In the contemporary US, capitalist ideology pushes non-stop on the throttle of individuality.
"Individuality," in the present context, is not the same as rugged individualism or personality, although it shares with these earlier formations an emphasis on the singularity of a self against others. Unlike rugged individualism, contemporary individuality doesn't emphasize strength as much as it does suffering. Unlike personality (appearing in a new form in the 19th century and well-described by Richard Sennett), contemporary individuality doesn't rely on an interiority that is both authentic and to be cultivated, expressed only with care and attention. Instead, individuality is uniqueness for its own sake, uniqueness as moment, quip, fashion statement, flare, comeback, quirk--the difference that registers as different before it is swept into communicative capitalism's flows.
Two elements that factor into the particularly US fetish for individuality are law and economics. Our legal system emphasizes individual rights. The peculiarity of US libertarianism is its inability to acknowledge that a right is only as a good as the force that backs it up, whether that force comes from the state or the community. Rather than part of a broader cultural appreciation for the imbrication of rights and responsibilities, duties, and obligations (part of the continental tradition), in the popular understanding of rights in the US, rights are individual claims to freedom. Rights are imagined in terms of the specific injury of a plaintiff, not the larger, structural, condition of a collectivity. Winning rights (ending segregation, workplace discrimination, marriage restrictions) has required not just legislative victories but judicial ones as well, which means finding individual plaintiffs.
The US capitalist economic system likewise insists on individuality. Particularly in the wake of the attack on unions, work is more and more figured as an individual matter. It's a choice, an option, a matter of one's own unique ability to work hard, play the game, think outside the box, be a team player, demonstrate leadership skills, give a 110 percent, seize the opportunity, and take risks. One has to be be unique, different from all the rest, so that one stands out from the crowd, shows that one has what it takes -- no wonder it's hard for some people to think of themselves as part of the 99%. The demands of so-called flexible employment (flexible for whom?) make the process of differentiation constant and inescapable: one is perpetually trying to show that one is the best for whatever job comes around.
The best are hard to find. They are unique. This is the lesson of Wall Street, whose finance wizards are ostensibly rare and valuable enough to justify massive bonuses every year. It's the lesson of Silicon Valley: not everyone is Steve Jobs. It's the lesson of professional sports (one MVP), of Hollywood, of all of communicative capitalism's intensified networks as they activate the many in order to generate the one.
How, then, does the left respond?
There is the rejection of leaders. Already part of the legacy of '68, the current rejection of leaders rightly tries to immunize itself from celebrity seekers attempting to use radical politics for their own advancement. Some of the best versions of this have been the common names Zapatista (including Subcommandante Marcos) and Anonymous. They replace individual leaders with a common name and image. Occupy went far in this direction of a name in common as well.
Yet it's also the case that people sometimes interpret the need to provide an alternative to capitalist individuality as an injunction to destroy any individual who emerges out of the left as someone exciting, someone to hear and read. Need passes through demand to the plane of unconditionality, to put it in the ever-popular Lacanian idiom. In this urge to destroy, we find the intensity, the excess, of desire. It's desire that is absolute, unconditioned, out of proportion, desire that abolishes the dimension of the other.
We learn from Lacan that this desire is incommensurate to any specific object. So, we would be wrong to think of it in terms of its object. I admit, this is a drag. It would be much easier to be able to point out that someone desires their own fame, their own power, their own glory, and then demolish them by demonstrating how this desire makes them hypocrites, failed and false leftists, even betrayers of the people or the revolution. This sort of cheap shot relies on a shift into the economy of the drive, into the loop of momentary satisfaction where one repeats the same gestures over and over, getting off a little bit, enjoying, but completely effacing the dimension of desire.
To think within desire we have to think of it in terms of its effects, its abolition of the dimension of the other. The question, then, would be who is the other who is abolished? Who is the other for us?
For communists, the other is the capitalist other. In the demand to abolish private property (ownership and waged labor), basic needs pass "over to a state of being unconditioned, not because it is a question of something borrowed from a particular need, but of an absolute condition out of all proportion to the need for any object whatsoever, and in so far as this condition is perhaps called for precisely in this, that it abolishes here the dimension of the other, that it is a requirement in which the other does not have to reply yes or no." The capitalist cannot meet the demand. It cannot even reply "yes or no." Morphed through demands, basic needs are not enough. Their satisfaction is just a vehicle for a more profound, unconditional, restructuring of society.
An effect of communist desire, then, is the abolition of capitalist other, and hence an abolition of class itself, the very relation on which capitalism depends.
It's no wonder that capitalism works incessantly at blocking this dimension of desire, at attempting to push it into the more present and frequent momentary satisfactions of drive. Capitalism wants to channel this desire into different languages and images, the ones that it provides -- that of individuality, specificity, uniqueness. For a left that has struggled for a voice in a place contorted by forty years of unfettered capitalism, this channeling is apparent in efforts to suppress emerging class solidarity. Even as a global proletariat -- textile workers in Bangladesh, technology workers in China, transport workers of multiple backgrounds, indeed, a mobile proletariat visible less in terms of national location, race, or sex than of interdependence along multiple vectors -- presses to build its collective power, the left finds itself attached to practices that undermine solidarity. Perpetually suspicious and mistrustful, it eats its own.
There are multiple versions of this mistrust. Sometimes it manifests as a preoccupation with process. Sometimes it manifests as critique and "problematization" before anything has even been carried out. For those who engage in social media, the left-liberal press, and left academia, it appears as a set of predictable responses and snarky one-liners, which then devolve into debates over tone, and various accusations, most of which are mean-spirited, many of which demolish rather than build.
In the course of the demolition, the capitalist is displaced as the other. He is safe, protected, no longer the target.
The only way to move through this is via an ethos of comradeship, a solidarity. We can't fight class war one person at a time. We have to be connected, solidary, and strong. Mark Fisher's recent essay in The North Star is a major contribution to such an ethos as it describes the practices that have prevented it from emerging as well as their destructive effects. Mark writes:
We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication. We need to think very strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital.
As I see it, examples of destructive projects are criticisms that attack someone for sins of omission, as if one person could do, think, and write everything, as if one person had the capacity of a party to encompass a wide array of positions. Criticisms of blog posts as if they were academic articles or even books are similarly misplaced as are attacks that proceed as if one article were all that a person had ever written.
What would the left mediapelago look like if we treated one another as comrades? Yes, there would be fights, splits, and purges. But they would grow out of and intensify opposition to capitalism. They would contribute to the maintenance of communist desire, not capitalist drive.