Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tonight, We're Going to Party Like its ? (A Critical Reading of Jodi Dean and Slavoj Zizek)

       Over the past few year, there has been a sort of nostalgia for the party form entering the discourse of a select set of left academic thinks.  The most notable of those is Slavoj Zizek, but this phenomenon certainly isn't limited to him.  Probably the most recent concrete expression of this desire can be found in Jodi Dean's thoughtful talk, The Communist Horizon, but it also can be found in Zizek's recent polemic on the riots in England in far more simplistic terms.  Perhaps more significantly, these responses have found a fairly wide audience amongst those interested in the intersection of radical and academic discussions.  There have been fairly lengthy discussions of these works both on a variety of websites, as well as on Doug Henwood's Left Business Observer listserve.  I want to provide a critique of these engagements, in order to discuss some of the limitations that I see in this recent formation, focusing primarily on the more thoughtful engagement of Dean's, but also bringing in Zizek's more problematic formulation, as well.  However, I want to make it clear that this critique is made in a sympathetic light, at least to its sympathetic reception.  I want to use this response as a way of seriously pushing forward the discussion about collectivity, solidarity, and the construction of institutions pushed forward by these reconsiderations of the party form.

      Jodi Dean opens her argument with a brief sketch of the three dominant forms of contemporary left organization today, which she labels as anarchism, democracy, and liberalism.  She argues that these forms of organization are unable of creating strong forms of stable solidarity needed to challenge the powerful engines of expropriation and dispossession that define the contemporary regime of neo-liberal capital.  Contemporary democracy exists primarily to neutralize dissident voices, while liberalism and anarchism replicate the forms of individualization that exist at the core of the neo-liberal formation.  In this sense, Bhaskar Sunkara's critique is wrong in arguing that Dean's concept of 'communicative capitalism' is irrelevant to her larger argument. While I certainly agree with Sunkara's argument that Dean ignores the history of anarchism and democracy, I think Dean has productively captured a sense of the present moment, or, at very least, a particular present.  We can see that Dean is identifying that all three of these dominant forms of organization creation or conceptions of collectivity as symptoms of this new regime of accumulation, which might be identified in more conventional terms as 'flexible accumulation.'  Within this context, Dean can be seen in dialogue with the work of the Italian Marxist Paulo Virno, and the recent interventions of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri without necessarily accepting the optimism contained in the latter formulation.  (I would be interested to see what Dean would do with Virno's concept of the multitude, a conceptualization that sees that formation as the result of a failed revolution, defined by cynicism, opportunism, and fear.)

        At the same time, I think that Sunkara's historical critique points to some of the blind-spots in Dean's thinking.  Most notably, as Sunkara notes, "Dean can’t separate parliamentarism from democracy."  This perhaps is one of the areas where I still most profoundly agree with Hardt and Negri, despite other disagreements I have with the thinkers.  Democracy cannot be simply interchanged with the conceptual framework of liberalism.  Instead, the two frameworks, democracy and liberalism, are by their nature antagonistic, a fact that most historical liberal thinkers have recognized.  Our ability to collapse the two concepts together has depended on a lengthy and deliberative process, one that has been dedicated to the neutralization of any meaningful, participatory democratic framework.  While I agree with Dean that any belief that we can create substantial transformation through the ballot is illusory, I simply disagree that we could call such a system democratic.  There are also a set of organizations that Dean leaves out, trade unions, non-profits, etc., or a whole world of reformism that exists in a variety of states of moribund.  I suspect that Dean left these organizations out of the conversation because of the audience, but I would be curious how they would work within her framework. 

      Turning Back to the argument, Dean then argues that we need to return to the party form in order to counter the forms of individualization that define the contemporary moment.  We need forms and structures of solidarity that go beyond modes of localism, and that have a more substantial duree than the temporary formations that often define contemporary politics.  For Dean, this need is subsumed under the term, 'discipline.'  The party forms allows for and perhaps even demands that its participants think beyond the parochialism of the local to question on the terrain of the national-popular, and even the international.  At the same time, it creates a set of forms of solidarity that break away from the temporary arrangements of volunteerism.  Dean does a fairly good job of dealing with some of the most obvious critiques within the question and answer session, pointing out that organizations have the ability to recreate and reinvent themselves, that organizations have the possibility of distributing power within their structures as well as accumulating power, and pointing out the fact that much of the criticism of the party form operates within the logic of the red scare.  In short, Dean recognizes the modes of liberal anti-communism that haunts these critiques, both in the liberal and the anarchist forms of critique.

