The Balkan Wars and the New World
By David Watson
from the Fifth Estate, Spring 2002.
For the ostensibly radical antiwar left, the wars in the former Yugoslavia have been a paradigm-wrecker. For example, the no-brainer that the US empire's motives are not humanitarian but cynical, hypocritical, and self-serving now passes in many quarters as proof of some coherent capitalist conspiracy to carve up the Balkans, and by extension, proof that Serbia was the innocent victim of the New World Order. While it is certainly true that capitalism is always and everywhere carving and re-carving, this one-dimensional anti-imperialism surrenders to what Slavoj Zizek has called the error of "double blackmail," the false choice between the empire and its enemies.(1) As I argue in a forthcoming book, Pandemonium: Reflections on the Balkan Wars and the New World Dis/Order, an extended historical polemic on the Balkan wars and the response of the left, we need an anti-imperialism to match the challenges not only of the New World Order but the New World Disorder unleashed by its contradictions.(2) However clear Western, and particularly US, hypocrisy and indifference to human life, one had to be a moral and political cretin not to feel some ambivalence about the 1999 NATO campaign.
Yet cretinism abounds. In his introduction to the 1945 edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell remarked, "Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need of any official ban ... At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question." Many will recognize these lines so favored by Noam Chomsky to be almost incessantly repeated in his appallingly disappointing book, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (1999), and frequently quoted by leftists who are merely parroting him rather than honestly confronting Orwell's point. But in fact the idea has more than one possible interpretation. As Orwell continues, "To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment."
The presence of such a "gramophone mind" among self-styled anti-imperialists explains why so many people with so much understanding have gone so wrong, how a puffed-up indignation against the "demonization" of Serbia in the West and an apparent insight into the distinction "between worthy and unworthy victims" (Chomsky's term) can sink to a simple inversion of values, and thus to an unreflective demonization of the Kosovar Albanians, historically the Palestinians of Europe. It also helps us to understand why so many well-meaning people simply let the International Action Center (a front for the marxist-leninist Workers World Party - disciples of a mixture of maoism and trotskyism, which alone should suggest their limited reasoning skills), Z Magazine, or Serb nationalist apologist Alexander Cockburn do their thinking for them on such matters without doing the reading and thinking for themselves. Finally, it forces us to recognize that just as the imperial metropole has no monopoly on violence, it has no monopoly on manipulation and deceit; dissent, like consent, can be manufactured, even if the target group is far more limited.
Other particularly squalid moments have occurred in the history of leftism - one thinks of the stalinist betrayal of Spain, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact - but this particular period and this historical juncture will go down in history as one of the most callous and feckless. Sadly, the so-called radical movement is losing its sense of complexity, of history, of ambivalence, and ultimately its own humanity. Most ostensible oppositionist discourse on the Balkans from the hard Marxist left to the independent socialist left, to even many anarchists, has sunk to a duckspeak of conspiracy mongering and holocaust denial, or to the nostrums of diplomatic conflict-resolution, or to crass and aggressive apologetics for mass murderers.
Readers who think this characterization an exaggeration will have to judge for themselves. They can only do so by studying the matter in depth, since leftist magazines and internet sites are a cesspool of misinformation, where one can find myriad examples of holocaust denial from leftists and rightists - it is a kind of a red-brown front, in fact - that Serb concentration camps never existed, or that the Bosnians "bombed themselves" in Sarajevo, or that the mass execution of thousands of men after the fall of the Srebenica enclave was a "hoax." And - if one can keep one's lunch down - some leftists are even circulating a petition to free poor old Slobodan Milosevic (while demanding the head of Pinochet). One has to find this depressing in part because some of these people have had reasonable things to say about US support for dictatorships abroad, global capitalism, and other important related issues, and so they now function either to recruit the naturally skeptical into a counter-cult with its own authoritarian mystifications, or they simply discredit worthy opposition altogether through a kind of Gresham's law by which healthy ethical reasoning is driven out by paranoia and dogmatism. (This is in fact what happened in Serbia and to a less dramatic extent in Croatia, where many dissidents ended up becoming ethno-fascists.) Any radical movement serious about changing life, whether or not it can do anything in the near future about the social crises it faces, must never allow itself to become a purveyor of lies. As Theodor Adorno put it in Minima Moralia, "The almost insoluble task is to let neither the power of others, nor our own powerlessness, stupefy us." We have no choice but to demystify so-called demystification.(3)
(1) See his useful "Against the Double Blackmail," New Left Review, April 1999.
(2) An essay describing my ambivalence about the Kosova war, Empire and Exterminism, was published in the May 2000 New Internationalist.
(3) Numerous books, publications, and websites are worthy sources of credible information. Readers might start with Branka Magas's The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Breakup 1980-1992 (Verso, 1983), perhaps the very best contemporary left-oriented analysis of the process of the Milosevic counterrevolution and the breakup. It must be supplemented by other such excellent books as:
Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, Laura Silber and Allan Little (1996)
Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, David Rieff (1995)
The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia, Michael Sells (1996)
The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, Tim Judah (second edition, 2000)
Kosovo: War and Revenge, Tim Judah (2000)
Bosnia: A Short History, Noel Malcolm (second edition, 1996)
Kosovo: A Short History, Noel Malcolm (second edition, 1999)
Two other left-oriented books that give balanced reports are:
Yugoslavia Dismembered, Catherine Samary (1995)
Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, edited by James Ridgeway and Jasminka Udovicki.
There are many other extremely valuable texts, but these are a start. They will help the reader to recognize that the breakup of Yugoslavia is paradoxically much more complex in some ways, and yet not so complicated in others, than most of the left pretends. Another very useful source of information and understanding is Bosnia Report, published by the Bosnian Institute (14/16 St. Mark's Road, London W11 1RQ England). The Bosnian Institute does invaluable work; send them a donation and buy and read as many of their back issues as possible. They are also available at www.bosnia.org.uk. Other websites worth looking at are:
Balkan Crisis Report
The Balkan Report
Michael Sells' website
Balkan Witness website. This latter site has a list of still more useful websites.
A book on the debates on the left around the former Yugoslavia, edited by Danny Postel, The Shadow of Kosovo: The Intervention, the Left, and the Squandered Debate (Cybereditions), is due in 2005, and should be of interest.
Excerpted from the Fifth Estate, Spring 2002.
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