Professor Jodi Dean’s most amazing confidence trick

by Jehu

So, here is an interesting way to pose the problem of realizing the abolition of wage slavery by Jodi Dean:

“[Insofar] as the people politicized are people divided…the place from which the people are understood is necessarily partisan.”

Dean takes this to mean,

“The question of the party precedes the question of the state.”

By “The People”, Dean means, of course, the working class, although, for some reason, she seems incapable of saying this directly. According to Dean, then, all bourgeois politics rests on the fragmentation of the working class. Assuming she is right, how should we address this fragmentation?

According to Dean, we have to “pose the party as a possibility” — a very odd turn of phrase. Dean can’t just open her mouth and explicitly state that the fragmentation of the working class is the premise of politics and thus the working class constitutes itself as a party in its struggle against wage slavery.

In Dean’s argument, the party is necessary because the working class is fragmented. Rather than proposing that the working class should put an end to its fragmentation, Dean proposes it should organize itself, on the basis of this fragmentation, as a party. Unless the working class does this, all discussion of seizure of the state is a fantasy.

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Here is the problem: The working class cannot simply lay hold to the state; it must break it. Dean wants to seize the state. But as a Marxist she knows that, since the Paris Commune, communists have aimed to abolish the state. It is unclear from the text whether Dean believes that seizure of the state is the same as its abolition.

Do communists think the revolution has two separate stages: first, seizure, then abolition? If this is true, why didn’t Marx conclude from the experience of the Paris Commune that the working class should first seize the state and then put an end to it? Dean is likely making shit up, like most Marxists, but when you call out Marxists on shit like this, they get all huffy and accuse you of being ultra-Leftist.

But, I didn’t say it, Marx did:

“But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

If, according to Marx, the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes, what does it have to do with this machinery? The Commune, said Marx, had “to become a reality by the destruction of the state power”:

“[The] merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested and restored to the responsible agents of society.”

According to Marx, the Commune, “breaks with the modern state power”. Frankly, I don’t see anything here about seizing the state; Dean must be reading Clinton campaign literature. Certainly the Democraps want to “seize the state power” from the GOP, but Communists only intend, “the destruction of the state power”.

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The question Dean must answer is this: Does the destruction of the state power also require the working class constitute itself as a party? Indeed is the destruction of the state power even possible so long as the working class are fragmented, “a part of a constitutively open and incomplete set”. This question is absolutely necessary to answer in theory and in practice because, according to Marx, not just politics, but labor itself rests on the fragmentation of the working class. To put an end to the state, we have to put an end to labor; but to put an end to labor, we have to put an end to the fragmentation of the working class.

In fact, even a cursory examination of the problem forces us to the conclusion that “a constitutively open and incomplete set” can put an end to nothing. This was already true to some extent in the days of the Paris Commune, even in the relatively autarkic conditions that prevailed at the time. How is it possible to accomplish today in the age of neoliberalism and globalization?

Every working class, even when it is highly organized and disciplined is no more than “a part of a constitutively open and incomplete set”. And this for the reason that every nation within the world market is itself, “a part of a constitutively open and incomplete set” of the total capital of the world market. Trying to emancipate the social producers from wage slavery on this basis is like trying to emancipate the work force of a single factory.

The fragmentation of the working class is a global phenomenon. Dean really has to explain how her (national) political party — and this is all a political party can hope for — can overcome this (global) fragmentation.

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In her essay Jodi Dean has to perform a confidence trick and she has to do it before our eyes and with our knowing participation. According to Wikipedia, this means Dean has to exploit (among other things) our credulity and naïveté. And, indeed, she already has begun to work on our psyche before she even finishes with the brief opening lines of her essay.

She offers us an unpalatable choice: either we can’t take power or we just don’t want to. Obviously, no one reading this rag wants to accept either option and this allows her to offer a third choice. It’s not that we don’t want to take power or that we are incapable of taking power, but that we don’t have the right equipment, a party.

Everybody has run into this situation. You have to do something and you want to do that thing, but you don’t have the right equipment for the job.

In truth, virtually no one think she is right in her assertion that the working class hasn’t made a revolution because it lacks a political party. Twentieth century politics is replete with every sort of political party imaginable. So, Dean has to convince us of this “truth”, but she has to do it in a way that at least doesn’t invoke the twin failures of Leninism and Social Democracy. This fact is critical to explaining her discussion of the Paris Commune, a familiar but little studied event from 150 years in the past.

Almost everybody knows about the Commune; it almost has attained the status of uncontested virtuousness; and, most of all, it was lead by non-Marxists. People can blame the failures of the Soviet Revolution on the Bolsheviks, but no one can blame the catastrophe that the Paris Commune became on Marx. Marx opposed it; although he defended it as any good comrade had to once it was in play. And he wrote a touching eulogy about it that graciously overlooked the fact that it was doomed to disaster from the first.

His touching eulogy struggled to drag some positive lessons from a frightening catastrophe. The effort went off well, and Marxists today are almost as uncritical of the Paris Commune as every other variant of communism. In light of her savage attacks on the heavily anarchist tendencies of Occupy Wall Street, it probably is no surprise then that Jodi Dean turns to the Commune for her confidence trick.

Uncritical veneration of the Commune is probably the only thing Marxists and anarchists agree on.

