Jihad, McWorld, and Bureaucratic Officialdom

In the March 1992 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist, published his work “Jihad vs. Mcworld.”  He claims, with great brevity, that in today’s world, the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld are the two primary forces vying for the hearts and minds of men.

In his opening paragraph he remarks: “Just beyond the horizon of current events lies two possible political futures – both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe – a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food – with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.”

Thus, Barber sees McWorld and Jihad pitted against each other as they exert their influence across the four corners of the world. McWorld, a gruesome patchwork of multinational corporations trumpeting blind, voracious consumerism, has birthed a resurgence of corporate symbolism and the decline in influence of traditional culture in our daily lives.

In contrast, Jihad is traditional culture turned avenging-angel-incognito, causing sporadic acts of violence as symbolic acts of resistance against McWorld’s strengthening clutches upon our daily lives. Barber does not, however, see Jihad as justified, but rather that it is little more than a movement by small groups of people of myriad variety trying to gather whatever vestiges of identity they can morsel.

Barber puts it most succinctly when he observes: “neither McWorld nor Jihad is remotely democratic in impulse. Neither needs democracy; neither promotes democracy.”

It would be stating the obvious to say that Japan, as a nation, has largely sold itself to the seductive luminosity of what Barber calls “McWorld.” One stroll to Shibuya’s notorious pedestrian intersection will dizzy the unsuspecting tourist with relentless bombardments of corporate symbolism.

Though Japan is recognized as a democratic country, in essence, vested interests, largely protected by bureaucratic red tape, holds the Japanese citizenry from garnering true political representation. Ever since the end of World War II, true political power has been firmly in the hands of bureaucrats, and despite a strong albeit short-lived campaign to wrest control from them by former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, bureaucrats are still calling the shots today.

If Japan’s bureaucrats were a well-intentioned bunch with noble ideals and true civil servants in the name of the word, then perhaps a spoonful of bureaucratic paternalism might be digestible to the general public. But such has too often not been the case. This is perhaps most perceptible in the number of excessive and unnecessary public works projects that have been proposed and carried out by bureaucrats and their construction companies (through which they make hefty sums of money) over the years.

Of course, there have always been public protest, no matter how feeble and ignored by the media the protests may have been. The efforts though, were mostly in vain, as Alex Kerr, a critic of contemporary Japan, notes in his book “Dogs and Demons” that “so weak is Japan’s democracy in the face of [bureaucratic] officialdom that in twenty-five out of thirty-three such cases, between 1995 and 1998, legislatures have refused to conduct referendums.”

In his book, Alex Kerr laments the damage that has been wrought to Japan’s environment. Kerr illustrates the ghastly reality of contemporary Japan in excrutiatingly vivid detail: “Japan has become arguably the world’s ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto’s temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assertion. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by the industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste.”

Much of this damage is irreversible, or reversible albeit with a very high cost. The public has been so detatched from policymaking through bureaucratic officialdom and so blinded from relevant matters due to total immersion into the labyrinth of McWorld’s objectified symbols that flowering of true democracy in Japan seems to be the wishful thinking of a fool.

The kind of democracy that Japan should strive to achieve, if it still has the capability to strive for democracy, is the kind of “Open Society” advanced by the late Karl Popper in his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies.” Popper, disillusioned with top-down government after his fellow socialist friends were shot dead in the name of greater societal good, became a strong advocate of liberal democracy. According to Popper, it is the unpredictability nature of the future of society through any viable scientific means that necesitates a bottom-up approach to governmental decision-making, and thus there lies the latent need for true democratic participation by all respective citizens.

Whether or not Japan’s citizens will garner true political representation lies in the citizens’ ability to rally under the battlecry for true representation – which is possible only when they realize that they must represent themselves.


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