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Ballots Versus Bullets

by Benjamin Barber  (October 2001)

If the war on terror is to be won, the US, Britain and its allies will have to open a second civic and democratic front - one that targets the despair and hopelessness that terrorism so effectively exploits.

A week after the trauma of the first large-scale assault on the US - more successful than even its perpetrators could have hoped for and exacerbated now by attacks with biological weapons - President George W. Bush used the rhetoric of retribution to declare war on Jihadic terrorism. "We will bring the terrorists to justice," he told a joint session of Congress, "or we will bring justice to the terrorists."

The language of justice was appropriate for the US response, but it will remain so only if its meaning is extended from retributive to distributive justice.

The present crisis can be seen as the clash of two sets of forces. On one hand is the force I call "Jihad", which represents disintegrative tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism, On the other is McWorld, which represent integrative modernisation and aggressive economic and cultural globalisation. This collision between "Jihad" and McWorld has been brutally accelerated by the interdependence of these two seemingly opposing sets of forces.

In my book, "Jihad vs. McWorld", I warned that democracy, caught between a clash of movements that each for its own reasons seemed indifferent to the fate of freedom, might suffer grievously. It is now clear, as we mount a military offensive against "Jihad" (understood not as Islam but as militant fundamentalism) that democracy rather than terrorism may be the main victim.

Only the globalisation of civic and democratic institutions is likely to offer a way out of the global war between modernity and its critics. For democracy responds both to "Jihad" and to McWorld. It responds directly to the resentments and spiritual unease of those for whom the trivialising and homogenising of values is an affront to cultural diversity and spiritual and moral seriousness.

It also answers the complaints of those mired in poverty and despair as a result of unregulated global markets and of capitalism uprooted from the humanising constraints of the democratic nation state.

By extending democracy to the global market, it can promise participation and governance to those wishing to join the modern world and take advantage of its economic blessings and opportunities for accountability, participation and governance. At the same time, by securing cultural diversity and a place for worship and faith insulated from McWorld's cultural monism, democracy can address the anxieties of those who fear secularist materialism and are committed to preserving their cultural and religious distinctiveness.

If democracy is to be the instrument by which the world avoids the stark choice between a sterile cultural monism (McWorld) and a raging cultural fundamentalism ("Jihad"), neither of which services diversity of civic liberty, then the US, Britain and their allies will have to open a second civic and democratic front aimed, not against terrorism "per se", but against the anarchism and social chaos - the economic reductionism and its commercialising homogeneity - that have created the climate of despair and hopelessness that terrorism has so effectively exploited.

A second democratic front will be advanced not only in the name of retributive justice and secularist interests, but also in the name of distributive justice and religious pluralism.

The democratic front in the war on terrorism is not a battle to dissuade terrorists from their campaigns of annihilation. Their deeds are unspeakable, and their purposes can neither be rationalised nor negotiated. When they hijacked innocents and turned civilian aircraft into lethal weapons, these self-proclaimed "martyrs" of faith in truth subjected others to a compulsory martyrdom indistinguishable from mass murder.

The terrorists offer no terms and can be given none in exchange. They are looking not for bargains but for oblivion. Justice here can only take the form of extirpation - root, trunk and branch.

Yet the military campaign to eliminate terrorists will depend on professional military, intelligence and diplomatic resources whose deployment will leave most citizens in the US and elsewhere on the sidelines, anxiously watching a battle in which they cannot participate, and in which fear will dull the appetite for revenge.

The second front, however, engages every citizen with a stake in democracy and social justice whether within nation states or in the relations between them. It transforms anxious spectators into resolute participants - the perfect antidote to fear.

This second civic front in the war on terrorism is more likely to determine the outcome than the first. It will entail a readjudication of north-south responsibilities, a redefinition of the obligations of global capital as it faces the claims of global justice and comity, a repositioning of democratic institutions as they follow markets from the domestic to the international sector, a new recognition of the place and requirements of faith in an aggressively secular market society.

