Transcribed from the 23 January 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Listen to the full interview:
“The goal isn’t just being elected. The goal is overthrowing capitalism. The goal is being able to build a communist society as capitalism crumbles.”
Chuck Mertz: Real change, the kind of change that Occupy Wall Street had hoped to start, can be achieved through—I know you’re going to find this hard to believe—a political party. I found it hard to believe, until I read Jodi Dean’s book Crowds and Party. Jodi is here to explain to us how a political party can bring about real change.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Jodi.
Jodi Dean: Hi! Thanks.
CM: Great to have you on the show.
Let’s start with Occupy. What, to you, explains the impact that the Tea Party had on Republicans, relative to the impact that Occupy seems to have had on the Democratic Party? All of the sudden there were “Tea Party Republicans.” There weren’t “Occupy Democrats.”
JD: That’s a good point. The Tea Party took the Republican Party as its target. They decided that their goal was going to be to influence the political system by getting people elected and basically by trying to take over part of government. That’s why they were able to have good effects. They didn’t regard the mainstream political process as something irrelevant to their concerns. They thought of it as something to seize.
The problem with many—but not all—leftists in the US is that they think the political process is so corrupted that we have to completely refuse it, and leave it altogether. The Tea Party decided to act as an organized militant force, and too much of the US left (we saw this in the wake of Occupy) has thought that to be “militant” means to refuse and disperse and become fragmented.
CM: So what explains the left turning its back on the collective action of a political party? It would seem like a political party would fit into what the left would historically want: an apparatus that can organize collective action.
JD: There are multiple things. First, the fear of success: the left has learned from the excesses of the twentieth century. Where Communist and socialist parties “succeeded,” there was violence and purges and repression. One reason the left has turned its back is because of this historical experience of state socialism. And we have taken that to mean that we should not ever have a state. I think that’s the wrong answer. That we—as the left—made a mistake with some regimes does not have to mean that we can never learn.
Another reason that the left has turned its back on the party form has been the important criticism of twentieth century parties that have been too white, too masculine, potentially homophobic; parties that have operated in intensely hierarchical fashion. Those criticisms are real. But rather than saying we can’t have a party form because that’s just what a party does, why not make a party that is not repressive and does not exclude or diminish people on the basis of sex, race, or sexuality?
So we’ve got at least two historical problems that have made people very reluctant to use the party. I also think that, whether or not you mark it as 1968 or 1989, the left’s embrace of cultural individualism and the free flow of personal experimentation has made it critical of discipline and critical of collectivity. But I think that’s just a capitalist sellout. Saying everybody should just “do their own thing” is just going in the direction of the dominant culture. That is actually not a left position at all.
CM: So does identity politics undermine collectivism? And did that end up leading to fragmentation and a weakening of the left? Because there are a lot of people we’ve had on the show—and one person in particular, Thomas Frank—who say that there is no left in the United States.
JD: First I want to say that I disagree with the claim that there is no left. In fact, I think that “the left” is that group that keeps denying its own existence. We’re always saying that we’re the ones who don’t exist. But the right thinks that we exist. That’s what is so fantastic, actually. Did you see the New York Post screaming that Bernie Sanders is really a communist? Great! They’re really still afraid of communists! And it’s people on the left who say, “Oh, no, we’re not here at all!”
The left denies its own existence and it denies its own collectivity. Now, is identity politics to blame? Maybe it’s better to say that identity politics has been a symptom of the pressure of capitalism. Capitalism has operated in the US by exacerbating racial differences. That has to be addressed on the left, and the left has been addressing that. But we haven’t been addressing it in a way that recognizes how racism operates to support capitalism. Instead, we’ve made it too much about identity rather than as an element in building collective solidarity.
I’m trying to find a way around this to express that identity politics has been important but it’s reached its limits. Identity politics can’t go any further insofar as it denies the impact of capitalism. An identity politics that just rests on itself is nothing but liberalism. Like all of the sudden everything will be better if black people and white people are equally exploited? What if black people and white people say, “No, we don’t want to live in a society based on exploitation?”
CM: You were saying that the left denies its own collectivity. Is that only in the US? Is that unique to the US culture of the left?
JD: That’s a really important question, and I’m not sure. Traveling in Europe, I see two different things. On the one hand I see a broad left discussion that is, in part, mediated through social media and is pretty generational—people in their twenties and thirties or younger—and that there’s a general feeling about the problem of collectivity, the problem of building something with cohesion, and a temptation to just emphasize multiplicity. You see this everywhere. Everybody worries about this, as far as what I’ve seen.
On the other hand, there are countries whose political culture has embraced parties much more, and fights politically through parties. Like Greece, for example—and we’ve seen the ups and downs with Syriza over the last two years. And Spain also. Because they have a parliamentary system where small parties can actually get in the mix and have a political effect—in ways that our two-party system excludes—the European context allows for more enthusiasm for the party as a form for politics.
