Trying to Make Sense of Jihad vs. McWorld

Twenty-one years ago, Benjamin Barber predicted a political future that would be both bleak and undemocratic. Barber’s periodical, written for The Atlantic, has since been turned into a book with the same name (I like the alluring cover of a presumed jihadist drinking a Pepsi, which dis/graces the book’s cover). But Jihad vs. McWorldthe article – describes the incipient forces of both Globalization and “retribalization;” or the appearance of transnational markets and parochial sectarian groups that defy the patterns of the so-called “New World Order.” These two mutually exclusive evils are both extant in our 21st-century reality, and each intrinsically operate on completely different impulses. But Barber’s thesis is made clear when he states that “neither [of these forces offer] much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically.”

Now, why should I (and my fellow classmates in Writing for New Media at Oakland University) bother ourselves with political rhetoric in a class about Web authoring, when most of us (myself included) are content to just post chunks of daily escapist entertainment media that personally appeal to us? My guess is because a proper knowledge of the times comes with a proper understanding that, by engaging with the Web (both operatively and rhetorically), we are engaging in a culture of techno-determinists and polemicists who speak on (and to) the very topics raised in Jihad vs. McWorld.

For example, Barber’s four imperatives on McWorld are interwoven into my daily usage of the Web. His Market Imperative is perhaps the strongest impulse presented to me as an Internet user. When I disable my Adblock Plus extension (a Firefox browser extension I use to curtail banners, pop-ups and video ads while I surf the web), I am instantly met with a hodge-podge of advertisements that would otherwise pull me financially (and ontologically!) into the global marketplace. Indeed, three consecutive refreshes of my Facebook page without Adblock enabled yielded a car ad for Nissan Leaf, a phone ad for Verizon wireless, and Beats by Dr. Dre; an ©incorporated LLC “aided by partnerships with HP, Chrylser Group and HTC Mobile.” Suddenly, my experience of the Web breaks down into an experience of commercial producers wanting me to consume a product. And, inevitably, consumption of products (unless they are independently made), are at once a willing participation with/in the “common market”; the market system Barber describes as being controlled by “international banks, trade associations, transnational lobbies. . . and multinational corporations that increasingly lack a meaningful national identity.” That’s right, the small part we play as consumers (even though we have freedom of choice to buy what we want to buy), at once puts us on the global stage where we are culpable as actors to a small degree.

Moving on, the Resource Imperative of Barber’s McWorld is concerned with nation-based autonomous resource wealth. Of course, the debate in America for the last dozen years or so has been where to drill for oil. There are a number of intriguing possibilities, such as Canada’s oil sands/oil shale (remember that whole Keystone pipeline debate?), Alaskan crude oil, Saudi Arabia – all of which is to say, America seems to rely on other sovereign nations and countries (minus Alaska) to produce an essential commodity for the common market’s superstructure. I don’t know much about oil politics, which is probably obvious… but Barber’s point is “Every nation. . . needs something another nation has. . .” Furthermore, if you look in the right places on the Web, there is a political firestorm raging on these very topics of resource wealth across a wide variety of social media.

These things are all promulgated on the Web, and across the world via a very active “interactive communications and information network.” The third imperative – the Information-Technology Imperative – sees Barber’s predictions reach their culminating point in fruition, I believe. Information Technology has allowed for the dissemination of a monoculture that knows virtually no bounds. McWorld travels as far as satellite and telecommunications lines can travel (which covers a lot of ground internationally). And this new open society, according to Barber, is far from democratic in the sense that it offers new meanings for liberty and freedom that aren’t ipso facto free. In other words, you’re free to participate in this technologic commons, but at what expense? The expense of your privacy? The expense of your cultural and historical identity? The compromise of your beliefs and values? Indeed, all of these and more.

The fourth imperative is the Ecological Imperative, which I am choosing to skip for the sake of time. That, and I don’t quite know how it fits in with this discussion in ways that I haven’t already mentioned.

However, if I am understanding this whole Jihad thing correctly – as a catch-all phrase for sectarian groups that are trying to reclaim subnational identities through political upheaval and violent activism – then it’s easy to understand how they are “at war with both globalism and traditional nation-states.” Indeed, the global monoculture values sameness; personal identity bound to material branding, global community, and national interdependence. Whereas Jihad values a completely different set of imperatives. Namely, difference; personal identity bound to sectarian principles of religious fundamentalism, regional autonomy, and a (albeit skewed) sense of national independence. Barber suggests that decentralized participatory democracy can accommodate both positions, advocating for a “strong democracy” that puts both groups in control; stripping away the idea of a body politic and enforcing local liberty. If I’m understanding this correctly, then is this a doable alternative? I think so, but then there are always violations in the global community that place the whole question of democracy back on the table. Does Bashar al-Assad ring a bell, anyone?

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One thought on “Trying to Make Sense of Jihad vs. McWorld

  1. This is an awesome and spot-on analysis of Jihad vs. McWorld in relation to writing for new media. If we could travel back in time to when this was written, it’s almost as if Barber was a kind of short-term Nostradamus.

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