Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Jodi Dean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009, 232 pages.
Jodi Dean is a multitasker. She teaches political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and is the Erasmus Professor of the Humanities at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She is also a critical scholar worthy of the title. Rather than following the well-worn path of criticism directed at the “powers that be,” Dean directs her attention toward the infirmities within and among critics and activists on the political left in the United States. At the heart of her critique is her suggestion that the once-sharp edges of social movement vanguards have been dulled by their emersion in a cloud of meaningless and self-serving chatter that merely adds to the flow of digital detritus that she defines as the essence of “communicative capitalism.”
Despite the fact that most of the analyses that serve as core of her six tightly organized chapters were written before we had much experience with the “post-partisan” and “post-racial” versions of progressive politics as performed by the Obama administration, most readers could fill in the blanks on what her assessment would likely be.
Dean lays the groundwork for her attack on liberal capitulation to a neoliberal hegemony by identifying several core themes in the approach to social policy that achieved dominance during the Clinton years. Of particular significance is her suggestion that the discursive frameworks that supported progressive struggles for the “rights” of various oppressed groups served to reinforce the “position of the victim” at the heart of these movements. She then suggests that it is precisely the character and capacity of communicative capitalism that creates “ideal discursive habitats for the thriving of the victim identity.” Although Dean gives a central place of honor to recent work in psychoanalytic theory, the examples, arguments, and illustrations that she provides throughout the book will still generate understanding and appreciation among those of us not well grounded in Lacanian Marxism.
Dean explicates her take on the nature of communicative capitalism, appropriately enough, in a chapter on technology. In essence, she argues that rather than serving the democratic functions of enlightenment that we expect to find in a Habermasian public sphere, the ever-expanding flow of commentary and personal expression exists as little more than circulating content, something akin to a warm bath. For example, she suggests that pointed criticism “doesn’t require an answer because it doesn’t stick as criticism. It functions as just another opinion offered into the media-stream.” Thus, her definition of communicative capitalism is “talk without response.” In her view, communications technology helps to provide a “fantasy of participation” where taking political action is reduced to an act of talking into the space of flows of which the Internet is the deepest end.
Her chapter on free trade as a neoliberal fantasy provides an informed and engaged assessment of the means by which an idealized marketplace has come to stand as the guarantor of individual freedom at the cost of any hopes of achieving anything approaching social, political, or economic equality. For Dean, the core fantasy of the free trade story is a world in which everybody wins, except for those who fail to invest well, or fall victim to those who cheat. Even our failure to enjoy our meager winnings serves to reinforce the identity of victim (or criminal).
Democracy itself is examined in a chapter that focuses on its critical assessment as a radical ideal, a political practice, and as a “theoretical justification for rule.” This particular aspect of democracy is explored through a framework that reads “deliberative democracy” as “the discourse of the university.” Essentially in what is a detailed criticism of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson’s contribution to this framework, Dean characterizes most political deliberation as merely talk circulating around any decision as “a justification of itself.” As a result, no one has to accept responsibility for decisions taken, or for the social outcomes that result, because the possibility of further talk is always there. Indeed, in her critical construction of the ideal of democracy “we already know what is to be done—critique, discuss, include, and revise.”
Dean uses Judith Butler’s writing on ethics as a basis for her own criticism of the manner in which left political criticism appears to have embraced ethics “out of a kind of political despair.” She suggests that following Butler’s lead would make it difficult for us to engage in principled condemnation of individual or institutional misbehaviors out of a fear of disconnection. Of course, she doesn’t agree, suggesting that condemnation might be the basis for political mobilization.
Although I don’t understand why Dean has chosen to end her book with an extended discussion of conspiracy theories and certainty as an aspect of psychosis, she easily accomplishes her goal of associating the rise and spread of these extremist discourses with communicative capitalism in full bloom. Perhaps she goes too far. Dean admits that she is quite pessimistic about the political potential of alternative progressive media, trapped as they are within the directionless flow of personalized expressions of certainty about little that matters.
There are no answers here, but there are a great many entry points through which we all might explore the realm of still possible and desirable futures.
OSCAR H. GANDY JR.
University of Pennsylvania