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Ben Barber’s Jihads

October 25th, 2004 · No Comments

In preparation for a talk I’m giving in December, I began reading Benjamin Barber’s
Jihad vs. McWorld
, the first lengthy work of Barbers I’ve picked up since slogging through a farrago called Strong Democracy four or five years ago. Barber’s got a certain stylistic flair; I can see why the book enjoyed such wide popular success. But I’d also forgotten how tendentious and rhetorically dishonest he is. Normally, I’d find that annoying, but it’s so clumsily done that it ends up being more funny than sinister. Two random examples, a couple pages apart, just from the introduction:

Western beneficiaries of McWorld celebrate market ideology with its commitment to the privatization of all things public and the commercialization of all things private, and consequently insist on total freedom from government interference in the global economic sector (laissez-faire). Yet total freedom from interference—the rule of private power over public goods—is another name for anarchy. And terror is merely one of the many contagious diseases that anarchy spawns.

You can all spot the two step. First, overextend the political definition of anarchy (the absence of government in a society as a whole) so that that governmental non-intereference in a particular arena counts as a kind of anarchy writ-small. (So if the government stays out of people’s bedrooms, we have sexual anarchy. If it doesn’t tell you how to dress, sartorial anarchy.) Then exploit the ambiguity between “anarchy” in the strictly political sense and the more common colloquial sense of “anarchy” as chaos, bedlam, a total lack of order, whether governmental or otherwise.

Here’s another fun one:

Moralists used to complain that international law was impotent in curbing the injustices of nation-states, but it has shown even less capacity to rein in markets that, after all, do not even have an address to which subpoenas can be sent.

This one’s just weird when you think about it. He could’ve made precisely the opposite point (that states are harder to police) by observing that, after all, “democracy” or “sovereignty” don’t have mailing addresses. The participants whose actions constitute those abstract processes, of course, do have addresses.

I plucked those out pretty arbitrarily from my marginal notes in the first few pages, but Barber absolutely packs his prose with weird stuff of that kind, much of which (to judge by Strong Democracy) is far worse than these mild fast-ones.

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