‘At the Risk of Being Too Coarse’

by Jodi Dean, Samuel Grove

Jodi Dean teaches political and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited eleven books, including The Communist Horizon and Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies. She spoke to Samuel Grove about Communism, the Occupy movement, the perils of postmodern ethics and why the left needs a party.

First of all your new book is called The Communist Horizon. What does ‘horizon’ designate in this instance?

The horizon designates the fundamental division establishing where we are. So, it's not temporal—in the future. It's a marker of our actual place, like a visual horizon.

Okay, let’s turn to the word ‘communist’. For many in Britain (and many more in the United States) it is a scare word. As a result many on the anti-capitalist left prefer to talk of ‘democracy’ (prefacing the word with ‘radical’ ‘direct’ or economic’ so as to distinguish it from its ‘liberal’ variant). Why should we talk of a ‘communist’ horizon?

Because ‘communist’ is the one word we have that signals anti-capitalism more than anything else. Really, when the anti-capitalist left uses the word 'democracy' they are signalling their own accommodation with capitalism. They aren't really anti-capitalist at all. They usually want capitalism with a human face, with a little bit less exploitation and immiseration. So-called radical democrats were at the forefront of jettisoning class analyses, of moving away from the economy and toward culture.

But for many, ‘communist’ also signals ‘gulags’, ‘secret police’, ‘show trials’ and so on. The current predilection of Republicans to call everything, from Obama to a single payer health system, ‘communist’ is indicative of this.  

Actually, that Republicans call Obama a communist means that they are deeply threatened by anything that does not fall into lockstep with their own agenda of finance capital plus militarism. In other words, if they really thought that communism signalled 'gulag' then they wouldn't think it was attractive enough to be an actual threat in the contemporary US. Communism would be 'dead' and 'past,' 'over' and 'defeated' rather than something with emancipatory and egalitarian promise. So, I don't think that they are just repeating Cold War rhetoric. I think that they are inadvertently noting the truth of communism, its commitment to equality, to ensuring that each has access to employment, education, housing, food, and health care.  

I would like to return to the question of the Soviet Union in due course. However staying on the issue of equality for the moment—you have stated emphatically that communism centres around the Marxist aspiration of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’. But you also depart from traditional Marxist concepts and terminology. For instance you insist that communism refers to the sovereignty of the 'people' rather than the 'proletariat'. Was there a theoretical reason for this, or should we simply read 'the people' as a more up to date synonym for 'the universal class'? 

There are theoretical reasons. Already Lukacs noted the emergence of a revolutionary concept of the people in Lenin's thought, one that emerges through the course of proletarian revolution to come to denote the revolutionary alliance of the oppressed. Such an idea of the people is also found in Mao and in anti-colonial communist struggles. It also makes sense given the changes in capitalism marked by Tronti and Negri and in ideas like the social factory. I use the expression 'the people as the rest of us' to express how this revolutionary notion of the people differs from populism. It is neither empirical nor a totality. That is, it isn't meant as an empirical marker—as you rightly say when you refer to the universal class. And, it is necessarily partial, non-all in two senses, the Lacanian, feminine sense and the Marxist, antagonistic and oppositional sense: there is a class that is opposed.

I wonder if we can unpack this a little because it seems to relate back to your opposition to 'democracy'. For when you say the 'people' is 'necessarily partial' and not 'empirical' I take this to mean that 'the people' isn't 'everybody' (the demos); rather it is confined to those that stand for the communist aspiration. If this is right, it would seem to conflict with many current movements ('Occupy' in the US and or the 'Los Indignados' in Spain for instance) that expressly frame their demands in terms of the inclusion and participation of all.

Actually, I don't think either OWS or the indignados really mean full inclusion and participation. I know that this is a prominent rhetoric, but I think it is an indication of being still rather caught within an ideology that has told them that democracy is the only game in town. For one, neither are inclusive of fascists, anti-semites, or racists. And, both are deeply critical of the politics of austerity. They use a language of democracy as a way to point out their dissatisfaction with the party politics, with a mainstream politics that has excluded the people. When OWS and the indignados speak of inclusion and participation, what they really have in mind is bringing in the excluded. My sense is that as the struggles continue, the anti-capitalist elements will continue to grow, not just in the sense of bringing in more people, but in sharpening the political understanding, analysis, and message.

There are other problems with the Occupy and Indignados movements from a traditional Marxist perspective. That is that they are not in a position to really threaten the capitalist mode of production. 'Proletariat' in this instance isn’t simply a synonym for the 'universal class'. It is a term for the particular group in society that is in a position to break capitalist bonds. It is in the working population that revolutionary power is invested. You briefly alluded before to 'changes in capitalism' and the work of Tronti and Negri—but could you elaborate upon how you see these as affecting revolutionary organising?

  The idea of the social factory gets us to see how capitalist production takes place throughout society, not just in factories. So, a consumer economy requires the production of consumers. A debt-based economy requires people willing to take on massive amounts of personal debt, perhaps for education (student loans), housing (a mortgage), transportation (a car) rather than demanding that these be collectively provided. This suggests multiple sites at which the bonds of capital can be broken. It's an important contribution for helping us get beyond the conservatism of labour that resulted from the post WWII compromise, which in the US brought with it a whole series of laws limiting strikes and protests.  The idea of the general strike points in this direction as well: it recognizes the necessity of moving beyond one portion of the working population to the working population as a whole. More recent ideas of stopping the circulation of capital—as in blockading roads in Argentina and Greece—as well as disrupting flows of people and goods in cities (David Harvey talks about this)—and putting together alternatives and counter solutions (Negri gives good examples in Goodbye, Mr. Socialism) all rely on the insight that capitalism has subsumed the entirety of the social world. Hardt and Negri have argued that the implication of this is that any struggle strikes at the heart of empire. This does not seem to have been born out in practice. On the contrary, disconnected struggles are more quickly and easily isolated, submerged, and suppressed. What we seem to have now (in the current 'cycle of struggles,' if you want to use that language) is conscious awareness of the interconnectedness of struggles from Egypt to Syria to Greece to Spain to England to Montreal to New York to Chicago to Oakland.  

