Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110
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 this kind of talk, and, in doing so, dramatically reduces the meaning and effect of citizenship.
Barber concludes with a collection of imaginative suggestions for adding strong democracy to the primary representative institutions of large-scale modern societies. He argues for “common work and common doing”—collectively creating pocket parks, urban farms, storefront community-education centers, neighborhood skill teams, crime-watch units, and universal-citizen service. He proposes neighborhood assemblies, for populations of from 5 to 25 thousand citizens, which could deliberate, vent grievances, act as ombudsmen, and possibly form part of an initiative and referendum process. He suggests representative town meetings, office holding by lot, and handling decriminalized small offenses through new forms of lay justice. He proposes a national initiative and referendum process, which would include a mandatory tie-in with neighborhood assemblies and interactive-television town meetings for the purpose of civic education, a multichoice referendum format (in which citizens would have a choice among support strongly, support but with [a specified] objection, oppose strongly, oppose the proposal, but not the principle behind it, and so forth), and a two-stage voting process providing for two readings. He supports experimental electronic balloting, vouchers in schooling and housing (with some reservations), universal-citizen service, neighborhood-action programs, workplace democracy, and a program for redesigning public space. If we tried all these things at once, as Barber recommends, citizens would undoubtedly “fly to the assemblies”—at least until the novelty wore off. Even after ennui set in, the intellectual and emotional residue would be incalculable. Why could not a state like Oregon or a town or an innovative university adopt some of his agenda on a trial basis, building in, of course, the prudence and the ways to “institutionalize regret” (p. 308) that Barber suggests?
Barber's repudiation of static liberalism and his creative suggestions for an ever self-renewing “strong” democracy are the best parts of this book. The worst side emerges when, in order to establish a conceptual foundation for strong democracy, Barber distorts opposing views in a way that is woven so tightly into the analysis that it undoes much of the good I have described. For all Barber's preaching about “empathy” and “listening” in his sections on democratic talk, he does not himself seem to have learned to listen. He hears what he wants to hear, and when the reality is otherwise, he distorts to fit. In this respect, Strong Democracy sometimes reads like a series of polemics against some of Barber's favorite bugaboos, including representative government and anarchism. In this, as in his past works, he argues by destroying straw monsters—caricatures of ideas that their adherents would never recognize.
Twelve years ago Barber gave to a photograph of uniformed officers subduing a citizen the simple caption, “Representative Democracy” (The Death of Communal Liberty, 275). Nothing quite that blunt this time. Today he writes only that “the representative principle steals from individuals the ultimate responsibility for their values, beliefs, and actions” (p. 145), is “incompatible with freedom” (p. 146), “precludes the evolution of a participating public in which the idea of justice might take root” (p. 146), and produces “distrustful, passive” citizens (p. 219). That's it for representative democracy. Barber does not later qualify the words steals, incompatible, and precludes. He does not write an aside granting that every citizen wants and needs representation for some purposes at some times. He gives no hint, let alone discussion, of the kinds of public talk that representatives encourage and that their election inspires. This approach makes it hard to learn much about representative democracy from Barber's analysis.
Anarchism, another old enemy, receives similar treatment. Barber pulls one strand out of a complex (even inchoate and internally contradictory) set of ideas and concludes that “the anarchist perspective is the perspective of the radically isolated self for whom the world is only what it can see with its own eyes. … The anarchist reads the world as the realm of One [Self], where the existence of other Ones is scarcely perceived and never felt” (p. 37). And so on. Not a word on the communitarian anarchist tradition.
Although Barber deplores the present-day adversary tradition in political discourse, his own pen has been tempered in that forge. His style thus undercuts his own purpose. Rhetorical overstatement and denigrating the enemy may be required to infuse public debate with a new vision as important as this one. But the style is not compatible with the respect for others required by “strong democratic talk.”
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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.
In his view, politics is autonomous. It can't justify itself in terms of the most rigorous philosophical criteria of knowledge or ethics. It shouldn't be asked to, since this will only get in the way of its true calling. Politics exists precisely to enable social action when neither cognitive certainty nor social unanimity is possible.
Sometimes the community must decide when doctors disagree. The art of making that sort of practical decision has a dignity of its own, says Barber. Politics owes philosophy no apologies.
A worthy political philosophy begins by recognizing this as the nature of politics, rather than complaining that politics doesn't measure up to the exacting standards of intellectual disciplines. Barber charges most of the six theorists he examines with substituting a priori models of politics for due respect for real political practice. Rawls, for example, bases a “theory of justice” on a mythic social contract: “Like all contractarians, he substitutes for ongoing political participation a single, hypothetical moment of consent that obviates the need for all future political engagement.”
Nozick (Barber continues) makes the same mistake in principle, though without the pseudo-historical supposition that the state (or “society”) began with a contract. Nozick posits “an abstract conception of the solitary individual, who is in turn a precipitate of a priori philosophy,” whereas in the real world “dependency is intrinsic to the human condition,” and man is “self-interfering” as well as vulnerable to interference from others (e.g., the state). Barber accuses Nozick of blindness to coercion as an aspect of private relations as well as political ones, and argues that public coercion has a “legitimacy” that makes it preferable to the private kind.
Barber's own preferences are surprising. He thinks Russell has been underrated as a political thinker, though he also thinks Russell erred in trying to connect his empirical skepticism with his politics as closely as he did. But his favorite among the writers under study is Oakeshott, the only one of the six who has insisted that politics is a category unto itself, not an inferior dependent of epistemology or ethics. Oakeshott's contempt for “rationalism in politics” parallels Barber's disapproval of “foundationalism.”
Still, Barber thinks Oakeshott partly fails his own test: “The radical separation of philosophy and politics, which Oakeshott demands but does not himself practice, turns out to be as distorting to political understanding as its contrary, the reduction of politics to philosophy (the sin of the foundationalists).” Oakeshott offers “a conservatism that leaves little room either for democracy and social justice or for the standards by which choices about competing ends can be made.”
Now, the trouble with this is that “democracy” and “social justice” need some careful defining. Oakeshott's philosophy of politics makes no fatal objection to either, but it would require them to be analyzed and specified with far more rigor than Barber gives them here. (He simply assumes them as uncontested, even unproblematic terms.) He must mean more than that Oakeshott points toward practical conclusions he dislikes, but it's hard to say what.
The Conquest of Politics is a stimulating book, a book that should have been written, but it is also a book that should have been better written. Though short, it is not incisive: in every case, Barber's summary of his subject's thought is less lucid than the original. Time and again, at critical points, I find it impossible, even on re-reading, to be sure what he is trying to say.
Part of the problem is a certain stylistic stuffiness, too many thuses and indeeds, “parameters” and “dichotomies” (even “dichotomic”). Barber can write with grace, but he seems to have an aversion to plain language and illustration where they might be most helpful. He stays aloft at a level of abstraction that never lets you put your feet on the ground for a moment. Eventually the book becomes an experience in confusion and frustration.
Barber seems so anxious to preserve the legitimacy—and “sovereignty”—of public life that he never makes clear where private life can be clearly marked off, and protected, from political intrusion. It's startling to find him complaining, late in the twentieth century, that life in our time is excessively “privatized.” He leaves crucial terms undefined: public, private, power, coercion. This allows him to equate certain kinds of what many people would call non-coercive pressure or influence with actual “private power,” thereby justifying state intervention. At times, with both Oakeshott and Nozick, he objects to certain ideas because of the consequences they'd lead to, such consequences always amounting to some libertarian state of affairs which he presumes his readers will agree is evidently undesirable, even intolerable. It doesn't seem to occur to him that he may have readers who voted for Reagan or Thatcher and remain impenitent about it.
Barber's disposition is in no way “totalitarian,” or even unreasonably liberal, but he is haunted by the abuse of “private power,” which some would prefer to call “freedom,” in a way he isn't haunted by the abuse of “public power,” though he abstractly admits its dangers. This is somewhat odd, not only because of the evidence of recent history, but because in his final chapter he admits that the spirit of true citizenship is rare. This being so, the existence of so much “public power,” available to so many self-seeking voters and organized voting blocs (far more potent than the corporate monopolies we're adjured to look out for), ought to disturb him more than it does. Such forces are neither controlled nor redeemed by “legitimacy.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2474
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 have little use.
Observe that for Barber, “Bloom and company” do not have a differing view of justice or a different conception of what justice demands. No, they have little use for “contemporary justices.” We have, on the one hand, people like Allan Bloom who have no regard for justice. And then there are people like Benjamin Barber who go to every upstate hamlet to defend justice. Whom do you prefer? Note too that it is “Bloom and company” about whom Barber speaks: not a person, not a book, not an argument, but a rhetorical device. I think Bloom and company are easier to defeat than The Closing of the American Mind.
Similarly, when Barber turns back to the sixties for those who were then defending the traditional university, he refers to Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba. They become for him the representative type from which the left rescued the university. I do not know how many of you ever heard of Almond and Verba. I suspect their names are new to many of you. Barber and I have the misfortune to be political scientists and so we know about them. Had we chosen a more respectable line of work in the university, I believe we would not know who Almond and Verba are. Influential they might well have been, but only among a relatively small group of people. Now if you were to ask me to go back in my memory to the sixties and to summon up a single example of a university intellectual defending the establishment against the attacks of the left, I am fairly certain I know which intellectual I would choose. It would not be an obscure political scientist. I would immediately remember that poignant moment when Richard Hofstadter, dying of leukemia, rose to address the beleaguered Columbia College commencement of 1968. The College had been shut down the previous month by the famous occupation, many of the graduates were boycotting the commencement and the speech itself by Hofstadter was a departure from a Columbia tradition that no one but the President of the University speaks at commencement. What Hofstadter spoke about that day was democratic values. He argued that democracy is a question of procedures and democracy could be sustained only where formal procedures were respected and honored. It was in this context that he defended the procedures and forms of the university. Hofstadter was not a behaviorist. And the issues raised by behaviorism or by positivism in general do not cut across the subjects that divide us here today. The Columbia College curriculum which Hofstadter defended and which is the paradigm of the Western Civilization programs attacked by radicals had excluded all behavioral social sciences. The Columbia curriculum was historical, philosophical and literary. It was associated with scholars, such as John Erskine, Mark van Doren, Moses Hadas and Lionel Trilling, not names likely to be found on the Board of Directors of the American Political Science Association. But I too would rather take on Gabriel Almond than Richard Hofstadter.
If Barber ever decided that, perhaps for a change of pace, he might wish actually to engage a conservative in argument, he could not assume to be true the very proposition that divided him from his opponent. Barber, like all thinkers on the left since Rousseau, takes as his starting-point the Proposition that all is radically connected with politics. Everything to Barber is political. But conservatism begins precisely with the insistence that there are and ought to be domains of human life which are independent of the political. This is a point to be weighed and examined: it cannot be assumed. It really should have been the topic for today. But now such a discussion must be saved for another time, another place.
The assertion that everything is political is the basis for Barber's conviction that there can be no politically independent notion of truth. He lives
in a world where knowledge was always about (among other things) power, and where truth always reflected (among other things) somebody's interests.
And therefore, for Barber, “there are only express commitments and covert commitments.” Since we cannot today debate first principles, it might be useful to point out the internal problem in Barber's argument. In his eloquent peroration, Barber calls for a situation in which “power must not be the determinant of culture.” But how is this possible when “truth always reflect[s] … somebody's interests.” Or is the left exempt from such reflections of interest? After all, Barber tells us at another point that while lawyers and businessmen are “constrained by the responsibilities of money and power,” academics are not. “No such constraints affect those who live and work on that periphery where in society serious education takes place.” This statement is made in the context of Barber telling us how wonderfully the sixties left managed to take over the universities. Does he really believe that non-tenured or junior faculty cannot read the tide of the times and that they do not adjust their positions accordingly? I will tell you something you may not know. People who hold positions resembling mine and voice them publicly regularly have the experience of having colleagues say in all confidence, that they are grateful for the things that have been said, that they agree with you privately but would not want to announce this agreement publicly. I once had the strange experience of having a colleague and friend, a man of the left, come to me to implore me to work as hard as I could to defeat a proposal which he would soon be bringing before the Faculty Council. No, he would not let me make known privately his grave reservations. Yes, he would, if I did oppose the proposal as he wished, say some very harsh things about me, for which he apologized in advance. Barber derisively points to the origin of Bloom's thinking in the events of Cornell twenty years ago. Barber speaks of Bloom looking “in horror as the real world of race, guns, and power intruded on his intellectual.” Notice how he does not miss a beat when he mentions guns, the rifles which those students brandished on campus. Guns are just part of the real world. They do not shock Barber. Apparently, they too add to the variety of educational experiences in a well-managed university. Many of the innovations which Barber has come here today to celebrate entered the university by tactics of intimidation. I do not know why university administrators and faculty are so easily intimidated, but they are. In any case, I need to know how intellectuals on the left freed themselves from the general human condition where knowledge is always related to power. Up until now, far from freeing culture from power, the left appears to me to be rather skilled at keeping the two close together.
