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One Eye on the Horizon

The Condition of Communism

by JOSEPH RAMSEY

The eye-grabbing cover of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon (Verso, 2012) depicts what could be the dawn of a new day. A red sun, half in view, arcs across the volume’s bottom edge. From this solid red spot, dozens of thin but widening beams fan out; crossing the background, the sunlight splits the sky itself into stripes of red and white.

Though Dean had no direct hand in selecting this cover image,1 it speaks to one of her most consistent themes: the fundamental importance of division to her notion of communism. We are not presented here with a unified red star in the distance (suggesting a stable true referent to navigate or chart one’s march by), nor with a solid red flag (that might suggest this truth is presently embodied in a particular party or state). Here, the red spot splits the scene. The beams emanating from the red sun are not just red, but red and white, suggesting that this horizon does not turn all the world red—like some anti-capitalist Midas touch—but rather illuminates the divisions that exist. Here the red sun divides in two the world it stretches to meet; it does not eradicate particularity, but casts it in a new—dividing—light.

Surely it says something that of all the dozens of cover-images put out by Verso last season, the editors chose this one—red sun rising, red beams spreading—to go on the cover of its Fall 2012 catalog. It would appear that the idea of communism is making a kind of comeback, at least in some circles—academic as well as activist. Consider the story of the now famed March 2009 Birkbeck Institute conference on “The Idea of Communism.” Featuring critical communist theorists from Alain Badiou and Bruno Bosteels to Michael Hardt, Peter Hallward, and Slavoj Žižek, this gathering, expected to attract a mere 200 attendees, found itself overwhelmed with an interested crowd of 1200. Verso Press’s new “Pocket Communism” series is among the latest signs of the red shift. These hard-covers—they won’t fit in your pants, but will in a jacket—are built for easy transport to the post-demonstration discussion circle or to the seminar table.

The latest in this Verso series, Dean’s The Communist Horizon may be the most accessible and most explicitly engaged of the bunch, in the sense of being oriented towards recent political developments and pressing questions of political form.2 Though it is a book that certainly sheds light (and weighs in) on a number of debates within what might be called the New Communist Philosophy, The Communist Horizon deserves to be read and discussed beyond such circles, by anyone who believes that the present capitalist world order leaves much to be desired. One recent commentator has aptly described Dean’s book as “Theory for Everyone.”3

It’s a sweeping and forceful work, one that boldly and unapologetically attempts to recast the political field of contemporary capitalism (at least as it is experienced in the Euro-American sphere) while taking aim at a host of widely held beliefs – prevalent on both the Right and the Left – that stand in the way of building a serious emancipatory movement today.

II

When I first heard the phrase “communist horizon” – in Bruno Bosteels’ The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011), where Dean herself found her title-trope4—I was excited. (Excited enough, in fact, over the following months, to push successfully for naming a local group I worked with Red Horizon.)

Why? What does communist horizon conjure, connote, or emphasize that communism alone might not? What does it mean to figure communism as our horizon?

Well, for starters: a horizon is equally available to all. It does not require specialized goggles, or a special Archimedean point from which to look out; in no way is it the property or the monopoly of any particular group or lineage; it belongs to everyone. What could be more common than the horizon? While someone may point it out to you, or help you to discern its signs, anyone with functioning eyes can see it (provided of course there are no large structures obstructing the view), so long as they are willing to look. It belongs to no country, but is in a fundamental sense global, planetary.

A horizon is always out ‘there,’ never quite ‘here.’ It can only be seen, never touched. No matter how one strides towards it, it remains distant, an aspiration. However focused one is on keeping a particular spot on the horizon in view, one can never be sure that one will arrive exactly ‘there.’ Certainty as regards a horizon must always remain more than a bit speculative. There is no room for arrogant pre-possession or for
pretense, as if one could know for sure that one’s charted path is the “one true path,” as if we were the ‘true’ and only communists. A horizon is wide; it stands to reason that there may be many different paths for reaching it. It can be glimpsed, but not grasped. No single person, no single group can in fact control, nor possess it.

Yet, though unreachable, even in a sense unapproachable, a horizon can help to orient us where we are. We look to a horizon to see where we are headed, to determine the general direction in which we want to go.

Crucially, to orient toward a communist horizon is to be reminded of hopes and possibilities that may not seem apparent in the immediacy of the present. Keeping the horizon in mind, keeping one eye on the horizon, if you will, is to keep from losing our bearings, to keep from becoming totally consumed by, and mired in, our immediate surroundings, institutions, or struggles, as important and demanding as these often are. Even as we devote energies to the local terrain, we should never forget that what we’re about is trying to find our way towards a radically egalitarian and worldwide change, a global human flourishing, “where the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.” Communism can never be solely about the here and the now, but must seek to connect this here and now to the there and the then, with the spatially and temporally distant.

