A number of articles currently on Culture Matters touch on ideas of communism in cultural theory, in particular Andy Croft's The Privatisation of Poetry and Andrew Moore's Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought. Here, Marc James Léger argues for maintaining a sense of human subjectivity in theorising leftist collectivism, from the writings of Max Haiven to the work of the activist arts group Not An Alternative.
I recently noticed an online article written for Roar magazine in June 2015 by a friend of mine, the Halifax-based activist and scholar Max Haiven. The article, titled “Reimagining our Collective Powers Against Austerity,” defines the concept of the commons in terms of grassroots democracy, horizontalism, sustainable reciprocity, community-level decision-making and radical autonomy. What intrigued me about his article was not so much what he had to say about the need to replace state sovereignty with commons, but the way that individuals and individualism figure in his discussion.
In the following I reflect on the tendency of social movement activists to dismiss individualism and try to complicate this by addressing psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, which for previous generations was part of the standard mix of Freudo-Marxism, but that today, after the influence of postmodern discourse theory, have seemingly disappeared, as Michel Foucault once said, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea. I contrast Max’s critique of individualism with the ideas of Not An Alternative, an activist group for which individualism is also a problem, but where, in contrast, psychoanalytic concepts are adopted and made use of in their Occupy strategies.
Brushing up against liberal ideology, Max’s text replaces the notion of “the public” and “counter-publics” with that of the commons, and so it makes sense that he would challenge the idea of the individual as an enlightenment concept that presupposes the public as its counterpart. The principle of egalitarian reciprocity that underwrites the commons involves, he says, “connections between communal and individual responsibility and autonomy.” He takes this beyond the idea of human rights, made in our capitalist world into a notion of the “self-contained, contract-making individual” as the source of political and economic power – the liberal social contract writ small. We must deconstruct this politics of white, male property owners – a “lethal fantasy,” he says, since none of us are self-sufficient monads. Instead, we always rely on collaboration, cooperation with others to create community and commons. He writes: “Our powers have been turned against us, to the point where we are at risk of undermining the network ecology of collaborative life that actually sustains us. Ecce Homo! This is what comes of the fetishization of the individual!”
The individual, according to Max, “is a dangerous but intoxicating fiction,” a “political box” we must deconstruct so that we can build commons. Since privacy implies private property regimes, as opposed to creative commons, neither are people or even the objects they make fully free, and so we must wake up from the adolescent dream of complete liberation from community, responsibility and accountability. Whatever social structures we have, he says, they should be used to build commons-in-struggle: human rights beyond human rights transformed into “rights to the commons” of education, health, material abundance, lifeways, migration, and the freedom to “practice one’s identity and body and mind and sexuality as one chooses.”
Max’s article contrasts interestingly with another text published in Roar magazine in February 2016: “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” written by the New York-based art collective Not An Alternative (NAA), a group comprised of core members Beka Economopoulos, Jason Jones and political theorist Jodi Dean. A few days ago I saw Beka Economopulos on the news show Democracy Now! She was participating in a campaign in which supporters of Democratic Party nominee Bernie Sanders had gathered in Zuccotti Park to telephone voters in the states of Illinois, Florida and Ohio and encourage them to vote for Bernie. I myself endorse the Sanders campaign and encourage people to use the hashtags: #hillarysowallstreet, #killarywarhawk and #bernienumnum (#bernienumnum is of course a reference to the hilarious Peter Sellers film The Party, where the main character interrupts the dinner party of a status quo establishment).
It’s significant that these activists have chosen to campaign on the site of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment, since Sanders is the only candidate who in some ways addresses the concerns of this grassroots movement. I know Beka from my brief interactions with NAA and I met her and Jason at the 2012 Creative Time Summit. The day after the Summit we also met at a Strike Debt assembly and march, where, as it happens, I met Max Haiven for the first time. Being familiar with the writings of Jodi Dean, I wasn’t surprised to see Beka on the Democracy Now! episode holding two placards, one of which read #Political Revolution and the other, #Not Me Us. The latter slogan would seem to fit perfectly with Max’s sentiments as well as Jodi Dean’s, even though there are significant differences between them in terms of the viability of party politics for the left. Jodi Dean has written extensively about the need for radical collective action and often criticizes individualism. For example, she writes in her book, The Communist Horizon:
“Some might object to my use of the second-person plural “we” and “us” – what do you mean “we”? This objection is symptomatic of the fragmentation that has pervaded the Left in Europe, the UK, and North America. Reducing invocations of “we” and “us” to sociological statements requiring a concrete, delineable, empirical referent, it erases the division necessary for politics as if interest and will were only and automatically attributes of a fixed social position. We-skepticism displaces the performative component of the second-person plural as it treats collectivity with suspicion and privileges a fantasy of individual singularity and autonomy. I write “we” hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity. My break with conventions of writing that reinforce individualism by admonishing attempts to think and speak as part of a larger collective subject is deliberate.”