Quite. As we speak workers across southern Europe are coordinating a general strike against austerity. This is a significant accomplishment (I believe that it is the first time anything like this has happened) and it may well succeed, in terms of forcing the ruling class to change course. However it is not yet a revolutionary moment. What do you think needs to happen to shift our current 'cycle of struggle' from one of defence to attack?

We need a Party—or something like it. Maybe another way to say this is that we need to think in terms of a political organization that can help with duration, integration, vision, and accountability. The rage of the people against capitalism, and the state that serves and protects it, is expanding and intensifying weekly, even daily. The thing is, this kind of chaotic situation, opens up opportunities not just for us but also for fascists, as is abundantly clear in Greece. Violence and chaos can easily work against us if people get frightened and turn to the state for protection—not realizing that they are jumping directly from the frying pan into the fire! A Party can help develop and supply a vision of communist alternatives, as well as participate in moving protests in communist directions—for example, by helping train new leaders, organizing neighbourhoods and cells, providing infrastructure and materials; one of the cool developments with Occupy Wall Street has been Occupy Sandy; the networks of skilled and available people brought together in the movement supplied an organization able to work closely in areas hard hit by the hurricane. So, a party is important for moving toward a phase not just of destruction but also creation. And, I think the form the party will have to take will need to be different from what we've had in the past, learning from the last decades of failure as well as success; it won't succeed if it is overly dogmatic and centralized; it will need to be responsive and adaptable, but also with a clear commitment to equality and the abolition of private property.  

Many would balk at the notion that we need a party even if accompanied with the disclaimer that it must learn from previous experiences and not be too, as you say, 'dogmatic' or 'centralised'. This is because most people associate the Soviet Union simply with failure, terror and repression. Challenging this association must be a prerequisite to creating a truly mass based communist party. However I am interested to hear what form you think this challenge should take?

First, we need to consider the sources of our knowledge of the Soviet experience. Much of it was produced during the Cold War as part of a specific policy for US hegemony. We should also ask why we think that there is a direct line from party to failure, terror, and repression. Is history really so determined? Are we really so incapable of learning and change? Weirdly, folks who want us to accept the inevitability of change also want us to think that some things never change. The function of this sort of argument is to make it seem like capitalism is some kind of saviour, our protection against failure, as if it didn't itself rely on failure (creative destruction), our bulwark against terror, when it is itself an instigator of terror against poor and working people, not to mention those who are invaded and colonized.  

One of the interesting aspects of your critique of recent resistance movements, especially Occupy, is that you combine your principal criticism (their rejection of parties) with the observation that many of the characteristics associated with a party (leaders, discipline, unity, organisation) are already immanent to them—even if they don’t recognise it. Can you elaborate upon this?

Let's think about the impact of neoliberal ideology. It has been anti-centralization and pro-individual, pro-network, pro-flexibility, pro-collaboration. It has been critical of hierarchy and 'top-down organization.' Many voices in Occupy repeat neoliberal ideology without even knowing it! It's like they misdiagnosis their own setting, invoking a structure of power that was already disintegrating in the 70s as if it were controlling them today. So, they act as if discipline were a problem in a setting where we are completely undisciplined! As if unity were a drawback when it's what's missing. And, this leads us to recognize the strengths of the movement. Everyone who was sleeping outside or spending countless hours in meetings or working with others in groups and protests could have hardly imagined 2 years ago they would be part of the vanguard of the movement. They are ushering in something new and having to discipline themselves and one another as they do it. My hope is that the more people recognize these strengths, the more they will eschew neoliberal language and see themselves as laying the groundwork for a new collectivity.

I wonder if people's aversion to a vanguard has another source as well. A political awakening is very much a collective experience. But it can also be a very personal one as well. One in which people suddenly feel like they can take ownership of the way they think and express themselves. Having discovered their own voice, so to speak, they are then reluctant to delegate it. Do you agree? And if so, do you think this is something valuable that a revolutionary party ought to cultivate and work with, or is it simply another aspect of neoliberal ideology we need to eschew (in this case a form of 'individualism')?"

I am reluctant to go in the direction of ownership and self-expression. Not only is this the vocabulary of individualism but it also reduces politics to some kind of personal feeling, to something desirable because of its links to creative expression rather than collective determination. So the language of ‘one's own voice’ leaves me cold—if people want their own voice they can get a blog for free and express themselves all they want. Communicative capitalism encourages that. But let's not confuse self expression with political action and organization. It's that kind of confusion that renders delegation a problem rather than a solution to dealing with multiple tasks in a complex environment. A revolutionary party for us needs to work on ways to build connections, build mutual reliance and trust, build collective thinking and collective responsibility. Remember the militant discipline of the UC Davis students last year? As their Chancellor walked through them they stood silently. It was an amazing assertion of collective strength, one that commanded respect and admiration.

