Saying ‘We’ Again: A Conversation with Jodi Dean on Democracy, Occupy and Communism

By Thomas Biebricher & Robin Celikates

Jodi Dean teaches polit­ical and media the­ory in Geneva, New York. She has writ­ten or edited eleven books, includ­ing Demo­cracy and Other Neo­lib­eral Fantas­ies and most recently The Com­mun­ist Hori­zon (Verso, Octo­ber 2012).


Biebricher & Celikates (‘B&C’): You argue that demo­cracy is so intim­ately tied up with what you call ‘com­mu­nic­at­ive cap­it­al­ism’ that every attempt from the left to re-​appropriate the term, to give it a more rad­ical mean­ing and to dis­tin­guish it from the elect­oral regimes of rep­res­ent­at­ive demo­cracy has to fail. This seems dif­fi­cult to accept for many people on the left.

Jodi Dean (‘JD’): There are a couple of reas­ons why I take this pos­i­tion. First, and most broadly, demo­cracy is not a cat­egory of con­test­a­tion any­more. Right and left agree on demo­cracy and use a demo­cratic rhet­oric to jus­tify their pos­i­tions. George Bush claimed to be defend­ing demo­cracy all over the world by bomb­ing all sorts of people. If that is demo­cracy, then that is not a lan­guage that the left can use to for­mu­late an egal­it­arian and eman­cip­at­ory poten­tial or hope. A second reason, which is a reper­cus­sion of the first one, is that demo­cracy is a kind of ambi­ent milieu, it’s the air we breathe, everything is put in terms of demo­cracy nowadays. And this relates to the third reason: the rhet­oric of demo­cracy is par­tic­u­larly strong now in the way in which it is com­bined with the form of cap­it­al­ism I call ‘com­mu­nic­at­ive cap­it­al­ism’, where ideals of inclu­sion and par­ti­cip­a­tion, of mak­ing one’s voice heard and one’s opin­ion known are also used by TMobile and Apple. Par­ti­cip­a­tion ends up being the answer to everything. If that’s the case, refer­ring to it is not mak­ing a cut with our dom­in­ant frame, it’s just rein­for­cing it. If gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions are encour­aging one to par­ti­cip­ate then left­ists don’t add one thing that’s not already present if they say that what we need is to make sure that every­one is par­ti­cip­at­ing and included — that’s already what we have. For the left to be able to make a break we have to speak a lan­guage that is not already the one we’re in.

B&C: This sounds primar­ily like a stra­tegic or polit­ical reason for shift­ing the focus away from demo­cracy. But is there really some­thing fun­da­ment­ally wrong on a the­or­et­ical level with the more rad­ical notion of democracy?

JD: What’s wrong with the notion of demo­cracy as even rad­ical demo­crats have appro­pri­ated it is that it leaves cap­it­al­ism in place. The assump­tion is that if we have enough demo­cracy the prob­lem of cap­it­al­ism will either go away or solve itself — and that’s clearly false. Take Ern­esto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe: their idea of rad­ical demo­cracy is framed spe­cific­ally to keep class from being a primary polit­ical determ­in­a­tion. In the Frank­furt School tra­di­tion Habermas’s dis­tinc­tion between life-​world and sys­tem leaves cap­it­al­ism untouched. The same is true for the focus on civil soci­ety which leaves the mode of pro­duc­tion out of the frame. So the the­or­et­ical reason for my skep­ti­cism is that the left has moved away from an ana­lysis and cri­tique of capitalism

B&C: You refer to demo­cracy as a ‘neo­lib­eral fantasy’ — could you explain that notion a bit?

JD: The more neo-​liberalism has entrenched itself the more we have been hear­ing this lan­guage of demo­cracy, as if par­ti­cip­a­tion was going to solve all prob­lems — but this is a fantasy because the fun­da­mental truth is that it is not going to solve these prob­lems. Keep­ing all the activ­ity in the demo­cratic sphere makes it seem as if people are busy, engaged etc. without ever affect­ing the basic struc­ture. It’s a fantasy because it func­tions like a screen.

B&C: Build­ing on this dia­gnosis, you intro­duce an altern­at­ive vocab­u­lary with the term ‘com­mun­ism’ at its cen­ter — a dif­fi­cult term, one could say, if only for stra­tegic pur­poses given that it is widely regarded as his­tor­ic­ally discredited.

