Saturday, November 12, 2016

Nexus Rerum: Spinoza and Marx (again)

I did not really have an image for this post,
so I thought I would just plug the Spanish translation of my first book.

This a paper I wrote awhile ago. I never posted it, but thought I would now because a) I am working on some of the same problems now and b) I have no time for blogging now. b is basically an effect of a. 

“…in the postindustrial age the Spinozan critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.”

-Antonio Negri

The encounter of Spinoza and Marx is arguably one of the most productive encounters in contemporary philosophy. This encounter has several origins and multiple trajectories, its most recent wave begins with the works of Alexandre Matheron, Gilles Deleuze, and Louis Althusser, continuing into multiple waves, across different variants of Marxism and Spinozism. This encounter is not, as is often the case of the dominant forms of philosophical writing and research, a matter of discerning the influences that descend from one to the other, or the arguments that would divide them. It is rather an articulation of their fundamental points of intersection, points that are not simply given but must be produced by a practice of philosophy. 

One such point of articulation is their shared materialism, materialism understood as the primacy of action to thought, of the order of bodies and relations to consciousness. This perhaps seems obvious in the case of Marx, whose formulation “Life determines consciousness, consciousness does not determine life” can be understood as one fundamental articulation of materialism. It is perhaps less obvious in the case of Spinoza, despite his supposed assertion of the identity of the order and connection of thought and extension, of ideas and things as two expressions of the infinite power of substance. However, Spinoza’s materialism is not just to be found in his understanding of the ultimate constitutive order of the universe, but in the secondary status he ascribes to thought. We are, as Spinoza, argues, “born ignorant of the causes of things…and conscious of our appetite.” Moreover, it so happens that the causes of our appetite is one of the first things that we are ignorant of, we think that we desire something because it is good, unable to grasp the experiences, the relations that cause us to call one thing good and another evil. There is in both Spinoza and Marx, a secondariness to consciousness, thought is not the act of subject mastering a world, but a secondary and derived effect of practices and relations, fundamentally unaware of its conditions.

This basic materialist principle, “the secondariness of the consciousness,” can be found not just at the level of their specific formulations, their ontologies and politics of history, but at the level of their particular practice of philosophy.[1] I am thinking specifically of the end of the first chapter of Capital, the famous passage on the “Fetishism of Commodities and its Secret” and the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics. These texts are well known. The first has given us the concept of commodity fetishism, reification, and various criticisms that extend far beyond its specific engagement. The latter has been described by Althusser as the matrix of every possible theory of ideology, and has continued to act on the history of philosophy, albeit at a distance. Their influence cannot be ignored, separately and together they have formed the backdrop of much of the intersecting concepts of reification, the imaginary, and ideology. Beyond or prior to this history, however, there is the specific role they play within their respective texts and arguments. 

They can both be described as preemptive, preemptive in the sense that as much as they are situated within their particular arguments, discussing the particular problems of the commodity form and of the anthropological-theological imaginary, they necessarily come before their necessary philosophical conditions. Spinoza’s text begins to expound something of the human tendency to see ourselves as a kingdom within a kingdom, before developing the fundamental propositions detailing knowledge, affects, and desire, which make up Parts III and IV of the Ethics. It is an anthropology that exists prior to the very conditions of positing an anthropology. Marx's text presents Robinson Crusoe, the medieval world, and the famous (but cryptic) free association of producers before developing the very idea of a mode of production, the social structure. This preemptive strike is in each case necessary: both Spinoza and Marx recognize that what they asserting goes against the prevailing common sense, the prevailing consciousness of God or capitalism. They also recognize that the causes or conditions of this “spontaneous philosophy” are not ideas and propositions, but life, understood as causes and conditions for viewing a world in a determinate way. They are the point where each philosophy confronts its absolute enemy, its absolute outside, whether it be in the form of the entire anthropo-theological imaginary of a free subject and a teleologically oriented God or in the reified and ahistorical acceptance of exchange value. They are the point where the concept intersects with polemic, where an argument confronts the world and world view which is opposed to it. 

