Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Challenges to the Common Good in the Age of Globalism


Benjamin R. Barber

The Common Good? The challenge at this critical moment as we cross the threshold to the next millennium is not defining it, but securing and preserving it in the face of globalization and the forces it has set loose. For we are in danger of losing the commons, our public and civic soul that defines us as a nation and as a people.

The idea of the common good is as old as our notion of politics. It refers to those goods held by a people in common, such collective goods as public education, culture, penology, and law. It is closely linked to the idea of a republic—which quite literally refers to those public things (the res publica) around which a constitution is created. To hold things in common is the preface to governing in common, which is why republicanism is generally the condition for democracy. It is, in fact, the set of terms around democracy, including citizenship, civic liberty, community and the commons, that are put at risk by the forces associated with globalization.

These forces, of which I will draw a series of quick portraits, include the privatization of what is globalized, the commercialization of what is privatized, and the infantilization of privatized consumers—with a resulting world that is deeply inimical not only to the common good but to pluralism, diversity, and the heterogeneity that is its special virtue. Citizens become mere individuals, individuals become consumers, consumers become impulsive children who, at the same time, become indistinguishable from impulsive children everywhere.



I have examined the dynamics of globalization at some length in my book Jihad vs. McWorld and will not rehearse its arguments here. But it is impossible to go around the issue of globalization and its entailments if we want to understand why the common good seems so precarious in our national life today. Nor will it suffice, as some critics have argued, to trivialize our current era of internationalization by comparing it to what in some ways seems an analagous period before World War I. It is certainly true that in the period at the end of the nineteenth century’s age of empires, there was an internationalization of economics on a very large scale. If one measures international trade as a percentage of GNP, it turns out to have been between ten and twelve percent then, roughly the same as it is today.

There is a crucial difference today, however. For in the nineteenth century, trade was in durable goods, natural resources, the hard economy of the industrial/manufacturing world. And that trade reinforced nationalism, gave national economies their power, and so helped create a world of nation states of the kind that both made autonomy and democracy possible and led to the clash of nations behind two world wars. Today, however, trade is in information, in pictures, in ideas, in the very stuff of the international nexus, the bytes and bits that punch holes in national frontiers and unite the world. Where trade then reinforced nationalism, today it undermines it, eroding parochial borders of every kind and turning the global economy into an engine of transformation and globalization.

Globalization has a second feature that makes it unique today. Its character is almost exclusively economic (and socio-economic, and hence, cultural in terms of socio-economic culture). We have in fact managed to globalize markets, globalize the economy, globalize corporations, globalize corporate and pop culture, without globalizing the democratic institutions that historically were the context for the evolution of free markets and the emergence of powerful corporations. We have created a radical asymmetry that the world has never before seen between anarchic international economic institutions and national civic and political institutions that can have little impact on them.

The history of capitalism and free markets has been one of synergy with democratic institutions. Free economies have grown up within, and been fostered and contained and controlled by, democratic states. Democracy has been a precondition for free markets—not, as economists try to argue today, the other way round. One finds in the history of any national democracy a natural symmetry between the emergence of democratic institutions, representation and extended suffrage, and the development of entrepreneurial capitalism. The freedom of the market has helped sustain freedom in politics and freedom in the political domain has helped sustain the market—to regulate and contain its irregularities, its contradictions, and its tendencies towards self-destruction around monopoly, around the eradication of competition. On the global plane today, that symmetry has been destroyed because we have globalized the marketplace without globalizing democracy.

There are of course some transnational civic and governmental organizations, though most are either paralyzed by national conflicts or nonparticipation by principals (the United Nations) or have only miniscule power. If one compares the global economy and the force of multinational corporations with the force of those institutions representing governments, they either have little force (e.g., the International Labor Organization) or turn out to represent nation states less than economic forces which control both states and the global economy. This radical and dangerous imbalance in power not only serves democracy badly, but serves the economy poorly as well.

