“Anybody who is unwilling to talk about the party should not talk about political transformation.” Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party
In her new book Crowds and Party, Jodi Dean offers a call to action, arguing that the left needs to move beyond its obsession with individuality and start organizing collective efforts to effect real change. We need, she says, a communist party that can enable meaningful political action; we must abandon the great error of the left in recent decades: the idea that “fluid, hybrid and mobile subjectivities” are the “loci of freedom” because they are a “natural property”(63). Instead, we must recognize that such free and natural individuals don’t actually exist, and are in fact only an ideology “generated in the service of capitalism” (63).
Dean argues that the belief that any party is inherently oppressive, denying the natural and free radical singularity of individuals, is nothing but capitalist ideology itself. Those free individuals are never so free as they think, just “freely” choosing what capitalism demands that they do. And a good part of her book is devoted to arguing that what capitalism demands of these individuals is increasingly impossible, causing more and more suffering, and leaving individual or personal shortcomings as the only explanation for the individual’s unhappiness. “The real pathology,” she says, “is the individual form itself”(57).
Even the much-vaunted democratic power of social media, she explains, is an illusion: “Self-organization in complex networks doesn’t guarantee horizontality. In fact, it produces hierarchy” as the “most popular node or item in the network generally has twice as many links as the second most popular…and so on”(12). The function of what she call “communicative capitalism” is to “generate value that is expropriated,” so that much of the work of capitalism is done without payment, those at the top of the hierarchy accruing enormous wealth without producing anything at all other than their own popularity. The result is that we “make more and get less, intensifying [our] inequality with every communicative contribution and its trace” (16-17).
There is much of interest in this book, and much to discuss. However, (come on—if you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you knew this was coming, right?) I want to discuss here some problems with Dean’s conception of what a communist party might look like and how it would operate. My assertion is that her suggestion for collective action is based on a couple of related and enormously important theoretical mistakes. The party she suggests would be disastrous for the left. But if we can see our way around these errors, a party may actually be both possible and the only hope for the species and the planet.
I’ll try to be brief and somewhat informal in this critique, mostly because my interest is less to “out-theorize” Dean than to motivate discussion on this important subject. I’ve been told often enough that my sometimes philosophically-saturated academic approach kills engagement. Also, I expect a book like Crowds and Party will get two kinds of response: the right will point out the theoretical errors and believe they have therefore discredited the conclusion; the left in its terminal niceness will avoid real critical discussion and so the conclusions will be approved of but never acted upon. I’m hoping for a third approach: critical engagement that removes error so as to enable the conclusions to be acted upon. We do, in fact, need to drop the attachment to capitalist ideology masquerading as individual freedom, and we do need to form a party if we hope to have any true agency!
The first problem, then, is exactly with the difficult concepts of subjectivity and agency. What do we mean by a “subject”? What would count as real “agency”? On this question, Dean engages Althusser, repeating the standard misunderstanding of his theory of ideology, and yet again suggesting that the only true agency occurs outside of ideology. She wants to “invert” the Althusserian position that “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects,” arguing that instead “ideology interpellates subjects as individuals” (79). There’s a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand here, in that she is blurring together the different specific use of the term “individual.” Alhusser means this term to refer only to the concrete bodily human animals, while her use is the ideological use of the term as the “individual” who is autonomous and has free will, etc. Such rhetorical maneuvers abound in her misreading of Althusser—for instance, she suggests that his use of the term “imaginary” means something like fantastic, made up or false, instead of, as it actually does, the Lacanian register of the imaginary. She also relies on several other typical misreadings of Althusser (Mladen Dolar, Paul Hirst, Warren Montag). Her misreading is not uncommon; in fact, one might say it is the “standard” reading of Althusser today: if we assume that there really is an autonomous and free individual mind, Althusser explains how it gets tricked into the errors of ideology. Of course, Althusser’s point is exactly the opposite: there is no original and autonomous mind outside of ideology (we are all “always already” interpellated at birth), and ideology does not work because subjects are fooled into mistakenly believing in it; rather, subjects exists because there are ideologies to participate in. Ideologies are what give human bodies agency, and the power to act in and act on the world. The problem is not having an ideology, but having the wrong one—hence Althusser’s interest, in the ISA essay, in transforming the educational system. He does not suggest we can be “free subjects with true agency” outside of the oppressive educational system; his point is that we need a social practice in which to act, but the current one is problematic.