Nonetheless you have written about the psychological effects that 30 years of neoliberalism has wrought upon the left—what you call a ‘left melancholy’. Could you explain what you mean by this phrase?

The term isn't mine. I get it from Wendy Brown, who gets it from Walter Benjamin. Brown uses it to describe a particular structure of feeling on the left in the 90s, one that is more than self-critical; it's self-hating and self-punishing. What's important now is noting how we have moved beyond melancholia and have a new sense of purpose and energy. I associate this with the ability to say 'we' again. This is apparent in the enthusiasm around communism. It's also been apparent in the embrace of Occupy Wall Street.  

You’re right about the new found optimism. However is there a sense in which the left has replaced self-hating with another form of self-criticality—the discourse of perpetual building? We tell ourselves and each other all the time about the importance of organising, of building alliances, of maintaining unity and so on. On the other hand it is rare to hear anyone talk about actually taking power. Maybe it is too early to start talking in this way, but then I wonder if this isn’t just another form of ‘left melancholy’; an indirect, but no less self-punishing, way of saying ‘we, the people, are not ready’.

Building is the step to taking power -- that's what we are building and organizing for.  

Finally and I ask this seriously, not simply as a reaction to the abruptness of many of your responses. Over the last three decades the left, particularly in the realm of theory, from which you emanate, has placed quite a high premium on ethics. Notions such as ‘recognising the other’, ‘respecting difference’, ‘accepting disagreement’, were not simply ethical principles but very much presented as political ideas. Much of its excesses are now, probably quite rightly, frowned upon. And yet treating one’s comrades in an ethical fashion appears to be an important concern of Occupy. This is exemplified in David Graeber’s distinction between Marxist and anarchist groups; one in which the latter, in contrast to the former, ‘operates on the assumption that no one could, or probably should, ever convert another person completely to one’s own point of view’ and that ‘decision-making structures are ways of managing diversity’. How do you regard the relationship between politics and ethics?

Graeber's view takes the individual as the locus of politics. The individual can speak for himself and should not speak for another. I don't find this convincing. On the one hand, individuals are split subjects, with motives and desires that are unconscious. Individuals can also be mistaken and deluded, swayed by ideologies they haven't questioned. So, I think that we need to be sceptical of claims that prioritize the individual or treat the individual as some kind of sacrosanct locus of truth or knowledge—even of that individual's own interests and concerns. Likewise, since the people can never be present, we have to speak for others and we have to do that knowing that we will certainly err in so doing. But that I have spoken for another doesn't mean the other (or anyone for that matter) is prevented from disagreeing with me, from contesting what I say, from countering the view I put forward. So I think that the Graeber view, in addition to relying on the individual as an uncontroversial and somehow complete locus of truth, also has a strange, even magical or sovereign notion of speech; as if once something is spoken that's the end of the matter rather than just one element of something larger. Regarding ethics: it has replaced politics on the left. This has been part of the political decline of the left as well as an unfortunate capitulation to a culture that has told us that politics is the same as ethics and so either a matter of religion, of culture values, or of someone's own specific convictions and so not a site of contestation and battle. At the risk of being too coarse, I am completely tired of all these discussions of ethics, particularly of the faux radicality in which they cloak themselves with all this talk of the other as a kind of absolute that must be respected. What does this even mean? It's waged as a weapon to shut down speech. Finally, it's really funny to me that anarchists are the ones draped in the banner of ethics. In New York, among women active in OWS the term 'manarchist' was used for the macho guys in love with their own radicality. How's that for an ethics?


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First published: 19 November, 2012


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19 Comments on "‘At the Risk of Being Too Coarse’"

By DAVID GRAEBER, on 19 November 2012 - 14:46 |

At the risk of being too coarse, that’s an embarrassing straw man. Where do you derive this assumption I take a unified locus as the basis of truth? As far as I know you simply made it up. Don’t we deserve a little better than such straw men?

The manarchist accusation seems especially odd since what I am describing is a sensibility specifically derived from feminism. There is absolutely no reason it is irreconcilable with the idea of complex, multiple, or deluded subjectivities - unless you make the most ungenerous, crude, and unhelpful criticism possible.

Note - look, I’m arguing with you. I think you’re kind of deluded. On the other hand I don’t have a specific line I’m trying to convert you to either. See? It’s not contradictory. 

Can’t we attempt a slightly more sophisticated level of discourse?

By DAVID GRAEBER, on 19 November 2012 - 15:08 |

Just to point out how sloppy this “analysis” is, let me cite a passage from the actual book where I lay out the positions just attacked as supposedly based on an individual liberal subject, 

(begin quote)

Now, it seems to me understanding this also helps explain some gaping holes in political theory. As Bernard Manin has pointed out (1994), theorists from Rousseau to Rawls always assume that citizens start with a set of pre-existing interests (usually presumed to be basically material) and then see political deliberation—what an anarchist would call “process”—as the way they compete, compromise, maneuver, and generally try to get as much as possible of what they already know they want. The notion of “opinion” fits perfectly with this logic. Opinions are also assumed to be pre-formed. At best, they can be manipulated or influenced. They can only be seen that way if no deliberation is really going on, apart perhaps from conversations in bars or over dinner. If one observes how processes of deliberation actually work, it’s completely impossible to see the actors as simply bringing pre-existing “opinions” or “interests” into some political marketplace. In the process of deliberation—any political deliberation, really, though consensus process is designed to maximize this—everyone is changing their minds constantly, learning new information, identifying with different perspectives, reframing issues, measuring and weighing considerations in different ways. (“Well, at the risk of contradicting myself, let me try a different approach…” Alexis announced during on debate within Ya Basta! “Why not?,” replied Moose, “Hell, I’ve already contradicted myself at least three times just in this one meeting.”)

