Embrace the Antagonism, Build the Party! The New Communist Horizon in and Against Communicative Capitalism
Jodi Dean is the Donald R. Harter ‘39 Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, where is also the Director of the Fisher Center for the Study of Gender and Justice. She earned a BA in History from Princeton University and her MA, M.PhiL and PHD in Political Science from Columbia University. Jodi’s research interests focus on the interface between contemporary media technologies and Left politics. Through her career, Jodi has won numerous fellowships and awards. Recent ones include Distinguished Writer in Residence, Birkbeck College of Law, London (2017), Fellow, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University (2013), Beaverbrook Media Scholar, Media@McGill and the Department of Communications and Art History, McGill University, Montreal (2010), and Erasmus Chair in the Humanities, Faculty of Philosophy, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2009).
Jodi’s main contributions are in the fields of political theory, media theory, and feminist theory. She has given invited lectured in universities, museums, and cultural spaces all over the world. Her work has been published in multiple languages including Serbian, Spanish, German, and Turkish. Jodi is also engaged in radical art and political practice, having worked as a collaborator with the Brooklyn-based art collective Not An Alternative, and as an activist and organizer with We Are Seneca Lake (an environmental group with a practice oriented to civil disobedience), the US organizing committee for the International Women’s Strike, the organizing committee for the People’s Congress of Resistance, and the Geneva Women’s Assembly. With hundreds of interviews, popular media contributions, and other public appearances, Jodi is a true public intellectual.
Jodi authored numerous research articles. She is the author or editor of twelve books including Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Dean 1998), Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Dean 2009), Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (Dean 2010), The Communist Horizon (Dean 2012), and Crowds and Party (Dean 2016). Between 2008 and 2013 she was co-editor of the journal Theory and Event; presently, she co-edits the book series Digital Barricades with Pluto Press. Jodi’s forthcoming book, Comrades, will appear with Verso.
About the Conversation
In July 2017 Petar Jandrić emailed Jodi Dean and Tomislav Medak with an idea for this conversation. Following months of preparation, we met online in January 2018 and conversed for more than 3 hours. After several post-transcription e-mail iterations, the conversation was completed in May 2018.
Communicative Capitalism against Democracy
Petar Jandrić and Tomislav Medak (PJ and TM): Communicative capitalism is one of the main concepts in your work. What is communicative capitalism? How does it differ from earlier historical incarnations of capitalism?
Jodi Dean (JD): Communicative capitalism designates a new version of capitalism in which communication has become central to capital accumulation. This means that communication is playing a different and more fundamental role at the level of production, consumption, and circulation of goods and natural resources. Because of the rise of networked media, informatization, and global communications networks, communication becomes a resource for accumulation, a means of accumulation, and a tool for accumulation. Some people call this formation the information age, or cognitive capitalism, but I think it is most accurate and politically useful to understand it as communicative capitalism. This lets us see how the communicative processes that previous generations heralded as central to democracy are now utterly co-opted. Communication has become generative for capitalism in a way that is more fundamental than it has ever been before. For example, if we think about communication as a resource, big data is interesting because of the way in which every kind of communicative interaction generates metadata consisting of location data, different layers of contacts and networks, and links between them. Now all our social substance is available to be enclosed, analyzed, and sold off.
enable affiliations and engagements that simply cannot be conceived within the democratic imaginary. That is, they replace democratic suppositions of representation, accountability, and legitimacy with a different set of values. Our emphasis here is on subsidiarity, ‘multistakeholderism,’ expertise, and reputation management, but this list is of course changing and incomplete. (Dean et al. 2006: xvi)
What happens to democracy in the age of communicative capitalism?
JD: Norms associated with democratic interaction, like inclusion, participation, and reciprocity, come to function as key dynamics for the production and circulation of capital. Inclusion is not just political, or worse, political inclusion is the same thing as capital inclusion, because including more people now means including more people’s communication as resources and building supermarkets of consumer data and providers of information and data. Participation used to have some kind of political effect, and now it is doing what? Providing more staff for the circulation and generation of capital. People are included as providers and consumers of content. As a repercussion, critique loses any target and becomes utterly amorphous, like vapor. Why? Because critique is just another content, just another thing that can be shared and circulated. So debate becomes a function of capital, and critique loses its capacity to hit its target.
I like to think about this in terms of the old-fashioned Marxist concepts of use value and exchange value. Communication usually refers to a message given from a sender to a receiver. We can say that the use value of the message is what the receiver is able to do with it, what the receiver can understand. Today, the use value of the message has been replaced by its circulation value, or the capacity of the message to be forwarded, shared, distributed – and circulation value is independent of the content. The message can be a lie, it can be truth, it can be both, and it does not matter, just as long as it is shared. So we get the change from use value of the utterance to its circulation value.
PJ and TM: This reworks the notion of communicative reason (Habermas 1984) and the idea that democratic society is a reflexive structure in which the process of social learning unfolds in the medium of communication.
