Be Rational, Think Utopian!
"The only choice left to us is the choice between that perverse dependence in which terrorists define our life and a healthy dependence in which we become partners and create a democratic world that controls terrorists." Benjamin Barber, author of Djihad and McWorld, is a professor of political science at Rutgers. This interview is translated from the German in: DIE ZEIT, www.zeit.de.
Be Rational, Think Utopian!
A Conversation with Benjamin Barber on Islamic terror, wild capitalism and the chances of a just world order
[This interview originally published in: DIE ZEIT 46, 2001 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.zeit.de.]
die zeit: Mr. Barber, has September 11 confirmed your theses on an inner connection between capitalism and fundamentalism, between Coca Cola and holy war?
Benjamin Barber: Unfortunately the attacks of the terrorists confirms my theory that the models of Dschihad and McWorld, fundamentalism and leveling capitalism, are interlocked. The one implies and needs the other. The manner and way that the terrorists made use of modern communication- and transportation technologies, how they turned the strength of their enemy against him and even instrumentalized the openness of democratic societies for their own goals are very much in harmony.
Both principles are bound together dialectically. Until we democratize the world, this competition destructive for democracy and security will continue.
Zeit: Many claimed that the terror attacks would completely change the world and become the bloody founding act of a new world order like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Do you agree?
Barber: Up to now the US did not share the fears and insecurities of the rest of the world. We appeared separate and invulnerable. For Americans, terrorism and war occurred "somewhere outside". Then there was a foretaste: the assasination of Oklahoma City. Quickly it turned out that this was a lone operator who could be regarded as mad - like one of those running amok, an exception to the rule, not really a proof of America's vulnerability.
On September 11, the world came to America - in its most dreadful form. We Americans could no longer think we could be protected from the rest of the world with all its injustice, whether by two oceans, by the self-confidence of being an innocent land chosen by God or by a missile defense shield. None of these isolationist mythologies survived September 11. Thus the first and most important effect concerns America's whole attitude, not merely the thought-structures of the government elite but the "little man in the street" in Midwest America and his understanding of "our role in the world".
Zeit: What must be done in the long term? What world political changes will occur after the attack? Do you see certain tendencies?
Barber: In the United States, people on the first days after the attack spoke only about the military, secret services, bombs and "fast strikes". However when it was clear that there were no clear goals or destinations for the troops and that there was a great need for political partners, a re-politization of the conflict occurred. We suddenly saw that diplomacy was central.
Then the moment for military actions came. Unlike the Gulf war in 1991, it is now clear to everyone that the United States in good and in bad is a part of the world and must find ways of international cooperation. This will be increasingly true. The chances for mutual cooperation have grown considerably. The whole democratic world has understood with one blow: We have no complete control anymore. The only choice left to us is the choice between that perverse dependence in which the terrorists almost completely define our life and a healthy dependence in which we become partners and create a democratic world that controls terrorists.
Zeit: The term "civilization" is thrown around by all sides. Does this term describe the actual situation? You yourself speak of an "attack on democracy" and thus decisively reject Huntington's thesis of the clash of cultures.
Barber: Samuel Huntington's well-known thesis is simply not true. We do not face a battle between fundamentalist minorities and a democratic majority, between an open society and small closed communities. The Taliban also exists among us like some rednecks in the swamps of Florida or the rightwing extremists in Europe.
This is the reason why I criticize US communitarism. Communitarism celebrates the closed culture of communities. The more closed a community, the better it functions as a community. The Ku-Klux-Klan is perfect as a community: common history, shared tradition, everything that communitarians want. Still this is not an alternative for modern society. I belong more to the tradition of classical republicanism extending from Cicero to Jefferson. Public spirit is important and is established by the rule of law and active engagement of citizens, not by tradition and historical "roots". If we describe this modern democratic society as "civilization", that is fine. Nevertheless there is only one unique, potentially universal civilization, not several civilizations. Therefore I criticize the idea of a "clash of cultures".
Zeit: The basic presuppositions of the modern world, the basis of civilization, cannot be discussed...
Barber. I make a distinction. The relatively small group of active terrorists, a couple hundred people, are marked by a destructive ideology of religious martyrdom and destructive will, an attitude not open to negotiation. They reject the modern age and its democracy altogether and want to abolish them. Even if we would improve the living conditions in cities of the Third World, if we could create more tolerance toward Islam there, even if some countrie3s can be democratized - all this would not change anything in my opinion. Fundamentalists cannot be dissuaded from their way since they aren't seriously interested in development, tolerance and democratization.
The questions for me are not these terrorists - apart from the fact that we must simply eliminate them somehow - but the far larger group of persons who become their sympathizers because they live in poverty, injustice and hopelessness and because they connect these miserable living conditions with the system of economic globalization, neoliberalism and the US which are joined with this system. We must confront this challenge.
Zeit: The economist John Gray from the London School of Economics argues that the "era of globalization" is over. Do you agree?
Barber: No, that is simply wrong. I think the attacks were really a manifesto to the world of globalization since this is a world of anarchy, a world without rules, without law and without social agreements, a world in which corporations, financial institutions and the whole "private sector" can act completely unregulated and a world in which terrorists, criminals and drug dealers work relatively free. This would be impossible in constitutional conditions but it mirrors the anarchy of the global order that is really a disorder.
