Saying ‘We’ Again: A Conversation with Jodi Dean on Democracy, Occupy and Communism

Jodi Dean teaches polit­ical and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited el­even books, in­cluding Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies and most re­cently The Communist Horizon (Verso, October 2012).

Biebricher & Celikates (‘B&C’): You argue that demo­cracy is so in­tim­ately tied up with what you call ‘com­mu­nic­ative cap­it­alism’ that every at­tempt from the left to re-​appropriate the term, to give it a more rad­ical meaning and to dis­tin­guish it from the elect­oral re­gimes of rep­res­ent­ative demo­cracy has to fail. This seems dif­fi­cult to ac­cept for many people on the left.

Jodi Dean (‘JD’): There are a couple of reasons why I take this po­s­i­tion. First, and most broadly, demo­cracy is not a cat­egory of con­test­a­tion any­more. Right and left agree on demo­cracy and use a demo­cratic rhet­oric to jus­tify their po­s­i­tions. George Bush claimed to be de­fending demo­cracy all over the world by bombing all sorts of people. If that is demo­cracy, then that is not a lan­guage that the left can use to for­mu­late an egal­it­arian and eman­cip­atory po­ten­tial or hope. A second reason, which is a re­per­cus­sion of the first one, is that demo­cracy is a kind of am­bient mi­lieu, it’s the air we breathe, everything is put in terms of demo­cracy nowadays. And this relates to the third reason: the rhet­oric of demo­cracy is par­tic­u­larly strong now in the way in which it is com­bined with the form of cap­it­alism I call ‘com­mu­nic­ative cap­it­alism’, where ideals of in­clu­sion and par­ti­cip­a­tion, of making one’s voice heard and one’s opinion known are also used by TMobile and Apple. Participation ends up being the an­swer to everything. If that’s the case, re­fer­ring to it is not making a cut with our dom­inant frame, it’s just re­in­for­cing it. If gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions are en­cour­aging one to par­ti­cipate then left­ists don’t add one thing that’s not already present if they say that what we need is to make sure that everyone is par­ti­cip­ating and in­cluded — that’s already what we have. For the left to be able to make a break we have to speak a lan­guage that is not already the one we’re in.

B&C: This sounds primarily like a stra­tegic or polit­ical reason for shifting the focus away from demo­cracy. But is there really some­thing fun­da­ment­ally wrong on a the­or­et­ical level with the more rad­ical no­tion of democracy?

JD: What’s wrong with the no­tion of demo­cracy as even rad­ical demo­crats have ap­pro­pri­ated it is that it leaves cap­it­alism in place. The as­sump­tion is that if we have enough demo­cracy the problem of cap­it­alism will either go away or solve it­self — and that’s clearly false. Take Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: their idea of rad­ical demo­cracy is framed spe­cific­ally to keep class from being a primary polit­ical de­term­in­a­tion. In the Frankfurt School tra­di­tion Habermas’s dis­tinc­tion between life-​world and system leaves cap­it­alism un­touched. The same is true for the focus on civil so­ciety which leaves the mode of pro­duc­tion out of the frame. So the the­or­et­ical reason for my skep­ti­cism is that the left has moved away from an ana­lysis and cri­tique of capitalism

B&C: You refer to demo­cracy as a ‘neo­lib­eral fantasy’ — could you ex­plain that no­tion a bit?

JD: The more neo-​liberalism has en­trenched it­self the more we have been hearing this lan­guage of demo­cracy, as if par­ti­cip­a­tion was going to solve all prob­lems — but this is a fantasy be­cause the fun­da­mental truth is that it is not going to solve these prob­lems. Keeping all the activity in the demo­cratic sphere makes it seem as if people are busy, en­gaged etc. without ever af­fecting the basic struc­ture. It’s a fantasy be­cause it func­tions like a screen.

B&C: Building on this dia­gnosis, you in­tro­duce an al­tern­ative vocab­u­lary with the term ‘com­munism’ at its center — a dif­fi­cult term, one could say, if only for stra­tegic pur­poses given that it is widely re­garded as his­tor­ic­ally discredited.