JD: My early work was within a Habermasian frame. I pretty much believed in discourse ethics and understood communicative reason as pointing out that communication was the means for resolving problems, coming to a shared understanding, that sort of thing. Then my second book was on alien abduction (Dean 1998). As I was interviewing scholars and people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, it became clear that these people were firmly committed to the truth value of their statements. Here, the democratic and critical exchange of utterances and beliefs, the normative justification of competing validity claims – all the things that a Habermasian would value in communication – are fully accepted. And yet, from the standpoint of mainstream conceptions of reality, everyone in the UFO community seems to be totally crazy and wrong. No middle ground! Now, the fact is that they are not idiots, they are not deceived, but they do have a totally different view of reality which they buttress with peer-reviewed research, conferences, discussions of method and evidence and so on. So I started thinking that none of this Habermasian communicative resolution of conflict between competing validity claims makes sense if we are dealing with competing conceptions of the real.
The classic version of liberalism is about competing conceptions of the good, but underneath there are also competing conceptions of the real. The democratic version of liberalism thus has a serious problem. Deliberation depends on some kind of shared context and criteria, standards by which people can assess validity – in other words, a common reality. But what happens when this reality is itself deeply divided, uncommon? Democracy can’t encompass its own underpinnings. So there are conceptual limits to communicative reason. Today, under communicative capitalism, we encounter the further problem that communicative exchange is becoming more and more functional for capital. Now communicative reason appears as a thin ideological veneer for communicative capitalism, where all norms of communication are becoming more and more embedded in and inextricable from capital accumulation processes.
PJ and TM: A possible answer to the current crisis of democracy (and a very popular one) is more democracy – often in its radical forms (Peters and Jandrić 2018a). In your chapter in Radical Democracy and the Internet: Interrogating Theory and Practice (Dahlberg and Siapera 2007), however, you argue that “radical democracy is inadequate to the challenges of communicative capitalism” (Dean 2007: 243). Please respond to the question you ask in the same chapter: “What, then, is better?” (ibid.)
JD: That’s easy – communism. To say that is the easy part, so let’s step back and say what it means in practice. First, the Left makes huge mistakes when it thinks of its horizon as democracy, because that fails to grapple with the underlying problem of capitalism. Democracy cannot name the left political horizon, it can just name more of the same, of what we already have. And under the conditions of communicative capitalism, it continues to affirm exactly those operations. Every single left activist milieu has a point where all the solutions are a website, an app, a better database, or a kind of pilot voting system. Let’s make an app for democracy and we’ll somehow figure things out! But that’s not what it is. The Left must be divisive, articulate the antagonism, name the antagonism, and fight on the lines of the antagonism. We live in a democratic milieu, we cannot just repeat the terms of that milieu! That is why radical democracy is inadequate.
PJ and TM: A decade ago you wrote: “despite the many significant changes that information and communication technologies effect, the simple image of the nation-state continues to format thinking about politics” (Dean et al. 2006: xxi). What, in your opinion, is the role of the nation-state in communicative capitalism? What should its role become in the future?
JD: I am not convinced that the dominance of the nation state today is as strong as the question is suggesting. Regional arrangements like the EU are beyond the nation state and they seem significant (like, for example, in Greece). Then, there are different kinds of elaborate trade agreements, weapons agreements, and environmental accords that traverse the nation state and provide frameworks which are larger than the nation state, again suggesting that if we just think in terms of the nation state, we may be missing something important. There is something else that makes the nation state different from the dominant form it used to be a hundred years ago – world communication, global trade, and multinational companies with lots of headquarters in many countries. At the same time, the conservative counter-revolutionary force is everywhere: in Holland, or Hungary, or the US, or the major forces behind Brexit. Based on nationalism, we see the bourgeoisie claiming the political form of the nation state in order to secure their power. Under communicative capitalism it is clear that nation states are sites of struggle. We see the fragility and instability of the nation state in the many struggles around borders, refugees, migrations, and trade agreements … Clearly, nation states are not the same institutions of power that they were in the twentieth century, but they also have not withered away.
PJ and TM: We would like to point towards an interesting contrast between national monopoly capital and global monopoly capital. In the 1970s we used to have global competitive markets, now we have global monopoly markets, and the role of the nation state as a regulatory instance has been demoted. Today’s democracies are unable to shape economic policy – just look at the inefficiency of Trump’s administration in trying to impose a national economy driven agenda.
JD: That’s a super important point. Democracy is inadequate because it almost does not matter what happens at the level of national democratic elections. Nation states are functioning within a global capitalist marketplace and they are not as responsive to challenges as they might have been at another time. I’m thinking of the water protests in Bolivia, the Cochabamba Water War … Even when there is a win at some level, they come up against trade agreements at a higher level. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate Naomi Klein (2015) has a discussion about legislative victories in Ontario, Canada, that provided some guarantees for local renewable energy companies but that were later defeated on international trade grounds. So you are right: states are losing their capacity to function as intermediaries. At the same time, what is the primary rhetoric everywhere? It is democracy. Does that rhetoric mean that we want back all these processes we lost control over? Or, is democracy functioning ideologically by saying: Hey, everybody, go out and vote! Hey, everybody, put your opinions online! Be active and you can do this! I don’t see any apparatus that would make the former plausible, so I think it is the latter.
