Interview: Jodi Dean

Spring 2020 #29
written by
Jodi Dean with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

It’s nearly ten years since the Occupy movement, imitating political mobilisations in Europe and Africa, opened our political and economic systems to new possibilities. Over this last decade many of us have been intensely engaged in how to turn these possibilities into a more durable political project, but either turning away from party politics, using entyrist approaches to transform mass parties, or engagement through local politics, we’re still not closer to any transformative political or economic power. I interviewed Jodi Dean, author of Crowds and Party, not with a particular interest in a return of the party, but to engage with the criticisms of neo-anarchism and how it informed the Occupy movement and its legacy.

Generally speaking, I find Elias Canetti the most important resource for talking about the crowd. I use Le Bon to introduce the crowd and Lacan to refine it, but really Canetti’s book Crowds and Power is the most useful. Why? It’s because Canetti has a very weird argument that claims that human beings have a fundamental fear of being touched by another person and that in the crowd that fear goes away. So it’s weird, right, that fundamentally people have a desire for separateness, which they think is the most important thing to protect, and so they are always afraid of losing that separateness. They shake that desire, though, when they are in a crowd and they’re completely touched by other people all around them. It’s in that moment where you’re in such a crowd and you’re pushed together, compacted together, and your breath goes with another’s breath, and you can’t tell if it’s your excitement or their excitement, and your arms or their arms, and your legs or their legs – that’s the egalitarian discharge.

In this moment, you don’t see yourself as separate, you don’t experience yourself as separate, you don’t feel yourself as separate, and so you don’t feel any incursion on your separateness. I see this as a fantastic model of equality because it’s not the bourgeois equality of separate beings, and it’s not a distributed model of some separate spheres, rather it’s one where the equality comes from this sort of emancipation, where it’s an equalised experience, every aspect of experience becomes one entity. 

For Canetti this is an egalitarian rupture. This rupture does not happen for very long, the crowd dissipates, the people may not be able to keep that sense with them, but for a moment there’s this shining rupture of egalitarianism that becomes a longing for justice. And so my argument is to say this is the essence of the crowd and why crowds are appealing. It’s basically the initial model for thinking about movement politics – not where we think about the movements in terms of issues – but where we primarily think that what’s exciting about a movement is the being togetherness, the unity, the coming together; even if it sucks in planning, and even if it goes away, there’s a longing that becomes the role of the party to hold open and to transmit. 

So back again to the crowd, this is what’s so interesting about Le Bon’s account of the crowd. As a proto-fascist he was actually really worried about the potential of the crowd as he thought it was proto-communist – he doesn’t like it because he thinks it’s an irrational entity. Collectives are not rational entities in the sense that we are used to thinking of in terms of individual cognition and decision-making, which is where I agree with Le Bon.

As soon as we break away from a politics that focuses on the individual, then we have to break away from a sense of politics as having the characteristics of a stereotypical individual mind. So rather than reason and feeling, what matters are affect and imitation; rather than making arguments, what matters is contagion. So there are attributes of a crowd that are actually really crucial for thinking about politics – if we can break away from the limitations of the individual mind we can see politics, I think, in a much more exciting way, one that is more accurate to us. 

For Canetti, crowds do not have to just be visible crowds, they can also be psychological experiences. If we think about it more as psychological then we realise that crowds are the effects of others’ feelings and minds and impressions on us. Weirdly, you can feel ‘stuff’ on Twitter, and even though objectively you are just standing someplace with your stupid phone and scrolling, internally you feel like, “I’m with all these other people and we’re taking down this idiot”, or “I’m with all these people and we’re pushing forward and showing our strength”. And so in this digital forum we actually have crowd experiences, and that’s also why liberals complain, “People are too rude on Twitter”. You know, that’s not the right framework, it’s a misunderstanding of the kind of phenomenon this is. Twitter is not about individual expression, it’s about the transmission of crowd effects. So this is where I start when thinking about crowds. 

Today, crowds are important as we think about our understanding of the party and its connection with movements. We typically make the mistake of thinking about other movements in terms of concrete issues and my move is to say no, think about movement first in terms of crowds because that’s where we’re seeing the potential force of many in the place where they don’t belong. Let’s begin there.

Could you speak more specifically about the political force of the crowd in terms of the Paris Commune?

I think The Paris Commune is a great model and it’s a model that Lenin and Alain Badiou also draw from, as I explore in the book. 

