In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, some of the most effective networks of aid came from the remnants of Occupy Wall Street. According to Jodi Dean, this is one of many examples that the radical Left should embrace as evidence of a new kind of politics. In The Communist Horizon, a handsome little addition to Verso’s Pocket Communism series, Dean works out what this might look like in reference to the history and living practice of Communism. In addition to teaching political theory at Hobart & William Smith College, Dean has been a consistently insightful voice on the Left in influential books such as Blog Theory and Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, as well as on her blog I Cite.
I spoke with Jodi Dean on Election Day in New Haven, Connecticut, where she was delivering a lecture on communicative capitalism. We discussed the function communism still plays in our political discourse, the importance of moving past remnants of Cold War ideology, and recent attempts to overcome “Left Melancholia.”
Michael Schapira: We’re speaking on Election Day, concluding what you called on your blog a “bloated, hell storm of an election.”During the Republican primary and running through the general election you would hear people from the Right accuse Obama of being a Communist, Marxist, or Socialist, and pushing his ideological agenda on the American people. The Left would disavow these charges, saying how he is not any of these. Do you see anything revealed in the Right’s continued willingness to use the word Communist, verses the Left’s hesitation to claim any relationship to this word?
Jodi Dean: In short, the Left has been cowardly. The Left has let itself be completely defeated and beaten by not holding on to its own best achievements. It pushes away from these ideas and doctrines that have given it strength for 150 years – Socialism, Communism, Marxism, letting some of the facts of history incapacitate it.
The Right on the other hand takes its defeats and uses them to strengthen itself. It assumes that the Left does the same, but we just hide the fact that we are Marxists. It uses this to bring folks out by saying “you’re a Marxist,” knowing that the Left will retreat from it. On that one scale you see the difference in how the Right learns from and embraces its failures and the Left wallows in them in this pathetic way.
Additionally the Right knows that words matter, knows that there is a strength there, and I think the Left is sometimes afraid of strength, or afraid of what happens when the people have power.
But that’s also changing. We seem to be in a process where the Left is waking up. It’s been a long time since there has been a vocal Communist, Marxist, or Socialist Left. There have been individuals who have been Leftist obviously, but one significant change is that the Foucauldian/Deleuzian position doesn’t have legs anymore. People are tired of that. It doesn’t seem to address the primary problems facing the world.
This seems to relate to what you write in the book about the party. You write that “the power of the return of communism stands or falls on its capacity to inspire large-scale organized collective struggle toward a goal,” and to this end you are against calls to work exclusively outside of a party structure. Slavoj Zizek has been pointing to Syriza in Greece as an example of what this might look like (a coalition of the radical Left). Do you think Syriza is a good example of a renewed embrace of the party structure on the Left?
My discussion of the party in the book is really abstract, and for a couple of reasons. First, I want to encourage Leftists who have been influenced by Deleuze, Hart and Negri, identity politics, and all this swarmy stuff to think more seriously about tighter organizational structures. So that’s the first addressee, this general Left feeling of dispersion as a good thing. I want the Left to think, no, maybe it’s not a good thing, and maybe we need to think in terms of tighter structures like the party.
The next part is to think that maybe one way to do this and make it more attractive is to rethink what it is that a party does, what’s the point of a party. A typical critique of the Leninist party is that “oh it knows everything and tries to put itself at the vanguard of a linear theory of history, that it’s the one group that knows the truth.” Well, that’s actually historically wrong, it’s a parody and a ridiculous way to think about the party. So what I try and do in the book is to use [Georg] Lukács to think about the party as this overlap of two lacks. There is a kind of non-knowledge on the part of the party, and a non-knowledge on the part of the people. But these are held together in the commitment to a collective process, a collective moving forward. So it’s an effort to just try and rethink how one might even imagine a party.
To me that’s the theoretical part that matters. If we begin to ask whether it is necessarily a revolutionary party, or a reformist party, these questions are coming too quickly when in fact what we need to do is think about how we even understand organization.
And perhaps thinking in terms of the party imposes a certain scale on our imagination.
We can think of a party structure as something that scales much more easily. Occupy had a problem with scale. Encampments couldn’t get much bigger than they were; they get dirty, hard to maintain.
But getting back to your question, I think Syriza is tremendously exciting. I was in Greece three days after the election in June and was excited to talk to a number of people. One of the things I was struck by was how similar their discussions were to ours in Occupy, wondering what they were supposed to do – so they also had a kind of non-knowledge that they were very explicit about.
But they still had shown great strength and grown. What I like about Syriza is that it is a coalition structure within a party form. That seems really smart. This is something I am currently working on. If I’m thinking of the Party as this overlapping of two lacks, what forms, what organizational structures would fit with this? What would be the advantage of Syriza’s form, and in what circumstances? In the US we have a different thing going on. They can do a coalition of the radical Left there because they have a parliamentary system. We’ve got this horrible two party system that makes it difficult for smaller parties to grow. There are only 7 states that allow fusion voting – this is where candidates can run on the ticket of more than one party, so for example in New York Obama ran as a Democrat, but also on the Working Families Party.What that does is allow small parties to grow and build a base. This might even open up some funding, but it differs from state to state. But if this occurs in only 7 states, it’s hard to imagine there being enough parties to make up a Syriza style coalition.