Very few thinkers on the left can really grasp the truly radical nature of Althusser’s thought in this essay. The reason is quite simple: at some level, we tend to continue to believe in some essential core uncreated mind that preexists any social order. Althusser’s crucial discovery is that this does not actually exist. So, while Montag argues that “individuals are picked from an undifferentiated mass” in the interpellative process, Althusser’s point is that there is never such a mass of pure and natural individuals to begin with—we are born into a differentiated social role. Similarly, Hirst’s claim that for Althusser “subjects and individuals correspond” misses the whole point: what Althusser means by the individual is the physical body, which can in no way ever “correspond” to the subject positon it functions to perpetuate. Dolar’s suggestion that “For Althusser, the subject is what makes ideology work” while “for psychoanalysis, the subject emerges where ideology fails” also gets it completely backwards. For Althusser, it is ideology, as a social practice, that makes the subject work; and for psychoanalysis, the subject does not “emerge,” free and with true agency, where ideology fails: instead, the failure of ideology is the point of the symptom, the point where the subject becomes unable to act without the intervention of a new ideological practice—analysis. Dean’s assertion that the “individual is a form of capture”(80) simply repeats the common misunderstanding of Althusser, based on a deep and subtle assumption of the existence of a free, uncreated, autonomous and atomistic subject. Althusser begins by rejecting this capitalist ideology of the subject, and tries to explain how the collective practice actually works to generate minds with agency, minds that do not precede it in any way, and cannot continue to exist outside of some ideology.
The common reading of Althusser, most of all from those on the left, falls into exactly the error of individualism Dean attempts to critique. It is sort of like saying to Galileo: sure, your theory seems to be correct…the only problem is that it fails to explain why, since Earth really is the stationary center of the universe, it appears as if it isn’t! One cannot understand Althusser’s ISA essay without first fully abandoning the idea of an atomistic mind. That this is very hard to do is evidenced by so many academics on the left, for so many years now, just getting this wrong.
This inability to conceive of the possibility that the mind, and so all potential agency, is always only created in some social practice, leads to the second enormous error of Dean’s argument. Because if we want to assert the existence of some essential core subject not created by ideological practices, we will always tend to find that essence in the description of the current form of subjectivity. Dean’s entire argument for how a communist party should operate depends on the (mistaken) belief that the form of the capitalist subject theorized by psychoanalysis is in fact not a result of capitalist social practices, but is essential and eternal. That is, the split subject generated by a fundamental repression is not a result of capitalism, it is an eternal truth! She cites Zizek often, and I would agree that Zizek does quite often, especially in recent years, suggest that this form of the subject is ontological rather than socially produced. However, in his early book The Sublime Object of Ideology he suggests quite the opposite:
One has to look for the discovery of the symptom in the way Marx conceived the passage from feudalism to capitalism. With the establishment of bourgeois society, the relations of domination and servitude are repressed: formally, we are apparently concerned with free subjects whose interpersonal relations are discharged of all fetishism; the repressed truth—that of the persistence of domination and servitude—emerges as a symptom which subverts the ideological appearance of equality, freedom, and so on. (26)
The point here is that the fundamental structure of the capitalist subject is dependent on a repressed truth, and that particular repression is original with capitalism. The divided subject, caught between the demands of the superego and the id, riddled with symptoms that impede its functioning, is a product of the capitalist social system, which must both reproduce inequality, oppression and exploitation and at the same time insist that it is doing the opposite of what it is doing! This is not to say, of course, that subjects of feudal orders were natural, free, uncreated and unconstructed. Of course they were also socially constructed, but in a different way. Psychoanalysis serves to theorize the subject of capitalism and its symptoms, but it is not necessary or desirable to assume this subject has an ontological status.