JD: First, there has been the re­turn of com­munism in the the­or­et­ical dis­cus­sion that started with the con­fer­ences Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have or­gan­ized. Hardt and Negri have been talking about com­munism for a long time already. It’s im­portant to re­turn to the lan­guage of com­munism be­cause that is the one word that says ‘no to cap­it­alism’. No matter what, if people say that they are com­munist, you know that they are against private prop­erty and the private own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion and for the people’s con­trol over these means. There’s no nu­ance about their re­la­tion to cap­it­alism, and that’s what is im­portant. A third reason is that the right in the US still be­lieves in it, they are con­stantly at­tacking com­munism which means that they know that it is the lan­guage of anti-​capitalism that ap­peals to some kind of eman­cip­atory egal­it­ari­anism. So I don’t think that com­munism is as dead as the left seems to as­sume. The right knows it’s alive.

B&C: This might of course be spe­cific to the US and a bit dif­ferent in Europe. But let’s turn to a more the­or­et­ical con­cern. We agree that the ana­lysis of cap­it­alism, and more gen­er­ally a Marxist per­spective on class so­ciety, is ab­so­lutely cru­cial and that this has been neg­lected or mar­gin­al­ized in a lot of radical-​democratic thought. But on the other hand it seems that the re­turn to com­munism, e.g. in the work of Badiou, is also in a prob­lem­atic way de­tached from a social-​theoretical ana­lysis of so­ciety. The ef­fect is that com­munism is un­der­stood in act­ivist or vol­un­tarist terms, as if we could just de­cide to es­tab­lish com­munism, whereas in the Marxist frame­work it was al­ways tied to both a socio-​theoretical ana­lysis and to ex­isting eman­cip­atory move­ments. Does com­munism re­turn as utopia in­stead of real movement?

JD: I don’t think this de­tach­ment is so char­ac­ter­istic of the re­turn of com­munism. It’s true that Badiou lacks any ac­count of the eco­nomy, but David Harvey has a strong Marxist ana­lysis of the eco­nomy that re­cog­nizes changes, such as the emer­gence of new places of struggle and or­gan­iz­a­tion such as the city. So here there is a socio-​economic an­chor and com­munism is not seen as free-​floating. The same is true for Hardt and Negri, par­tic­u­larly in Empire their ac­count, which goes back to the whole post-​autonomia dis­cus­sion and its ana­lysis of the so­cial factory, re­cog­nizes that there are socio-​economic changes and move­ments that can still be ana­lyzed with vari­ations of Marxist cat­egories and provide a loc­a­tion for some kind of com­munist move­ment. Another ques­tion is whether there is an active, vivid com­munist move­ment right now. That would prob­ably be far-​fetched with re­gard to the US and Germany or the Netherlands — but look at other parts of the world such as Nepal and India or Greece. We go too quickly if we say that there is no so­cial ana­lysis or link with any real movements.

B&C: What about Occupy? Do you see a pos­sible link with the re­turn to com­munism or is it a demo­cratic movement?

JD: It’s a plural and open move­ment with mul­tiple tendencies.

B&C: That sounds like com­mu­nic­ative capitalism!

JD: You’re right, that’s a problem, and one of the views I often argue against is that Occupy is a ‘meme’ that jumped from the in­ternet onto the streets or that it’s primarily driven by so­cial media. I don’t think this is true. What made the move­ment work in the US was the re­la­tion to Wall Street, it wasn’t Occupy Capitol or Congress. That gives us the an­ti­cap­it­alist core that is the sub­stance of the move­ment even as all the other tend­en­cies some­times make us lose sight of that.

B&C: Can you say some­thing about the in­sti­tu­tional or or­gan­iz­a­tional struc­tures that the move­ment against cap­it­alism and for com­munism would have to have? You argue that we have to renew the idea of the party. Many will re­gard that with some skepticism!

JD: First on the idea of the party. Lukács is really great in his book Lenin: A Study on the Unicity of his Thought in re­cog­nizing that the party is a form for the ac­tu­ality of re­volu­tion, which means that it is a form that we need be­cause of the mul­ti­pli­city of people who be­come mo­bil­ized when a move­ment starts. Of course, they are going to bring all kinds of dif­ferent forms of con­scious­ness to the move­ment and that can easily be re­dir­ected and be­come a kind of pop­u­lism. So a party can be useful in trying to re­spond to this — not dog­mat­ic­ally but flex­ibly, trying to push and steer a little bit. But it should not and cannot get ahead of the people. It has to have a much more re­sponsive re­la­tion­ship to it, trying to direct in a re­sponsive way. So with re­gard to the first ques­tion I think that a party is ne­ces­sary and that we can re­cog­nize even in the old his­tory of Communist parties it was never as dog­matic, un­re­sponsive or rigid as the critics want us to think. Second, not a whole lot of people are ex­cited about the party idea; I’ll admit to that. But I think the ex­per­i­ence of Syriza can be made more in­spiring for people out­side of Greece. Because they see that there is a flex­ible left co­ali­tion that was able within four or five months to func­tion as a party and make real pro­gress. That would be dif­ferent in the United States be­cause we do not have a par­lia­mentary system, so the in­cent­ives for the party form are not really there, which is a real problem. On the other hand, one of the ex­per­i­ences that has come out of ‘Occupy’ is that there needs to be a more ex­plicit un­der­standing of how leaders func­tion and arise so that leaders can be ac­count­able and dif­ferent people can move in and out of lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions, in an open, trans­parent and ac­count­able way. So I would hope that over the next year some more co­hesive or­gan­iz­a­tional form can emerge and I do not think that it hurts to call it a party.