JD: First, there has been the return of com­mun­ism in the the­or­et­ical dis­cus­sion that star­ted with the con­fer­ences Sla­voj Zizek and Alain Badiou have organ­ized. Hardt and Negri have been talk­ing about com­mun­ism for a long time already. It’s import­ant to return to the lan­guage of com­mun­ism because that is the one word that says ‘no to cap­it­al­ism’. No mat­ter what, if people say that they are com­mun­ist, you know that they are against private prop­erty and the private own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion and for the people’s con­trol over these means. There’s no nuance about their rela­tion to cap­it­al­ism, and that’s what is import­ant. A third reason is that the right in the US still believes in it, they are con­stantly attack­ing com­mun­ism which means that they know that it is the lan­guage of anti-​capitalism that appeals to some kind of eman­cip­at­ory egal­it­ari­an­ism. So I don’t think that com­mun­ism is as dead as the left seems to assume. The right knows it’s alive.

B&C: This might of course be spe­cific to the US and a bit dif­fer­ent in Europe. But let’s turn to a more the­or­et­ical con­cern. We agree that the ana­lysis of cap­it­al­ism, and more gen­er­ally a Marx­ist per­spect­ive on class soci­ety, is abso­lutely cru­cial and that this has been neg­lected or mar­gin­al­ized in a lot of radical-​democratic thought. But on the other hand it seems that the return to com­mun­ism, e.g. in the work of Badiou, is also in a prob­lem­atic way detached from a social-​theoretical ana­lysis of soci­ety. The effect is that com­mun­ism is under­stood in act­iv­ist or vol­un­tar­ist terms, as if we could just decide to estab­lish com­mun­ism, whereas in the Marx­ist frame­work it was always tied to both a socio-​theoretical ana­lysis and to exist­ing eman­cip­at­ory move­ments. Does com­mun­ism return as uto­pia instead of real movement?

JD: I don’t think this detach­ment is so char­ac­ter­istic of the return of com­mun­ism. It’s true that Badiou lacks any account of the eco­nomy, but David Har­vey has a strong Marx­ist ana­lysis of the eco­nomy that recog­nizes changes, such as the emer­gence of new places of struggle and organ­iz­a­tion such as the city. So here there is a socio-​economic anchor and com­mun­ism is not seen as free-​floating. The same is true for Hardt and Negri, par­tic­u­larly in Empire their account, which goes back to the whole post-​autonomia dis­cus­sion and its ana­lysis of the social fact­ory, recog­nizes that there are socio-​economic changes and move­ments that can still be ana­lyzed with vari­ations of Marx­ist cat­egor­ies and provide a loc­a­tion for some kind of com­mun­ist move­ment. Another ques­tion is whether there is an act­ive, vivid com­mun­ist move­ment right now. That would prob­ably be far-​fetched with regard to the US and Ger­many or the Neth­er­lands — but look at other parts of the world such as Nepal and India or Greece. We go too quickly if we say that there is no social ana­lysis or link with any real movements.

B&C: What about Occupy? Do you see a pos­sible link with the return to com­mun­ism or is it a demo­cratic movement?

JD: It’s a plural and open move­ment with mul­tiple tendencies.

B&C: That sounds like com­mu­nic­at­ive capitalism!

JD: You’re right, that’s a prob­lem, and one of the views I often argue against is that Occupy is a ‘meme’ that jumped from the inter­net onto the streets or that it’s primar­ily driven by social media. I don’t think this is true. What made the move­ment work in the US was the rela­tion to Wall Street, it wasn’t Occupy Cap­itol or Con­gress. That gives us the anti­cap­it­al­ist core that is the sub­stance of the move­ment even as all the other tend­en­cies some­times make us lose sight of that.

B&C: Can you say some­thing about the insti­tu­tional or organ­iz­a­tional struc­tures that the move­ment against cap­it­al­ism and for com­mun­ism would have to have? You argue that we have to renew the idea of the party. Many will regard that with some skepticism!

