The oracle speaks; or, Demanding demands

By Michael J. Smith on Sunday January 15, 2012 01:00 AM

The Communist Horizon with Jodi Dean from Not An Alternative on Vimeo.

Professor Jodi Dean, the rather foxy young person shown above, was caught unfortunately giving that characteristic professorial traffic-cop gesture -- palm forward, fingers spread -- in the frame capture that shows before you play the clip. (I don't really recommend the whole thing, but it does have its charming moments.)

But perhaps the inadvertency wasn't entirely misplaced. Professor Dean has been spending a lot of time lately scolding Occupy Wall Street for not being Bolshie enough. Here's the latest:

In this essay, we claim that far from being a strength, the lack of demands reflects the weak ideological core of the movement. We also claim that demands should not be approached tactically but strategically, that is, they should be grounded in a long-term view of the political goals of the movement, a view that is currently lacking. Accordingly, in the second part of this text, we argue that this strategic view should be grounded in a politics of the commons. Before addressing the politics of the commons, however, we dispel three common objections....
This exordium strongly reminds me of a certain strain in Anglican preaching, now fortunately almost extinct: "My text for today is from the Second Book of Kings, the fourteenth chapter, the first verse: 'My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.' I propose to treat this topic under seven main heads, to wit...."

The Prof then proceeds to knock down, in fairly brisk style, a number of straw men. Her reproaches however are couched in an idiom not altogether Leninist, or even Leninesque:

... anarchists and libertarians in the movement have repeatedly blocked proposals for introducing taxes on financial transactions and stronger oversight of the banking sector on the grounds that such proposals would expand the size of the government and the scope of its intervention....

... the 99 percent is not an actual social bloc. It is rather an assemblage of politically and economically divergent subjectivities.... the autonomist objection proceeds as if the multiplicity of political and economic interests of the 99 percent could immanently converge.... it has installed in the movement a serious blindspot with regard to real divergences, a blindspot that has high costs in terms of political efficacy as serious proposals get watered down in order to meet with the agreement of those who reject their basic premises.

The "serious proposals" in question presumably include such Bolsheries as "taxes on financial transactions and stronger oversight of the banking sector". Now that's policy, man -- the sort of thing serious people can really sink their teeth into. And to have it blown away by a somewhat airily-sketched coalition of "libertarians and anarchists"! Oh the humanity. And the diminution of 'political efficacy' -- which seems to mean something like 'effect on policy'.

Some of my lefty comrades have been much exercised by the rumored presence among the Occupiers of Paulites and palaeocons; that seems to be the card Professor Dean is playing here. It really gets some of the comrades frothing at the mouth. Here's one contributor to a mailing list I read, for example:

Libertarian types who oppose Social Security, minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and workers rights in general have no place in the Occupy movement, and should be banned by any means necessary. To believe otherwise is a betrayal to those who are suffering the effects of economic deprivation. It's a clear cut question of which side are you on.
From what I have seen of the thing, Paulites and palaeocons are far from numerous among the Occupiers, though I'm quite willing to believe that there are a few in the mix. Are they more dangerous than mere liberals in Bolshie clothing, closet Obama-ites, or sedative union bureaucrats?

Not to mention 'progressive' foundations. Dean's piece appeared on a web site sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, whose own web site makes fun reading. Its founder, Charles Merriam, a very colorful figure, was more or less present at the creation of my own alma mater, the University of Chicago.

Comments (33)

Al Schumann:

Is there some way to demand a demand for demands? In the next general assembly of Possible Futures, I think they should demand a demand for demands that are compelling. I don't want to get carried away, but if they can't even manage a preliminary demand for a demand of demands for demands, with at least a few compelling qualities, then it's impossible to take them seriously.

Regarding Occupy, on the other hand, my impression has been that the responses Occupiers can expect--to anything at all--are pepper spray and kidney shots with batons. So maybe demands have to wait a bit.


