‘Leaderlessness’ and ‘horizontalism’ have been in vogue for some time on the Left. Well before Occupy Wall Street, “new social movements” adopted a decentred, affinity-based structure so that none of the diverse groups could tell others how they should act. As Naomi Klein explained, describing the alter-globalization movement that emerged in Seattle in 1999, what has developed is not a single movement with a unified vision but a “movement of movements” with the principles of self-determination and diversity at front and centre.1
In two books with refreshingly terse titles, Jodi Dean offers an important response to these horizontalist tendencies. Published 4 years apart, The Communist Horizon (CH) and the more recent Crowds and Party (C&P) make roughly the same argument: individualism dominates all aspects of life under communicative capitalism, including left organization, and the only answer to it is a return to the collective power of communism and its coordinator, the party. In other words, the demise of Occupy has confirmed the need for more permanent and vertical structures through which collective opposition can be articulated.
There is certainly some merit to this basic critique of horizontalism, and Dean draws on an impressive range of sources to develop it. It’s clear her argument takes its cue especially from Alain Badiou, Bruno Bosteels and Slavoj Žižek, who are at the forefront of a return to communism that she claims has “re-energized the Left” over the past decade or so (CH, 9). Returning to communism means that Dean ultimately defends the continued salience of classical Marxist ideas, with Marx, Engels, Lukács and Lenin factoring prominently into the argument. While this orthodoxy is the source of some anti-political tensions (more on these later), what makes the books interesting is the way they incorporate more contemporary developments, including the political-economic shift to a networked form of “communicative [End Page 231] capitalism,” affect theory, and Jacques Rancière’s agonistic democratic theory. To give a sense of how Dean fits these various themes together, I’ll start by unpacking the argument of Crowds and Party, and then outline some points of criticism by engaging key themes from The Communist Horizon.
Moving Beyond Crowds
Although both works end with the party, they take slightly different routes to get there. The Communist Horizon is organized around six “features” (CH, 16) of communism today, with the last of these being the party. The basic trajectory of Crowds and Party is more linear, moving from isolated individuals to crowds to the party (to put it crudely). The point of departure for this argument is the concept of “communicative capitalism,” which Dean develops in Democracy and Other Neo-liberal Fantasies and elsewhere to critique the way network technologies reinforce capitalist individualism by encouraging a peculiar and superficial form of sociality. In this regard, the early parts of Crowds and Party scold contemporary ‘new times’ leftism for being centred on uniqueness and personalization, and also suggest that the prospect of becoming the next viral social media sensation gives each person the impression that “she, all by herself, can make a difference” (C&P, 55, original emphasis). Inverting Louis Althusser, she summarizes these forces by claiming that capitalist ideology “interpellat[es] the subject as an individual” (C&P, 88).
The constant and always incomplete effort to reduce the people to atomized individuals forms the background for Dean’s subsequent discussion of crowds as a site of resistance to communicative capitalism. Because humans are social beings, communicative capitalism’s ultra-individualized lifestyle is always found to be in some way hollow and unsatisfying. She uses this idea to reinterpret Sherry Turkel’s argument about the pathological addiction of individuals to superficial social media connections. The constant need to connect is not, as Turkel argues, because new technologies prevent the development of “reflective” individuals who can be alone; rather, this addiction is an embryonic expression of the desire for collectivity and the relief it brings from the anxieties of the fast-paced world of capitalist competition (on the desire for collectivity, see CH, chap. 5). Online crowds are a collective refuge, then, albeit one that remains enmeshed in the circuits of communicative capitalism.
Dean opts not to make a distinction between virtual social media crowds and physical crowds in chapter 1 of Crowds and Power, claiming it is repeatedly upset in practice. But her focus is primarily on the physical variety, engaging classic works of crowd theory by Gustave Le Bon, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti, and using the 1871 Paris [End Page 232] Commune as a key example. What Dean seeks to develop is the idea that crowds are more than the sum of their individuals, that the affective bonds formed within lead to the establishment of crowds as independent forces with their own dynamics. On this matter she sides with the “odious reactionary” (C&P, 114) Le Bon over Freud, who reduces crowds to an accessory of the leader. Canetti’s egalitarian interpretation of crowd dynamics is particularly influential: as a crowd forms, there is a “discharge” where hierarchies dissolve, solidarity takes over and change becomes possible—at least temporarily.
The temporary nature of crowd attachments is indeed crucial for Dean. It is why, contra autonomists, the occupation of spaces is not itself an alternative. Crowds rupture and create possibilities—they open up a “gap”—but they are not yet political subjects. To become subjects, organization and direction is required, which is why the transformation of a crowd into an “emancipatory egalitarian expression of the people as a collective political subject depends on the party” (C&P, 115).
The argument for the party has both negative and positive dimensions, with the former the less persuasive of the two. Negatively, Dean tries to counter criticisms about centralism and authoritarianism that are commonly used on the contemporary Left as a basis to reject the party form. She responds, for example, to critiques based on Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” by suggesting that a gap between the party and the people is not specific to communist parties, but rather reflects “technical and psychological tendencies…in any political group” (C&P, 195, original emphasis). There is no doubt truth to this claim, just as in The Communist Horizon she is right to suggest that Occupy Wall Street needs to recognize the “facts of leadership” (211). But neither of these claims suggests that we shouldn’t be concerned about oligarchic tendencies, or that we shouldn’t examine the forms of leadership, and accept some and not others. Dean gives the sense that such questions are mere diversions from the real struggle.
Dean’s positive case for the party relies in large part on the classic notion put forward by Lenin, Lukács and others that the party concentrates or gives form to the everyday practical struggles of the people. This line of argument is more directly developed in the final chapter of The Communist Horizon, which, after pointing out the unacknowledged ‘vanguardist’ elements of the Occupy movement, suggests the Leninist party “makes present to the people the demands they are already making on themselves, but can’t yet acknowledge” (CH, 244). The final chapter of Crowds and Party adds an interesting twist, focusing on the often-overlooked affective dimensions of the party. Drawing heavily on the stories recounted by former party members in Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism, she argues that the Communist Party can provide a source of courage, hope and support in the face of seemingly [End Page 233] insurmountable forces of oppression and exploitation at both the micro and macro levels.
Horizons, Divisions and Collectivity
This argument for the communist party is, of course, directed against what she calls the “democratic Left”—the fragmented forces focused on issue and identity politics (CH, 53). While this critique of the Left is clearly present in Crowds and Party, it is relatively muted. The Communist Horizon is a much more polemical work, with significant portions dedicated to chiding the Left for failing to confront the class antagonism central to capitalist society. At one point she uses Walter Benjamin’s idea of “left-wing melancholy” to suggest those taking “compromise” positions have “sold out” or “betrayed” (CH, 171, 174) the proletariat; at another she goes further to claim Leftists focus on democratic issues of process and procedure because they “really fear the bloody violence of revolution” (CH, 58).
Statements such as these are the most vivid expressions of the sharp reform/revolution dichotomy central to Dean’s argument. There are those who are oriented by the “communist horizon” and those trapped in the feedback circuits of communicative capitalism or, to use Dean’s preferred Lacanian terminology, “stuck in drive’s repetitive loops” (CH, 104). The latter group is said to include “liberals, democrats, capitalists, conservatives” and “probably radical democrats as well” (CH, 7). If the point of The Communist Horizon is to confront readers and force them to choose sides, it will likely be successful. But this also means that it will reinforce concerns that many on the Left have about Marxism, concerns that led to the ascendance of ideas of horizontalism and leaderlessness in the first place: the idea that there is a ‘correct’ revolutionary way, which is typically the domain of a party who tells people how they should be acting without consulting them.