B&C: Historically the role that Communist parties have played has often turned out to be anti-​revolutionary not only with re­spect to e.g. the more an­archist cur­rents in these re­volu­tionary move­ments but also in other ways. One might think that the council system would be a good al­tern­ative to the party form in terms of or­gan­izing the movement.

JD: I don’t think that the party form is op­posed to coun­cils, cells or so­viets. In October, I was reading Lenin’s April Theses and thought that the gen­eral as­sem­blies of Occupy are a new form of so­viet. All of these are units in which a party can func­tion or which can be com­pon­ents of a party. They are not op­posed to each other. I think Anarchists are too re­ductive here be­cause they treat the party as some­thing on top rather than some­thing within: an or­gan­iz­a­tion of voices within a broader field. I think it is a mis­take to build up this dichotomy.

B&C: But there do seem to be his­tor­ical and so­ci­olo­gical reasons to be skeptical.

JD: There have been mul­tiple kinds of parties. Even in the Soviet Union the party changed over time. It went from being a re­volu­tionary party with mul­tiple splits to one that be­came less tol­erant of vocal op­pos­i­tion within it to one that was a ruling bur­eau­cratic party to a bur­eau­cratic party that would also purge it­self and change over time. People act like freaks when it comes to Communism and in­stall a nar­row­ness and a de­term­inism that would be ana­thema in any other in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion. I think it is really time to get out of that Cold War men­tality that lets us re­duce everything to one kind of bur­eau­cratic Stalinist party as if that were the only thing that a Communist party ever was.

B&C: Let us come back to the Occupy Movement once more. Maybe you could elab­orate a little more on where you see the sig­ni­fic­ance of the movement.

JD: The most im­portant thing about Occupy Wall Street is that it let the Left re­cog­nize it­self as a Left again in­stead of speaking in terms of all these dif­ferent iden­tity cat­egories split­ting the Left and saying ad nau­seum that there is no Left and that no one can say ‘we’. With Occupy Wall Street we can fi­nally say ‘we’ again. It really was a situ­ation where the ques­tion was: ‘are you for or against Occupy Wall Street?’ And people from a wide variety of po­s­i­tions on the Left ended up having to say, ‘Yes, we are for it’. Even if their ac­cept­ance was qual­i­fied or crit­ical, that ‘for or against’ be­came a di­viding line. Occupy is an event partly be­cause of its ability to in­scribe this kind of di­vi­sion so people have to say whether they are for or against it: ‘Are you one of us or not?’ — even if the ‘us’ is amorphous, chan­ging and plural. But it was a really di­visive mo­ment in the very best pos­sible way. So first, its sig­ni­fic­ance lies in the way it gal­van­ized the Left. Naomi Klein said at the end of the first week of the oc­cu­pa­tion: ‘This is the most ex­citing thing in the world right now’, meaning for us in the US Left to have some­thing that was gal­van­izing and that was an opening. That is what I think of Occupy Wall Street as an evental form. I also think it is a polit­ical or­gan­iz­a­tion of the in­com­pat­ib­ility of cap­it­alism and demo­cracy. Its par­tic­ular form ties it to the con­tent of the gap between cap­it­alism and democracy.

B&C: One of the main cri­ti­cisms re­garding strategy that have been made is the ab­sence of an agenda or a set of demands.

JD: I was in the Demands Working Group, which died a really hor­rible death. It was about March and it was hor­rible to watch as it was painful and on­going. The problem of de­mands was ini­tially presented as if it wasn’t a problem but a choice: ‘We do not want to have de­mands be­cause we are not ad­dressing the state. Occupation is its own de­mand.’ But this was an un­be­liev­ably stupid thing to say be­cause the reality was that the move­ment at its be­gin­ning was so in­clusive and amorphous that it was not cap­able of making de­mands as a group. There was not enough of any kind of so­cial co­he­sion, any kind of common in­terest, from which de­mands could be for­mu­lated. Instead of ad­dressing that, the dis­cus­sion was formed around ‘de­mands are bad; any­body who wants us to make de­mands is trying to hi­jack the move­ment or elim­inate its potential.’

