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William L. McBride, From Yugoslav Praxis

ID I.1.r2


William L. McBride, From Yugoslav Praxis to Global Pathos: Anti-Hegemonic Post-Post-Marxist Essays, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001, 249 pp., $ 81*

- Alexander L. Gungov
Sofia University

The present book by William L. McBride is included in Roman & Littlefield’s ambitious and promising series on New Critical Theory under the general editorship of Patricia Huntington and Martin J. Beck Matustik. It consists of sixteen essays and a book review, written between 1983 and 1999, which cover, among others, issues such as global injustices, the New World Order, rethinking democracy in the light of the Eastern European experience, consumerist cultural hegemony, and the globalization of philosophy. The essays collected in this book are an exceptional contribution to the reanimation of the long-forgotten topics of classical Critical Theory as well as a successful attempt to instill some hope into the scholars who still find this trend of thought relevant. They also serve as prolegomena to any future social and political criticism from a philosophical perspective.
McBride develops a solid argument, denouncing and refuting the common clichés circulating in the Western media after 1989, as well as in those philosophies condemned to be forever embedded in unilateral schemes of understanding. In some places, his criticism seems to take its subject too seriously, but this impression is soon dissipated by a number of ironic insertions, eloquently exemplified by his remark about NATO’s “humanitarian” war against Yugoslavia: “Perhaps someone in NATO had the constructive idea that, with so many factory jobs eliminated by the bombing, the next generation of Serbians would have greater opportunity to train for alternative employment as psychiatrists such as Julia Kristeva and Radovan Karadzić.”(1) The ideological formulas that the author argues against are the ones that replace the “scientific” ideology of former times, enforced by the secret police (2) and other oppressive agents of the state apparatus. Although, as McBride acutely observes, these restrictive measures affected relatively small segments of the population in the socialist regimes, targeting mainly intellectuals. Even in these cases, there was an elaborate antidote in the form of Aesopian language and code, which was used extensively both by the rulers and the ruled in the fields of politics, art, philosophy, and everyday communication.
The Eastern European anti-ideological immunization, however, proved to be very fragile. The expression popular today, which refers to the Communist propaganda machine as “Everything they [the Soviet ideologues] said about us was false, and everything they said about [the West] was true,”(3) was coined after a long period of post-Marxist disillusionment. In retrospect, the civic enthusiasm of the first post-communist years was really amazing. Everyday consciousness refused to accept that there is a “bias inherent in most or all theories that is rooted in the social structures of a given time and place and that expresses itself in theorists’ justifying and defending those structures in which they have a private interest.”(4)
McBride calls the distortion of the difference between reality and imagination “real illusion.”(6) The real illusion PR functionaries apply the old methods of historical materialism to preach the inevitable necessity of history (7) in a more sophisticated way. “The implication of this sort of attitude is that history is dictating a form of economy and related practices, including consumerist cultural practices, that must dominate the future, and that it is unacceptable, perhaps even immoral, to try to thwart the tide of history.” (8) Seen against this background, it is no surprise that the position of the world’s democratic governments and majority public opinion were structured “as if the Balkan world as it was in the months prior to July 1991 somehow never fully or really existed, and as if the sanguinary events that followed had always been quite inevitable.” (9)
Real illusion has not only an ontological status but solid moral grounds, enjoying the support both of common sense per se and of moral theory built on common sense reasoning. (10) The New World Order landscape is both real and morally justified. To get even a modest hint of “how out of joint things are” (11) one needs difficult-to-obtain information capable of opening a crack in the hard surface of real illusion. Few of us knew in March 1999 that there was a secret appendix to the proposed Rambue agreement, providing that the whole territory of Yugoslavia be occupied by NATO forces, since even the German Parliament did not know this when it voted for the Bundeswehr to join the anti-Milosevic military operation. (12) Nor was democratic public opinion informed that the conflict in Macedonia was caused not by the local Albanians but by visiting Kosovo forest rangers and fire-commanders. Over and above such information, in order to make any sense of the current political conundrum, one needs McBride’s perspicacity to identify real illusion as a “hypocritical mask” (13) or as a “smokescreen and destruction.” (14)
McBride mentions the ironic character of the post-1989 world in several places. One of the most impressive examples is the irony of failed democratic procedures such as the democratic referendums held in Bosnia, which had devastating effects, (15) as well as a number of other democratic practices that precipitated the deterioration of living standards in Eastern Europe and caused further civic apathy among the citizens there. (16) McBride notes that irony is only the joyful surface of the New World Order, hiding some other more somber underlying levels. Parody is another powerful tool to understand what is going on in the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav world. As he reasonably argues, “the imposition of free enterprise capitalism by shock therapy resulted in societies that are far from civil by anyone’s definition.” (17) Actually, these societies are parodies of what is meant by “civil society.” They mobilize citizens for such civic activities as fighting crime, drug abuse, and violence against women – problems that did not exist or that barely existed in the time before civil society itself emerged. Another parody, which McBride characterizes as cruel, is “give war a chance.” (18)
Irony might also allude to misery and parody to cruelty, but they still preserve the human, although evil, face of reality. But humanity begins to evaporate irrevocably through the fissures of sarcasm, (19) revealing the ugly face of the grotesque. (20) Sarcasm arises with the transformation of the human being and citizen into a consumer, and the equation of human dignity and happiness with making money. (21) This leads to “a very limited vision of human possibilities, based on a deliberately jaundiced, cynical, and fixed conception of the human condition. It assumes a universal egoism.” (22) In this context, justice is reduced to distributive justice, (23) in which the much more crucial virtual enslavement and humiliation are not taken into consideration, (24) while “‘democracy’ and even ‘human rights’ are made to serve as code words for the real value that perdures: economic efficiency for capitalist profit.” (25) This reasoning reaches its extreme in what McBride refers to as a logic of sadism, and is embodied in the statement: “if Milosevic has sanctioned mass expulsions and executions of Kosovans opposed to Serbian rule, then there should be no inhibition about inflicting open-ended suffering upon those who, by a supposedly democratic majority, have elected him as president.” (26)
Francisco de Goya once said that the sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and McBride shows that the petrification of irony brings forth grotesqueries. His book gives rise to the question of whether, at the turn of this century, reason can be wakened and life restored to irony. Moreover, how can we dismiss newly emerging ideologies and unmask growing real illusions? And, finally, if this is possible at all, who ought to play the role of the ancient Heracles at the Augean stables? The last century entrusted this task to intellectuals. Is this still possible today? As McBride skeptically points out, the solidarity of intellectuals in carrying this load “is in the process of dissolving, largely as a combined result of disillusionments over the apparent failures of the past century’s revolutionary movements and of the pressures to conform to the values, such as they are, of the contemporary hegemonic global commercial ‘culture.’” (27)
With the help of sufficient broadcasting money, (28) even the crudest deceptions leading to absurdities can grow into sound ideologies and convincing real illusions, following the classical dialectical materialism principle in which “quantitative change suddenly passes at certain points into qualitative transformation.” Of course, this tends to be a slight exaggeration (at least I hope it is). Philosophers of liberation (29) as well as ordinary professors, writers, journalists, priests and many others join their voices for the cause of justice and human values inspired not by rigid principles but by inherent respect for other human beings. For McBride, “the only praxis that seems realistically possible for us now lies in highly localized opposition to existing hierarchies and, above all, in the life of the spirit;” this is tenable because “our One World is still very much in flux, and, contrary to the ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Marxism of the recent past, the future is open.” (30) Mercifully, it seems to McBride, there is still evidence against MacIntyre’s “new dark ages.” At its core is the rebirth of practical philosophy. The author does not hide his hopes in this direction, although he is entirely aware that “no clear-cut success and probably much failure will be the lot of those who undertake to participate in it.” (31) The example of Marx’s practical philosophy is still alive and a productive start can be made by relying on Marx’s profound interpretations of current practices, (32) and by avoiding philosophy’s “self-mystification.” (33) McBride suggests, together with Carol Gould, that the next step is to work for the creation of a “spirit of community” based on respect for human freedom. (34) And I would add, respect for human dignity, which contains, besides human freedom, a caring attitude toward the other, something McBride also values highly. (35) He identifies the “spirit of community” as an ideal, which deserves being striven for as part of the mission of the new practical philosophy. (36) Although in agreement with the achievements of Marxist philosophy, McBride does not reduce his understanding of practical philosophy to it. He views it in a much broader and more universally open way, admitting that any philosophy “characterized by high intelligence and seriousness of purpose” (37) is worthy of having a place under the sun and can contribute to “the evolution of a global human culture of the future that would be neither hegemonic and consumerist nor without hope.” (38) It might be safer to pursue some sound skepticism and to cool down one’s enthusiasm in this respect… What leaves no doubt, however, is that From Yugoslav Praxis to Global Pathos will serve as an inspiration to free-minded intellectuals on the both sides of the Atlantic.