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Very early on in her essay, Dean sets up the argument for her party and it is rather interesting: before the Commune, there was no “The People”, just an amorphous mass, “The Crowd.” “The People”, as such, only takes shape as the result of the constitution of the Commune itself.

“It’s not quite right to say that what the people wanted was the Commune”, Dean explains. “The people are an effect of the positing of the object of their desire. They don’t precede it. What precedes it is the crowd.” To restate this bizarre argument in plain English, The People did not create the Commune; rather, the Commune created The People. Before the Commune, there was just this formless mass of individuals who were fragmented beyond all belief by their divisions. The Crowd blindly broke through existing political relations:

“The crowd forced an opening, an interruption that changed the political setting. It ruptured suppositions of order, inciting thereby attempts to expand, enclose, and target the unleashed intensities in one direction rather than another.”

Perhaps I am reading this wrong, but it sounds like Dean is saying history (or, at least, politics) has no logic to its trajectory. Did anyone else get that feeling when they read that passage from Dean? Certainly even a rushing river doesn’t tell us about the specific vector of every atom composing it; so, it is highly likely we can’t completely explain the actions of a few thousand people in Paris in March 1871 by relying only on historical economic forces

But does this reality force us to assume that only an amorphous mass, “The Crowd”, existed prior to March 28? Does it force us to assume that “The People” are only constituted as such after March 28?

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This is the confidence trick Dean employs. If you accept her assertion that only an amorphous mass existed prior to March 28, 1871, the constitution of the Commune now becomes necessary to explain “The People”. The constitution of “The People” then becomes a purely political act, rather than material economic act.

Dean has now created in your mind a gap or crevice through which she can now drive her notion of “The Political.” And what is “The Political?” “The Political” is that form necessary to overcome the fragmentation of “The People”. As the Commune shows, this fragmentation is not overcome by actual changes in the material relations of society, but by political changes. Specifically, some political form (yet to be itself specified) constitutes “The People.”

Dean states this explicitly, going so far as to assert that “The Crowd” did not create the Commune:

“That the March 18th crowd event was followed by the Commune does not mean that the crowd created the Commune or that the Commune was an expression of the constituent power of the people expressed by the crowd.”

It turns out the Commune not only preceded “The People”, it preceded itself:

“It was an already existent political possibility, attempted yet thwarted in revolts in October and January.”

Dean’s argument thus comes down to this: even before the Commune existed in reality, it was an idea that gave rise to itself. “The Crowd” did not bring it into existence through the events of October and January; it was an idea borne by a few hundred militants.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the vanguard party, courtesy of Prof. Jodi Dean.

To put this in plain English, it was in the form of the aspirations of a few thousand militants, a vanguard, so to speak, that the Commune form preceded its arrival.

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Again, according to Jodi Dean, in the winter of 1870-71 there were a relatively small number of militants in Paris who wanted to organize an insurrection to depose the state and replace it with a Commune. In the fantastic language of Professor Dean, these militants constituted the idea of a Commune that brought about the reality. The crowd rejected this idea several times but ultimately broke with the state and revolted.

This revolt, however, doesn’t explain the Commune according to Dean; rather the ideas of the militants explain the conversion of the crowd into the people.

It would appear from this telling of the myth that surrounds the Commune that the vanguard played a critical role in constituting the People. Only we have a problem: the Commune was a catastrophe — very heroic, very inspiring, but a catastrophe nonetheless. How do we explain the catastrophe?

Professor Dean has given us only one side of the story and this side goes completely according to her argument: the commune was the product of the persistence of a committed band of militants who spread the idea of a commune among the population. When “The Crowd” revolted against the state, the idea of a Commune was already popular among the population. Following this popular idea, the population immediately proceeded to make it a reality.

Everything was by the vanguardist playbook.

And it ended in a catastrophe.

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If the place from which the people are understood “is necessarily partisan”, why did this necessarily partisan place lead directly into a catastrophe? We know from the experience of both the Soviet revolution and Social Democracy that this catastrophe is not unique to the Commune. What the Commune, the Soviets and Social Democracy have in common is that they all end in catastrophe. It seems to me that unless we figure out why this happened in three separate cases, we will keep ending in catastrophe.

A clue to the problem may lie within Dean’s initial premise that, “the people politicized are people divided.” Dean seems to think this fragmentation can be overcome by purely cosmetic (i.e., political) means of a political party. Let me suggest a different reading of history that shows this idea that the fragmentation of the working class can be overcome through the artifice of a political party is terribly wrong.

The divisions among the working class are not now and have never been merely political; instead, they are founded on the division of labor. To put an end to these division is impossible unless we can put an end to the division of labor — every Marxist knows this already. Dean is essentially arguing that these real material divisions can be papered over long enough for the working class to gain state power.

The problem with this idea is that the mode of production is founded on labor, i.e., it rests on the fragmentation of the working class. Further, the mode of production is not passive; it struggles frantically to increase fragmentation of the class wherever and whenever this fragmentation diminishes.

We already know this; if the class seeks to put an end to fragmentation by unionization, capital responds by replacing labor with machines. Should the working class of one country increase its cohesion, capital responds by moving off-shore. Capital is a living thing and responds to our own efforts to reduce our fragmentation.

In Accelerationism, Autonomism and a host of other tendencies, this has long been acknowledged. Capital evades every effort to end the fragmentation of the working class and thus both labor and politics. Professor Dean hasn’t told us how we deal with this problem.

Her essay is trash.

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