Friday, November 08, 2013

Economies of Affect/Affective Economies: Towards A Spinozist Critique of Political Economy

Presented at Historical Materialism London 2013 

Antonio 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.” Many of the contemporary turns to Spinoza in Marxist thought have followed this trajectory, turning away from the critique of political economy towards critiques of ideology or, in Negri’s case, the representation of power. This is perhaps not surprising, it is easier to make connections between Spinoza’s critique of superstition and theories of ideology than it is to connect his understanding of desires and striving to consumption and production. As much Spinoza offered a trenchant critique of the religious, monarchical, and even humanist ideologies of his time, he had little to say, at least directly, about the emerging capitalism. Money is only mentioned once in the Ethics, where it is defined as the universal object of desire that “occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else” (EIVAPPXXVIII). While such a statement intersects with critiques of greed and the capitalist transformation of desire it remains to partial and incidental to developing a Spinozist critique of political economy. 

Frédéric Lordon has argued that the point of intersection between Spinoza’s thought and Marx is not to be found in rereading superstition as ideology, or even in the isolated assertion of the affective dimension of money. Instead it is to be found in a more profound intersection between subjectivity and the economy. As Lordon argues Spinoza’s theory of the conatus, of the striving that defines each thing, is the connection point between a Spinozist ontology or anthropology, and a Marxist critique of political economy. This is not the connection argued for in some right wing appropriations of Spinoza, or left dismissals, which see in the conatus the assertion of self-interest that underlies all human actions. Spinoza’s striving is not the utility maximizing individual underlying contemporary economics. As Lordon argues, the conatus strives, but what it strives for, the objects it considers desirable and relations it pursues, are themselves determined by its capacity to be affected. Desire, the desire to be, is intransitive, which becomes transitive by its encounters. This fundamental ontological and anthropological postulate has its corollary a social theory in which every mode of production must be considered as a particular problem of “colinearization,” a particular articulation of its striving with the striving of the individuals which comprise it. 

An introduction to what Lordon calls “colinearization” can be found in Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation, a theory which is much about the transformation of subjectivity of habits and ideas as it is about economic transformation.[1] Marx defined the former with respect to capitalism as follows, ‘The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition, and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self evident natural laws.’[2] This habituation, the reorientation of striving, is, at least at first, based on a reorganization of the basic desire for survival, to persevere in one’s being. Even this desire, a desire that is nothing other than self-preservation, must be understood as structured. Spinoza’s concept of the conatus is free from any naturalism, any reduction of striving to a struggle for life. It is precisely because of the conatus lack of any teleology, its striving for nothing other than what it is determined to strive, that it is simultaneously singular and relational.[3] The relational basis of the conatus includes, in Lordon’s interpretation, not just the immediately present others and their affective composition, but the past strivings that structure and determine institutions.[4] As much as the immediate desire for survival, the need for food and shelter, underlies wage labor, this ‘immediate’ striving must be turned away from other means of survival, from its connection to other pre-existing forms of survival or the simple act of taking what one needs. Marx’s account of ‘primitive accumulation’ is not just the destruction of any commons and the accumulation of wealth, it is also the destruction of the very idea of an existence not predicated on the commodity and wage form. It is a primitive accumulation of the conatus.[5] The history of every institution, of every practice, is the destruction of certain modes of striving and the creation, or canalization, of other forms. Nature creates neither nations nor economies. No social order is based on some natural striving, or, rather every social order is; the difference is in how that striving is articulated, its objects and activities. 