I really don't have much to add, and shoudl be told to go away, smarting as I am from having Dave Barry, of all people, deliver the year's best summation of OWS in his year-end bit, which you can find in your recycling bin in Parade magazine.
What will OWS do if their demands for demands for demands aren't met - surely the New Left of the 60s has some great examples of how to make the Man let them stay up past 10:00, or something.
NYC's Left's finest Mitchel Cohen suggests in a letter to the Indypendent that the Demand be all the stolen wealth of North America be "returned to the working class," which will mean a good day for America's plumbers, who already have better big-screens than Irving Thalberg.
Al and MJS, I fucking give up. You're smart
people, you are actually going to invest in these folks? A "politics of the commons"? Frisbee on the town green?
Dr. Dean as "young" - you OK MJS?

Al Schumann:

mjosef, I just read an account of the Occupy Oakland kids helping block scabs. Doesn't that get your heart beating a little faster, even if it didn't end in a blazing victory?


Her hands seem to have a life of their own, a professional hazard for overly earnest academic types who still retain fascination for Lenin's "flexibility". Here's someone else from Lenin's times who was only slightly less flexible but probably more level-headed than Jodi's intellectual love interest.


superb post

I join Al in toasting it

my take has always been simple

occ is about action not demands

transgressive actions
like sitting at a segregated lunch counter
or freedom riding

after all liberation in toto or in part
from the ten thousand corporate barriers
to a higher better cleaner society
requires transgressing these bariers
and flooding these chambers of horror

now we must do don't demand

i see no evidence or more importantly any need
for the occ pushing itself
beyond that stage yet

and i am an utterly unrepentent VP leninist


as the occ pitch whistles by

like mighty casey

mjoe declares "that's not my style"



you naughty spirit you

pulling lenin's van dyke

i hear him now

et tu brute


Hehe, not me, op. I kept a safe distance from that wino on cheap Hegelianism whose effects led to his famed "flexibility" and a conception of the world more twisted than the one Caligari's prodigy woke up in. But he did leave a lasting legacy for Mafiosi of the motherland.


" I kept a safe distance.... "(from "leninism")

many said something similar
about pox vacines in the 18th century

some of those vdeep dish keep awayers
sadly died of small pox


Ahh, the blues.

The problem with trying to shoehorn now into yesterday is the lack of the presence of yesterday, now, Owen.

Al Schumann:

I'd like to riff off that, Jack. It's eloquent and it gets to something I've been forced to consider: what if communism--the undergirding of the ideal communism, state withered away and all--is already here? This is not sing hosannas of any kind, or engage in mawkish encomiums to the human spirit. But rather, just wondering now, what if all that's left is figuring out how to put it into practice?

Al Schumann:

It came out of something David Graeber said about communism being the norm and capitalism being a parasitic attachment. Nothing at all would ever get done if everyone consistently related to each other on a capitalist basis.

Al, I'm probably not the best person to answer that question. I already believe that what we commonly call "the state" is the world's most deadly working fiction. But, the varnish is worn on it, and there's this new/old tendency to understand power as power, concentrated in specific hands, for specific periods of time, which weakens the confusing (IMHO) conviction that Hermetic ahistorical abstractions are more than chimaeras for the amusement of navel gazers.

I'll give it a whirl, in the expectation of failing to meet expectations, anyway:

I believe you are correct, that the ground has been laid since cultural Taylorism was replaced by austerity at the point of contact with labor.

The lasting success - and perhaps their true legacy - of the Bolsheviks was in persuading the capitalist states and combines that some kind of socialist revolution could succeed in capturing the faith of a populace and the organs of a government. The adjustments made by the remaining "first world" capitalist powers, especially the so-called democracies, would set in motion the undermining of Taylorization and trade unionism, the two vectors best suited to disciplining and co-opting the proletariat into a manageable force for capital. It took a few decades, but the victory in re-chaining labor to capital and accumulating the riches which followed from the colonization of foreign markets led to a fatal kind of success, in the core countries. So much wealth, concentrated in so few hands, for so long, has led our lords and masters to this current moment, where they have discovered a terrible set of truths: they've lost labor as nationalized populations, and their separation into a homogenized international money caste has killed the formerly widespread belief that the capitalist state exists to protect the average national worker.