(end quote)

in fact, if you read the actual argument, it is a sustained critique of the very notion of the individual liberal subject, with opinions, making choices, etc etc, but rather a play of multiple, even improvised, subjectivities and attempts to understand and integrate formally (but not practically) incommensurable perspectives. 

As for the supposed ignoring of self-delusion, we might consider the fact that the entire second half of the chapter on consensus process focuses precisely on this question:

(begin quote)

This is all the first half of the chapter, which maps out how consensus ought to work in principle. The second half of the chapter is about problems: difficult racial and gender dynamics, tensions related to social class, and other factors that almost invariably create strains in activist groups. Consensus process operates on a kind of institutionalized generosity of spirit. In a meeting with fellow activ ists, it is one’s responsibility to give others’ the benefit of the doubt for honesty and good intentions. In most circumstances this principle works remarkably well in creating actual honest and well-intentioned behavior. Where it falls short is precisely where it encounters what activists would call deeply internalized forms of oppression. Racism, sexism, class bias, homophobia, all these are forms of vio­ lence that are both seen as absolute evils, but also as so deeply internalized that one simply cannot expect people to police themselves. What’s more, they tend to be entangled in one another in ways that make it very difficult to combat aU of them equally at the same time… (etc etc)


What I do object to, and note that anarcha-feminist process has largely managed to overcome, is the tiresome habit of reducing someone else’s views and positions to simplistic straw men so as to absolutely reject them and refuse to even try to understand what someone you might disagree with is really getting at. Alas, Jodi Dean’s current observations could be taken a classic, text-book example of the sort of political rhetoric that we are at least trying to transcend.

By Karen, on 19 November 2012 - 20:38 |

The term “manarchist” has been in use for a couple years, as a slur by liberals and Marxists against anarchists (as though there were no sexism among liberals and Marxists!), and as a way to shut down direct action perspectives and take away solidarity from those who advocate them.

By Neil, on 19 November 2012 - 21:13 |

“Really, when the anti-capitalist left uses the word ‘democracy’ they are signalling their own accommodation with capitalism. They aren’t really anti-capitalist at all. They usually want capitalism with a human face, with a little bit less exploitation and immiseration. So-called radical democrats were at the forefront of jettisoning class analyses, of moving away from the economy and toward culture.”

I disagree fundamentally with this.  For me the concept of radical democracy is broader and more radical than ‘communism’ and ultimately brooks no accommodation with capitalism.  I therefore resent being told the opposite. In addition, the idea that the test of one’s anti-capitalist, radical credentials is the consistent and unwavering use of economistic  Marxist class analysis is in my view unhistorical and theoretically dogmatic.  

While it is true that what is of value in 19th and 20th Century Marxist, communist, and anarchist historical and intellectual traditions needs to be salvaged to remove the taint and create solid foundations for the left to build on this article seems to advocate this in a cack-handed and tone deaf way. Similarly, the fact that democracy has been tainted by overwhelming popular association with liberalism and liberal democracies should be no reason to reject the term and all the diverse and sometime valuable political theory and philosophy associated with it.  in the first instance the author seems to argue for leaving the baby in the dirty bathwater, and in the second to throw the baby out instead of filling it with pure, clean water. It strikes no chord with me.

By David Bell, on 19 November 2012 - 21:56 |

A year back I would have been firmly in the Graeber/anarchist camp on this, and I think he’s correct to say that there’s a straw-manning of anarchist practice going on here. But the failure of anything much to happen in the last 12 months or so, combined with various conversations and a deeper engagement with contemporary ‘communist’ thought (including Dean’s talk at Transmediale) has perhaps pushed me more towards Dean’s position. There are, however, things here that I still find uncomfortable - not least the whole framing of a ‘red vs. black’ dichotomy. I’ll try and TL;DR this in a bit, though right now I don’t have time.

On the subject of ‘anarchism’ (though I’m not sure how useful it is naming it as such) I’d argue that there’s something of a split in anarchism (theoretically, at least) between those whose ontology of the subject (and of the individual’s relationship to the collective) is drawn from the tradition of classical liberalism (Chomsky, for example); and those who subscribe to a more post-structuralist concept of the subject, and who have a sort of Spinozo-Deleuzian conceptualisation of the relationship of the individual to the collective (which goes further than the self-identified ‘post’ anarchists, and is where I’d place Graeber). I think the criticisms Dean makes with regard to anarchism as individualism are correct when applied to the former, but do indeed constitute a kind of straw-manning when applied to the latter. In this, it’s difficult to talk of either a collective or an individual subject; or at least to posit a necessary opposition between the two. (I think this is also what’s at stake in the concept of the ‘multitude’ in the work of Virno and Hardt and Negri:  a collective that cannot be reduced to the ‘one’.)

I’m not so sure whether this is evidenced in practice, although consensus decision making should - I think - be seen as an attempt (though not wholly successful*) to facilitate a politics premised around the second ontological approach. Indeed, I asked Jodi Dean a question on exactly this at Transmediale and her response** indicated that she broadly agreed, but felt the rhetorical power of talking about the collective rather than the individual was - at the current moment in time - really important. I’ll try and return to this below. 

