Benjamin Barber Introduction - Essay

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.