Jihad vs. McWorld

by Benjamin R. Barber

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What is a strength and weakness of Jihad vs. McWorld?

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Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World is a book by American political scientist Benjamin Barber originally published in 1995. The book analyzes how two opposing phenomena are threatening the stability of a certain type of liberal democracy.

Its major strength as a book is to note that tribalism and globalism often occur simultaneously—that, for example, one might have Islamists eating halal meals at McDonald's or Chinese teens investing in iPhones as status symbols. Barber has a great degree of distaste for both these forces (tribalism and globalism), as he sees them as destabilizing and anti-democratic.

Because the book was written in 1995, it underestimates the degree to which these forces are now opposed to one another. Groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, and even China under the leadership of Xi or Russia under the leadership of Putin, are increasingly rejecting globalized culture, seeing it as part of Western cultural imperialism. While it is true that tribalistic forces can threaten democracy, Barber at times fails to see how some of what he condemns as tribalism is actually a quite healthy desire to reclaim cultures and identities that were very much harmed by colonialism. Tibetans, Catalans, Native Americans, Canada's First Nations, and other indigenous groups are quite legitimately asserting their own identities against what were often systematic attempts at oppression. Barber seems less sensitive than he could be to the ways in which democratic majorities can oppress minorities.

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One strength in Barber's work would be the way he helps to identify new realities in the globalized world.  A weakness would be that his binary distinction could blur all the complexities within it.

Barber was ahead of his time in defining a new reality of a post-Cold War world in Jihad vs. McWorld.  He was able to envision how globalization would expand all over the world and be so easily embraced. He also was able to forecast how fundamentalism would rise as its countervailing force.  In a world devoid of the traditional superpowers, one of the strengths of Barber's work is that he was able to identity two trends of socio-political mobilization that would come to play critical roles in defining the new era.

Along these lines, I would say that a weakness of the work is that it strives to reduce the complexities of the modern setting to a binary distinction.  If Barber is right in that we have entered a world where the Cold War superpowers no longer exist, then we should probably move away from strict binary divisions.  Barber's work fails to account for the multiplicity of voices that have emerged through social media and information technology.  In carving out the new world, it might be somewhat myopic to suggest that there are, again, only two dominant paths to social and self- definition. While "Jihad" and "McWorld" are powerful realities of the globalized age, there are more forces at play in this new setting.  It is one where individual identity, social media identification, and articulation of new and varied voice have become vital.  In this light, stressing a binary approach to the world might be perceived as a potential weakness in the work.

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