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Should you join the party?
I’ve been thinking recently about what form of political organisation I should put my time and energy in. How can I best contribute to bringing about societal and economic reform? It is glaringly obvious that such reform needs to happen. But so far the vast majority of those who agree that something needs to be done largely sits back, watching the future get bleaker and bleaker. Often it feels as if I’m sitting back.
That people think action is needed while at the same time doing nothing does not mean they don’t care. Many of them do. They simply don’t see what they can do—how they could exercise their political agency in a way that would make a difference. If this sounds at all familiar to you, then looking into forms of organising politics may be the place to start.
I talked about societal and economic ‘reform’, didn’t I? Well, that’s a euphemism to soften you up a bit. The actual term I had in mind was revolution. By this I don’t specifically mean overthrowing capitalism. I use the term in its more general and explosive sense. By ‘revolution’ I mean a dramatic and radical shift in conditions, attitudes, and operation of society.
Think about how things are going in the world. It’s pretty much a scientific fact that we’re now heading for disaster. The effects of climate change are going to have wide-ranging impact everywhere. Revolution is inevitable, whether you like it or not. What you can control, however, is in which direction things will develop and how society will adapt to the material circumstances that lie ahead. Crudely put, it’s not a done deal whether humanity will see a new dawn of socialism, or another nightmare of fascism.
The question that keeps me up at night is: How can we help nudge the situation in socialism’s favour? Currently we’re not doing great.
The party as form
With this in mind I’ve been reading some of Jodi Dean’s work on movements and organisation. Dean is a political theorist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the US. She argues that those who want to join the fight for a socialist future should join forces within a party.
By this I don’t think she simply means the parliamentary party, those institutions you vote for in elections and then you’re done. Dean understands a party as not primarily electoral, but (in her words) as “an organisation and concentration of sociality in behalf of a certain politics” (Crowds and Party, 117) and “a solidary political association that cuts across workplace, sector, region, and nation” (157). The party is a group of people who organise themselves to commit to shared goals, shared principles.
A party, in this sense, is an alternative political community, one that defies the status quo. Dean has in mind the communist party, but I think the arguments I want to discuss here apply to whenever a group adopts a shared counter ideology and tries to establish it as a joint political programme.
What about political autonomy?
Do we need to join a party like that? In many circles on the Left this is a controversial point. This is because joining forces within a party implies a restriction of political autonomy. Why? Well, as part of a party you will have to expect to make concessions. “The party comes first.” Tasks may be assigned in a way you did not choose. Individuals will have distinct responsibilities, experiences, skills, and—correspondingly—varied forms of authority. Some people will be more active than others, and therefore more dominant and influential. The very point of the party is to impose a course of action. “This is how we will move forward.” Of course, in a well-functioning socialist party such restrictions, divisions, and impositions will have a radically democratic and transparent basis. But they will be restrictions, divisions, and impositions none the less.
Some assume that for these reasons the party form is just another form of domination and another source of antagonism. It will organise things such that a few have a relative authority over the many, a few who have a bigger say and more power than others. That inevitably brings hostility and discord. And surely socialists should try to get rid of domination and discord, not proliferate it.
This is where I find Dean’s work worth reading. Because she doesn’t disagree with the premises of this argument. Simplistically, you can say that in the theory of politics there are two camps: those that think that authority and antagonism are signs of bad politics, and those that think they’re signs of any form of politics. Dean firmly believes the latter, which to me seems at least empirically justified. This is her negative argument for the party form. Yes, in a party you will find yourself in an arrangement in which a few have a relative authority over the many; yes a party will be a site of division and strife. But this is true of any form of lived politics. So, it doesn’t speak against the party at all.
Fantasies of democracy
I do think that this is a very important point to think about. It is all too easy for activists to uphold an elaborate fantasy about how egalitarian and level their networks or gatherings are. But even when people come together in a fully level and participatory setting, try to follow principles of direct democratic collaboration, and agree that decisions are only made by all—that everyone will be equally important, and that everyone has an equal say—even there you will see domination and antagonism. It’s more or less a return of the repressed, to use a familiar phrase from psychoanalysis.
Take the most anti-hierarchical assembly you know—I myself am imagining my time in an anarchist squat scene, quite some years ago. Look at it with an anthropologist’s eye. Study what actually happens (instead of what those involved think or say happens). You’ll see that a few will be doing most of the work, only a few will take most of the initiative, and only a few people are getting most of the attention.
This is how Dean defends the party from the criticism that parties are a form of authority and sources of conflict. In practice, the few will always be dominant in an aggregation of people, not the many. This is a well-described phenomenon—in some fields known as the Pareto principle. It has more to do with human and group psychology than with politics. Dean points to Albert-László Barabási’s work on complex networks, which suggests that any growing network based on free choice and containing individual preferences produces de facto hierarchies—even if the participants like to think of themselves as anti-hierarchical.1
So if you don’t like authority and antagonism, it’s no use trying to start an assembly that bans these factors. There is no such thing. The point is not that we should therefore be happy with pecking orders and strife—of course we shouldn’t. But we should see them for what they are: unwelcome aspects of living together. It is naive to think that you can get rid of them in a diverse community of any significant size.
Why the party?
What’s the alternative? Dean thinks that if you don’t join forces with others as a political party, your influence will remain individualistic—which happens to be the form of subjectivity cultivated in neoliberalist capitalism. This is her positive argument for the party form.
If you don’t join forces with others and adopt a shared counter ideology, trying to establish it as a joint political programme, then you’ll remain one among the many. The set of principles you promote will be one among a multitude of ideologies on offer. The slogans you use will not have a common meaning, as each of us means something slightly different by what they say, right? “We all have our own truth—and that’s fine.” Any influence on politics you then have will depend on forces that are well known from how capitalism has arranged the ‘market place of ideas’: can you be the first, can you be the loudest, can you get the most likes?
Well, at least this is Dean’s point. Here’s a long quote in which she puts it well:
Is political change just aggregated personal transformation, communism as viral outbreak or meme-effect, #fullcommunism? Do we think that autonomous zones of freedom and equality will emerge like so many mushrooms out of the dregs left behind in capital flight and the shrinking of state social provisioning? Or do we optimistically look to democracy, expecting (all evidence to the contrary) that communism, or even upgraded social democracy, will arise out of electoral politics? All these fantasies imagine that political change can come about without political struggle. Each pushes away the fact of antagonism, division, and class struggle as if late neoliberalism were not already characterized by extreme inequality, violence, and exploitation, as if the ruling class did not already use military force, police force, legal force, and illegal force to maintain its position. Politics is a struggle over power. Capital uses every resource—state, non-state, interstate—to advance its position. A Left that refuses to organize itself in recognition of this fact will never be able to combat it. (Crowds and Party, 153)
So in this situation where activists are effectively trying as political content producers to beat the market, the revolution will be a long way off. Perhaps joining forces with others as a party is indeed the only viable way to turn a mere aggregate of those who want to fight for a better world into a community, and then into a movement.
The right kind of political struggle
Right now I will just leave you with these arguments. The reason I wanted to present them is primarily to get them into view. Dean has made these points in various places and in slightly diverging ways. A brief reconstruction brings the matter into sharper focus.
There are many things I’ve left out here. For example, how should a party organise itself? How do we make decisions. How do we assign tasks? How do we settle on our principles? These are things that we do need to talk about should we decide to join a party together.
I also haven’t discussed Dean’s interesting take on the psychological work that a party does. She thinks the party is uniquely suited to work through the problems of living together politically. (And this is a psychoanalytic sense of ‘working through’, involving the discovery of unconscious aggression, desires, and defence mechanisms).2
Regardless of whether you or I agree with Dean all the way, these arguments are worth discussing with those you feel politically close to. What expectations should you have of a movement towards a new politics? With an eye on the future, what is more important, your own political agency or the agency of a group? And what actions can you undertake right now to cultivate the sort of struggle that we need?
Image of a protest by the radical Dutch party BIJ1, advocating the abolishment of capitalism and a society with equal rights and equal opportunity for everyone.
Barabási’s work is in mathematics and computer science, not in political theory, and his book is worth reading if you’re interested in networks more generally. ↩︎
In particular, Dean bases her psychological claims on the work of Jacques Lacan, to my mind a corpus of charlatanism that rests on completely misguided assumptions about linguistics and human psychology. Lacan largely ignored psychoanalytic practice and espoused an a priori psychology. Whenever I see someone cite Lacan, I’m reminded of Richard Wollheim’s majestic rebuttal (‘The Cabinet of Dr Lacan’). The things Lacan did get right, other traditions in psychoanalysis have articulated much better. I’d love to see how Dean’s points about the psychological function of the party sound when they are articulated in terms of post-Kleinian and post-Bionian relational theory. ↩︎