As touched on earlier, Dean tries to address some of these concerns by suggesting that the party hierarchies are less problematic than is often claimed. She similarly tries to assuage concerns about a narrow class centrism by describing the collective force to bring about communism in terms of fluidity, non-identity and division. In her most explicit discussion of the subject of communism, found in chapter 3 of The Communist Horizon, Dean opts against the notion of the proletariat because capitalist ideology has successfully discredited the idea in many people’s eyes. This argument is perhaps odd, given that chapter 1 of the work tries to reclaim communism from historical associations of the term with Stalinism and collapse. Nevertheless, Dean develops the concept of “the people as the rest of us” to replace the proletariat. One of the advantages of this concept, she claims, is that it has no historical connection to industrial labour—it is more flexible and open-ended. [End Page 234] But it is not as inclusive as Hardt and Negri’s “multitude,” which in her view is too focused on individual autonomy to break with the circuits of communicative capitalism. Instead, Dean draws on Rancière’s notion of the “part of those who have no part” because it highlights the divided and incomplete nature of the people.
Rancière’s agonistic democracy plays an overall minor role in Dean’s argument, and in fact she frequently hints that his part-of-no-part could be replaced by the Lacanian “objet petit a” (see CH, 81, 189, 203). However, it is worth exploring her use of Rancière further to illustrate the tensions that result from Dean’s fusion of an open-ended politics of division with a “revolutionary, discriminating, concept of ‘the people’” (CH, 70). Given the general tone of The Communist Horizon, Dean’s account of Rancière is surprisingly uncritical. It takes more the form of a positive appropriation than a critical assessment, perhaps because she has appraised his “politics without politics” elsewhere.2 What she finds useful in Rancière’s theory is his idea of political subjectification as the process whereby a gap in the prevailing order is named and those who are “miscounted” by it collectively begin to challenge their exclusion. This “part-of-no-part” is never designated in advance—its formation and membership are contingent and uncertain, even if the gaps and exclusions that led to its emergence are not. To use one of Dean’s examples, the gap between capitalism and the people existed well before the Occupy movement formed a “we” by naming the division between the “99 percent” and the “1 percent.”
While Dean roughly agrees with this notion of political subjectification, the principal difference between Rancière’s version and hers is that where Rancière’s is open-ended hers is much more “discriminating.” She proceeds, for instance, to differentiate “capitalist” and “communist” subjectification processes on the basis that the former is individual and the latter is collective (CH, 191). Similarly, it’s clear that Dean’s “people of the rest of us” is explicitly connected to capitalist proletarianization, unlike Rancière’s part-of-no-part. But one of the consequences of this discriminating notion of subjectification is to vacuum much of the substance out of her references to division and non-identity throughout the two works.
There are two main “gaps” or “divisions” between the many and the few in Dean’s argument. The first of these is the division between the “people as the rest of us” and the rulers of the capitalist world order, or, as it was expressed in Occupy, the division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. The second is the division between the “people as the rest of us” and the party, or between the collective and those who try to lead or represent it. The former is the key division for Dean, and she sets out fairly strict conditions on when it becomes political: a party oriented by the communist horizon is required to escape the circuits of communicative capitalism and turn a crowd into a political subject. [End Page 235]
Because of the party’s vital role in defining the division between capitalism and the people, the nature of the second division—the division between the people and the party—becomes even more important. The problem is that in her effort to counter Occupy’s horizontalism, Dean by and large dismisses the second division as a necessary by-product of organization, which leaves an instrumental conception of politics as a mere means to achieving a revolutionary end. For her, the miscounts that matter are on class lines, and politics is doing what is deemed necessary to eliminate these; for agonistic democrats like Rancière, by contrast, politics and division will always be present because there will always be groups who are miscounted and driven to assert their equality, including groups within communist and other Left organizations. In other words, the question of which miscounts matter is determined through politics according to Rancière, not beforehand.
