The Communist Horizon, contd.

Continuing the previous discussion of Jodi Dean’s The Communist Horizon, in my future post I will note down some thoughts on Chapter 2, “Present Force.”

Before delving into that, however, I want to make one more observation about the argument of the Introduction, having to do with Dean’s ideas about proletarianization and the “radical subject” of politics. I wrote previously that there is at least a potential tension here, between on the one hand seeing communism as the product of a “subjective” politics and, on the other hand, adopting the historical materialist perspective that communism is driven by objective, structural factors. In my previous post, I came down pretty emphatically on the side of the latter and criticized Dean’s position as essentially voluntaristic.

While discussing the Introduction with colleagues at our reading group, it occurred to me that the contradiction is indeed there and even more blatant than I initially realized. What I mean is this: Dean states plainly that “The dominance of capitalism, the capitalist system, is material” (5) and makes the case for “an analysis that treats capitalism as a global system of appropriation, exploitation, and circulation that enriches the few as it dispossesses the many” (6). Capitalism, in her view, is a fundamentally material condition and should be treated as such, rather than be brushed away as a discourse in the way some on the radical Left have done.

Good. But toward the end of the Intro, she puts forward her vision of the People: “the people in their common political and economic activity…’the people as the rest of us,’ the people as a divided and divisive force” (21). This is the radical political subject created through the process of proletarianization.

What’s striking here is the disjunction between seeing the material relations of the economy as the driving force of social change, and the utterly rhetorical aspect of her notion of the people. Dean’s “the people as the rest of us,” like any other notion of “the People” invoked at various points in human history, is performative rather than analytical. Dean apparently believes so herself: “I write ‘we’ hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity” (12). Arguably, the purpose of Dean’s book is precisely to articulate this political subject, to bring forward or reveal it; in other words, to make plain what she believes is always already there.

But is it such a simple matter of articulation? Once you come down on the side of this rhetorical performativity and the anti-foundationalist epistemology it presupposes, how much room really is there for understanding the dominance of capitalism as a material phenomenon? It seems to me that one cannot have it both ways. If one believes that “the people” as a political subject can be brought forward through the act of naming them as such, which is ultimately the position I ascribe to Dean here, then “capitalism” too must be seen as only a social construct or a discourse. If that is the case, then Dean’s position against her targets on the Left falls apart. If anything, they are validated.