Party for the Revolution

Michael Principe

Crowds and Party
By Jodi Dean
Verso, 2016, 276 pages, 26.95 cloth

JODI DEAN BEGINS Crowds and Party with a vivid personal account of the New York City Occupy movement on October 15, 2011. Thirty thousand people demonstrated in Times Square that day. As police tried to contain the crowd, Occupiers chanted “We are the 99 percent.”

Afterward, a people’s assembly was held to decide whether to move the occupation from Zucotti Park, the home of Occupy Wall Street, to the larger, more centrally located Washington Square Park which was closed for the night. With police moving in and preventing newcomers from entering, each speaker urged the crowd to take the park.

Amplified by the people’s mic, the crowd chanted “We are many. We outnumber them. We can do it. We must do it.” With the crowd increasingly signaling its approval, something happens and everything changes. Dean tells us:

“Then a tall, thin, young man with curly dark hair and a revolutionary look began to speak.

We can take this park!
We can take this park!
We can take this park tonight!
We can take this park tonight!
We can also take this park another night.
We can also take this park another night.
Not everyone may be ready tonight.
Not everyone may be ready tonight.
Each person has to make their own autonomous decision.
Each person has to make their own autonomous decision.
No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself.
No one can decide for you. You have to decide for yourself.
Everyone is an autonomous individual.
Everyone is an autonomous individual.

The mood was broken. The next few speakers also affirmed their individuality, describing some of the problems they would encounter if they had to deal with security from NYU or if they got arrested.” (3-4)

What was collective strength and the freedom of the crowd was fragmented and reduced to the autonomy of individual decision. Dean tells us that Crowds and Party comes out of this moment of “collective desubjectivization.”

More broadly, she brings together a number of themes and concepts developed in a steady stream of publications over the last 20 years. These include collective subjectivity, democracy, contemporary capitalism, technologies of communication, psychoanalysis and communism.

In particular, Crowds and Party functions to deepen the analysis offered in The Communist Horizon (2012), itself a thorough engagement with the theoretical framework(s) leading up to and emergent from the important series of conferences dubbed “On the Idea of Communism” in London (2009), Berlin (2010), and New York (2011) initially inspired by philosopher Alain Badiou’s essay, “The Communist Hypothesis.”

An Emerging Perspective

Emerging from a period beginning roughly in the 1980s in which left-leaning academic political theory was oriented around deconstruction and postmodernism, an emerging group of theorists have explicitly taken up a communist perspective. Dean has become an important North American figure in this context which otherwise mostly includes Europeans.

The reception of Badiou in the English-speaking world is representative of this shift in left academic discourse. While the works of many of his French contemporaries were long ago translated into English, Badiou’s large body of work dating back to the 1960s only began to appear in English around the turn of the new century. Since 1999, however, close to 50 volumes have been published. The better known Slovoj Zizek, who’s complementary blurbs often grace the back covers of Dean’s work, and about whom Dean has written extensively, is probably the best-known figure in this intellectual milieu.

Dean’s own contributions in this sphere have explored ways in which late capitalism has been reconfigured through changes in communication, commodification, work and exploitation primarily involving the internet, while at the same time theorizing corresponding changes in proletarianization and the potential for revolutionary subjectivity with a special emphasis on the need for some form of communist party.

Especially in Crowds and Party, Dean also contributes to a growing literature attempting to theorize the importance of recent large-scale demonstrations, occupations, and riots. Examples include Badiou’s The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings(1) and Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings(2) in which he states:

“Riots are coming, they are already here, more are on the way, no one doubts it. They deserve an adequate theory…a properly materialist theorization of the riot. Riot for communists, let’s say.”

By developing the related notion of “crowd,” Dean attempts to provide such a theory. She differs from Clover who embraces something like an anarchist revolutionary sequence: “The riot, the blockade, the occupation and, at the far horizon, the commune.”

This is what Dean would call “the politics of the beautiful moment.” She is closer to Badiou. who argues that riots under the best circumstance are pre-political and require organization by militants who remain true to the riot as historical event.

Badiou, however, rejects the party form as historically exhausted. Dean further distinguishes her position from Badiou and Clover by arguing for the necessity of a disciplined communist party that can be true to the desire of the crowd. In fact, she goes so far as to suggest that the crowd is a necessary condition of such a party.

Rejecting Hardt and Negri’s idea that innumerable, pluralizing local struggles, though lacking a common program, class analysis, or even language, might strike at the heart of Empire(3), she states, “The new cycle of struggles has demonstrated the political strength that comes from collectivity. Common names, tactics, and images are bringing the fragments together, making them legible as many fronts of one struggle against capitalism.” (25)

She suggests that the party is the proper mode for this process, spanning “local, regional, and sometimes international levels…parties are carriers of the knowledge that comes from political experience.” Parties fit “issues into a platform such that they are not so many contradictory and individual preferences but instead a broader vision for which it will fight. What is sometimes dismissed as party bureaucracy thus needs to be revalued as an institutional capacity necessary for political struggle and rule in a complex and uneven terrain.” (25-6)

With the notion of “crowd,” Dean points to a wide range of events, including “the Occupy movement, Chilean student protests, Montreal debt protests, Brazilian transportation and FIFA protests, European anti-austerity protest, as well as the multiple ongoing and intermittent strikes of teachers, civil servants, and medical workers all over the world.” (16)

She sees these as the protest of “those proletarianized under communicative capitalism.” Communicative capitalism is Dean’s take on the current phase of late capitalism, where the circulation of data becomes a major source of profit, exploitation, and ideological production.

While this particular classification is probably peripheral to the larger analysis, suggesting that the current situation is unique, Dean employs it to 1) articulate a broadly understood class struggle politics where paid, precarious, and unpaid labor are not treated separately; 2) suggest that class struggle in the current period is not found exclusively in the workplace, i.e. that these crowds and riots do constitute an essential site of class struggle.

Subjectivity and Consciousness

The best and most important parts of Dean’s work involve thinking through ideas of individual and collective subjectivity and their relation to revolutionary struggle and consciousness. We should remember that the preconditions for the development of revolutionary subjectivity are notoriously undertheorized by Marx.

For instance, in The Communist Manifesto Marx writes “that with the development of modern industry the proletariat not only increase in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” In addition, he says, “improved means of communication…centralize numerous local struggles.” The rest involves workers recognizing their interests and acting on them.

Of course, the question in the subsequent history of Marxism in theory and practice becomes: how and when does this recognition occur? Dean points importantly to the idea that in the current period, what Marx called “concentrations” may need to be consciously chosen through gathering, riot or occupation, insofar as capitalism increasingly disperses workers to discrete locations. While workplace struggles remain relevant, Dean clearly downplays them in favor of crowds and riots.

Key to revolutionary subjectivity, for Dean, is a rejection of the idea that political agency is tied to individual subjectivity.

The autonomous, choosing individual is, of course, a cornerstone of liberal political theory. She responds: “Liberal political theorists explicitly construe political agency as an individual capacity. Others take the individuality of the subject of politics for granted. I argue that the problem of the subject is a problem of this persistent individual form, a form that encloses collective political subjectivity into the singular figure of the individual.” (73)

While many have seen individual subjectivity as besieged and undermined by contemporary society, Dean asserts provocatively that “The individual form is not under threat. It is the threat.” (57)

Dean also provides a helpful history of “crowd theory,” which emerged in the late 19th century in response to fears generated by the revolutionary crowds of the Paris Commune of 1871. Of particular importance to her is Gustave Le Bon, author of The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. While noting that Le Bon’s perspective is conservative, racist, elitist and misogynistic, she finds his analysis helpful.

Of special interest here is the notion of association: “Le Bon decries the way association, far more than universal suffrage, is making the masses conscious of their strength.” (94) He is principally concerned that a dangerous and irrational collective subjectivity can emerge through the crowd. The voting booth lacks this potential.

Dean theorizes the crowd both politically and psychoanalytically. She engages Freud’s dialogue with Le Bon in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, arguing that Freud individualizes the collective psychology of the crowd: “Collective desire is reduced to an amplification of frustrated individual desire. Forces associated with the crowd become unconscious processes with an individual.” (105)

While psychoanalysis does reject the knowing, reasonable individual of political liberalism, Dean claims that “when the unconscious is rendered as that of an individual, psychoanalysis is drafted into its service as covert support for an individuated subjectivity conceived in terms of a rational and knowable will.” (113)

Crowd, People and Party

Crowds, for Dean, represent the potential for “the people” to emerge. For the actual emergence, though, the party is necessary, i.e. the crowd and its desire must be represented. “The people” are identical to neither the crowd nor the party.

“Some on the Left — autonomists, insurrectionists, anarchists, and libertarian communists — so embrace the energy unleashed by the crowd that they mistake an opening, an opportunity, for an end. They imagine the goal of politics as the proliferation of multiplicities, potentialities, differences. The unleashing of the playful, carnivalesque, and spontaneous is taken to indicate political success…they treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention.” (125)

As if to implicate both herself and her audience in this sensibility, after noting Kristin Ross’s and the Situationists’ interpretation of the Paris Commune as “an explosion of inventiveness, an experiment in revolutionary urbanism that, for those who lived it, was a fully consummated political experience (not a failed attempt at establishing a new form of working-class rule),” she says: “It’s how we imagine revolution. And it’s what we have to get beyond.” (136-7 my emphasis).

Ultimately, Dean’s take on the function of the party (rather than the argument for its necessity) may surprise many readers. She sees a communist party as essential to developing and sustaining the intense collective subjectivity of the crowd. The party provides an affective dimension.

She writes, “So instead of considering the communist party in terms of ideology, program, leadership, or organizational structure, I approach it in terms of the dynamics of feeling it generates and mobilizes. More than an instrument for political power, the communist party provides an affective infrastructure that enlarges the world.” (210)

Dean invokes psychoanalysis (with special reference to Jacques Lacan and Slovoj Zizek) to think through the emotional needs that can be met through identification with a communist party.

The move to psychoanalysis has been, of course, a common approach to revolutionary consciousness in much of Western Marxism. The difference here is that the earlier approach used psychoanalytic categories negatively, that is to explain why the working class did not revolt, accepting the idea implicit in the remarks from the Manifesto quoted above that such conscious rebellion should have followed automatically.

Dean, on the other hand, sees the party form as capable of positively satisfying the crowd’s desire to endure. For Dean, too much discussion of the party leaves out its “affective infrastructure,” “its reconfiguration of the crowd unconsciousness into a political form.” (217) For Dean, it is the party that ultimately secures a new enlarged subjectivity, providing the grounds for a “practical optimism through which struggles endure.”

She describes the party as “a form of organized political association that holds open the space from which the crowd can see itself (and be seen) as the people.” (259) Dean provides many examples of former Communist Party members who recall inhabiting enlarged emotional spaces while members of the party.

A meeting at a pub, while not formal, carries immense authority, “transforming a group of people having a pint in a pub into the Communist Party. Their words and actions took on an importance far beyond what they would have been absent the Party.” Collective subjectivity exists outside of the crowd. Members experience its reality alone or in very ordinary settings.

Like Falling in Love

What is described here is a kind of collective subjectivity which Dean analyzes through the Lacanian/Zizekian category of enjoyment (jouissance) which she refers to elsewhere as “an excessive pleasure and pain…that something extra that twists pleasure into a fascinating, even unbearable intensity.”

She uses love as an example, “falling in love can be agonizing. Yet it is a special kind of agony, an agony that makes us feel more alive, more fully present, more in tune with what makes life worth living, and dying for, than anything else. Enjoyment, then is this extra, this excess beyond the given, the measurable, rational, and useful.”(4)

This is what allows people to accomplish things of which they didn’t think themselves capable. Politically, the party allows people to see themselves in a new way. People make impossible demands upon themselves, feel guilty when they fail, etc. This is, for Dean, a positive thing, both politically, and for the people involved.

A new way of living and a new conception of living well can emerge through this new collective revolutionary subjectivity. According to Dean, a way of life develops that doesn’t seem to make sense if you are not living inside it. An average reader is likely to be both drawn to and put off by this description. Of course, that makes sense given the particular psychoanalytic lens through with Dean offers her account.

While Dean writes powerfully regarding the role such a party might play in facilitating a new subjectivity, she says very little regarding the conditions for its possible formation. Additionally, since for her crowds, are, at present, a necessary condition of the party, one would like to hear more regarding the conditions for the emergence of crowds.

Jodi Dean’s interesting and often controversial contributions to political theory will continue to engender critical discussion. Crowds and Party represents a serious attempt to grapple with both the theory and practice of revolutionary change. It is particularly important insofar as it radically challenges the category of the liberal individual in all its forms, including within left politics.

Notes

  1. Badiou, Alain. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, Trans. Gregory Elliot, London & New York: Verso 2012.
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  2. Clover, Joshua. Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings, London & New York: Verso 2016. (See also the critical review essay by Kim Moody, Against the Current 194, May/June 2018.)
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  3. Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Empire, Cambridge, M.A. Harvard University Press, 2000.
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  4. Dean, Jodi. Zizek’s Politics, New York & London: Routledge, 2006, 4.
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January-February 2019, ATC 198