The day after the British voted to leave the European Union, the New York Times led with a story on how “Populist Anger Upends Politics on Both Sides of the Atlantic." Like other establishment media, the Times has been alarmed by both the Donald Trump campaign and the “Brexit” vote and has struggled to understand the spreading “populist backlash.”
Political scientist Benjamin Barber’s mid-90s book, "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World," provides a useful framework for understanding what is going on. In Barber’s account, “McWorld” represents the globalizing culture of capitalism. “Jihad” refers to reactions to the spread of this culture, not only Islamist extremism but all forms of ethnic nationalism or racist xenophobia.
Barber maintained that the two forces feed off each other, and the corporate media play a crucial role in this process. As he put it, “Jihad not only revolts against but abets McWorld, while McWorld not only imperils but re-creates and reinforces Jihad.” Whereas Jihad is fed by emotion, often reflecting yearning for a mythical past, McWorld offers the "rationality" of the market and illusions of a universal, just future. From the perspective of the market, Jihad is irrational and dangerous. From the perspective of Jihad, McWorld threatens one’s sense of place, one’s religious beliefs and traditions, even one’s identity.
Crucially, Barber argues, Jihad and McWorld interact to undermine civil society and the democratic institutions of the nation-state. That is the issue we face today: can we escape the no-win choice of Jihad & McWorld and reclaim democracy?
In this framework, Donald Trump and “Brexit” represent Jihad, and Hillary Clinton and the EU and British establishment represent McWorld. Trump has tapped into angry frustrations among sectors of the population who have long felt the world is leaving them behind. He has used vitriolic attacks against the alleged threat of immigrants and Muslims as key elements in his campaign pitch, but what is crucial is the way he has presented himself — as a bombastic, tell-it-like-it-is guy willing to throw away the conventions of civil politics. His angry outbursts express and legitimize what his constituents feel — anger that they’re losing out. For decades, people drawn to Trump have been told that they are victims of the liberal establishment and its “Big Government.”
Ironically, however, Trump succeeds because of a foundational McWorld institution: the entertainment medium of television news, which spreads the culture of drama, personalities and conflict that grab our attention and play on our feelings. This is a world of images and sound bites, not sober political realities. Trump’s recent attacks on NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) resonate well with people whose economic security has been shattered by these so-called "free trade" agreements.
In the context of Great Britain, similar dynamics are at work. The “Leave” campaign emphasized the loss of Britain’s control within the European Union, highlighting the fear of growing hordes of immigrants from the Middle East and elsewhere. Clearly voters were angrily disenchanted with the self-serving rhetoric of political elites in Britain and Europe, and clearly they feel they’ve had enough.
The alternative we are presented in both cases is a defense of the institutions of McWorld — ultimately the investment markets and the globalization of capital. Not surprisingly, McWorld also sells itself to voters via fear — most fundamentally the fear of economic and political instability.
In the case of Hillary Clinton, her campaign rhetoric promised “progressive” solutions because, as she put it, “I believe in progress” — thereby emptying the term of its historical and political meaning. To demonstrate her progressive credentials, she spoke out against the TPP. However, the central drive for many pro-Hillary voters is fear of — you guessed it — the “Jihadist” Trump.
Not surprisingly, the Clinton campaign has already undercut most of the progressive challenges coming from the Bernie Sanders’ camp, to say nothing of reversing some of Clinton’s own campaign rhetoric. In a June 27 piece in Politico, platform-drafting committee delegate Bill McKibben described how the Clinton delegates voted en masse to defeat amendments that challenged the TPP, called for a ban on Fracking, opposed Israel’s occupation of Palestine, supported Medicare for all and were instrumental in the defeat of five amendments to combat climate change. Conclusion: if you fear her opponent enough, empty rhetoric that disguises business-as-usual becomes acceptable.
Ditto with Brexit. The panic in the world’s markets and dire warnings of spreading economic recession in the pages of the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian, and other establishment media play on our fears, while exaggerating the benefits of McWorld. Again, the day after Brexit, the Times warned that Brexit would weaken the institutions and alliances that have “helped guarantee international peace and stability for 70 years” (conveniently ignoring the fact that the United States has been at war for 40 of those 70 years). Meanwhile, secret negotiations continue on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
The two fatal flaws of Jihad vs. McWorld are: 1) neither provides a path to a livable world for all humans, and 2) their dynamic interaction spreads the belief that there is no alternative.
Yet, as the left economist Robin Hahnel once put it in reference to a vast range of problems we face, “Only progressives, nobody else, has solutions.” In Britain and elsewhere around the globe, many voices on the left have articulated a vision of democratic globalization, responsive to the needs and aspirations of all people. In the United States, candidate Sanders articulated a vision that could lead us toward that alternative and far more democratic world — if we joined the “political revolution.”
That revolution won’t occur until the people come together. Despite Bernie Sanders’ best efforts, we are still deeply fragmented responding in our separate enclaves to leaders who express our anger or seem to respect how we identify ourselves. Embracing Trump’s rhetoric about keeping out immigrants or banning Muslims won’t improve the lives of his supporters one iota. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s gender and her rhetoric obscure ways in which neoliberal policies and American wars — both of which she has advocated — have a disproportionately damaging impact on women and children, while Bill Clinton’s rhetoric and campaigns on behalf of African Americans has obscured ways in which his policies contributed to the massive incarceration of African Americans.
As recent events remind us, getting to unity, or at least solidarity, requires that we converse with each other to reduce the fear-spawning propaganda that comes through our corporate media so we can begin to find common ground as fellow human beings. Perhaps only then will we begin to see our mutual interest in a sustainable world, a just and democratic economy and an end to militarism and imperialism.