At the same time, we also may look to a horizon to see not just where we are heading (or where we want to go), but also to see what is coming our way: what is in the distance now (in spatial or temporal terms), but is coming nearer…whether it’s good or bad, or—as is often the case—both.

In our particular moment, to look toward this horizon (whether in spatial or in temporal terms) is to lay eyes on a number of intensifying capitalist crises—perhaps most acutely, the environmental crisis (which includes but is by no means limited to the toxic spiral of global warming and climate destabilization), but also interrelated crises involving spiraling global inequalities, the overproduction of surplus capital on the one hand and the production of “surplus” population, for whom the system appears to have little profitable use, on the other. Acting out what Marx termed the “absolute general tendency of capitalist production,” capitalism’s unrestrained ‘productivity’ promises to render huge swaths of humanity superfluous to value production altogether, except as global slums to be policed by private security, locked up in private prisons. To these fundamental crises, readers can easily add their own catalog of oncoming catastrophes.5

At the same time, though, to look into the distance today is also to take in the stirring of mass popular movements across the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, to the anti-austerity struggles growing in Europe, to the ongoing Maoist-led movements in India and Nepal. These uprisings suggest what Alain Badiou has called a “Rebirth of History,” reminding us of the potential for an aroused populace to challenge and even to overthrow dominant political regimes. Especially here in the US, where political horizons and immediately realizable possibilities often seem so radically impoverished—where the commercial media and corporate politics drag down political discourse and childlike imagination alike—keeping one eye on the horizon (temporal and spatial) may be crucial to sustaining hopes of radical social transformation.

Crucially, to speak of the horizon of the era as communist is to imply that the capitalist horizons, the proclamations about where the limits are for human social potential, about what is “natural” and what is “possible” or “realistic,” given the “new normal” of the existing system, are utterly artificial, arbitrary, themselves non-necessary. They are not limits, but artificial and socially constructed restrictions and restraints. To declare that the actual place where the earth and sky (where human materiality and human aspiration) meet is communism, is to call out the structures and the “laws” of the ruling system as no more “natural” or ultimately binding for us than fake skylines that might be painted onto flat canvas backdrops for a cheap Hollywood movie. We can—and should—point out their artifice at every opportunity, as one key step toward knocking them over and revealing the actual horizon beyond. To speak of the communist horizon is to implicitly call out the capitalist horizon as false. It is to defamiliarize the dominant “norms” of our world, by persisting in a belief in something beyond it, even when a self-identified mass communist movement—except in India, Nepal, Greece and perhaps a few other places—is not yet a clear and present player on the scene. It is to insist that other coordinates of political and social life are possible and desirable, however fleetingly discernible within the present.

The communist horizon offers us a figure for thinking unity and contingency together, universality and particularity. It is the aspiration that needs to be kept in view while we devote ourselves to more immediate projects, not knowing at this point which projects will turn out to have been the ‘correct communist path’ at some hypothetical point in the future. The horizon thus becomes a figure for uniting revolutionary utopianism with political pragmatism. As such, it is a figure that offers questions, more than answers—perhaps an appropriate image for us today. With the communist horizon in mind, the question becomes not where should we go (or who precisely we should go to) to do communist work, but rather how can we conduct our explorations – and the work that we are doing, wherever we are – in a communist way.

Finally, I would conclude my opening ‘riff’ on Dean’s titular trope by emphasizing that looking to the communist horizon is always to be looking for others looking back.6 For, the ultimate communist horizon, what makes a cooperative and egalitarian social transformation possible as well as necessary, I would argue, is the intersection of four points: 1) that capitalism itself is a system based on increasingly (albeit increasingly disavowed) socialized labor, one that brings people together in new ways and that unleashes productive (and destructive) forces of unprecedented power (and danger);7 2) that this system remains fundamentally incapable of satisfying the needs and wants of the vast majority of humanity; 3) that human beings are capable of thinking, desiring, wanting, and wishing in ways that point beyond this system’s limits; and 4) that among our needs is the need to satisfy the other’s need; that it is within our capacity, even perhaps integral to our nature, that we see in the other a being ultimately very much like ourselves, that we see ourselves reflected in the other.

These points, taken together, imply nothing less than the potential and necessity for a communist, cooperative organization of the world. Bearing them in mind, we must assume that, whatever the immediate political situation proclaims as “realistic,” there are billions of people out there who in some way are looking out for something systemically beyond it, even if the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ do not cross their lips. The challenge, the need, then, is to find a way to catch their eye, and to hold and to triangulate their gaze long enough to build something together out of our mutual recognition.

