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Against the Beautiful Moment

By (April 1, 2016) One Comment

Crowds and Partycrowdsandpartyjodidean
By Jodi Dean
Verso 2016

The Occupy movement seemed to mark a break with ordinary politics. Something new was coming, something more egalitarian, more spontaneous, and more hopeful. Despite a promising start, it did not remake politics. It ended up fragmented, frustrated, and more than a little silly. Political scientist and left-wing advocate, Jodi Dean offers a diagnosis and a potential cure in her new work Crowds and Party. As a work of diagnosis, Dean offers insight into the nature of crowds, parties, and political action, which should interest anyone fascinated by political movements and their failures. But, as an advocate Dean is clearly addressing committed Leftists and as an academic she dives into minutiae liable to leave most people cold. Despite those restrictions, Dean has a powerful point to make: political movements have to move beyond immediate expression— the crowd— and embrace long-term organization— the party. That may sound like a truism, but in an anti-establishment age, it’s a truism worth defending.

Dean argues for a return to leftist class-and-party politics in opposition to what she sees as an excessive – even pathological – focus on individuality be that the consumerist individualism of neoliberalism or the endlessly subjective identity politics of the New Left. Although some of her points are genuinely universal, much of the detail seems to apply better to American life than it would to say Germany or Canada, where strong unions, welfare states, and avowedly socialist parties help shape political life.

She’s not attacking the rights or welfare of individual persons, but rather a host of ideas and forces that push people to go it alone and to ‘take responsibility’ for things that they did not do and cannot control. Her proposal is to rehabilitate the notion of collectivity and to encourage people to seek collective welfare through party organization. It is OK, she says, to be part of some groups especially where common interests and common problems are involved. And, it is more than OK, it is necessary that these interests be pursued through hierarchical, organized, powerful parties.

Dean takes aim at what she calls “communicative capitalism,” a way of life shaped more by expression and communication, than by the industrialism of yesteryear. This new economy consists of “proletarianized people producing the information, services, relations, and networks at the core of…what others sometimes refer to as the ‘knowledge economy’ or the ‘information society.’”

Tech companies, in her telling, benefit from asymmetric organization. They control the means of communication and you— the public— supply the content. They are organized and structure the venues— Facebook, Amazon, etc— to meet their needs and you adapt to what you’re given. Each company relies on being a ‘they,’ a collective with coherent goals and disciplined organization, and on you being a ‘you,’ an individual who has limited bargaining power and limited organization. You can share all you like— that’s where the advertising data comes from that the company will sell— just don’t expect to be paid for generating that revenue and certainly don’t expect social programs and parties to protect your interests.

Dean’s diagnosis of American social life is fascinating, if not always persuasive. She traces three parallel threads: an ideology of “commanded individualism,” the wealth concentration inherent to the market, and the creation of survivors, people who only know how to value themselves for their ability to survive permanent precarity. She claims these people are left jaded by the loss of social support and, because they are so jaded, they are unwilling to trust the institutions or movements that might help them. They turn inward, because they have been let down too many times and because they are told any sort of connection is tantamount to weakness, dependency, and failure. Growing up means growing lonely. These people “are enjoyed to individuality, told each individual is selfsame, self-creating, self-responsible: one is born alone and one dies alone, you can rely on no one but yourself.”

Instead of security, class struggle, and integration, Dean thinks people are told to rely only on themselves (since all the other structures you could rely on are being sold off), accept whatever happens as your just desserts, and blame yourself should anything go wrong. She characterizes the US as a political culture “focused on personal identity, harm, and exclusion as opposed to common, collective, and systemic injustice” and “within this culture, systemic problems such as exploitation in the workplace and amplified personal indebtedness are treated as the effects of individual choices, preferences, and luck.” Those three are real, but they exist in context and that context includes forms of organization, law, and economic activity which favor some over others or hinder the pursuit of common interests.

