One way to discern an "idea whose time has come" is by the strength of the urge to evict it.
A new rejection of calls for a Party of the left suggests that, finally, a sense of the need for something like a Party is so undeniable that opponents feel like they have to confront it directly. Instead of coughing up old criticisms from late nineteenth century agrarian anarchists or early twentieth century Dutch councilists, those who attempt to divert the energies building toward greater organization are now having to look at our current situation. In related good news, the very weakness of "Party in the USA: the New Newest Left & the Organization of Sadness" signals the diminishing persuasiveness of those who want to prevent the left from coming together.
Tiredly repeating the irony and innuendo of late nineties academic jargon, Party in the USA: The New Newest Left & the Organization of Sadness criticizes recent arguments for a Party, one from Jacobin, the other the #Accelerate Manifesto. The post begins by exploring the 'masturbatory metaphorics' of the essays, relying on word play that insinuates that calls for left unity are little more than masculine narcissistic fantasies. The intent is to make left organization seem silly, even embarassing: "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?" Well, sure. How about a rejection of the Party that trades on the playfulness of blogosphere psychoanalysis?
This kind of simple reversal, although adequate as a response to the post's wankery, only repeats the gesture animating the piece. What matters more than the author's indulgence is the position from which the author's critique is raised. What is at stake in ostensibly left positions that want to prevent the left from unifying?
Why would someone on the left want the left to be weak, to remain where it is, to refuse to learn from the Occupy experience and take the next step? What accounts for this left particularism and for its insistence that what we have now--fragmented groups that affiliate from time to time while focusing on their own particular issues and agendas--is the best way to end capitalism and build a more egalitarian world? Is it the narcissism of small differences? the fear of change? the assumption that capitalism is here to stay? a failure to grasp our present situation? Is it an individualist conception of freedom? A hopelessness with regard to the capacities of organized political subjects?
As it rejects the Party, the post depicts the 'new, new left' as sad. This is a mistake. What the author calls the "new new left" isn't sad -- it's energized, vital, fully aware of the urgency of the present. That's why meetings like Historical Materialism and Left Forum have been getting bigger every year, why there are more seminars, reading groups, actions, discussions, symposia, journals, and events, why Jacobin is making a mark.
I now take up some of the specific arguments offered against the Party.
1. "Left unification is not an unqualified good." Since these day everything is qualified--qualification being the quintessential gesture of the left--this point doesn't need to be made. So, what's at stake in stating the obvious? Opening the door to race and gender (has anyone else noticed that white male anarchists never talk about race and gender so much as when they are attacking communists, revolutionary socialists, and anyone else arguing for organizing the left?).
What's disingenuous about such appeals to race and gender is their obliteration of the history of the Communist Party in anti-racist struggle, the reality of Third World Communism (particularly in the seventies), and the fact that sexism and racism are not limited to the organized left but appear throughout society, including anarchist and insurrectionist settings. Perhaps the author is covertly urging a logic of separatism, of identity politics (the implication of the author's invocation of racism and sexism in Marxist groups being that criticism implies splitting rather than learning and change)? If so, then how far does it go? All the way to the individual (itself a false stopping point giving the imaginary character of identity). If not, then it is necessary to acknowledge that a left Party today, one with the capacities of the communist Party, wouldn't exist in the past but would incorporate and learn from the last sixty years of struggle and critique.
The author of the post, though, thinks that what we are doing now is the way we should continue to do things -- it's more flexible. It allows for more autonomy. But autonomy for whom and in what contexts? It seems to me that it's the autonomy of the ineffectual, one that continues to enable an economy that traps people in debt and furthers the intensification of inequality. The author, though, emphasizes "flexible forms of putting groups in contact" with no attention to what it might mean to create structures capable of enduring over time and space in the context of ever intensifying political struggle.
2. Left organizing should not "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." This lets us know the author's primary commitments -- to a vision of society in neoliberal economic terms. In this vision, the political is completely absorbed in the economic: both seem to benefit from the productive potential that comes from decentralization. Note as well the omission of the fact that there have been multiple models of the Party--not one "pre-Fordist" or Fordist model (a point which has to be occluded if the binary between bad centralization and good decentralization is to hold).
