Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics

Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics

by Jodi Dean

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Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies is an impassioned call for the realization of a progressive left politics in the United States. Through an assessment of the ideologies underlying contemporary political culture, Jodi Dean takes the left to task for its capitulations to conservatives and its failure to take responsibility for the extensive neoliberalization implemented during the Clinton presidency. She argues that the left's ability to develop and defend a collective vision of equality and solidarity has been undermined by the ascendance of "communicative capitalism," a constellation of consumerism, the privileging of the self over group interests, and the embrace of the language of victimization. As Dean explains, communicative capitalism is enabled and exacerbated by the Web and other networked communications media, which reduce political energies to the registration of opinion and the transmission of feelings. The result is a psychotic politics where certainty displaces credibility and the circulation of intense feeling trumps the exchange of reason.

Dean's critique ranges from her argument that the term democracy has become a meaningless cipher invoked by the left and right alike to an analysis of the fantasy of free trade underlying neoliberalism, and from an examination of new theories of sovereignty advanced by politicians and left academics to a look at the changing meanings of "evil" in the speeches of U.S. presidents since the mid-twentieth century. She emphasizes the futility of a politics enacted by individuals determined not to offend anyone, and she examines questions of truth, knowledge, and power in relation to 9/11 conspiracy theories. Dean insists that any reestablishment of a vital and purposeful left politics will require shedding the mantle of victimization, confronting the marriage of neoliberalism and democracy, and mobilizing different terms to represent political strategies and goals.

Editorial Reviews

Radical Philosophy - David Chandler

In Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies Jodi Dean pulls few punches in her critique of the American Left, for both its complacency and its limited capacity to (or even lack of awareness of the need to) offer a stand of political resistance to power. . . . Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies is not, however, merely a critique of the US Left; it is also a powerful demolition of its claims for a collective existence.

Feminist Legal Studies - Lucy Welsh

Dean’s [text] is stimulating in its ability to offer an alternative view of how neoliberalism achieved apparent invincibility. The work offers a challenge to leftists to produce not only some new, radical ideas but to unite and be heard once more.

Choice - R. W. Glover

‘[A] provocative examination of contemporary Left politics. . . . The complex ideas of poststructuralist thinkers such as Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek figure prominently in her analysis. As in her earlier work, however, Dean is able to relate the value of such thinkers in understanding contemporary events with unique lucidity and clarity. . . . [A]n important, worthwhile, and entertaining contribution to discussions of radical alternatives to current political realities. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers, upper-division undergraduate students, and above.

From the Publisher

Jodi Dean provides an incredibly lucid explanation of what neoliberalism has been both in policy terms and collective fantasies of the relation of markets to freedom. But the really threatening Big Other in this book is not neoliberal ideology, but the failed and flawed leftist will that concedes too much power and unity to neoliberalism. This is a frank polemic that will stimulate many arguments about the past and future of critical theory and democratic politics in the United States.”—Lauren Berlant, author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

“Jodi Dean’s new book provides what we have all been waiting for: the authentic theoretical analysis of how ideology functions in today’s global capitalism. Her diagnosis of ‘communicative capitalism’ discloses how our ‘really-existing democracies’ curtail prospects of radical emancipatory politics. Dean demonstrates this status of democracy as a political fantasy not through cheap pseudo-Marxist denunciations, but through a detailed examination of social, symbolic, and libidinal mechanisms and practices. To anyone who continues to dwell in illusions about liberal democracy, one should simply say: ‘Hey, didn’t you read Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies?’”—Slavoj Zizek, Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822345053
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/02/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 230
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

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Communicative Capitalism & Left Politics


Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4505-3

Chapter One



Although mainstream media in the United States supported the Bush administration in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, critical assessments of the government's justifications for war circulated throughout global capitalism's communications networks. Alternative media, independent media, and non-U.S. media provided thoughtful reports, insightful commentary, and critical evaluations of the "evidence" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They highlighted the falsity and venality of the administration's articulation of the attacks of September 11 with Iraq, its elision of Osama bin Laden into Saddam Hussein as public enemy number one. Amy Goodman's syndicated radio program Democracy Now regularly broadcast shows intensely opposed to the militarism and unilateralism of the Bush administration's national security policy. The Nation magazine offered detailed and nuanced critiques of the justifications offered for attacking Iraq-particularly those cloaked in humanitarian good will. Antiwar activists working to supply citizens with opportunities to make their opposition known circulated lists of congressional phone and fax numbers via email. On websites, they posted petitions and announcements for marches, protests, and direct-action training sessions. As the administration's preparations for a seemingly inevitable war proceeded, thousands of antiwar bloggers commented on each step, citing other media to support their positions. True, the mainstream news media failed to cover demonstrations such as the protest in September 2002 by 400,000 people in London or march on Washington in October 2002, when 250,000 people surrounded the White House. Nonetheless, myriad progressive, alternative, and critical left news outlets supplied frequent and reliable information about the action on the ground. All in all, a strong antiwar message was out there.