For a picture of what the new global anarchy may look like if it is allowed to continue unabated and unregulated, one need travel only to Moscow or Smolensk where we have the introduction of free market institutions in the absence of any genuine democratic regulation and control. In these venues, the result has been a kind of mafiacracy-cum-anarchy, a brutal Social Darwinism, a “wild capitalism,” which not only has been deeply destructive to emergent democracy in Russia, but has also undone capitalism to a large extent, making the economic circumstances there extremely difficult. My fear is that neither Ottawa nor Washington, Paris nor Hong Kong, but Moscow will become the model for the global economy. Why? Because, as in Russia, the global marketplace is without centered democratic institutions to contain its anarchy and regulate its assault on competition.

Moscow potentially still has governing institutions which, if strengthened, might eventually bring capitalism under control. Undergirded with new civic institutions, Russia might tame its wild capitalism as the United States did after the Civil War had unleashed forces of monopoly that Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were left to bring under control. But in the international arena, there is no such possibility because there are no viable institutions of any kind, nor any apparent way of creating or building them or even thinking about them. At the very moment when we can strengthen representative institutions by re-injecting a degree of direct democracy in governance through the new technologies, we are destroying the national institutions, the nation state itself, which has been the seedbed for democratic institutions.

Economic globalization in the absence of civic and political globalization means we have globalized our vices without globalizing our virtues. We have globalized crime, globalized the rogue weapons trade, globalized terror and hate propaganda—sometimes using the Net itself and the new technologies to spread ideologies hostile to technology and modernity. We have globalized drugs, pornography, and the trade in women and children made possible by “porn tourism.”

The most egregious globalization is that involving the exploitation and abuse of (and pornographic trade in) children. Nowhere are children more abused now than in this international arena where there are no real regulations. Think of the abuse that comes from the utilization of child labor in unregulated developing economies trying to climb into competition by using child labor in near slave conditions; think of child pornography in countries like Thailand which advertise on the Net and attract people from all over the world to go and exploit and abuse virgins in the pornographic trade there; think of the use of children as soldiers, 10- and 12-year-old soldiers, in Third World tribal wars.

This abuse of children is, as my colleague Manuel Castells has written in a remarkable book called The Network Society, directly connected to economic globalization—not an ad hoc add on, but an integral feature of the new global market. Here is how Castells describes the linkage between the exploitation of children and a world economy dominated by rogue forces rather than by law and democracy:

There is a systematic link between the current, unchecked characteristics of transformational capitalism and the destruction of lives in a large segment of the world’s children. What is different is the disintegration of traditional societies through the world exposing children to the unprotected lands of mega-city slums. What is different is children in Pakistan weaving carpets for world-wide export via networks of suppliers to large department stores in affluent markets. What is new is mass global tourism organized around pedophilia. What is new is electronic child pornography on the Net, world-wide. What is new is the disintegration of patriarchalism without it being replaced by systems of protection of children provided either by new families or the state. What is new is the weakening of institutions of support for children’s rights such as labor unions or the politics of social reform.

Castel#146;s frightening summary suggests how the globalization of markets in the absence of globalization of democratic institutions is increasingly going to undermine the values and institutions of the family and faith we most cherish.



Globalization is not occurring in a vacuum, however. It hastens and is being hastened in its impact on the erosion of democratic governance and, especially, the idea of the common good, by a cognate ideology of privatization that is prevalent both in the international scene and within the countries whose economies are being globalized. Privatization is an ideology that saps democracy by attacking public power, by arguing that markets can do everything government once did better than government and with more freedom for citizens. Privatization within nation states opens the way for a deregulation of markets that facilitates the globalization of the economy. It softens up citizens to accept the decline of political institutions and tries to persuade them that they will be better off that way. As an ideology, it insists that government is about illegitimate public power and calls for the substitution of private power for public power.