Barber's principal point in this paper is that the changes in curriculum wrought in the last two decades involve an expansion of the curriculum rather than the replacement of one curriculum with another. All this fuss, he tells us, is about nothing more than adding a book or two, Virginia Woolf's for example, to the curriculum. Previously, the curriculum was narrow and homogeneous; now it has become pluralistic.
I wish to quarrel with both assertions. Barber believes that,
When conservatives oppose curriculum reforms introducing race or gender into Western “culture” they signal their resistance to this plurality.
But what Alan Bloom, for one, says is this:
One of the techniques of opening young people up is to require a college course in a non-Western culture. Although many of the persons teaching such courses are real scholars and lovers of the areas they study, in every case I have seen, this requirement—when there are so many other things that can and should be learned but are not required, when philosophy and religion are no longer required—has a demagogic effect. The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better. It is again not the content that counts but the lesson to be drawn.
The opposition is not to plurality but to the explicit political basis of such courses. And this is not far from what Barber himself says or reveals in another passage of his essay. Speaking of the left and its “devotion to cultural pluralism,” he praises it for throwing “into doubt the great Western values” and for “creating a mood of interior skepticism and tolerance towards alien cultures and values.” Notice how we move from skepticism, on the one hand, to tolerance, on the other.
The finely tuned critical apparatus which glories in savaging Western values regularly retires into slumber when it approaches those “alien cultures and values.” The tolerance of which Barber speaks—and he knows this—is often a taboo against any criticism whatsoever. Before Stanford made the newspapers for dropping the Western Civilization course, it gained publicity for itself by removing an anthropology student from the doctoral program for having written about a practice in China of forcing women to have abortions.
In fact, these new ‘pluralistic’ programs which Barber holds up to praise today regularly demand political uniformity. Benjamin Barber knows that Julius Lester was removed from the Black Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts for having criticized James Baldwin. What kind of pluralism is this? Does not the insistence that all knowledge is politically based open the door for such political tests? I have another example to bring to your attention.
There appeared recently, on March 22, April 15 and April 26, 1988 an article in three installments written for The Campus, the student newspaper of The City College of New York. The writer is a white student who wrote his article to urge other white students to take courses in the Black Studies Department. He had taken such a course and is describing it because he is convinced that it was an important and rewarding course for him. He tells us that he got an A in the course.
The course, which he describes in great detail and which he is recommending to other students, was given by the Chairman of the Department. Here is an excerpt from this student's account.
During the semester Dr. J[effries] made other controversial statements, such as white people are biologically inferior to African people. Why? Because Africans have dominant genes when it comes to interbreeding with other races. And of course, melanin.
… According to Jeffries, melanin is the most important element a human being can have, without it a person is not human. Dr. J[effries] says it regulates our intellect and health and helps shield the sun from damaging our skin.
Essentially, it's the difference between a tan and a sunburn.
Another time he talked about “‘white pussy syndrome’ (WPS),” which was perhaps the kill all for his class. Some people called him ‘too wild’ after that remark and dropped the course.
WPS is the European idea that a person of another race supposedly wants to move up in class when they marry or go out with a white person.
Diana Ross, ‘the international whore,’ runs around with all those white men just to get more money.
O. J. Simpson and those ‘faggots’—Prince, Michael Jackson and Billy Dee Williams all got the same treatment for lauding the other race.
Like one day he was tearing into the European/white value system even more than usual and turning some of the students off. But then one student who was getting very uncomfortable had the balls to interrupt—something few others had tried during the early part of the semester. “Well what do you think we should do about the white people?”
“If I had my way,” said the professor, “I'd wipe them off the face of the earth.”
I do not have to be told that Benjamin Barber finds the doings in that classroom as offensive as I do. But, I repeat, it is his position about the relationship between politics and knowledge that has opened the door to such behavior and perhaps, more importantly, made many in the University feel that they have no right to enforce rules which would prevent such classes from occurring.
Finally, I would like to say something in response to Barber's charge that the traditional curriculum was too homogeneous. It is difficult for me to understand the frame of mind that permits someone to look at the work of Plato and Marx, of Homer and Balzac and say to himself, “That is the work of white men.” It would, I suspect, do no good to point out how thoroughly and exclusively racist such a response is. But I will insist in arguing that it is vacuous. To regard philosophy and art this way is to rob them of their substance. It is to reduce all ideas to ad hominem remarks. If this is really what such works are, the cure is not to teach them alongside works produced by different kinds of people. The cure is not to teach them at all. Why teach them if all they are, are the expressions of the interest of their authors—interest understood as something so general that it obliterates the differences between a classical Greek and a modern European? Why not throw all the books out and just teach psychology? Better still, let us be really honest and teach nothing but politics. Or is that indeed what Barber in the end recommends to us?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2578
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 the fact that the society they love values chiefly competition, celebrity, power and—to add to Ben's list—novelty, cheap sensation, and the right of the successful to do what they please, even if that means despoiling the environment or sending troops to small countries to restore confidence at home in America's might.
But the conservatives are, of course, right about many things that Ben is unwilling to acknowledge, or at least to face up to. If Ben is right in claiming that many veterans of the sixties have assumed influential positions in the academy, then he ought to ask, with the conservatives, why they have done such a lousy job of educating their students. It's just too easy to blame everything on the “the culture,” or “the conservatives” or “the commercial alliance” forged by administrators with industry, banks, and defense contractors. These are important factors, to be sure, but collectively they are no more important than what the professoriate is doing to institutions of higher learning and to the attitudes of young people.
At one point in his paper, Ben lists the educational consequences of the cultural revolution as a conservative would see them. So we get such things as “the erosion of standards,” “the watering down of substantial curriculum with ‘political’ agendas,” “the flourishing of mediocrity,” “the relativizing of values,” and so on. My question is: do you have to be a cultural conservative to see these things, to call them by their rightful names, and to believe that educators ought to aim at different results? Ben Barber knows that most of our schools and universities are in bad shape, and that the kids are not getting what they deserve. He knows that a kid can rack up respectable grades at a reputable college and graduate without learning that the American Civil War took place in the 19th, not the 18th century, or that the same kid can have his consciousness raised on the subject of black suffering in South Africa without knowing a thing about the fate of other countries on the African continent over the last 30 years. It oughtn't to be left to Allan Bloom and William Bennett to say the obvious. Illiteracy and ignorance are everywhere obvious on American campuses, and if the political agenda of the professoriate prevents most of us from talking about these things—and it does—then those guys are right about us.
Ben largely avoids these kinds of problems, and dwells instead on what he considers the specious, essentially dishonest commitment of the old-style university—the university before the swinging 60's veterans made their way into professorial ranks—to so-called “value neutrality.” The new left in the 60's, it is argued, attacked an establishment which “had tried to conceal its establishment biases under a cloak of neutrality.” This “ivory tower objectivity,” Ben says, “heard and saw and spoke no evil; nor, for that matter, any good, since value-neutrality proscribed both opprobrium and approbation.” Is this true? Or is this account of the liberal pre-60's university a caricature designed to make the ideal of disinterestedness seem not only an impossible dream but a dishonest and stupid one as well? I regard the account as just the kind of thing that critics like Ben Barber have taught us not to fall for in other contexts. For it supposes that the idea of objectivity, or value-neutrality, or disinterestedness, actually describes the practices of those who embrace the idea. It supposes that value neutrality is the same thing as disinterestedness, a much more appealing term. And it supposes, finally, that an ideal—like disinterestedness—so entirely takes over even intelligent people that they lose all sight of concrete realities, choices and facts. In practice the liberal university never insisted on or even sought an absolute “Separation of Facts and Values,” yet Ben adopts the perspective of a new left which continues even now to pretend that this was and is the issue. English teachers in the bad old fifties when I was a college student didn't avoid the subject of race relations when they led discussions of Huck Finn or The Sound and The Fury in their classrooms. And they didn't all teach from the perspective of some monolithic “establishment” which inevitably conditioned them to hear no evil and speak no good.
All you have to do is read the standard literary criticism produced by good grey academics in the 40's and 50's to see that the white characters in Faulkner who are xenophobic or racist are seen by the critics for what they are, while those blacks who rise above the constraints of their circumstance are appreciated with considerable understanding of the pathos and awfulness inherent in their situation. To read Ben on value-neutrality you'd think that someone inspired by the idea of disinterestedness would teach The Sound and The Fury as a book in which an awful yahoo like Jason Compson was no better—and no worse—than a figure like the black woman Dilsey. I've never run across such a reading. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the absurd even-handedness that Ben mistakenly associates with disinterestedness is more likely to afflict the interpretations offered by so-called advanced critics with a deconstructionist or Foucauldian bent. These critics, who never tire of telling us that everything is a matter of power and of somebody's selfish interests, are precisely those most likely to scoff at the claims of special virtue and integrity which Faulkner makes for some of his characters. A perspective which compulsively flattens distinctions by attributing to everyone the same base motives and constraints is hardly in a position to seriously accuse others of value-neutrality. Ben may not be a deconstructionist, but he is as unwilling as most of those who are to fairly describe the status quo ante, that is the state of things in the academy before disinterestedness became even for professors a dirty word.
I can respect someone's saying what many professors nowadays believe, that the goal of higher education is to help young people feel good about themselves and to teach them elementary civics lessons in how to oppose bureaucracy, racism, sexism, materialism, and so on. I can respect that, even if I can't agree with it, because it is a position with which it is possible to argue. I can't argue with the tired notion that value-neutrality means “no discussion of values or anything else that could conceivably matter to anyone.” The unreconstructed bourgeois professor who teaches Being and Nothingness will necessarily talk about values and bad faith and authenticity and will have at least as much chance of getting students to think seriously about these matters as the swinging professor who knows that knowledge is always about power and therefore that he might as well use his own power in the classroom to get the students on to the “progressive” aspects of Sartre's book and to steer them away from anything that might god forbid reinforce what they'd heard elsewhere.
Even more incredible—to me—is the assertion that the “values” and “commitments” of the liberal university “were identical with those of the larger society. … The values of the powerful rather than those of the critics,” as Ben puts it. Now I don't know what larger society Ben had in mind when he wrote those words, but it was surely a special society which valued the study of Greek Philosophy, the history of music, and so on, all of which constituted a central aspect of liberal education in the dark ages before the advent of the new left. It would surely have been a surprise to the professors I studied under to learn that their enthusiastic efforts to introduce me to Thoreau and Whitman, George Eliot and Wallace Stevens, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, were part of an organized conspiracy to promote what Ben calls “the values of the powerful.” When I was in college, I supposed that Stevens' aestheticism represented a powerful challenge to the prudent and dogmatic social values dominant during the Eisenhower years. And Stevens, remember, was much in favor in the 60's. I supposed that Mill and Marx and Freud and Nietzsche were introduced to help me to think freshly and skeptically not only about the values of the powerful but about the claims of ordinary reality. To read even the best of contemporary writers on the left—and in that company I would surely place Ben Barber—is to feel that one's own experience, an experience that in the 50's made many bourgeois kids like myself into left wing social critics and Vietnam war resisters, was a species of conditioning that could only have produced blitheringly bland young republicans.
In fact, it is the kids coming out of today's colleges and universities who are more likely not only to vote conservative but to be complacent and, on most matters, difficult to arouse. It's also worth considering in this regard what Russell Jacoby argues in his recent book, The Last Intellectuals, namely, that the sixties veterans who populate academic departments are in the main cautious careerists whose commitment to the milder and more accessible satisfactions makes them as unlikely to take risks as the more candidly self-absorbed yuppies they like to despise. In short, it's hard to argue that there is anything much to be grateful for in the penetration of the new left into the contemporary academy. For all the gains—and the women's movement at least has made significant gains for which most of us are grateful—there have been so many disappointments and reversals on the academic front that it is hard to feel proud of our record there.