And so where Max sees individualism as a dangerous fiction, Dean sees it as a fantasy. I tend to appreciate Dean’s ideas and I certainly agree with her further critiques of the singular focus on micropolitical practices of self-cultivation and individual consumer choice. NAA and Jodi Dean are super-savvy activists and a boon to the movement.
- Not An Alternative’s Beka Economopoulos at Zuccotti Park in support of the Phone Bank for Sanders, interviewed by Democracy Now!, March 12, 2016.
The Democracy Now! episode showed people who disagree with NAA’s idea that grassroots activists should “occupy the party,” however. For example, Vlad Teichberg is quoted saying that OWS should remain outside the two-party system. In the way the episode was edited, Beka responds to this with the statement: “I’m thrilled that they’re here [i.e. those who disagree with the Zuccotti Park telephone campaign]. I believe that social movements, Occupy, are about disagreement – right? – yet a fidelity to what binds us together in struggle.” I want to reflect further on NAA’s Roar article but this simple statement implies, I would think, a nod to Alain Badiou’s notion of fidelity to an event and the truth procedure that follows from it. In other words, Beka is making an allusion to Badiou’s notion of “the communist hypothesis.” The buzz term fidelity is here not simply accidental, it’s potentially, insofar are people are followers of Badiou, or at least familiar with his work, a sort of conscripting concept.
In their artwork, NAA often use over-identification strategies, also known as the tactic of subversive affirmation. Examples include the pranks of the Yes Men, who pose as business leaders and infiltrate conferences to deliver in their speeches the kinds of information that corporate executives typically avoid, and the now defunct Colbert Report, a television parody of right-wing news pundits. During Occupy Wall Street, NAA made OWS protest tools that mimic the design of yellow and black police tape. The visually stimulating NAA tape was used extensively by OWS activists in their demonstrations. In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of OWS, the police had cordoned off certain streets near Zuccotti Park. In response, NAA made imitation police control cinder blocks out of polystyrene. These were spray painted with the same colours and fonts used by the NYPD and read: OWS Protecting the People from the Powerful. Cayley Sorochan and I used their instructional video on how to make book bloc shields and created for our Maple Spring marches red book shields of Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History and Slavoj Žižek’s The Universal Exception. Since we were a book bloc of only two people – impractical literati you might call us – we marched with these book shields alongside the demonstration in mimicry and mockery of the small police squads that would sometimes march alongside the demos. Cayley and I would certainly agree with the notion of fidelity to the idea of communism.
- Not An Alternative, Occupy Police Blocks, 2012. Courtesy of Not An Alternative.
This notion of fidelity is part of Badiou’s contribution to the radical theory of praxis, as defined in his two main books: Being and Event and Logic of Worlds. According to Badiou, it’s impossible to understand the idea of fidelity without an idea of subjectivity. Subjectivity and subjectivization are very different words from individual and individualism. Although individualism is by and large an enlightenment concept and an essential component of bourgeois ideology, one could say that since the Rights of Man is an essential, core aspect of the French Revolution, individual rights are part of the first sequence of what Badiou defines as the communist hypothesis. Marxists, in fact, have never entirely eliminated the individual subject from dialectical theories of humanism, and beyond this, notions of subjectivity – whether you characterize them as individualist or not – are essential to numerous strands of materialism. But what about commons? In Capital, Marx described the way that cooperation and solidarity, insofar as they exist inside a capitalist mode of production and are mediated by money, and so despite the good intentions of leftists nevertheless contribute to capitalist social relations. For all of the criticism one might make of possessive individualism, and all things being equal, it remains not only a communist but a human challenge to go beyond the hegemony of capital as the concrete universal. This is patently the case in the context of global warming.
For Badiou, being, or ontology, is associated with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the subject and with mathematical set theory. Being is infinitely multiple and not particularly significant in terms of creating a meaningful event in the worlds of love, science, art or politics. For Žižek, on the other hand, we are never so fortunate as to inhabit the good graces of truthfulness since humans, as subjects of language, are never at the level of what Badiou derisively refers to as animality, defined as the bare subject before becoming faithful to an idea through the transformative procedure that follows an event.