What is confronted by each of these tests is less a specific philosophical position, or a figure from the history of philosophy, than an entire common sense or way of thinking. Both the section on “Commodity Fetishism” and the Appendix of Part One address the way in which the world necessarily appears to everyone, a common sense and not a canonical text. In the first case it appears to be made up of objects, commodities that possess value in and of themselves, independent of any human action. In the second case, that of Spinoza’s critique of the anthropomorphic and teleological thought, there is the way in which the world appears, first as something exterior to us, as something that we act that, if it is governed at all, it is regulated by an unknowable but human-all-too-human god. Despite the difference of cause, a different that relates to the critique in each case, religion and political economy, each passage deals with the question of value, with the extent to which the value that a thing embodies in terms of its worth or merit, is itself a quality of a thing or a subjective state, a mode of imagining. Of course this might seem that I am simply equivocating with respect to the concept of value, vacillating between the ethical and economic meaning. (Although it is hardly my problem alone) What sustains this connection in this case is that for Spinoza and Marx value is neither found in the things themselves, as in the case of what Alexandre Matheron calls the objectivity of values, nor is it a purely subjective state. Value is not an intrinsic quality, nor is it a purely subjective state. It is something produced by actions, structures, and relations. For both Marx and Spinoza value has to be thought in terms of its genesis, a genesis that includes the structures and relations that constitute it, and the way that it necessarily appears.[2]

Which is to say that in each case, the world, the necessary appearance of things, encompasses a constitution of subjectivity. Subjectivity is posited at first as a cause. The values of objects, commodities, and the intentions of an unknowable God are initially sought because they meet our needs, or what we perceive to be our needs. However, as soon as they become instituted, as soon as the market and religion are constituted, their values are less the effects of actions than their causes. As Marx argues, to the workers, “their social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.” A similar logic, in which the effect of an action is transformed into its cause, can be found in Spinoza’s account of the progression from prejudice to superstition in the Appendix. Prejudice takes as its starting point the originary consciousness of desire and the ignorance of the causes of things, including our desire. Superstition is the transformation of this initial condition, its constitution into an explicit doctrine that not only reinforces this ignorance, but makes it foundational to the functioning of power, the priests and despots who interpret the signs and powers of this hidden God. As Spinoza argues in his political writings, superstition is not just a matter of doctrines and ideals, but practices, practices that constitute subjectivity in and through subjection. Subjectivity in terms of its needs and desires, is at first a cause, producing the basic conditions in which the economy or religion becomes necessary, but it ultimately becomes an effect, produced by these very institutions and structures.[3]

To generalize perhaps too strongly, we could say that what these two texts offer is a critique of the mutual constitution of subjectivity and a world, or the institutions of the world. It is a matter of what Frédéric Lordon and André Orléan refer to as “immanent transcendance”: the production, from the multitude, from collectivity, of a transcendent instance, state or an economy, through the various practices of the collectivity itself.[4] Which is not to say, despite the temptation Marx himself offers with his talk of fetishism and incense, that religion and the economy are the same, that the economy has become a new god, or something to that effect. Rather it is a matter of uncovering what is at stake in the rather forced overlapping of their respective problems, problems that are ultimately that of representation. Immanent transcendence is the way in which the effects of a given practice, of a subjective comportment appear as its cause. It is this, and not just some simple materialism, that is perhaps Marx and Spinoza’s strongest point of convergence. 