If capitalism has as its defining characteristic the separation of workers from the means of production, then this separation radically alters the immediacy of need and desire. Hunger might drive people to work, but that work will always be out of sync with the immediacy of that desire.[6] Lordon argues that the fundamental transformation necessary to bring Spinoza’s affective composition into the present is the fundamental separation between striving, activity, and its object. This separation from the means of production is less a fundamental loss, as it is in accounts of alienation, than it is a fundamental transformation of activity, of what it means to engage in self-preservation or work. There is an indifference to the activity itself, the goals of the particular activity are stripped of their meaning, their particular orientations of good and bad, perfect and imperfect. As much as we might affectively attach ourselves to any particular job, any particular task, developing our potential and relations, becoming the cause of our joy this is secondary to the desire, and need, for money. Concrete labor is subordinated to abstract labor. There is thus an affective split at the core of the labor process, between the possible love of my own activity, its concrete joys, and its results, its abstract exchangability. What we could call the affective composition of labor is how, at a given moment in time, these two aspects are valued or devalued, how much joy is sought in the activity of labor itself, or how much is sought in terms of the accumulation it makes possible. This shift between activity and object is complicated, both cause and effect, of the changing relations of hope and fear in a given historical moment. 

Lordon offers a sketch of this history of the affective composition of labour, framed in terms of three periods, first, the period corresponding to primitive accumulation and the advent of formal subsumption, followed by Fordism, and neoliberalism. In the first period, that of primitive accumulation of the conatus, the simple lack of an alternative is sufficient, striving is determined by the fear of starving. As Marx writes the capitalist mode of production depends in part on the ‘worker’s drives for self-preservation and propagation.’[7] At its most fundamental level, all capitalism has to do is destroy any alternatives, curtail the commons, and crack down on those who would strive to realize their existence outside of wage labor. The second, Fordism, is defined by its intersecting transformations of both the separation of activity from any intrinsic joy and the affective investment of consumption. Labor is simplified and fragmented, stripped of the pleasures and mastery. This is the work of the assembly line. At the same time the sphere of consumption is expanded. Ford’s famous ‘five dollar day’ increased the spending power or consumers.[8]The affective composition of Fordism could be described as a fundamental reorganization of conatus, of striving, away from labor, from activity, and towards consumption. The worker’s activity is fragmented, made part of a whole that exceeds it, becoming as much passivity as activity. The sadness of work, its exhaustion, is compensated for with the joys of consumption. This transformation from an affective investment in work to an affective investment in consumption could also be described as a shift from active joy, joy in one’s capacity to act, and the transformation of action, to passive joy. Passive joyful affects are those that increase our power of acting, while remaining outside of our control. The pleasures of consumption, of consumerism, can be understood as passive joys, they promise some increase of our power, of our joys and strivings, but what they can never give, what can never be sold is the very capacity to actively produce new pleasures. 

The Fordist compromise can thus be distinguished from later, post-Fordist or neoliberal, articulations of affects, transformations that can also be described through a transformation of work and consumption. Broadly speaking, these transformations can initially be described by a dismantling of the security and stability of work. The Fordist compromise carried with it a dimension of stability, brought about by collective bargaining and the centrality of the contract.[9] Neoliberalism as it is defined by Lordon, is a first and foremost a transformation of the norms and structures that organize and structure action. As such it is fundamentally asymmetrical, worker’s are exposed to more and more risk, while capitalists, specifically those concerned with financial capital, are liberated from the classical risks of investment.[10] This loss of security for the worker fundamentally changes the affective dimension of money. It is no longer an object of hope, the possible means of realizing one’s desires, but becomes that which wards off fear. Money becomes part of the desire for security, the only possible security: one’s skills, one’s actions, will have no value in the future, but money always will.[11] One could understand this shift from Fordism to neoliberalism as a shift from a regime of hope (tinged with fear) to a regime of fear (tinged with hope). Hope and fear cannot be separated, but that does not mean that a given affective composition is not defined more by one than the other. Thus, it could be argued that precarity is best understood as an affective concept. It is less of a matter of some objective shift in the status of security than it is a shift in how work and security is perceived.[12] If precarity can be used to adequately describe contemporary economic life it is less because everyone is working under some kind of temporary or part time contract, although these have become significant, than it is because of a constant sense of insecurity infuses every work situation.[13] Precarity affects even stable employment through its technological transformation, it is always possible to be working or at least in touch with work, and a generalized anxiety infuses all of work, as more indirect measures of productivity replace the productivity of the assembly line.[14] Indirect, fragmented, and immaterial work of services, knowledge management, and emotional labor are less subject to direct quantification, the measure of units produced, and are thus subject to review and evaluation. Generalized insecurity, constant contact, and the uncertainty of evaluation define the neoliberal economy of fear. 

