Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Verso Books, 2016), pp. 288. Interview by Alfie Bown.
This week, Jodi Dean is the guest on the new HKRB interview series discussing new books in critical theory. The HKRB interview series interviews those at the forefront of ‘radical’ politics and literature about their new books as they come out. Recent interviews have been with Simon Critchley and Srecko Horvat and up next is Aubrey de Grey, proponent for an infinite human lifespan.
In this crisis for capitalism, Jodi Dean’s new book asks arguably the most important question of all: how do we turn our dissatisfaction with the situation and our willingness to take to the streets into organized political action that might lead to change. Her book, unlike many other ‘radicals’ today, is interested in the concrete and practical ways in which dissatisfaction and protest can turn into organization and opposition. How does a crowd become a party, and what does that mean? Jodi Dean’s book rejects those who invest positively in the individual or the multiple per se and instead asks for a new and more subversive collective subject of politics. From real crowds like the Occupy Movement to the theoretical conceptions of crowds and mobs, Dean’s book interrogates the role of the crowd and the party in an attempt to provide a way forward politically. Here we had the chance to ask her some questions about her new book.
Alfie Bown: Let’s start with crowds. Your book is interested in the role of the crowd historically and today, and when you discuss crowds you make a distinction between the mob and the people. Do the people always have to become the mob, you ask? Could you say something about the difference between the two, and about how his distinction between the mob and the people is determined politically?
Jodi Dean: You hit on the answer in your question: the distinction between the mob and the people is determined politically.
What I have in mind is the struggle over the interpretation of a crowd event. Generally speaking, mob has a negative, potentially fascistic, connotation – angry mob, lynch mob. Crowd is more ambiguous. It gets interesting when people fight over the description of a particular crowd: is this a crowd, with some potential connection to the people struggling for freedom and equality, some connotation of the masses who are right to assemble and demand, or is it just a violent mob?
The fight over the description of the crowd is opened up by the crowd itself. A crowd amasses. Now, what does this mean? This depends on the perspective from which the crowd is viewed. From say, a conservative perspective, a perspective that fears the people, that worries about the disruptive capacity of the many, a crowd might look like a mob. From a communist perspective, this same crowd might look like the revolutionary people bringing a new Commune into being.
I am not saying that the crowd is always a crowd, never a mob, and that any assessment of the crowd as a mob is necessarily conservative. What I’m saying is that the disruption of the intrusive many ignites a discussion over what the disruption means. This discussion is necessarily political.
So another example: a crowd of white people confronting a black man. Is this a lynch mob? Whites from the US South might have once tried (and some may still try) to say that this crowd is really citizens protecting their way of life. To the extent that anti-racist politics is successful, this kind of justification of violence registers as structural racism. In a racist context, though, the meaning of this crowd is contested; the disruption that the crowd produces incites an argument over whether it was a mob.
AB: I was interested in the part of your book of ‘Left Individualism.’ Here you explore the fact that whilst individualism is associated with the right, and even directly with Thatcherism, there is also a kind of individual identity, a kind of diversity of individuals, that is celebrated by the left. I guess this is the somewhat crass idea that we are all beautiful and unique individuals and that we should welcome this milieu of diversity. Do you have any time for this idea, or is it just a neoliberalism that we ought to be wary of? In order to be collectively influential, you suggest, individualism needs to be thrown out entirely. Later in the book you write that collectivity is written off as undesirable by those who accuse it of ‘effacing difference.’ This is something I’d like to hear more about. Is it that right wing proponents of individualism use this ‘left individualism’ to prevent real collective action actually happening, to make us feel like unique individuals rather than a collective force?
JD: After 1989 (and for some, after 1968), some on the left became liberals. They acquiesced to the idea that there was no alternative to capitalism and put away the project of eliminating property, free markets, and commodity production. For a certain libertarian and/or liberal left, the challenge of left politics became one of securing freedoms from the state, freedoms of personal identity and creativity. Economic inequality is either ignored or flattened into just another issue. I say all this because the problem is not simply right-wing individualism. I say this because the left took on too much of the right-wing individualist worldview. In the book, I explore this in various ways, one of which is the debate in Marxism Today in Britain. What you see is the jettisoning of collectivism and defense of individualism. Even for those defending some version of socialism or market regulation, the justification is individualist – the communist value of solidarity is displaced by the liberal prioritization of the individual.
AB: I found myself interested in what your main theoretical influences are in this book. One theorist I want to talk about is Althusser. You invert Althusser’s concept of interpellation, and I think this is a very useful move. While Althusser claimed that individuals were interpellated from an undifferentiated mass of unique subjects and turned into a collective conformist population, you argue the opposite: that we are a collective mass who are interpellated into the condition of individual subjectivity. Could you explain why this reversed way of seeing ideology would help us see things different politically?
JD: It lets us grasp very clearly the political damage inflicted by individualism. Collective strength becomes our default mode, something to encourage, amplify, and defend. Individual preference then appears as the way capitalism weakens us. I think most of us have been in protests where we feel the energy that comes from all of us together. We push up against barricades, sometimes breaking through fences or barriers. We feel invincible. The police weaken us as they pick us off, one by one, whether that happens at the moment of arrest or later in the process.
AB: One last question, though I should make it clear to our readers that there is just a massive amount that we haven’t covered in this book and that they’ll need to get it. As a Lacanian myself, its this that I was most affected by in the book. What is ‘imitative mania’ and how can we either get out of it or use it to do something decent politically?
JD: One of my moves in the book is to try to take the features associated with crowds and make them positive. So crowds tend to have distinctive ways of acting (described by classical crowd theorists and more contemporary empirical accounts of crowd phenomena in terms of bubbles, bandwagoning, “going viral). These include suggestibility, feelings of invincibility, and, as you mention, imitation (to mention but a few). Imitative mania refers to the way that people in crowds tend to imitate others. People like to do what others are doing – easy examples might be chanting, singing, hand motions, “the wave.” It also gets more intense when people show up in costumes, like say, Star Wars costumes for the opening of Star Wars, or Harry Potter costumes etc. Right now in the US you see people at Bernie Sanders’ events dressing up like Bernie Sanders (or dressing their babies like Bernie). Some read this as a kind of adulation of the leader. That’s clearly wrong. The so-called leader (Hans Solo? Harry Potter?) doesn’t know this is happening. The people do it for each other, demonstrating, I argue, the source of power comes from the crowd and that the object being imitated is just an opportunity for the crowd to express this power.
I think this idea can be useful for us politically because it can let us recognize leaders as just another object, just another opportunity like a slogan, hashtag, or image, that lets a crowd feel its energy.
Crowds and Party is available from Verso.
Alfie Bown is an assistant professor of Literature in Hong Kong and co-editor of Everyday Analysis. He is the author of Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero Books) and lives in Hong Kong with his wife Kim and tiny daughter Lyra.
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