Zeit: Some make globalization opponents responsible. Criticizing Wall-Street capitalism and everything symbolized by the World Trade Center seems more difficult since the assasinations. How must globalization opponents now reassess their position?
Barber: Yes, I know this rhetoric. The globalization opponents must realize: turning back or stopping globalization cannot be their goal. Globalization of markets and of crimes is an empirical reality. One can argue about the legitimacy of globalization. However the solution is not a rollback but the creation of legitimate conditions.
There is a beautiful sentence at the beginning of Rousseau's Social Contract that hits the nail on the head: "Man was born free but is everywhere in chains." How did this happen? I don't know. That this can be legitimated is remarkable. Rousseau did not say everything must be changed... The mutual dependence of people is now a fact. Democratic policy seeks to justly form these dependencies, not abolish them.
The same could also be said about globalization. Globalization is a fact as the fragility of national borders is a fact. The only choice is between conditions that we did not choose, the choice between wild capitalism and wild crimes on one side and chosen dependence - the rule of law and orderly globalization - on the other. Political and democratic institutions must be globalized to restrain the global markets.
Zeit: Your counter-strategy recalls Rousseau. You urge a "new social contract". Is that a utopian design? How realistic is that?
Barber: Usually realists who want to denounce something that they do not life use the term "utopian". Interestingly enough, the call for international controls and international cooperation traditionally appeared idealistic, utopian and a little foolish. Suddenly after the terror attacks, international controls and international cooperation were no longer utopian but indispensable necessities. The nation state as the guarantor of security is the true utopia today. That seems to have become clear through the terror.
We now have the proof in hand that the nation state cannot protect us from everything. Not even the strongest nation state of the world can save us from this terrorism. A world government in the future may be improbable. However it is no longer the romantic dream of an idealist but an absolute necessity, commanded by the exigencies of personal, individual security.
Zeit: Do we actually live again in a situation as Thomas Hobbes described in which fear and self-interest set the tone and are the presuppositions of our political actions?
Barber: Yes, absolutely. Hobbes lived in an epoch of great political insecurity and constant fear of violent death in the English civil wars, wars that were also religious wars. Our time is not very different.
Hobbes described this epoch as a "war of everyone against everyone", a "natural state" without government, without law, without property, without security - everyone against everyone else, absolute anarchy. Hobbes argued that this anarchy could only be overcome by making religion into a private matter completely separated from politics and by a contract between individuals, a social contract.
Conditions in international politics today resemble this anarchy. We have baptized "international free trade" in its mild form. Actually the war of every firm against every other occurs. In its most aggressive form, we speak of terrorism: of a war of tribes against tribes, even of religious wars, of the collision of civilizations and terrorists who can operate freely and speculate on the stock exchange.
Hobbes presents us with a kind of paradigm for the necessity of a new social contract. The first social contract of the modern age was that of the American revolution: the Declaration of Independence. An international social contract is necessary today that begins with a declaration of interdependence, a declaration of the mutual dependence of nations and peoples, not with a declaration of independence. Everyone must show their will to establish a just order in which people on the whole earth can share. Everyone must give an account of the use of power. Everyone should partake equally in the treasures and prosperity of the world. This is not the demand of a utopian but a demand arising from a very concrete security need: the desire to survive in this world.
Hobbes focuses our attention on the importance of power. Power consists in rifles and money, the military and capitalism. The terrorists bombed the centers of power and money, not Carnegie Hall or Hollywood.
Hobbes also shows that a hegemonist is better than no one or anarchy. He also gives us criteria for recognizing different forms of hegemony today in that the US is a better world policeman than Putin or China. Remember Hobbes was the first to grant a fundamental right of resistance against unjust rule and dictatorship. In everyday life, Hobbes should be complemented a little with John Locke, with more tolerance and liberality.
Zeit: But such a social contract also needs the readiness of citizens...
Barber: Yes, this was already a problem for Hobbes. Public spirit and a feeling of identity or sense of belonging were lacking, the meat on the bones of the social contract. In America, integrating several fundamental civil values in the social contract was part of the solution: tolerance, pluralism and fairness - this whole set of rules and laws that altogether represent a kind of love for community.
If we want to create a global social contract or even only a regional contract as in Europe, we need an equivalent to this civil religion that goes beyond mere rules and commits the people to the new unity, a public spirit that is more than merely a survival interest. Europe must think of the European, not only of the Euro. What does it mean to be European? What constitutes European citizenship? Is this completely arbitrary? Is it purely geographic? Hardly. The commonly shared values are decisive.
Zeit: Do you reject concepts of cultural identity that are fashionable today?
Barber: Yes, at least when a kind of organic, quasi-natural idea of culture is meant. The public spirit is different from national, ethnic identity. In the first case, what one does is important, not who one is and where one comes from. People vote together and go to school. People struggle together if necessary and solve public challenges - a communal spirit, not "morality" or even belief in a common God.
Consider the New York of our days. The dramatic rescue operations created a new close bond between blacks, whites, Latinos, Christians, Muslims and atheists of the city. Suddenly who they are is all the same. What they do is crucial. The social distinctions are annulled in a new civil equality. That is a perfect example for the power of public spirit.
Zeit: How strange this sounds! Do we need crises, catastrophes and wars to create this public spirit?
Barber: Unfortunately they help considerably.
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