Benjamin Barber (Director, CivWorld at Demos; Founder, Interdependence Day)

06.11.2009 Interview conducted by Holly Perman Turnbull


Dr. Benjamin Barber is one of the most prestigious political theorists in the United States, both civil society professor and professor at the University of Maryland. He is the author of over 17 books focusing on themes like democracy and modern societies. He is also the author of the best-selling book ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’, published before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He took part in a number of panel discussions and gave a stimulating lecture on “From a Divided City to a United World? The Development of International Relations Since 1989,” during which he spoke about US arrogance, the shortcomings of the free market economy and the possible ignorance of the US in its efforts to implement this paradigm elsewhere. He was kind enough to elaborate on his ideas about capitalism, education and the clash of ideologies with a member of ICD news.

 You talked about cruel interdependency and the crisis of capitalism in your talk this morning, I would like to know what role you see cultural diplomacy possibly playing in reversing this?

The problem right now is that cultural diplomacy is an instrument of nation states and for the most part, therefore, it advances the interest of sovereign states. Its potential useful role is that, because it is inter-cultural and reaches out across borders, it becomes a vehicle for inter state or international cooperation. Cultural diplomacy is an instrument of the state, so the real question is, will the state use it as collaboratively and in cooperative purposes, or as in the Bush administrative, for other purposes, for example to rationalise the American invasion of Iraq and American commercial colonialism around the world. Therefore you can’t exactly say that it’s very useful for interdependency, as it really depends on the objectives of the state that is utilising cultural diplomacy.

Are increased global interdependence, pooled sovereignty and deepening European integration, for example, a threat to cultural diversity?

No, the threat to cultural diversity is the pretence of independent nation states, and a global commercial world paradigm where in terms of consumerism we’re making one world, but actually staying apart. We’re staying apart in ways where we kill each other and coming together in the worst possible ways around taste and culture. So what is actually overcoming cultural diversity is McWorld- McDonalds here in Berlin, Starbucks etc., and not the increased cultural diplomacy of states.

In reference to the panel discussion on education, what can we do to make sure that education is lateral and that it involves discussion, rather than dictation?

One of the things that we have to do is look at the role of media in education, the role of the internet, television and films, because they are much more powerful for young people than schools. So even if we were to successfully reform schools, the way I would like, with more cooperative education, more student-to-student interaction, more listening, even if we did all that, it would mean very little if 90% of what young people learn comes from the internet, the iPhone, the web, the movie screen and the television screen. Therefore, I think we have to care about, and get interested in, what both new media and old media are teaching, because they are the real tutors of our modern world and they are the ones that are really shaping young people.

When you wrote ‘Jihad versus McWorld’ in 1996, did you imagine that the polarisation of ideologies you were describing would result in such a catastrophic event as 9/11?

I imagined that the clash of cultures which the aggressive materialism of the West was provoking would be very serious. That it would take the form of an actual attack on the World Trade Centres, of course I didn’t know. But what I was looking at was an underlying phenomenon of cultural clash that, in fact, was capable of producing all kinds of terrible things, including terrorism. So, while I didn’t anticipate it, it was not a complete surprise. It was also not a surprise that after 9/11, the book was read all over the world, because only then people realised that there were these underlying issues. I thought, well yes, if you had read that book 5 or 6 years ago, maybe you could have done things to prevent 9/11 from happening!

What can we do then to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

Well cultural understanding is very important. Here is a role for cultural diplomacy. We must understand other cultures, understand and respect Islam and create a world for which there is room for it.

Thank you very much, I appreciate the time you took to speak to me.