Saturday, May 25, 2013

Party in the USA: The New Newest Left & the Organization of Sadness

[My response to Jodi Dean's critique is below the original post.]

How sad one must be to resurrect the Party.

In The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, mid-century Trotskyist J.P. Cannon includes a letter to a comrade entitled “Concerning Johnson.” As Cannon relates to his comrade, Johnson is utterly unruly, demonstrating a marked indifference to party organizing both in terms of personal discipline and politico-philosophical ethos. Remarkably, Cannon relates, “Johnson, the disorganizer, is going to lead a discussion of the Los Angeles comrades on the organization question. This impudence can only be based on the assumption that any kind of quackery can prosper in Southern California.” Cannon takes heart that he “know[s] another California—the California of a group of resolute Trotskyists who have shown in practice that they know how to organize a party and do serious work in the mass movement.” Cannon’s California knows how to Party. Alas, if only Johnson would refrain from spreading his disorganizing philosophy to such comrades and instead “go to school to them…”

The “Johnson” in question is none other than C.L.R. James, who would continue to (dis)organize Trotskyist groups for another 7 years before ultimately breaking wholesale with the organizational principle of the Party. I return to this report on James’ incorrigibility in the wake of recent calls from various left formations to stop partying and start Partying. I hope that James’ example and words might carry some weight. After all, one of the primary calls for a New Newest Left has come from Jacobin, whose masthead’s graphic of Toussaint L’Ouverture obviously alludes to James’ Black Jacobins. I’ve always held out hopes for Jacobin on the basis of that citation, but I’m starting to realize that the image of Toussaint represents a massive misreading of James’ masterwork—a misreading with rather sinister implications. The Black Jacobins is, after all, a study in revolutionary-organizational tragedy, a look into the way in which a people throws up a revolutionary leader who then becomes increasingly distant from his organic base. This tragic theme is particularly clear after the 1963 edits—revisions and additions made well after James broke practically and philosophically with the Party-form. I always read Jacobin’s Toussaint graphic as a kind of catachresis for the social mass that created and buoyed Toussaint, but now I’m realizing that, well, Jacobin is just totally into Toussaint as Revolutionary Leader, Organizer Extraordinaire.

Jacobin is not alone. Alongside the recent “Fellow Travelers” editorial in Jacobin, the well circulated #Accelerate manifesto also demands that leftists learn how to Party. The two documents are quite different in terms of their general philosophical moorings—#Accelerate is technophilic, Deleuzean, Landean; “Fellow Travelers” is just kind of humanist, less concerned with establishing an ontology of the present—so their general convergences are all the more remarkable. In Cannonite phrases, each text chastises today’s left for not being “serious” enough, for onanistically obsessing over such small things as horizontal organizing and direct action instead of getting down to the real business of reproducing a New Newest Left. Curiously, each call-to-Party organizes itself through a reference to a left auto-erotics. Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara compares today’s left—“enthusiasts of sectarian minutia, reenactors of old battles, collectors of decontextualized quotes”—to a dude “jacking off” on the subway. (It’s hard to credit Jacobin’s desire to get away from sectarian minutia and the reenactment of old battles when such a program is stated in the same issue in which they published Vivek Chibber’s trolling nonsense.) Meanwhile, #Accelerate has some sharp words for those radicals who, “hold[ing] to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism” end up “privileg[ing] self-esteem rather than effective action.” Adopting the idiom of the Italian Marxists, they chastise radicals for being too into “affective self-valorisation.” The New Newest Left doesn’t want to stroke its own ego or its own cock; it wants to get down to the hard fucking business of forming a unified organization. I mean, we’re talking about going vertical, getting hard, getting all phallic. Those of us who don’t want to Party just have disorganized, infantile libidos. We need to grow up, to take ourselves more seriously. “The problem with the Left,” according to Sunkara, “isn’t that it’s too austere and serious; it’s that it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make the changes necessary for political practice.”