The points of divergence are no less instructive. In Spinoza’s text the constitutive illusion is that of individual autonomy, which constitutes a kingdom within in a kingdom. This autonomy is in some sense mitigated by a world of goods, by objects which are seen as a good and bad, and supplemented by God, whose autonomy and intentionality fills the gap of my frustrations.[5] In Marx’s text the constitutive illusion is that of a world of objects, of value; if the subject plays any role at all it is secondary, it is an effect of the reification of values and of its own subjective potential. At this point the divergences would appear to outweigh the communality, leaving only the basic, but not inconsequential, materialist priority of practices to representations as the only common ground. Given that Spinoza and Marx’s critique is directed alternately at anthropocentricism as much as teleology, the objectivity of value as much as its subjectivity, to what extent could even their materialism be considered similar not at the level of what it critiques, but what it proposes? Cesare Casarino has offered something of a response to this question by focusing on a not inconsequential terminological similarity between the two texts. In the Appendix, Spinoza writes of the way in which the prejudices of anthropocentricism and teleology present an obstacle to men’s understanding of the “concatenation of all things [rerum concatenationem].”[6] Casarino argues that this idea of immanence, or immanent causality, as the connection of all things, a connection without a privileged subject, object, or God at its center, matches both the spirit and the letter of Marx’s thought. In spirit it matches Marx’s general critique of capital, found most specifically in the section on primitive accumulation, where Marx counters the moralizing account of the thrift and greed with the multiple list of causes, from the slave trade to the reformation, that made capitalism possible: capital thought as the contingent encounter of all of world history. To the letter, Casarino indicates Marx’s use of nexus of all things [nexus rerum] to describe exchange value. Spinoza and Marx are able to critique the seemingly disparate philosophies of anthropocentricism and bourgeois political economy because both fail to think the nexus rerum, the connection of things, in other words, immanence, by positing the subject, God, or the law like functioning of the economy as something which exists outside the mutually constitutive connection of things. 

The “connection of all things,” the immanent order of the world is precisely what the seemingly opposed philosophical positions of subjective volition, theological transcendence, or economic necessity, cannot grasp. Thus, the connection of all things appears negatively, as the dark spot overlooked by these various philosophical perspectives. That is not its only appearance, however: in the opening section of Capital Marx’s meditations on the expanded form of value in Capital argue that value has to be thought of as nothing other than the relation of every commodity with every other commodity, of everything with everything. In a similar way Spinoza ends the first part of the Ethics with the proposition, “Nothing exists from whose nature some effect does not follow,” a proposition that offers one of the multiple implications of immanent causality. These assertions are only glimpses, only a figuration of the connections of everything with everything. In the first case, that of Marx, value even in its expanded form does not yet get us to the fully developed thought of the interconnections of everything, of immanent causality, a concept which only appears symptomatically as it were in those passages where Marx discusses capitalism as a product of the entire history of mankind down to the present. Similarly we could argue that the full effects, for lack of a better world of Spinoza’s assertion that there is nothing that does not produce effects, that everything is a cause as much as it is an effect, does not fully work its difficult logic out until we get to the affects and vicissitudes of the striving a finite conatus. An immanent ontology cannot just be uttered as a concept, but most be produced. Capital and the Ethics are two instances of this of this production. 

We could argue that what we are offered by both Spinoza and Marx is a gesture towards what we could call a communist ontology, an ontology of immanence and relations. However, this ontology is not yet a politics, or is not immediately given as such. What these two texts underscore is that the immanent ontology must be thought of as not only the condition of our thought and action, but as a condition which as cause is transformed, masked in terms of its effects. The connection of things that is the capitalist mode of production, in its global origin and everyday effects, appears not as social relation, or as a relation at all, but as the value of things. Or, as Spinoza argues, God as nature, God as the immanent cause must be understood as itself the necessary cause of the image of God as a transcendent cause, standing above the world. The immanent relations of causality must themselves be understood as the cause of the human tendency to view oneself as a “kingdom within a kingdom.” This is the immanent transcendence I referred to earlier, transcendence itself as an effect of immanence. It is an effect, but it is also a cause. There is no surer guarantee of capital’s functioning than its appearance as something necessary and timeless. As Marx writes in the concluding section of Capital, “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education [Erziehung], tradition, and habit [Gewohneit] looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self evident natural laws.” Capital reproduces itself not just at the level of the economy and politics but also and most importantly at the level of subjectivity. This point is developed even further by Spinoza, whose central political (or theological/political question),”why do men fight for their servitude as if it was salvation,” indicates an even deeper grasp of the extent to which political power is reproduced through the practices that create desires, habits, and affects. 