But there’s still a lot of disagreement on the far left about whether or not the party form is useful, and shouldn’t we in fact retreat and have multiple actions and artistic events—you know, the whole alter-globalization framework. That’s still alive in a lot of places.
“I think holding on to the word ‘communism’ is useful, not only because our enemies are worried about communism, but also because it helps make socialists seem really, really mainstream. We don’t want socialism to seem like something that only happens in Sweden. We want it to seem like that’s what we should have at a bare minimum.”
CM: You mentioned the structure of the US electoral system doesn’t allow for a political party to necessarily be the solution for a group like Occupy. Is that one of the reasons that activists dismiss the party structure as something that could help move their agenda forward?
JD: We can think about the Black Panther Party as a neat example in the US context: A party which was operating not primarily to win elections but to galvanize social power. That’s an interesting way of thinking about what else parties can do in the US.
Or we can think about parties in terms of local elections. Socialist Alternative has been doing really neat work all over the country, organizing around local elections with people running as socialist candidates not within a mainstream party. I think that even as we come up against the limits of a two-party system, we can also begin to think better about local and regional elections.
The left really likes that old saw: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” And then it rejects parties—even though political parties are, historically, forms that do that, that actually scale, that operate on multiple levels as organizations.
That we have a two-party system makes sense as an excuse why people haven’t used left parties very well in the US, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
And one more thing: there is a ton of sectarianism in the far left parties that exist. Many still fight battles that go back to the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and haven’t let that go. That has to change. We don’t need that kind of sectarian purity right now.
CM: You ask the question, “How do we move from the inert mass to organized activists?” You mention how you were at Occupy Wall Street; you write about being there on 15 October 2011 as the massive crowd filled New York’s Times Square. And you mention this one young speaker, and he addresses the crowd; they’re deciding if they should move on to Washington Square Park or not, because they need to go somewhere where there are better facilities. You then quote the speaker saying, “We can take this park. We can take this park tonight. We can also take this park another night. Not everyone may be ready tonight. Each person has to make their own autonomous decision. No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself. Everyone is an autonomous individual.”
Did that kind of individualism kill Occupy Wall Street from the start?
JD: Yeah, I think so. A lot of times I blame the rhetorics of consensus and horizontalism, but both of those are rooted in an individualism that says politics must begin with each individual, their interests, their experience, their positions, and so on. As collectivity forms—which is not easy when everyone’s beginning from their individual position—what starts to happen is that people start looking for how their exact experiences and interests are not being recognized.
I think that the left has given in too much to this assumption that politics begins with an individual. That’s a liberal assumption. Leftists, historically, begin with the assumption that politics begins in groups. And for the left in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the operative group is class. Class is what determines where our political interests come from.
I try to do everything I can in the book to dismantle the assumption that politics, particularly left politics, should begin with the individual. Instead I want people thinking about how the individual is a fiction, and a really oppressive fiction at that. And one that’s actually, conveniently, falling apart.
CM: You write about Occupy Wall Street having been an opening but having had no continuing momentum. You mention that the party could add that needed momentum. That’s one of the things that parties can do. The structure of the party can continue momentum and keep the opening alive.
When you say that a party could be a solution for a movement like Occupy, you don’t mean the Democratic Party, do you?
JD: I’ve got a lot of layers on this question. My first answer is that no, I really mean the Communist Party. My friends call this “Jodi’s Fantasy Revolutionary Party” as a joke, because the kind of Communist Party I take as my model may not be real, or may have only existed for a year and a half in Brooklyn in the thirties. And I don’t mean the real-existing Communist Party in the US now, which still exists and basically endorses Democrats.
My idea is to think in terms of how we can imagine the Communist Party again as a force—what it could be like if all of our left activist groups and small sectarian parties decided to come together in a new radical left party.
So no, I don’t envision the Democratic Party as being that. That’s not at all what I have in mind. I’m thinking of a radical left party to which elections are incidental. Elections might be means for organizing, but the goal isn’t just being elected. The goal is overthrowing capitalism. The goal is being able to build a communist society as capitalism crumbles.
Second, it could be the case—as a matter of tactics on the ground in particular contexts—that working for a Democratic candidate might be useful. It could be the case that trying to take over a local Democratic committee in order to get communist/socialist/radical left candidates elected could also be useful. But I don’t see the goal as taking over the Democratic Party. That’s way too limited a goal, and it’s a goal that presupposes the continuation of the system we have, rather than its overthrow.
CM: But how difficult would it be for a Communist Party to emerge free of its past associations with the Soviet Union? Can we even use the word “communist” or is it impossibly taboo?
“It’s fantastic that Occupy Wall Street’s narrative of the 99% and the 1% asserted collectivity through division. This is class conflict. There is not a unified society. This is the collectivity of us against them. This narrative produced the proper collectivity: an antagonistic one.”
JD: We have to recognize that the right is still scared of communism. That means the term is still powerful. That means it still has the ability to instill fear in its enemies. I think that’s an argument for keeping the word “communism.”