The shift from Fordism to neoliberalism cannot just be described as a shift from hope to fear, from a desire for money grounded on the expanding terrain of a good life to a desire grounded on insecurity of the future. It is a fundamentally different affective composition, one that transforms the relation to work as much as money. As Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue in The New Spirit of Capitalism, one of the central aspects of neoliberalism, at least at the level of the language of managers and economists, is its presentation of insecurity as opportunity.[15]The breakdown of the security that functioned as the backdrop of Fordist desire, making possible a linear arrow of accumulation, is presented as liberation as a freedom from bureaucracy and control. The constant movement from project to project, the lack of stability and long-term connections, is attached not to fear, the lost of security, but to hope, to the constant ability to make new connections, to break with the past in the name of a new future. As work becomes more an more insecure, less and less capable of providing a linear and stable progression, it becomes more and more consuming of time and energy. Neoliberalism is a massive rearticulation of not only the relation to money, becoming both an object of desire and fear, but of risk as well. The new spirit of capitalism revalorizes risk. 

Far from being a return to some fundamental fear, neoliberalism demands the highest coefficient of colinearization, the correlation of individual striving and the striving of the mode of production. It is no accident that the vocabulary of neoliberalism, terms such as “human capital,” “personal brand,” “network,” etc. all reproduce the idea of an identity of individual and capital. This is a transformation of work as well; work is no longer defined as something endured, as a necessary passivity that is exchanged for money, for the joys of consumption. Work instead becomes the terrain of self-realization and actualization. This transformation is not just a matter of a fundamental different representation of the breakdown of stability, the presentation of insecurity as freedom, itself a variant of the spontaneous philosophy of the sphere of consumption, but also of a breakdown of the boundaries separating work from life. This is in part an effect of the instability of work, as jobs become more precarious, or are even appear to be precarious, work itself becomes a kind of perpetual application for the job.[16] The use of the phrase ‘networking’ reflects this breakdown, it is a social idea not just for times of unemployment, when making new contacts becomes paramount, but it is an ideal that encompasses all social relations. Weak ties, the ties that connect one to co-workers and colleagues, become invested with maximum hope and fear, as any tie, any relation could possible alter ones future. This precarious investment in relations with others is further complicated by the proliferation of technologies of sharing and surveillance that make self-presentation not just an isolated moment, for the workday or job interview, but a constant task. The networking, flexibility, and constant self-surveillance of the job search become a defining characteristic of contemporary labour. All the while this characteristic is purported to be not a repression of one’s fundamental self and identity, but its expression.[17] It is not just that the networking and the labor of appearing motivated, engaged, and enthusiastic has to be a kind of deep acting, demanding a great deal of commitment, but that workplace also encompasses those activities and relations that would seem to be outside of it, increasingly trying to make leisure, play, and creativity part of its structure. 

Lordon’s presentation is schematic, overly so, in his recently published La Société des Affects, he augments this schema by turning to two of the final propositions of Part Three of Ethics. In those final passages Spinoza argues that there are as many loves and hates ‘as there are species of objects by which we are affected’ (EIIIP56) and ‘each affect of each individual differs from the affect of another as much as the essence of one from the essence of the other’ (EIIIP57). The multiple objects, and multiple strivings, constitute the basis for multiple affective compositions, each shifting and ambivalent as the same object is both the object of love and hate, and the same individual comes to hate what they once loved. Rereading these propositions back into the schematic history of different affective modes of production does not dispense with the latter, shattering it into a pure multiplicity where a thousand flowers bloom. Rather, these differences, variations of love and hate, must be understood as variations on a dominant theme. As Lordon argues there will always be bosses who are kind and generous, work situations that engage a broader range of activity, but these differences and deviations are ultimately just different expressions of the same fundamental relation. The nicest boss in the world cannot fundamentally alter the fundamental structure of the Fordist or neoliberal labor conditions, the affective engagement at the level of individual intention does nothing to alter the basic relation with the activity and object.[18]This affective veneer, the work of human relations, is not inconsequential: more than the role it plays in motivating individual workers, the real work it does it producing the appearance of difference, a society of individual actions rather the persistent structures. Much of the quotidian criticism of work, or of capitalism in general, focuses on the differences: we complain about this boss, or protest this big corporation for being particularly offensive, but do not address the fundamental relation of exploitation or the profit motive which exceeds the different ways in which it is instantiated. The plurality, a plurality dictated by what Spinoza would call the spontaneous order of nature, the different ways in which things have affected us, takes precedence over the perception of common relations. 