But what was also ex­citing about it ini­tially was that not having de­mands cre­ated a space of de­sire so that the main­stream media and politi­cians went nuts. Everybody wanted to know: ‘What do they want?’ It was a won­derful proof of the truth of Lacanian theory’s ac­count of the gap of de­sire. There was this gap and it did in­cite a lot of en­thu­siasm and de­sire and that was good. It was ob­vi­ously not planned but there was an im­mense be­nefit to that open­ness. By early November, though, the de­mands group was frag­menting, the more lib­eral and in­de­pendent mem­bers would take everything that the rest said and would red-​bait it and say: ‘You guys are com­mun­ists; this will never wash with the 99%.’ And be­cause of the Anarchist prin­ciples of con­sensus that re­quired full or close to full agree­ment, they were able to block pro­posals nearly all the time. Other people were in the group con­stantly saying that the group should not exist and also blocking de­cisions. So that was a problem.

B&C: You said that Occupy en­abled the Left to say ‘we’ again. But isn’t one of the big achieve­ments of the his­tor­ical Left that it was al­ways wary of saying ‘we’ be­cause it was aware of the ex­clu­sions res­ulting from such a ‘we’? Is this aware­ness in­cor­por­ated into the move­ment and what are mech­an­isms ex­pressing it? How can we re­flect on these more prob­lem­atic as­pects of the ‘we’?

JD: First, there is a very con­crete pro­cedure for dealing with the po­ten­tial prob­lems of an ex­clusive ‘we’ that is called the ‘pro­gressive stack’. If people want to speak in a gen­eral as­sembly they get ‘on stack’. The pro­gressive stack makes sure that people who have not spoken and/​or are from his­tor­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged or mar­gin­al­ized groups are moved up in the stack. That makes it im­possible for priv­ileged people to take up all the speaking time. Most working groups also ad­opted this mech­anism. Secondly, there were mul­tiple groups that were fo­cused on women in the move­ment, ra­cial dif­fer­ences, prob­lems and is­sues for the un­doc­u­mented etc. So there were par­tic­ular caucuses and working groups on these very topics. So there was al­ways self-​consciousness in the move­ment. The as­sump­tion that every­body just forgot fifty years of dif­fer­ence theory is ludicrous.

However, at the same time the move­ment was de­lib­er­ately di­visive. 99 vs. 1: there is a real enemy. The problem in this re­gard I en­countered at a number of dif­ferent oc­cu­pa­tions I went to. One of the big is­sues was al­ways whether the po­lice are part of the 1 or the 99 per cent. I do not have one an­swer on that. It had to re­main an open issue. In some places it makes sense to think of them as part of the 99 per cent be­cause they were fa­cing all kinds of budget cuts etc. On the other hand they were also func­tioning as agents and de­fenders of the 1 per cent. So the very place where the di­vi­sion was po­liced, as it were, be­came an ant­ag­on­istic site where the ques­tion of dif­fer­ence re­mained un­re­solved in a useful way.

B&C: Would the new type of party you were talking about also have mech­an­isms and pro­ced­ures like the pro­gressive stack and spe­cific working groups in order to en­sure it does not de­velop the rigid struc­tures of former Communist parties?

JD: Sure, as long as there is a Central Committee … (gen­eral laughter).

Robin Celikates is Asso­ci­ate Pro­fessor of Social and Polit­ical Philo­sophy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ams­ter­dam and an asso­ci­ate member of the Insti­tute for Social Research in Frankfurt.

Thomas Biebricher dir­ects the re­search group “Crisis and Normative Order — Varieties of ‘Neoliberalism’ in Transformation” at the Cluster of Excellence “Formation of Normative Orders” at the Goethe University, Frankfurt.

(CC) Krisis, 2012, Issue 2

  1 comment for “Saying ‘We’ Again: A Conversation with Jodi Dean on Democracy, Occupy and Communism

  1. 23 November 2012 at 12:54 pm

    FYI, this in­ter­view has been trans­lated into Russian by Rabkor​.ru, a Russian left web­site. http://​www​.rabkor​.ru/​i​n​t​e​r​v​i​e​w​/​1​4​2​7​5​.​h​tml

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