JD: First on the idea of the party. Lukács is really great in his book Lenin: A Study on the Uni­city of his Thought in recog­niz­ing that the party is a form for the actu­al­ity of revolu­tion, which means that it is a form that we need because of the mul­ti­pli­city of people who become mobil­ized when a move­ment starts. Of course, they are going to bring all kinds of dif­fer­ent forms of con­scious­ness to the move­ment and that can eas­ily be redir­ec­ted and become a kind of pop­u­lism. So a party can be use­ful in try­ing to respond to this — not dog­mat­ic­ally but flex­ibly, try­ing to push and steer a little bit. But it should not and can­not get ahead of the people. It has to have a much more respons­ive rela­tion­ship to it, try­ing to dir­ect in a respons­ive way. So with regard to the first ques­tion I think that a party is neces­sary and that we can recog­nize even in the old his­tory of Com­mun­ist parties it was never as dog­matic, unre­spons­ive or rigid as the crit­ics want us to think. Second, not a whole lot of people are excited about the party idea; I’ll admit to that. But I think the exper­i­ence of Syr­iza can be made more inspir­ing for people out­side of Greece. Because they see that there is a flex­ible left coali­tion that was able within four or five months to func­tion as a party and make real pro­gress. That would be dif­fer­ent in the United States because we do not have a par­lia­ment­ary sys­tem, so the incent­ives for the party form are not really there, which is a real prob­lem. On the other hand, one of the exper­i­ences that has come out of ‘Occupy’ is that there needs to be a more expli­cit under­stand­ing of how lead­ers func­tion and arise so that lead­ers can be account­able and dif­fer­ent people can move in and out of lead­er­ship pos­i­tions, in an open, trans­par­ent and account­able way. So I would hope that over the next year some more cohes­ive organ­iz­a­tional form can emerge and I do not think that it hurts to call it a party.

B&C: His­tor­ic­ally the role that Com­mun­ist parties have played has often turned out to be anti-​revolutionary not only with respect to e.g. the more anarch­ist cur­rents in these revolu­tion­ary move­ments but also in other ways. One might think that the coun­cil sys­tem would be a good altern­at­ive to the party form in terms of organ­iz­ing the movement.

JD: I don’t think that the party form is opposed to coun­cils, cells or sovi­ets. In Octo­ber, I was read­ing Lenin’s April Theses and thought that the gen­eral assem­blies of Occupy are a new form of soviet. All of these are units in which a party can func­tion or which can be com­pon­ents of a party. They are not opposed to each other. I think Anarch­ists are too reduct­ive here because they treat the party as some­thing on top rather than some­thing within: an organ­iz­a­tion of voices within a broader field. I think it is a mis­take to build up this dichotomy.

B&C: But there do seem to be his­tor­ical and soci­olo­gical reas­ons to be skeptical.

JD: There have been mul­tiple kinds of parties. Even in the Soviet Union the party changed over time. It went from being a revolu­tion­ary party with mul­tiple splits to one that became less tol­er­ant of vocal oppos­i­tion within it to one that was a rul­ing bur­eau­cratic party to a bur­eau­cratic party that would also purge itself and change over time. People act like freaks when it comes to Com­mun­ism and install a nar­row­ness and a determ­in­ism that would be ana­thema in any other intel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion. I think it is really time to get out of that Cold War men­tal­ity that lets us reduce everything to one kind of bur­eau­cratic Sta­lin­ist party as if that were the only thing that a Com­mun­ist party ever was.

B&C: Let us come back to the Occupy Move­ment once more. Maybe you could elab­or­ate a little more on where you see the sig­ni­fic­ance of the movement.

JD: The most import­ant thing about Occupy Wall Street is that it let the Left recog­nize itself as a Left again instead of speak­ing in terms of all these dif­fer­ent iden­tity cat­egor­ies split­ting the Left and say­ing ad nau­seum that there is no Left and that no one can say ‘we’. With Occupy Wall Street we can finally say ‘we’ again. It really was a situ­ation where the ques­tion was: ‘are you for or against Occupy Wall Street?’ And people from a wide vari­ety of pos­i­tions on the Left ended up hav­ing to say, ‘Yes, we are for it’. Even if their accept­ance was qual­i­fied or crit­ical, that ‘for or against’ became a divid­ing line. Occupy is an event partly because of its abil­ity to inscribe this kind of divi­sion so people have to say whether they are for or against it: ‘Are you one of us or not?’ — even if the ‘us’ is amorph­ous, chan­ging and plural. But it was a really divis­ive moment in the very best pos­sible way. So first, its sig­ni­fic­ance lies in the way it gal­van­ized the Left. Naomi Klein said at the end of the first week of the occu­pa­tion: ‘This is the most excit­ing thing in the world right now’, mean­ing for us in the US Left to have some­thing that was gal­van­iz­ing and that was an open­ing. That is what I think of Occupy Wall Street as an evental form. I also think it is a polit­ical organ­iz­a­tion of the incom­pat­ib­il­ity of cap­it­al­ism and demo­cracy. Its par­tic­u­lar form ties it to the con­tent of the gap between cap­it­al­ism and democracy.

B&C: One of the main cri­ti­cisms regard­ing strategy that have been made is the absence of an agenda or a set of demands.