It’s also amazing that close to half of Iowa participants in the caucuses say that they are socialist. Four or five years ago, people were saying socialism is dead in the US. No one could even say the word. So I actually think holding on to the word “communism” is useful not only because our enemies are worried about communism, but also because it helps make the socialists seem really, really mainstream, and that’s good. We don’t want socialism to seem like something that only happens in Sweden. We want it to seem like that’s what America should have at a bare minimum.
One last thing about the history of communism: every political ideology that has infused a state form has done awful things. For the most part, if people like the ideology, they either let the awful things slide, or they use the ideology to criticize the awful things that the state does. We can do the same thing with communism. It’s helpful to recognize that the countries we understand to have been ruled by Communist Parties were never really communist—they didn’t even claim to have achieved communism themselves. We can say that state socialism made these mistakes, and in so doing was betraying communist ideals.
I don’t think we need to abandon these terms or come up with new ones. I think we need to use the power that they have. And people recognize this, which is what makes it exciting.
CM: You write, “Some contemporary crowd observers claim the crowd for democracy. They see in the amassing of thousands a democratic insistence, a demand to be heard and included. In the context of communicative capitalism, however, the crowd exceeds democracy.
“In the 21st century, dominant nation-states exercise power as democracies. They bomb and invade as democracies, ‘for democracy’s sake.’ International political bodies legitimize themselves as democratic, as do the contradictory and tangled media practices of communicative capitalism. When crowds amass in opposition, they pose themselves against democratic practices, systems, and bodies. To claim the crowd for democracy fails to register this change in the political setting of the crowd.”
So are crowds today, the protesters today, opposed to democracy? Or are they opposed to the current state of, let’s say, representative democracy?
JD: Let’s think about our basic environment. By “our,” now, I mean basically English-speaking people who use the internet and are listening to the radio and live in societies like the United States. In our environment, what we hear is that we live in democracy. We hear this all the time. We hear that the network media makes democratic exchange possible, that a free press is democracy, that we’ve got elections and that’s democracy.
When crowds amass in this setting, if they are just at a football game, it’s not a political statement. Even at a march (fully permitted) that’s registering opposition to the invasion of Iraq, for example, or concern about the climate—all of those things are within the general environment of “democracy,” and they don’t oppose the system. They don’t register as opposition to the system. They’re just saying that we want our view on this or that issue to count.
But the way that crowds have been amassing over the last four or five years—Occupy Wall Street is one example, but the Red Square debt movement in Canada is another; some of the more militant strikes of nurses and teachers are too—has been to say, “Look, the process that we have that’s been called democratic? It is not. We want to change that.”
It’s not that we are anti-democratic. It’s that democracy is too limiting a term to register our opposition. We want something more. We want actual equality. Democracy is too limiting. The reason it’s too limiting is we live in a context that understands itself as “democratic.” So democracy as a political claim, in my language, can’t “register the gap that the crowd is inscribing.” It can’t register real division or opposition. Democracy is just more of what we have.
CM: We are so dependent. We use social media so much, we use Facebook so much, we use so many of these avenues of what you call communicative capitalism so much. How can we oppose or reject this system without hurting ourselves and our ability to communicate our message to each other? Can we just go on strike? Can we become the owners of the means of communicative production?
JD: One of the ways that Marxism historically has understood the political problems faced by workers is our total entrapment and embeddedness in the capitalist system. What makes a strike so courageous is that workers are shooting themselves in the foot. They’re not earning their wage for a time, as a way to put pressure on the capitalist owner of the workplace.
What does that mean under communicative capitalism? Does it mean that we have to shoot ourselves in the foot by completely extracting ourselves from all of the instruments of communication? Or does it mean that we change our attitude towards communication? Or does it mean that we develop our own means of communication?
There’s a whole range here. I’m not a Luddite. I don’t think the way we’re going to bring down capitalism is by quitting Facebook. I think that’s a little bit absurd. I think what makes more sense is to think of how we could use the tools we have to bring down the master’s house. We can consolidate our message together. We can get a better sense of how many we are. We can develop common modes of thinking. We can distribute organizing materials for the revolutionary party.
I don’t think that an extractive approach to our situation in communicative media is the right one. I think it’s got to be more tactical. How do we use the tools we have, and how do we find ways to seize the means of communication? This would mean the collectivization of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and using those apparatuses. But that would probably have to be day two of the revolution.
CM: Jodi, I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s the Question from Hell, the question we might hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate the response.
How much did the narrative that Occupy created, of the 99% and the 1%, undermine a of collectivity? Because it doesn’t include everyone…
JD: Division is crucial. Collectivity is never everyone. What this narrative did was produce the divided collectivity that we need. It’s great to undermine the stupid myth of American unity, “The country has to pull together” and all that crap. It’s fantastic that Occupy Wall Street asserted collectivity through division. This is class conflict. This says there is not a unified society. Collectivity is the collectivity of us against them. It produced the proper collectivity: an antagonistic one.
CM: Jodi, thanks so much for being on our show this week.
JD: Thank you! Take care.