Now Ben has argued that reactionary critics like Allan Bloom and the philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre “can only call for an impossible restoration of the world we have lost.” Again, he willfully exaggerates and thereby sets up another straw man version of a dodderingly nostalgic opposition. In fact both the brilliant MacIntyre and the sometimes infuriating Bloom are highly selective in their sense of what might usefully be retrieved from the past. Again, it is only a caricature of Ben's more serious opponents which has them arguing that “to read the Mahabarhata” is “to desecrate the Bible.” If Allan Bloom consistently advanced such arguments he would provoke no one. He would rightly be regarded as an idiot and ignored. Just so could we rightly ignore a writer who asserted that the only “Great Books” are those venerated in past ages or that there can be no legitimate debate on what constitutes a “Great Book.” Again, the straw man reactionaries Ben sets before us are easier to put down than the actual critics who have challenged the new orthodoxies in the university.
Finally it doesn't matter whether Bloom or some other critic is more reluctant than we think he should be to allow Alice Walker or Kate Chopin into the canon. What matters is that we help students to nurture the historical imagination and to make vital contact with the best art and ideas of the past. I'm willing, at this point, to believe that the conservative critics are more seriously committed to those goals than those who tell students that the study of classic texts is itself a reactionary and delusional enterprise.
The bottom line in all of this is reached when we ask whether or not the veterans of the 60's who are so influential in the contemporary academy are doing a good job. Let's say that they have thus far failed to inspire a return to fundamentals or a respect for the life of the mind as in itself a valuable and serious objective. Is there anything else they can aim at and succeed in? Ben says that teachers today “are trying to help students learn to live in and to challenge” what he calls our “brave new world.” But by this standard we might well conclude that the teachers have been wasting their time. The kids don't need our help to live in the world: as Ben elsewhere suggests, they are utterly absorbed in and largely content with what mass culture serves up to them. They regard the sleaziest forms of popular entertainment as more than good enough for them and their children, and they consume everything out there with indiscriminate voracity. The problems endemic in our society they handle not by consulting the past or thinking hard about the control exercised over them by social institutions, but by escaping into drugs, consumerist fantasy or earnest get-ahead routines.
So serious teachers are mostly irrelevant to the business of learning to live in the world. And they are hopelessly bad at getting most students to challenge the “brave new world” they confront. Why, after all, should young people want to challenge a society that mostly tells them what they want to hear, or take seriously the professors who repeat the familiar message that the colleges must be made over in the image of their desire, must cater to their appetite for novelty, immediate relevance, quick fixes and easy access to the things of this world? Since the newly populist professoriate is itself largely at ease in Zion, and mainly strikes oppositional postures when it knows it risks nothing, the kids can't be expected to associate their teachers with anything that is fundamentally resistant to the drift of mass culture. Why should a kid be impressed by a professor who claims to be a critic of establishment values but in his way of life, in his cool, moderate, sensible relationship to texts shows that he's blandly open to everything, has no disquieting missionary tendencies and harbors no desire to make anyone uncomfortable? The academic veterans of the sixties may think they stand for something, but the kids seem to know better than to believe it. And until we give them reason to believe it, and the tools to think about what's been done to all of us by advanced consumer capitalism, they'll not be challenging any brave new worlds. Of that at least I'm certain.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
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 avoiding both the Scylla of ossification and the Charybdis of entropy. Such radical excesses as over-differentiation and hyperpluralism ultimately render both community and liberty impossible. Equally dangerous is conservative adherence to values that have lost their resonance—conservative refusal to accept cultural changes—which rejects the radically subversive, critical essence of the educational process.
Barber's most provocative line of argument is his advocacy of close, comprehensive mutual ties between communities and their schools. A perceptive chapter on “what forty-seven-year-olds know” establishes the dissonances between the stories American society tells and the stories it wants the schools to teach. A country that honors ambition, success, and acquisitiveness will have small success in convincing its students to value altruism, learning, and art.
As a first step in bringing education into the wider world, Barber advocates a broadly defined program of national service. Such service, he argues, will help balance the rights and obligations of citizens by providing experience in the community as a tool for critical reflection in the classroom. The resulting synthesis of democracy and excellence will create a true aristocracy of everyone. Unfortunately, Barber makes his case in such general terms that it becomes a counsel of perfection, difficult to criticize or affirm in any concrete ways. Absent this specificity, An Aristocracy of Everyone becomes just another of the works pointing with pride and viewing with alarm spawned by current perceptions of America's educational crisis.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1384
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 exchanges. According to him, the bipartisan extremes threaten to tear the nation apart leaving us without a notion of what it means to be an American, and thus without a sense of commitment and responsibility to society. To avoid this consequence, he looks to Enlightenment ideals and principles of democracy as the national common bond and turns to education as the most important component of extending democracy and civic responsibility in the modern state.
Barber's intent on supporting the Enlightenment notion of universalism, is quite apparent in his critique of postmodernism. He addresses the fear among some social scientists who argue that in the name of emancipating identity through an unwillingness to accept at face value “objective” knowledge or common identity, citizens surrender their communal liberty. These fears are resonated in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., which challenges radical advocates of racial, ethnic and gender difference to show whether a nation called America will be left standing after they finish turning America into a “quarrelsome splatter of enclaves” with their “cult of ethnicity” and their “Europhobic” reforms. Barber's critique of those who want to abolish the canon (radical multiculturalists and postmodernists) concludes that their reductionism and hyperskepticism is philosophically problematic. In his opinion, seeing all virtue as hypocrisy makes it virtually impossible to establish reason, legitimacy and justice. This creates an atmosphere of nihilistic relativism, which, he maintains, destroys our civic missions and makes us susceptible to the hegemony of whichever elite has managed to lay claim to “truth.” When we are unable to defend any universal notion of virtue or justice, Barber asserts, the end result is a moral bankruptcy, which subjects us to the brute argument of force.
Likewise, he is just as critical of those who seek a nostalgic vision of excellence past. His critique centers on the rhetoric of Allan Bloom's attempt to revitalize the “Western canon.” Barber traces Bloom's position to his attachment to ancients, especially as incarnated in Socrates; a preference for virtue over equality and individualism, as well as for excellence over inclusiveness. With intellectual rigor and critical interrogation, Barber poignantly argues that Bloom's conviction in trying to protect virtue and excellence from the progressive ideologies of Marxist welfarism, feminism, and radical egalitarianism is elitist and thus undemocratic. To view equality as the enemy of freedom, excellence as incompatible with democracy, and pluralism as the recipe for nihilism means advocating for a return to a mythical canon.
Barber's cogent and lucid critique of both radical liberals and neo-conservatives leaves readers feeling somewhat schizophrenic and uncomfortable about their ideological position. However, this position of vulnerability is just where Barber wants the reader to be when he offers his alternative—one that is essentially a liberal humanist's compromise.
Barber holds that the strength of this nation is our ability to transform and reinvent ourselves historically, culturally, and demographically to achieve a more inclusive society. For example, there has been no single historical canon or permanent story, he claims, but an evolving argument rewritten by each generation. America's political principles make the transformation and diversity possible, despite all its contradictions, hypocrisies and ambivalence. According to Barber, the nonexclusionary language anchored in universalistic rhetoric turns out to be a weapon for those who were originally excluded, to strike down the hypocrites and insist that the nation can and must make good on its promises. For Barber, Americans' aspiration for liberty and justice, coupled with our faith that it will be granted offer promise and hope of unity. To be an American, he holds, is not to acquire a new race, a new religion or a new culture; it is to possess a new set of political ideals. Barber proposes this set of principles and ideals as the common bond that preserves national unity.
Although Barber's critiques and insights are outstanding, he holds too much faith and gives too much credit to democracy's idealistic promises. Barber's over-determination to establish a sense of universalism leads him to disregard a substantive analysis of the “democratic paradox” as described by Myrdal in An American Dilemma. Even though Barber admits that since our nation's founding it has notoriously neglected our principles, he fails to employ a structural analysis grounded in transforming the material value of hierarchy itself. Instead, he avoids an analysis of our democratic contradictions by suggesting that, “To be an American is not to have secured equality and justice, but only—with the help of a story of unprecedented aspiration—still to hope and to struggle for them” (p. 77). Barber appears comfortable viewing justice and democracy as illusions that permit us to live in comity, although they may never be fully realized.
However, an unrealized promise fosters an unbearable tension evidenced by societal fragmentation that threatens to displace these hypocritical ideals. The more our nation neglects the contradictions between what is promised and what actually occurs, the more social tension and conflict our society will experience. Victims of the neglect are interested in changes not promises, in deeds not words, and only tangible evidence will capture their faith and hope.
Similarly, Barber's optimism that multiculturalism as method can actually lead to transcultural standards and thus back to a convincing universalism that goes beyond the biases and limits of singular cultures may be overly idealistic. This line of argument fails to recognize that the struggle of multiculturalism today, as opposed to that faced by Americans of Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc., descent, is quite different. Although the cultures are equally distinct, they are often defined racially and differences are more salient. As a result, America is having more difficulty accepting difference and its failure creates race-, ethnic-, gender-, etc., based political movements that are also quite visibly distinguishable. For those who struggle for rights and opportunities that are supposedly guaranteed in a democratic state, difference is not merely intellectual; it becomes a strategy for inclusion, a practice of resistance, and a source of identity formation.
Despite its shortcomings, An Aristocracy of Everyone is an important book and offers an appropriate solution, especially for those who are heirs to the Enlightenment and who are morally disturbed by our nation's contradiction of failed promises. Barber is most effective in convincing those who are in a position of privilege to act upon their responsibility by serving and creating community. What is at stake is not just their ideals of democracy, but the disruption of their daily lives, their economic interests and the future of their bourgeois existence. In contrast, for those who experience the contradictions as a lived reality rather than as moral dilemma—citizens who live in a cycle of poverty or who are systematically discriminated against by virtue of race, gender, class, or sexual orientation—ideals and principles are simply intellectual luxuries and are not as persuasive as tangible evidence of change. Thus, it is up to us who still have faith in principles to make believers of those who have long since lost their faith. Otherwise, we too will find ideals and principles nothing more than mere luxuries.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3224
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 than democratic capitalism to which they can aspire.”
He's got to be kidding. The American economy (or the South Korean or Italian or Chinese or British economy) is “coherent”? The aspirants to “democratic capitalism” (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pat Robertson, Patrick Buchanan, Charles Pasqua, Silvio Berlusconi) are trying to adopt liberal democratic political institutions? “Human societies … around the world” are restricted to a handful of nation-states, mostly in Western Europe and North America? How much effort does it take to notice that elites in one after the other of the “advanced countries” have sought to shed liberal institutions as fast as they can, in order to crush rebellions bound to arise as “the global capitalist division of labor” integrates all of us into a two-class world of unrelenting rigidity?
And what of Hegel, to whom Fukuyama explicitly compares himself? Yes, Hegel thought that a world of independent nation-states might reach the “end of history,” but only by manifesting the triumph of reason in their institutions. It doesn't take more than a cursory reading of The Philosophy of Right to discover that he didn't have in mind anything remotely like governments in thrall to organizations of multi-armed paranoiacs or neofascist thugs or (especially!) religious sectarians; or governments that deny a general duty to maintain the welfare of the poorest-off. Hegel notoriously toadied to the Prussian regime, but his euphemistic account still makes it sound a lot better than the Tory regime of 1995, or what we can expect for the United States by 1997. Bourgeois liberalism? If only. Any socialist nowadays would gladly settle for that. How about John Stuart Mill for President? Jefferson? Kant? Adam Smith? Lincoln? One is reminded of Gandhi's famous response on being asked what he thought of Western civilization, that “it would be a good thing.”
How to demonstrate this alleged convergence, as opposed to simply asserting it? The trick is methodological, assiduously perfected by Fukuyama in the more than 400 pages of Trust, almost all of which he borrows from other people's sociology or economics—Alice Amsden on South Korea, Ronald Dore on Japan, Michel Crozier on France, Charles Sabel and Michael Piore on the new regime of work, Alexis de Tocqueville on the United States and the ancien régime, Edward Banfield on Southern Italy, Max Weber on the Protestant Ethic and Confucianism, Mary Ann Glendon on rights, Samuel Huntington on the excesses of democracy … and on and on. Replace Marx's emphasis on historical materialism with Weber's on culture; “culturalism” then does the lion's share of the work. (“Cultural relativism,” the more familiar term, is an ethical stance; what I prefer to call “culturalism” is purely sociological.)
