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  • A Postmodern Foundation For Political Practice?
  • Linda Ray Pratt
McGowan, John. Postmodernism and Its Critics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

John McGowan’s “postliberal democracy” sometimes sounds just like the place we’d like to be, and sometimes more like the place we’ve already been. To get there, we must dispose of the negative freedom he assigns to most of the major postmodern theorists and abandon the fantasy of the autonomous self. McGowan’s starting point is that postmodernism’s goal of disrupting hierarchical totality by empowering suppressed components circles back politically to “an underlying commitment to democracy.” Our political and moral task is to construct a society in which a social consensus protects the egalitarian procedures through which a tolerant, humanist society can make decisions in the absence of truth. The problem for McGowan is that most contemporary theorists are unable to legitimate the social authority necessary to make democracy work or to use power positively.

Describing his critique as “resolutely antifoundationalist,” McGowan also notes that his definition of postmodernism will not satisfy all readers. Later in the book he observes, rightly I suspect, that for disciples of Lyotard, “my discussion of postmodernism . . . will seem to have missed all the important points . . .” (181). McGowan does not miss the important points, but he redefines them into a positive postmodernism that may sound too much like a defense of Western liberal democratic values for many readers to be comfortable labeling it “postmodern.” With keen intelligence and unrelenting logic McGowan tells us what’s wrong with the postmodernism of three major schools: the poststructuralism of Derrida and Foucault; the contemporary Marxism of Jameson, Eagleton, and Said; and the neopragmatism of Lyotard and Rorty. But the most influential figure in the book is not under examination. That is Jurgen Habermas, to whom McGowan acknowledges his debt while distinguishing his own greater willingness to weave key postmodernist characteristics into the model for a postliberal democracy which he proposes at the end of his study.

In order to legitimate a postliberal model that can produce democratic political decisions in a non-repressive consensual society without the guarantees of truth, McGowan must expose the trap of “negative freedom” that most postmodernist thought replicates. Most postmodern theorists allow too little freedom to choose and too little consciousness to define a positive social self. Their emphasis on the ways power operates within the Cerberean forces of language/history/capitalism provides too little “play” in the space allowed for thinking and acting. For the postmodernist, the community is associated with tyranny, not freedom, and the postmodernist strategy is to disrupt and diminish power, not legitimate its use as a positive force. McGowan argues that this kind of postmodernist thinking leaves us no foundation for political action because it makes the self incommensurable and autonomous in its social relations. For him the immersion of the self in the social is how we realize its integral social and thus “semiautonomous” nature.

McGowan’s postmodernism embraces antifoundationalism and pluralistic democracy, but rejects in the critics under discussion the tragic sense of human life, the tyranny implicit in power, the limited space in which self or language can freely act, and the problematic nature of democracy itself within Western capitalism. One wonders if the postmodern baby has not been tossed out with the bath water. Instead of a positive postmodernism, are we not left instead with a refurbished modernism? Regardless of which label is more accurate, the real issue is the substance of the alternative model McGowan poses for a positive postmodernism.

McGowan’s social vision is attractive, and it is hard to counter it with a political stance as hopeful or potentially effectual. The list of principles which constitutes his “summary and a final appeal” is as sound a set of assumptions as we are likely to find in anything resembling a rationale for the feasibility of social action. He notes, among other things, that “the principle of democratic egalitarianism” is culturally and historically specific, which means that civil liberties are an historical creation and not a transcendent right, but that the social consensus in Western democracies “has proved remarkably durable in the absence of fundamental guarantees” (264). The “existence of...

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