So, when Dean assumes that the concept of jouissance can provide a “material ground for the party”(6), or that it is impossible to “eliminate the minimal difference between the collectivity and the people,” that the “practical material split”(90) is universal and unresolvable, she is suggesting modeling the collective of the communist party on the structure of the split subject of capitalism, assuming there is no option. (Or, at least, that the only alternative is the oppressive false consciousness of “ideology” which she understands as destroying this true and natural state of being). She suggests that party serves as a kind of superego to the people, demanding they sacrifice and discipline themselves for it, and holding out the promise of jouissance as a future reward. Jouissance, of course, is something that doesn’t exist—something that Lacan repeatedly reminds us we are endlessly putting off or avoiding with our neurotic symptoms, because were we to reach it we would find that it really isn’t so much after all, that it really doesn’t turn out to give us as much satisfaction as we expected, and is devoid of meaning. It is the promise of bliss so great we never want to reach it, but endlessly want to seek it. Further, the Dean wants the party to serve as a kind of collective superego to the collective subject which “incessantly charges us for failing on all fronts” (189), demanding that it discipline itself if it hopes to avoid punishment and someday reach this non-existent reward. This may work as a theory of fascist parties. That is, as a theory of how collectives are motivated to work against their own interest and in the interest of capital, a psychodynamic theory of groups is rather convincing. As a theory of how we can work to eliminate capitalism, it is an abject failure.
I’ll point out just a few obvious problems with this approach. First, there is an assumption that the desire of what Dean repeatedly calls “the people” is a kind of pure pre-social and unconstructed desire. She repeatedly refers to it as “egalitarian discharge.” The party, she tells us, “gives the crowd a history, letting its egalitarian moment endure in the subjective process of people’s struggle”(259). By “carrying” and “channeling” the “discharge” of the crowd, the party transforms crowd into “people” and perpetuates its desire beyond the moment of the eruption. The problem here is in assuming that the crowd’s desire was ever anything other than the desire created by its interpellation in capitalist social formations. Rather, the crowd is a sort of neurotic subject, produced by the capitalist system in the same way it produces all neurotic subjects: by systematically training it to do and desire only the very thing it must then be forbidden to do and desire. Like most neurotic symptoms, the crowd action serves only to avoid coming to awareness of the primal repression—to avoid coming to correct understanding, and so to postpone any action that might change the situation that creates the neurosis.
For instance, Dean’s own example of the crowd in the Occupy Wall Street movement is seen as a idealized instance of a collective demand for egalitarianism, which must be kept alive by the party, which acts as a “transferential site” and prolongs the crowd’s moment of “discharge” by making it into a desire for the imposible ideal “jouissance.” However, as she herself explains, the demographics of the crowd in the Occupy movement does not support the idea that it was desirous of egalistarianism and an end to capitalism. This particular crowd was made up of those “proletarianized under communicative capitalism”(18), and so was made up of mostly those who were educated and underemployed. Their desire is not universal equality, but the share of capitalist wealth and prosperity they were led to expect they would get with their private school educations. Their desire, that is, is a desire for continued inequality—they just want to remain on the side of the “haves.” This is why this movement dissolved, refusing to demand any real change in the capitalist economy. None of the participants wanted it changed, they just wanted to change their place in it! If the party “derives its energy from the crowd” and “strives to let the crowd endure”(242), then it is working only to perpetuate the desires for capitalist wealth of a capitalist subject. The crowd is a product of capitalist ideological practices, not some kind of pure subject free of social construction.
If this is the desire the party seeks to keep alive, then it is certainly not a party that could lead to communism.
So far then, the problem can be outlined like this: by assuming that ideology is an oppressive false consciousness and true agency occurs outside of ideology, Dean reproduces the bourgeois ideology of the autonomous and atomistic subject oppressed by collective practices; it is simple enough, then, to universalize or essentialize the psychoanalytic theory of that subject, and assume that even if capitalism were to disappear that subject form would persist; then modeling the collective on the psychodynamics of the capitalist subject, we are left with a communist party dependent on illusion, error, and capitalist desire for its survival. It is hard to see how this could lead to any positive change. As Zizek explains in the passage cited above, the demand that we remain ignorant of the truth is at the core of the capitalist subject form, and is the cause of all its symptoms. If we assume that symptoms of capitalist failure (such as protesting crowds) are expressions of true desires of an extra-ideological subject, we are making a profound error. They might lead us to understand the nature of the truth that is prohibited, but only if we analyze them critically, not if we idealize them and ontologize their desires.
