- Politics After Occupy: On Dean’s Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party
‘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...