That said, why not try and get all the 2000 member Socialist and Communist parties to try and form a tighter coalition, and why not try to work with Greens, why not try to build something better?
I was recently at a talk where the speaker suggested that communism could serve as a word to replace corrupted forms of democracy, so long as you forgot its history. This got a laugh from the audience. In the book you want to reengage this history not as a catalogue of failures, but as “the force of an absence” that can give some content to our collective strivings – and you do this partly by challenging the very narrative that the speaker was invoking (“communism-Soviet Union-Stalinism-Collapse”), and partly by showing how this narrative has as much to say about our inability to think clearly about the historical construction of capitalism. What have you found to be the most effective approach to challenging this common narrative – reworking the history of communism, or pointing to contemporary movements and struggles that self-consciously identify as communist?
I don’t think those are separate. They are linked in part by the same impulse.
My argument about history is that folks, particularly Leftists, who say “oh no, only those who disavow our history can possibly return to communism,” those are the ones who don’t know history. Those are the ones who say there is only one uniform history that is completely determinate. They eliminate all the multiple arguments, debates, tendencies, the multiple voices that were silent, the role communism played in postcolonial struggles, etc. They also negate the really living communists and socialists in Latin America. So there is this bizarre negation of actual history on the part of those who invoke the history.
So that part is not just working through this history in light of a guilty conscience, but rather aiming towards the recuperation and drawing out of triumphs. That’s what’s really crucial, and that’s what animates a positive presence today. Let’s look at the willingness of people to fight and die and organize. This is really strong if we try and recover the history of American communism. My god, American communists were the first to work on behalf of sharecroppers in the 1920 and 1930s. They were the first out there in the anti-racist struggle. So this idea that the Communist legacy is only one of misery and death is a remnant of the Cold War that the Left must abandon.
So there is also a moral component that you would like to focus on.
And it’s an exciting and wonderful moral component. I gave a talk at a labor group in Albany last January, talking about Occupy as a Left movement more than a populist movement. There was a guy there in his 80s who said, “I remember when my parents helped occupy apartments on the Lower East Side of New York to keep African American families from being evicted. And who organized that? The Communist Party organized that.” He had a sense of pride and happiness about this, and we’ve abandoned people like him. I just spoke last week in Milwaukee, which has had 3 socialist mayors as we all remember from Wayne’s World. There was an 87-year-old woman sitting next to me. Her husband was a wild eyed Trot from the lunatic fringe and she was telling me all about the different socialist landmarks there, and said “I remember when they tried to take Communism away from us, and I’m glad people are now trying to bring it back.” It was totally inspiring. There are people out there who can hear this if we don’t keep repeating the stupid legacy of the Cold War on ourselves.
As you are speaking now it strikes me that confidence is an important part of your project. In The Communist Horizon you talk about how recent political events – Occupy, the Arab Spring – have helped people get over what Wendy Brown has called “Left Melancholia.” Is maintaining this confidence what is most important in these new movements, and does an overreliance on formal considerations (e.g. horizontality) work against this?
I do see it as a threat. It’s the kind of threat where people are like, “I can’t sit through another 5 hour meeting, let’s just delegate some of this.” On the flip side though, it is clear that, particularly in the first couple of months, it was the horizontality that got people excited about Occupy. So there is something to learn there, and ask how we can combine elements of horizontality with other vertical elements and diagonal elements. There were some folks in Occupy doing a sort of morning after reflection on what worked and what didn’t work on September 17. One thing they learned was that a lot of people in the movement had tremendous leadership skills, but they also saw the need to step up and step back. So after one group exercises leadership you train and create space for others to step up. I love things like that. It seems like a really smart way to have a horizontality that is not dysfunctional because it also recognizes leadership.
The Communist Horizon is clearly an intervention in a Leftist discourse, but in writing a book like Blog Theory and speaking about communicative capitalism I imagine you get into lots of conversations with technologists of all sorts. How are these conversations different? Have technologists even been beset by melancholy?
I don’t think that the technology people are melancholic. They have tended to be always looking to the future, to every new gadget, and really optimistic, for at least the last 20 years or so. The problem is that much of that optimism is really libertarian, really individualistic, and also associated with the market. It’s almost like remnants of the dot-com bubble still circulate or reappear around new media people. Enthusiasm is there, but it’s not political. It’s a different kind of enthusiasm.
Are there lessons that the technologists could draw from Leftists, and vice versa?
What the technology folks could learn from a Marxist Left is to be more critical of the relations of production that their utopian tendencies presuppose. Or, really, to be more critical of capitalism in general.
What the Left needs to learn from the technology people is this sense that “there’s always a work-around, there’s always a solution, that we can fix this.” I think that the Left doesn’t have that very much. They tend to settle into criticism for its own sake rather than a criticism that is building something else.