Marx in the Age of Communicative Capitalism
PJ and TM: In 2000, Richard Barbrook published the paper ‘Cyber-communism: How the Americans are superseding capitalism in cyberspace’ (Barbrook 2000), where he boldly claims that dot.com capitalism actually works in favor of cybernetic communism. While Richard himself claims that this thesis was “an ironic joke” (in Jandrić 2017: 89), some theorists take it quite seriously. What are the potentials of digital technologies for creating non-capitalist futures?
JD: Cybernetic communism seems to be premised on a technological fix that avoids political struggle and will formation. It jumps to ‘let’s imagine how we are going to cybernetically organise everything’ and totally ignores the political struggle that gets you there. I am much more concerned with the political struggle and the collective will formation. How do you actually get people galvanized enough at such a level to make this happen? That said, it strikes me that we now have the technologies to support participatory and centralized planning. We have ways to supersede markets and find good distribution mechanisms that don’t have to rely on something like price. We do that all the time, online, where lots of things circulate without any regard for a price mechanism and thus circumvent the market. We have the technological conditions for cybernetic communism, but we are missing the political conditions – and technology can never get them for us. So that is where our focus needs to be, that is where our energy needs to be.
PJ and TM: A crucial element in digital potentials for creating a more just world is the principle of Net Neutrality. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that Net Neutrality is a site of ongoing struggle between the people and large capital. Let us, for a brief moment, imagine that the large capital succeeds in abandoning Net Neutrality, and that all Internet traffic becomes commodified. What are the consequences of such projection to the nature of communicative capitalism?
JD: At a general theoretical level, I think of Net Neutrality primarily as a struggle between factions within capitalism. That said, I am not neutral between those factions, and I think that the dominance of a few providers which determine our content based on things such as the ability to pay is terrible. It is a struggle within capitalism, but its outcome can screw us more or screw us less. If the decision against Net Neutrality continues to hold, what will happen? Will it be an opportunity to build a much better people’s infrastructure that could be more responsive, distributed, horizontal, egalitarian, networked – an infrastructure that was promised before the Internet became a vehicle for private corporations? Paradoxically, in five years’ time, we might say: Oh, the end of Net Neutrality was also the end of Facebook, and everybody finally moved to this better, more distributed technology. I do not usually take an accelerationist position, but in this case, I hope there will be a bright side. Maybe. But I don’t believe it. If it were possible in our capitalist world, it would have happened.
PJ and TM: In a way, Net Neutrality allows the Internet to function in ways which are not that distant from anarchy (Jandrić 2010; see also Jandrić 2017). However, since the split between Bakunin and Marx in the First International, communist and anarchist thought have developed alongside quite different routes. In the age of communicative capitalism, should we try and reconcile anarchism and communism, or should we continue to insist on differences between the two philosophies? Can you identify possible contributions from communicative anarchism in superseding communicative capitalism?
JD: For as long as the capitalist economy is dominant, capitalists will enclose and eat up whatever we make – like, for instance, Tomislav’s and Marcell’s analysis of the open source code that Google has taken for themselves. It is not surprising at all that the same thing has happened with Bitcoin and I think that even if we manage to develop a new people’s Internet, it will be gobbled up as well. That is why I think that the important question concerns organizing people for the political fight. If we don’t want capitalism to always take everything, we must get rid of capitalism. The anarcho-horizontalist vision remains unable to grapple with the power laws that structure complex networks. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (2003) shows that complex networks are not flat or horizontal at all. Complex networks are characterized by free choice, growth and preferential attachment. These three characteristics generate hubs, and their links are distributed according to power laws where the top (hub or most popular node) has twice as many links as the next one, which has twice as many at the next and so on. So there is the one at the top and the many at the bottom. The curve is thus very steep with a long flat tail. The horizontal processes favored by anarcho-libertarians create the conditions of hierarchy that they are against. It’s like they see the long tail, but not the hierarchy, the steep curve. Dismantling this structure requires a larger organized force. Once one understands the structure of complex networks, it’s not surprising that communicative capitalism generates monopoly, it makes perfect sense, that’s what its dynamic unleashes.
PJ and TM: The network effect…
JD: Absolutely. This is the thing that kills me. How come that these tech-savvy anarchists never account for the network effect?
PJ and TM: These days, more and more people are working on revival of Marx in and for the age of communicative capitalism (see Fuchs 2016; Fuchs and Mosco 2016; McLaren and Jandrić 2018). What do you think of these efforts; what is the relevance of Marx’s theories developed in the dawn of the industrial society to our digitally saturated environment?
JD: Marx is more relevant now than he was 200 years ago. How come? Because of the intensification of capitalism. The first reason for today’s relevance of Marx is proletarianization and the intensification of the labor market. In the Global North, the breakdown of the institutions and structures of the welfare state has produced a more volatile and competitive labor market than, say, in the mid-twentieth century. We have less security, more fragility, more precarity, a 24/7 labor market. In Capital (1976/1867), and in The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels (1976/1848) in particular, Marx predicted the intensity of capital that we now see in a global way. The second reason Marx is more relevant today comes out of Marx’s understanding of what David Harvey describes as accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2004). This mode of accumulation happens via taking and enclosing (rather than by exploitation). One of the major ways in which communicative capitalism functions is via the enclosure of the communicative commons. Marx’s famous account of primitive accumulation in Capital Part 8 is indispensable for understanding this enclosure. Now, even just walking down the street, our activity is enclosed in a dataset, and information on my whereabouts is now the property of someone else. That’s whack! The third reason why Marx is today relevant is his political writing. Most people just see Marx’s economic writing, but living in Trump’s America, The eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx 1852) is more relevant than ever. As we see in the new alliance between the disgruntled sector of the petit bourgeoisies and working class, with a very fake and incompetent authoritarian Bonaparte’s figure, Marx’s political writings also speak loudly to the contemporary context.