     At the same time, Dean's concept of the party remains an empty signifier, neither engaging with the history of the party form, as Sunkara points out in his critique, nor thinking through why this form may has lost its traction.  As Sunkara points out, the revolutionary party form is hardly extinct.  One can find versions of it in a variety of small sectarian formations such as the U.S. version of the Socialist Workers' Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party and larger version such as the Left Party of Germany, the UK Socialist Workers' Party, or the new anti-capitalist formation in France.  Sunkara wants Dean to distinguish her vision from these various forms of anti capitalist parties, but I'm struck by a different question.  If the party form is such a strong approach to organization, why haven't these various grouplets succeeded in creating new counter-hegemonies or historical blocks?  Perhaps more significantly, why has the party formed suffered such a decline, a decline that began long before the advent of our current neo-liberal formation?  Such questions would demand an engagement with the Leninist party form as a historical, rather than ideal social formation. An additional question might be posed, why does the only alternative to spontaneity (as it is currently envisioned)  have to take the party form?

      Turing briefly to Zizek's polemic, we can see a more pronounced version of some of the same issues contained in Dean's discussion.  So far, most of the critical attention paid to Zizek's comments have focused on some of the problematic language in his essay, focusing on his use of the word, 'rabble' and the way he gestures towards certain anti-immigrant tropes.  Without dismissing that train of thought, I want to follow a line of thought.  Throughout his comments, Zizek continually finds the protests wanting, lacking a sort of conscious political subjectivity.  Rather than reading the phenomenon a complex and dense network of actions, collectivities, linked together with a variety of communication strategies, Zizek can only read them in terms of negation.  This is not to entirely dismiss the range of critiques that Zizek brings into the second half of his essay, but to note in the case of the incidents in the UK, Zizek makes no particular effort to think through the political dimension of the riots.  Or perhaps to put it another way, Zizek's fixation of the revolutionary subject blinds him to engaging with the contingent and contradictory forms that proletarian revolt has actually taken over the years.

    Years ago, I found myself frustrated with a talk given by Michael Hardt.  Hardt insisted on distancing his concept of the multitude from the descriptive one offered by Virno, arguing that he and Negri were proposing a project, or perhaps, a potentiality.  Accepting that premise, I found myself wondering how were we supposed to move from the depressing reality offered by Virno to the new revolutionary assemblage.  Beyond a few references to 'Turtles and Teamsters,' Hardt offered very little.  I can't help but thinking that we have the same issue with this project.  Dean points to a real need in political organizing, and offers a useful symptomatic reading of the present, but I'm not sure how we get from A to B.  I think that one might identify a common theme within my critiques, and one that is not terribly new to the terrain of critical theory, the questioning of categories.  Dean (and, to a much lesser extent, Zizek) introduce a set of useful categories for engaging with the present, but leave those categories in a reified state.  We might ask along with Hegel, 'what is that is being glossed over in the contemporary forms of common sense?" and along with Marx, we might ask, "What is the history of struggle that animates the formation of these categories, and how does that affect our engagement with them?"

Addendum:  I realized that I left out something rather significant in my effort to work through Dean's text, which was a comment on Sunkara's intervention.  Although I don't explicitly mention it, I was strongly influenced by his argument, and I highly recommend reading his intervention.  



  1. I found my way over here because I'm a co-conspirator of Bhaskar's; this is good stuff, and I may have more to say about it when I've digested it.

    But I mostly came here to ask: are you the robert wood that I knew from the PSO orbit at the University of Minnesota in the late '90's?

    Peter Frase

  2. That's me. I had wondered if you were the same Peter Frase from U of M, but hadn't gotten to checking to see if it was the case.

  3. Thanks for the compliment, but what I said wasn't too heady... just what should be plain, that Dean is rehashing ages-old debates without having done much homework on them, including especially how these debates dialectically informed and reflected socialist/anarchist, centralist/decentralist, etc/etc movement practices, victories, defeats. Instead what we get, as you nicely elaborate above, is a clash of floating signifiers. I would cut Dean a little more slack if she were a litcritter, but she's actually a political theorist! Alas...

    "Larry Damms" is an alias, BTW.

  4. very smart critique--it will be helpful for me; thanks, Jodi

  5. "Democracy cannot be simply interchanged with the conceptual framework of liberalism. Instead, the two frameworks, democracy and liberalism, are by their nature antagonistic, a fact that most historical liberal thinkers have recognized."


    Also, it seems to me that the fundamental intervention of H&N is being left out. They return to a pre-Leninist Marxism in that they insist on anchoring political activity--as a form--in production. this is the point of biopower/biopolitics, it seems to me. this is why it matters very much if their reading of the tendencies of contemporary capitalism are correct.

  6. Great post, inspired me to write a quick post and link to some Negri notes that I believe touch on what you are wrestling with