1 William L. McBride, From Yugoslav Praxis to Global Pathos: Anti-Hegemonic Post-Post-Marxist Essays, 201. McBride invokes Kristeva within the context of his disapproval of the famous French philosopher and psychoanalyst’s attempt, in the pages of Le Monde, to derive the Serbian population’s support for Milosevic’s government from dogmatic differences between Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy.
2 Ibid., 105.
3 Ibid., vii.
4 Ibid., 93.
6 Ibid., 123.
7 Ibid., 20.
8 Ibid., 179.
9 Ibid., 20.
10 Ibid., 52.
11 Ibid., 121.
12 Ibid., 214.
13 Ibid., 81.
14 Ibid., 203.
15 Ibid., 106.
16 Ibid., 107-108.
17 Ibid., 94.
18 Ibid., 194.
19 Ibid., 182.
20 Ibid., 178.
21 Ibid., 100.
22 Ibid., 63.
23 Ibid., 45.
24 Ibid., 47.
25 Ibid., 203.
26 Ibid., 202.
27 Ibid., 195.
28 Ibid., 194.
29 Ibid., 49-50.
30 Ibid., 67.
31 Ibid., 15.
32 Ibid., 9.
33 Ibid., 71.
34 Ibid., 83.
35 Ibid., 63.
36 Ibid., 83.
37 Ibid., 233.
38 ibid., 236.