In effect, the public sector and the very idea of common goods are under attack within the nation state, so as to make an ungoverned globe seem more desirable. It is important to note in this regard that privatization is not synonymous with decentralization. With decentralization, the public sector and its governing institutions transfer power down the governing hierarchy to provinces, to states, to cities, and to neighborhoods, thereby empowering citizens to take greater responsibility and become engaged in government on the local level. This is an instance of subsidiarity: power remains public but is shared in the name of securing common goods through direct participation by citizens. The principle is one of bottom-up public power, not top-down private power.

Privatization does not decentralize, however; rather, it shifts power that is public, accountable but perhaps inefficient and bureaucratic, and turns it over to the private sector. In effect, it gives power away, often at the top of the hierarchical ladder where it was in government, thus empowering new, high-powered, hierarchical bureaucracies which, however, are now private, non-transparent, and unaccountable. In place of what were, to be sure, large and rather bureaucratic but nevertheless semi-transparent and semi-accountable public institutions devoted to the securing and preservation of common goods, it offers private and entirely unaccountable institutions devoted to quite private goods. Privatization does not free us from the bureaucracy of big government; it merely indentures us to big business and private bureaucracy, and at the same time substitutes private interests for public goods.

In a discussion with President Clinton several years ago, when he contemplated announcing the “end of the era of big government,” I urged that such an announcement be coupled with a similar announcement about the private sector. If the United States government announces the end of big government without announcing the end of big business, it is in effect proclaiming the defeat of government and the eclipse of the public sector—the yielding of all effective power to monopolistic corporations unlikely to be much less large than government, but guaranteed to be far less accountable. A one-sided announcement is a pact with the devil, because the effect of “ending” big government is not to make war on bureaucracy, but to make war on democracy. To be sure, big government in the era of the “great society” and the uncritical welfare state had become bloated, bureaucratic, inefficient, and dependency breeding. However, to redress these defects requires the reform of democracy, not its elimination. Government belongs to its citizens and if it is removed rather than improved, the citizenry loses its only effective instrument of public interest.

There is another line of response to the argument I offer here about the necessity of public power and the dangers of privatization. It comes from those who protest that democracy is served by the private sector through what is sometimes called the “consumer vote.” After all, the argument goes, through the purchasing power of the yen, the dollar, and the D-Mark, citizens of those countries are able to “vote” as private persons, and have a powerful effect on national outcomes. Privatization does not eliminate politics; it only privatizes it and permits us to vote dollars in the consumer marketplace. The market offers market democracy, a democracy of individuals who show their preferences and express their choices through their spending habits. Let me suggest that this argument suffers from two fatal errors, related in turn to a misunderstanding of how democracy works and a failure to comprehend the meaning of the distinction between the public and private domains.

First, we need to recognize that how we spend our dollars is not always truly “voluntary,” since “choice” is subject to marketing, merchandizing, advertising, and packaging—all of which (as the billions spent suggest) are intended to “compe#148; and “divert” choice to what producers want to sell. The recent wholesale commercialization of education (student unions as malls, four-year-olds as apt targets for the selling of brand identities, school buses as advertising venues, Channel One advertising during history and social studies classes) all suggest an attempt to manipulate and coerce “choice.” This is not to deny that there is a certain autonomy in the chooser (I am not a fan of “false consciousness” arguments), but it is to say that consumer choice is something less than an exercise in unattenuated liberty.

The case against private liberty as a surrogate for public choice does not depend on the compromised character of consumer autonomy, however. The second and more important argument is that consumer choice, even if it is genuinely free, is always and necessarily private and personal and cannot affect public outcomes. Democratic governance is about public choosing, about dealing with the social consequences of private choices and behavior. What we do as citizens is precisely to deal with the public consequences of our private choices, to treat together with the social entailments of what we do personally, one by one. In this sense, democracy is about sharing choice over common goods that cannot, by definition, be secured by private and individual choices.