PJ and TM: If Marx is as relevant as ever, why develop the notion of communicative capitalism? What is wrong with the notion of capitalism developed in Marx’s writings?
JD: Communicative capitalism skips or transforms the commodity form. It is the way that capital has morphed into a form of exploitation that goes directly into the social substance without having that substance take a form in the commodity. Instead, processes of enclosure, capture, storage, archiving, and search turn all the data we produce and shed into a resource which is algorithmically mined for patterns. The algorithms produce the commodity that is sold (say, the data about specific purchasing patterns). The people, through our everyday communicative activities, supply the raw material, the ‘natural’ resource. So we can use Marx to understand the process of exploitation, as a baseline, and then recognize that production does not work exactly in the same way. Industrial production still exists, the remnants of every previous layer of capitalism are still present to some degree, but then other layers go on top, and the network layer, the information layer, the communicative layer have other effects. This is a new set of complications, right? Instead of scarcity there is an abundance of things that can’t be monetized, so now we have a problem of how to pay this kind of labor. How does this labor force get to eat and survive while it is supplying the material, the content, the input that escapes the commodity form and therefore is not monetized in the same way? Marx gave us the basis, and we build from that. Why are people so anti-Marx? Just because we have Einstein’s theory of relativity, should we never think about Newton again? And does quantum mechanics make Einstein irrelevant? Theories build upon each other.
Communist Horizon in and for the Twenty-First Century
PJ and TM: In Trump’s age, your book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Dean 1998) becomes increasingly relevant.
JD: At a journalistic level, I still get occasional questions about aliens. However, I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t really do these media things anymore because I have pretty much stopped following news of UFOs and alien abductions. I’m glad you asked about this, though, because in this book –published twenty years ago – I diagnosed what Trump calls fake news and what others talk about as post-truth. I talk about this in Aliens in terms of the competing conceptions of the real that undermine the possibility for a democratic debate. It is not about news being fake or not fake; there is not an underlying reality that determines whether a story is fake or not fake. I’ll be clear: this does not mean there is no underlying reality. It means rather that there is no resolution of the antagonism which leads people to differ in their views of reality. In The Ticklish Subject Žižek (2009) has a great term for this that I use all the time: the decline of symbolic efficiency. It denotes the absence of a common set of symbols, norms, and overarching ideas; the lack of a common meaning. Sometimes, when I’m driving long distance, I listen to right wing radio, because I want to know what the enemy is thinking. Yesterday I was listening to Rush Limbaugh. Someone called into the show and asked: What is the most objective news source in today’s era of fake news? He just said: There is not one. The only thing you can do is look at multiple things and decide for yourself. I was surprised, but he agrees that there is no common layer of the symbolic, only an individual determination. The individual decides for herself what is true and what is real. Weirdly, then, Limbaugh overlaps with liberal relativists who make the individual the ground of everything.
PJ and TM: You quote Langdon Winner to assert that “the predominant orientation to the world in Western technologized societies was religious rather than scientific” (Dean 1998: 170). What are the main problems with religion-based political thinking and practice?
JD: The very first problem, in the US context, is that the primacy of religious thinking is preventing the US Congress from addressing climate change. Many conservatives, specifically but not only the evangelical Christians within the conservative coalition, deny climate change science. This grows out of their embrace of creationism and rejection of evolution. On a very practical level this is of global significance, since the US produces a huge percent of the world’s emission of carbon, methane, and other warming gasses.
If we think less pragmatically, and more theoretically, then I start to worry: Am I secretly a liberal? Am I just repeating the liberal argument about the separation between the church and the state? Maybe no; maybe I could turn it to Marx’s On the Jewish question (1844), where he points out that the continuous existence of religion is the continuous existence of a defect. Then I can say, happily, I am not secretly a liberal, I am just recognizing, with Marx, the continuous existence of the defect of the bourgeois-liberal state.
PJ and TM: Marx famously proclaimed religion “the opium of the people” (Marx 1970/1843) – yet, in spite of obvious benefits of scientific reasoning, religion seems to be engraved deeply into human nature. Should we oppose capitalism by insisting on atheism/agnosticism; do we need a new religion of (communicative) communism?
JD: We have a huge opioid problem in the US. Now for 2 years in a row, in part because of the opioid crisis, life expectancy in the US is decreasing. The opioid crisis is happening in areas that are also known to have quite a large number of religious people, so it’s like religion is not enough of an opioid to prevent people from using other ones as well. If we are in favor of permissive drug policies, maybe we should be in favor of permissive religious policies? We may allow people to choose their opioids, religious and not religious, but opioids should not have a role in the political debate. Religious arguments should not block things for science, or prevent people from using the toilets because someone is thinking that they are violating God’s definitions of the man and the woman.
