Saturday, November 24, 2012

Towards a Spinozist Critique of Political Economy

The encounter between Marx and Spinoza that ran through late twentieth century Marxist thought was primarily organized around three axes. The first, or at least most well known, is Althusser's use of Spinoza's critique of teleology, anthropomorphism, and anthropocentricism to develop the matrix of every possible theory of ideology, effectively shifting ideology from a critique of this or that content of thought to its fundamental orientation, The second, at least in terms of notoriety, is Negri's expansion of living labor into constitutive power through Spinoza's concept of the conatus. Spinoza makes it possible to see the productive labor underlying every institution and imaginary representation, becoming adequate to the age of real subsumption. A third direction could be represented by Alexandre Matheron who develops both a Spinozist account of social relations, a transindividuality avant la lettre, and an expanded definition of alienation. This set of labels is admittedly reductive, but it has the sole merit of underscoring the fact that much of the Marxist engagement with Spinoza has been on the terrain of politics or ideology rather than economy.

Frédéric Lordon has broken this pattern trying to develop a Spinozist critique of political economy. Lordon's critique is not based on the few isolated remarks that Spinoza makes about money, but on the conatus. The conatus is not understood, as it is in some unkind critiques or misguided appropriations, as an assertion of the fundamental selfish striving of all existence, a proto-neoliberalism. 

For Lordon the conatus is a way of thinking the relation of action and structure, it is simultaneously structured and structuring. The conatus is a basic striving that defines everything but the terms of this striving, what it strives for, and how it interprets its specific joy or sadness are determined by historical situations. Economic activity, or capitalist economic activity, can thus be understood as a profound reorganization of striving as the basic striving for survival becomes a search for a job. The terms of this job, what we do is subject to the vicissitudes of capitalism. The very struggle for existence is necessarily rendered indifferent to the term of this struggle. In Spinozist terms the exploitation of labor displaces joy and sadness from the conatus, from our striving, to the object of our striving, money. 

Much could be made of Lordon's revalorization of the conatus, and it is important to note that he also argues that capitalism, and the various types of capital can also be understood in terms of their particular striving. However, since I have not even finished La Politique du Capital, I am going to not say much about this aspect. Instead I would like to bring Lordon's Spinozist critique of political economy on a question that I have addressed before. This question could be called, in a true Spinozist manner, why do people fight for exploitation as if it was liberation? Why do people identify with capitalism, failing to become angry at its daily exploitations? Lordon suggests that the answer can be understood by looking at the affects and how necessity and freedom is perceived and felt in capitalism. 

As Spinoza argues are affects are more intense, in terms of hatred and love, towards that which we imagine to be free than that which we think to be necessary. Free actions, actions that could be performed otherwise, will always generate more veneration and hostility than those that seem to be nothing other than an effect of a concatenation of causes. The fetishization of the commodity, and the general reification of the economy, effectively naturalizes it, making it a cause and never an effect of actions. The more the economy is naturalized, the more it is depoliticized, the less it can prompt anger and indignation. The economy is perceived as a quality of things, a way of the world, and not the effects of actions. Moreover, the putative complexity of the economy, the intersection of various factors from around the world, increases one’s apparent freedom. The more complex the determinations, the easier it is to imagine oneself as autonomous, as not determined at all. If the subject of Spinoza's appendix glimpsed the free action of God in the complex series of causes that brought a roofing tile crashing on a man's head, we glimpse our freedom in the complex series of causes that brings the economy crashing upon us. The affective difference of politics and economics is predicated on this perception of freedom. Politics gives us a series of actors and agents who could have acted otherwise, but economics presents us with a necessity that elicits neither adoration nor indignation.

It is from this perspective, from the uncertainty of our economic situation, that we can grasp our attachment to money. Money is of course finite, and inconstant, but the thing that makes it something of an exception within Spinoza’s list of the unstable objects of desire is its capacity to function as the precondition of other objects, other desires. Money functions as an affective general equivalent, an object that functions as the necessary precondition of any other object of desire. If one adds to this function Spinoza’s fundamental point regarding desire, “that we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it” (EIIIP9Schol). Money becomes a good because of its relation with all of the other possible objects of desire. As money it becomes the means to realizing all other possible goods, “it occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else” (EIVAPPXXVIII). The desire for money is a common affect, capable of unifying the multitude more than reason.

The affective composition of capitalism is structured by a series of relation in which money appears as the universal equivalent of desire, the economy appears as a natural force, and the individual appears to be free. These relations, or their imaginary apprehension, determine its particular affective composition, a composition that makes money an object of love, displacing any corresponding hate in the naturalization, the becoming necessary, of the economic structure.

Negri argues that “ the postindustrial age the Spinozian critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.” However, Lordon's reading suggests that we need a Spinozist critique of political economy, one that does not choose between representation and analysis, but recognizes that the order and connection of the base is the same as the order and connection of the superstructure, that there is no economy without an economy of affects.

No comments: