Monday, December 30, 2013

Book Review: The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean

After being impressed by Jodi Dean's performance in this Occupy Wall Street era panel discussion, I decided to pick up one of her recent books, The Communist Horizon.  While I think she makes plenty of essential points in this book, I don't think the arguments she forwards necessarily lead to her conclusion of the present necessity for a Leninist vanguard party.  But, in general, I mostly agree with her framing of the issues, which is needed to break out of the contemporary brain-dead mainstream rhetorical shackles regarding communism.

Jodi Dean frames communism as "the basic principle [of] from each according to ability, to each according to need" (15) and believes that "The premise of communism is that collective determination of collective conditions is possible, if we want it."(15-16)  Not only is this economic and social alternative desirable and possible, she argues, but necessary given the current crises: "the absence of a common goal is the absence of a future [other than apocalyptic ones]." (15)

Given the clear and attractive alternative that communism provides, Dean observes, it is notable that "capitalists, conservatives, and liberal-democrats... premise political discussion on the repression of the communist alternative." (6-7)  She draws the line between communists and these others by the standard of believing that "any evocation of communism should come with qualifications, apologies and condemnations of past excesses." (7)

A useful chapter in the book ridicules the simplistic appeals to history to discredit the idea of communism.  First, Dean points out that the equation of "communist = Soviet = Stalinist" (31) eliminates discussion of the "wide array of other [really-existing] communisms." (29) The oft-recited slanders of "communism - Soviet Union - Stalinism - collapse" (32) and "if Lenin, then Stalin; if revolution, then gulag; if Party, then purges" (34-35) elicit Dean's ire: "The oddity of this position is that communism is unique in its determining capacity, the one political arrangement capable of eliminating contingency and directing action along a singular vector." (35)

Perhaps it is true that communism per se inevitably results in nightmarish consequences, but that is a much more involved argument than pointing out that it happened once in particular historical circumstances.  Questions such as What is communism?  Was the USSR communist?  What other communisms existed?  What "went wrong" in the USSR's historical development?  Why did the USSR collapse? What other communisms could possibly exist? deserve to be debated seriously rather than brusquely brushed off with a false narrative of capitalist triumphalism.

Dean reserves some of her best barbs for others on the Left, who can't seem to put two and two together: "Left melancholics lament the lack of political alternatives when the real political alternative is the one whose loss determines their aimlessness -- communism." (54)  She also opines that "for leftists to refer to their goals as a struggle for democracy is strange.  It is a defense of the status quo, a call for more of the same." (57)  Dean comes to the conclusion that "As long as it restricts itself to the conceptual vocabulary of individualism and democracy inhabited by the Right, as long as it disperses collective energy into fleeting aesthetic experiences and procedural accomplishments, the Left will continue to lose the battle for equality." (60)

The book loses steam in the middle in the midst of academic debates with other leftist thinkers.  It is clear that Dean views the book, at least in part, as an intervention into contemporary academic debates about communism.  As such, she cites a number of writers (Zizek, Lacan, Badiou, Agamben Ranciere, Hallward, Hardt, Negri, Luk√°cs...) to stake out her positions. However, this detracts from both the readability of the book and, in my view, the relevance: Dean spins her wheels battling opponents on esoteric points rather than tightly advocating for the relevance of communism as an idea.  Her reverence for Zizek and her desire to bring psychoanalysis into her argument produce horrors such as, "In a close engagement with Catherine Malabou's discussion of severe brain injuries, Zizek discusses the logic of dialectical transitions: 'After negation/alienation/loss, the subject 'returns to itself,' but this subject is not the same as the substance that underwent the alienation -- it is constituted in the very movement of returning to itself.'" (202)  This book was about communism, again, right?

Dean next examines the "communicative capitalism" of the current era.  She writes, "Networked information technologies have been the means through which people have been subjected to the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism." (124)  As evidence, she cites "the freedom of 'telecommuting' quickly morphed into the tether of 24/7 availability, permanent work" (125) and the fact that "ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions" (139) as well as noting a distinct shift "from wages to prizes" (140).  In a statement that should ring true for anyone on Facebook, Dean opines that "Demands on our attention, injunctions for us to communicate, participate, share -- ever shriller and more intense -- are like so many speed-ups on the production line." (142-143)

Dean ends the book with some well-considered critiques of Occupy and a less thought-out advocacy of the Leninist party.  She praises Occupy for the accomplishment of making the Left say "we" again (212) but cautions that an "ideology of leaderlessness breeds suspicion." (228)  She laments the "delegation without delegation" (236) that results from the perception that no one is in charge.  Dean is uncertain "that autonomy, fragmentation, and dispersion can substitute for solidarity" (236) and pans Occupy rhetoric that causes people to "lose confidence in anything but the local and the community-based." (238)  She mocks the movement's claims to "openness," believing it to be a euphemism for the "refusal of divisive ideological content." (208)

The last ten pages are spent discussing the Leninist party -- "a vehicle for maintaining a specific gap of desire, the collective desire for collectivity." (207)  While I agreed with much of Dean's writing up until this point, the consideration of if a party is necessary and, if so, what kind of party it should be, is rushed.  Clearly this question deserves major contemplation, and indeed there have been, historically, many points of view on the party.  In fairness, I doubt Dean considers her book the last word on the subject.  I also wonder what party Dean herself is a member of, or advocating for, or if instead she is only intellectually endorsing the idea of a Leninist party.

In sum, psychoanalysis and esoterica aside, Dean's book critically inveighs against cartoonish ideas of communism, held both by the mainstream and the non-communist left.  An openness to the consideration of the idea of communism is the first step to actually implementing it as a system.  These debates are especially pressing, now that "the future of capitalism is [] highly uncertain -- and for capitalists, grim." (52)

(One interesting data point Dean mentions is this 2012 Pew poll: "Rising Share of Americans see Conflict Between Rich and Poor")

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