In my ideal communist society we would not abolish religious people and put them into camps. Let people be religious, just make sure that religious arguments are not political arguments! And I would not be in favor of a religion of communicative communism. That reminds me of Rousseau’s vision in The Social Contract (1762) that you must install some kind of civic religion. I think we should leave religion alone, leave sex alone, and let people do whatever they want in those spheres. I also think it was a mistake for communists to be so vehemently atheistic, because that alienates a lot of working people. I very much admire liberation theology and the Catholic workers who respect people’s everyday lives in ways that leftist intellectuals and leaders are condescending disrespectful of. If we make sure that there is economic and political equality, we are not going to worry about all these other things like religion and sex – we are going to give people the space to believe and to love – as long as they they don’t infringe on fundamental equality.
PJ and TM: We guess there is a bit of Alain Badiou in your political theory, insofar we got to look from the promise backward to reality. What do you think of theology in political theory that Badiou sees in St Paul (2003)?
JD: Does theology have a monopoly on hope for something that is not yet there? I disagree that theology is the only way to conceptualize that hope; what about philosophy, or art, or science? I was born in South Carolina and grew up in a very Southern Baptist household where there was a lot of talk about religion. We went to church three times a week. One of the things that always resonated with me about communism was its affinity with Acts 4:35, “And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” Admittedly, then, there could be this theological component, but want to hold onto the theoretical point that theology is not the only source for that type of thinking. Badiou’s St Paul is quite far from a theological figure, he is a luminous militant who makes us see fidelity as a proper political orientation, not just of the believer, but also of the comrade.
PJ and TM: In the late twentieth century, communists and Christian believers (primarily in Latin America, but also elsewhere) have reconciled Marxism and Christianity in the form of liberation theology (McLaren 2015; McLaren and Jandrić 2017, 2018). What is your take on liberation theology? Is it a positive move towards stronger alliances on the Left, sleeping with the enemy, or anywhere in the between?
JD: It is a positive move towards better connections on the Left and a mode for infiltrating other structures. Leftists are always worried about how do we get people out, how do we get more people to do this and that … And the Church remains this institution that can bring people out regularly! They come there every day, or every Sunday … Can you imagine if the Left was as strong as the Church all over the world? It would be amazing! I would think of liberation theology as the way for leftist takeover of the Catholic church, and as the way to reach people that are alienated by the other parts of the Left.
American space program was produced with an eye to audiences. Folks at home and abroad would view its achievements as indications of the success of the democratic project. Anyone now or in the future could look to the Americans who walked on the moon and know that communism would not triumph. Through the space program, then, America produced a narrative of freedom and progress that would structure popular understandings of truth and agency. (Dean 1998: 19)
What are these understandings, Jodi? Who is supposed to benefit from them?
JD: The standards of truth and agency were made according to a very specific American exceptionalist, masculine, colonialist vision of what it is to be free, what it is to triumph, and how capitalism and democracy will always produce the very best outcome. This vision of truth and agency is a little chunk of American fantasy: the American frontier, the American dream, the American freedom-loving independent masculine person. The only way to think properly about the US space program is to recognize its situatedness in the Cold War. If it weren’t for the Cold War, it would not have gotten off the ground. That’s why Kennedy was so worried about getting the manned space program started. The audience for the whole endeavor to get a man on the Moon was national and international. The American space program aimed to build national confidence because the US felt defeated on the technological plane when the Soviets launched Sputnik, and our rockets just kept crashing … It was just utterly humiliating that the US was having such a hard time launching any decent rockets while the Soviets were so successful. Globally, the American space program aimed to tell everyone else that Americans have the technology and the will for space travel and thereby demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and democracy.
PJ and TM: The age of space travel, and especially its heroes, was instrumental in enforcing the feeling of American (and, on the opposite side of the world, Russian) pride in own achievements, which unsurprisingly resulted in reinforcement of the feeling of national citizenship. However, the age of digital technologies has brought about a radically different feeling – some Americans may be proud of the achievements of the Silicon Valley, but digital citizenship is by and large trans-national or even global. By now, this has only contributed to the rise of global corporations and even harsher forms of capitalism; internationalism, which has traditionally always been the key element of the proletarian struggle, seems to have turned against it (Hardt and Negri 2001: 49). What, in anything, can be done to push internationalism back in favor of the contemporary Left?
JD: In the so-called West, after the defeat of the Soviet bloc, the Left became liberals. They had been in the process of becoming liberals since 1968; by 1991 or 1992, the Left agreed that socialism was defeated and accepted capitalist democracy as the only game in town. After that, the only vision of internationalism was a combination of global trade, capitalism, and human rights. The language of human rights needs to be recognized as a substitute for genuine proletarian internationalism within the ideological configuration of the Global North. That enabled the Right to take over the space where the resentment and anger of the working class that gets screwed in global trade gets expressed, and to mobilize them using things like nationalism and patriotism.