Building upon each of those four points, communism can then stand for the unending struggle to render increasingly visible and self-conscious: 1) the collective nature of social production under capitalism—or for that matter, under any “transitional” socialism; 2) the fatal flaws of capitalism with respect to the needs of humanity; 3) the capacity of human thought and reflection to transcend the reifying and fetishizing, fragmenting and isolating, marketizing and mental deadening that are so essential to capitalism, and remain as latent dangers under socialism; and 4) the reciprocal and self-reflexive nature of human need.8

To strive for communism is not only to strive for a particular set of social, political, and economic institutions and relationships, but to strive to cultivate (in oneself and in others) a consciousness of and sensibility to the way that we are all made of a common substance and inhabit a common planet, that we all, in a sense, face a common threat, and that, as human beings, our individual interests and flourishing are deeply interdependent. In short, no one can be fully human alone. When we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. We are at root social and collective beings.

The ultimate horizon of communism then might be conceived not as a state and not as a sun, or any other thing, but as the possibility of a collective humanity, looking back at itself—taking itself in, if you willand then seeking to satisfy and to realize itself, in and through rational and non-coercive intercourse with others (and with the earth we share). It takes flight from the mutual recognition of our common class enemy, yes, but also of the ways in which we labor together each day to make and remake the world (albeit in ways that often do not accord with our will or desire, that are forced upon us by capital and its private dictatorship over our commonwealth, our social surplus too often stolen and used against us). It insists that we treat the myriad of human others not as instrumental means, but as human ends in themselves—as intersections of need and desire, as beings to whom we are connected.

Communism can thus be understood as beginning—as having already begun—not with the achievement of some utopian end-state (or with the toppling of the capitalist order, the seizing of factories, etc), but wherever there grows a conscious desire to bring about this dialectic of mutual human recognition and flourishing. Communism thus incarnates, as Jodi Dean keeps reminding us, as “the collective desire for collective desiring.”9 This desire stands opposed to the rule of capital, but is not reducible to that opposition. It aims to cast new coordinates for human species-being.

III

For Dean, the Communist Horizon represents “a fundamental division that we experience as impossible to reach, and that we can neither escape, nor cross…a dimension of experience that we can never lose,” she adds, “even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it” (1). “The horizon,” she writes, “shapes our setting,” whether we acknowledge it or not. Citing parenthetically the influential Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Dean likens the horizon to the “Real” which, for Lacan, was both impossible and actual. She likens it, in our recent dialogue (printed below), not to an end point, but to a condition, the only political condition under which an egalitarian politics is possible.

It is at once unreachable and yet constitutive, utopian not in the sense of an imaginary blueprint to be imposed on reality, but in the sense of a viewpoint that cracks open possibilities inherent in our immediate, present conditions, while at the same time providing coordinates—and inspiration—by which we can navigate these conditions, together. To grasp the horizon is to enact a shift of subjective perspective – albeit rooted in the study of objective actuality – that allows us to envision, and thus seek to actualize, a freedom beyond the formal limits of the present system. At the very least such a shift allows us to dissolve in thought some of the self-defeating ideas and practices that too often keep us from daring to actualize our potential.10

Dean roots her title in Bolivian Marxist García Linera’s contention that “The general horizon of the era is communist.” She notes early on that Linera does not feel that he must provide an argument for this contention; rather, he “assumes the communist horizon as an irreducible feature of the political setting,” “as if it were the most natural thing in the world” (3). “For Linera,” she adds, “communism conditions the actuality of politics.”

To speak of communism as a horizon is thus to suggest its natural and eternal, if not self-evident, aspect; it exists as a possibility to some extent independent of the state of the ‘productive forces’ or the particular historical moment. It is at once historical and eternal at the same time.11

IV

As much a manifesto as a cutting-edge critical intervention, The Communist Horizon aims not just to sharpen our view of the present, but to stoke our desire for global human emancipation, to help us clear our throats of the taboos that choke them, for the study and the struggle that lie ahead. Dean seeks to incite in readers not just a righteous indignation in the face of capitalism’s many and widely documented abuses and injustices, and not just an understanding of how capitalism (‘necessarily’) produces these crimes, but a collective desire for communism. She understands communism not just as a goal – to abolish class divisions and satisfy basic needs – but as a transformative subjective process: the unfolding desire for collective desiring, a desire to bring into being a political Subject, a “We” which can put into practice the principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” As Dean puts it, rather eloquently, “This principle contains the urgency of the struggle for its own realization” (15).