Despite the differences we can see that Spinoza and Marx’s respective critiques are not only similar in their preemptive form, but in their object as well. The object of their critique may be fundamentally different in its structure and history, from theology to the economy, but it is fundamentally the same in its function. The object of the preemptive critique is not this or that idea, or even ideology, but it is the point where the existing social relations becomes not just an idea but also an entire subjective comportment, a way of life. If these texts get ahead of themselves, expounding a critique that demands concepts and relations that have been not yet developed, they do so only because the ideas, concepts, and world views that they critique are precisely that which stands in the way of their conceptual development. Ideological intervention is both prior to, and an effect of,  theoretical development.  

Beyond this overlap, this similarity of the method and object of critique, what might this conjunction of Marx and Spinoza offer for thinking about philosophy about the world and the present? First, we can isolate in the two elements of the critique a general problematic that cuts through several critical terms. First, we have what is referred to as the “connection of all things,” nature, capital, or the entire profane history of the world, an object that exceeds any attempt to represent it, to bring it under the concepts of subjective intention, transcendent order, or necessary laws. This is in different cases what both Marx and Spinoza are trying to think. We could call this “the common” only in that it exists only in and through its constitutive relations. The objects of Spinoza and Marx’s critique are not entirely misguided: God and Capital are an attempt to represent the absent or immanent totality as the necessary condition of thought and action, but they do so by representing it within the existing imaginary, subordinating it to subjectivity, transcendence, and a reification of existing conditons. It is not something that can be immediately given or celebrated.[7] Grasping this connection of all things, or absent cause, means taking on the way in which it is represented, as God or the fetish of value, recognizing that these representations or ideas are nothing other than effects of the structures, its modes or necessary appearances, effects that are also simultaneously causes, necessary conditions of its reproduction. Finally, all of this, the connection of things, its representations in Gods and fetishes, and the relation between the two, as cause and effect, can only be developed through a practice of philosophy that I have awkwardly identified as “preemptive.” This practice does not see a critique of the existing ideas and representations as something secondary, as a subordinate activity best left to popularizers and pedagogy, but as a constitutive condition of philosophy itself. Philosophy only exists through its engagement with what could be called, for lack of a better word, ideology, the collection of thoughts, representations, and affects that reproduce the world and its structures of domination. 

[1] Franck Fishbach, La production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza pg. 29. 

[2] Alexandre Matheron, Individu et communauté chez Spinoza pg. 90. 

[3] Alexandre Matheron describes this particular circular causality as follows, “…il est vrai que l’Etat est fort parce que nour lui obeissons, et il est vrai aussi que nous lui obéissons parce qu’il est fort.” Individu et communauté chez Spinoza pg. 327. 

[4] Yves Citton et Frédéric Lordon, Spinoza et les Sciences Sociales pg. 246. 

[5] “The God who lies beyond the (material) world and is free to direct it according to his unconditioned will is thus the mirror image of the man who transcends the physical world and governs his own body with absolute mastery, itself a mirror image of God: a vicious theological anthropological circle.” (Montag 39) 

[6]Cesare Casarino, “Marx before Spinoza (Notes towards an Investigation)” pg. 7 The passage from Spinoza reads as follows, “But because many prejudices remain that could, and can be a great obstacle to men’s understanding the connection of things in the way that I have explained it, I consider it worthwhile to submit them here to the scrutiny of reason.” (Appendix) 

[7] “It is indeed the new world system, the third stage of capitalism, which is for us the absent totality, Spinoza’s God or Nature, the ultimate (indeed, perhaps the only) referent, the true ground of Being of our own time.” Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic pg. 82

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