I don’t think that confidence in Silicon Valley is part of US patriotism. That might be the view of tech-elites, fanboys, early adopters, and maybe some kids, but it’s really much more a coastal mentality, rather than the one across the country. In the middle of the country, the bearer of patriotism is country music, the flag, and a weird sense of cultural practices associated with being an American like wearing ugly Make America Great style hats, eating fast food, and saying that it is our right to drink 64 oz of Coke. It’s a reactive patriotism, aimed against the elite that they associate with the Silicon Valley that does technology things that they don’t understand and takes their jobs away. Intellectuals get to be internationalists; the working class is someplace else. So we can see a rather small and not necessarily effective national and global Left which is primarily liberal, and we need to connect it more with political economy (analyses of finance, production, debt, circulation, logistics) and an expanded sense of working class struggles (education, health, and environmental struggles need to be understood as class struggles).
PJ and TM: Your historical analysis shows that “until the space program, the United States rarely presented itself explicitly as a colonial power, although expansionism has been integral to its self-understanding”. During the second part of the twentieth century, however, governments and researchers have taken Vannevar Bush’s metaphor of science and technology as “the endless frontier” (US Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945) from space travel into the field of computing. These days we understand that the endless frontier is a hoax aimed at promoting what Barbrook and Cameron call the Californian ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996). In the age of the Anthropocene, we also understand there is no such thing as an endless frontier (Jandrić 2017; see also Wark and Jandrić 2016). Obviously, the struggle against communicative capitalism is not about mere change of social system; more importantly, it is also about internalizing the fact that colonization simply cannot go forever (or, more precisely, cannot go very far from this point in history). How do you go about this problem?
JD: I was born in 1962. When I was a kid, my Dad was in the Air Force. We lived near the base, where the space program was a big part of the imaginary. It was wonderful having to watch the Moon landing and people walking on the Moon! It was tremendously exciting! Then, in the early 1990s, there was almost no funding for space, there was no enthusiasm around it, the Challenger blew up … Space travel was not a site of excitement or development anymore; all excitement and development was around the Internet. This implies a shift in the imaginary, and I think its change of direction from Outer Space towards human interactions here on Earth is very important. And what happened to the Left? Instead of having a big vision, and developing a global struggle against capitalism and for communism, the Left starts worrying about internal relations. The Left turns inward as well, to think about itself. It is the same kind of shift. I don’t think this is about colonization vs non-colonization, and I don’t even think it is about progress or non-progress. I think it is about where one sees the horizon of political possibility, the horizon of struggle. And if we turned towards a big vision once before, we can turn towards it again. I don’t exactly know how to make that shift, but I think it will arrive through continued active struggle.
The Many Faces of Anti-Capitalist Struggle
PJ and TM: Slowly but surely we have arrived in the age of precarious employment. Precarity is not a new concept, yet its current manifestations are deeper and wider than ever (Standing and Jandrić 2015) – with the emergence of capitalist online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, information technologies seem to only add oil to the fire. What can be done to counterbalance this brutal online capitalism? Is, perhaps, the movement of Platform Cooperativism (2018) led by Trebor Scholtz and Nathan Schneider a possible way to go?
JD: I attended a couple of their events at the New School and I don’t think that Platform Cooperativism is a way beyond precarity under the conditions of communicative capitalism. Uber, TaskRabbit, Deliveroo, and other platforms are vehicles for intensifying precarity, and just to say that these will be cooperatively owned does not change that basic structure. I think moving forward requires the reconstitution and reinvigoration of unions (in the US union membership is at a historic low). This is another reason why Marx is relevant today. The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1976/1848) was written in a moment when the workers’ movement has not yet made its major achievements, when organizing workers is building up steam, and when there are ongoing efforts to build trade unions and organize the working class as a party. That’s the current situation with precarious and contract labor. People are dispersed in different workplaces, so trying to organize this work force is the only way to go – but not through something like Platform Cooperativism.
PJ and TM: And what do you make of users understood as workers, like Wages for Facebook (Ptak 2014)?
JD: There is nothing emancipatory in online platforms such as the Mechanical Turk, where people get these little bits of money for doing little bits of work – that is just another form of crappy labor. However, Wages for Facebook can be understood as analogous to the Wages for Housework campaign from the 1970s (see Federici 1975): a thought experiment for what would be the push towards a more radical politics. If we think about Wages for Facebook in that way, which points to the strange fact that these platforms rely on unpaid labor, that they are treating us as a natural resource for capital in the same way that women’s unpaid domestic labor is treated as a natural resource for capital, then it is useful. Maria Mies’s Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor (1986/1999) discusses how the colonized, nature, and then domestic labor are treated as resources, and Wages for Facebook is a useful way to think how labor under communicative capitalism is treated as a resource. But Wages for Facebook is not useful in the version of: I’m on Facebook eight hours a day, so then I get eight dollars. There’s got to be a more emancipatory horizon.
PJ and TM: Wages for Facebook points to the fact that communicative and social relations are prerequisite for communicative capitalism, just as Wages for Housework were pointing to the fact that the labor of social reproduction is hidden from view but fundamental to the reproduction of capitalist relations.
JD: Absolutely. That is why we see so much renewed interest in the theory of social reproduction right now.
PJ and TM: The battle against communicative capitalism is simultaneously fought on many different fronts. One such development is the degrowth movement (D’Alisa et al. 2014) which imagines economic and political futures which are not based on growth. Obviously, such futures are directly opposed to the logic of capitalism … What do you think of the potentials of the degrowth movement in the struggle against communicative capitalism?
JD: Degrowth feels a lot like neopeasantisation. Instead of advocating a better and cleaner use of industrial processes and resources, it just cuts them off entirely. I like flying places, I think penicillin and public health are great things, and I don’t like to work in a garden. Degrowth wants to redo social relations around a particular relation to the land. This makes sense as a symptom of and reaction against planetary urbanization. But it doesn’t combat it for most of the world’s people. Combined with movements around the city such as municipalism, this neopeasantisation becomes neo-feudalism. As a result, you get cities and Silicon Valley kinds of places which do cool cultural things surrounded by hinterlands of peasants who do intense labor and then go home and play on the Internet for a little while. I think that we need a vision that does not pretend that we can forego industry but that makes industry better. This is not the same vision of productivism that mobilized the communist and socialist state experiments in the twentieth century. We have already gone through the development of the industries, we now need to clean them up, ecologically, economically, and politically. This means collectivizing them and subjecting them to political decisions as to whether they are needed and how they should be organized.
PJ and TM: What are your thoughts on Srnicek and Williams’s (2015) critique of localism and horizontalism?
JD: I agree with a lot of it. Although, they draw so much from Kathi Weeks and Shulamith Firestone … Feminists have been making some of these arguments for a while, and yet Srnicek and Williams are getting a lot of credit for it. It is a little bit irritating: men again taking credit for women’s work! The full automation part is what bugs me most, because it justifies throwing so many people out of the workforce without any kind of provision for their sustenance and maintenance during the transition.
PJ and TM: Whether we like it or not, technologies of today are beginning to destroy more jobs than they create – and this trend is likely to continue (at least) in the near future (Peters and Jandrić 2018b; Peters et al. 2018). How should we deal with the rise of technological unemployment? Perhaps Universal Basic Income is the way to go?
JD: I am against Universal Basic Income because it individualizes the causes, the problems, and the solutions. It is just another excuse for the neoliberal processes of privatization and personalization, where public goods – schools, healthcare, parks, nature, woods, etc. – inevitably go away. Universal Basic Income is just about individuals and their own consumer needs. It is no surprise that Silicon Valley people are behind Universal Basic Income. It produces what they want – more consumers.
PJ and TM: Just recently, Russian president Putin announced a large investment in robot soldiers. This specific form of technological unemployment could save many human lives; it also leads to abstraction of warfare, where the ability to win a war could become a matter of who has better gear. What do you think about such an abstraction? What kind of (imaginary) future does it bring about?
JD: Your question made me think immediately of the Obama administration’s drone warfare, which resulted in tons of civilian deaths in Syria and the absence of war as a matter of public concern in the United States. This is even worse than traditional war because it is alienated from any forms of critique and response. But the people who die are real. I think that a military future based on robots and gadgets is the end of the world. It’s the Terminator.
Crowds and Party
PJ and TM: Please describe the dynamic between crowds and party.
JD: Online and offline, we see the power of numbers of people: numbers of people around hashtags, numbers of people in the streets … These numbers are the force of crowds, and they have a kind of intensity to them. Now, intensity is pretty much all they have. They don’t have a politics: when you see a trending hashtag on Twitter, you don’t know its politics before interpreting a fair number of messages. ‘Party’ is the political form that politicizes the crowd or finds the politics in the crowd. A communist party would see the people in the crowd. That is, it defends a view of class struggle that sees in popular uprising the oppressed people rising up against their oppressors, or as Marx famously describes the Paris Commune, “the people storming heaven.” The Party sees not a small or particular demographic subset with its own particular complaints, but the people in its universal dimension. This dynamic of crowd and party recognizes the power of numbers, whether online and offline, and says that this power is not the same a politics; but politics comes from a political form like a party that responds to the crowd event and attribute it to the people as its cause or subject.
PJ and TM: Today someone mentioned that the Internet is communitarian. And to a large degree it is – everything has a community of its own, and that serves to abstract from the notion that there is such a thing as a society. What is your take on the problem of the collectivity and organization?
JD: After Trump was elected, liberal media complained it was because people are in their own online bubbles, in their echo chambers, talking with the like-minded, and not reaching out. I disagree with that diagnosis. Actually, I think that we need more bubbles – particularly on the Left. The Left must emphasize the division between us and the capitalists, and these bubbles and echo-chambers help us understand that we actually are a force. This is not about communities instead of society; this is about recognizing that the society is fundamentally divided, there is a fundamental antagonism. We have to fight over that antagonism, and that means strengthening ourselves into a fighting force by intensifying the division and intensifying our alliance. My discussion of crowds and party stems from an emphasis on that fundamental antagonism.
PJ and TM: The Internet transforms employment into a reputation game – for journalists, the number of Twitter followers is more important than the quality of texts (actually, more often than not, bad articles seem to attract more clicks!); for academics, like us, citations and speaking invitations are often more important than the content of our work. On our way against communicative capitalism, what should be done about reputation?
JD: I don’t think that we will get a flat world under communism, we will still have an uneven world, but that unevenness should not interfere with the ability to live a good life. And the problem within capitalism is that reputation correlates with economic gains and benefits. Therefore, we must make sure that reputation does not arrive with economic benefits. Structurally, it is probably impossible to get rid of reputation, all you can do is get rid of platforms that rely on reputation, that stimulate the production, measure, and comparison that generates reputation and try to construct modes of interaction where reputation will matter less and less.