We can see the same issue in another form by looking at Dean’s notion of collectivity. At various points throughout the works she criticizes the Left for undermining collective solidarity by emphasizing identity and difference. For instance, discussing the Occupy movement’s very loose, affinity-based structure, she asserts, “participants are encouraged to emphasize their individual positions rather than cultivate a general, collective one. The result is that they continuously confront one another’s particularities as differences that must be expressed rather than … disciplined, repressed, redirected, sacrificed, or ignored as not relevant for this struggle” (CH, 220). Again, there is an important corrective here about the limits of Left individualism—some sacrifice is necessary because it’s not possible to build an egalitarian society on NIMBYism, where no one wants to endorse a decision that negatively affects them in some way. But in Dean’s framework, where any references to the individual or uniqueness are associated with cooption by communicative capitalism, the argument seems to go much further, in the direction of a simple and undifferentiated notion of collectivity.
Consider, for example, the difference in the way Canetti’s crowd theory is used in Dean’s Crowds and Power and Miguel Abensour’s De la compacité (“On compactness”). Portraying crowds as a rudimentary expression of the desire for collectivity, Dean affirms Canetti’s argument about the psychic effects of crowd density, the elimination of distinctions and separation between people. This egalitarian “discharge” is crucial because it instils crowds with the intense solidarity needed to challenge capitalist individualism. For agonistic democrat Abensour, on the other hand, Canetti’s notion of crowd density is associated with the project of totalitarian domination.
Abensour’s focus is on totalitarian monumental architecture, which in his view deliberately tries to overcome the fear of contact and fuse individuals into a compact and unified body. The aim in forming [End Page 236] people into dense crowds is to depoliticize them by eliminating the “in-between space” (to quote Arendt) required for politics: “Far from permitting human coexistence through the institution of an agonistic space of speech and action, a differentiated space of appearance necessary for action to occur, the totalitarian regime rather aims to constitute and mobilize a mass that is subjected, in every sense of the word, to a multi-faceted experience, that of Canetti’s ‘discharge,’ that of a fused homogeneity…”3 While Dean would no doubt contest the conception of politics at the base of Abensour’s argument, the point here is just to advocate for more nuance in her notion of collectivity. Seeking to avoid what she describes as the pitfalls of Left individualism and Left preoccupations with democratic process, Dean ends up with an extremely strong emphasis on collective unity that undermines the gaps or political spaces between people. This again pushes toward a notion of politics as an instrumental activity in which all divisions are subordinated to the one that is deemed to matter, the division between the “people as the rest of us” and capitalism.
The demise of the Occupy movement set in motion a period of reflection on the question of Left organization, while the question of class looms large on the Left in the wake of the events of the 2016 US Presidential election. Crowds and Party and The Communist Horizon no doubt make important contributions to both debates. With regard to the latter, Dean’s arguments are bolstered by Bernie Sanders’ position that the Democrats need to “go beyond identity politics,” returning attention to the working class after a long period of neglect.4 With regard to the former, Dean makes a compelling case that ‘horizontalism’ should be thrown into the dustbins of history, though the question of what organizational form should replace it remains much thornier.
Devin Penner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Studies at Trent University. His recent publications include a chapter on the political thought of Guy Debord in Thinking Radical Democracy: The Return to Politics in Postwar France, a collection he co-edited. Devin can be reached at email@example.com
1. Naomi Klein, ‘Farewell to the “End of History”: Organisation and Vision in Anti-Corporate Movements’, Socialist Register 38 (2002): 13.
2. See Jodi Dean, ‘Politics without Politics’, Parallax 15, no. 3 (2009): 20–36, doi:10.1080/13534640902982579.
3. Miguel Abensour, De la compacité. architecture et régimes totalitaire (Paris: Sens & Tonka, 1997), 37, 52, 60. My translation, with thanks to Martin Breaugh.
4. Bernie Sanders, quoted in Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, “Democrats’ Leadership Fight Pits West Wing vs. Left Wing,” New York Times, November 23, 2016, A1.