To this emphasis on plurality as a perpetual alibi, we can add another thesis from Spinoza. As Spinoza argues, we are more likely to hate or love an act that we consider to be free than one which is considered necessary. On this last point Spinoza’s affective economy intersects with one of the central points of Marx’s critique of political economy, that of fetishism, which could in part be summed up as perceiving the capitalist mode of production as necessary and natural rather than the product of social relations. The naturalization of the economy, its existence as self-evident natural laws, makes it difficult for us to hate it, to become indignant. The affective economy of capitalism is one in which it is easy to become angry and grateful at the deviations, the cruel bosses and the benevolent philanthropists, while the structure itself, the fundamental relations of exploitation, are deemed too necessary, too natural, to merit indignation. The naturalization of the economy, its fetishization, is coupled with its complexity, which makes it difficult for us to recognize its determination of our striving. We might be able to trace the causes which have determined us to like this or that thing, have this or that taste, but it is so hard to grasp the causes which have channeled our striving into wage labor and our grafted our desires onto the purchasing of commodities, so much so that work and consumption seem to be a natural conditions rather than historical institutions.  

The production of indignation is a difficult task, it goes against not just the perceived necessity of the capitalist mode of production but the ways in which our very desires, our most intimate strivings, have been produced by capitalism. From this perspective Spinoza’s central provocation to a critique of political economy is not the isolated remark about the power of money, but the fundamental thesis that men “believe themselves free because they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined” (EIIIP2S). This assertion cuts against any assertion of the supposed desire for capitalism, the desire for consumer goods, etc., as its justification, such desires are merely effects taken as causes. Its destructive dimension, its pars destruens, is quite clear; what is less clear, however, is how it constitutes a positive political project. The starting point, beyond the difficult recognition of the way in which we are already determined, is Spinoza’s recognition that we endeavor to of those things that increase our joy, and shun those thoughts which weaken and sadden us. This affective tendency not only explains why we “fight for our servitude as if it was salvation,” but also why we continue, against all evidence to believe that the current economic system will eventually come around, reward us for our efforts. Moreover, not only must any radical transformation break the lines of articulation that weave together striving with labor, happiness with consumption, it must produce other joys, other ways to strive. A revolution is as much a reorientation of our affective relations as it is of social relations and cannot be one without the other. 

Portuguese translation here; Italian here; Spanish here; Turkish here.

[1] Lordon 2010, p. 54.

[2] Marx 1977, p. 899. 

[3] Macherey 1995, p. 105.

[4] Lordon 2012, p. 67.

[5] Albiac 1996 p. 15. 

[6] Weeks 2011, p. 43. 

[7] Marx 1977, p.718. 

[8] Lordon 2010, p. 49. 

[9] Lordon 2002, p. 70. 

[10] Citton 2012, p. 68. 

[11] Lordon 2010, p. 44. 

[12] Bernant 2011, p. 201. 

[13] Southwood 2011, p. 16.

[14] Berardi 2009, p. 32. 

[15] Boltanski and Chiapello 2005, p. 64. 

[16] Southwood 2010, p. 27. 

[17] Cederström and Fleming 2012, p. 10. 

[18] Lordon 2013, p. 94.


unemployed negativity said...

Portuguese translation here:

unemployed negativity said...

Italian here:

unemployed negativity said...

Spanish here:

unemployed negativity said...

Turkish here: