Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Benjamin Barber (Director, CivWorld at Demos; Founder, Interdependence Day)

13.09.2009 - Interview conducted by Diana Leca & Mailin Obermueller

Founder and Director of the annual Interdependence Day event, Dr. Benjamin R. Barber is an internationally renowned political scientist, whose ‘strong democracy’ theory stresses the importance of democratic citizenship and civic participation. Since completing his doctorate at Harvard University in 1966, Professor Barber has been awarded a further three honorary doctorates and research fellowships from Guggenheim, Fulbright and Social Science Research. Further honours include a knighthood from the French Government (2001) and the Berlin Prize of the American Academy of Berlin (2001).

Throughout his academic career Dr. Barber has published a total of seventeen books including his classic ‘Strong Democracy (1984) and the more recent ‘Jihad vs. McWorld’ (1995), in which he explored the inevitable clash between ‘tribalism’ and global capitalism, both of which he considers to be threats to democracy. A second edition of this international best-seller published post-9/11 has been translated into twenty languages.

Aside from his work as President and Director of the international NGO ‘CivWorld at Demos,’ Dr. Benjamin Barber writes frequently for scholarly publications and popular international publications including Harper’s Magazine, The New Your Times, The Washington post, Le Nouvel Observateur, Die Zeit, La Repubblica and El Pais.

Following the conclusion of the seventh annual Interdependence Day in Istanbul, Dr. Barber granted the following interview to CD-News.

Perhaps we could begin by discussing the development of Interdependence Day. How did the concept come about?

After September 11th 2001, it became apparent to a lot of Americans for the first time - it was already apparent to Europeans and to others - that we live in an interdependent world where no nation controls what happens inside its own borders. This wasn't an attack from the outside, but rather an attack from people who had been inside the country, using American planes and so on. It was therefore a lesson in brutal interdependence - “bad interdependence,” you might say - for a country that had lived with a mythology of independence and sovereignty. And it suddenly became apparent that we live in an interconnected world. And it’s not just terrorism: no nation controls climate change; technology has become global; labor moves across borders; and infections from HIV/AIDS to swine flu don’t respect national boundaries. We could have the best health care system on the planet in the United States, but infectious diseases can enter the U.S. from another part of the world. Having our own excellent health care system, then, doesn't really protect us in the face of spreading global diseases. So interdependence is a fact and a reality.

I also realized that a lot of people thought of globalization as a negative thing and that they were really uncertain of the concept of interdependence. So the first thing that we wanted to do, was to raise people’s consciousness of the fact that interdependence is the reality of the world we live in; that what we have today is a world of interdependent problems. And yet, all the solutions are still based on the model of nation-states - they are still inside the old, sovereign nineteenth century. A twenty-first century world of interdependent problems and a nineteenth century world of sovereign state solutions are asymmetrical; they simply don't match up. So we then began to think about how we could construct affirmative institutions that would effectively respond to the challenges of interdependence. So we asked ourselves, “What if we pick a day where we go to a global city and start talking about these issues?” Of course, Sept. 12th is the day after September 11th, the memorial day. We continued to ask ourselves: is the War on Terrorism the only real alternative to terrorism? Is the only alternative to meeting the problems of interdependence having sovereign states say “I'll do it alone”? Or are there perhaps other, more constructive forms of interdependence? Can we either democratize globalization or globalize democracy to make interdependence a constructive principle? So that's basically the background.

The first year we went to Philadelphia, the “Home of Independence,” to spread the gospel of interdependence. Then the second year we were in Rome, then Paris, Casablanca, Mexico City, Brussels, this year we’re in Istanbul, and next year we’ll be in Berlin. We’ve been choosing large global cities where we could get people to travel to, that are at the same time not only cities which represent America and Europe, but also the Middle East, Africa and so on. Eventually we would love to hold the event in Asia and Latin America, but for the moment it’s unfortunately much more difficult, both logistically and financially.

Our next question is actually one of your own: you asked delegates to rate how interdependent we are and the success of Interdependence Day, both at this point in time and five years from now. What would your answer be?

That was my Sean Hannity gag! [Laughs] Yes. On a scale of one to ten, we’re only at one. I would like it to be at seven in five years, but I suspect that we'll have done a very good job if it’s at five. It certainly won't be ten, or nine, or even eight. But if we can get halfway there in five years in terms of raising people’s consciousness and constructing new institutions, that'll be quite good. So I would count five as a fairly big success, even though ideally we need to be at eight or nine.

We now wanted to ask you about one of the particular forms of interdependence - that is, economic interdependence. You have spoken about how the economic crisis has shown that unrestrained free-market capitalism can be detrimental to true democracy. I was wondering if this rift between capitalism and democracy is irreversible in your opinion.

No, I don't think it is. Capitalism has always been an effective system when it is regulated by and subordinated to the principles of democracy. It gets in trouble when it’s unregulated. After the Civil War in the United States, people called it “wild capitalism.” New corporations involved in oil, coal, transportation, aluminum, steel, and so on, were growing. The private sector is supposed to be about competition, but in fact what immediately emerged were monopolies. So it took the oversight of the government - which began with Teddy Roosevelt, the New Deal, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and so on - to create a world in which capitalism is subordinated to the regulation and rules of democracy, which indeed works pretty well, in my opinion.

The problem is that in the last thirty to forty years we have deregulated the system and regressed to the state of wild capitalism. And its not just democracy that gets in trouble under wild capitalism, but capitalism itself gets into trouble under wild capitalism! And that's what we’ve been seeing with the recent financial crisis. It wasn't just democracy that was in danger, but capitalism itself was put into a really difficult and perilous situation. My point is that the problem isn't capitalism per se, but rather capitalism when it is unconnected to, unregulated by, and not subordinated to the ends and principles of democracy. And that's why the issue now is not to change capitalism, but to make it once again subordinate to democratic laws and regulations. Right now democracy is serving capitalism, whereas it should be capitalism that is serving democracy.

I just want to go back to a phrase you mentioned: the globalization of democracy. Could the idea of globalizing democracy not imply imposing a certain political ideology onto others who may not subscribe to this particular belief?

If you read my book “Fear's Empire,” I address that very directly. When I say democracy, I don't mean American democracy: bicameral legislature, a multi-party system, and an independent judiciary. There are many forms of and roads to democracy. In fact, I prefer the term “democracies” in the plural. The Chinese and Indian village communities have a democratic form. African tribes, which are fraternities where the tribal members are equal, also have a democratic element. There are many forms of social organization that are lateral, horizontal, and therefore democratic. I believe that each nation has its own road to democracy.

The second fact is that even if there were only one model, we know from history that you can never impose democracy by force; people have to want it. Even if we assume that Bush had a perfect sense of democracy and was in Iraq for only that reason - neither of which is true, but even if it were the case - the mission wouldn't succeed because you can't go into another country and create a democracy by force of arms. You can overthrow a tyranny by force, but overthrowing tyranny does not create democracy. It instead creates chaos and anarchy - and in the midst of the anarchy new forms of oligarchy and tyranny can emerge, which is now happening in Iraq.

So, no, I'm not talking about one Western form of democracy to be imposed on other people. I'm talking about the fundamental principle which is universal and everybody has a right to: the notion that every human being has the right to participate in deciding how the power they live under is used. That is the basic democratic principle. Sometimes democracy is carried out through tribalism, sometimes through cooperatives or councils, and at other times through representative government or direct participation. There are many different ways to engage in democratic practice. Each culture will have its own way and each has to find it and struggle for it. You can't give people freedom; they have to take it.

Going back to another book you wrote, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” how would you respond to those who wonder if framing the book under this opposition does not somehow imply another version of the “clash of civilizations”?

Well, moving beyond the title, the book is in fact an attack on the clash of civilizations thesis. What it says is that Jihad and McWorld are two sides of the same coin. Aggressive and commercial, Western consumer culture is being forced on the world, while at the same time a tribal, anti-modern reaction is also being forced upon people. The two sides, however, have actually created each other and rely on one another. And the book says that neither one is democratic. The clash of civilizations theory argues that there is the West, which is good and democratic and wonderful, and then there's the rest, most particularly Islam, which is seen as a negative force. It also states that we need the triumph of one over the other. I'm not arguing that we need the triumph of McWorld over Jihad. I'm arguing that they are equally dangerous and undemocratic. Together they tend to create a very destructive environment and what we need is an alternative - a third way. That alternative is democracy, and in a genuinely democratic and pluralistic culture neither McWorld nor Jihad would be there.

In your concluding comments of Interdependence Day, you stressed that you want to move forward. Since we've seen a dramatic increase in voter ratings among youth and minorities with Obama's election, do you see a potential for more sustained civic participation among a wider range of civic groups in the future?

I very much hope so. However, there is always a danger that an exciting leader will bring the youth out for a single election and then they disappear again. The real work of democracy is not elections. The real work of democracy is what happens between elections. And generally, one of the problems with young people is that they can be electrified and turned on by a leader and then they disappear from the civic arena. One of the very discouraging things right now is that while Obama is trying to fight his first big fight - to introduce health care - the religious right and the opposition, the Republicans, are turning out thousands of people at demonstrations. And I am asking myself, where are all the young people who voted for Obama now? They're not even on the radar, let alone making meaningful contributions. They voted for Obama and then they went away - and yet he needs them now. My hope is that young people learn that democracy is about what happens everyday, not just what happens in elections. It’s wonderful that they improved their voter turnout for this election, but if they disappear in between elections, what happens is that the elections themselves won't even matter.

Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Barber.