Admitting the Communist Desire
The following is excerpted from a dialogue that will appear in the July 2013 issue of Socialism and Democracy at www.sdonline.org.
Joseph G. Ramsey: How would you trace your own relationship to communism as a cause and a concept? For how long have you viewed communism as your political horizon? Has communism always defined the end point, the horizon for you?
Jodi Dean: I don’t think of the horizon—or communism—in terms of an end point. The horizon is the division that marks where we are. The division that marks where we are with respect to politics is that between communism and capitalism. This has been true at least since 1917 and arguably since 1848. It’s important to think of communism not as an end but rather as the only condition under which a politics adequate to the needs, demands, and common will of the people is possible. Under any other conditions, interests other than those of the people rule (coerce).
I find myself feeling anxious about the term ‘your political horizon’ because it makes it sound as if the communist horizon (that is, the fundamental opposition between communism and capitalism) was subjective or personal rather than objective. The communist horizon isn’t something specific to anyone. It’s a fact of the world, the event of 1917. …
I didn’t think about communism via the metaphor of a horizon until I heard Bruno Bosteels use García Linera’s term at a conference in Rotterdam in 2010. The conference, called “Waiting for the Political Moment,” was completely interesting in part because it gave me the sense not only that communism was back on the table (which was already clear after the Birkbeck conference) but that the tables had turned, so to speak. The arguments that had been so popular, the ones that had seemed to be winning in academic contexts, the ones associated with Foucault, Deleuze, deconstruction, a particular kind of post-structuralist theory, weren’t so persuasive anymore. The ones that were persuading people, that were the most compelling, were the ones coming from communist orientations. …
Ramsey: Shifting gears a bit, how would you characterize your relationship to Occupy Wall Street, from a practical and a theoretical perspective? The closing chapters of your new book both unite with aspects of this recent social upsurge and offer sharp criticisms of some of the ideological common sense that was very influential in Occupy. I think here of your take on concepts of horizontalism, direct democracy, autonomy, etc. To put it sharply: What are the problems with these concepts as political organizers for our fledgling radical movement?
Dean: Most succinctly put: the problem with these concepts is that they deny or obscure antagonism. They are insufficiently divisive in several senses. They do not break sufficiently with the dominant ideology that urges people to participate and that celebrates individual freedom. Autonomy in Occupy doesn’t seem to be pointing to autonomy from organized parties (as the term has done historically in Italy, for example). Rather, it blends together with libertarian emphases on the consent of each individual person. Horizontalism (which may well have been a powerful ideal in Argentina, and I take it that at least part of the emphasis on horizontality in Occupy comes from Marina Sitrin’s important work on horizontalidad in that country) resonated in the US primarily because it is part of the current neoliberal environment. For example, corporations (particularly Google; the New York Times runs
laudatory pieces on horizontal decision making in ‘hip’ companies about every six months) celebrate their flat structures, their inclusive decision-making, that make them flexible and responsive. Or, think of Thomas “The World Is Flat” Friedman. The uncritical uptake of horizontality in Occupy needs to be read in terms of its setting in a critique of bureaucracy, regulation, and expertise that has been deployed by the libertarian right against the welfare state, against any government control of the economy, and against the academy. It should also be read in terms of communicative capitalism’s emphases on connectivity and communication such that all opinions and ideas are communicatively equivalent.
There is another sense in which the concepts of direct democracy etc are insufficiently divisive—they proceed as if all political ideas are equal. We saw this in some of the anti-party rhetoric last fall. On the one hand, this rhetoric voiced a concern with breaking out of the chokehold of the mainstream political parties—and of course I agree with that. On the other, the refusal to draw lines makes it seem like libertarians, anti-Fed Ron Paulites, and anti-tax people are on the same side as people who want more control over the banking sector and people who are anti-corporate. Communists and socialists can work with the latter, but not with the former whose politics is basically one of expanding opportunities for the market. …
Ramsey: Throughout The Communist Horizon you frame an opposition between desire, which you tend to align with communism, and drive which you generally identify as a form of enjoyment that ensnares subjects in the existing networks of communicative capitalism? What does it mean to formulate communism from the standpoint of desire? Is drive always politically bad/suspect? Or can we speak of a drive that would be oriented towards communism?
