The near-death of democracy.

Author:Barber, Benjamin R.
Position:RETROSPECTIVE
 
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Back in 1992, I argued that two seemingly antithetical developments--the globalization and centralization of the market economy under the aegis of the American consumer monolith ("McWorld"), and the fracturing and re-tribalizing of nation states in favor of anti-modern religious and cultural insurgents ("Jihad")--were actually closely connected to one another. Centripetal forces driven by the consumer economy and centrifugal forces driven by antipathy to the consumer economy manifested the same destructive logic.

In my book, Jihad vs. McWorld, published three years later, I elaborated on the linkage between the forces of centrifugal, anti-modern jihad and centripetal globalizing McWorld, noting how much they needed one another, but also arguing that what they shared, above all, was an indifference to--if not disdain for--democracy. Whether jihad or McWorld won the dialectical struggle they were engaged in, democracy was likely to lose.

In 1998, in a World Policy Journal commentary called "Democracy at Risk: American Culture in a Global Culture," I elaborated on the argument by looking quite specifically at the issues of consumerism, marketization, and globalization as they impacted on democracy. I was particularly interested in how the cultural force of McWorld shaped global consumer economics and the dynamics of post-industrial capitalism.

Although throughout, I've been emphatic in my conviction that the ineluctable forces of modernity, and hence, of globalization, would win the long-term struggle with reactionary jihad, I've also predicted that, in the short run, jihad would have its day at democracy's expense. When on September 11, 2001, jihadist warriors took down the cathedral of capitalism in New York, the World Trade Center, what until then I had conceived as a metaphorical confrontation between jihad and McWorld took on a brutal and compelling reality.

Seven years later, McWorld is again in crisis. This time it's not because of the jihad struggling against it, although the war against terrorism is not going smoothly, perhaps because it is being fought more vigorously in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Instead, the neo-liberal ideology of privatization, marketization, and deregulation that has accompanied and catalyzed McWorld has turned viciously on the capitalist system on which it is based. On the way to bankrupting the American economy, this style of capitalism has itself plunged into bankruptcy--moral but also material.

Jihad has certainly continued to nettle and frighten the denizens of McWorld, pushing them into anti-democratic and illiberal policies on surveillance, torture, and immigration, and generally shrinking their tolerance for civil liberties. But the global consumer economy of McWorld also faces deep internal contradictions and even more than its war against jihad, these have put democracy at risk. The paradox remains what it was in 1998, when I wrote in my World Policy Journal essay:

the paradox of McWorld [is that] ... it cannot survive the conditions it inevitably tends to create unless it is checked and regulated by civic and democratic forces it inevitably tends to destroy. It destroys the financial base of the consumers it needs on the way to selling them products ... it overproduces goods and under produces employment, unable to see the connection between them.... While democracy cultivates free markets, markets often fail to cultivate democracy. The global credit and financial crisis of 2008, rooted in the housing and sub-prime mortgage crises and in the forced consumerism of a capitalism that has lost the capacity to produce real goods to meet real needs, may turn out to be even more devastating to McWorld than the jihadist assault of 9/11.

The three challenges faced today by those who hope to maintain a supportive relationship between McWorld and democracy are then the following:

De-democratization: The market ideology underlying McWorld's global success calls for gutting regulation, transparency, and governmental oversight; it has ended up undergirding an ideology of privatization that is tantamount to a veritable philosophy of...

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