I enjoy fast cars and drive a BMW and—other things being equa#151;would like to drive very fast, powered by efficient leaded petrol. But other things are not equal. In buying a fast car as a private consumer, I am not wishing a 90 mile-per-hour speed limit or leaded gas on my fellow citizens—or even on myself as a citizen. As a citizen, I will gladly vote for a far lower speed limit and insist on unleaded fuel, and enact powerful sanctions against those who disobey (including myself as a consumer and private driver). For, as a citizen, I am well aware of the consequences of my behavior as a consumer. In Rousseau’s language, through my participation in the general will I can regulate my private will. Like almost every thinking person, I can distinguish easily enough between myself as a citizen and myself as a consumer. And as a citizen, I will voluntarily deal with the social consequences of the private choices I make (voluntarily) as a consumer.

The marketplace offers us the opportunity to express our economic preferences, but we cannot make political or social decisions in this fashion. We have public institutions to react to the social and public consequences of a marketplace that is more expansive than ever before. The distinction here is between what John Stuart Mill called self-regarding behavior, where we have a right to personal autonomy and privacy, and other-regarding behavior, which is subject to public legislation and control. Democracy is how we guarantee that legislating other-regarding behavior will be fair and legitimate. We make such distinctions regularly within families: we understand that as a father or a mother we make choices which are not necessarily identical with what we might do on our own. The same is true for the neighborhood, for local government, and eventually for a community of the whole nation.

Public choices are different from private choices; they must be made, and we want them to be as democratic as possible. These are the parameters for the creation of a democratic community and it is obvious that private consumer choice can never accommodate them. As citizens, we make “us” or “we” choices that sometimes force us to put aside our “me” preferences. To think one can replace citizens with consumers and then believe the result is still a democracy is, then, to make a deep category mistake. There are many things government cannot do very well, but there are many others that only government can do, not because it does them well or even “better” than the market, but because they are public things (res publica!) that can only be done by public institutions.

When Sophie, in the novel Sophie’s Choice, entered a concentration camp with her two young children, the commandant sneered that she would be “free” in her new home—that he would grant her freedom. She could decide, then and there, which of her two children he would murder. This was of course choice without meaning, liberty without power, decision without dignity. Private liberty or consumer liberty is a benign, trivial version of Sophie’s choice where we are allowed as individuals to choose everything except the things that matter—in Los Angeles, any kind of car we want, but not the option of public transportation, because there is none. Common goods demand common liberty; the public interest calls for public choosing.



If globalization brings privatization in its train, privatization brings with it a commercialization of much of what is privatized.Where privatization turns the citizen into a radical atomistic individual, commercialization turns the individual into a full-time, life-long consumer. That is to say, while one might expect that the transfer of governmental power to the private sector could include an empowerment of such civic associations as the neighborhood, the church, the foundation, and the family, in fact these domains are public though non-governmental, and on the whole have not benefitted at all from the privatization of power. Instead, with the economic domain’s empowerment, civil society has actually seen its power diminished. Privatization has brought with it the commercialization of what used to be a pluralistic zone of many identities. Because I have made this argument in detail and at length in Jihad vs. McWorld, I will not talk at length about mall culture and the malling of, for example, our cities, our transportation terminals, and our play spaces. I will instead focus on the domain that is our particular concern as social scientists and teachers of social studies.

Education—that domain of autonomous learning devoted to the creation of independent, imaginative thinkers and responsible, critical citizens—has been subject in recent decades to a rampant commercialization that threatens to undermine its integrity and imperil its functioning. In Colorado Springs, school buses are carrying advertising, in South Carolina high schools are making deals with the Coca Cola company (one even suspending a student who “subverted” the corporate arrangement by wearing a Pepsi t-shirt). In 12,000 American high schools, Channel One is showing three minutes of hard advertising to students during classtime (in return for “free” equipment for the hard-pressed schools), and in university student unions throughout the country, almost every activity—food, sports equipment, bookstores—has been “malled,” turning education into lessons in brand-name learning and consumer behavior.