Dean: Drive isn’t oriented toward something; it’s shaped from loss and just attaches to any old thing, easily moving from one object of intense attachment to another (I’m tempted to say that with respect to politics drive manifests itself as a kind of political Asperger’s syndrome; you know, how everyone is at one moment obsessed with binary oppositions, then fracking, then “isms,” then debt). It’s a repetitive circuit that results from failure, where people get off (get a little nugget of enjoyment) from failing. So drive also structures melancholia, as we see in Freud’s discussion in Mourning and Melancholia where he uses the language of drive that he develops in the The Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. This language is reflexive, inward-turning as well as self-loathing. I argue that communicative capitalism (and consequently contemporary democracy as well as contemporary media networks) exhibit the reflexive structure of drive. Examples: getting stuck in the intertubes, clicking around, looking but not finding, repeating the same gestures, having the same pointless arguments, getting invested in them even when (or especially when) they don’t matter.
Now, it’s possible for drive’s repetitions to have destructive effects as with vicious circles in feedback systems or when bubbles burst in markets. Žižek describes this version of drive as a kind of prior clearing that creates the space for something new. I don’t disagree with this, but I don’t think it provides a politics (or, the politics it suggests is one of waiting for the rupture—which Žižek sometimes suggests when he appeals to Bartleby or when he emphasizes the importance of thinking rather than getting caught up in activity; I prefer to think of not getting caught up in activity in terms of working to break the hold of drive’s repetitions). Desire doesn’t turn inward; it looks outward, toward the horizon. A communism thought in terms of desire, then, is one that recognizes the necessity of breaking out of the trap of reflexivity, of installing a gap.
At this point, I am focused on thinking of communism in terms of a collective desire for collectivity. Because I understand communicative capitalism as structured in terms of drive, I don’t see the benefit in theorizing communism this way—communism is a break with this, a rupture of the circuit that lets us look outwards.
Ramsey: It’s difficult to miss the Lacanian influence here. I’ve seen some within self-identified socialist or communist circles writing about your book in somewhat dismissive ways, focusing on the ‘Lacanese’ you employ as if it is does more to obfuscate than to illuminate. What do you see as the value of Lacan here for radical theory and for the communist movement in particular?
Dean: The unconscious matters—we’ve been talking about desire and drive, both unconscious processes. Language matters. Understanding the subject matters. Psychoanalysis offers a theoretical apparatus that helps us think about these components of our thought and experience. It provides us with ways of addressing our attachments to dysfunction and self-hate, to perceived needs for guarantees and certainty, as well as to our ambivalence toward masters.
But, to use an odd cliché I may have never used before, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ If people don’t find Lacan/lacanese illuminating, it will be obfuscating. It’s that way with any specialized discourse or vocabulary.
Maybe an example will help. In The Communist Horizon I use Lacan to suggest an idea of the party as situated at the overlap of two lacks, such as the people’s lack of knowledge of what they desire as well as the party’s own lack of knowledge, the fact that it can’t guarantee a particular future. Given these lacks, the role of the party is to keep the site at which they overlap open as the gap necessary for the collective desire for collectivity. The question is then whether this formulation helps us think of new or better ways to organize.
Ramsey: Would it be fair to say then, building upon these “two lacks,” that the party you envision must be one that is able both to learn and to teach, and moreover to incite and sustain the collective desire to both learn and teach?
Dean: Yes, particularly the latter insofar as sustaining desire requires cultivating a kind of relation or orientation to what is lacking. I sometimes wonder whether prior visions or versions of the communist party have overplayed its teaching role and then in a backlash against this overplaying ended up fetishizing some kind of authentic workers’ or people’s knowledge that the party has to learn. What if instead we recognize that the party is a collective and that collectives bring together people with different skills, experience, and knowledge? A communist party orients its collective toward the truth of communism. The primary task of the party is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and establishment of communism. This is more than a pedagogy, to say the least.
Ramsey: In the book you cite Marx’s famous communist motto (a phrase that precedes Marx as well) “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” writing that “this principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15). I often speak of the communist kernel of hope as inherent in the fact that among the needs of human beings is the need to satisfy others’ needs (and perhaps to be or to feel needed by those others as well). How does your reframing of communism from the standpoint of desire relate to the (more traditional?) framing of communism as oriented towards the satisfaction of need, and the development of human abilities? How do need and desire relate within your thinking here?
Dean: Here’s the rub: we all know that people have needs. Even the worst capitalists know this. The political question concerns our relation to these needs. This is a matter of desire and will. Are needs to be addressed singularly or collectively? Desire, then, involves the politicization of needs.
