Scanning the Horizon

After the Mark Fisher memorial lecture from Jodi Dean, considering I’d recently picked up a copy of her book the Communist Horizon I decided to promptly give it a full read. Within it, while I found some points she had reiterated within the lecture, I found a wonderfully fleshed out analysis of the problems faced by the left, the loss of the communist horizon, as Dean puts it, to the static repetitions of drive.

In some ways it fits in quite nicely next to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism as an instalment in an ongoing push to revitalise left politics and pull it out of the stupor of the past few decades, if one with a greater focus on action and strategy. Much of the book is devoted to defining a collective subject, a focus on the we necessary to enact political change, navigating the impasses of fragmentation and individualism so characteristic to what Dean calls “Communicative capitalism” in tandem with its close ally neoliberalism. While she advocates throughout a unified collective effort, it would be amiss to define this as some call for people to simply converge into a like-minded singularity. Something she brings us back to around every corner is the constant presence of rupture and antagonism within groups, and eventually even within the individual subject themselves.

This is a point I think rings out all the more as left movements are fragmenting everywhere, unable to tackle their own differences. Antagonism, between the lack of the subject and the lack of capital, between subjects, are everywhere we look, and yet people are capable of acting with unified purpose. The key observation to maintain is this, one that Dean reiterates from Lukacs, that a collective common desire distracts from, but does not erase antagonisms, that the form remains incomplete rather than a perfect whole. There is no “united” collective in a true sense, but while this tempts us to move towards Hardt & Negri’s approach, the ever-changing multitude, Dean is correct in her criticisms that this forms a collective that is too disparate and ill-defined to really enact the change it seeks. The multitude might sound lovely and inclusive, and yet it doesn’t really have the pointed gaze towards a common horizon that is needed.

A good example in a sense, whether it exactly lines up or not, are the recent riots in France, and the “yellow vests” movements that originated from them. They are a clear case against the collective as multitude, as after a certain point nobody could work out what was being fought for and everybody appeared to be angry about their own pet issue. There was no abstract horizon to tie it all together besides an outpouring of anger. This lines up somewhat with Hardt & Negri’s conception of communism as an imminence within society, and yet it does not. All that happened was anger without a point, a goal. What’s more, the fact that this was a “movement” so open that anyone with a chip on their shoulder could claim it as their own eventually led it to dissipate and become equally appropriated by right wing and left wing groups with entirely different aims. In its founding around the precepts of individual concern the yellow vest phenomenon was a miserable failure even as it made clear the amount of resentment bubbling away beneath the surface of society.

What was painfully evident from these riots is that people were angry and wanted to change things but from this point had no clear idea of what they were angry at or how to change it. What Dean points out was present in the occupy movement, a clear antagonism based in class struggle; the 99% vs the 1%, and a tactic in order to amplify this antagonism, was nowhere to be seen on the streets of France last year. The communist horizon as something to direct our desire towards on the left is in some respects works past this by ensuring that whatever each individuals grievance, a common direction and foundation for strategy is in place.

Something that is confronted consistently, and that Dean is highly critical of, is the lapse of left wing desire into drive, a banal repetitious approach mired in aestheticism [politics as commodity, as a t shirt, an instagram bio, a fashion] and inaction. Protest becomes something people do not out of genuine wish for change, but as a limp, ineffectual gesture designed to prolong the protest itself. All the symbols of political resistance are reduced to pictures on a mood board, shorn of power and rendered mere commodity like everything else, subsumed into capital. Political action then has little to do with politics, merely becoming communication, PR, eventually lapsing into melancholy.

So to rediscover the communist horizon … it is a matter not of devising a specific state formulation as many automatically assume as soon as the term communist is invoked [During the first part of the book Dean addresses the many issues with conflating communism with the specific historical configuration of the USSR, or even Stalinism], but re-asserting a collective desire for collectivity and drawing out the means to enact that desire. In the throes of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism we are repeatedly told of our autonomy as individuals, that each of us is responsible for ourselves and that, in Thatcher’s words “There is no such thing as society” and it is difficult not to argue that we are now waist deep in the quicksand of that ideology. What is required is the organised collective, not just because everything we are told pushes against it, but because by ourselves it will be impossible to pull ourselves out again.

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