More horrifying, though, is the repetition of a primary myth of the new economy, that of flexibility and decentralization. If that were true, then why has there been consolidation in the finance sector, in communications, and in oil and gas? Doug Henwood demolished this myth in his After the New Economy. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, shows the connections between ideas of flexibility and military research (Rand Corporation, defense contracting, advanced research programs). And hubs are an immanent property of complex networks -- growth and preferential attachment result in powerlaw distributions, fundamental features of the winner-take-all and winner-take-most characteristic of communicative capitalism (Barabasi, Taleb). This doesn't even scratch the surface of the effects of so-called flexibility on workers and communities. Flexible for whom? Certainly not for laid off workers.
The post, though, announces "horizontalism does in fact produces a robust economy of organizations." It's already a bad call to render left political groups as an economy, as if groups were competing with each other rather than engaged in struggle against a common enemy. But can we say that there is robustness here? And in what sense? The fragmentation of the energies and efforts produced during Occupy has cost us a lot of time and good will. Attachment to horizontalism has been one of the problems. Without clarity of membership, infilitration is easy. Without clarity of vision, constant fighting over goals is unavoidable. Without a shared sense of how we are going to work together, what sorts of decision rules will let us determine which projects to pursue and when, we fall into patterns that reinforce prior privileges. It's not for nothing that Jo Freeman's "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" became so prominent during Occupy.
3. We don't need small groups of militants, leaders, an orientation, or a plan. I will ask again: who does this benefit? Who would want to seduce the left into thinking that we can have a politics without plans, a disoriented politics? Who would want to eliminate or undermine left militants and leaders? It makes me wonder about COINTELPRO and disinformation operations.
Planning is only a problem if one thinks that all potentials emerge in ways that leftists support. Since this is obviously false, planning ways to move forward (as well as ways to respond) is crucial. The most significant recent tragedy on the left is our failure to use the financial crisis of 2008 to our benefit. Occupy was a much needed (although a little late) response. The post asserts: "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." Maybe we couldn't keep up our intensity because we lacked organizational structures that would distribute tasks such that we knew that someone would take responsibility for them. Too few people felt like they had to do everything (because some would drop the ball, fail to show up, volunteer but then not carry out what they had agreed to do). And maybe planning, having a clear orientation, would enable us not to be "shattered by the State." If we collapse whenever the State intervenes, we have and will have no movement. The one thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that the stronger we become the more repression we will encounter.
4. The turn to the Party is therapeutic, done in the "spirit of sadness." This doesn't ring true. In fact, it's so false as to invite diagnosis. Perhaps the sadness is over the failure of horizontalism. This would make sense. Many people are still grieving over the inability of horizontalism to last or scale. I think, though, that it has been an important experiment. We've learned from it. Indeed, as I argue in The Communist Horizon, this experiment should inform our thinking as we figure out the form of the Party that will work for us today.
The remainder of the blog post sets out what the author prefers to the Party. He advocates
a. "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." Given that irony is a primary marketing tool and content of pop culture, it's hard for me to see exactly what it contributes to a new political sensorium. It also seems to me that trying to feel better about being barred from the state and capital is exactly what capitalism wants of those it's immiserating. Unhappy about your 80 thousand dollars of student loan debt? Try yoga, a 12 step program, Zoloft, or ironizing ontological density!
b. 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. The terms to which the author is referring are "activists, militants, and Parties." I confess that at this point I wonder if the author is actually a Platypoid doing his best to kill the left. Dismissing the dedication of our activists, the courage of our militants, and the histories and organizational capacities of our parties, he evokes a social free from antagonism, inequality, oppression, and exploitation. How are knowledges and powers distributed? Who can access them and for what purpose?
c. Let’s disorganize. Who benefits from a disorganized left? A prominent paper last year documented the rise in inequality and decline of labor unions. There is no reason to think that the immanent movement of capital will do anything but enrich the few and immiserate the many.