Ramsey: Often it seems to me that communists put forth our goals as a matter of what we will eliminate or abolish (“the 4 Alls” etc. “the gaps” or divisions that are inherent in class society, etc). Not so much in terms of what we want to cultivate or unleash. Often when we speak of what we strive to unleash or cultivate (“global human flourishing” etc.) it is depicted as something that will come after the elimination or overturning of various oppressive institutions, ideologies, state structures, class relations, etc. I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to say we want to eliminate A, B, and C, or that we want to abolish or overthrow X, Y, and Z. But it sometimes seems to me as if desire and the pursuit of what we “really want” is positioned somehow “on the other side” of this abolishing, overturning, eliminating, etc. – now being the time for “self-sacrificing struggle” and the repression of desire for the sake of the greater good, of the collectivity, of the revolution down the road. Desire here may become something we’ll only get back to on the “other side” of some kind of revolutionary break. Nothing against revolutionary breaks, and the openings they provide, of course. But your focus on communism as a matter of desire–”the collective desire for collective desiring”–seems to me notable and refreshing as a way to bring that future flourishing we communists often imagine into the present, but in a way that still propels us forward towards cultivating human liberation. It gives a positive lean to communist subjectivity, even if that subjectivity continues to be defined (as desire) by lack.
Dean: I love the way you are putting this and will now have to use this! It’s nicely succinct and clear.
Ramsey: It seems to me that often on the radical left, we speak of pursuing the “satisfaction of human needs.” Everyone getting enough food to eat, clean, water, shelter, etc. All crucial stuff, obviously. But this emphasis on the emancipated society as a state of satiety and “satisfaction” may give short shrift to the way that – on another level– communism and liberation is not only, or even primarily, about satisfying people’s immediate material needs (though this too), so much as it is about cultivating a hunger, or, as you would put it, a desire. A political desire.
Dean: Sorry to keep interrupting but I like your expression ‘state of satiety and satisfaction’ and your evocation of a hunger — it reminds me of Benjamin’s critique of left melancholic hacks preoccupied with their digestion.
Ramsey: Something I’m just starting to think about is what the difference is between conceiving of communist politics as a matter of satisfying human needs – and cultivating new needs – vs. a matter of desire. What do you see as the stakes of foregrounding communism as a matter of desire?
Dean: The opening up of a gap so as to free us to envision new possibilities. You know how people tend to criticize the left for not having a vision, not having a goal, not having ideas? Well, this only makes sense for a left that has abandoned communism. Once we claim communism, then we insert ourselves into a logic of desire such that we have to think strategically as well as tactically, we have to start thinking in terms of what communism for us will look like and how we can get there.
Ramsey: In reading (and re-reading) The Communist Horizon I was struck by your rather complex, even vexed, relationship to the concept of the proletariat. On the one hand you give a forceful (and quite Leninist) account of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as the organization of the exploited and oppressed to forcibly suppress the oppressor. Similarly you reflect that the current Left reluctance to identify with a Marxist term such as the proletariat may reflect chiefly the negative influence of decades of anti-communist (and anti-Soviet) propaganda. You in fact point out how Marx and Engels, as well as such contemporary Marxist thinkers as Étienne Balibar, contrary to pervasive anti-Marxist stereotypes, all have understood the proletariat precisely not as a straightforward empirical/sociological category limited to, say, factory workers, but rather as an open category encompassing all those who are structurally positioned opposite to and yet constitutive of capital and its ceaseless processes of accumulation.
And yet, after all of this rather firm defense of the concept, you reject the proletariat as a name for the subject of communism, at least in a contemporary US-European context. What struck me was the way, in the exact places where you reject the proletariat as a term (in favor of a notion of “the people as the rest of us” as shaped by and opposed to the process of proletarianization), you refer not just to the proletariat but to “the industrial” proletariat (77) and to “factory labor” (78). My question is: why the insertion of these qualifiers here? Is it possible to deploy a concept of the proletariat that is not centered on the site of the industrial factory? Why reject the proletariat as such, rather than just its narrow misconstrued empirical “industrial” image? Is your decision to reject the proletariat justified by the post/de-industrialization and/or financialization/precariatization of the US economy? Or more so by a pragmatic adaptation to contemporary ideology and popular misunderstanding? Is your sense that the proletariat as a concept—though used by Marx and Marxists in a more dialectical and dynamic sense that is intellectually still valid—is so mis-identified today with a narrow notion of clock-punching factory workers as to be politically unhelpful? Why not continue to fight for a dialectical notion of the proletariat (alongside the notion of proletarianization, which you more clearly uphold)? Why uphold the latter but not the former?
