by Jodi Dean on November 25, 2013

In the contemporary US, capitalist ideology pushes non-stop on the throttle of individuality.

“Individuality,” in the present context, is not the same as rugged individualism or personality, although it shares with these earlier formations an emphasis on the singularity of a self against others. Unlike rugged individualism, contemporary individuality doesn’t emphasize strength as much as it does suffering. Unlike personality (appearing in a new form in the 19th century and well-described by Richard Sennett), contemporary individuality doesn’t rely on an interiority that is both authentic and to be cultivated, expressed only with care and attention. Instead, individuality is uniqueness for its own sake, uniqueness as moment, quip, fashion statement, flare, comeback, quirk–the difference that registers as different before it is swept into communicative capitalism’s flows.

Two elements that factor into the particularly US fetish for individuality are law and economics. Our legal system emphasizes individual rights. The peculiarity of US libertarianism is its inability to acknowledge that a right is only as a good as the force that backs it up, whether that force comes from the state or the community. Rather than part of a broader cultural appreciation for the imbrication of rights and responsibilities, duties, and obligations (part of the continental tradition), in the popular understanding of rights in the US, rights are individual claims to freedom. Rights are imagined in terms of the specific injury of a plaintiff, not the larger, structural, condition of a collectivity. Winning rights (ending segregation, workplace discrimination, marriage restrictions) has required not just legislative victories but judicial ones as well, which means finding individual plaintiffs.

The US capitalist economic system likewise insists on individuality. Particularly in the wake of the attack on unions, work is more and more figured as an individual matter. It’s a choice, an option, a matter of one’s own unique ability to work hard, play the game, think outside the box, be a team player, demonstrate leadership skills, give a 110 percent, seize the opportunity, and take risks. One has to be be unique, different from all the rest, so that one stands out from the crowd, shows that one has what it takes — no wonder it’s hard for some people to think of themselves as part of the 99%. The demands of so-called flexible employment (flexible for whom?) make the process of differentiation constant and inescapable: one is perpetually trying to show that one is the best for whatever job comes around.

The best are hard to find. They are unique. This is the lesson of Wall Street, whose finance wizards are ostensibly rare and valuable enough to justify massive bonuses every year. It’s the lesson of Silicon Valley: not everyone is Steve Jobs. It’s the lesson of professional sports (one MVP), of Hollywood, of all of communicative capitalism’s intensified networks as they activate the many in order to generate the one.

How, then, does the left respond?

There is the rejection of leaders. Already part of the legacy of ’68, the current rejection of leaders rightly tries to immunize itself from celebrity seekers attempting to use radical politics for their own advancement. Some of the best versions of this have been the common names Zapatista (including Subcommandante Marcos) and Anonymous. They replace individual leaders with a common name and image. Occupy went far in this direction of a name in common as well.

Yet it’s also the case that people sometimes interpret the need to provide an alternative to capitalist individuality as an injunction to destroy any individual who emerges out of the left as someone exciting, someone to hear and read. Need passes through demand to the plane of unconditionality, to put it in the ever-popular Lacanian idiom. In this urge to destroy, we find the intensity, the excess, of desire. It’s desire that is absolute, unconditioned, out of proportion, desire that abolishes the dimension of the other.

We learn from Lacan that this desire is incommensurate to any specific object. So, we would be wrong to think of it in terms of its object. I admit, this is a drag. It would be much easier to be able to point out that someone desires their own fame, their own power, their own glory, and then demolish them by demonstrating how this desire makes them hypocrites, failed and false leftists, even betrayers of the people or the revolution. This sort of cheap shot relies on a shift into the economy of the drive, into the loop of momentary satisfaction where one repeats the same gestures over and over, getting off a little bit, enjoying, but completely effacing the dimension of desire.

To think within desire we have to think of it in terms of its effects, its abolition of the dimension of the other. The question, then, would be who is the other who is abolished? Who is the other for us?

For communists, the other is the capitalist other. In the demand to abolish private property (ownership and waged labor), basic needs pass “over to a state of being unconditioned, not because it is a question of something borrowed from a particular need, but of an absolute condition out of all proportion to the need for any object whatsoever, and in so far as this condition is perhaps called for precisely in this, that it abolishes here the dimension of the other, that it is a requirement in which the other does not have to reply yes or no.” The capitalist cannot meet the demand. It cannot even reply “yes or no.” Morphed through demands, basic needs are not enough. Their satisfaction is just a vehicle for a more profound, unconditional, restructuring of society.

An effect of communist desire, then, is the abolition of capitalist other, and hence an abolition of class itself, the very relation on which capitalism depends.