Who among us would disagree? And yet, despite the eloquence of such Marxian poetry, who among us dares to proclaim proudly and publicly that s/he is a communist?

Dean’s book not only seeks to convince us of its truths, but tries to make it easier for us to speak these truths, publicly, boldly, and unapologetically. It is a text whose very polemical style performatively models the engagement for which it argues. At the level of style and of theoretical critique alike, it aims to challenge the “We” skepticism and the scholastic individualism that characterize academic circles (and so much else in contemporary capitalist society). Her manifesto makes its premise what many Marxists leave as their conclusion: that it is not enough to challenge or protest or reform the present order (nor is it enough to predict the precise vector of its demise, as if we were outside it); we need to collectively overthrow it, so we can outgrow it – even if in order to do so we must first outgrow it from within.

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. 

 

Notes.

1 In a personal email, Dean indicated to me that while she had no input into the cover, she appreciated its Mao-era communist style. She further emphasized the subtle but important differences between this communist horizon and the “Rising Sun” of Imperial Japan; the latter would have many fewer and thicker sun beams compared to the former.

2I refer readers also to Dean’s blog, which combines accessibility, quick responsiveness to current events, theoretical rigor, and openly communist radicalism. See http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/

3 See Samuel Grove’s insightful piece, “Theory for Everyone,” in Review 31, available at http://review31.co.uk/article/view/95/theory-for-everyone.

4 To be clear, Bosteels takes the phrase from Álvaro García Linera, though he gives it his own theoretical bent.

5 I have tried to trace some of the dynamics of these interconnected capitalist crises in a special issue of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, entitled Culture and Crisis (www.eserver.clogic.org) as well as in print as issue #60/61 of Works and Days (www.worksanddays.net). I would also recommend the thought-provoking analyses associated with “Communization Theory.” See for instance the work of Endnotes, starting with “Misery and Debt: On the Logic and History of Surplus Populations and Surplus Capital” http://endnotes.org.uk/articles/1; also the critical volume, Communization and Its Discontents, ed. Benjamin Noys, available in full at http://libcom.org/library/communization-its-discontents-contestation-critique-contemporary-struggles.

6 Jodi Dean approaches this aspect of the horizon in her recurrent description of communism as a matter of “collective desire for collective desiring.”

7Every object or institution that we see, that we encounter, that we use, has been created by others—often many many others, no more fully satisfied by the current system than we are.

8 Here we get at one reason why I prefer to use the term communism when speaking of my own political orientation as well as of the ‘end goal’ or condition toward which we ought to aspire. We may support socialist economic or state structures, but it is important to continue to struggle for communism within and around such structures!

9 The early Marx spoke of it as the cultivation of species being, a term that takes on new and urgent resonance in this age of potentially apocalyptic capitalist ecocide.

10 Actually, Dean opens her book with quick references to not one but three types of “horizon,” each of which stands in resonant relation to her figure of the communist horizon. She invokes, all in her opening paragraph (and throughout her introduction): 1) the horizon as “the dividing line separating earth from sky;” 2) “the lost horizon” which suggests a more temporal dimension, connoting those “abandoned projects” and “prior hopes that have now passed away”; 3) “the event horizon.” Taken from astrophysics, this last signifies the space surrounding a black hole from which nothing can escape.

Dean at the outset emphasizes how the first and third horizon (the spatial and the event horizon) are “not much different” from one another. But is that the case? She writes: “Whether the effect of a singularity or the meeting of earth and sky, the horizon is, the fundamental division establishing where we are” (2). And this may be true. But certainly these two types of horizon establish our location, or allow us to establish our location in somewhat different ways. The earth-sky horizon is one that we can never reach, but which, if we study it, we can use to navigate our more immediate environment. The event horizon is rather a black-box, a black hole, an unknown. We might conceivably reach one, but once we did we could never return, nor would we be ‘there’ to register our having reached it. The event horizon represents the most extreme form of gravity, determinism on a cosmic scale, where epistemology and ontology collapse in on one another. Though we could certainly err in too closely parsing the metaphor(s) here, it might not be too much to suggest that while the earth-sky horizon represents the possibility of freedom within limits, the event horizon suggests the limits on that freedom. We might read the former as a figure for Theory, associated with communism, and the latter as a figure for History, linked to capitalism and its vortex-like laws. As human beings, we are creatures who, with the help of eyes and light, can see and navigate. But even the light, in the end, is bent, by gravity. How to go about bending social gravity!

11 Bruno Bosteels edges towards this tense relation of Eternity and History in his valuable The Actuality of Communism (Verso, 2011).