Dean: This is the part of my argument about which I am most ambivalent. As you suggest, financialization does not mean that there is no proletariat, especially when we follow Marx, Engels, and Balibar and recognize that ‘proletariat’ is not an empirical category. I ended up arguing for the idea ‘the people as the rest of us’, first, for pragmatic reasons. A year or so ago I gave a talk at No Space in Williamsburg. At one point, someone in the audience asked “who here is a proletarian?” No one raised a hand (I may be getting the details of this wrong, but this is how I remember it). So, even though a bunch of folks were unemployed and precarious, they didn’t feel right identifying themselves as proletarian. Since I was already fighting for the name communism (controversial to some folks), I decided not to hold on to proletarian. I also felt like there were good commie grounds for this, as Lukács argues in his book on Lenin. There he speaks of Lenin’s radical notion of the people.
Ramsey: And then of course there is your argument for speaking of the “sovereignty” rather than the “dictatorship” of the people (with people here substituted for the proletariat). What’s the significance of this shift in terminology?
Dean: The primary theoretical reason for the shift is that dictatorship is temporary. Arguments for the dictatorship of the proletariat occur in the context of the withering away of the state. I don’t accept such a withering away, particularly once we recognize the distributed and differentiated nature of contemporary states. State operations occur at multiple levels—local, municipal, national, international—and are distributed into a wide array of operations, from inspecting food production, to providing air traffic control, to funding infrastructure projects, to overseeing public health, to collecting and redistributing revenue. I don’t think these things will or should go away and I don’t think they should be handled via markets. They are matters to be determined by the people for their collective good. The state is a tool for the people to handle these things (of course, it isn’t now; now it’s the way capitalists keep themselves in power). I think it’s important to get away from claims regarding the withering away of the state—they seem to point to the end of politics, but politics won’t end as long as there are people.
Ramsey: This is very interesting, and not uncontroversial these days! Of course, perhaps predictably, some have criticized your book for continuing to uphold (some would say “falling back on”) the terms of Party and State. What is your response to those who argue that we must chart a communist road that does without these terms as anchor-points? How would the “State” which you envision for a communist movement be similar to or different from the state apparatus that exists today? Are we talking about taking over existing entities and running them under different leadership and with different methods or priorities? Or the sweeping away of existing institutions and the creation of new ones?
Dean: Here I agree with Žižek: politics without the party and the state is politics without politics. It’s a kind of hysterical provocation, or macho play-acting that eschews responsibility and reduces politics to fashionable sloganeering. Getting more specific can help: we can realize that there are different kinds of states and different kinds of parties. When people reject the party because they are rejecting electoral politics, they have a good point and a lot of history on their side. When people reject the state on the basis of the failure of socialism to develop into communism, they also have a good point. The underpinning of most of these discussions is a set of assumptions regarding the European experience, the Soviet experience, and the Chinese experience. But what if we attend more to Latin America? To Nepal? To the role of revolutionary communists in anti-colonial struggle? To the role of communists in anti-racist struggles in the US in the thirties?
We dismiss too much if we assume that the bad experiences of the French and Italians with their communist parties means that there is no role for an organization like a party in contemporary politics now. On the state: again, we can improve our thinking here by considering different state apparatuses and functions, the way they are distributed, the role of law, etc. I don’t think all existing institutions need to be eliminated—why reinvent the wheel? A jury system is a good idea. Layered institutions (local, municipal, county, state, region, nation, hemisphere) as well as economic sectors and sets of interests that crisscross one another also make sense for complex societies. And so does the rule of law – as long as this rule is exercised for and in the interest of the working class, the people as the rest of us (which is the basic idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat). Maybe the best way to put it would be in terms of the need to reevaluate all existing institutions from the standpoint of the people/working class, and seeing what is worth saving. …
Ramsey: I was struck by the fact that there is nowhere in The Communist Horizon an overt argument for “communism” as being a better or more useful name for the emancipatory project than, say, “socialism” is. Why is communism the name of the horizon for you? What is the significance of the name here?
Dean: This is a good question. For the longest time I thought of myself simply as a socialist and didn’t worry about the difference. Then, I guess it was Antonio Negri who started to emphasize the accomodationism of European socialism (although on that note one can say the same about, say, the Italian communist party). The difference matters in terms of installing a gap: communism opens us up to something else in a way that socialism doesn’t. And why is that the case? Because we know that socialism doesn’t require the abolition of capitalism. It works for capitalism with a human face. Is this an option? I don’t think so. And, if it could be an option, it would only be in the context of the political space secured by active, militant communists.
Ramsey: And the fact that the über-capitalist dictatorship of China still refers to itself as “communist” and thus taints this name?
Dean: No one thinks China is communist.
The full version of this dialogue will appear in the July issue of Socialism and Democracy, www.sdonline.org .
Joseph G. Ramsey is co-editor of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of marxist theory and practice www.clogic.eserver.org and a participant in the Kasama Project. He can be contacted at jgramsey AT gmail.com.