To be sure, democracy and the participation it affords will not appease the terrorists, who are scarcely students of globalisation's contractual insufficiencies. What can enemies of the modern do but seek to recover the dead past by annihilating the lying present?

Yet if terrorists cannot themselves be the object of democratic struggle, they swim in a sea of tacit popular support and resentful acquiescence; and these waters - roiling with anger and resentment - prove buoyant to an ideology of violence and mayhem.

Americans were at first enraged, then deeply puzzled, by scenes from Islamic cities where some ordinary people, who could hardly be counted as terrorists, showed a kind of perverse jubilation in the wanton slaughter of US innocents. How could anyone cheer such acts?

Yet an environment of despairing rage exists in too many places in the third world and as well as in too many third-world neighbourhoods of first-world cities, endowing terrorism with a kind of a quasi-legitimacy.

It is not terrorism itself but this facilitating environment against which the second-front battle is directed. Its constituents are not terrorists: they are themselves terrified by modernity and its costs; and so they are vulnerable to our meliorative actions. They seek justice not vengeance.

From Seattle and Prague to Stockholm and Genoa, street demonstrators have protested against the costs of globalisation. Yet though President Jacques Chirac of France acknowledged after the violence of Genoa that 100,000 protesters do not take to the streets unless something is amiss, they have mostly been written off as anarchists. More media attention has been paid to their theatrics than to the deep problems those actions are intended to highlight.

After September 11, some critics even tried to lump the anti-globalisation protesters in with the terrorists, casting them as irresponsible destabilisers of world order.

But the protesters are the children of McWorld and their objections are not "Jihadic" but democratic.

Their grievances concern not world order but world disorder, and, if they are a little foolish in their politics and a little short on solutions, they understand with a sophistication their leaders apparently lack that globalisation's existing architecture breeds anarchy, nihilism and violence.

They also know that most of those in the third world who seem to welcome US suffering are at worst reluctant adversaries, who aim to make clear that they also suffer from violence, even if it is less visible and destroys with greater stealth and over a longer time than the terrorists who slaughtered more than 5,000 in a morning. They do not want to belittle US suffering but to use its horror to draw attention to their own. How many of these "enemies of McWorld", given the chance, would prefer to enjoy modernity and its blessings if they were not so often the victims of modernity's unevenly distributed costs? It is hypocrisy rather than democracy that is the target of their rage.

Too often for those in the second and third worlds south of the US, Europe and Japan, globalisation looks like the imperious reach of predominantly US economic power; too often what we understand as opportunities for liberty and prosperity seem to them a rationalisation for exploitation and oppression; too often what we call the international order is for them an international disorder.

McWorld's neo-liberal antagonism to all political regulation in the global sector, to all institutions of legal and political oversight, to all attempts at democratising globalisation and institutionalising economic justice looks to them like brute indifference to their welfare and their claims for justice.

McWorld celebrates market ideology with its commitment to the privatisation of all things public and the commercialisation of all things private.

Consequently it insists on total freedom from government interference in the global economic sector (laissez-faire).

Yet freedom from interference - the rule of private power over public goods - is another name for anarchy. And terror is merely one of the contagious diseases that anarchy spawns.

What was evident to those who, before September 11, suffered the economic consequences of an undemocratic international anarchy beyond the reach of democratic sovereignty was that, while many in the first world benefited from free markets in capital, labour and goods, these same anarchic markets left ordinary people in the third world largely unprotected.

What has become apparent to the rest of us after September 11 is that that same deregulated disorder from which financial and trade institutions imagine they benefit is the very disorder on which terrorism depends.

Just as jobs defy borders in a wage race to the bottom; just as safety, health and environmental standards lack an international benchmark against which states and regions might organise their employment; so, too, anarchistic terrorists with loyalty to no state and accountable to no people range freely across the world.