The exciting thing about the Paris commune is that it’s a rupture in the possibilities that are given at that moment and so that’s the first aspect of it, right, it seemed there was a static situation. Activists had been saying, “Come on people, we have to revolt” and it wasn’t happening. Then, all of a sudden, one day women start fraternising with soldiers and the soldiers back down, a whole crowd forms, and there is this new sense of political possibility that wasn’t there before. And even though the specific moment of rupture was unexpected, that doesn’t mean that we need to remain within a politics of spontaneity – what matters at that point is how this unexpected situation is interpreted and channelled and used as a possibility. The unsuccessful prior work of the activists and agitators created a space for the legibility of crowd disruption and the subsequent struggle was over its meaning. 

The interesting point within Badiou’s approach is his retroactive understanding of the people as the cause of this event, though it’s not as if they planned this disruption. Badiou is reading Marx’s discussion of the Commune to make this point: the working people of Paris – the subjects that made the Paris Commune possible – were an effect of the uprising, not its cause. The people are retroactively posited as the cause of the event that produced them as a revolutionary subject. The role of political struggle, then, is to channel and interpret crowd events so that the people appear as the cause. To illustrate: during Occupy, all sorts of different critics and commentators tried to dismiss or cover over the egalitarian rupture by saying things like these were just students or middle class people unhappy about precarity; it wasn’t really a movement of the 99%; most people in the encampments were hippies or homeless or violent and so on. The claim for the people is not reducible to an empirical claim about demographics. It’s a political claim that holds open the gap in the present in order to push for a different future.

Your experience of Occupy Wall Street informs the early part of the book. Could you offer a reading of this movement and its legacy?

 Occupy is interesting because, as with any celebratory protests, it could have been a one-off like any other protest over the last few decades. Instead, many people stayed with it, they didn’t leave, and they started feeling the power of their collective presence in space and it started to open up something new. Then very quickly the anarchist groups, quite rightly, as they were were involved in a lot of the initial work (though not the only ones: Workers World, a small political party in New York, were also involved in some of the initial capacity testing of the city’s sidewalks for tents), were saying, “We’re creating a different kind of politics where we’re not just marching around with stupid signs but talking to each other in assemblies”, like those already taking place in Greece, Spain, and Tahrir Square. So it was imitation, which is really important as crowd politics are based on imitation, but the anarchists were also saying, “this is a horizontal politics where the strength is coming from the fact that everyone can speak and we have these ways of organising the discussion that can treat everyone in this wonderful, equal way, and that we will keep doing this and this is the protest.” 

What was so interesting is that from the very beginning of Occupy there was an argument, in the different occupations and on social and mainstream media, over precisely what the movement is. It was never like, here’s a clearly wonderful anarchist political practice that’s functional, but instead a consistent argument about what Occupy is: Is it a tactic? Is it a goal? Is it prefiguration? Does it require any form of hierarchy? Is it just democracy? A number of people were saying, “Oh this is what democracy really is”. I find this argument completely deradicalising as it really detracts from materialist politics. At any rate, at any given occupation there were different currents that would be stronger or weaker, some might have been religious; others might have been libertarian; some were systematic in presenting demands; others said occupation was its own demand or beyond a politics of demands; and for others it was the fight against racist police. In every meeting there were very different currents, but there was always a struggle around and via the tactic, rather than just a completely anarchist guarantee of spontaneity and horizontality as the right form.

Crowds and Party was published five years after Occupy and I’m trying to argue for a way of seeing that disruption as a moment towards a resurgence of the party form. Though that’s not, strictly speaking, an empirical claim, it’s my agitational claim. I’m inviting people to look at it differently – that’s what makes it politics – where we can argue over the crowd event to try to make it open into some possibilities directed around a particular kind of politics. 

David Graeber’s The Democracy Project explores and re-examines his experience as a co-founder of Occupy. Do you see his book as typical of the neo-anarchist approach? 

I find it interesting that people claim to be founders of a spontaneous horizontal anarchist movement that was already imitating what was happening in Spain, Greece, and Egypt. 

The assemblies mistaking themselves for democracy and that being a big part of the project as David Graeber might see it? 

The assemblies all came up against problems and were, in many ways, dysfunctional. They were certainly wonderful for producing momentary senses of possibility, and they were also wonderful at letting people start to express things for the first time. But they had no real power to endure or to execute anything. They also weren’t self-sustaining, but depended on public contributions. Even in Spain it’s not as if they had the power or the authority to make the issues they voted on happen. They didn’t even operate as actual dual power, taking over the functioning of cities. 