What is important about NAA is that they appreciate these kinds of complex issues, even if such questions do not always make activism simple. In “Occupy the Party,” they address the limitations of the Democratic Party, the electoral system, parliamentary democracy, and the state form. These are essentially meaningless to any radical revolutionary politics that would be able to deliver “internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and worker control of the means of production.” And so why vote for Bernie at all? Why not build autonomous political structures outside the two major U.S. parties?
One quick answer is that, according to polls and analysts, Bernie is the only Democratic candidate that is critical enough of the oligarchic establishment to win an election victory against the likely Republican candidate, Donald Trump, a demagogue whose ideas many have begun to compare to Hitler’s. The point that NAA make in the article is that the left has no means at the moment to implement its principles, that “our principles become the barriers to their own realization.” And so the more we try to occupy places of power, the greater is the danger of co-option. As they put it nicely: “The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.” They write:
“Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off. This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable political commitments and desires.”
Nothing therefore is unified and self-identical, not individuals, not institutions, and not movements for social change. The question then, in the battle for hearts and minds, and in political organizing, is whether the level of individual subjectivity is something we should or even can eliminate? Beyond endless deconstruction, what is to be done?
For NAA, the political struggle cannot be a matter of numbers, or majority rule, but the insistent push in the streets and squares. They give as examples Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, two movements that have challenged the status quo and changed the parameters of political possibility. The extent to which these movements have actually done this is debatable. They have certainly affected the media representation of critical issues, but they are also conflicted internally, as NAA is right to mention, by very different political philosophies and orientations. Like BLM, NAA proposes that movements for change should not create another mass political party but should occupy the existing parties, with the Sanders campaign extending these struggles within the Democratic Party, forcing a split within the party. “The more we engage, they say, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.”
One might wonder, then, if everything is barred, to use Lacanian parlance, can institutions and individuals be occupied in the same way? The critique of liberal individualism has certainly seen its fair share of occupations in the twentieth century, from the “personalism” of forced collectivization and the gulag, to Maoist dormitories, Khmer Rouge social engineering and Symbionese Liberation Army abductions. If that be the case, one would rather be a member of a party that one has joined than be on either the receiving end of things, or worse, on the wrong side of History. Think for example of The New Babylon (1929), a wonderful Russian silent era film that depicts the events leading to the Paris Commune and its reorganization of the divisions that were already present in capitalist relationships, represented by the contrast between Dmitri Shostakovich’s “La Marseillaise” juxtaposed with the “Can-can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. But then Socialist Realist films like this get criticized for its stock characters.
Closer to our “postmodern” times than Stalinist and Situationist purges, micropolitics skew the problem of dissent and difference within the ranks in favour of the capillary and rhizomatic formations of post-human subjects. Affinity rather than discipline becomes the watchword of social movement activists and the process of radicalization is understood to take many paths. Fidelity to a truth procedure can get pretty confusing in the context of a horizontalist grassroots movement, especially, as Badiou says, when one thinks in terms of equivocal concepts like democracy and in the absence of a strong ideology.
Where there is no unified political formation you have what’s called massism, the relatively (dis)organized masses pitted against state and corporate power without the guidance of leadership and party programme. Self-directed leadership in these kinds of contexts is not always effective and if someone decides to opt out of leaders and programmes altogether, as does the Invisible Committee, the question of collectivism gets to be very local and insular. We’ve all experienced the kinds of conflict and tensions that can easily erupt in the absence of a general will. As Naomi Klein said, it’s easier for people in the movement to give in to callouts and the micro-policing of comrades than it is to focus on changing the power structure. The pretense of speaking with authority, for example in the case of Anonymous, in the media campaigns of Adbusters, or in the over-identification tools of NAA, can certainly have illuminating and beneficial effects. In my view the significance of the resurgence of the left in the 2000s can be explained as a critique of the limits of postmodernism and a renewal of political economy and macro-political thinking.
Psychoanalysis teaches us that the unconscious does not begin and end at the point of conscious effort or political identification. As all advertisers know, ideology, propaganda, and spectacle are operative at the level of the psyche, even if the outcomes are never certain or predictable. This is certainly true when Bernie describes himself as a socialist. The American public, politicians and news media often don’t seem to know what to do with such statements; they seem more comfortable with the outlandish buffoonery of Donald Trump. Why is this? NAA explains it nicely, “Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility.” The Democrats are terrified of being taken over by politics, they argue, and the mobilization of the left gives them reason to be afraid. But how useful is this notion of fear? True, the billionaire class is afraid to lose control of its enormous economic power and so it does everything to prevent social movements from directing change, as was noticed in Greece with the debacle that followed the referendum on the debt crisis.