It’s no wonder that capitalism works incessantly at blocking this dimension of desire, at attempting to push it into the more present and frequent momentary satisfactions of drive. Capitalism wants to channel this desire into different languages and images, the ones that it provides — that of individuality, specificity, uniqueness. For a left that has struggled for a voice in a place contorted by forty years of unfettered capitalism, this channeling is apparent in efforts to suppress emerging class solidarity. Even as a global proletariat — textile workers in Bangladesh, technology workers in China, transport workers of multiple backgrounds, indeed, a mobile proletariat visible less in terms of national location, race, or sex than of interdependence along multiple vectors — presses to build its collective power, the left finds itself attached to practices that undermine solidarity. Perpetually suspicious and mistrustful, it eats its own.

There are multiple versions of this mistrust. Sometimes it manifests as a preoccupation with process. Sometimes it manifests as critique and “problematization” before anything has even been carried out. For those who engage in social media, the left-liberal press, and left academia, it appears as a set of predictable responses and snarky one-liners, which then devolve into debates over tone, and various accusations, most of which are mean-spirited, many of which demolish rather than build.

In the course of the demolition, the capitalist is displaced as the other. He is safe, protected, no longer the target.

The only way to move through this is via an ethos of comradeship, a solidarity. We can’t fight class war one person at a time. We have to be connected, solidary, and strong. Mark Fisher’s recent essay in The North Star is a major contribution to such an ethos as it describes the practices that have prevented it from emerging as well as their destructive effects. Mark writes:

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication. We need to think very strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital.

As I see it, examples of destructive projects are criticisms that attack someone for sins of omission, as if one person could do, think, and write everything, as if one person had the capacity of a party to encompass a wide array of positions. Criticisms of blog posts as if they were academic articles or even books are similarly misplaced as are attacks that proceed as if one article were all that a person had ever written.

What would the left mediapelago look like if we treated one another as comrades? Yes, there would be fights, splits, and purges. But they would grow out of and intensify opposition to capitalism. They would contribute to the maintenance of communist desire, not capitalist drive.

(Originally published at I Cite)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Père Naphtha November 25, 2013 at 2:19 am

If you want comradeship to develop, everyone who can potentially be involved in an anti-capitalist project needs to feel that they are not excluded or demeaned because of their particular identity; that they can stand up without threat of violence or humiliation. The more individuals feel included, the stronger the front against capital will be. The sites for resistance and building alternatives need to be multiplied, not contracted. And this inclusion can’t just be reserved for the type of individual “who emerges out of the left as someone exciting, someone to hear and read.” It is by propagandizing, educating, and mobilizing all individualities which are excluded from a given political situation ( the less they have to lose and the more they have to gain the better), that a genuinely popular (in both senses of the term) political practice and political common sense can be formed.

By setting up a particular set of individuals (somewhat famous academic or activist figures, it seems) as ones who need to be respected as “others”, in the Lacanian sense, while a large unspecified classes individuality are portrayed as merely capitalist deception, as willful fashion statements, your piece reproduces the ideology of uniqueness that it attempts to attack. A few people are elevated to a special immunity while the demand for recognition by many others is dismissed as hopelessly bourgeois.


Zapatero November 25, 2013 at 12:24 pm

But where, Prof. Dean, where does this sense of solidarity begin? It is hinted at in your article … This “global proletariat” in Bangladesh or China…they are workers who work with other people.

It is in our places of employment, where at least 8 hours a day are spent renting ourselves out to survive, the locus of all theory.

It is there where we must first begin our renewed drive for solidarity-and sadly, it is among the last places the US left utilizes. If we are to liberate ourselves as workers, then we must unite at the workplace and this has a name – unions. WIthout workers united at their workplaces, we have instead a disembodied Left, stragglers with high vocabularies and dreams of revolution but little respect or even regard for the masses who toil near us. No great socialist transformation of the world economy will occur without workers uniting at the very places where they are daily.


Jodi Dean November 25, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I agree that unions are crucial. The decline in unions has been one of the most central elements of left fragmentation. I wouldn’t say, though, that uniting at the workplace has to be where we first begin; that depends on where one works, what is available, etc.


Zapatero November 25, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Well, if not “first”, where else has more practical effect? In what other arena are we with other workers more? Not in grocery stores or coffee shops or in the places where we spend our ever-diminishing leisure time. Nor is it online, where more and more of us “live”. The creation of a new world, one where community is valued and ennobled, must be where we spend time with others, and offhand (I may be wrong here for sure) I´d say that´s in the workplace. And wasn´t that the crux of the socialist project? That WORKERS are a class separate and must overcome the system they are chained to in order to create a new one where they are no longer bound by the need to rent themselves out? That´s the way I always saw it..