JD: I was in the Demands Work­ing Group, which died a really hor­rible death. It was about March and it was hor­rible to watch as it was pain­ful and ongo­ing. The prob­lem of demands was ini­tially presen­ted as if it wasn’t a prob­lem but a choice: ‘We do not want to have demands because we are not address­ing the state. Occu­pa­tion is its own demand.’ But this was an unbe­liev­ably stu­pid thing to say because the real­ity was that the move­ment at its begin­ning was so inclus­ive and amorph­ous that it was not cap­able of mak­ing demands as a group. There was not enough of any kind of social cohe­sion, any kind of com­mon interest, from which demands could be for­mu­lated. Instead of address­ing that, the dis­cus­sion was formed around ‘demands are bad; any­body who wants us to make demands is try­ing to hijack the move­ment or elim­in­ate its potential.’

But what was also excit­ing about it ini­tially was that not hav­ing demands cre­ated a space of desire so that the main­stream media and politi­cians went nuts. Every­body wanted to know: ‘What do they want?’ It was a won­der­ful proof of the truth of Lacanian theory’s account of the gap of desire. There was this gap and it did incite a lot of enthu­si­asm and desire and that was good. It was obvi­ously not planned but there was an immense bene­fit to that open­ness. By early Novem­ber, though, the demands group was frag­ment­ing, the more lib­eral and inde­pend­ent mem­bers would take everything that the rest said and would red-​bait it and say:‘You guys are com­mun­ists; this will never wash with the 99%.’ And because of the Anarch­ist prin­ciples of con­sensus that required full or close to full agree­ment, they were able to block pro­pos­als nearly all the time. Other people were in the group con­stantly say­ing that the group should not exist and also block­ing decisions. So that was a problem.

B&C: You said that Occupy enabled the Left to say ‘we’ again. But isn’t one of the big achieve­ments of the his­tor­ical Left that it was always wary of say­ing ‘we’ because it was aware of the exclu­sions res­ult­ing from such a ‘we’? Is this aware­ness incor­por­ated into the move­ment and what are mech­an­isms express­ing it? How can we reflect on these more prob­lem­atic aspects of the ‘we’?

JD: First, there is a very con­crete pro­ced­ure for deal­ing with the poten­tial prob­lems of an exclus­ive ‘we’ that is called the ‘pro­gress­ive stack’. If people want to speak in a gen­eral assembly they get ‘on stack’. The pro­gress­ive stack makes sure that people who have not spoken and/​or are from his­tor­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged or mar­gin­al­ized groups are moved up in the stack.
That makes it impossible for priv­ileged people to take up all the speak­ing time. Most work­ing groups also adop­ted this mech­an­ism. Secondly, there were mul­tiple groups that were focused on women in the move­ment, racial dif­fer­ences, prob­lems and issues for the undoc­u­mented etc. So there were par­tic­u­lar caucuses and work­ing groups on these very top­ics. So there was always self-​consciousness in the move­ment. The assump­tion that every­body just for­got fifty years of dif­fer­ence the­ory is ludicrous.

How­ever, at the same time the move­ment was delib­er­ately divis­ive. 99 vs. 1: there is a real enemy. The prob­lem in this regard I encountered at a num­ber of dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tions I went to. One of the big issues was always whether the police are part of the 1 or the 99 per cent. I do not have one answer on that. It had to remain an open issue. In some places it makes sense to think of them as part of the 99 per cent because they were facing all kinds of budget cuts etc. On the other hand they were also func­tion­ing as agents and defend­ers of the 1 per cent. So the very place where the divi­sion was policed, as it were, became an ant­ag­on­istic site where the ques­tion of dif­fer­ence remained unre­solved in a use­ful way.

B&C: Would the new type of party you were talk­ing about also have mech­an­isms and pro­ced­ures like the pro­gress­ive stack and spe­cific work­ing groups in order to ensure it does not develop the rigid struc­tures of former Com­mun­ist parties?

JD: Sure, as long as there is a Cent­ral Com­mit­tee … (gen­eral laughter).

Robin Celikates is Asso­ci­ate Pro­fessor of Social and Polit­ical Philo­sophy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ams­ter­dam and an asso­ci­ate mem­ber of the Insti­tute for Social Research in Frankfurt.

Thomas Biebricher dir­ects the research group “Crisis and Norm­at­ive Order — Vari­et­ies of ‘Neo­lib­er­al­ism’ in Trans­form­a­tion” at the Cluster of Excel­lence “Form­a­tion of Norm­at­ive Orders” at the Goethe Uni­ver­sity, Frankfurt.

(CC) Krisis, 2012, Issue 2