But fear is also an intrinsic part of their game. As Badiou said in The Meaning of [Nicolas] Sarkozy, “The electoral operation incorporates fear, and the fear of fear, into the state, with the result that a mass subjective element comes to validate the state.” Once the state is occupied by fear, Badiou argues, “it can freely create fear.” The dialectic is one between fear and terrorism: a state that is legitimized by fear becomes ready to become terroristic. One sees this everywhere in the building of a security state, with surveillance of the enemies created by global imperialism spreading to encompass the control of all leftist organizations, no matter how small they might be. As Badiou puts it: “Control will change into pure and simple state terrorism as soon as circumstances turn at all serious.”
The experience of the Black Panther Party is only one case it point and based on this and similar experiences, a “post-traumatic” left tends to avoid ideas like revolution and vanguards. Militants in the capitalist North must therefore convince both the working class and the middle class that things can be done through the system and that they shouldn’t fear the existing conditions of economic decline since, when fear takes hold, the aspiration to class mobility leads to identification with centrist and conservative politics, which guarantees declining living standards, poverty and misery for the vast majority of people.
In this context, psychic resourcefulness, the ability to speculate, reflect, and criticize is essential. Individualism, for lack of a better term, is an asset to social movements, against both conformity to the dominant neoliberal order as well as to idealist temptations within our own political thinking. Of course we have to be idealistic, but better to do so as materialists. It might be better, even if more alienating and academic sounding, to use the terms subject formation and social formation than that of individuals and publics. Lacan teaches that psychoanalysis is not a recipe for politics. As Žižek puts it in How to Read Lacan, “psychoanalysis does not show an individual the way to accommodate him or herself to the demands of social reality.” Having been excommunicated from official psychoanalytic milieus, Lacan made an entire theory of the concept of excommunication, understood in terms of what is unanalyzable and yet shared through the chain of signifiers. One way to think of this is with the Lacanian formula according to which “there is no Dasein (ontology) except in the a-object.” For Lacan, writing in The Logic of Phantasy, “there is no subject except through a signifier and for another signifier.”
The scandal of psychoanalysis is that the truth of the subject does not reside in himself or herself and such knowledge remains to this day an enigma, something that we avoid through the mechanism of fetishistic disavowal: our criticism of individualism is a measure of our repudiation of the knowledge that is made available to us by psychoanalysis. This is the reason that critical cultural and political theory can today speak about jouissance, knots and split subjectivity, while also proposing that we remain faithful to movements for progressive radical change. From our entry into language our primary narcissism is always already part of a commons of symbolic meanings and social structures, the point is to change them for the better.
In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou says that the goal of the twentieth century was to create a new man at any cost, so that humanity could become the new God. What we have today, he says, is the inhumanity of technological annihilation and bureaucratic surveillance. How then does humanity overcome the inhumanity in which it is immersed? Franco Berardi asks a similar question in his book The Uprising about the hypercomplexity of the technolinguistic automatisms that cause us to behave like swarms. The bio-economic totalitarianism of financial abstraction is due to the acceleration of the infosphere, with little prospect of being able to reverse this trend. If the only imaginable process of subjectivization is that of immersion, then we need to think like Bifo of ways to subvert subsumption. For Badiou, this requires the courage to create “new symbolic forms for our collective actions”: truths that are not reducible to law and its transgression but that rather create a generic will.
My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures, as Louis Althusser and Foucault taught us, or in the persons of individual subjects, inclusive of those who are part of the movement and those who are not. Notwithstanding the irreconcilability of difference, there is more to enjoy in human variance than there is in the pretense of conformity and the strictures of correctness.
Think for example of both the hilarity and the pathos in a film like Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), where the effort to keep up appearances and respectability clashes with such human foibles as hunger and neuroses like voyeurism. This is not at all to deny the call for solidarity, organization, responsibility and mutuality on the left, but is rather to challenge what is now the orthodoxy of the discourse theory and social constructionism that has argued for the disappearance of the human subject. This erasure is a delusion of all positive systems and so-called materialisms that have not incorporated the complex of existing critiques of social systems and political structures.
Marc James Léger is an independent scholar living in Montreal. He is editor of The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today (2014) and author of Brave New Avant Garde (2012), The Neoliberal Undead (2013) and Drive in Cinema: Essays on Film, Theory and Politics (2015).