‘At the Risk of Being Too Coarse’

by Jodi Dean, Samuel Grove

Jodi Dean on Communism, the Occupy movement, the perils of postmodern ethics and why the left needs a party.

First published: 19 November, 2012 | Category: 

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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