This evening I found myself reading The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean. As always, the writing is lively, clear and I find myself agreeing with much that she says. However– and here my remarks will be brief –I find myself disturbed by the defense of “the party”; or rather, to be more precise, the underdetermination of her concept of the party. To be clear, while my sympathies lie in the direction of anarchism, I agree with Dean in holding that some sort of organization is necessary in order to accomplish any political change. In my view– and I realize this will be controversial to some –”communism” and “anarchism” are synonymous. Anarchism denotes a social form that is no longer alienated in the figure of a state, party, or leader, but where people directly rule themselves and organize their social world. Communism means precisely the same thing. However, both communism and anarchism are Real in Dean’s Lacanian sense of the term. As she writes,
I use ‘horizon’ not to recall a forgotten future but to designate a dimension of experience that we can never lose, even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it. The horizon is Real in the sense of impossible– we can never reach it –and in the sense of actual (Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real includes both these senses). The horizon shapes our setting. We can lose our bearings, but the horizon is a necessary dimension of our actuality. (1 – 2)
The claim that anarcho-communism is Real, is the claim that it functions as a sort of “regulative ideal” that is never reached in practice, but that nonetheless regulates practice in the present or actuality. As a regulative ideal, anarcho-communism reminds us that while we might need leaders, parties, bureaucracy, etc., radical egalitarianism and collective self-determination are the ultimate aim of all our practices and we must perpetually subject our own practices and organizations to critique so that they don’t become fetishized or ends in themselves.
In the second chapter, Dean strongly suggests that leeriness of the party is equivalent to an embrace of neoliberal, democratic politics. Here I think Dean confuses issues of content and form. She assumes that if one is critical of party organization, they are rejecting the communist party (a particular content). My concerns with party politics, however, are rather different. They pertain to the form of parties, and in particular, how identifications function, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Nazi party, the democratic party, a particular religious denomination, a particular group such as “speculative realism”, “existentialism”, “object-oriented ontology”, or the communist party. All of these structures share a particular form, even though their contents are quite different. It is the effects and products of these forms that we need to attend to.
There are two basic problems that arise from identification with these master-signifiers at the level of politics. First, there is the problem of the party or group organized around a master-signifier becoming a university discourse. Lacan’s discourse of the university (left), has nothing in particular to do with universities or academia (though they’re common there), but rather refers to a particular form of social relation that can be instantiated in a number of different domains. We could just as easily call it the “discourse of bureaucracy” or the “discourse of autopoiesis” (as conceived by Luhmann). In the university discourse we have an apparatus of knowledge, law, or techniques (S2), acting on some new novelty or singularity (a), producing a barred or alienated entity ($) as its product. Why is the product of this discourse alienated? Because in being run through the machine of the discourse, the novelty loses all of its singularity and is reduced to yet one more instance of the bureaucratic or epistemological apparatus (S2). The singularity (a) does not change the discourse, rather the discourse subordinates the singularity to its norms, laws, categories, or procedures. Factories are another instance of the university discourse with respect to both the materials they transform into commodities and how they act on workers.
We will note that in the position of truth, we see S1, the master-signifier. The truth of the university discourse is some sort of master-signifier that we identify with: “Lacan”, “Deleuze and Guattari”, “Marx”, “democrat”, “republican”, “American”, “communist”, “anarchist”, etc. It is this master-signifier that we identify with. So here’s the problem. Describing the communist party, Dean writes, “I’m tempted to use terms from complexity theory here: the party is a complex, adaptive system” (20). This is what we always hope, but sadly this is seldom the case. This a formal problem with group structures organized around master-signifiers, not specific to a particular content: they have a tendency to shift from being for the sake of the people they represent, for example, to being solely for their party. In other words, perpetuation of the master-signifier, the point of identification, not what the constellation is supposed to represent becomes an end in itself that ends up alienating that which falls in its sway. Among Heideggerians, for example, Heidegger research becomes an end in itself, whereas the aim should be understanding of being and the world. Among the democratic party, perpetuation of the democratic party becomes an end in itself, rather than representing the interests of the people. The first question we need to ask of any form of organization– and this is why we need anarcho-communism as a regulative ideal –is that of how we can insure that parties, groups, and organizations remain “complex, adaptive systems”, rather than becoming ends in themselves and machines of alienation. How can we organize in a way that remains responsive to the alien and singular? That’s the question.
