On the threshold of the publication of a 20th anniversary edition of Jihad vs. McWorld that will be subtitled “Isis on the Internet,” it is worth recalling the circumstances that led to my writing what now seems to have been a prescient study of global trends—a book that has been translated into 31 languages since its publication in 1995.
In the early 1990s, there were two competing views of the world: the first focused on integrative economic trends, and argued that the world was coming together, converging around the triumph of capitalism over communism; around “fast music, fast computers and fast food, pressing nations into one homogenous global theme park, one McWorld tied together by communications, information, entertainment and commerce.” The second view, citing fractious political trends, argued the world was falling apart, being pulled to pieces by new forms of nationalism, cultural and religious ideology and tribalism in a “balkanization of nations-states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe, a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence...against modernity itself.” Most scholars and pundits were choosing one side or the other, Tom Friedman, for example, opting for the convergence thesis, Robert Kaplan insisting on the argument for disintegration.
As a student of Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, however, and thus an advocate of dialectics, I was persuaded that both arguments had grasped at least part of the truth; that both were in some sense true. Which entailed that the two arguments had to have had something quite essential in common. The world was both coming together and falling apart for some of the same reasons. For one, the world was falling apart because nations and cultures were resisting those forms of capitalism and modernity that were bringing it together. As I wrote then, “caught between Babel and Disneyland, the planet is falling precipitously apart and coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.” It was the aim of Jihad vs. McWorld to explain not only how both convergence and disintegration could be possible at the same moment, but how the two opposing trends were part of a single process that had in common a taste for anarchy and a disdain for democracy.
It was in the tradition of dialectical thinking, then, that I went looking for commonalities. The dualisms of analytic philosophy that had given rise to a stark choice between global integration or global disintegration as the fate of the world, had to be supplanted by interdependent thinking that could hold both alternatives in tension, according each its own truth and showing how they might be related.
The power of dialectic is to demonstrate how opposites need and even entail one another. They must be understood in terms of how what they exclude and deny helps produce what they share. Marx, we know, had used Hegel’s dialectic to understand how the contradictions of capitalism and class had produced both wealth and war, monopoly and liberation. My task was to understand how the contradictions of McWorld and Jihad produced both modernity and its rejection; how, that is to say, modernity inspired those who feared the costs it exacted from religion and cultural identity to reject it. And how that rejection relied on the technology and media that define modernity to try to bring down its civilisation.
The dialectic I first explored 20 years ago began as speculative theory; in 2001, with the 9/11 cataclysm it began prophecy; today, in the age of ISIS on the Internet, it is simply reality. For unlike Al Qaeda, Jihad’s early manifestation, the new ISIS with its quest for a territorial Caliphate married to its campaign to engender a virtual Caliphate on the web, rejects capitalism and materialism and the commodities they produce even as it puts those commodities to work to inspire terrorism across the world. Science is the work of infidels, secular reason is a form of blasphemy, yet science’s finest product (technology) is the best instrument the true believers have to wage war on the West, while reason’s manifestation in new media is their strongest weapon.
What makes ISIS both viral and toxic, as well as effective and universal, is precisely its capacity to use the very technology whose science it condemns and whose materialist views it rejects to advance its goal of overthrowing modernity.
What makes ISIS both viral and toxic, as well as effective and universal, is precisely its capacity to use the very technology whose science it condemns and whose materialist views it rejects to advance its goal of overthrowing modernity. On the other side of the dialectic that empowers Jihad, stands McWorld: the behemoth corporations of commercial, global capitalism. To McWorld, Jihad defines what it stands for (or claims to stand for)—prosperity, equality, democracy, pluralism. Yet in confronting Jihad, McWorld has displayed a willingness to abandon the civil liberties and open society in whose name it wages the struggle. Politicians like candidate Donald Trump in the United States and even President Francois Hollande in France threaten to close borders, deport refugees and deprive high risk citizens of their rights (or even their citizenship). Does the willingness to give up such crucial liberal norms indicate not just a need to find solutions to terrorism, but also a lack of deep commitment to those norms? As global markets and anarchic capitalism precipitate inequalities within and between nations as egregious as those generated within anti-modern religious ideologies, the question of McWorld’s own ideology and its own relationship to democracy come to the fore.
Moreover, the dialectic of McWorld and Jihadis is evident in how modern media does the work of terrorism by spreading its message so quickly and universally in the name of their own profits. Without the media, without reporting, without our ability to look 24/7 at ISIS antics, how effective would terrorism be? Measured quantitatively by the damage it does, the numbers are astonishingly low. In the last ten years, for example, about 230 Americans have died worldwide from terrorism. At home in the United States, nearly 230,000 have died from gun violence. Yet, terrorism inspires fear, while gun violence is met with yawning indifference. Similarly, with Saudi Arabia beheading hundreds every year within its “legal system”—most recently 43, including a dissident Shia Sheikh, at the beginning of the New Year—its European and American allies look the other way. Until ISIS beheads one or two journalists or aid workers (heinous crimes to be sure), and the media instigate a global hue and cry.
Terrorists are defined by their conventional weakness—no army or economy or infrastructure that can be realistically defended. Their sole strength lies in their capacity to inspire fear among their enemies, who then do their dirty work for them. They are lightweights, who use Ji-Jitsu to put the power and weight of their enemies to their own purposes. ISIS (and Al Qaeda before it) are only as strong as the fearful reaction of those they try to terrorise allow them to be.
The Caliphate cannot and will not succeed, because it tries to go head to head with its adversaries, to fight a conventional war, to establish a capital at Raqqa and control oil production. But if you take territory, it can be retaken, as happened with Mosul and Kobani. If you have a capital city, you have an address, to which drones can be dispatched to kill off the leadership. Oilfields can be bombed; and when you field soldiers, then American tanks and British aeroplanes and Russian forces can overcome them.
So the strength of ISIS is its commitment to asymmetrical warfare: warfare that depends not on firepower or weapons where the West always wins; not on economic resources, where the terrorists will always lose; but on creating fear and chaos in its enemies and getting them to destroy themselves by undermining the foundation of values on which their civilisation rests. And here, the incapacity of developed nations to address the dark side of capitalism, of commercialism and of global markets, and their unwillingness to deal with the devastating global inequality creates conditions ripe for terrorists to exploit.
The dialectic of Jihad and McWorld suggests that the secret to defeating Jihad lies in McWorld itself. Whether we allow it to be defined by aggressive commercial markets, predatory materialism and political cynicism, or by the liberal democratic values it professes to represent. If we permit the narcissistic and greedy values of a grasping, commercial culture to trump the civilisation modernity has produced, we cannot win even if Jihad loses. Capitalism has always been most successful when bound to and tempered by democracy, when democracy regulates capitalism and not the other way around. If modernity is merely a project of prosperity and material wealth, it will lose the battle with the Jihadists. If it is a project of democracy and justice and refuses to compromise them in struggling against Jihad, it will prevail.
Professor Benjamin Barber is Senior Researcher at The Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He was recently in Delhi to deliver the D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture organised by the Institute of Social Sciences