The other thing I wanted to say on anarchism is that I think it’s unfair to use the term ‘manarchism’ to critique anarchism per se - at least in the way Dean has done (I’ll return to why it might be relevant below). There is no doubt that there is an ugly patriarchal tendency in anarchism, but as I understand it the term ‘manarchism’ is one that originated *within* the anarchist movement. It is, if you like, a critique of certain ‘anarchists’ from the position of an anarcha-feminism. It may well have entered wider discourse, and I know non anarchist ‘radicals’ who use the term, but to associate anarchism per se with ‘manarchism’ is pretty slanderous and every bit as lazy as associating marxism with its uglier elements. I appreciate this is an interview, however, and perhaps things aren’t always as carefully formulated in the spur of the moment.

That brings me onto this idea of ‘postmodern ethics’. I’m not quite sure what’s being got at here. Which postmodernity? Whose postmodernity? My ethics, I guess, are broadly of the Spinoza-Nietzsche-Deleuze-Braidotti school, but I don’t see how they’re inconsistent with a class analysis in the slightest (the class structure reduces the ability of the 99% to affect and be affected and thus is ethically bad); nor how they necessarily depoliticise/replace politics (though I’m not sure if it’s these ethics that are being attacked or not: I certainly wouldn’t call them ‘postmodern’, unless by that is meant ethics ‘appropriate to the condition of postmodernity’). And I’m also wary of the message that because neoliberalism is (ostensibly) anti-hierarchical, likes flexibility and collaboration etc. etc. these concepts are inherently neoliberal. Rather, I’d argue that neoliberalism takes the rhetoric of anarchism and empties the content. Widening inequality increases hierarchy, for one (at least when you accept that ‘hierarchy’ doesn’t simply refer to visible structures of power). I guess whilst anarchism tries to use non-hierarchy to increase non-hierarchy, neoliberalism uses non-hierarchy to increase hierarchy (see also the Israeli Defence Force’s tactics). 

What I do recognise, however, is that anarchists sometimes fail to think this through, and I think certain anarchist-informed practices do create space for neoliberalism’s rhetoric to flourish. And I also think there can be a certain inflexibility to prefigurative practices, which may well lack the pragmatism and opportunism required to succeed in forcing political change. Broadly speaking I *am* prefiguratively minded: I do think non-hierarchy is a good in and of itself (or rather a ‘becoming non-hierarchical’; non-hierarchy is an impossibility in and of itself). But I recognise that what might be called ‘strategic hierarchies’ are sometimes necessary (though very often what is needed is a ‘division of labour’ rather than hierarchy per se, albeit that divisions of labour carry the *danger* of ossification into hierarchy). Again, however, I think anarchism has theorised this - Uri Gordon’s work on violence, for example, resonates with what Dean says about inclusivity in this interview (the fact it’s about violence isn’t really relevant here) - the key bit here is that he says that being ‘prefigurative’ doesn’t mean that you treat your enemies in the way you treat those within the movement: prefiguration is only an internal process. If someone is your enemy you name them as such and you make it clear they are not welcome in your group and that it is their class position/racism/anti-semitism/patriarchy, etc that you are trying to abolish.

In this sense I think  some form of ‘strategic essentialism’ is useful in presenting to the outside world: a sort of ‘charismatic authority’ that makes people believe in what you’re doing. Aesthetics and communication would be vital in this.

And it’s here that I agree with the return of the word ‘communism’ as a demand and a process to present to the world.

Does this communism need a party then? Yes, actually, perhaps it does - in order to co-ordinate this aesthetic and communicative form of political struggle so that it can grow, remember and challenge capitalism’s domination. But this should be a ‘party’ in the multiple sense of the word: a ‘political’ party that speaks, demands and acts; a party that’s as fun as it is austere (parties are fun, right?) and is as austere as it is fun (sometimes a funeral party, acting with appropriate ‘discipline’ to the situation). And yeah, a party where there are people who fucking hate each other for reasons no-one else can really fathom, and which many people really don’t care about.

This, however, needs to be a ‘party’ which realises that just as the corporation has changed from being top-down, inflexible and Taylorist, so must the party form. Acknowledging this does not mean capitulating to neoliberalism but rather it could begin to take back the (relatively) spontaneous, creative activities of the commons upon which capital has been so parasitic in the last half century (cf. Tronti’s Lenin in England, Virno, etc).

This party would need to learn from (and work with, but not above/below) social movements and organisations across the globe (they may form part of the party and the party may form part of them). It would need to work hard to improve the gender politics of all the traditions upon which it would draw. It would need to ensure that identity interests were considered, respected and linked in affinity with one another and with class; but believe that only communism could offer anything like an adequate solution (but that communism will not *necessarily*) offer a radical solution. Above all else, it would need to realise that neither ‘anarchism’ nor ‘marxism’ is an insult nor an answer, but that both are vital tools. 

*Matt Wilson’s anarchist critique of consensus decision making is really important. 

**A transcript is here: http://occupyeverything.org/2012/occupation-as-political-form/. My question begins ‘Thank you very much. I think that I agree with you…’

By Jodi Dean, on 20 November 2012 - 00:14 |

DG’s response isn’t surprising. It’s characteristic. So, I don’t accuse him of having an unified locus of truth. I say that for him the individual is the locus of politics as well as a sacrosanct locus of truth and knowledge. It’s interesting that he doesn’t disagree with my characterization of his emphasis on the individual as the locus of politics. That fits with his emphases on individual freedom which is where my disagreement falls. 

