In a blog post the month after the 2019 general election, Dominic Cummings derided those “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about [Jacques] Lacan at dinner parties”, referring to the influential French psychoanalyst. It is fitting, then, that the Lacanian theory of “drive” may help to explain some of the left’s recent impotence. Simply put, drive refers to the jouissance, or enjoyment, people get from the process and inevitable failure of pursuing their aims. Where the aims are frustrated, the drive is still satisfied.
Applying this theory to the current predicament of the left is uncomfortably easy. The Labour Party seems to enjoy endlessly arguing about its failures more than ruthlessly focusing on success. Conflicts over the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn and the disaster of the 2019 general election are filled with such passion you can’t help but sense a whiff of jouissance.
It’s not just Corbynism where this is apparent; nowhere is the phenomenon clearer than when it comes to identity politics. Here the infighting on the left becomes strange, the political theorist Jodi Dean told me when we spoke. “I don’t think anybody on the left wants to have a mode of politics that’s sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, right? But yet we keep stirring around these things.”
Dean, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, makes use of psychoanalysis and Marxist-Leninist theory in her critiques of democracy and advocacy of communism. Her most recent book, Comrade, calls for the term of address to be readopted on the left as an antidote to divisive language of identity politics and allyship. Although she is clear that the most potent form of identity politics is white nationalism on the right, Dean argues that the current focus on fragmenting people into their particular identities occludes the traditional class struggle and politics itself. One’s identity as “a woman, as black, as transgender, or as a survivor tells us nothing about their politics”, Dean writes.
The problem, she argues, is also one of misplaced priorities. Some activists hold the belief that “micropolitical activities” — whether consumer choices or posting on Instagram — are more important than large-scale organisation. As Dean tells me: “I’ve heard people say, ‘Kylie Jenner wearing wigs is a form of cultural appropriation.’ And it’s like, why aren’t you more worried about Kylie Jenner being a billionaire?” Her criticism conveys how modern consumerism has become a vehicle for a form of shallow political expression that neglects economic and class-based politics.
The argument that identity politics is divisive for the left is not new. In his 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” the cultural theorist Mark Fisher enjoined those on the left to “reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications”. Further back, the historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that identity politics cut against the left’s universalism and was electorally unwise, because “winning majorities is not the same as adding up minorities”.
Dean takes the conversation further and situates it in the present day. Her theory of communicative capitalism, the fuelling of capitalism via digital media, acknowledges the role of technology in creating the conditions for identity politics to grow. Identity politics is a symptom of the “individualist self-help techniques and social media moralism” of communicative capitalism, she writes.
In addition to the role digital media have played in fuelling the current discourse, Dean says the left’s focus on identity may be a reaction to its failure to “galvanise a politics around the fundamental antagonism which is class”. Until the left refocuses on the economy as opposed to culture, Dean says, the inequalities that identity politics highlights are going to persist.
In this context Dean proposes a theory of comradeship that is not all about people’s identities and emphasises the solidarity between those sharing a political position. Comradeship “disrupts capitalist society’s hierarchical identifications of sex, race, and class. It insists on the equalising sameness of those on the same side of a political struggle,” she writes.
It might seem anachronistic if those on the left started addressing each other as “comrade”. But, Dean ripostes, the “preoccupation with the new is just the quintessential capitalist orientation”. She views comradeship as an opportunity for the left to reconnect with the history of communism and class struggle.
Dean’s proposal to emphasise comradeship instead of identity politics, and some of her other views, may seem to be extreme relics of the 20th century. Her 2012 book The Communist Horizon sought to extricate communism from its tarnished reputation and she’s a prominent member of the revolutionary communist Party for Socialism and Liberation. “Within a revolutionary party I feel hope, I feel possibility, I see a sense of purpose,” she says, referencing the protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as an example of people “looking in that direction”.
While many left wing parties have distanced themselves from the socialism of the past, Dean remains unapologetic in her ideology. Yet her views are still relevant and valuable — not least because they draw attention to how far some on the left have gone from a traditional economic focus to adopting instead, as she puts it, a “disorientating insistence on the I”.