorative attitude toward Jihad.
Ultimately, both unrestrained global capitalism and local fanaticism fail to offer virtues that support and foster democratic governance. Barber's solution and vision for the future depends on transcending the ideal of the nation state against which both of these forces react. At the essay's conclusion, he envisions confederations that will serve to fuse the local and the global:
It certainly seems possible that the most attractive democratic ideal in the face of the brutal realities of Jihad and the dull realities of McWorld will be a confederal union of semi-autonomous communities smaller than nation-states, tied together into regional economic associations and markets larger than nation-states—participatory and self-determining in local matters at the bottom, representative and accountable at the top.
These "confederal union[s]" would be able to manage both the "local matters" of Jihad and the "economic associations" of McWorld in a peaceful and democratic manner, as his reference to "self-determin[ation]" makes abundantly clear. However, he is quick to note, "[t]his vision reflects only an ideal," ensuring the reader that democracy is a continuous project that must consistently fight against the McWorld-Jihad antagonism.