PJ and TM: That also calls for the question of the vanguard.
JD: ‘Vanguard’s bad reputation is irritating. ‘Vanguard’ are the innovators and the early adopters, and everybody says yeah, let’s do that too. Sure, it’s disgusting when people who are not the vanguard claim to be, but then we just criticize them as a false vanguard. In the tech world, you call people innovators, and everybody gets so excited. But in politics, innovators are called vanguards and everybody hates them. I think we need to stop with the old school 1960s critique of the vanguards and also with the Hardt and Negri critique (2001). (By the way, given how influential and widely cited they are, Hardt and Negri are actually vanguards themselves.) It is a myth that we can do without vanguards. We must get rid of that myth, recognize vanguards, and if we don’t like them, then tear them down for the specificity of their politics – and not for the fact that they are a vanguard. In The Communist Horizon (Dean 2012) I argue that Occupy was a vanguard – everybody in the world followed the initial Occupiers. We did not trash Occupy for doing something new, we admired it and followed it.
PJ and TM: You define party also in terms of libidinal investment, or affective infrastructure and the articulation of that infrastructure as the vanguard. Personalized or not, party interpellates everybody to act together towards a goal.
JD: The affective/libidinal structure of the party points to how the party holds itself together. A party is not top-down orders from some kind of central committee to a bunch of followers. Rather it is a set of interpersonal relations between comrades. These relations are ‘transferential’ in the psychoanalytic sense that they are invested with projections, intensities, expectations, and sometimes guilt. This makes them very intense for those involved. It’s part of what makes membership in a revolutionary party meaningful. We have to always remember that membership in a party is voluntary. People choose to join and become part of a political collective. As this collectivity, the party functions as a new symbolic order for its members. And the more it does that, the more it can then influence those ‘fellow travelers’ outside the party.
PJ and TM: In the early days of the Internet, a lot of attention was given to the wisdom of the crowd (see, for instance, Rheingold 1995 and 2002). Please assess epistemology of online crowd wisdom.
JD: Yes, I had Rheingold’s Smart Mobs (2002) in mind in Crowds and Party because of his take on crowd knowledge and crowd sourcing. His take is shared and extended in books like James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2005). What is particularly clear in Surowiecki is how crowd knowledge or the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is really not about crowds at all. It is really about putting crowds to use as generators or producers of knowledge that can be appropriated and controlled by someone else, an owner or corporation. In fact the formations called ‘crowd’ in this literature are not even actual crowds exerting influence on each other. They are just datasets. So ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ we are talking about here is a formulation generated from an individualist appropriative perspective. It takes the form of ‘I have the problem that I want to solve, so I try to generate a crowd that will solve that problem.’ It is just an operation set in motion for one’s own solution; it is not really a crowd generating knowledge or doing anything.
PJ and TM: And what about Wikipedia?
JD: Wikipedia is interesting as a kind of distributive knowledge registration, knowledge recording, and knowledge archiving. It does not produce new knowledge. People who write an entry need to show that their entry is valid, or justify that it is correct, by citations to the work of others. That is of course not the same thing as crowd wisdom.
PJ and TM: So how does your definition of the crowd deal with knowledge? What is the epistemology of crowds as you see them?
JD: I would not say that the crowd generates knowledge, the crowd generates intensity. My primary resource for thinking about crowds in this way is Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and power (1984). Crowds can be piles of grain, oceans, mountain ranges, money … a heap of money is crowd. ‘Crowd’ should not be understood primarily as cognitive or epistemological – it is an abstracted intensity, that comes about via the aggregation of people and things.
PJ and TM: In order to fight against a strong enemy such as communicative capitalism, arguably, the contemporary Left should be united. However, as you wrote in Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, “we have an ethical sense. But we lack a coherent politics, primarily because we remain attached to our present values” (Dean 2009: 175). Which values did you have in mind, Jodi? What, in your opinion, are the main causes of contemporary fragmentation of the Left?
JD: The values I have in mind in that book are technology, free trade, and democracy and the ways that these values configure resolve as individual gut-level feeling, ethics as liberal acquiescence, and certainty as psychosis. The basic cause of the fragmentation of the Left is the collapse of the Soviet bloc, because it eliminated the primary horizon of communism and the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. Once that happened, the Left fragmented into a multiplicity of identity and issue-based politics. Why? Because all they needed to do was to improve capitalist democracy, to bring about capitalism with a human face or a more multicultural kind of capitalism. In order to unite the Left as the Left that we need, the political goal should be making the communist horizon visible again.
PJ and TM: For you, Jodi, the Party is the basic form of political struggle. Why?
JD: I don’t think it is the basic form of political struggle, but I do think it is the form of political struggle we now need to be effective. The political form for confronting the power of the state, in so-called advanced capitalist parliamentary societies, is the Party. The Party can function at local, regional, national, and international levels. It is a political instrument that scales beyond states and brings people together to fight for a particular political vision. This is why we now need the Party more than ever – it is a vision for a fighting collective to change the world.
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