The second problem with group structures is of greater concern and has darker implications. As I have argued for a number of years now, group identification has the structure of masculine sexuality (the left side of the diagram to the right). I will not rehearse the intricacies of Lacan’s graph of sexuation here (readers who are curious can consult chapter 6 of The Democracy of Objects or my article “The Other Face of God“, .pdf). Group identification is organized around identification with a master signifier (Ex~Phix) or the upper portion of Lacan’s symbolic equations. Lacan argues that both of these structures encounter paradoxes or contradictions, thereby generating particular forms of jouissance or enjoyment. These are depicted on the lower portion of the graph. On the masculine side or the side of group or party identification, we see jouissance organized in terms of ($ –> a) or the barred or alienated subject related to objet a or the remainder or singularity that escapes the symbolic totality dreamed of by the university discourse.
According to Lacan– and I think he’s right –every attempt to form a symbolic totality produces a remainder that can’t be integrated. Symbolic totalities are thus necessarily supplemented by a fantasy symbolized in the matheme ($ <> a) that patches up, as it were, the totality through this supplement. We need to avoid the idea that fantasy is a happy or enjoyable thing. Rather, fantasy is Janus faced. One side of fantasy points to the divided subject being united with that element that it’s lost so as to therefore become complete. This is nicely depicted in Aristophanes’ speech on love in Plato’s Symposium. This is of course impossible because the lack in the structure is a structural fault, not the result of a contingent loss.
Because this fault is structural rather than contingent, the other face of fantasy is far more dark. Unconsciously recognizing that the fault is structural, fantasy thereby provides an explanation of some sort of foreign agent that prevents the totality from being formed: the imposter, the double agent, the invading foreigner, women, etc. The subject then attempts to eradicate this barrier to totality so as to bring totality into existence. Such was Zizek’s conclusion regarding the function of the symbolic figure of the Jew in anti-semitism. Anti-semitism has nothing to do with real Jews, but is instead a fantasy structure designed to explain why the organic and harmonious communities dreamed of by conservative ideologies fail (today the figure of the Jew has been replaced by leftists and Middle Easterners). The point is simple: group identification necessarily leads to internal purges within the group on the grounds that they are the “indivisible remainder” that prevents the group from functioning well and harmoniously, and systematically lead to persecution of some other group as the place-holder of the remainder, the real, or that which cannot be assimilated.
The stronger the identification, the stronger this tragedy asserts itself. Anyone who has spend any time lurking on democratic blogs in the last five years will discern this structure with respect to hardcore Obama-supporters. Anyone who has belonging to a Christian religious group will discern this structure. Anyone who has interacted with hardcore Marxists will have experienced this first-hand. Anyone who has interacted with highly identified conservatives and republicans will have experienced this. These are effects of a particular form, not the content of a particular group-identification. This is why we witness similar horrific forms of purges and persecutions of aliens on both the left and the right. The stronger the group-identification, the stronger the paranoia, and the greater the violence.
We are thus faced with an antinomy:
Thesis: Emancipatory politics and justice necessarily requires organization; which, in its turn, requires identification.
Antithesis: Identification and group organization necessarily leads to injustice through internal purges and the scapegoating of an alien seen as cause of the constitutive incompleteness of the totality.
This antinomy is what I believe needs to be addressed. We cannot avoid the need to identify and organize if we are to produce change. Yet if we are to do this without producing further injustice, we need to produce forms of identification and group organization that do not lead to this alienation and these sad, unjust, passions.