The Democratic Drive

Steve’s épater la bourgeoisie shtick only goes so far, so he agrees with Ross Douthat that communism is not on the horizon for millennials. Should it be? Slavoj Žižek, Bruno Bosteels, and Jodi Dean have articulated the case for making communism the horizon for the Left. Dean’s 2012 book The Communist Horizon makes the case most clearly.

For Dean, millennials’ fragmented digital lives are not (only) priming them for control and submission in the future. The digital panopticon is already upon us:

“In actuality, neoliberalism and communicative capitalism have been mutually reinforcing. Networked information technologies have been the means through which people have been subjected to the competitive intensity of neoliberal capitalism. Enthusiastically participating in personal and social media — I have broadband at home! My new tablet lets me work anywhere! With my smartphone, I always know what’s going on! — we build a trap that captures us, a trap which extends beyond the global use of mobile phones and participation in social networks to encompass the production of these phones and the hardware necessary to run these networks” (124).

Putting communism back on the horizon is controversial for the Left, as Jeffrey Isaac’s dismissive review in Dissent evinces. But it is uncharitable to dismiss Dean as a naïve fundamentalist in a Leninist mold. To understand where she’s coming from, we should go back to her 2009 engagement with Jacques Rancière in “Politics without Politics” (available from Dean’s website here.)

Why communism? Dean first takes issue with the way the Left trumpets democracy:

“Because the left presents itself as appealing to and supporting democracy, it fails to take a stand, to name an enemy” (21).

Democracy has been co-opted by the Right — think of how the Utopian Right inherits the mantle of leftist notions of progress in John Gray’s Black Mass — and the “free choice” rhetoric of capitalism. Meanwhile, the Left — or what should be the Left — has been lulled into a fantasy of post-politics, of “postdemocratic metapolitics,” and the triumph of consensus.

Unlike Rancière, Dean insists that 21st century Americans are not living in a post-political age. Instead, Obama’s politics of consensus only masquerades as center-left, while providing cover for tangible political achievements of the Right. Dean lists these political achievements: centralizing executive power, disenfranchising minorities, redistributing wealth to the 1%, undermining the Geneva Conventions, empowering state surveillance, and propagating Christianist denials of climate change (23). (With gay rights, is the post-Left granted identity-politics concessions in return?)

Another problem with the democratic horizon is that it has “already arrived” in some ways. Democracy is our uncontroversial ambient milieu. Really existing democracy is unglamorous agonism. To avoid the “trauma of the real”, the Left speaks of possible democracy. Dean turns to Žižek (and Jacques Lacan) to explain possible democracy as an objet petit a — the unattainable object of desire. It is “anticipated or lost, but never present”. The Left’s attachment to democracy is a drive:

“Drive circulates around an object, generating satisfaction through this very circulation… This drive dimension better describes democracy for the left; it is our circling around, our missing of a goal, and the satisfaction we attain through this missing. It accounts for the attachments and repetitions to which we are stuck… We protest. We talk. We complain. We undercut our every assertion, criticizing its exclusivity, partiality, and fallibility in advance as if some kind of purity were possible, as if we could avoid getting our hands dirty. We sign petitions and forward them to everyone in our mailbox, fetishizing communication technologies as the solution to our problems. We worry about conservatives even as we revel in our superiority — how can anyone be so stupidWe enjoy” (25).

Dean aspires to a politics that will short-circuit this drive, get out of a rut, and take power. But is the language of communism a serious strategy for taking power? One wonders — indeed, Dean wonders — if invoking the language of communism is enough to get the Left unstuck:

“Contemporary protests in the United States, whether as marches, vigils, Facebook pages, or internet petitions aim at visibility, awareness, being seen. They don’t aim at taking power. Our politics is one of endless attempts to make ourselves seen… Egalitarian or elite, anarchist or communist, any political gap will provide a charge sublimated as it is within the democratic drive. We want to make ourselves seen as political without actually taking the risk of politics” (35).

Dean offers us a way to theorize about democracy that is not a site of resistance, a system of governance, or culture, but an objet petit a that is a response to a collective psychological need. (If one needs a sober filter to translate Lacan and French philosophy, consider the dialogic construction of identity in Charles Taylor’s “Politics of Recognition”.) Beyond the difficulties of Left politics, seizing power, etc., we recognize the apotheosis of an immanent symbolic order.