This pressure to go it alone is given an ennobling twist, by selling the pressure to go it alone as an opportunity to express your authentic self with no intrusion from others and no obligation to others. Except, that’s not what you really get. What you, the American consumer, get are Coca-Cola t-shirts with your name in place of the brand name. Instead of relationships with other people, you are encouraged to relate first to a brand and to use that brand to relate to others. Media outlets, big data one of a kindresearchers, and even traditional companies speak in terms of a flat (non-hierarchical) relationship, where a crowd of equal people mingle and present their own fresh, unique take and style.

Dean’s pointing out that this is usually an illusion and a manipulative one at that. The media outlet is stable and gives terms to desperate and divided content producers. The data researcher structures interaction or filters private files to concentrate power and insight. And the company is insinuating that you cannot be someone unless you stand out and you stand out by decorating yourself with their wares.

Dean summarizes her thesis well in a discussion of crowdsourcing. Many people, all working independently, are able to generate new ideas and perhaps converge on a solution. But the crowd’s wisdom is only useful if all those individual inputs are collected, filtered, and repackaged by a central observing body. The crowd is not a spontaneous and flat collective: it is a structured mechanism for concentrating information.

Cognitive diversity is key, necessary for avoiding imitation and groupthink (necessary, in other words, for blocking the affective binding-together of a provisional collective being). [The] exemplary crowds are corporations, markets, and intelligence agencies. Their wisdom depends on mechanisms … that are able ‘to generate lots of losers and then to recognize them as such and kill them off.’ In reality, [these crowds] are not so much crowds as they are data pools…that use the many to benefit the few. Aggregation…is decentralizations paradoxical partner.

Social media seems like an obvious target for Dean, since it serves as a platform for marketing your personal brand (to use a revealing phrase). But Dean has a more charitable interpretation of social media.

Techno-utopians, who promise a Twitter Revolution, have already been refuted by history. Twitter can help you coordinate a flash mob; it won’t help you run a government. Non-hierarchical and spontaneous communication isn’t enough to sustain challenges to well-organized and entrenched elites.

Tech skeptics, though, who bemoan the public’s enchantment with social media miss the mark just as badly. These critics think they are striking a blow for personality against the creeping homogeneity of a screen-addicted generation.

For [researcher Sherry] Turkle, these new experiences are pathological…She argues that networked technologies inhibit the kind of separation necessary for maturation…Young people do not learn how to be alone, how to reflect on their emotions in private. Fragile and dependent, they fail to develop the sense of who they are they they need to have ‘before’ they ‘forge successful life partnerships.’

Some of this is a familiar criticism of ‘young folks these days’ and their culture-destroying fascinations. “But the language Turkle employs when she speaks of solitude signals something more than an updating of the critique of cultural narcissism for a networked age.” Dean claims that Turkle is prescribing— if you use technology to feel like yourself or to feel comfortable, then you’re wrong, you’re failing at being a person. Turkle commands you to form a sense of self founded on solitude first and only then negotiate a dalliance with others.

Directly addressing the reader, she insists that the reflective individual be shored up (even as she rejects technologically mediated forms of this shoring up as themselves pathological). For Turkle, a self that is less bounded, more expansive, less separate, more connected, is immature, at risk of loneliness.

But that’s not how Turkle’s own subjects describe their interaction with technology. Turkle’s subjects describe how technological connection lets them feel part of a “larger thing” that is more meaningful than their struggle for work and survival.

For Turkle though, connectivity is so pathological that she depicts it biochemically, as an addiction…Our brains react to [digital responses] by releasing— injecting— dopamine. But rather than this reaction being a valuable reinforcement of our connections with others, it is [portrayed as] a dangerous stimulant that we crave. Would happy neurochemical responses to seeing people face-to-face be similarly suspect?

occupyDean’s point is that all the criticism lobbed at ‘dependence’ on social media, texting, online games, and the like are just as applicable to real life interaction. The ultimate target is not the technology, which draws attention by being new, but the fact that people take solace in community and feel damaged by the command to form an “authentic” self. Shaming people for not enjoying their loneliness is probably well-meaning, but gets the facts backward. People aren’t suffering from their ‘addiction’ to others, Dean says, but from their fragmentation.