From a culturalist perspective, there are no inherent contradictions in capitalism that cry out for resolution; instead, there are many capitalisms, each based on a national culture, and each successful or not depending on how congruent the culture is with a lifeworld of market exchange—the best lifeworld available. Progressive economic life is based on a culture of generalized “trust,” or what Fukuyama calls “spontaneous sociability.” The best index of such sociability turns out to be widespread corporate conglomerations, monopolies, cartels, the zaibatsu, all of which indicate that their host-societies (Japan, Germany and the United States) have cultural understandings that generate trust in non-kin, most importantly, in professional corporate managers and engineers. Conversely, Confucian familism in China and Korea limits the spread of the impersonal corporate form, obliging the relatively inefficient state to take over the role of general entrepreneurship, while British class contempt dictates a destructive split between financial and industrial capital, and “amoral familism” in Southern Italy makes progressive economic development there all but impossible.
We are told that this spontaneous sociability is rooted in precapitalist political decentralization and in concomitant institutions of an elaborated civil society, such as the well-known web of reciprocal obligations in Japan that led to the post-World War II trust-based exchange of lifetime employment (nenko) for labor peace; or, in Germany, feudal guilds and the universal work ethic they fostered, which ultimately made possible an immensely elaborated welfare state; or, in the United States, Protestant sectarianism and its correlative, communal activism, which until recently balanced out a hypertrophied individualism.
It's helpful to compare this basically static account of capitalist development with such neo-Marxist versions of the same phenomenon as those of Rodney Hilton, Barrington Moore, Perry Anderson and Robert Brenner. Brenner's analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism in England, France and Poland describes social actors (lords and peasants, landowners and agricultural laborers), significant events (peasant rebellions in times of economic crisis) and transformative outcomes—different political settlements of these class struggles, resulting in different patterns of land tenure with consequently different implications for later economic activity. In Moore's account (from which Brenner took off), top-down transformations resulted in fascism (e.g., in Japan and Germany). Overall, these “historical materialist” approaches to change emphasize the role of struggles for power among social classes, rather than socially neutral abstractions such as “decentralization” or “communitarianism.”
Fukuyama's culturalist explanations, in contrast, are devoid of historical struggle, and tend to vanish into dust at the first sight of it. For example, the web of obligation in Japan, based on a cultural proclivity for “spontaneous sociability,” does almost the whole work of the Japanese “miracle”—until, that is, “the bursting of the bubble economy of the late 1980's.” Now, it appears, economic recession has put “tremendous pressures on the lifetime employment system,” so that “some large corporations have in fact resorted to layoffs.” And in Germany that same recession “created high and seemingly intractable levels of unemployment, and in the view of many observers it was precisely the communitarian aspects of the German postwar Sozialmarktwirtschaft that was to blame.” Just as in Japan, “the general intensification of global competition … will continue to put a great deal of pressure on German communitarian economic institutions,” and the welfare state may have to be downsized considerably. The Old Mole under Highgate Cemetery is surely saying at this point: Well, that's what I told you, isn't it? Cut-throat competition, a falling rate of profit, the need to maintain surplus value through a sloughing off of labor and a lowering of the average wage—what did you expect? The chapters on Japan and Germany, in fact, both end on an almost elegiac note: Hey guys, this communitarian stuff was nice while it lasted, but now let's get with global capitalism.
What is the point of these cross-cultural comparisons that come to nothing, especially since, as Fukuyama assures us, cultural patterns are not exportable? On the face of it, they seem to have nothing to do with Fukuyama's legendary convergence. Actually, though, the culturalist analysis makes his point, which is that there are many roads to capitalism, and some of them are communal rather than (liberal) individualistic or state-oriented. And so, “a corollary to the convergence of institutions at the ‘end of history’ is the widespread acknowledgment that in post-industrial societies, further improvements cannot be achieved through ambitious social engineering.” Put simply, the United States could stand some communitarianism of the old style (German, Japanese or American Puritan); what it doesn't need are strong public institutions.
The target of these 457 pages of other people's sociology is educated, prosperous and powerful American elites, who receive a simple and helpful message: Nothing painful or costly has to be done, because nothing can be done. Install Japanese production techniques (“lean manufacturing”) in your workplaces to produce company loyalty in the place of job-productive trade unionism, provide in-house flexible training, and that's about it. Your taxes needn't go up, and the state won't bother you because the state can't accomplish anything worthwhile. We philosophize; you are philosophized. Your history has ended, buddy; mine has just begun. Back to Chiapas with you. Or to inner-city ghettos, whose inhabitants, per Fukuyama (out of Thomas Sowell) are “deracinated,” without entrepreneurial spirit or institutions of communal self-help; and thus beyond other people's help.
It's impossible to tell if Fukuyama intends this book to be read as an essay in political negativity, but that's certainly how it will be read by those who matter. This is especially so since he peddles the usual line of American nostalgia (“The Way Things Never Were,” in Stephanie Koontz's wonderful title), according to which we were a trusting, communal bunch until—guess what?—yes, the 1960s. (The nostalgicists should all be forced to read an entertaining book on early twentieth-century labor struggles by Louis Adamic called, simply, Dynamite. Or any book on slavery or Reconstruction. Or …) Then came the welfare explosion, the litigation explosion, the rights explosion and abortion, and so—here he appropriates the recent work of Robert Putnam—Americans stopped being communal, stopped joining voluntary organizations. And it's all our fault!
Well, if Putnam and Fukuyama insist on looking at bowling clubs and P.T.A.s, that's what they'll find. But have they heard of the N.R.A. and the Christian Coalition? It's not community that's lacking, but civility and a respect for equal justice. Putnam uses the decline of union membership as an index of failing communalism, but somehow he and Fukuyama have missed the development of corporate unionbusting as one of the major American growth sectors of the past two decades. Do workers distrust managers because of too much individualism? Actually, most of the participants in “the rights explosion” whom I know belong to many voluntary associations and are intensely communal, though it's true they don't go bowling much. Does standing in vigils count?
Fukuyama (like his source Mary Ann Glendon) does not consider the possibility that our unending racial and sexual confrontation is a cause as well as an outcome of communal breakdown. Nor does he notice the savage class warfare that capital (not labor) has been waging for two decades. Nor the way in which social decay in the face of global redistribution has produced the distorted sociability of superpatriotism (“We're Number One!”). Nor the enveloping culture of greed, hyped not by “inner-city African-Americans” or tort lawyers but by good old-fashioned economic elites and their pet Presidents. That is, he doesn't notice much because he keeps looking for “culture,” instead of looking for people who are doing things to other people.
In a throwaway that sums up his critique of liberal individualism. Fukuyama remarks that Asians—especially the familistic Chinese—have difficulty understanding American insistence on human rights because of the abstract universalistic principles on which such rights are based. I pondered this notion. What might it mean? The best I could come up with is that people with Confucian rather than Christian traditions think that it's perfectly O.K. to torture non-kin. Do they really? And let's see, was the embrace by Jeane Kirkpatrick and Commentary magazine of Argentine torturers due to some defect in Irish Catholic or Jewish culture? What culture trains all those Latin American torturer/murderers at Fort Benning? When the U.S. Air Force decided that the best way to prepare female pilots for rape was by raping them, whose cultural tradition was that? Men's?
The world over, a depressingly large number of people will torture and murder in the pursuit of power, or out of the desire to maintain it (“maintaining order” is what this is usually called), and if we are among those people it appears that our only internal constraint will be the urgency of our need. External constraints, on the other hand, are considerably more important. There's plenty of abuse of rights in the United States, but a lot less than in China, and the reason is not some kind of communitarianism but because we have created a variety of institutions to restrain such abuses, and China hasn't. On the other hand, we're not nearly so good as the Germans at creating institutions to prevent and alleviate economic despair. Of course, cultural patterns do count here, as this comparison suggests; a one-sided economic materialism (as Weber put it) cannot by itself explain the differences. But the overemphasis on culture is worse, because it justifies a cop-out on action, on taking as much responsibility as one can reasonably manage for the state of the world. That's why when I see the word “culture” these days, I reach for my eraser.
Actually, no one will really read Trust, except reviewers like me, because it's 200 pages too long and repeats every point many times. But everyone in a certain milieu will talk about it, because as a crash course in comparative political economy and sociology it enables them to think they know what they're talking about when they chit-chat about lifetime employment in Japan or the high cost of the German welfare state. And it fits perfectly with the dominant political consciousness of the day.
For an introduction to the real world, far better to look instead at Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld, with its apt subtitle, “How the Planet Is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together—and What This Means for Democracy.” (Three guesses.) Barber, the Whitman Professor of Political Science at Rutgers, has conceived Jihad vs. McWorld as a direct response to Fukuyama's “end of history” thesis; its first words are “History is not over.” There are still conflict and contradiction, still ideologies at war.
On the one hand, we are witnesses to (and sometimes participants in) a destructive retribalization that is at its worst in Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but reaches even into the United States. Thus Barber uses “Jihad” metaphorically, not literally, and has no intention of offering a particular indictment of Islamic as compared to any other religious or ethnic fundamentalism.
On the other hand, a new form of capitalism that is supranational in scope and organization but relentlessly American in style and power is turning the world into a “global theme park, one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment, and commerce. Caught between Babel and Disneyland, the planet is falling precipitously apart and coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.” This surely is what most of us feel when it seems the world is at our throats—not the progressive perfections of corporate management and market exchange.
Barber's prediction, clearly, is also one of “convergence,” but with a difference. He does not think that in the long run the warring tribes (“Jihad”) can hold out against McWorld, especially against the Hollywoodization and Walkmanning of their young. He understands that culture is not an abstraction but an economy and, like all economies, comes wrapped in the arms of force and money. The most depressing section of this book is an appendix, which simply lists the ten top-grossing films in twenty-two countries in 1992. Nine of the top ten in Germany, six in France and five in Japan (each of which has its own major domestic film industry) were Hollywood products. What price national culture now?
It is probably true that where Hollywood, McDonald's and Calvin Klein enter, the free market—that is, the vandalizing of public institutions and the reign of mutual disregard—cannot be far behind. But this kind of “wild capitalism,” as Barber calls it in an informative discussion of the post-Communist states, is more likely to mean the defeat of liberal democracy than its triumph. Yes, the superficially egalitarian and liberatory style of American consumerism is more democratic than Asian and European traditionalisms. But historically, he argues, a strong nation-state has been, for better or worse, the only guarantor of democratic freedoms and social equality. That state is now in disarray, with no likely substitute in sight. From above, it is everywhere made obsolete by global capitalism. Internally, the state is hollowed out as its traditional powers are destroyed in the name of deregulation and its legitimacy is ripped away on entire continents in the wake of tribalistic clashes (euphemistically called “culture wars” in the United States).
Perhaps the snowballing destruction of our public sphere is a uniquely American response to the pathologies of a regime based on racial domination—not on the pathologies of the “underclass,” as Fukuyama in his blaming-the-victim mode disdainfully suggests, leaving one to wonder how he would explain Great Britain or New Zealand. But as Barber points out, McWorld is primarily American capitalism at work, so perhaps its domestic revelations (not all of which can be laid at the door of race) are a foreshadowing of the real convergence to come. Perhaps Engels was right and socialism or barbarism has been the real alternative all along; in any event, Barber makes the grim possibility clear, while Fukuyama doesn't even notice it.
Barber's account of McWorld is itself incomplete. He is a much better guide to the real state of its cultural economy than Fukuyama, but he also sometimes slights old-fashioned political economy. We should probably pay more attention to the ways in which the decomposition of national capital leads to the decomposition of the national working classes upon whose struggles the social welfare states were based; and to the way in which capital's recomposition as a globally competitive regime has begun to call the very future of a prosperous working class into question. National (capitalist) economies can no longer generate nearly enough productive labor to provide employment and thus an accepted basis of remuneration for all; or else they can do so only by competing with one another to lower wages, trading off decent incomes for wretchedly marginal jobs in a deadly downward spiral. In this new global environment, protective social legislation is and must be gutted everywhere in the name of “competition” and “free trade,” while the right to strike—perhaps the most fundamental democratic right after the vote itself—effectively disappears. The House G.O.P.'s attack on the National Labor Relations Board and the campaign to overturn the Administration's ban on the hiring of permanent replacement workers are significant straws in this wind; but the attack on workers' rights is virtually worldwide. Cultural homogenization is not necessarily the gravest threat to the future of democracy. Meanwhile, though, Barber is well worth reading.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1829
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 next to me, crying softly as her young nephew explained, bewildered, how men came with machetes and executed most of his family.
Is the world coming together, or is it ripping apart at the seams?
This is the driving question behind Jihad vs. McWorld, an important new book by Rutgers political scientist Ben Barber. This book, like Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers or Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, is an attempt to make sense of what is still awkwardly known as “the post-Cold War world.” Barber concerns himself with what he sees as the two dominant international trends of our time: “McWorld integration,” based on a rapidly growing world consumer culture, and “Jihad retribalization,” splintering once-settled nations. He pointedly argues that although “McWorld” and “Jihad” are in seeming opposition, the two forces are in fact partners, attacking democracies at their roots. Yet, this is not a book solely for foreign-policy mavens. Barber asks provocative questions about the direction Americans are taking—as a country and as a culture.
For a while, it was fashionable to point out that the United States didn't win the Cold War—Japan did. Indeed, Japan did emerge from the superpower struggle as a real economic power unfettered by punishing levels of defense spending. But Barber argues that the real prize should go to Mickey Mouse. With the fall of communism, the last great empire, there is nothing to stop a distinctly American kind of consumerism, which gives “McWorld” its name, from sweeping the globe. Kentucky Fried Chicken has outposts in Nanjing, Xian, Hangzhou. American pop music—Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana—can be heard in cafes from Tunis to Warsaw. Reruns of old television shows like “Dallas,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “The Simpsons” are top programs across vast swaths of the planet. Modern communication and transportation have made borders ever more porous by default, even as the free-traders have made them more so by design.
There was a historical moment, right after the Berliners hacked down their wall, when the “McWorld” info-revolution seemed to have a distinctly human face. Fax machines and photocopiers, radio and television, all helped to undercut totalitarianism. They spread ideas and fueled discontent by showing the freedoms (and the consumer goodies) to be had in the West. Even MTV's claim that it helped bring down the Wall had a ring of truth: It was Madonna versus Marx, and Marx didn't stand a chance.
But the same forces that toppled old-line communists are also bulldozing the world's cultural landscape. Television, movies, and modern advertising are making more and more of the planet look more and more the same. Terminator 2 was the number one film in Argentina, Malaysia and Mexico in 1991. For Indonesian youth, tea is out; Coke is in. T-shirts with American pop icons are a hot commodity throughout the Third World—and the Japanese pay upwards of ＄100 for a pair of Levis.
None of this is new, of course. As radio spread in the 1960s, it was already becoming difficult to escape the Beatles. The theme of traditional local cultures faltering under the onslaught of Western consumerism is a sad one, but a familiar one. Now, though, the process has accelerated.
There is also more to “McWorld” fears than the vague, claustrophobic sense that all the world's becoming an American strip mall. Control over the increasingly powerful info-entertainment sector is growing more and more concentrated. These new agglomerations sprawl across traditional media divisions—movies, television, cable, books, producers and distributors. By the 1990s, according to Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, 17 intermedia conglomerates owned half of the revenues from all media. Since this book was written, Disney announced it was going to purchase Capitol Records/ABC. Then Time Warner announced it would join forces with Turner Broadcasting; the combination would own HBO, Cinemax, CNN, Time-Life Books, a slew of magazines (including People, Money, Sports Illustrated, and Time) and a variety of other entertainment interests.
This is especially worrisome for the news business. After World War II, about 8 in 10 American newspapers were independently owned; by the beginning of this decade, about eight in ten were owned by one of the big chains. What of the network news? NBC is owned by General Electric. Now, Westinghouse wants to take over CBS, and Disney has made a deal for ABC, “where more Americans get their news than [from] any other source.” Don't hold your breath for NBC to do a story on how GE continues to screw taxpayers on defense contracts.
Perhaps I am paranoid, but I sometimes feel that all the shows on television (with the possible exception of “The X-Files”) are already produced by one big machine somewhere in the southern California desert. Do we want this fantasy to become a reality? The lesson of Barber's book, then, is an old one, but one worth repeating. Capitalism is a wonderful system, adaptable, full of vitality and, quite literally, creative. But capitalism is not synonymous with democracy and, unchecked, it can threaten democracy.
The backlash against capitalism and Westernization is the theme of Barber's second, less successful, section. Granted, the ancient force he names “Jihad” is psychological and difficult to define. In this book, it lies somewhere in the nexus of the human desire for community and hatred for others. Jihad, we are told, is “communities of blood rooted in exclusion and hatred.” Yet he travels far from this definition, including everything from bona fide tribal hatred, like that of Rwanda, to the Euro-skeptics who resist European integration, to the American militia movement.
The crucial distinction here lies between protective nationalism, based on cultural preservation, and the uglier versions which are moved by hatred and aim at separation. It is the difference between what the Polish dissident-philosopher Czeslaw Milosz liked to call “a sense of belonging” and the Bosnian Serbs who want to “cleanse” the land of other ethnic groups and carve out their own state.
Barber does a better job in his analysis of the overtly political implications of “Jihad.” Among postwar liberals, political movements which have “self-government” as their aim have long enjoyed an aura of moral authority. (Isn't that why we fought the Revolutionary War?) But Barber is among the thinkers who have rightly made the case that these movements no longer deserve our reflexive support. Quebec, for example, has long talked about seceding from Canada. Yet can we be sure that this new state, built around its distinctive brand of French culture, would be just as respectful of its own minorities? What is to be done when these minorities have had enough and demand—as the Cree Indians already have—their own nation-state? The experts say there are roughly 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. Should every one have a country of its own?
It is true that there are some places—like Ireland or Cyprus—that are so deeply divided, with hatreds so ingrained, that separation is the only solution. But these break-away states then tend to be less hospitable to the basic attitudes—tolerance, compromise, pluralism—that we know are necessary for democracy to function smoothly over time.
Barber's real contribution is this focus on democracy and on the ways “Jihad” and “McWorld” cooperate to undercut it. At the heart of his argument is the “citizen”—the person who has learned the lessons of compromise and pluralism, who believes in a common good that is more important than his or her own narrow self-interest. Citizens are essential for a democracy to hold together.
Yet Barber sees citizens as a vanishing breed. The threat posed by “Jihad” is more or less clear—blood feuds do not inspire good citizenship. But “McWorld's” pervasive consumer culture, he argues, is really the greater threat. The attitudes that make for a true citizen are learned in “public spaces,” in what is more commonly called “civil society.” These “places”—the public park, the voluntary organization, the public school—are dying. In their place are shopping malls and suburban walled communities; watching television has replaced the chat on the porch or the walk around the block. It is much more common for the evening news to refer to Americans as “consumers” than as “citizens.”
Not only are “McWorld” and “Jihad” both bad for democracy, Barber concludes, but they feed off one another, leaving civil society in a tough spot. “Jihad” can use the technology and propaganda power of “McWorld” to rekindle old hatreds. “McWorld's” leveling—its unfettered capitalism, its spiritual emptiness—can push people into the clutches of Jihad, searching for meaning and finding hatred.
Throughout, Barber makes a convincing case. My main gripe with his book is that it is painted with broad strokes, which can be frustrating. He writes with grace and verve, but, at times, he also goes overboard: “They are accelerating toward the limits of nature—the speed of light that defines the interactions of cyberspace—in quest of a palliative to (or is it a catalyst for?) their restlessness.” And he throws around the word “virtual” an awful lot, without it meaning much.
But Barber's book is about the big picture, which he describes well. He would be happy to agree, I suspect, that there are plenty of exceptions to his sweeping arguments—and even signs of hope. After Manzi, the Rwandan who came to Middleboro, got his awful news, the local Unitarian church got together with his high school friends. They brought food to his house. They raised money to bring his surviving relatives to America. They even started a college fund for him. It's a true story, and Disney doesn't own the rights to it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718
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 attempt of religious and/or ethnic extremists “to recapture a world that existed prior to cosmopolitan capitalism and was defined by religious mysteries, hierarchical communities, spellbinding traditions, and historical metaphor.” McWorld, on the other hand, represents the forces of global commerce and telecommunications that are not bound by the state and that respect no interests but the expansion of consumption. Yet, says Barber, “Jihad stands not so much in stark opposition as in subtle counterpoint to McWorld. … It is Jihad via McWorld rather than Jihad versus McWorld.” Jihad is transmitted and pursued by traditionalists who use all the devices of McWorld—television, radio, international banking, high-tech weapons, computers, and advertising—to promote their agenda.
The dialectic that Barber sets up is a persuasive one. It is an innovative spin on the frequent observation that ethnic cleansing is done by teenagers wearing Levis and drinking Coke, and that Hindu nationalists in India use sophisticated p.r. techniques and satellite dishes to further their causes. Barber concludes that both forces are eroding the nation-state and contributing to the breakup of civil society and democracy. McWorld knows no state boundaries. In the words of Gillette chairman Alfred Zeien, “I do not find foreign countries foreign.” In a world of global commerce, there is only one meaningful nationality: We are all consumers. Jihad, for its part, rejects the modern nation-state and democracy in favor of exclusive identity politics based on the community rather than the individual.
Barber is at his best when discussing McWorld. His grand example, to which he frequently returns, is Rupert Murdoch. If consumerism is a text that must be spread before people abandon their inherited cultures for the homogenized culture of Coke, Stallone, and Levis, then Murdoch's international media empire is the premier producer.
In America alone, Murdoch owns Fox Television, Twentieth Century Fox Films, TV Guide, HarperCollins Publishers, New York magazine, and the New York Post. He also has started the new conservative weekly, the Standard, edited by William Kristol. In addition, Murdoch owns or has controlling interests in Delphi Internet services, the Times of London, the British tabloid the Sun, the Asian satellite network Star TV, and British Sky TV. Finally, Murdoch controls a huge segment of the Australian print and visual media through his News Corporation.
Media conglomerates such as Murdoch's are the apex of McWorld. Without the pervasive effect of their diverse products, McWorld would face serious obstacles in its relentless assault on cultural distinctions. As Barber notes, in order to make a tea-consuming country like Indonesia into a nation of Coke drinkers, traditional culture has to be eroded, and mass communications do the deed.
Answerable to no one political authority, such corporate behemoths cannot be touched by the antitrust laws of any nation, including the United States. That makes the prospects of McWorld all the more favorable and the prognosis for democracy all the less so. In Barber's view, when billions of consumers are offered a choice only amongst the commodities of several mega-companies, states get weaker and democratic decision-making withers.
Except, that is, when a state is bolstered by Jihad. Of course, as Barber points out, fundamentalists don't respect the state per se. They respect a particular identity that, as in Iran, may parallel the state, but, as in Bosnia, may also attack it. In the end, according to Barber, Jihad and McWorld together spell the doom of the independent, democratic nation-state and offer the grim choice of commercial chaos or brutal totalitarianism.
Barber's solution is local democracy nurtured by a vibrant civil society. He writes: “Civil society offers us a single civic identity that, belonging neither to the state bureaucrats nor private consumers but to citizens alone, recouples rights and responsibilities and allows us to take control of our governments and our markets.”
He concludes by proposing a world associative democracy along the lines of the American Articles of Confederation which bound the colonies in the decade before the Constitution was drafted. Such a loose federalism would ultimately prove unworkable, as the Articles did. But, in the interim, it would accustom nations to giving up some of their sovereignty for the common good. Then a more systematic and organized world-government might be established.
On the issue of McWorld alone, Barber is on strong ground. The very fact that we immediately understand the meaning of his neologism underscores its ubiquitous power. The problem for Barber is that McWorld is so strong that it overwhelms all countervailing forces. Jihad may put up a good fight, but even Barber admits that McWorld's capacity to “overpower parochialism” puts fundamentalists on the perpetual defensive. Thus, positing “civil society” as the sole remedy seems a bit like relying on the Lilliputians to keep Gulliver tied down for good.
In fact, it was “civil society” that begat McWorld in the first place. As described by Jürgen Habermas. Robert Putnam, and other contemporary thinkers, civil society developed gradually in Western Europe and the United States during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Communities that possessed local autonomy and in which fraternal organizations (such as church choirs) flourished could better respond to the spiritual and economic needs of their inhabitants.
These thinkers tend to romanticize civil society, emphasizing its positive qualities while glossing over its darker side. One should not forget that in such quasi-democratic communities extreme forms of exclusive, Jihad-like proclivities can be found. Early New England towns, for instance, were models of bigotry, religious exclusivity, and a moralism that brooked little compromise.
Still, such communities did combine to form a democratic polity, a nation-state known as the United States. Eventually, communal religious fervor was replaced by private observance and public obsession with wealth and power, similar to the British fusion of a limited state and laissez-faire capitalism. To invert Barber's metaphor, the history of American democracy is McWorld via Jihad. At the same time, the strains of Jihad present in early Euro-American communities still echo today among Pat Robertson and his ilk.
