Benjamin Barber Essay - Critical Essays

Barber, Benjamin


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.

Principal Works

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


Jane Mansbridge (review date December 1987)

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 create “public ends where there were none before” (p. 152), and individual interests that will “change shape and direction when subjected to these participatory processes” (p. 152). It involves a concept of political knowledge that is provisional, evolutionary, and mutable, “produced by an ongoing process of democratic talk, deliberation, judgment, and action” (p. 170). It involves a political judgment that is neither “subjective” nor “objective,” but rather proceeds from the “kind of ‘we’ thinking that compels individuals to reformulate … ‘I want x’ … as ‘x would be good for the community to which I belong’—an operation in social algebra for which not every ‘x’ will be suitable” (p. 171).

“At the heart of strong democracy is talk,” Barber writes (p. 173). And the section on talk is the most persuasive in the book. Strong democratic talk, he tells us, “entails listening no less than speaking; … is affective as well as cognitive; and … its intentionalism draws it out of the domain of pure reflection into the world of action” (p. 174). Barber contends, correctly I believe, that representative democracy (which he sometimes calls “thin” democracy) diminishes...

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Joseph Sobran (review date 16 September 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 1113 words.)

Larry D. Nachman (essay date Spring–Summer 1989)

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...

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Robert Boyers (essay date 27 April 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 2578 words.)

Dennis E. Showalter (review date June 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Mitchell J. Chang (review date 1995)

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...

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Philip Green (review date 25 September 1995)

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...

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Gareth Cook (review date November 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)

Zachary Karabell (review date January-February 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)

Fareed Zakaria (review date 22 January 1996)

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...

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Paul E. Sigmund (review date 19 April 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1028 words.)

Mark Juergensmeyer (review date September 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 853 words.)

Jo-Ann Mort (review date 10 May 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)

Christopher Clausen (review date 29 June 1998)

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....

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Further Reading


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.”


(The entire section is 295 words.)