Benjamin Barber: Jihad vs. McWorld 2015

    • Industry
    • October 28, 2015
    • By Nynke van Verschuer

    The book Jihad vs. McWorld by American political philosopher and consultant Benjamin Barber was published twenty years ago. During IDFA 2015 Barber presents his own selection of documentaries that reflect on this book and his later work, which puts mayors in the lead role.

    In 1992, Benjamin Barber wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled "Jihad vs. McWorld". The book of the same title followed in 1995, and became a bestseller in the fall of 2001, as people searched for explanations for the September 11 attacks. Barber was suddenly the man who has seen it all coming. Twenty years on, the book is still well worth reading. To mark this twentieth anniversary, a new edition of the book is being published this year, subtitled "ISIS on the Internet". The foreword to this new edition will be presented during IDFA.

    IDFA chose to use this as the theme running through a programme curated and commented on by Barber himself. The documentaries selected by Barber show that jihad and McWorld are still as relevant as ever, how they have become inextricably intertwined and how citizens and administrations in different parts of the world are dealing with this.

    Jihad vs. McWorld describes the rise of jihad as a response to a world that is becoming ever more uniform. In spite of the contrasts between McWorld and jihad, however, Barber also sees correspondences between them: both oppose the proper functioning of democracy, while it is actually democracy that could (at least partly) ameliorate the mutual misunderstandings between the two.

    The book that made Barber (1939) such an influential political scientist (during the 1990s one of his roles was as a regular adviser to Bill Clinton) marks the start of his mission to modernize democracy. Two years ago, he published If Mayors Ruled the World in response to the question of how it is possible to both be a tolerant world citizen and at the same time be involved in a small community to which you feel affiliated. In other words: how to get the best of both worlds.


    Barber's McWorld is the world of insipid free-market capitalism, in which the greatest goods are pleasure, consumption and a long, healthy life. This is a completely globalized world in which differences in tradition, culture and preference are smoothed over and everyone is squeezed into preformed consumer molds. Barber quotes the former CEO of Gilette, Alfred Zeien: "I do not find foreign countries foreign." He refers to multinationals as "antinationals": capitalism is not interested in national boundaries, nations and cultures unless happy children playing football on a field in South America are helping to sell sports shoes or soft drinks in an advertisement.

    In opposition to the consumers, jihadists believe they are forced to defend their faith, their laws, their people, their clan or their province. Under pressure from the outside world, they elevate their morals to absolute values that may not be deviated from, even by an inch.

    When Barber talks about jihad, he is explicitly not just talking about a phenomenon related to the Islamic faith, but rather everything that opposes the modern West, including orthodox Christians in the USA, the Chinese prohibition of American TV and social media, Russian nationalism, Rwandan rebels and anarchistic heavy metal bands.

    Both jihad and McWorld undermine democracy. Jihadists because their interests are too specific and too sectarian to apply to a nation state – there is no room for dissenters. McWorld because its inhabitants are no longer involved citizens but have become consumers in countries where, when push comes to shove, the will of the market prevails. The laws of McWorld, dictated by trade, are too technocratic and too universal to stir the interest of the voters, who do not feel represented by national politicians.

    ​Extreme uniformity

    Twenty years ago, the symbols of the uniformity of the cosmopolitan consumer were McDonald's, Macintosh and MTV: fast food, fast computers and fast music.In 2015, MTV ("McWorld's Noisy Soul") is no longer a broadcaster of music videos, but rather programmes such as Jersey Shore and My Super Sweet Sixteen. McDonald's is struggling with image problems and has changed the background color of its famous yellow M from red to green in a gesture towards millennials who turn up their noses at ground waste meat passing for cheeseburgers, preferring to purchase local produce.