It’s odd (I’ll refrain from diagnosing it as symptomatic) that he takes the manarchist remark personally. It’s clear in the interview that I am answering the question by dividing it into two parts, the first that addresses DG and the second that addresses the last point of the question regarding the relationship between politics and ethics.

It’s not quite clear to me what the passages he provides in his second remark are supposed to accomplish. They seem to be evidence that he supports a notion of deliberation and that he thinks that deliberation can change people’s minds. Ok. It might be interesting for people interested in his thought to contrast those remarks with points he makes in The Twilight of Vanguardism, where he is more explicit about structuring conversations according to the idea that one cannot and likely should not convert another to one’s view. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the passage above and a Habermasian defense of democratic deliberation, also focused on consensus and also anchored in a supposition of individual participants in discussion.

By Samuel Grove, on 20 November 2012 - 00:17 |

I was taking a sophist’s stance in the interview, however there is maybe one question or proposition I would like to defend. That is about politics sometimes being a personal experience and whether this has consequences for organisation.

The question was interpreted simply as one of assessing the importance of individual expression—as an end to itself. However it needn’t have been interpreted this way. Jodi’s explicit reason for discussing ‘left melancholy’ was because it was seen as a barrier to the formation of a party. At the level of desire, in the psychoanalytic sense, it is a kind of blockage to the “collective desire for collectivity” as she puts it. I think this provides the context for how the question should be interpreted.

It was Freud’s great contribution to have pointed out that desire is inherently contradictory. When there are forces that draw us to someone or some thing—in this case a ‘collectivity’ there are often forces that repel us. Just as we want to be understood, to agree with people, to submerge our identities; there is also a part of us that really doesn’t want to be understood, or agreed with and resents the loss of autonomy that comes with our loss of autonomy. I’m not sure that this is simply a product of neoliberal individualism (isn’t the ambivalence of desire, the central principle of the unconscious?).

The task, from a therapeutic perspective, is to find ways of managing these contradictory forces so as not to damage ourselves and our relations with our loved ones. Equally the task from a political perspective is to find ways to manage these contradictions so as not to damage the party.

I would go further. In the natural sciences the rigidness of its rules precludes conflicts of opinion within theories (there are not competing interpretations of the theory of gravity for example). This cannot be said of Marxism or psychoanalysis. When Althusser refers to Marxism and psychoanalysis as ‘conflictual sciences’ he means this in two senses. Firstly that they are primarily sciences of conflict (the class struggle, and the conflicting forces of the unconscious) AND that these conflicts themselves manifest themselves in the discourse itself. That is that the disagreements in Marxist and psychoanalytic discourse are products of the class struggle (think of the debates borne out by the revisionism of Kautsky for instance) and the unconscious (think of the personal nature of the battles) respectively. These conflicts are not a barrier or an obstacle to be overcome in order to get to an unvarnished truth. They are the ways in which Marxist and psychoanalytic discourse are produced.

To put it slightly differently and more poetically—WH Auden said of Freud that…
‘...to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives.’

That is the Party is going to and somehow be an outlet for conflicting viewpoints, as well as the collective. This requires thinking about what it is we insist upon at the level of the collective (I am thinking of anti-racism, the centrality of the class struggle and maybe particular revolutionary strategies) and those that can be the site of conflict and disagreement.  I don’t suppose this is a very great problem, or one that requires any radical Deleuzian/anarchist solution. In many ways it is one that is already being worked out. For example I think union and party branch meetings (which always operate at a certain distance from bureaucracy) provide a partial answer to this question.

By Jodi Dean, on 20 November 2012 - 00:37 |

Neil—I agree with you that an unwavering economist Marxist class analysis could be unhelpful. But, a Marxist class analysis attuned to changes in the mode and relations of production over the last 150 years is crucial.

With respect to democracy, you should ask yourself who in the mainstream openly opposes democracy. Bush engaged in aggressive war in the name of democracy. Capitalism is defended in the name of democracy. This suggests to me that democracy cannot be the name of a radical politics now.

By Attila , on 20 November 2012 - 01:46 |

I think Dean’s wholly fictional, penniless, homeless, vacuous communist party with no members, no resources, neither premises nor praxis, a figment of the imagination of the ruling class’ own retained ideologist, is just the communist party capital ordered. 

Look into this instead;




By Teresa Cascino, on 20 November 2012 - 06:01 |

I am not convinced about Jodi Dean’s rejection of the fact that a political awakening can be a personal (and strong) experience. I am speaking about my personal experience and definitely without the necessary knowledge in political theory needed for this. So take it as my “gut feeling”. And perhaps, because of lack of knowledge, I didn’t understand properly her point. I understand what she says that just having a “personal view” and the need to express things is not enough, as it feels like having a mystical experience which will necessarily leave you frustrated. But actually, a personal awakening is about maturing towards a point of view, and moreover, the first instinct I had when started to think about these issues again, and on the workplace rather than as a student, was to look for “mates” (or “comrades” - although this word has a sinister meaning to me as I am Italian and it was used by the Italian Fascists…we use the word “compagni”). It has been very strange for me. I started to think about how my need of “belonging” is used to make me adhere to the values of my corporation, how relationships at work are dominated by hierarchy and individualism, how we are one against the other, but working together towards a goal that is not “ours”. I could make thousand of examples, but I think if there is something that modern corporations do well is solving precisely this conflict between individual and collectivity (and I mean collectivity of their own employees), and orienting this collectivity towards their goals. But also I thought about other situations in which people from very diverse backgrounds have found themselves united in one idea, without structure, or delegation, yet they made the message very clear. I am thinking in particular about what happened in Italy when Italy entered war against Afghanistan. I remember, of course, taking part to the organisation of the usual assemblies etc. But it has been surprising to me how everybody, and I say everybody in Italy, and for years, has made clear that the Italians didn’t want to go to war. The Peace flag was on every balcony, every shop, everywhere, “Not in my name” written in any form everywhere, I mean, in Italy, the place where people are most detached to politics…so actually this form of consensus can happen even in a very abrupt,direct and uncontrolled way…