Despite the proximity of socialist revolutions to periods of success, between 1871 and 1939, socialists never really managed to persuade a large enough group of people that capitalist states and companies were the adversary. As Marx predicted, it would actually take the further spread of capitalist relations and accumulation, and the corrosion of the traditionalist regimes into bit and colonial players, which would allow for the material development of a new (but, still atomized) self-awareness in the laboring populations.

Or something like that.

Of course, Al - your succinct second comment is a far and away superior explanation.

The success of capitalist relations has destroyed the cache of the capitalist claim to the end of history. We exist despite the still extant need to sell ourselves. If we could only sell ourselves (and trade unionism and Taylorization preserved the conditions suited to wage-slavery) we would barely survive.


"The problem with trying to shoehorn now into yesterday is the lack of the presence of yesterday, now, Owen"

come now yesterdays answers to todays problems

unless that's just a jibe

even my view isn't that easy to bottle crow

the 17th century had the first visionaries that discovered the second coming had recently happened
so far as i know they were the first generation
not to see the end times as still up ahead
near or far

Was responding to the smallpox comment, Owen.

Some leftists get disproportionately exercised about Paul but they also get rabid about the anarchists, their black bloc variant, and one of their more astute scholars and doers, David Graeber. Unlike so many leftists I know, Graeber actually came out of the working class. He is, by all accounts, one of the best anthropologists in the world. From what I can gather, he is a modest man, with a generous spirit. He has written an interesting book on debt, but of all the silliness, he has written it from an anthropological point of view. Our radicals are modern men and women, no need for trying to see what debt meant to pre-capitalist peoples. Like EP Thompson yattering about weavers mastering the calculus. Who cares? You just know Graeber is a good teacher. But stories aren't important. What does it matter that nearly every leftist I ever heard give a talk at the Left Forum bored me to death, couldn't even master the most basic elements of moving an audience to listen. I'll bet Graeber wouldn't bore me.

Al Schumann:

Jack, that was a big help with what I'm puzzling through. And I am sick unto death of the best persons to answer any question. God spare me their ministries and ministrations! All I need is a pretty good answer and some spot from which I can ask more questions.

Owen, the Winstanley and the Levellers?

Michael, I've thoroughly enjoyed every online article and interview with Graeber. I get the same sense of a generous spirit. He likes people, a lot, he's interested in them and it really shows. I'm going to read his book on debt.

Something jolted me severely when I first heard about the military anthropologists, the "human terrain specialists", the anti-Graebers. When they want to kill a people, they kill their storytellers first.


Interest in Winstanley and Levellers might be more a projection of recent interests than a reflection of what actually transpired long ago. Graeber doesn't waste much time in dispatching fantasists of vanguardism.


Interest in Winstanley and Levellers might be more a projection of recent interests than a reflection of what actually transpired long ago. Graeber doesn't waste much time in dispatching fantasists of vanguardism.


Glad to be of some use.


Thanks for that Graeber link on vanguardism.

Al Schumann:

I can't give any quantitative data on how many people willingly or opportunistically embraced the living caricatures of vanguardism familiar to us all. My own sense of it is that it followed the same pattern of doctrines that get more lip service than sedulous adherence. A nod to the given sect's doctrine was the social price of admission. The vigor of the defense was proportionate to the attacks from outside.


I used to think talk of "late capitalism" and the "twilight of capitalism" was wishful thinking on the part of old, tenured lefty profs. Now, I think we're living in post-late-capitalism. Whatever we're living in now, it's not capitalism as we've known it. Or it's capitalism-as-we've-known it, in its rawest most brazen form. Whatever the case, it's all over but the looting.

I second what Jack said on 1/15 at around 4:30. And what op said about Occupy. Flood the zone, jam the machinery, see what happens.