    Then there is Macintosh, now rebranded as MacBook, iPad and iPhone – in 1995, Apple was just a hint of what it is now. The company that came of age under the slogan "Think different" ensures that all this different thinking is communicated in a very uniform way. For the IDFA programme, Barber has selected the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which shows how, following Jobs' death, people took the streets in mourning all over the world with flickering candles on their iPads, and how altars were set up to commemorate the man behind the machines. After seeing such images, Barber's fear that consumerism is now being used to make sense of the world in the same way religion used to be doesn't seem so far-fetched.

    ​Radical identities

    Twenty years after Jihad vs. McWorld, jihad is more visible than ever. Holy war is making grateful use of the conveniences offered by McWorld, streaming scenes of torture and disseminating propaganda on iPhones and YouTube. Jihadists need McWorld not only as an adversary, but also as a supplier of modern technology that allows them to appear on the world stage.

    Barber's jihad is also in rude health. Vladimir Putin justifies his territorial expansions with the argument that Europe is ceding its identity, values and culture to American influences, and that Russia is simply protecting itself – actually everything from Lisbon to Vladivostok – from this insidious process. Several weeks ago, Putin opened a shiny new mosque with great ceremony in Moscow. In his speech, he said that although Russia has some problems with radicalizing Muslims, people of all religions are welcome to enrich the spiritual life of the country. Just as long as the godless stay out, seemed to be the unspoken follow-up.

    The jihadism described by Barber is not only a direct response to Western values that do not appeal to fundamentalists, it is also a question of identity, of the erosion of the sense of community, of fear of being absorbed into the big, relativizing mass – a fear that is just as palpable in the West. Or, as Barber writes: "Seeking a repository for identity, everyone belongs to some tribe."

    Barber's IDFA programme also includes the documentary Welcome to Leith, which tells the absurd story of a white supremacist who moves to the hamlet of Leith in North Dakota, planning to take over the whole place and its 24 families and found a society in line with his principles. From one day to the next, the otherwise bland village was suddenly adorned with swastikas flying from flagpoles. Men with small mustaches started clumping along Main Street in big boots. The locals rose up against them, whereupon the right-wing extremists complained that, afraid of the multicultural society, they just wanted to create an island where they could be left alone to do their thing.

    ​City states

    According to Barber, democracy can bring the indifferent consumer and the embittered fundamentalist together. If consumers again become citizens who feel responsible for their neighbors and their streets, space will emerge for the kind of diversity that allows the adherents of religion and consumerism to operate freely and no longer put up barricades. If governments were to stop leaving everything to the market and redistribute where necessary, they could ensure that it is not just a tiny minority who benefit from the prosperity of McWorld, thereby reducing resentment.

    But the institutions we have now are bankrupt, according to Barber. Nation states are too big to bring cohesion and the policies of their governments do not appeal to their citizens. Furthermore, the nation states are not capable of tackling worldwide problems such as climate change, as all they can do is make non-binding agreements and there is no body capable of exercising power worldwide. Countries compete against one another and will always put their own, national, interests first.

    Barber believes that a new lease of life could be given to democracy by bringing it back to its roots: the "polis", the city state, devolving decision-making to cities and urban districts. In his book If Mayors Ruled the World (2013), he writes that cities are pragmatic. Mayors have to solve problems: make sure the garbage is collected, that public transport works and that diversity is maintained in their neighborhoods. They don't get bogged down in ideological discussions like national governments do. In the documentary The Chinese Mayor, the filmmaker follows Mayor Geng in the city of Datong in northern China. Geng implements only half of what the Communist Party tells him, mainly doing what he thinks is right for the inhabitants and their city.

    Barber is actively engaged in realising his idea: he set up the Global Parliament of Mayors, where Mayors from around the world meet to consider common problems and attempt to exert pressure on their national governments. Cities, or urban areas, could provide the sense of community that could enable jihadists to withdraw into their clans. McWorld has to reign in capitalism to facilitate an open society. Perhaps, then, IDFA will be able to conclude in 2035 that McWorld and jihad are finally historical concepts.

    Nynke van Verschuer is a journalist for Vrij Nederland magazine

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