Jodi Dean November 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm

My reluctance here is because it makes sense to me for various lines of organization to concentrate and converge. So, I would not want to say: “hey you people organizing against foreclosures, stop that right now and organize your workplaces first!” And I would not want to say, “hey you students, forget organizing as students, wait until you get jobs!” Likewise, I would not say, “Organizing against Stop and Frisk is only of secondary importance in the struggle against capitalism — focus on the primary antagonism!” It makes sense to me, in the US, to begin where we are, which is a situation with multiple fragmented yet committed groups. When these groups work together under a name in common, they multiply their forces, which come to appear as part of organized counter-power.


Zapatero November 25, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Yes, but…the people in Occupy arent always the same people as those who protest Stop and Frisk. But all of us have to work. And all of us, AS WORKERS, represent a class apart, in fact, THE class apart, from which a new configuration of what work is and means, and how society is constructed –the ultimate objective of a socialist vision, I believe- can be reformulated. I am not saying nor have I said, these other forms are unnecessary, but I believe they should not be primary.´After all, we have seen how often the disparate groups on the Left have coalesced in this or that issue only to devolve into fragments. But when we face squarely our potential unity as WORKERS and see each other as WORKERS as comrades, then, and only then we can reach that elusive goal on the horizon.


Jodi Dean November 25, 2013 at 8:28 pm

On your first point — yes, that’s why combining is important, seeing the struggle as one struggle against capitalism and the state that protects it. Rather than emphasizing workers per se, I think of it in terms of our position as proletarianized, as turned into those dependent on selling our labor power as well as on taking out debt. This makes it easier, I think, to connect different kinds of work, whether it is unpaid labor, past labor, future labor (debt), or waged labor.


Zapatero November 25, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I understand, but helping people see the connection between Stop and Frisk and the larger global capitalist system (which imprisons both police and citizen) is far more difficult than connecting workers next to one to that idea, which is seen far more viscerally.

Again, I am not demeaning any of these other struggles. I am prioritizing based upon the clearest and most easily understood set of relationships–those we have with other workers, people we see and engage with daily, many, for years.


Charley Earp November 27, 2013 at 8:40 am

As someone in the US working class, a college drop-out, I have had no access to union representation for nearly my entire adult life. I am now 50 years old. Unions are almost nonexistent in the US and there is no short term prospect for growth in unionization.

If there are no unions, then a working class party becomes the necessary vehicle for advancing the interests of workers, including dismantling the barriers that currently hamper unionization. I have not been impressed by the level of socialist activism on behalf of unorganized workers. The unions themselves do more than most socialist organizations, and even unions do not do enough to mobilize their members or win legislative victories. Most disappointing in this regard was the death of the Employee Free Choice Act in Obama’s first term.

Even more so, as job creation continues to be weak and unemployment and underemployment plague the working-class, the rise of non-union mobilizations, such as Occupy Wall Street, serve a critical focus point for bringing working people together.

That said, I worry at the bandwagon of attacks on “identity politics” and “intersectionality” in the name of defending a robust class struggle politics. The fact is that the “organized, official” working class has had a record of racist and sexist privilege. I say this as a white male who is very discouraged by all the white male boys’ clubs that call themselves socialist organizations. The ruling class doesn’t just rule by economic power, but also by racial and gender domination. It’s inherent in the capitalist system.


Zapatero November 27, 2013 at 10:43 am

Charley, I think the issue of a working class party without unions or a revitalized labor movement is a contradiction in terms. Parties in the US have generally originated in movements from the people and a labor party would have to have the same sourcing, otherwise it wouldn´t compete electorally. But I do agree that the level of socialist activism for unorganized (or organized) workers has been lacking. And as for EFCA, had the Pres. utilized his declared support for it while running and the enormous good will he had, and given how hard unions worked for him to get him elected, we´d have had EFCA in place by now.


Charley Earp June 8, 2014 at 6:31 pm

I’m revisiting this piece since the issue of intersectional politics vs class organizations still drives me to anger at the prejudices against feminist, anti-racist, and lgbtq politics in white male socialist milieus. I, too, use communism as my unifying vision. I’ve found that when “to each, from each” is applied to questions of “identity,” objections to communism begin to dissolve. Activists of color know that capitalism is their enemy, but they also know that white male socialists resist creating racially inclusive organizations, or gender inclusive ones. The flash point for intersectional conflicts is in fact when white male activists try to maintain their control over the fight against capitalism. They want to invoke their favored tradition, Trotsky, Lenin, etc. against any reformulation in terms of these other axes of conflict. They assert that if we all fall into line with the great leaders, we’ll march to victory and after the revolution, we’ll abolish racial and gendered privilege. Why isn’t it obvious to white male socialists that this sounds like bullshit?


Amandine Faucheux November 6, 2014 at 9:16 pm

I completely agree with you, Charley. Dreams of unity and solidarity are great–but who will get to lead the fight against capitalism? The Left would benefit from lessons taught by activist of colors, feminists, and queer activists.


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