"Some leftists get .... rabid about the anarchists, their black bloc variant, and one of their more astute scholars and doers, David Graeber"

the black bloc ??
like a nippy dog a bit of a nuisance

but what a superb live cautionary tale !!!

in fact a cautionary tale
no amount of discursive jibber
could ever duplicate as effectively

graeber is another matter
no nip at all in that guy
all flower wreathed pan like bleet

but again a fine live caution

debt slavery that most exterior
and pre/proto capitalist of exploitation modes

we sure had a parallel new dawn of usury
with the arrival of the reagan rev

a mass debt write off ??

we can rally to this banner of course

but the stronger longer sustaining hand
may be to raise wage rates thru
job site "empowerment"
to use a dessicated term
for employee liberation

one of graebers many state of modern society postulates is worth examining carefully

"there will be no great power wars in our time "

though this one

"there will be no first world state (FWS)
able to pull stuff like syria's assad "

if he indeed holds this explicitly
and not jst implicitly

then his formula for popular masss confrontation with the FWS needs a redraught

my take

mock army engagement as a carrry you all the way thru strategy
fails to consider the consequences of a sudden brutal scrapping by the FWS of hither to
"rules" of engagement

i suspect he holds these truths of fact to be something less then self evident
and yet they do allow the progressive multitude the convenience of no higher form of self organization

then a childrens crusade


1. Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy.

2. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.

on #1 why confine marxism to its sectarian elements ??

but the real beauty is #2

"Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice."

one thinks of the college front lawn here
under a shade tree
unless he means ethics of the deed
i must admit his trump card like maggie meade's is the cache of noble savages
among the joe and jane college set

the vast interval of history and struggle between
there and here
despite sharing the planet
we don't share a common set of institutions
nor share a common past
nor face a common set of social tasks

ethnology surely wears away cultural hubris
and the artificial socially constructed
mental model with its false confines of the humanly possible

yet we inside a state "herded" society
face many tasks
utterly unlike the tasks facing a tribal society


nothing graeber writes that i have read fails to ring a clear bell in my chest

the guy is playing a very likeable role and playing it damn well
but ...

oh this is so pre mature eh ??

we are so far from the point where any of these differences matter in a magnitude comparable to our shared unity of purpose
wack the 1ers

It's my observation that very, very few people learn by being right, Owen. Learning - and I oppose this to education - follows upon the correction of mistakes or the revelation of one's own ignorance. You have to not know, first, and then know that you don't know - in order to learn. Learning is a filling of gaps, and this doesn't happen without the capacity to admit that gaps exist. With this in mind, it's not really surprising that systematizers and totalizers are always the last to catch up, if they ever do.

It seems to me that the problem with remaining and remainder Marxism is that its advocates would rather try to discover error in history or the actions of others, and not in their own many mistakes.

And that is why they, especially those of the academic and Leninist varieties, seem least capable of really learning not only what went wrong before, but what's actually going on now.

Instead of being wrong and moving on, Leninists most of all seem intent on proving their systems right despite observable circumstance.

Jack, what in the world are you assuming about Taylorism? It was undermined at some point? When would that have been?

The only possible explanation I can summon for what you mean is that you are one of those who equate Taylorism and "Fordism."

Taylorism is the scientific study and re-configuration of labor processes. Nothing more, nothing less.

It has ruled the world for at least 100 years, with no downturn or even interruption.

Fordism is a mirage that never actually existed outside the more honeyed heads of academia.

P.S. Cultural Taylorism? Do you mean marketing?


crow who are these leninists you speak of
a bunch of trotsky sects ??


who calls herself a leninist these days

the chubby gal in the video perhaps but i doubt it i suspect she's wildly eclectic like you

I'm not "wildly eclectic," Owen. But, do keep up your fight with the dead Bakunins. One day you'll be relevant.



Taylorization was not a mirage.

Paco Picopiedra:

The fact that Jodi Dean holds a professorial position tells interested but detached observers all they need to know about "academia" in America 2012.

I love it when sweeping generalizations play out so cleanly, and fit with such crisp borders.

Hubris, process, facticity and ideology normally are the realms of politicians and policy wonks, but in Jodi Dean's case (as well as that of many other "professors" holding slots in "academia" circa 2012) they are considered essential qualifiers for teaching mushminded ugrads.

Why give her the time of day? Ignorance is the best dessert for dorky dipshits like her.

Jack, I'm saying Fordism is a mirage, and wondering if you know what Taylorism is.

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