As gut feeling, from what I understand, she is basically implying that there is no point in educating people to politics. I don’t think so. And also that the individual voice is not important…I don’t think so either. It is not important if it is alone. But if it is part of an organisation, or even of a “culture” then the story changes quite a lot, also because one feels recognised, and feels stronger, and more “optimistic”, and empowered.

By Horace McCoy, on 20 November 2012 - 18:59 |

“With respect to democracy, you should ask yourself who in the mainstream openly opposes democracy. Bush engaged in aggressive war in the name of democracy. Capitalism is defended in the name of democracy. This suggests to me that democracy cannot be the name of a radical politics now.”

Can Jodi Dean name one person in the mainstream who doesn’t openly oppose democracy?  From Obama to Romney, from Bill Mahr to Bill O’Reilly, everyone today is very explicit that the people cannot be trusted and only elites are capable of political decision making.  Jodi Dean agrees with this consensus.  OK.  How then does she claim to be on the left? 

(Yes, everyone pays lip service to “democracy” as they do to “freedom,” “justice,” etc…  But we know this is hypocrisy.  When someone who claims to champion democracy who expresses a clear hatred for it, are we supposed to take them at their word?  Is Dean suggesting we concede the definition of democracy to George W. Bush?  Then why not concede the definition of “communism” to Stalin?)

By DAVID GRAEBER, on 20 November 2012 - 21:24 |

Um, actually, no, JD, I do disagree with your accusation that I believe the individual is the locus of politics, since I have never held proposed of the kind and there is absolutely zero reason to assume that I hold this position from anything I’ve actually said; the accusation instead seems to come from taking out some sort of incredibly simplistic text-book of “how to dismiss rival political philosophies” which says “all anarchists are liberal individualists” and then assuming, since I have identified myself with anarchism, this must be true of me . I kind of vaguely assumed that I have a vast corpus of published work which systematically challenges pretty much every one of the philosophical underpinnings of liberal individualism might have at least been taken into consideration here. But when people are purveying deeply held political stereotypes I guess there’s nothing you can do.

By DAVID GRAEBER, on 20 November 2012 - 21:45 |

 I might add - the fact that I’ve argued from the very beginning of OWS that it’s success has been based on shifting class alliances made possible by changing modes of surplus extraction under financialized capitalism might have provided a slight hint that I do not really see individuals as the prime (let alone only) subject of social movements. 

I mean, honestly, why do I have to even point these things out? And then people accuse me of being intemperate. But you know, Jodi, if someone reached into their textbook, said, “oh, you call yourself a Communist, I’ll accuse you of supporting gulags,” took some fragmentary sentence from something you said to make it sound like that’s what you were for, ignoring all your published work which directly bore on the subject, you’d probably respond “coarsely” as well.

The whole conversation saddens me. The irony is I really liked Jodi Dean’s comments on the debt campaign. I disagreed with most of her points strongly but I saw it as a helpful contribution to an important debate and even brought the text to an OWS debt campaign discussion group to ensure all the points got due consideration. So I really expected more than this kind of “oh, you anarchists, you’re all just liberal individualists, I say go form a party (of course I’m not going to go to work forming a party myself, I’m just going to tell other people who clearly don’t think this is a good idea and whose ideas I will now proceed to slur and misrepresent that they should go do it)”

Well, I suppose it’s just basically expressive. I can’t imagine the author thinks that people will be inspired by this to actually go off and create a political party. So it’s really just a way of expressing frustration that others are not doing what the author thinks they really ought to be.

That’s fine. But it seems a bit much to take the work of 30 years work of essentially feminist-led hands-on organizing experience, completely misrepresent its base assumptions, and then dismiss it by pretending it all somehow comes out of my brain, when all I was doing was offering an enthusiastic description of what others have developed and achieved

By purple, on 21 November 2012 - 01:18 |

“From each according to ability to each according to need” is a dubious principle with which to organize society. How exactly is need and ability decided, and who decides it ? The seeds of authoritarianism lie within the principle.  I think we (the Left) can do better.

By Jodi Dean, on 21 November 2012 - 02:15 |

David Bell—I agree with you about the rethinking the party and opening up possibilities of new understandings of the party form. I try to do this in The Communist Horizon, drawing from the OWS experience. I wouldn’t emphasize ‘identity interests’ but instead emphasize mindfulness towards histories of oppression that linger in our thinking and practices. The difference involves not thinking in terms of individuals but of collectivities.

Sam—I think it’s interesting to recognize that desire is primarily collective (first collective and only secondarily enclosed in individuals in ways they cannot fully determine although they can struggle with and against). If that’s the case, the issue isn’t one of the individual’s ambivalent relation to the group or collective but one of the collective’s ambivalent relation to itself (not knowing the sort of collective it wants to be, what membership in it means, etc). That seems to me to be what you are getting at when you talk about contradictory forces. I wonder, though, if you underestimate conflict within the natural sciences.

