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The Political Subject and Identity Politics: Reading Dean’s Crowds and Party

In her recent book Crowds and PartyJodi Dean argues against the radical individualism that continues to characterize politics on the Left, recalling a scene from Occupy Wall Street in which efforts to organize break down because everyone is asked to make their own decision about what to do.  She argues convincingly that the subject of politics is produced as the individual in a way that serves a market-based economy.  On this account, expressions of political resistance can be commodified and monetized as free expression.  In service to that marketization of politics, politics and political discourse require the individual be produced as the fundamental unit of politics and political decision-making.  Political resistance breaks down because the individual remains privileged above the collective.

Dean argues that crowds produce possibilities, heretofore unrecognized, for resisting the ways that everything from social media to marketing efforts demand that we be individuals.  Crowds are collectivities that are not yet communities.  Crowds have no shared history or shared norms.    I started reading this book right before the January Women’s Marches, and I was struck by the possibilities at work in this way of seeing the crowd:

Because the crowd is a collective being, it cannot be reduced to singularities.  On the contrary, the primary characteristic of a crowd is its operation as a force of its own, like an organism.  The crowd is more than an aggregate of individuals.  It is individuals changed through the torsion of their aggregation, the force aggregation exerts back on them to do together what is impossible alone. (9)

Many of us felt the sense that the crowd was full of possibilities at a time when we needed to see that there were possibilities.  Dean argues that the problem of the crowd as the political subject is that its energies dissipate.  Its force loses direction.  It needs to be organized, made concrete, institutionalized.  The party is the organized, incorporated subject of the people that is first manifested in the crowd.  Or as Dean writes later in the book:

The crowd event is the Real that incites the people as a collective, partisan subject.  The party is the body that renders the subjectivizing crowd event into a moment in the subjective process of the politicized people.  The people as subject is neither crowd nor party but between them, in the overlap of anticipation and retroactive determination with respect to a political process.

More than a body focused on the state, the party is a form for the expression and direction of political will. It concentrates disruption in a process in order to produce political power: these acts are connected; they demonstrate the strength of the collective.  It endeavors to arrange the intensity unleashed by the crowd, to keep it present as fervent desire.  (157-158)

Dean acknowledges the concern about the party that it might end up being the few who dominate the many, just as the regime against which the people struggle is the few against the many.  Dean argues that these concerns should not be limited to the socialist and communist parties, as they are the possibility of any democracy.  Indeed, as I argue from Rousseau and in a forthcoming article on Aristotle’s Politics, the danger is always that in instituting a body to administer the general will that body develops a will of its own so that the very process of instituting power tends toward oligarchy.

Dean discusses the history of this view of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.”  She follows Robert Michels’ argument from his 1911 book Political Parties that the strength of the organization produces distance between leaders and members of a party organization.  For Michels, this distance is overcome by a kind of love and gratitude that the members have for the leaders, who are doing their work, and an identification.  A gap always remains between the few doing the organizing work and the many members of the party or even of the crowd, but the gap, for the Lacanian-minded Dean, is reflective of the antagonism the party is meant to address in society.  Of course, for Lacan, the subject is the gap.  And Dean relies on this connection to consider the leader as the one who steps into the gap to give direction to the force of the crowd in the shape of the party.  The party then gives longevity to the crowd in the form of the subject.  In this sense, the people have gratitude for a leader who manifests their subjectivity, who reflects them back to them.  It is really hard for me not to read this “gratitude for a leader” under the guise of white savior complexes and good feminist men who mansplain the revolution.

While it is true that Dean points to ways that the party gives place for concerns of all kinds of marginalized folks, especially in the 1930s and 40s, the concern with the institutionalization of the party is that as in other structures that institute a general will, one particular general will comes to serve as if it is the universal.  Look around at all the married white men with kids on the Left who dominate discussion on social media.  Look at all the ways that people who call this dynamic out are treated as feminist killjoys.  Under the auspices of unity and universality, the same patriarchal white supremacist structures are repeated.

When I was in graduate school, the political question was how to find a place for the universal and the singular.  The whole seemed totalizing, ignoring the differences and singularity of each.  I think Jodi Dean is right to question the investment we have in the singular or the individual, and I wonder if the political question framed as it was then has indeed changed.  But there is a danger once we recognize that problems with the investment in the individual as the political subject, which is that ignoring group differences within the party reproduces the structures it aims to resist.  In the name of collective efforts and against neoliberal individuality, the mechanism of the party suggests that historically- marginalized group differences are irrelevant.

Dean is critical of those Leftist approaches that focus on identity politics, which she argues are still focused on individual identity and on the lived experiences to which such politics attest.  Underneath all these identities, Dean argues, is an assumption that there is a real me that needs to be expressed (53).  These concerns with oppressions based on identity, Dean argues, “founder against the hard rock of the market,” a claim she develops with a quote from Žižek:

The domain of global capitalist market relations is the Other scene of the so-called repoliticization of civil society advocated by the partisans of “identity politics” and other postmodern forms of politicization: all the talk about new forms of politics bursting out all over…ultimately resembles the obsessional neurotic who talks all the time and is otherwise fanatically active precisely in order to ensure that something–what really matters–will not be disturbed, that it will remain immobilized (The Ticklish Subject).

It is possible to be critical of the way that identity politics are invoked as cover for political campaigns that herald the same business as usual, without arguing that identity politics as such is a matter of neoliberal individualism.  That position cedes to the right the pejorative sense of the term as if it is all about individuals clamoring for more recognition than is their due.  Identity politics–as the various collective political projects aimed to resist oppressions associated with the social positions people occupy–is not at root about producing the individual as a subject.  These projects are responses to the forces that have divided the collective into groups of those who count and those who do not.  The response subjectivizes the group actively in resistance to how the way it is marginalized through a production of identity by the state.   Identity politics can be a bourgeois affair of individuals attesting to how they diversify and thereby make respectable a company or institution.  But this possibility, like the possibility that a party can become an oligarchy, is not a reason to deny the historical group-based oppressions within liberatory movements.

It seems to me that there are two sides to the “forgetting” of identity.  On the one hand, there is the liberal approach that denies that identity has a social or historical significance in a way that reproduces political inequality.  On the other hand, there is the communist approach of producing what Alain Badiou has called the “generic,” where the political project is a matter of making appear what has previously been ignored and uncounted, as I recount here.  The danger in the unity of the generic is that among the generic, the historical inequalities between them are replicated in their liberatory projects.

So much post-election discussion has been about the conflict between economic progressivism and anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-transphobic campaigns.  Instead of thinking that the former is the only possibility for collective political action, which must occur at the expense of the latter, an approach which seems to be doomed to fall short of true liberatory politics, we could see the latter as the various ways that resistance to being passively grouped and identified by systems and structures of oppressions can become actively collectivized within the larger efforts toward liberatory politics, which allows us to put our efforts into liberation from all these intersecting structures of dominance at once.  Dean makes a strong case that the party can get us there, but we should be wary of a party in which solidarity requires ignoring the structural inequalities identity politics resists, as if by only affirming the injustice of these structures we will be free of them.

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