Interview with Jodi Dean on Democracy and Neoliberalism

Written by: Tamara Volozhanina

Jodi Dean is a political scientist focused on Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and postmodernism and the co-editor of the journal Theory & Event. She has made contributions to contemporary political theory, media theory, and feminist theory, most notably with her theory of communicative capitalism; the online merging of democracy and capitalism into a single neoliberal formation that subverts the democratic impulses of the masses by valuing emotional expression over logical discourse. Jodi Dean has lectured in the United States, Canada, Ecuador, Peru, England, Wales, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. This interview aims to provide a deeper insight in her ideas in the light of upcoming conference in Rome.

Tamara Volozhanina: In your article «The Communist Horizon» you argue that rather than trying to consolidate the rule of democracy, modern capitalist practices increasingly weaken it with quasi-democratic governments cementing their control through the establishment of financial oligarchy and promotion of lower standards of living. Does it mean that democracy is more compatible with Communism and Socialism than with Capitalism? Taking this into account, what is your opinion regarding the ideas of the famous scientist Thomas Piketty who in his book «Capital in the Twenty-First Century» contends that capitalism’s inherent dynamic propels powerful forces that threaten democratic societies and that there will always be dominance of those born rich and influential over those born worthy and talented? Do you agree that the observed coupling of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy may not have any ideological background and is rather a historical peculiarity which occasionally commingles contradicting phenomena?

Jodi Dean: Democracy and capitalism are incompatible. Capitalism requires a mass of people with nothing to sell but that labor power. It requires economic inequality, a gulf between the haves and have nots. To legitimate this inequality, it offers an electoral system, legal, and governmental system constructed to maintain the power of the capitalist class. At the heart of this system is the protection of private property which, as Marx taught us long ago doesnt benefit those without property. So as long as there is a system anchored in private property, a class of people with nothing to sell but their labor power, a class of those with access to capital, and production for the sake of capital accumulation, democracy will be a dictatorship of capital.

TV: Many contemporary scholars recognize the presence of alternatives to democracy but highlight the intensified mass degradation which inhibits people’s ability to make a conscious political choice. Guy Standing in his book «The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class» emphasizes the emergence of new social strata in which members gradually lose all forms of political and moral attachment, are economically insecure and abandon their cultural roots. What do you think about this problem and can it be that it is already too late for timely and efficient action? Do you think that choices are now in the domain of theoreticians and that any practical alteration of political climate seems hardly feasible?

JD: I dont know this book. A social stratum of those who have lost all forms of political and moral attachment seems to me to describe the Trump administration and US ruling class. Consider the ex-hedge fund manager [ed.: Martin Shkreli] who bought a drug company and jacked up the price of a drug by 5000 percent. Or oil and gas magnates who happily pump out fossil fuels knowing full well what this does to the climate. We are witnessing a violent and ongoing planetary dispossession so, yes, there is a dangerous class. I wouldnt call it the Precariat, though. Id call it Capital.

And it is never too late for action. Never. People are fighting back all the time.

TV: It is known that modern as historical epoch has given birth to three major types of mass politics which are Liberalism, Communism, and National Socialism. Guy Standing mentioned above argues that once the liberal elites fail to control the rise of precarity and the Left fails to offer adequate alternatives to the dominant rule, a world order under the National Socialism 2.0 becomes quite probable. This theme of Fascist revival is echoed throughout the works of many scholars such as Peter Sloterdijk whose book «Neither Sun Nor Death» I have recently read. Although the 20th Century’s Fascism was defeated by the joint strike of the Western Democracies and the Communist Powers, this formula does not work today with Capitalism being the only one triumphant force and Communism having ceased to exist. Looking at the issue from this point of view, how do you evaluate the risks of the resurgence of Fascism?

JD: Well, communism still exists its just not the force that it was in the mid-20th century. And, yes, communism is vital to defeating fascism. In a sense, liberalism leads to fascism because it attacks left articulation of working class anger. Without a left, a communist, framing of working class frustration, discontent, and demands for justice, the right will do the job, targeting immigrants, refugees, Jews, people of color, as the cause of working class immiseration rather than locating this cause in the capitalist system. The only way to hold off and defeat the threat of fascism is through communism.

TV: I think that your theory of Communicative Capitalism and the problem of the hegemony of individualism which prioritizes consumerism and self-interest over the common good. I have come to similar conclusions in my research paper when I analyzed how Disney products threaten the quality of American democracy as they undermine both the capacity and, crucially, the desire of the youth to follow a current democratic model. Smiling kids who now laugh at seemingly harmless things may grow into indifferent, hyper-individualistic and morally flexible adults. Disney’s monopoly on the construction of cultural meanings reads as a monopoly on the truth: if Mr. Putin had in truth aspired to intervene in the American decision-making process as many journalists increasingly worry, he would not have bothered hacking the elections, straightforwardly purchasing Disney, a substantial cultural weapon. Do you think if it is possible to decrease the scale of this informational dictatorship and if yes, which steps are to be taken?

JD: Communicative capitalism relies on stimulating production consumption participation, sharing, new avenues for creativity etc. So on the one hand we have a plethora, nearly infinite abundance of cultural products. Yet these products are made and distributed in complex networks, that is, networks characterized by free choice, growth, and preferential attachment. Complex networks are always and necessarily hierarchical; there is a powerlaw distribution of links, as we learn from Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. So this means that there will be one or two blockbusters while the vast majority of movies will be small, unseen, dispersed, etc. Additionally, given the diversity and chaos of a rich media field, many people find a sense of relief in liking what others like, viewing what others views, enjoy what others enjoy its part of how culture works to create a sense of belonging. Disney wins on both counts; near the top of a powerlaw distribution of entertainment providers and reassuring because of its longevity. But Disney by itself is not the enemy. Its a symptom of capitalist entertainment under communicative capitalism.

TV: In one of his last books, Samuel Huntington predicted the conflict within American society as a result of globalized elites favoring international trade, open borders, and internal diversity, being forced to accommodate the masses’ nationalism, patriotism, and will to cultural stability into their cosmopolitan worldview. You said that the victory of Donald Trump unveiled the underlying truth of American politics with Trump being the most honest candidate who openly enjoyed the power of inequality rather than elaborating on the hypocritical promises of democratic integrity. Do you think that this intense awakening can work as a shock therapy raising public awareness or that it will fuel the further spread and strengthening of populist sentiments?

JD: Both. People with mainstream political views have been shocked out of their complacency by Trumps election. Many are involved in politics for the first time in their lives, becoming part of a new resistance‘. At the same time, it appears that Trumps base of support is perfectly happy with him. Yet the threat is not from his supporters, even with their populist sentiments. The threat is from the oligarchs, the billionaires, the most extreme and psychopathic elements of the capitalist class that now have control over all three branches of the US government.

TV: In their book «Capitalism and Schizophrenia», Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that Capitalism is first and foremost a mental formation, and only then economic and political system. In the context of your own research, do you think that this theory is still applicable when being used to analyze more recent events?

JD: I disagree with this I dont think it makes sense to make these separations and rank them. Capitalism is an economic system that relies on and impacts the political system and mental formations that enable it. So I dont think you change capitalism by changing how people think or their psychic structure. The struggle to defeat capitalism and build communism, revolutionary struggle changes people mentally, cognitively, psychically. You cant pull these things apart. Ideas have material force in the hands of the masses, Marx reminds us.

TV: Thank you for your time and great interview!

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