Jonah Bennett

Palladium Magazine editor/entrepreneur/graduate student

Jonah Bennett

Jonah Bennett Brown Political Review Interview


I recently did an interview with the Brown Political Review on governance. You can have a read of it here. Nick Whitaker asked some excellent questions, which is somewhat rare for interviews.

I have various comments on the interview itself; of course, I had to contain and condense myself a little. Interviews are necessarily shorter than you might like. My answer to Thiel’s essay The Straussian Moment is very incomplete. That’s partly because the essay is so dense. I highly recommend it. But you can already see moments of anticipation of this conflict with Benjamin Barber’s 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld. If you don’t want to read the full book, you can take a look at a much more condensed version in a 1992 essay in The Atlantic by Barber himself.

Barber’s prognosis, right from the opening line, is stark: neither Jihad, nor McWorld are democratic futures. The first is illiberalism at its most violent. Each culture understands that its own claims are exclusive claims about the nature of reality and values, and each culture also understands that its own framework is deeply and inherently incompatible with the framework of the culture next door. This leads to bloody conflict. The second future might be liberal democratic in name, but the tendency is towards uniformity and homogenization and the erasure of distinctness. Barber called this McWorld. You could also call it Airbnbification. Under McWorld, markets dominate, and markets are often orthogonal to genuine democratic values, carrying with it manipulation, control, surveillance, and so on.

The relationship between Barber’s piece and Thiel’s essay is that Barber in 1992 is looking at an uncertain future between Jihad and McWorld. As he writes: “Jihad may be a last deep sigh before the eternal yawn of McWorld.” But then came 9/11, as Thiel points out. But following Thiel’s essay came Donald Trump. And then Brexit. And then the reassertion of nationalist movements across Europe. But not just Europe. The rise of Putin in Russia. Erdogan in Turkey. Orban in Hungary. Netanyahu in Israel. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Modi in India. Duterte in the Philippines. The list goes on. “Jihad” is alive and well. But interestingly, there is a growing sense of cooperation among Jihads to unite against McWorld, since they understand by now that McWorld will utterly dominate any given Jihad on its own. One-on-one combat means game over. This cooperation obviously has limits and is mostly restricted to direct fights against McWorld overreach, but it does exist, and it’s partly based on whether these nationalist leaders like each other’s company on a more personal level and see each other as engaging in the same work, albeit in a different context.

Why is this happening? Ideology is inextricably tied to institutions and geopolitical power. Liberalism is Britain, but it’s also primarily the United States now. However, U.S. institutions have lost a shocking amount of credibility, and the U.S. has not been able to prevent the geopolitical rise of competitors because of its own short-termist, market-dominated thinking on industry and economic development. If other countries are able to build owned power through economic development, this allows for the genuine rise of distinct ideologies and ways of being that exist outside–and sometimes in direct opposition to–the U.S.-engineered McWorld order.

This is what we see happening, particularly in China. It’s almost too late to put the genie back in the bottle. We assumed with some amount of hubris that economic development in China would automatically usher in liberalism on some time frame. But it emphatically has not. It has allowed for the establishment of a new power center that has its own internal conception of political and moral legitimacy that is not grounded in liberalism. On the international arena, China still sometimes pays lip service to liberal democratic values, but it seems clear that it’s mostly a deeply cynical move to induce complacency and to act hypocritically, while it slowly continues to build power. But why shouldn’t China use liberal democratic values hypocritically? The U.S. is perhaps the best case of the old phrase “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.”

Brief thoughts I wanted to sketch out for now. Very incomplete, will do some more thinking on the topic.