Thus, Barber's ideal society never existed and couldn't be reconstructed even if it had. Heraclitus was right—one can't step in the same spot of that river twice. One can't manufacture a civil society that would be composed of individuals free from McWorld. Any attempt, say, to take little children and raise them away from McWorld and Jihad in some remote corner of Canada would founder just as surely as did the utopian experiments of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier in the nineteenth century.
Are we then left with nothing but the doom of democracy in a future controlled by Murdoch and his heirs? Yes and no. The forces of McWorld are too strong to reverse, and the clash between it and Jihad make small-scale, tolerant democracy impossible.
Instead, the best hope probably lies within McWorld itself. As the new corporate order continues to grow, it will inevitably change. Barber's picture of a permanent McWorld behemoth reminds me of Western impressions of Japan a decade ago. Japan was imagined as a global island about to dominate the commerce of the entire world. But with success came pitfalls, and the Japanese are now in the long and slow process of adjusting to rising unemployment and terrorist acts by bands of the alienated and the messianic.
Of course, McWorld has greater assets than the Japanese alone, yet size will ultimately force adjustments. When a conglomerate becomes as multifaceted as Murdoch's, it will inevitably reflect the complexity of its component parts. A multinational such as Coke, with a narrower portfolio of products, might maintain a narrow corporate culture for several generations. But communications conglomerates are subject to the same fissiparous forces that have undermined the nation-state. Workers in one conglomerate may learn that a competitor offers better benefits. How do they learn it? Most likely, the medium is the rival company's p.r. Thus, McWorld companies can become unwitting victims of McWorld's marketing talents.
One can already glimpse the sprouts of a kind of corporate civil society in which units, divisions, supervisors, and their workers create enclaves that fulfill some of the same tasks as did small towns of farmers and artisans. One model of this is the GM Saturn car plant in Tennessee. According to company advertising, the Saturn plant is a model of worker and consumer input. Even if the reality diverges markedly from the hype, the impact of the image remains. Other companies and other workers can observe the p.r. effort, take it to be true, and demand real changes that correspond to the ideal.
As McWorld becomes the world, it will surely take on cultural qualities that are now absent. Its threat to local control and liberties lies in its drive to homogenize, in the erasure of options and alternatives. But as McWorld eradicates the rich patina of cultural diversity, it also elevates awareness of its flaws by saturating the world with news and images of conflict. Right now, the perils of McWorld are most visible. Yet, in time, the new order, like its predecessors, will be transformed from the inside.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3185
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 communitarianism for its intolerance of individual choice and autonomy; and extolled civic education. But the book's animating purpose was an attack on America's distinctive political theory, liberal constitutionalism. As developed perhaps most importantly by James Madison, liberal constitutionalism seeks to tame the passions of direct democracy through various mediating mechanisms—delegated powers, deliberative representation, federal structures, and so on. For Barber, this was thinly veiled oligarchy. He rejected the very notion of mediation, dismissing—in the tradition of the American pragmatists John Dewey and Charles Pierce—all knowledge not grounded in experience. Again and again he quoted Rousseau's cry, “Once a people permits itself to be represented, it is no longer free.”
Barber's new book could be read as a continuation of these themes. It, too, is deeply concerned about the fate of democracy. It, too, is littered with approving references to participation, civic education and (that most trendy Eden of all) civil society. It, too, quotes Rousseau often. On closer reading, however, Jihad vs. McWorld is a wholesale refutation, unacknowledged or unwitting, of Barber's longstanding public philosophy. The most interesting and original parts of the new book comprise, at heart, a diatribe against the effects of unchecked participation by the masses. More importantly, the book reflects a certain kind of unyielding leftism's final argument against the rise of liberal democratic capitalism. With political and economic critiques exhausted, what remains is an aesthetic case against capitalism, a strange exercise in the politics of taste. The starting point of Barber's book is reasonable enough: the simultaneous rise of economic globalization and communal loyalties threaten the nation-state, from above and from below. Barber goes on to link the fate of the nation-state to the fate of democracy, which is his chief concern. “The modern nation-state has actually acted as a cultural integrator and has adapted well to pluralist ideas: civic ideologies and constitutional faiths around which their many clans and tribes can rally.” If the state gets overwhelmed in its struggle with “Jihad” and “McWorld,” Barber argues, our “post-industrial, postnational … [epoch] is likely also to be terminally postdemocratic.” Thus the book has two villains, who are the infelicitous entities of its title. “Jihad” is a metaphor, referring here not simply to the Islamic idea of a holy war, but to “dogmatic and violent particularism of a kind known to Christians no less than Muslims, to Germans and Hindis [sic] as well as to Arabs.” Barber does discuss Islam, but he betrays more prejudice than knowledge. He seems to equate Islam with the Arabs (as the quotation above implies), imputing that region's political dysfunctions to that religion. The reader of Barber's book would not know, for example, that the four largest Muslim populations in the world are all outside the Middle East—in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Islam is a monolith, according to Barber, and one that is intrinsically inhospitable to democracy and “nurtures conditions favorable to parochialism, antimodernism, exclusiveness, and hostility to ‘others.’” I guess Clinton didn't get to this part of the book.
Barber is quite ambivalent about nationalism. (And it is odd that he discusses nationalism in the context of “Jihad”.) He recognizes nationalism's historical role in giving people a sense of belonging and self-determination. He scorns people who “use nationalism as a scathing pejorative,” thus distorting “a far more dialectical concept.” Yet he himself uses a crude, xenophobic and inaccurate term to describe this complex phenomenon. What on earth does “Jihad” have to do with the mood that he discerns in Occitan France, Spanish Catalonia, French Canada and German Switzerland? Mercifully, the discussion of “Jihad” is short: a mere fifty of the book's 300 pages. This is partly because bashing “Jihad” isn't complicated. It does not take long to convince people in the West today that communal militancy is bad and a danger for democracy. But the real reason for the brevity of Barber's analysis of “Jihad” is that he seems to have decided that it is not really the problem after all. “Jihad” is simply a frightened reaction to the onslaught of “McWorld.” It “tends the soul that McWorld abjures and strives for the moral well-being that McWorld … disdains.” It becomes clear now that Barber's real enemy, his real obsession, is “McWorld.” Barber's discussion of “McWorld” is tough going. It is written in the breathless style of a futurologist, complete with invented words and obscure logic. Chapter four, for example, concludes: “This infotainment telesector is supported by hard goods, which in fact have soft entailments that help obliterate the hard/soft distinction itself.” The book is studded with impressive-sounding, hollow lines such as this one: “The dynamics of the Jihad-McWorld linkage are deeply dialectical.”
Barber makes several arguments in the sections on “McWorld,” not all of them consistent. “McWorld” itself is, variously, the global market, multinational business, rampant consumerism and global pop culture. Barber sometimes speaks in the gloomy tones of the declinists, suggesting that America barely survived the cold war, and then only by taking on a crippling national debt. Other times he speaks of an America poised to dominate the world economically and culturally. In some places he argues that the globalization of economics has created a world of multinational corporations that have no national character, but he also declares incessantly that “McWorld” is pervasively American—“‘international’ is just another way of saying global American. …” So what, exactly, is the problem: a weakening America in the midst of a nationless world, or American global hegemony?
The expansion of the global marketplace and its consequences is an important subject. It has spawned vigorous debates among political scientists and economists for decades. Which is to say, it is not as novel as Barber or some of the wide-eyed management consultants he cites think. The power of multinationals, for example, is not exactly a new phenomenon. India was colonized, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not by a country but by a multinational corporation, the British East India Company, which wielded financial, political and military powers that no modern-day corporation could ever have. Imagine Coca-Cola with its own army, its own courts, its own laws.
Scholarly studies with careful collections of data abound on topics such as foreign direct investment, home country controls and outsourcing—all of which complicate the simple picture of nation-states in decline in the face of global markets. International financial markets function smoothly, for example, owing to an elaborate regulatory structure created and sustained by national governments; but Barber pays little attention to such matters, filling his pages instead with a blizzard of anecdotes taken from the pages of newspapers and magazines. Many of his assertions about the frightening power of “McWorld” and its relentless thrust across the globe are supported by the evidence of … advertisements. Ralph Lauren's “Living Without Space” campaign to sell Safari perfume and Reebok's “Planet Reebok” theme are illustrations of how “advertising colonizes space.” By this method, I suppose, the gooey 1980s song “We Are the World” is proof of a new imperialism, with Quincy Jones its mastermind. In fact, pop music does worry Barber. In a chapter on MTV called “McWorld's Noisy Soul” there is an ominous two-page world map, reminiscent of the geopolitical primers of yore, that shows most of the globe shaded in grey. It turns out that all these countries receive music television. Where is Samuel Huntington when you need him? Amid the din, however, one note can be heard throughout Barber's discussion: a distaste for “McWorld” in all its manifestations. Barber clearly abhors McDonald's, the evil empire itself, with its day-glo arches, plastic decor, factory food and tacky advertising. And McDonalds is merely the symbol for all large, consumer-based multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, Reebok and Disney. Barber's vision is the sophisticated urbanite's suburban nightmare: “McWorld is an entertainment shopping experience that brings together malls, multiplex movie theaters, theme parks, spectator sports arenas, fast-food chains (with their endless movie tie-ins), and television (with its burgeoning shopping networks) into a single vast enterprise. …”
Barber hates the fact that the global consumer companies are destroying the delightful and quaint and individual cultures that one expects to see when one travels abroad. And the sinister new globalism has even hit France, the country he cherishes most. In the good old days, Barber lovingly recounts, “one ate nonpasteurised Brie and drank vin de Provence in cafes and brasseries that were archetypically French; one listened to Edith Piaf and Jacqueline Franoise on French national radio stations and drove 2CV Citroens and Renault sedans without ever leaving French roadways. … An American in Paris crossed the waters to get away from TasteeFreez, White Castle and Chevrolet pickup trucks and once in France could be certain they would vanish. …” It is a novel objection to imperialism that it is ruining tourism. I like many of the things that Barber likes—neighborhood stores, bistros, good food, good wine—but I try not to confuse my tastes with my politics. Barber misunderstands the phenomenon that he deplores. McDonald's and Coca-Cola and Nike and Disney have become so dominant because during the last hundred years, and especially during the last forty years, the industrialized world has seen a staggering rise in the standard of living of the average person. This means that vast numbers of people now have the time and the money to indulge in what used to be upper-class styles of life and leisure, most notably eating out and shopping. True, they eat and shop at places that Barber would not, but surely that is not the point. The explosion of wealth and the rise of living standards, in what the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm has called capitalism's “golden age,” is among the most important social transformations in history. After thousands of years, more than a tiny percent of the population of these countries have some degree of material well-being. The recent debate over the very real problem of stagnating wages has made us forget how far we have come. A half century of peace and economic growth has created a new revolution of rising expectations. The average American family now consumes twice as many goods and services as in 1950. Then, less than 10 percent of Americans went to college; now, almost 60 percent do. The poorest fifth of the population of the United States consumes more today than the middle fifth did in 1955.
It is easy to demean the rise of mass consumption, as Barber does, mocking the individual “choice” that is reflected in the range of toppings on a baked potato or the variety of cereals in a supermarket. But this trivializes a remarkable phenomenon. Rising standards of living mean rising levels of hygiene, health and comfort. John Kenneth Galbraith, hardly a free-market ideologue, explained in 1967 that “no hungry man who is also sober can be persuaded to use his last dollar for anything but food. But a well-fed, well-clad, well-sheltered and otherwise well-tended person can be persuaded as between an electric razor and an electric toothbrush.” When a middle-class person thinks of a house today, it has two bathrooms with heat and air conditioning in every room. This would have been considered prohibitively luxurious in 1950. Even measuring from 1973, when real wages began stagnating, standards of living have kept moving up. And the benefits are not mainly in the variety of cereal brands available. The number of cases of measles in America in 1974 was 22,094; it is now 312. A rising standard of living is not a form of corruption. It often represents an increase in the dignity of daily life.
