Occupy Wall Street’s recent one-year anniversary, and subsequent re-up, inspired a number of commentaries on the movement. What have been its successes? What have been its failures? What does its future look like? Is it dead? A recurring staple of these discussions was the critique that Occupy has been unable to articulate big clear visions and goals for people to get behind. But what if this problem stems from relying heavily on the very neoliberal system, protests like these, aim to disrupt? What if our devotion to the modes, mediums, and language of capitalism is, exactly, what’s keeping us from imagining an economic world beyond this one? What if social media’s distraction is having more of an impact than its potential? What if Occupy Wall Street is not radical enough?
Jodi Dean, who teaches political and media theory in Geneva, New York, has written a crucial and penetrating pamphlet on these very topics. The Communist Horizon is the rare political work that generates as many answers as it does questions. “The myriad entertainments and diversions available online, or as apps for smartphones, are not free,” writes Dean. “We don’t usually pay money directly to Gmail, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. These don’t cost money. They cost time. It takes time to post and write and time to read and respond. We pay with attention and the cost is focus.” Dean’s book serves as a blueprint, in order to find focus long enough to ask the most important of questions: what is to be done? It’s an inquiry that the movement had to reckon with after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and must be continually asked in the months ahead.
Jodi Dean was nice enough to answer a few questions I had about the book. (It should also be pointed out that she maintains an excellent blog.)
Motherboard: You write about communication technologies leading to displacement and, often, diverting our attention from political participation. How do you interpret this “Facebook and Twitter were the keys to the Arab Spring” narrative, that the mainstream media latched onto, in relation to your critique?
The claim that Facebook and Twitter were the keys to the Arab Spring were attempts to capture revolutionary energies within the logic of communicative capitalism. They try to tell us that anything that is radical is in fact predictable and part of what we already have. In other words, they are totally reactionary attempts to assert the primary of capitalism at precisely a moment when it is under significant threat.
I wonder how you perceive the rhetoric of neoliberal philosophy shifting now that we are all networked; this whole idea of everyone being their own boss and their own brand. Does this shift in language say something specific about the world we live in now or does it fit the historical trend of capitalism adapting to its given surroundings?
It’s pretty sick isn’t it, a real flip from the late-’60s when people protested being turned into products, into commodities. Now we are supposed not only to enjoy it but also to do it ourselves! And the thing is, we know full well that the vast, vast majority of us are not our own bosses — even bosses are not their own bosses insofar as they are subject to shareholders or even the dictates of the market.
Neoliberalism rode in on a fantasy of freedom — we are each free, individually free to control our own destinies. Really? I can’t even park where I want without someone either giving me a ticket or leaving nasty messages on my phone. The rhetoric of bosses and brands covers over the fact that there is no such thing as individual freedom. Either we are collectively free, collectively determining our common conditions, or we are determined by forces beyond our control. The most significant of these forces for the sake of this conversation is, of course, the capitalist economy.
Staying on language for a moment and zooming in on America: do you think our inability to identify the “Horizon” has something to do with shifts in the kind of work Americans are doing? Fifty years ago it was very easy for American workers to associate themselves with ideas of labor and production, based on the skills they were using, but that connection to the idea of labor, presumably, shifted within the context of a service-sector economy. There’s probably even a bigger psychological divide, now, within the context of the “Information Age.” During the debates that surrounded the recent Chicago teacher strike, I was struck by how insanely specific even the term “worker” has become for some people, including many on the left.
I think you are right about the term ‘worker’ — and it’s a terrible loss and a shame. No wonder unions face an uphill organizing battle: few think of themselves as workers anymore. They think of themselves as consumers or, heaven forbid, individuals. More than 50 years of cold war and capitalist backlash against the victories of workers’ struggles has had a massive impact on how we see ourselves, which then has an impact on the kinds of politics and worlds we can imagine. The diminution and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs has a role here, sure, but it’s more of a matter of ideology, I think, that people have been reluctant to identify themselves as white-collar workers or public sector workers. We need to regain this territory.
Slavoj Zizek recently said, “Occupy Wall Street is just a signal. It’s like clearing the table. It’s time to start thinking.” I wonder if you think the forms of contemporary neoliberalism, that you describe, have negatively impacted that movement. Do you think there’s been a hesitancy to challenge power directly because many are, despite their professed views, and maybe subconsciously, attached to capitalism?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure how subconscious it is. I think most people when faced with the option of living in a tent in a protest camp or living in a house with their kids will choose the latter. Even as they admire the courage of the occupiers, it’s hard for them to see occupation as prefiguring a world they want to live in. Look, for the last 40 years we’ve lived in a Thatcher-like fog of ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism. It’s like we are a mirror-version of North Korea and can only see our way of life as possible. It’s pretty bizarre that politicians like Mitt Romney can mock Europe, which still has less inequality and a stronger social welfare net than we ever had.
Why do people fall for this? Because they have thought for a long time that capitalism is the only game in town. Fortunately, this is changing. 2008 was a big shock. Occupy made class conflict, the division between rich and poor, an undeniable feature of contemporary American life. And, the right denounces communism constantly, with a frequency and ferocity reminiscent of the McCarthy era. The fact that they feel so compelled to attack communism tells us that they are still afraid of it. They are still afraid of it because inequality and anti-capitalism are on the rise and no word captures this anti-capitalism like communism.
Piggybacking off that Zizek point, I’m reminded of Derrida’s Democracy to Come and this idea that the promise of democracy will remain a promise. Does resistance within these movements cement a perpetual struggle, rather than a vision of victory?
The question is, what does victory look like? The language makes it seem like the end of the game. But it doesn’t make sense to think of politics that way. Politics doesn’t end. A communist victory, then, wouldn’t mean that everything was all done. It would mean that capitalist relations of production in the interest of the few had been replaced by relations of production determined by the many. But this determination would still involve all sorts of negotiations and disagreements and compromises. For example, deciding whether we allocate resources to fighting disease, climate change, or developing new kinds of energy would likely be completely fraught and contentious. What we would know, though, is that we would be making this determination for the sake of our common interest and not for the private interest of the few.