Choosing an alternative




"You're either with us or against us." With these words, issued in the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities, President George W. Bush launched his "war on terrorism". The message was clear. In this open-ended "war", Bush instructed the world to take sides: either with Bush's "coalition of the willing" or with the terrorists. A third option, according to Bush, did not exist.


It seemed as if the worst nightmare in Benjamin Barber's 1996 book, "Jihad versus McWorld", had come true. Barber used the word "Jihad" to describe religious fundamentalism and nationalism of all kinds, leading to criticism that he had singled out Muslim fundamentalists. In later editions, Barber added an apology for doing this. However, after September 11, many people must have thought that such an apology was unnecessary. Jihad in the Islamic sense of the term was quite clearly a major component of what President Bush described as "against us".


In any case, what does it mean to be "for" President Bush and his "coalition of the willing"? Does this mean automatically accepting "McWorld" - a global culture in which multinationals call the shots, reducing part of the world's citizens to passive consumers while others slave away in sweatshops?


For Barber, writing five years before the "war on terrorism", the answer was a clear "no". Both Jihad and McWorld represent threats to democracy: Jihad with its God-given leaders demanding total loyalty from fanatical foot-soldiers, and McWorld where the market is everything and ideology is replaced by the "videology" of the mass media (or "infotainment telesector", as Barber calls it).


To counter both these threats to democracy, Barber insisted that we must re-build active citizenship and civic society. In short, there is a third way: neither Jihad nor McWorld, but democracy. After September 11 and the "War on Terrorism", Barber's call for democracy is more important than ever.


At the same time, it calls a lie to what British MP John Battle once described as "the worst statement that Mrs. Thatcher ever made": "There is no alternative." This statement has since been repeated so often all over the world by corporate spokespeople and politicians that it is has become abbreviated to "TINA".


Indeed, despite what President Bush or his sworn enemies might claim, alternatives are springing up faster than politicians and business leaders can deny their existence. And, thanks to the Internet, these alternatives are able to link up internationally just as Barber predicted, mobilising people on an unprecedented scale, as the protests against the war in Iraq show.


In such a situation, the crucial issue cease to be whether or not an alternative exists. There are so many alternatives that it can be difficult to choose between them. The purpose of this book is to help people do just that - to help readers find their way through the maze of organisations and projects offering a "third way" to President Bush's "with us or against us".


Some people might argue along the lines of, "Now is not the time to talk about alternatives. Let's support President Bush for the time being, since there will be plenty of opportunities to develop alternatives if he wins. After all, if he loses, and totalitarian fundamentalism wins, all alternatives will be banned".


If the "war on terrorism" was as clear-cut as President Bush would have us believe, this might be the case. But it isn't. For one thing, it is not like a conventional war that can be won or lost, so there can be no clear "victory" after which alternatives can be developed.


Neither, as Benjamin Barber showed, is "Jihad vs. McWorld" a clear-cut battle, since both sides use elements of each other's strategies. Osama Bin Laden, for example, uses money from his family's construction business with its high-rise, McWorld-style buildings to fight and promote his religious extremism. Yet there are also market fundamentalists who consider free-market and free-trade principles virtually on a par with Holy Scripture. And, as Naomi Klein showed in her bestseller "No Logo", the logos of brand-based businesses such as Nike have virtually become objects of worship for gangs of fanatic followers.


Digging a little deeper, we find more connections between Jihad and McWorld. We find President Bush's father, the first President Bush, working as a consultant for the Carlyle Group, a large chunk of which is (or was) owned by the Bin Laden family. With Osama as the "black sheep" of the family, the whole situation becomes reminiscent of mediaeval Europe's royal houses, with constant power play within and between the elite families in which ordinary citizens all too often end up the victims.


Like mediaeval monarchs, the new elite seems to think that they, or at least the politicians they fund, can make laws to suit their purposes. The "War on Terrorism" provides a convenient excuse to roll back hard-won constitutional rights by passing legislation such as the USA Patriot Act. How far this can go is seen in the arrogance with which President Bush (the son this time) started dishing out contracts to re-build Iraq even before the invasion started, with one of the first contracts going to a subsidiary of Vice-president Dick Cheney's old firm Halliburton.


If even this fails, some of the elite seem to think can bend or break laws as they see fit, rather like Britain's King Henry VIII with his six wives. The scandals of Enron, WorldCom and others showed that corporate crime was not just a case of a few "black sheep" or "rotten apples": it goes right to the heart of the financial and corporate establishment. And once more, the victims are by and large ordinary people losing their jobs and their pension funds.


Incidents such as these suggest that behind Jihad vs. McWorld and the open-ended "war on terrorism", there is another battle going on. This second, almost secret battle is between oligarchy and democratic civil society. And the true choice is not between allegiance to those in charge of the "coalition of the willing" and the leaders of what they label the "axis of evil"; it is a choice between playing follow-the-leader in a battle without end, orchoosing an alternative.


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