McDonald's does look tawdry when compared to a Parisian bistro, but most of the customers at McDonald's, even at McDonald's in Paris, probably did not eat much in bistros before cheap fast-food restaurants appeared. Two generations ago, eating out was a luxury; today the average American eats out four times a week. (A weekly Big Mac is a fine expression of family values.) McDonald's and its look-alikes became successful because they offered ordinary people the convenience of eating out often and cheaply in sanitary (OK, antiseptic) conditions. And the rise of fast food has not exactly brought about the demise of fine dining. The world Barber likes is alive and well, but it is no longer central to society. Madonna looms larger in the general culture than Jessye Norman because more people listen to her sing; and in a democratic society it matters more how many listen than who listens. Indeed, Jihad vs. McWorld can be read as a compendium of the social changes that a rising middle class has wrought on national cultures that were heretofore shaped by upper-class rituals and symbols. A large part of Barber's discomfort with “McWorld” seems to stem from his discomfort with capitalism. This shows itself in two interesting ways. First, he litters his book with the usual paeans to civil society, by which he (like everyone else) means not all private groups, but the private groups he likes. Thus, conspicuously absent from his account of civil society are private firms. In fact, he sees corporations as actively hostile to civil society. “Who will get the private sector off the backs of civil society?” As a professor of political theory, Barber must know that the concept of civil society emerged in Europe in the eighteenth century in part to describe private business activity. From Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith to Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, the philosophers who developed this idea spoke of the unintended good to society that results from selfish economic activity. In Mandeville's famous phrase, “private vice is public virtue.” And leaving aside the matter of intellectual pedigree, how can one speak about organizations that provide individuals with personal autonomy and personal dignity, and shield them from the whims of the state, without mentioning private enterprise?
Second, individual choice that is exercised in a private economic sphere is, for Barber, somehow false. He celebrates the average person's hasty choice at the ballot box as genuine, but he scorns the careful decisions that the same person makes about where to work and live, what house or car to buy. These latter decisions, he implies, are forced on the unsuspecting consumer by omnipotent corporations. His book is sprinkled with calls for “real choice” and “genuine choice,” but this is patronizing and unconvincing; he really means choices like his. The truth is that companies usually succeed when they cater to people's choices; and when they try to create people's choices, they often fail. Remember New Coke? Barber has his own nightmare backwards: it is the people of France, not the evil multinationals, who are abandoning French culture. If more Frenchmen ate in bistros and watched Louis Malle than eat at McDonald's and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger, there would be no slippage of French culture. There is no denying that “McWorld” is not a pretty sight. The rise of a mass consumption society produces political, economic and cultural side effects that are troubling. But surely the criticism of this world, and of the liberal capitalism which created it, must first recognize its accomplishments. The political and economic changes that have created McWorld are, on the whole, admirable ones. Giving people the ability to live longer, to move where they want, own a house, to enjoy such pleasures as vacations and restaurants and shopping is good, even noble. And there is something distinctly unbecoming about an American intellectual disparaging the spread of American blandishments across the world. We like higher standards of living for ourselves, but we worry about their effects on others. It is particularly strange to find that Barber, a man of the left, is so worried. After all, the left has been in favor of the goal of rising standards of living for the average person for centuries. In the pursuit of this goal it often made serious arguments against capitalism, questioning whether it was the right path. Some of these criticisms have proven wrong. (Communism, Lenin explained, would outproduce capitalism.) And some of these criticisms—relating to, say, income inequality—are important questions to this day. But Barber's book reflects a stubborn kind of leftism that has despaired of political and economic argument and, as a last resort, takes refuge in an aesthetic criticism of the market. This is the same leftism that produced Norman Mailer's one specific political position: tax plastic. Barber's own work has been filled with paeans to ordinary people. He has championed measures that would give them greater autonomy and freedom of choice. But now that he is confronted by “the people's” actual—that is to say, tacky—choices, Barber wants them to choose differently. Indeed, he seems to desire what he has always denounced: elites, and the mediating institutions that try to cushion society from the direct effects of democracy while at the same time working to elevate people's judgments. Maybe Barber has discovered that there is something to be said, after all, for cultural leadership, for constraints on individual choice. Sixty-three years ago, Ortega y Gasset, in The Revolt of the Masses, made a more intellectually honest argument against democratic capitalism, against the consequences of rampant and unfettered choice. He spoke directly to the Barbers of his time. “You want the ordinary man to be master,” he wrote. “Well, do not be surprised if he acts for himself, if he demands all form of enjoyment, if he firmly asserts his will … if he considers his own person and his own leisure, if he is careful as to dress. … Was it not this that it was hoped to do, namely, that the average man should feel himself master, lord and ruler of himself and of his life? Well, that is now accomplished. Why then these complaints of the liberals, the democrats, the progressives of thirty years ago? Or is it that like children they want something, but not the consequences of that something?”
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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 in Europe are American, while only 2 percent of those shown in the U.S. come from Europe. Satellite dishes proliferate in China, despite government opposition, and they receive CNN, MTV, and the BBC news, the last pulled by Murdoch at the request of the Chinese government. Imitations of American trash TV appear in Britain, the Russians do a rip-off of “Wheel of Fortune” and a dubbed version of the real thing reaches 70 percent of Poland's viewers. Honda boasts both of being the import car of the year, and having 80 percent American components, while the Dodge Stealth is built in Nagoya, Japan.
Spokesmen for several U.S. administrations have seen the expansion of global capitalism as linked positively to democracy. However, Barber argues that “Market Leninism” in China and successful capitalist tyrannies in Chile, South Korea, and Singapore disprove the link, and that “capitalists may be democrats but capitalism does not need or entail democracy.”
Consumer choice, often manipulated by the media, is not the same thing, says Barber, as the autonomous decision making of the democratic citizen. (Barber does not mention the role of mass communications such as the fax machine and CNN in the ending of authoritarianism in Chile and Eastern Europe, and in the events of Tiananmen Square in China in 1989.)
The second part of the book examines “dogmatic and violent particularism”—Barber's definition of Jihad—around the world. Besides Israeli and Islamic extremists and the warring ethnicities of the former Yugoslavia, there are the Irish, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, and the many ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union. Less extreme but still divisive are the German Swiss, the East Germans, and the French Canadians. Each is reviewed for its explosive divisiveness. Not included, because in most cases they have been defeated or have lost their revolutionary faith, are the Marxist-inspired guerrillas who were active in nearly every country of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.
Barber admits that religion can be compatible with democracy and alludes to Tocqueville's claim that it was a prerequisite for its effective functioning. Yet he is dubious about the possibility of a reconciliation between Islam and democracy similar to that which had taken place in Christianity. He seems to believe that there is little difference between Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms in terms of their opposition to democratic practices. “Both want to be born again so as to be born yesterday,” that is, before the advent of modernity with its acquisitiveness, individualism, and secularization, for which the spiritual poverty of the market is partly to blame. And Waco and Oklahoma City show that the weapons of holy war are not exclusively Islamic.
In the long run, Barber seems to believe, the forces of McWorld will triumph. But this will only mean that the democratic nation-state will be subordinated to the forces of the international market, a development in postmodern politics that Barber sees as “bad. No, not bad, disastrous.”
What can be done to strengthen the forces of democracy? Like many contemporary social critics, Barber calls for the strengthening of civil society, locally, nationally, and internationally. He sees the schools, churches, foundations, public-interest groups, and the media “when they subordinate their commercial needs to their civic obligations,” as constituting a middle ground between government and the private sector. They provide the basis for alternative nonmarket institutions to regulate the market's anarchy or adverse consequences.
However, the examples Barber give of the results of the actions of such institutions all seem to require legislation—outlawing leaded gas, subsidizing public transportation, mandating hospital insurance for bus drivers, and limiting highway construction in scenic areas. But the extension of state regulation depends on and is legitimated by its democratic auspices, providing an alternative to the choice between radical collectivism and radical individualism.
Beyond the state, he sees an international “confederalism” as the next step in civic empowerment and cooperation. Presumably he means the extension of the activity of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but just how this is to be done is not explained. There are references to the Articles of Confederation as providing a model, but aside from stressing the noncompulsory nature of his proposed strong global democracy there are no details on how we build an alternative to Jihad and McWorld. Once again, enforcement seems to require some kind of international authority, but there is no discussion of relevant international cooperation that has been effective—the international human-rights movement, for example—or that which has failed—for example, various international codes of conduct for multinational corporations.
Barber's best-known book is Strong Democracy (1984), a critique of representative institutions and a call for more direct democracy, such as that he observed in the cantons of Switzerland. In its prescriptions for resolving problems Jihad vs. McWorld continues and extends Barber's concern with genuinely participatory democracy. Not everyone will be persuaded by his proposed solutions, but this vivid and well-written diagnosis of the conflicting tendencies in the contemporary world makes lively and persuasive reading.
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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 concern—so much so that the book might more accurately be titled Jihad and McWorld vs. Democratic Ideals. As might be expected from someone who has written eloquently on democratic theory, the author—director of the Walt Whitman Center at Rutgers—is ultimately less interested in either international economics or ethnic politics than he is in the survival of civil society in the post-Cold War world.
This is a sober matter, and I credit the essay and the book for raising the issue of how democracy can endure. But the book, by extending the essay's metaphors and trying to sustain its argument over a broad range of case studies, illustrates the difficulties of trying to conceptualize global society from a particular point of view.
Take the notion of McWorld. The term implies a world economy and a modern aesthetic symbolized by franchise fast-food outlets. The image combines two things—transnational business and a homogeneous global culture—both of which Barber regards as threatening to civil society. He is no doubt right about the undemocratic character of international corporations, especially multinational and transnational ones. But it is less certain whether the ubiquity of Western films, television programs, music, and commercial items throughout the world—as annoying as they may be—creates something that could be called a global culture, especially a culture of sufficient strength to threaten local forms of political participation and civil society.
When the Ayatollah Khomeini raised concerns similar to Barber's, he decried what he described as “Westoxification.” He saw McWorld as the cultural extension of Western economic and military hegemony and not something transnational in character or scope. The Ayatollah had his point. Even if one does not regard modern influences as manifestations of Satan, one can see them as Western in derivation, even as residues of global imperialism from a colonial past.
As troubling as McWorld is as a comparative category, Jihad is even more so. This term for sacred struggle—which symbolizes everything the West dislikes about Islam—is employed for virtually every religious, ethnic, or other centrifugal force in today's world. But, as the author himself observes, some of these are in league with the big businesses of McWorld. Others are perceived by their adherents as movements of liberation against rigid or dictatorial political systems: They regard themselves as democratizing movements. The Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria is a case in point. It staunchly defends democratic procedures and articulates its own version of human rights. Although its leaders tend to be autocratic, its rhetoric—along with that of Egyptian, Palestinian, and other Islamic nationalist movements—is democratic. This leads one to speculate, as I have in my own book on religious nationalism, that in some instances democratic values may be conveyed in the vessels of religious politics. Whether some of these movements might promote civil society and whether others could participate in a global civil society are questions that deserve to be explored.
In this book, the differences among various ethnic and religious groups encompassed by Jihad—as in the old “Third World”—are blurred into an undifferentiated other. In one section, for instance, the author contrasts McWorld with particular cultures such as Indonesia—where, he states, people wear saris rather than designer dresses and believe in Buddhism rather than consumerism (p. 70). It may be petty to point out that Indonesian women wear sarongs, not saris (he's thinking of India), and as the world's largest Islamic country, Indonesia is nearly devoid of Buddhists. But this minor slip is a telling one, for it indicates how easy it is for even thoughtful Western intellectuals to slight the differences among cultures and the diversity of cultural worldviews. By extension, it shows how parochial is any understanding of the globe, even—or perhaps especially—when one tries to understand the global forces that affect our contemporary world.
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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.
Barber presents the competing notions of civil society found in America today before offering his own version, which he does by drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville's civic republicanism as a model. He outlines conservatives' hunger for a return to a less complicated, nostalgic time when families appeared to be intact and authority-offering institutions like the church seemed to hold society together. He cites communitarians gravitating to a definition of civil society that mimics this nostalgia in their desire for a less contentious world. Others (Barber among them) invest in the notion of civil society because it strengthens democracy and the role of citizenship in an era of global expansion and immense change, even if it brings contention in its wake.
Barber's definition is simple: “In an ideal civic architecture of free nations, the space that accommodates the mutuality of ‘you and me’ is civil society.” He presents two competing notions of civil society, what he terms the “prince” versus the “merchant.” The latter is civil society embraced by conservatives, libertarians and New Democrats in which the market leads the way. The former is a civil society dominated by a New Deal model of government.
Barber offers a third alternative, a model promoting stronger democracy and social justice. “My premise,” Barber writes, “is that only in the civic terrain lying between the extremes of ‘Prince and Merchant,’ of big government and wholly private commercial markets, can we mediate between public and private, between community and individual, and between the power of public communities and the liberty of private individuals. The idea of civil society can democratize our ‘princes’ and thus relegitimize government at the same time that it civilizes and thus tames our merchants.”