Dean offers an alternative interpretation; the public isn’t addicted to electronic stimulation, it is eager to maintain some tenuous sense of community. Well, they aren’t just addicted— there’s no need to ignore the real problems and challenges of, let’s say, video game addiction or Facebook-abetted narcissism. Why should connection as such come in for criticism? Why should the public be ashamed of its desire to maintain organized, collective life?

The companies and parties that prey upon the great mass of ‘unique individuals’ ensure one class of people is generally safe – that is, they can generally count on getting paid – and another class snatches a paycheck where it can before decamping to a new gig in the sharing economy, an economy which presents itself as increasing worker choice, but mostly offloads risk to temporary workers while safely depositing the profits in durable (and unaccountable) institutions.

The less dependent workers are on the favor of their employers, the harder it is to maintain such baldly extractive practices. In Dean’s narrative, threats to the welfare state — especially in America— exacerbate that dependency. The gig economy and the sharing economy are very good for some people, but usually not for the people actually doing the work. Those people are kept divided, threatened with replacement, and asked to bear the burden of risk without the entitlement to profit or even basic healthcare. Without a social safety net though it is difficult if not impossible to maneuver. People have a limited ability to say no much less invest time or money in gaining skills instead of gaining an immediate paycheck. People on the edge — the so-called ‘precariat’ — are much too dependent, much too close to ruin to pursue the kind of self-improving, liberating activities that a more laissez-faire system was supposed to make available.

Class consciousness, awareness of structural disadvantages, and social programs are regularly attacked for making people dependent— mainstream American politicians freely speak of “the takers,” “welfare queens,” and “the 47%” who depend on so-called government handouts. The claim that vulnerability— the lack of any social support network— is good for people, that it makes them more virtuous, is a central tenet of conservative politics all across the Anglo-American world. Mere talk of economic inequality is regularly denounced as “class warfare” and even the most modest government interventions labelled “communism.” Dean’s point is those elements of moderate liberalism are hardly communist and, to her mind, that’s the problem. Class consciousness— perhaps not class warfare, though— would be a much needed improvement!

The assault on collectivity notably exempts all those laws and structures which increase the boss’s leverage over the employee. The critics of dependency seem to have little compunction about using the government to break unions— “right to work laws” largely empower employers to retaliate against employees. Mandatory arbitration clauses paradoxically use the legal system to prevent customers and employers from accessing the courts— the individual’s concerns will be adjudicated by private companies serving as de facto courts hired by the company. They certainly will not forsake their legal teams, their lobbyists, or their advisors to ‘do it all themselves.’ They will not go it alone, because they know that way lies ruin. This isn’t anything sinister, this isn’t a cabal. It is a simple outcome of organization. Those with common interests band together and pool resources to bend the law and the market to their advantage. Encouraging people to embrace their insecurity in the market and to pursue their self-development through brand loyalty is just good marketing.

Dean is not offering a generous interpretation of either corporations or taste-makers who rationalize extreme individuality, but it is not an implausible one either at least so long as one focuses on post-Reagan America and, to a lesser extent, the New Labour of post-Thatcher Britain. Right to work laws, golden parachutes for failed executives, and the tendency to force employees to bear risks and costs instead of the company are all powerful mechanisms for making the public as vulnerable as possible to a class not similarly exposed to risk. The rich do not rely on their moxie, they rely on their stock portfolio and the courts, their social network and their legacy entitlements, their trust funds and all the assistance a fortune can buy. If it seems strange to talk this way – to talk of exploitation and owners as dependents in denial – it is only because we have so thoroughly banished all talk of structure from ordinary discourse. At least, those who stand to benefit from a scattered and vulnerable public have tried to banish all such talk using the parties and media, which they so carefully organize and direct for their class interests.

crowdsandpartyDean claims that individualism is used as an all purpose theodicy to avoid talk of structural or systemic problems and to make collective solutions appear impossible or evil. Individualism is meant to make a certain class of individuals do more work and to carry more burdens, so that another class can profit more and more reliably from them. America has always had some kind of individualist ethos or another, but Dean traces the history of that idea pointing out that it has changed as America moved from a frontier society to an industrial one to now a post-industrial communicative one. It is this latest model that concerns her so. That a defense of exploitation and dependency on the well-wishes of corporate overlords is sold as a defense of independence and anti-institutionalism is just a bitter irony. But if the exhortations have grown louder and more demanding, it is because faith has grown weaker.

Dean claims a doctrine of “capitalist realism” has held sway since the neoliberal turn in the 80’s and 90’s. It was a form of ‘realism,’ because it largely treated whatever the current conditions happened to be as natural, inevitable, and secure. The end of history— Fukuyama so boldly put it— revealed there were no alternatives to de-regulation, private initiative, and Reaganite or Clintonian capitalism. But the great shocks of the 80’s and 90’s culminated in the Great Recession and, along with an increasing awareness of wage stagnation and inequality, discussion of current conditions as the product of choice have once again become politically tenable.

The crumbling of capitalist realism … has led to mainstream acknowledgement that capitalism is a system that takes from the many and gives to the few. Today no one denies the fact that some always lose in the capitalist economy. The system produces losers – the unemployed, the homeless, the indebted, the conned, the wiped out, the abandoned, the sacrificed. It runs on debt, foreclosure, expropriation, eviction, dispossession, destruction – these are just other words for privatization. But then what?

The New Left, which rejected class-and-party in favor of its own individualism largely focused on the particularities of one’s experience— the uncharitably termed “misery Olympics” — and issues of gender or sexual expression.

[The New Left supposes] that collectivity is impossible. We are so different, so singularized in our experiences and ambitions, so invested in the primacy of one set of tactics over another that we can’t cohere in common struggle. At best we can find momentary affinities and provisional coalitions. Politics should thus involve cultivating our own unique point of view— or the point of view of our sect, tribe, or locale— rather than trying to organize these views into something like a strategy.

This movement, concerned with identity, with ‘flat’ organization, and with spontaneity, cannot address the threat from oligarchs, from anomie, or from consumerist despair, because it embodies those very same forces. “The individualism of [the New Left’s] democratic, anarchist, and horizontalist ideological currents undermined the collective power the [Occupy] movement was building,” because it celebrates disorganization and narcissism as though they were freedom and self-respect, respectively. Instead of helping people realize their “collective desire for collectivity,” the New Left treats politics like consumer choices – Dean points out people wear “Leftist” as an identity just as they wear “Coke” or “Dr. Pepper” as an identity – and insists on the gratification of private impulses rather than realization of collective aims.

For both predatory economic elites and New Left sloganeers, “the goal becomes … the production of the many, the multitude of singularities” which are not allowed to work together and are publicly shamed for seeking connections. In Dean’s reading, this economic and political atomization takes root in the soul leaving the public lonely, vulnerable, and desperate to survive at all costs. Those survivalists, well aware that things cannot go on this way but bereft of trustworthy alternatives, lash out in ways that cannot succeed – because unorganized and undirected – but can feed back into greater anger and greater feelings of impotence. “Trying to do [everything] themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.”

All of this is very insightful and surprising, but often burdened by layers of psychoanalytic shop-talk and the jargon psychoanalysis is (rightfully) chided for. That’s not to say that Dean is an unclear writer or a poor writer. On the contrary, she is a keen observer and a passionate expositor, who easily carries the reader along. Until academic disruptions choke her momentum. Compare two different treatments of a similar phenomenon pulled from a few pages apart.

Having learned that they can’t rely on anyone, these young working-class adults try to numb their sense of betrayal by affirming the worst cultural scripts of individualism, personal responsibility, and self-reliance, hardening themselves to the world around them. Their hostility to various forms of government intervention…makes them ideal supporters for neoliberal capitalism. Incidentally, those of us who write and circulate critical exposes…may not be helping our cause. We may be affirming what some in the working class already know to be true: they are being betrayed.

The survivor is a figure not for a culture of narcissism but for a psychotic culture. If narcissistic culture is characterized by the dislodging of symbolic authority, psychotic culture is characterized by its foreclosure. In brief, Lacan defines psychosis in terms of the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father [sic] or master signifier. That the master signifier is foreclosed means that it does not stabilize meaning…The generalized loss of symbolic power impacts the subject such that he feels this now-missing authority to be all the closer, more powerful, and intrusive. In a psychotic culture, then, mistrust is pervasive, all-consuming. Each confronts power directly and alone.

Admittedly, I don’t feel the need to call in Lacan for any discussion, but what does the Name-of-the-Father and psychotic culture add to this? Isn’t it enough to describe, as Dean does, what it is like to feel trapped and isolated at the same time?

Dean notes a moment of promise here, though. The crowd opens a “gap” in which we no longer feel alone nor are we laid bare to foreign powers. Crowds, mobs, even riots all prove that people can, under the right circumstances, join together to pursue a common interest. These eruptions show people that feel-good nostrums about ‘being yourself’ and ‘standing out from the crowd’ aren’t benign, let alone salutary. They are commands. ‘Be yourself, so you don’t co-operate.’ ‘Stand out, so you are easier to exploit.’ ‘Organizing is evil and common interest an illusion … never mind our organizing and our strategy.’ In the crowd, a person experiences communion as something powerful and satisfying. The satisfaction is different than what people are used to, because it isn’t stressing their uniqueness nor is it a consumable to express yourself with.

Perhaps, this implies, a paranoid fear of betrayal and a self-protective ‘survivor’ mentality isn’t the best way to live and, most importantly, that an alternative really exists. Sometimes, people pride themselves on their status as a survivor and sometimes they intuit the value of connection, as in social media. That makes it seem like there’s a ‘real world’ of selfish and self-reliant activity and a ‘digital world’ of connection. The crowd tips the balance toward collectivity by offering an example of collectivity in action. Collectivity can actually get things done out in the real world. But only the party can keep open that space of possibilities for real political work.

TeaPartyCrowds can be mobs just as easily as they can be movements. They can be just or vigilantes. That’s why Dean claims that liberatory politics needs to be given shape and direction by parties and mechanisms devoted to liberation. You cannot make do with mere spontaneity and hope to transform the world, nor does a relief from predation and isolation necessarily mean even more isolation. Dirty words like ‘discipline,’ ‘collective,’ ‘class,’ and ‘organization’ have to come back into vogue or all this anger and all this energy will be swallowed whole by a consumer culture eager to brand rebellion and sell it back to you. Or, as the current election season shows, curdle and go mad.

In Occupy, in the Tea Party, and arguably in the candidacies of both Trump and Sanders, crowds of very different sorts have coalesced and wavered on the boundary between a moment and a movement. Dean is skeptical that political expressions built on special events and special personalities are all that helpful.

The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way rather than another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.

As Sander’s campaign struggles, we will see if it proves a ‘beautiful moment’ in which left and liberal people feel unified in a loosely structured collective or if instead it proves the seed for a more enduring and more coherent movement capable of exerting a collective will long after individual passion has flared and dimmed. The beautiful moment is, in the end, only a moment and it is not to be fetishized. Like passion is to marriage, a galvanizing experience is important, but it will only endure if it matures into political programs and boring, but reliable organizations.

I suspect most readers will not accept Dean’s proposal that a renewed communist party would be the best form for that organization to take. And some – myself included – will chafe at her detours in psychoanalytic by-ways. But Dean’s general thesis rings true. Our individualist culture asks too much of people and explains too much in terms of personal preference, choice, or luck. All of those are important and no one is claiming otherwise, but people are more than just lonely souls. If people cannot be honest about the ties that bind, the structures that shape political life, and the forces that animate the market, then they will not grasp the real nature of the world. If people are allergic to power, to organization, and to discipline, then they won’t change the world either.

Matt Ray is a lecturer at Boston College and an editor at Lingua Barbara. He focuses on ethics and philosophical anthropology.