The metaphorics are kind of silly, kind of confused. I mean, can one think of something more auto-erotic, more narcissistically invested, than some dude offering up yet another contribution to the archive of revolutionary Party invitations? Indeed, these masturbatory metaphorics are mobilized as a mechanism of disavowal, for “Fellow Travelers” is all about self-touching. For Sunkara, the U.S. left already possesses an “internal culture”; “we” already know who our “fellow travelers” are. The aim of the article is thus to produce (imaginatively, then institutionally) an organized scene of auto-affection in which the left can get a grip on itself, hold itself together in the single corporate body of the “non-sectarian” socialist Party. “The strength of the Left,” after all, “is in organization,” and what we need is “a larger, more centralized organization,” one that would be “non-sectarian” in spirit and equipped with a “well-run administrative apparatus” decked out with paid staffers. (Every radical’s wet dream: someone to do photo copies.) Sunkara isn’t opposed to left auto-erotics at all; we just need to learn how and when to best touch ourselves. (Preferably not on subways, preferably while reading Jacobin.) #Accelerate suggests that the best way to stop with all this gratuitous self-love—which remains, as always, self-abuse—is for revolutionaries to get hitched: “The command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network.” Lenin and Mark Zuckerberg, I now pronounce you man and wife.

So many problems. First off, it’s hard for me to see left unification—either ideologically or organizationally—as an unqualified good. As I see it, the splintering of the left over concerns regarding race and gender, for instance, was extraordinarily productive for furthering leftist politics. It’s the lessons I’ve learned from anarcha- and Marxist-feminisms, for instance, that cause me to cringe at the flip way with which Sunkara can presence a subway masturbator’s phallic aggression and then recommend “not…star[ing]” at it at the conclusion of his piece. Radical feminists splintered from “non-sectarian” parties precisely because they were asked to avert their gazes from the crazy masculinism of left organizations—and, indeed, the social more broadly. Moreover, dissensus is the stuff of the political, and I can’t imagine joining a group who thinks it an act of revolutionary generosity to “allow…open factions.” A “non-sectarian” party that desires to “foster a pluralistic culture [… of] comradely debate and open disagreement” is simply a party that has absorbed liberal multiculti as an organizational principle. We can debate and act together without consolidating ourselves into a “larger body.” We’re doing it now. There are far more flexible forms of putting groups in contact while maintaining autonomy than that of a centralized organization (which is the placeholder term for Party in the piece, a word that Sunkara knows to be chary of saying).

I also don’t get the desire for centralization. Jacobin claims that the strength of the left consists in organization but, in that case, it’s unclear why the strengthening of leftist organizations should entail a step back to (pre-)Fordist modalities of political organization in a post-Fordist capitalist landscape. Even MBAs know that flexible decentralization—for them in terms of labor processes, not in terms of the channeling of profit, of course—unleashes greater productive potentials than hierarchical forms of centralization, and I like thinking that my comrades have at least achieved the level of savvy of a Wharton undergrad. But then, reading #Accelerate, you realize that the authors have the same exact desire as a student at a B-school: they want to manage social capital more efficiently, they want a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment,” and they earnestly request “funding, whether from governments, institutions, think tanks, unions, or individual benefactors” to get their Accelerationist startup off the ground. Of course, #Accelerate claims that they don’t want centralization, they want “an ecology of organizations.” Fair enough, I guess. But even if I could look beyond the metaphorics of Prometheus and the Plan, it’s hard to get over the relentless pounding that horizontal modes of organizing take—a pounding that is the effect of the authors incomprehension that horizontalism does in fact produces a robust economy of organizations and that, moreover, horizontal processes can equip themselves with all the organizational bells and whistles they ascribe to the coming Accelerationist Party. These include “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion.” Only a crazy straw-manning of horizontals, or a profound lack of familiarity with anarchist practice, or a less-than-covert desire for a centralized Party, can lead one to ignore the fact that lots of horizontal formations make temporary use of all of these organizational protocols.

And then there’s the question of the space of the political. Put simply, #Accelerate is tired of the localization of the political. Capital, after all, is global, abstract, and mobile, but silly horizontals spend all their time engaging concretely with their bounded life-worlds. Jacobin isn’t as explicitly antagonistic toward the local, but it seems clear to me that any form of political centralization necessarily requires a reconstitution of political space, an accumulation of political power/consciousness in a determinate (virtual or real-physical) locale. (We will call that locale Yew Nork.) In both cases, I think that there is a profound misrecognition regarding contemporary scales of the political-economic. Particularly in the case of #Accelerate: Can anyone really oppose the global to the local in binary fashion anymore? (Could we ever?) Some of the most vibrant radical movements of our time have moved from “the local” to form an alternative mode of worldliness. I’m thinking here of a movement like Via Campesina, which uses a kind of federative organizational structure to articulate and coordinate diverse localities. (There doesn’t seem to be much room for peasant movements, or really any movements from the Global South at all, in the big-data, fast-capital world of #Accelerate.) At the same time, these evacuations of the local as a scene of political import reproduces the inaugural gesture of capitalist parliamentarianism, which accumulates the political, centralizes it, and puts it at a practical and sensory distance from ordinary lifeworlds. “Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dich tragen!” says the centralized Party to the local. But the point of all this can’t be to carry the bereft prepolitical masses into the over-there world of the Real Political, right? Isn’t at least a small part of our work linked to the production of new political sensoriums, new sensoriums of the political, so that we can ironize the ontological density of the state and capital and not feel like we’re living defective half-lives if we’re barred from access to either?

I’m obviously annoyed at all of this stuff, but I think I get it. The Jacobin piece and the #Accelerate manifesto are the products of a profound sadness, even a despair. They’re replaying the late cycle of rebellion in their collective brains, wondering where it all went wrong. If only Occupy hadn’t been so bogged down in a de-centralized democratic process that inhibited concrete actions… If only there was some vigorous leadership to steer the rudderless masses… If only we had found a tactic that didn’t bind us to concrete localities—a park, a campus green—and instead had come up with some counter to the flexible globality of capitalism…  Bad faith in the present allows for a recuperation of bad pasts: “Fellow Travelers” reads like a Party program from 1941, and Marx-Engels already wrote #Accelerate in 1847 (just sub in the Internet for “electric telegraphs,” “big data” for the “application of chemistry to industry,” and anarchists and horizontalists for Marx’s utopian socialists). The Party-to-come is a kind of afterparty, a mournful tired attempt to recuperate what was but in an alternative form. Recent history is what hurts; donning the costumes of deep history is warm and cozy and fuzzy-feeling.

But the last cycle of rebellion didn’t collapse because we didn’t have proper leadership, proper theory, proper direction. (Or, Jesus help me, adequate liberal allies.) We didn’t—and don’t—need leaders, orientation, or a Plan. We don’t need “small groups of organized militants” to “pav[e] the way for mass action and sweeping structural change.” (Occupy marked the massification of the figure of the militant in the U.S.) The last cycle of rebellion closed because we couldn’t keep up the intensity, because our feedback loop of positive affect was shattered by the State and by our own failures to stay committed to the democracy that we were making. There certainly were organizational problems at the encampments—after all, we’re still learning how to be democratic, how to be productively and unproductively in each other’s way. But I don’t think we can derive any grand organizational-theoretical knowledge from Occupy’s collapse, and certainly none that could justify a shift in organizational axioms and a return to left verticalism. (We can, and have, drawn plenty of practical-organizational lessons from it, however.) There’s no big lesson: we just fucking lost. Got beat. Got beat up. “Not everything’s a lesson,” in the words of one fictional Office worker,” “sometimes you just fail.” (Let’s take a pause to listen to “Benfica.”)

The New Newest Left is turning to the Party in a spirit of sadness; it’s a reparative gesture, and all claims about confidence in its politico-organizational future are simply therapeutic utterances. Indeed, I find the New Newest Left’s sadness to be contagious: it’s upsetting to watch smart comrades spend so much time shitting on radical leftists in the hope of forming a party acceptable to liberals in order to recompose a Keynesian state that quite simply will never come back. Reformism today is more utopian than revolution. When I read Jacobin, I can’t help but think of one of Berlant’s points from The Female Complaint: the assumption of certain forms of conventionality allows for a feeling of being in proximity to a world, but at the cost of a crazy expenditure of affective energy and cognitive attention. Left conventionalism is hard work, it takes a lot of time and effort to try to resuscitate the Party, and I wonder what might happen if this energy and attention were directed elsewhere. And it should be: the Party isn’t coming back, and long marches through institutions will always turn into highways through an interminable hell. (Sidebar: If some party does come back, though, if you guys manage to get something off the ground—great! I’ll be at your marches, your gatherings, I’ll read your shit. Horizontals are always pretty okay with forming temporary alliances with verticals; anarchists are always at the anti-austerity demos, after all. It would be easier to be in the same cognitive and real space as you guys, though, if you could stop anarchist-bashing so as to be more appealing to liberals, okay?)

I want to end by returning to C.L.R. James, the Great Disorganizer. Starting in the late 40s, James’ adopted a new premise in his approach to the social: for James, state-capitalism had in effect valorized workers’ capacities to the point that all forms of politico-economic organization (by Party, by State, by Capital) were experienced by all as the mere brutality of violent command. With the Hungarian Revolution, he declared the Party decisively defeated: “One of the greatest achievements of the Hungarian Revolution was to destroy once and for all the legend that the working class cannot act successfully except under the leadership of a political party” (Facing Reality, 14). Confronted with the revolution’s defeat, James didn’t look backwards for to-hand principles of organization—the Party—but forwards, to a future he couldn’t know. “The pitfall,” he and his comrades caution, “is to believe and to act as if these or other formations are embryonic Soviets, Workers Councils, parties of the future, and such-like fantasies. No groups of individuals can anticipate the social formations of the future. These gestate, no one knows how long, but compensate by being full-grown at birth. The mass organizations of today are distinguished as much by anything as by this: they do not worry about their future.”

The sadness of the New Newest Left, the worrying over futures: this derives from their conception of themselves as occupying a position of exteriority vis-à-vis the social, of standing outside or looking down on it, and thinking, “Fuck, what are we going to do?” It’s a false drama, the old theater of “activists” and “militants” and, above all, the Party. We need to get that, today, the term “activist” can only serve as a sociological (auto)description, never as a social-ontological reality. There are no more activists, no more militants, no more Parties. All of the social knowledges and powers we used to attribute to those terms are immanent to the social itself. We don’t need to organize, to treat ourselves or the social as a technical object. “We” don’t need to worry about the future of the social, whoever the fuck the “we” is that arrogates to itself the role of providing pastoral, Dad-ish, anxious care. The future of the social will always outwit us, evade and erode our anticipations; the combined mass of the social will always be more creative than a cohort of comrades or the editorial board of a small mag. Let’s put paid to the entire organizer’s imaginary, the exhausted vocabulary of the Party and the Plan. Let’s disorganize—that is, let’s undertake the labor of interdicting politico-social forms that inhibit the immanent auto-organization of the invading socialist society. In the end, it’s not “young activists” that should “leave us confident about the future” (more self-love) but the teeming mass of disorganized and disorganizing sociality finding its own immanent form.

#NoDads #NoBosses #NoParties #MileyRox!

[THE AFTERPARTY--my response to Jodi Dean]

Hi Jodi—Maybe we can both tone it down a little. I’ll go first. If I could reboot, I’d begin with something that only appears way down at the bottom of my post, and in parentheses to boot:

“(Sidebar: If some party does come back, though, if you guys manage to get something off the ground—great! I’ll be at your marches, your gatherings, I’ll read your shit. Horizontals are always pretty okay with forming temporary alliances with verticals; anarchists are always at the anti-austerity demos, after all. It would be easier to be in the same cognitive and real space as you guys, though, if you could stop anarchist-bashing so as to be more appealing to liberals, okay?)”