In Seattle in 1919 there was a general strike where unions operated in a way that we can see as dual power. So I think that there is something massively delusional to think of these assemblies as replacing the apparatus of the imperialist capitalist state – they simply didn’t do it. Can they? Not in their current form. Let’s stay with Occupy Wall Street as an example. Many problems quickly emerged when people started saying, “I can’t go to an assembly every day but I want to be part of this working group.” So then it was like, “OK, this working group will meet once or twice a week”, and then people would be like, “Well I can’t get down there, can we do this online?” So then activists would be participating online. During this time you would never know who’s in or out — the groups didn’t have lists of members – and it was difficult to know if a group decision was legitimate as the original group were no longer involved. So lacking the basic apparatus of knowing who’s in the group and having a regular time to meet tells us that assemblies lacked any governing efficacy, even if it had an efficacy as a demonstration or registration of political affect. 

You describe the crowd as a ‘temporary collective being’, arguing that the ‘crowd is not politics. It is the opportunity for politics.’ Can you explain what you mean by the Left’s obsession with the ‘fantasy of the beautiful moment’? 

So the ‘fantasy of the beautiful moment’ would be everyone walking around Zuccotti Park or Liberty Square, saying, “Oh My God, we’re all just here, it’s so beautiful, it’s great.” There was a great thing, but so what? There are beautiful moments like these all of the time, but that should not be the measure of our politics. You often see this in many versions of participatory or community art where all the emphasis is on constructing a lovely event and what happens afterwards is just off the table – it doesn’t matter. Or it’s assumed that people take this great thing with them and do something else. Why would that assumption even be plausible? We see art all the time; it seems like a very implausible and kind of mythic, fantastic assumption. 

Let’s ask some practical questions then: we know that the stock market kept functioning the entire time, so in what way was Wall Street occupied? It was occupied affectively and symbolically, certainly, I’m not trying to be dismissive of this power. It also opened up the US Left to new possibilities and made Bernie Sanders more electable as a presidential candidate. But in itself it was not literally an occupation of Wall Street, I mean it wasn’t even on Wall Street, it was in a park. 

Instead, it’s about realising that it opened up a new imaginary that politics can hold open, channel, and direct. So when there is a beautiful moment, you can fixate on it and then it ceases to be political. Alternatively, you can try to find different ways to extend it and I’d say that’s been the political project of the left over the last ten years. 

Your main argument in the book is that the ‘party formation’ is able to channel the political energy of the crowd in a way unlike any other form of organisation – it enables the ‘endurance of the crowd’. Can you make the case for the return of the party? 

Let’s first think about the need to scale. Some people in the Left like to say things like, “all politics is local”. Well, what does that really mean? Does that mean that if you have a small urban garden then you can meet community needs? If you’re evicted from that land, you will be involved with the local or national state, and then if the group has to buy tools, you’re involved in capital. If half the people in your group contract a contagious disease that also comes under a model for the state. There’s no such thing as something that’s local – we’re situated in all sorts of scales of economic and political power that don’t go away just because you may be involved in a happy little collective. 

The starting point is to recognise the limitation of a political imaginary that says our group discussing with each other should be the goal of politics. That’s not politics, that’s a seminar. Then next is to think in terms of what forms of association scale? The party has been a form that’s been given to us since the mid-19th century, which operates in ways that are local, state, regional, and international. The Communist Party, for example, was always an international association. The International Workingmen's Association was not meant to be primarily a national or region-based association, but rather an international body that could contest the ways in which capitalist employers used their immigrant labour to pull down wages. So the party is a form that scales, which is what is really most important here. 

Secondly, the party is really the only political formation we have for taking over and occupying the state. You can say, what about a coup? But in general, the military will not remain the only governing force; most of the time they will then seek to ally themselves with a political party to operate as their political wing. Before resorting to violence the party is the current form that we can use in our so- called democratic regimes for taking on and acquiring the power of the state. Anything else is not going to scale, that’s part of the issue. 

Our different issue groups often become lobbying groups – that’s the problem with NGOs – and they lobby because they don’t have state power themselves. The political Right has known this and so under the period of neoliberalism they’ve become much more powerful as the Left abandoned the state, acting like we don’t need the power of political parties. Now we don’t have any power.

Jodi Dean teaches political, feminist, and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited thirteen books, including The Communist Horizon, Crowds and Party, and Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging, all published by Verso.

Spring 2020 #29

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