This “selling” of students to corporations for the highest bid violates the spirit of liberal education and contradicts the principles of any adequate pedagogy. Schools compelled by insufficient public funding (another consequence of privatization) are selling themselves and selling their students (that is, access to their students) in return for small donations from the corporate sector. Universities are becoming tools of corporate research, with patents and research results being reserved for private profit. Can a democratic pedagogy aimed at creating independent thinkers, liberal learners, and responsible citizens content itself with the subordination of pedagogy to profit and learning to consumerism? Have we forgotten that the “liberal arts” refers to those “arts of liberty” necessary for the exercise of citizenship by free human beings? Can social studies teachers allow the “socia#148; in their studies to be annihilated by commerce? Tough questions in the age of globalization!


Infantilization and Homogenization

Finally, we must face the new imperatives of global consumerism that demand an infantilization of the consumer in order to maximize sales. Children are ideal targets for merchandisers because they are innocent, impulsive, inexperienced, and capable of repetitive buying—whether of toys, dolls, movie tickets, or collectibles—of a kind essential to Hollywood and the marketing of “unnecessary” products. The new consumer economy thus targets children. Hollywood makes films for 12-year-olds because 12-year-olds will revisit a popular film a half dozen times and then buy a host of associated fast food and toy products linked to the film. Kids spend three to four billion a year on their own, and “influence” the expenditure of another 130 billion dollars by their families. In the entertainment market, they are powerful determinants of what gets made. Moreover, because they are much more alike than unalike around the world, those who would market globally like to market to children—or to the child in us. Hence the popularity of American films around the world. Most national film industries create movies around adult cultures, which do not “trave#148; easily, and require sophisticated foreign viewers to be appreciated. But the American film industry specializes in films for everyone by aiming their product at the child.

Since real economic power still belongs to adults, however, global markets cater not to children but to the childish in adult consumers. They have a natural tendency to want to infantilize the consumer to maximize their sales. Where most traditional societies organized social and civic institutions around maturation and the cultivation of adult traits—work, deferred gratification, saving, rationality, deliberateness (slowness), and complexity—postmodern global capitalism organizes its institutions around infantilization: traits like play, impulse, consumption today, feeling, fastness (e.g., fast food), and simplicity (as in “simpleton”) that typify the behavior of children. As kids are made to grow up fast into adults so they can become consumers, “kidults”—adult consumers—are infantilized so that as consumers they will behave like children (“grown-downs” rather than grown-ups).

My claims here may seem hyperbolic, but they can be confirmed by looking at any of the dozens of current manuals and texts available on merchandizing to children. The way in which infantalizing consumers helps create a genuinely transcultural global market for goods is, for example, argued with frightening conviction by James U. McNeal in Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. At the start of his book, he identifies the ideal “Kid Kustomer” (sic) as “a confident 9-year-old with a cute little nose and arms full of shopping bags, emerging from a department store,” (p 18) and by the end, he can conclude that “standardized multinational marketing strategies to children around the globe are “viable” because “children are very much alike around the industrialized world...(so) that they very much want the same things (and) generally translate their needs into similar wants that tend to transcend culture.” (p. 250)

This points to my final concern—the way in which globalization and the commercialization and infantilization of citizens create an increasingly homogeneous global culture inimical to diversity and pluralism; a world caught up in a kind of non-toxic, soft totalitarianism in which, as global shoppers, we all begin to look and act alike. Defined by brands rather than religions, by manipulated and globally manufactured wants rather than culturally specific interests, we come to resemble not Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional men, but no-dimensional men—creatures reflecting random brand-names and trademarks that destroy every trait generated by specific cultures. To be sure, this puts an end to hate, cultural wars and tribal conflict, but it does so by eliminating differences and annihilating character... and, along the way, destroying democracy, citizenship, and any conception of common goods.

These are the challenges we face as educators, as students of social and political studies, and as responsible citizens who understand their task to include the training of the next generation of citizens capable of generating common goods and a free society. Training citizens who are independent and critical thinkers is, to be sure, a formidable task, but once we have understood the seductive and subtle nature of the forces that must be overcome, the battle can at least be intelligently joined.


Benjamin R. Barber, Whitman Professor of Political Science and Director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is the author recently of Jihad vs. McWorld (Ballantine Books) and A Place for Us (Hill & Wang).