I also think that both sides need to learn from the history of Communism that collectivity is really the important thing. The hackers tend to be too libertarian and individualistic, the Left tends to be too critical, and both need to recognize that we can only get stuff done if we build collectives.
You describe the communist horizon primarily in spatial terms, as the point in relation to which we orient ourselves. Like [Jacques] Ranciere’s politics, this has radical consequences for what we see – as possibilities, as goals, as members of the polity that count. But horizon also invokes something different for me, namely the fusion of horizons that we find in Gadamer and hermeneutics. Do you think that the communist horizon also speaks to a fertile ground for communication and a widening of perspectives (contra the fears of many that Communism entails a radical reduction in our perspective)? Do we gain confidence to have different conversations?
I hadn’t thought of it in that Gadamerian way. The way I would extend that is to say that when we’re trying to rethink communism, we are learning from the past, but also recognizing the emancipatory energies that have always been a part of it. That should be a way to encourage and invite folks to more conversations than they’ve been willing to have.
I think that part of the problem on the Left has been that a lot of Leftist activists, particularly people my age (50 and over) had experiences with really hardcore Socialist Workers parties, or sectarian Marxists who often said “we can’t talk to these guys.” Because of their experiences with some uncongenial folks who were really rigid a stereotype of Marxism can emerge. But what you are suggesting is that the horizon idea can open up the possibility of these people re-thinking communism and putting back to use some of the energies that have been mobilized in its name.
The Idea of Communism, a collection that bears on many of the topics we’ve been discussing, begins with the following: “The long night of the Left is drawing to a close. The defeat, denunciations and despair of the 1980s and 1990s, the triumphalist ‘end of history’, the unipolar world of American hegemony – are all fast becoming old news.” Now I can see how this makes sense for people who have something like 1968 in common, or worked through the culture wars and identity politics, which in retrospect seemed to have had a depoliticizing effect on large-scale projects. But how do your students, who haven’t lived this sequence, respond to this renewed energy that some people have been bringing to exploring the Idea of Communism?
The challenge with younger people might be a different one. Many of them are so individualistic that it’s hard for them to think collectively. They’ve been told that every person is unique, every voice counts, everything political is about their individual experience, and so I think that the challenge of working with a lot of young people is breaking through this individualism. I think that is why so many of them are attracted to anarchism, because anarchism just repeats the neoliberal ideology, except with an oppositional, kind of groovier flavor.
They have also grown up with the idea that communism is inextricable from fascism. This is why terms like totalitarianism are completely reactionary in political discourse, because they blur the differences and make it really hard to inspire people to think about what the egalitarian content of communism is. That said, sometimes when young folks start reading Marx they are like, “Oh, this is good, I thought this was supposed to be bad.” But that might not be that same “now we have the word back” that older people have.
One move you make in the book is replacing the Marxist formulation of the dictatorship of the proletariat with “the sovereignty of the people.” Some might say that “the people” are harder to identify as an empirical class, and this causes problems for Marxist theory. Do you accept this?
I’ll be honest, I’m going back and forth on whether I’m right on this one. The orthodox part is that the proletariat is not an empirical class, even for Marx and Lenin. The proletariat is produced through time via capital. Capitalism has to produce a proletariat in order to keep maintaining itself as capitalism. So I like Zizek’s use of proliterianization, I think that’s really useful. If we keep that active part and recognize the people as that group that cycles in and out of proliterianization, then we have a somewhat orthodox view that is more convincing for us today.
I’ll admit that I found the focus on “proliterianization” compelling for the problems besetting workers in the knowledge economy. But this gets back to the question of confidence. Many place your work in the Autonomism tradition – these Italian Marxists who wrote in a grand style, as if everything they were saying had world historical importance. Does this confidence spill over into testing out some of the new formulations we find in The Communist Horizon?
Two things. I think of my writing, at least since I’ve been working with this idea of communicative capitalism, as at the intersection of Hardt & Negri and Zizek. I take some things from the Italian tradition, namely how they talked about the communicative phase of capital, how capital’s subsumption happens via communication today, which I like very much. But I get antagonism from Zizek, which I don’t think the Italians have a good version of.
A couple of years ago at a conference at Cornell I was chatting with Michael Hardt. I said to him, ”God there’s so much that I admire in what you guys have in the Empire trilogy, but it’s just so optimistic.” Michael said, “Yeah, but we were trying to respond to what we saw as overwhelming Left pessimism.” Even though I would not have admitted it to myself until you just brought this up, I think that might have made a difference in how I started thinking about the ways that I wanted to make my arguments. Michael’s approach wasn’t Pollyannaish, it wasn’t naiveté, it wasn’t ‘Oh yes, really everyone just loves each other.’” There was much more of a kind of political/tactical choice, and once I understood it that way I think I was more on board.
Think about what’s powerful in Zizek? In part it’s the stuff that makes people laugh. One of the things that makes him so great as a speaker, or when you are reading his texts, is the stuff that’s fun, and that makes you more disposed to his ideas. We can think about these elements as part of the Left dismantling itself of its melancholia, and that this optimism now is a source of strength.