Teresa—I do think that education, the old school term would be ‘consciousness raising’, is important in politics. Absolutely. And I agree with you that this is primarily a matter of a group and how the group impacts its members,

Horace—you acknowledged that the mainstream emphasizes democracy. All our textbooks celebrate democracy. Our laws and elections celebrate democracy. I don’t think that the important political struggle is to say that those on the right, say, are hypocrits who don’t believe in democracy. I agree with Lenin when he says that democracy is the form of government best suited for protecting the interests of the bourgeoisie.

By Jodi Dean, on 21 November 2012 - 04:41 |

David—ok. You don’t think that the individual is the locus of politics (or, in your words you disagree with my ‘accusation.’) I didn’t think of it as an ‘accusation’ since I thought that it was your view, and not on the basis of the ‘how to dismiss rival political philosophies’ textbook  but on the basis of some of the things you’ve said about anarchism as in, for example, your piece on Occupy in Al Jazeera.“Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.” and “Anarchism was also a revolutionary ideology, and its emphasis on individual conscience and individual initiative meant that during the first heyday of revolutionary anarchism between roughly ...”

I don’t quite get the rest of what you’ve written, like how Strike Debt comes into the discussion. That has been really successful so far and I hope it can grow. I’d like to see it move more in the direction of building an organizational structure than pursuing litigation; I also think the key is focusing on the causes of municipal debt and getting away from personal debt. There’s a lot more to say on this, but this isn’t the space for it.

On the party: I think that there is increasing interest in the party, in rethinking the party and what it might mean. Among organizing socialists there is a renewed debate about forms of combination and alliance, in part because of enthusiasm for SYRIZA. Among some activists who’ve engaged with Occupy, there is an interest in thinking about organizational structures with more duration and what they might entail and how they can avoid the problems that have encountered historical parties. I’ve been really heartened to see how some of my ideas here converge with what others are thinking.

By Chris Read, on 21 November 2012 - 15:45 |

I think Jodi’s (rather worrying) comments about democracy, anarchism, freedom etc would be fine and dandy if there were a practical argument to make that all this anarchist faffing of recent years has all been too pomo, lifestyle-y, etc and therefore stops the proletarian masses from joining the revolution. If I thought this was true then then I’d be like ‘yeah, go, sling those trustafarians pontificating about ways of seeing in the gulag’. But at the moment there is scant evidence of the kind of revolutionary situation that means we need to ‘go brutal’ and get the commissars, nagans and whips out. Actually, I think the changes that neo-liberalism has wrought to our economy make the anarchist strategy more effective than a new Communist party. Also, her reaction to criticisms of the USSR (mass death, camps, secret police, you know) was a bit non-existent. But good to read a slice of aggressive, provocative neo-modernism in 2012 - its been too long in coming (like the dread Grunge revival…)

By Attila , on 22 November 2012 - 00:33 |

Lenin on democracy:

“‘The dictatorship of the proletariat alone can emancipate humanity from the oppression of capital, from the lies, falsehood and hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy — democracy for the rich — and establish democracy for the poor.” 

and again:

‘The dictatorship of the proletariat will take from the capitalists and hand over to the working people the landowners’ mansions, the best buildings, printing presses and the stocks of newsprint. But this means replacing “universal”, “pure” democracy by the “dictatorship of one class”, scream the Scheidemanns and Kautskys, the Austerlitzes and Renners (together with their followers in other countries — the Gomperses, Hendersons, Renaudels, Vandervelde and Co.).

‘Wrong, we reply. This means replacing what in fact is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (a dictatorship hypocritically cloaked in the forms of the democratic bourgeois republic) by the dictatorship of the proletariat. This means replacing democracy for the rich by democracy for the poor. “

and again:

‘ This means replacing freedom of assembly and the press for the minority, for the exploiters, by freedom of assembly and the press for the majority of the population, for the working people. This means a gigantic, world historic extension of democracy, its transformation from falsehood into truth, the liberation of humanity from the shackles of capital, which distorts and truncates any, even the most “democratic” and republican, bourgeois democracy. “

and again,

‘The more complete the domination of the above minded “leaders”, the quicker the proletariat will see that only the replacement of the bourgeois state, be it the most democratic bourgeois republic, by a state of the type of the Paris Commune  (about which so much was said by Marx, who has been distorted and betrayed by the Scheidemanns and Kautskys) or by a state of the Soviet type, can open the way to socialism. “

By Horace McCoy, on 22 November 2012 - 10:06 |

Thank you for responding to me about democracy.  I do think there are two separate issues here that are getting conflated.  The first question is whether “democracy” is the concept or slogan most worth organizing around today.  In this respect I take your point.  To say you are in favor of democracy will not ruffle any feathers, whereas saying you are a communist will.  This is a question of tactics. 
But there’s a second more significant issue, which is whether you believe in democracy or not, which is to say whether you believe that the people can and should rule.  And it seems that tactics aside, you are actually anti-democratic.  My point is that this puts you not against the mainstream, but very much on the side of consensus.  Elections, we know, are just about generating consent that the people do not govern themselves.  Everyone agrees that decisions that matter can only be trusted to elites.  Who openly says that the people should be able to make decisions over the military or financial matters that concern them?  Democracy, the right wing is often very clear, is a threat to plutocracy.  You can’t have both.  You can’t have banks bailed out in a democracy.  You can’t have communism without democracy.  You can have consumer choice and elections in what ideologically gets called “democracy,” just as you can have vanguard parties and gulags in what ideologically gets called “communism.”

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