Democratic drive, our desire for authenticity and recognition or simply publicity increases the “gravitational pull” of the world, drawing us deeper into worldliness. The transcendent horizons of the immanent order — even those that have only been established in the realm of possibility — are becoming increasingly obscured, as if we are being sucked into a black hole. Here, there will be no horizons. Being a Muslim will mean being a member of the Ummah — there will be no Islam but political Islam. Being a Christian will mean nothing more than Charles Taylor’s “identity form of Christianity”, electing some constellation of distinct moral sources. Religion will be contained entirely within aesthetic and ethical choices immanent to the current symbolic order. In some respects, this eschaton has already been immanentized without anybody trying.

As far as I know, Jodi Dean has not engaged sympathetically with the Christian tradition. But it is no coincidence that other latter-day communists, from Alain Badiou to Žižek, have engaged theology. Late modern capitalist democracy has erected an immanent symbolic order that we purportedly cannot function without. A Left capable of resisting this symbolic order — as Walter Benjamin recognized long ago in Jewish messianism — needs to bring transcendent horizons into view.


4 responses to “The Democratic Drive

  1. fantastic precis here, thanks! Went browsing for more on Dean and found this video – – great stuff. Agreed about Taylor’s helpfulness with recognition (via Ricoeur, of course) and the dire need for transcendent horizons on the Left. Are P. Blond and J. Milbank, et al. with ResPublica laudable in this regard? Or Gar Alperovitz? Earlier distributisms?

    • Her notion of communicative capitalism (which she explains in that DCU talk, and elsewhere) is very useful. The Left has urgent and compelling critiques of the “really existing media public”. Kierkegaard steers me in that direction. If we live in a hostile environment for religious faith, I think technological/institutional critiques have certain advantages over the dominant mode of critique based in intellectual genealogy. Playing DwarfQuest (you are familiar with my Benjaminian joke, yes?) and locating the dwarf inside the puppet is something I enjoy, Taylor’s methodology is complex and compelling, and Milbank’s new book might be his most lucid and convincing yet. But let’s also think about how clocks and printing presses revolutionized the world and become iPhones accessing Twitter. Let’s start thinking more critically about how these technological forces act on us and not just bat around nominalism as an idée fixe. It’s a much more accessible place to start anyway.

  2. Thanks for this, Rob.

    I’m curious: Is Dean claiming that Democracy is _inherently_ flawed and utterly incapable of standing against the neoliberal onslaught, or it is the case that through a series of historical and technological accidents (the internet), democracy has been neutralized?

    I get that her critique of Democracy is Lacanian: every hysterical refusal of mastery is always a demand for a new master and that today’s left can only articulate pure drive. So maybe this is the answer?


    • Dean is most obviously making a strategic argument for the Left. Democracy Now! doesn’t work so well as a slogan when the neocons are marching under the banner of democracy, or when democracy is historically enmeshed with bourgeois liberalism. Her solution is to turn to another term: communism. (Seems to me that has problems to, being historically enmeshed with Russian statism… look at China, where communism is the vacuous term, right?)

      But Dean, it seems to me, is on to something more than “branding” the Left strategically. Many progressive types are cut from a pragmatist cloth — like John Dewey they flush the snark out of Mencken’s “the cure for the ills of democracy is always more democracy”. So, take Habermas for example, it means a fair speech situation where corporate influence is neutralized. His feminist critics disagree about what it takes to get a hearing, but this discourse stuff/deliberative democracy is popular for Left and left-of-center folks. Democracy is redefined as Dewey as a “conjoint communicative experience”, something like the common human endeavor, period.

      Dean is pessimistic about that project. She is concerned with the subtleties of corporatized democracy masked as a “post-political” order. For her, probably, the pragmatist Left is destined to fail because it identifies itself in post-political terms and appears to idealize the “democratic” status quo.

      Meanwhile, someone like Dean watches income and wealth disparities increase. With a materialist conception of equality, you can see why her idea of democracy is better called communism.

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