Unlike the US, the terrorists are happy to acknowledge and exploit the actual interdependence that characterises human relations in the 21st century.

Theirs, however, is a malevolent interdependence in the face of anarchy, an interdependence in which they have learned to use McWorld's weight jujitsu-style against its massive power.

Ironically, even as the US fosters an anarchic absence of sovereignty at the global level, it has resisted the slightest prospect of surrendering its own national sovereignty; whether to Nato commanders, to supranational institutions such as the international criminal tribunal, or to international treaties such as those banning landmines or regulating fossil fuels.

Even as the US launches a military campaign against terrorism surrounded by a prudently constructed coalition, it makes clear it prefers "coalitions" to "alliances" because it wants to be able to target objectives, develop strategy and wage war free of the need to persuade allies of the wisdom of its intentions.

Yet terrorism has already made a mockery of sovereignty. What was the hijacking of airliners, the calamitous razing of the World Trade Center towers, the brash attack on the Pentagon, but an obliteration of US sovereignty?

Terrorism is the negative and depraved form of that interdependence which, in its positive and beneficial form, we too often refuse to acknowledge.

As if still in the 19th century. the US has persuaded itself its options are to preserve an ancient and blissfully secure independence, or to yield to a perverted and compulsory interdependence that puts foreigners and alien international bodies such as the United Nations or the World Court in charge of US destiny.

In truth, however, Americans have not enjoyed a real independence since before the great wars of the previous century - certainly not since the appearance of Aids and the West Nile virus, of global warming and an ever more porous ozone layer, of a job "mobility" that has decimated the US industrial economy and of restive speculators who have made "capital flight" a more 'sovereign" reality that any conceivable government oversight.

Interdependence is not some foreign adversary against which citizens need to muster resistance. It is a domestic reality that already has compromised the efficacy of citizenship in scores of unacknowledged and uncharted ways.

It was the interdependence of the US with the world and the interdependence of shared economic and technological systems everywhere on which the "Jihadic" warriors counted when they terrorised the US in September. They not only hijacked America's air-transportation system, they also provoked the nation into closing the system down for almost a week. They not only destroyed the cathedral of US capitalism at the World Trade Center, they also forced capitalism to shut down its markets and shocked the country into deep recession, of which the stock market fall was only a leading indicator.

How can any nation claim independence under these conditions? In Andrew Jackson's pre-modern, rural US, where communities existed in isolation, where there was no national system of transportation or communication, there was genuine independence, and systematic terror was simply not an option: there was no system.

There was no way to bring the US to its knees because, in a crucial sense, the US did not exist; at least not as a collectivity of interdependent regions with a single interest until after the civil war, and the industrial revolution that followed it.

Today there is so much systemic interactivity, so highly integrated a global network, so finely tuned an integral communications technology, that it has become as easy to paralyse it as to use it.

Hence, the decision would-be sovereign peoples face today is not the felicitous choice between secure independence and an unwanted interdependence. It is only the sobering choice between, on the one hand, a relatively legitimate and democratic and useful interdependence which, however, is still to be constructed and which leaves sovereignty in tatters; and, on the other hand, a radically illegitimate and undemocratic interdependence on the terms of criminals, anarchists and terrorists, an interdependece that is already here and that will triumph in the absence of a democratising political will.

In short we can allow either McWorld and "Jihad" - Hollywood cowboys and international desperadoes - to set the terms of interdependence; or we can leave those terms to transnational treaties, new global democratic bodies, and a new creative common will.

We can have our interactivity dictated to us by violence and anarchy or we can construct it on the model of our own democratic aspirations.

We can have a democratic and useful interdependence on whatever common ground we can persuade others to stand on, or we can stand on the brink of anarchy and try to prevent criminals and terrorists from pushing us into the abyss.

In the long term, war cannot defeat terror by war alone because violence cannot defeat fear: only democracy can do that.

- Financial Times  (20th October 2001)

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revised 18 November 2005