On Dean’s model, the communist party acts as a kind of substitute superego, and in a kind of collective psychoanalytic therapy (she says that the “the party is not an analytic session” but it operates in a similar fashion, dependent on transference). Once the crowd symptom emerges, the party must isolate and perpetuate its demand for jouissance, allowing it to believe that if it subjects itself to discipline and endless unpleasant tasks (going to meetings, distributing party propaganda, etc.) it will someday be allowed perfect and endless bliss after the revolution. Clearly enough, psychoanalysis has always faced the difficulty of this therapeutic role, of serving to restore the dysfunctional subjects necessarily resulting from capitalism’s inherent contradiction to a state of obedience and some degree of functionality. The problem is that at the same time psychoanalysis is able to explain that this restoration depends on the perpetuation of error, and the contintuation of suffering that could be removed if the social situation were changed. It is possible, then, to use psychoanalytic theory to reveal that the desire motivating the symptom is a desire for something that cannot possibly exist—and once we remove this illusory desire we can become subjects capable of enjoying actually possible actions in the world. Work in the world can be a source of enjoyment only once we abandon the error that all enjoyment must be had without effort, without thought, and take the form of an unending orgasmic bliss.
As an alternative, then I would suggest that perhaps we should consider a party based on correct knowledge, rather than on capitalist desires.
Dean gives up too much in her attempt to essentialize the capitalist form of subjectivity. She assumes that the Lacanian concept of the “subject presumed to know” can serve as the only possible model of all epistemology. She simply concedes to John Holloway the standard claim that any assertion to have “correct, objective scientific knowledge” is a false and dogmatic claim; on his understanding, all knowledge is just an expression of a particular desire, and can’t claim the status of truth. A communist party, therefore, must concede that it plays only the role of the “subject presumed to know”; “The party doesn’t’ know,” Dean asserts, it merely “organizes a transferential space”(199). The problem here might be obvious to those familiar with Lacan, but I’ll state it anyway: the kind of knowledge Lacan is referring to in this “subject presumed to know” is not objective knowledge of the working of the world, but knowledge of the desire of the Other. That is, what the analyst is presumed to know is the secret of desire. This cannot be something fixed and knowable, so it is only something the analysand projects onto the analyst. To assume that this eliminates all true and correct knowledge, to buy into the relativism which Holloway is insisting on, is to abandon any hope for real change.
Because while it is certainly true that there can be no objective and true final ideology, no desire or intention that is demanded of us by the laws of nature, it does not follow that we can have no objective and true knowledge at all. Dean at times does operate as if such knowledge does exist. For instance, I assume she means it to be an objective and correct truth that “the liberal state is in actuality the dictatorship of capital”( 207). This is the knowledge that the communist party must begin from. We must not begin by keeping alive the capitalist desires of crowds, which are nothing but symptoms of the inherent failure and contradictions of capitalism itself. Instead, we must start with a correct analysis of the situation, and of what can and should be done.
Dean too easily concedes that the “party substitutes itself for the class, the party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee subsitutes itself for the party organization” etc. (258), and then simply claim that “substitutionalism” is an inherent “gap” that is eternal and unbridgeable in human action. This assumes that the role of the party is to fulfill the desires of some group, and the struggle is over whose desires get fulfilled! But the goal of the party is to insist on truth, and that is not a matter of majorities or competing desires. The party does not function to tell us whether we ought to play baseball or read poetry, to tell us where our enjoyment is to be found; the party functions to correctly analyze the social effects of our practices, to point to the truth of the oppression and suffering these practices require—even, perhaps, to the oppressive ideological function of baseball or poetry! If the truth sometimes feels like an oppressive demand, that’s because it just is true, and we can’t opt out of it. Truth is not dependent on desire.
The party shouldn’t operate by “harnessing inchoate emotion” and being a “transferential object”(242). It shouldn’t operate by mobilizing desire. As Dean herself points out, “desire is the desire of the Other. Desire opens up a gap in the Other, as what the Other lacks” (247). The Other in Lacanian theory, we must remember, is a socially produced symbolic system which we take to be eternal and universal, although it is NOT! To operate by mobilizing desire, then, requires that we keep that Other in place. The job of the party is to explain the social and historical production of that Other, to explain how we can eliminate it, and never to assume it as a universal and eternal given.
Yes, we do need to produce a communist party to work collectively for change. But if we think we should model that party on the capitalist form of subjectivity, we are simply hoping to remove capitalism while perpetuating its effects. This hardly seems desirable to me.
And anyway, despite what Frankenfurter promises, I have my doubts that it is really possible to remove the cause…but not the symptom.