It’s a small moment, too small to claim that the entire piece was motivated by a desire to come to an understanding with Partiers and Statists. I was no doubt much more motivated by my anger at the rhetorical treatment that the non- or anti-Party left has received in the wake of Occupy—just as you are angered at me for “[d]ismissing” the dedication, courage, or history of our militants. (I wasn’t doing that at all, by the way.) And not, mind, angry as an anarchist, as you identified me. I actually consider myself an autonomist Marxist, or some hybrid anarcho-Marxist, but, no matter what, you and I actually think with, refer back to, and identify with the same tradition. Differently, to be sure, but we’re playing with the same deck of cards. So, when I offered my critique of the new Party Left, I wasn’t doing it from a position of exteriority. I was doing it as a Marxist, concerned both to bring the communist horizon nearer and to patch up the needlessly antagonistic relationship between verticals and horizontals, Partiers and partiers.

I thus found it both sad and symptomatic when you wrote: “Who would want to eliminate or undermine left militants and leaders? It makes me wonder about COINTELPRO and disinformation operations.” I think, first off, that you are misreading of my point: I wasn’t talking about elimination but generalization, a positive massification. More importantly, it is worrisome that dissenting from a program is taken as playing for the other side. I know you meant it jokingly, and that you regret having written it. I can’t let the point go, though, because I think it exposes a fundamental problem with all of these calls-to-Party. Security culture is no doubt terribly important for left organizations, particularly in light of grand juries terrorizing anarchists in the northwest and the revelations about the extent of FBI and DHS surveillance of Occupy. But, like, in this case, there is nothing to secure. No Party, no mass collectivity—just a magazine and a manifesto and their authors, all engaged in totally legal, mostly harmless activities. We should recall that Lenin didn’t build the Party from the Cheka up. I read the impulse to do so, even as a merely rhetorical flourish, as a symptom of a felt lack: the lack of a mass constituency that would positively ground a Party, that would give material positivity to its possibility. Your joke is, of course, a small moment, but it serves as a synecdoche for the broader ways in which Party Marxists are attempting to constitute an organization through negation, through beating up on anarchists and horizontals. All of this negation is purely rhetorical, totally abstract, and utterly delinked from actual social movements. As a couple friends pointed out to me, without a constituent power at the bottom, all of this Party-talk is utopian normativity without effective reality. We might as well be reading Habermas.

That’s why I said the New Newest Left is sad. Sure, there’s a flurry of activity—journals formed, conferences held—but it’s taking place without the material-affective charge of an actual mass movement. And when this Left gets sad it gets mean, and beats down the dedication, courage, and history of anarchists who have already been beaten down enough. But realize: if every horizontal, if every anarchist, if every autonomist vanished over night, you still wouldn’t have a Party, you would still lack an actual material base. A collectivity isn’t going to materialize once anarchists perform a vanishing act. After all, it is the materiality of the social that moves history, not the “will”—however optimistic—of a Party-to-be. The disorganizationist approach I vaguely sketched was, if nothing else, an attempt to keep close to the actual materiality of social worlds. I never, incidentally, said that potentials immanent to the social will necessarily emerge left, or anything like that—just that the social resists organization from outside or above, and that we need to develop a politics adequate to that fact.

There’s a lot more I could say to justify what I wrote. I’ll footnote it.* Just, you know, please: as you Party Marxists try getting something going, please do so through the cultivation of positivities—positive communities, positive organizations, positive affects—and less through the negativity of the Bad Anarchist Example. We will all see one another on the streets—right?—so we should try actually getting along.


*The post-Fordist thing: I marked out the centralization of capital through channels of profit; I was talking about production process, not distribution. New sensoriums of the political: what was Occupy but a mode of allowing the mass of people, excluded from the political by the dominant spatializations of parliamentary capitalism, to (quite literally) get in touch with the affectivity of democracy in their ordinaries. It’s hard for me to see mass self-activation as reparative of or functional for capital. (And, hey, maybe apologize to depressed people, addicts, and yogis.)