To make his point, Barber discusses three recent White House projects: President Clinton's and Colin Powell's bipartisan effort to renew voluntarism in America begun last year with a volunteer weekend in Philadelphia; Americorps, which is Clinton's national service program; and the Apparel Industry Partnership being promoted by the White House as a tripartite effort by government industry and unions (including concerned citizens) to close sweatshops at home and abroad.
Regarding the volunteer summit, Barber is critical and rightfully so. Barber supports conflict as a way to strengthen democracy and therefore shuns the trend toward bipartisanship. “‘Bipartisan’ and ‘apolitical,’ supposedly virtuous adjectives in the language of civil society, may suggest something laudable in an era as skeptical about politics as ours, but they also suggest tokenism and insipid efforts to avoid real problems,” Barber warns.
Where Clinton has succeeded, according to Barber, is in projects like Americorps, in which Clinton's “distinctly democratic rhetoric of service and volunteerism … treats service volunteers and the people they serve, too, as citizens.” The fact that this program is a target of the Republican budgets cutters in Congress should put to rest the notion of building bipartisan support for a civic culture that nurtures the responsibility of the citizenry, which Clinton desires and Republicans apparently do not.
In an otherwise intriguing discussion of how consumer and public pressure can weigh on business to do the right thing, Barber mistakenly cites the work of the Apparel Industry Partnership as completed. In fact, the White House continues to lobby for a completed document upon which labor, industry and government can agree to raise standards, but agreement without contention is proving to be difficult. In today's global marketplace, there is no consensus between unions and industry on issues like the rights of workers to a decent standard of living. Barber is right, though, to hope that ongoing discussion can move toward a consensus.
Actually, the Clinton presidency is the perfect laboratory to debate these varying definitions of civil society, because Clinton is so intent on defining a new kind of politics and a new kind of Democrat. But when Clinton leans too much toward the merchant, in opposition to the prince—and if he forgoes a third way—the contradictions become apparent.
For instance, isn't it ironic that a president who has given so much verbal and symbolic attention to restoring public space talks about the American people having “hired” him to do a job? Why not use the proper term, “elected”? Perhaps Clinton is leaning too much toward mercantilism, endangering his own self-professed—and worthy—project of strengthening civic involvement. The goal for civil society is to enrich the role of the citizen. It is not enough merely to reinvent government. Nor is it enough merely to promote a volunteerism that, as Barber argues, promotes “independence,” when the goal should be “interdependence.”
Much is at stake today. As Barber argues, multinational corporations know no loyalty to community or nations, only to corporate shareholders. Barber relies heavily here on his previous book, Jihad vs. McWorld, in which he put forward two opposing world views of a raw capitalism versus a raw tribalism, in which the symbol of Coca-Cola or Disney reigns in the former Eastern bloc or even wartorn Bosnia and in which Americans, too, fall prey to the power of the corporation as it strips away all loyalty to community or nation. Barber expands on some of his earlier themes by outlining a scenario for more corporate responsibility and more consumer activism. Indeed, his prescription appears to be working, in the apparel industry, for example, where, building on his earlier discussion of the White House effort, he advocates enhancing “corporate responsibility by using the demand side, the consumer side, to modify corporate behavior.” Recent polling by Marymount University in Virginia showed that more than half of consumers polled want to know that the clothes they buy aren't made in sweatshops. Some, though not all, manufacturers are trying to improve the working conditions in their factories, partly responding to growing consumer pressure.
Barber's ultimate hope for strengthening civil society is certainly desirable. He pragmatically observes that “the economic reality of jobs vanishing at the very moment when we are reaffirming the ideology of work, calling the work ethic our core value in the politics of welfare reform” presents a problem. “In our civilization, work has thus endowed human life with meaning, dignity, and status. Since economic health has been a condition for, as well as a consequence of, the growth of democracy, work has also been seen as undergirding the virtues of a free society. This link is manifest in the classical connection between the Protestant lionization of industry, thrift and work and the growth of capitalist democracy.”
Today's global economy includes technological advances that increasingly make many forms of work scarce. As work disappears, Barber argues, we must look to new ways to define ourselves. Making ourselves good citizens is the perfect route. “Democracy depends on leisure, on time to be educated into civil society, time to participate in deliberation, time to serve on juries, occupy municipal magistracies, volunteer for civic activities,” he writes.
Barber applauds efforts of the present socialist French government to reduce the workweek as an elixir against unemployment. He advocates job sharing in the United States. But he warns that unless we “find new ways to distribute the fruits of nonlabor-based productivity to the general population, whether or not they work for their living, more citizens will become poor in economic and social terms and the system itself will be undermined and destroyed by political instability, new forms of class war, and—most ironic of all—by not enough income-earning consumers to buy all the goods in this labor-free world.” Indeed, the French experiment is a bold one, which we should examine. Yet we are already at risk from increasing inequality between the rich and the working poor. Barber is correct to warn about future risks as work is restructured.
We are so far from a time when displaced workers can enjoy the fruits of citizenry that much of Barber's argument sounds utopian. We can only hope, for the sake of our democracy, that this book is less a utopian tract and more a textbook for our future.
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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 Romanian Jew (and coincidentally my maternal grandfather). Both men wrote about poverty, hard work, and their eventual success in mastering the language and norms of a brash, confident America during the heyday of immigration.
For Miller as for many conservatives (he reports for National Review), multiculturalism threatens the cohesiveness of the United States by discouraging present-day immigrants from assimilating. Its adherents act deliberately “to fracture the American identity and turn the United States into a small global village, like Epcot Center's World Showcase attraction.” “As the architects of anti-Americanization public policies such as bilingual education, they are intent on using state power to preserve native cultures, native languages, and group solidarity.”
The anti-Americanism of many academic multiculturalists no longer comes as a surprise, but Miller makes the case that it causes real harm by depriving so many immigrants of what they need most—education that rapidly makes English their children's first language. Miller is a libertarian-leaning conservative who supports immigration on the grounds of America's universalist founding ideals. He feels the present dispensation is unfair both to immigrants themselves and to the country they chose.
“The multiculturalists' greatest fear about assimilation,” he aptly points out, “is that it will happen.” Although their success in combating it is debatable—the California vote and similar indications must be discouraging—Miller thinks everyone's interest would be served if this country recovered enough confidence in its institutions to practice the energetic Americanization that used to be so effective. His book ends with a manifesto listing ways to make immigration work better than it does now: “embrace colorblind law” (new immigrants are currently eligible for affirmative-action preferences), “pull the plug on bilingual education,” “deny welfare to noncitizens,” and so forth.
The fact that most of Miller's prescriptions are regarded as conservative implies that most liberals see immigration very differently from the way they once did. Who but a few ethnic separatists thought until recently that preserving foreign cultures in New York or Los Angeles was the job of the government? Not long ago the possibility that immigrants could immediately become wards of the taxpayers was anathema. Now, expressed in less direct language, these are established policies of the Federal government, actively or tacitly supported by both parties.
Not all liberals, of course, accept the assumptions behind current “multicultural” policies, whose ramifications stretch far beyond immigration. Benjamin Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers, has written a succession of books exposing what might be called the dark side of multiculturalism: its celebration of rigid identities that reduce members of officially sanctioned “minority groups” to no more than representatives of their “cultures.” In such a paradigm, woe betide the individual who violates what is supposed to be the group consensus! (Barber does not mention him, but one thinks immediately of Clarence Thomas.) Self-proclaimed cultural relativists can be the most intolerant people of all.
Barber's 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld, graphically set forth a global conflict between two irreconcilable forces: American popular culture, with the libertarian, consumerist attitudes it carries everywhere, versus its one remaining formidable enemy, Islamic fundamentalism. In A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, Barber applies the same set of concerns to American political “culture” on its home ground.
One of his targets is the Communitarian movement represented by such influential social scientists as Amitai Etzioni and Robert N. Bellah. In principle, if not always in practice, Communitarianism represents a threat both to individual freedom and to the power of a democratic state to challenge community standards: “Where libertarians worry that state bureaucrats might impose substantive values on free individuals and groups, communitarians fear that the state may be corrosively agnostic, and have no guiding values at all. They may seek cultural safety not in laissez-faire insulation from ‘the state’ but in its cultural takeover—as Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Reed attempted in their 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaign efforts. …”
When language like this shows up, references to Nazi Germany are rarely far behind, and Barber soon drops the atomic bomb of polemical associations: “The implicit political aspirations of communitarianism were evident in the German ideal of Volksgemeinschaft. … The German experience reminds us that the siren call of community, though attuned to deep needs in the human spirit, can be answered in ways that violate both liberalism and democracy.”
His argument would be stronger without this liberal equivalent of Red-baiting. What he really means is that community or “culture” in the sense employed by many multiculturalists, has become a regressive, sometimes violent anachronism—a superficially appealing alternative to the self-centered shallowness of the McWorld, but still something liberals should resist. Real cultures and communities are inherently exclusive, Barber warns, and one form or another of Jihad is always lurking in the wings.
Furthermore, as a matter of empirical fact, the strong ethnic identities that multiculturalists celebrate are almost extinct in contemporary America. “Communitarians in the throes of a totalitarian temptation,” he declares, “must also confront the paradox that the natural communities which they aspire to fortify are often in practice realized only artificially. Under modern conditions, where the environment for natural community has been undermined by secularism, by utilitarianism, and by the erosion of ‘natural’ social ties, many communities claiming traditional or natural identities must make strenuously artificial efforts to reconstitute themselves as the organic natural communities they no longer are or can be.”
This generalization applies most obviously to ethnic communities: “American-born Polish- and African-Americans may identify with remembered or invented cultural roots, but they quickly discern, when they visit their ethnic homelands, how remote those hypothetical identities are from the largely deracinated Americans they have inevitably become.”
What Barber says of Communitarians is not that different from what Miller says of multiculturalists: “The world upon which they wish to refound a civil society is the world we have lost. They offer us the place we yearn for but can reach only if we retreat to ancestral identities no longer truly our own.”
Postculturalism, as I have elsewhere called it, is the recognition that the overused word “culture” no longer carries its traditional ethnic meaning in America at the end of the century. Not only has assimilation turned once powerful immigrant cultures into little more than bland morsels to be consumed by anyone at will—do you prefer taco salad, sushi, bagels, or the world champion Big Mac? What is sometimes called American “culture” has in the years since World War II become too inclusive, too much a matter of individual choices, to determine its participants' lives with anything like the strength of traditional cultures.
Multiculturalists on the Left, advocates for a vanished small-town Christian America on the Right, and Communitarians at some ambiguous spot on the spectrum are all laboring in the throes of the same nostalgic delusion. What they want to preserve is already gone, and no bilingual or multicultural policies are going to bring it back.
Maybe it's a good thing. Why should I have to choose once and for all between curry and knishes? Or, to put it positively, why shouldn't I get to choose among as many ethnic possibilities as exist, not only in food but in the more important realms of art, attitudes, historical models, and philosophical insights? Assimilation doesn't mean giving up everything that came from somewhere else, though maybe it once did. In its postcultural form it means having equal access to all the world's inherited intangibles.
But the price of this access is that every “culture” loses the power and meaning it had in relative isolation. We pick and choose among fragments, not whole ancestral worlds. As a result, we become more fickle and narcissistic than is good for us. This dish or moral practice pleases me today; that one doesn't; away it goes like a TV series whose ratings dropped. In the absence of a culture that makes enforceable demands, my immediate gratification is the only criterion of value.
As ethnic groups increasingly intermarry and lose what remains of their definition, the good and bad consequences of postculturalism will only intensify. At present, with an exogamy rate of over 40 percent for people of Hispanic and 50 percent for people of Asian descent born in the United States, these two hugely varied census categories continue to project distinct identities merely because their numbers are constantly replenished by new immigration.
Just as Miller's main adversary is multiculturalism, so Barber's bête noire—more dangerous even than factitious “communities”—is “the market,” an abstract entity that, Karl Marx observed long ago, mercilessly grinds up ancient cultures and values. Barber has almost nothing to say about immigration because in McWorld the concept of nationality has lost most of its meaning. Like Miller, he too has a manifesto—a list of ways to subordinate corporations to progressive politics. A postcultural society has many advantages, but it brings its own problems, whatever your ideology.
Meanwhile the people of California have had their say once again.
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