But the message was not received. It circulated, reduced to the medium. Bush acknowledged the massive worldwide demonstrations of February 15, 2003. He even reiterated the fact that a message was out there: the protestors had the right to express their opinions. He didn't actually respond to their message, however. He didn't treat the words and actions of the protestors as sending a message to him that he was in some sense obliged to answer. Rather, he acknowledged the existence of views different from his own. There were his views and there were other views. All had the right to exist, to be expressed. But that in no way meant, or so Bush made it seem, that these views were involved with each other, that they inhabited a common space, that they were elements to be considered and integrated in the course of reaching a consensus on American foreign policy.

The terabytes of commentary and information, then, did not indicate a debate over the war. On the contrary, in the days and weeks prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the antiwar messages morphed into so much circulating content, just like all the other cultural effluvia flowing through communicative capitalism's disintegrated spectacles.

We might express this disconnect between engaged criticism and national strategy as the difference between the circulation of content and official policy. Both are politics, just politics of different sorts, at different levels. Terms like democracy, it would follow, confuse matters by blurring these levels. So on the one hand, we have media chatter-from television talking heads, radio shock jocks, and the gamut of print media to websites with RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds, blogs, podcasts, email lists, and the proliferating versions of instant text messaging. In this mediated dimension, politicians, governments, and activists struggle for visibility, currency, and, in the now quaint term from the dot-com years, mindshare. On the other hand are institutional politics, the day-to-day activities of bureaucracies, lawmakers, judges, and the apparatuses of the police and national security state. These institutional or state components of the system seem to run independently of the politics that circulates as content. They go about their work, the business of politics, and the other level reports on it, talks about it, treats it as content about which it opines.

Anyone even slightly familiar with democratic ideals should reject out of hand this distinction between politics as the circulation of content and politics as the activity of officials. The fundamental premise of liberal democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Governance by the people is exercised through communicative freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press; it relies on norms of publicity that emphasize transparency and accountability; it consists of the deliberative practices of the public sphere. Democratic communication steers, influences, or, more minimally, informs politics as the governing and legislating activity of elected officials. Ideally, the communicative interactions of the public sphere, the circulation of content and media chatter, not only impact but also constitute official politics.

In the United States today, however, they don't. Less bluntly put, there is a significant disconnect between politics circulating as content and official politics. Pundits gesture to this disconnect when they refer to the bubble of concerns "inside the Beltway" and the "real concerns" of "ordinary voters." So multiple opinions and divergent points of view express themselves in myriad intense exchanges, but this circulation of content in dense, intensive global communications networks actually relieves top-level actors (corporate, institutional, and governmental) from the obligation to answer embedded in the notion of a message. Reactions and rejoinders to any claim are always already present, presupposed. In this setting, content critical of a specific policy is just another story or feature in a 24/7 news cycle, just another topic to be chewed to bits by rabid bloggers. Criticism doesn't require an answer because it doesn't stick as criticism. It functions as just another opinion offered into the media-stream. So rather than responding to messages sent by left activists and critics, top-level actors counter with their own contributions to the circulating flow of communications-new slogans, images, deflections, and attacks; staged meetings or rallies featuring their supporters; impressive photo-ops that become themselves topics of chatter. Sufficient volume (whether in terms of the number of contributions or the spectacular nature of a contribution) gives these contributions their dominance or stickiness.

Contestations today rarely employ common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers. In our highly mediated communications environments we confront instead a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive as to hinder the formation of strong counterhegemonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity result in a deadlocked democracy incapable of serving as a form for political change. I refer to this democracy that talks without responding as communicative capitalism.

The concept of communicative capitalism reformats as a criticism the neoliberal idea of the market as the site of democratic aspirations, indeed, as the mechanism by which the will of the demos manifests itself. In Thomas Frank's words, "To believe in the people is to believe in their brands." Consider the circularity of claims regarding popularity. McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and reality television are depicted as popular because they seem to offer what people want. How do we know they offer what people want? People choose them-they must be popular.

This equation treats commercial choices as the paradigmatic form of choosing. In so doing, it displaces attention from the fact that the market is not a system for delivering political outcomes, even as many of us can't tell the difference between political campaigns and advertising. Unlike marketing's catch-phrases and jingles, political decisions-to go to war, say, or to establish the perimeters of legitimate relationships-involve more than the mindless reiteration of faith, conviction, and unsupported claims. They rest on contestable and divisive assertions of justice and right generally, potentially universally. Unlike the economy under neoliberal capitalism, moreover, the political is not a domain for the extraction of work and value from the many to enrich the few. It is, rather, the terrain upon which claims to universality are raised and defended. Political claims are partisan claims made in the name of and on behalf of a larger group, indeed, of an all that can never be fixed or limited (and so remains non-all), a group perhaps best understood as composed of anyone. Such claims are general rather than individual, and they require those who make them to think beyond themselves as specific individuals with preferences and interests and consider what is best for anyone.

The concept of communicative capitalism designates the strange merging of democracy and capitalism in which contemporary subjects are produced and trapped. It does so by highlighting the way networked communications bring the two together. The values heralded as central to democracy take material form in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion, and participation come to be realized in and through expansions, intensifications, and interconnections of global telecommunications. Changes in information and communication networks associated with digitalization, speed (of computer processors as well as connectivity), and memory/storage capacity impact capitalism and democracy, accelerating and intensifying some elements of each as they consolidate the two into a new ideological formation.

Expanded and intensified communicativity neither enhances opportunities for linking together political struggles nor enlivens radical democratic practices-although it has exacerbated left fragmentation, amplified the voices of right-wing extremists, and delivered ever more eyeballs to corporate advertisers. Instead of leading to more equitable distributions of wealth and influence, instead of enabling the emergence of a richer variety in modes of living and practices of freedom, the deluge of screens and spectacles coincides with extreme corporatization, financialization, and privatization across the globe. Rhetorics of access, participation, and democracy work ideologically to secure the technological infrastructure of neoliberalism, an invidious and predatory politico-economic project that concentrates assets and power in the hands of the very, very rich, devastating the planet and destroying the lives of billions of people.

Saskia Sassen's research on the impact of economic globalization makes clear how the speed, simultaneity, and interconnectivity of electronic communications produce massive distortions and concentrations of wealth. Not only does the possibility of superprofits in the finance and services complex lead to hypermobility of capital and the devalorization of manufacturing but financial markets themselves acquire the capacity to discipline national governments. As David Harvey explains, neoliberalism's endeavor "to bring all human action into the domain of the market" requires "technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyze, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace." Sassen's and Harvey's work supplies powerful empirical evidence for the convergence between networked telecommunications and globalized neoliberalism into communicative capitalism.

In the United States, the proliferation of media has been accompanied by a shift in political participation. Rather than actively organized in parties and unions, politics is a domain of financially mediated and professionalized practices centered on advertising, public relations, and rapid adaptation to changes in the technologies and practices of communication. The commodification of communication reformats ever more domains of life in terms of the market: What can be bought and sold? How can a practice, experience, or feeling be monetized? Bluntly put, the standards of a finance- and consumption-driven entertainment culture produce the setting of democratic governance today. Changing the system-organizing against and challenging communicative capitalism-seems to entail strengthening the system. How else can one get a message across? Doesn't it require raising money, buying television time, registering domain names, building websites, making links, and increasing awareness?

I am not claiming networked communications never facilitate political resistance. One of the most visible examples to the contrary is the experience of B92 in Serbia. Radio B92 used the Internet to circumvent governmental censorship and disseminate news of massive demonstrations against the Milosevic regime. My point is that the political efficacy of networked media depends on the setting. Under conditions of intensive and extensive proliferation of media, conditions wherein everyone is presumed to be a producer as well as a consumer of content, messages get lost. They become mere contributions to the circulation of images, opinion, and information, to the billions of nuggets of information and affect trying to catch and hold attention, to push or sway opinion, taste, and trends in one direction rather than another. What in one context enhances the potential of political change, in another submerges politics in a deluge of circulating, disintegrated spectacles and opinions. Differently put, the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism occludes the antagonism necessary for politics, multiplying antagonism into myriad minor issues and events. In relatively closed societies, that antagonism is not only already clear but also apparent at and as the very frontier between open and closed.

Communicative capitalism is a political-economic formation in which there is talk without response, in which the very practices associated with governance by the people consolidate and support the most brutal inequities of corporate-controlled capitalism. One way to understand the hold of communicative capitalism is to consider its animating fantasies, fantasies that, for many on the left, are inextricable from their faith in democracy. This chapter takes up three such fantasies, those of abundance, participation, and wholeness. The hold of these fantasies on the political imaginary, the promises and aspirations they inscribe in the ideological structure of our most basic communicative activities, helps account for the persistence of belief in democracy in the face of knowledge of the way that the democratic form continues to strengthen the place and power of the wealthy and diminish the lives and opportunities of the poor.

In the months before the 2002 congressional elections, just as Congress abdicated its constitutional responsibility to declare war to the president, mainstream media frequently employed the trope of "debate." Democratic leaders, with an eye to this "debate," asserted that questions needed to be asked. They did not take a position or provide a clear alternative to the Bush administration's emphasis on preventive war. Giving voice to the ever-present meme regarding the White House's public relations strategy, people on the street spoke of whether Bush had "made his case." Nevertheless, on the second day of Senate debate on the use of force in Iraq, no one was on the floor-even though many were in the gallery. Why, at a time when the means of communication have been revolutionized, when people can contribute their own opinions and access those of others rapidly and immediately, why has democracy failed as a political form? Why has the expansion and intensification of communication networks, the proliferation of the very tools of democracy, coincided with the stunting of left political ideals and the diminishment of progressive political struggle? These are the questions the idea of communicative capitalism answers.


Excerpted from DEMOCRACY AND OTHER NEOLIBERAL FANTASIES by JODI DEAN Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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