Presented in Santiago, Chile
Of all the various provocations in Lire le Capital there is perhaps none more provocative than structural causality. In this case the provocation can be measured in this case in the gap between the implications of the concept, its effects on social relations, subjectivity, and history, and its formulation, which is provisional and partial—mutilated as Spinoza might say. Structural or metonymic causality posits that the economy and society, base and superstructure, is neither a linear transitive cause, nor a relation of expression, but a cause which only exists in and through its effects. Or, put otherwise, the effects of the economy in the spheres of ideology must be thought of as causes as much as effects, as conditions of its reproduction. Framed in this way the concept of “structural (or immanent) causality” is not just a concept limited to its appearance in Lire le Capital, but it becomes integral to Althusser’s later examination of ideology and reproduction. Reproduction is the necessary condition for seeing ideology as not just an effect of economic structures but their necessary precondition. Reproduction is another way of viewing the immanent nature of the mode of production, how its effects in the sphere of subjectivity and social relations, become necessary conditions. Althusser’s writing shows a different trajectory, not only did reproduction become the specific theme of Sur la Reproduction, but the manuscripts on “aleatory materialism” also return to reproduction, thinking necessity from contingency, as the becoming necessary of the encounter. It is a matter of thinking the coexistence of reproduction and non-reproduction, which is to say class struggle, without resorting to a voluntarist conception of political action. Non-reproduction must be as immanent as reproduction, the conditions of the unraveling of a given mode of production must be as integral to it as its perpetuation. It is this trajectory which has been taken up by subsequent readers of not only Althusser, but of Spinoza and Marx as well.
From Immanent Causality to Reproduction
In order to make this argument it is necessary to first to think through not just the points of contiguity of structural causality and reproduction, the overlap of their respective problems and articulation, but also the manner in which they redefine and transform each other. In doing so it must acknowledge both the heterogeneity of the different interventions, arguments, and concepts, and the overall organization of their logic. This is true of not only Lire le Capital, which is made up of different interventions, and different authors, but of Althusser’s later texts, defined as is often the case, by their intervention in a specific conjuncture.
Immanent, structural, or metonymic causality appears in Althusser’s contribution to Lire le Capital, under a barrage of names and conceptual fields, names and concepts ranging from the history of philosophy to psychoanalysis. This barrage is framed in response to particular problem: “…with what concept are we to think the determination of either an element or a structure by a structure.” In some sense the definition here is primarily negative. The mode of production cannot be thought in terms of a transitive causality, as a linear transmission of cause to effect, or of a whole that is expressed in the entirety of its effects, as kind of cultural zeitgeist, permeating everything in equal measure. Spinoza is named to give this term its clarity and lineage. “…it implies that the structure is immanent in its effects in the Spinozist sense of the term, that the whole existence of the structure consists in its effects, in short that the structure, which is merely a specific combination of its peculiar elements, is nothing outside its effects." Following both the spirit and letter of the invocation of Spinoza, we could say that the mode of production, the economy, does not exist as a simple cause, standing outside and above the social relations that it determines, but exist only in and through its effects.
As much as this section constitutes a rupture, and a theoretical revolution, it is theoretical revolution that is uneven its effects even in terms of Marx’s writing, let alone Marxism. Althusser spends the remaining pages of the section detailing the extent to which Marx falls behind his own revolution, returning to concepts of essence and appearance, of a linear distinction between cause and effect. Not the least in this list of uneven and incomplete development is the concept of commodity fetishism. As Althusser argues fetishism is all too often reduced to simply to “subjective effects produced in the economic subjects by their place in the process, their site in the structure." However, Marx also asserts that this appearance is not subjective, but objective through and through, a structure determined by other structures and not simply the effect of the economy, of isolated commodity producers, on subjectivity. To which we could add that not only are they not just subjective, they are not simply effects; the appearance of the commodity, and with it social relations, is as much a cause, a condition of the capitalist mode of production, as an effect. Thus, Marx’s “immense theoretical revolution” entails not just a rethinking of causality, but also the categories of essence and appearance, subjective and objective. These conceptual categories and distinctions come apart in the face of another problem, less to do with the history of philosophy and its concepts, and more specific to the problem at hand, and that is the distinction between production and reproduction.
It is Etienne Balibar’s contribution to Lire le Capital that makes this connection between reproduction and structural causality explicit. Balibar picks up on one of Marx’s most provocative formulations, that the process of production is a double production, producing things, commodities, and producing and reproducing social relations as well. This relation, Balibar argues, must be understood as a disjunction more than a conjunction. Production, the production of things, has a fundamentally different causality and temporality than the production of social relations. As Balibar writes, “There are two concepts, the concept of the appearance and the concept of the effectivity of the structure of the mode of production.” Production is what we see, it conforms to our quotidian experience of temporality, it is the temporality and experience of the transitive causality of the working day, which is to say the phenomenological experience in capitalism. In contrast to this reproduction is a different temporality and different causality; it has always already begun, its beginning is its end, Reproduction does not just exceed the temporal conditions of the living present. It also exceeds the confines of the economic instance. Reproduction implies the effects of the non-economic conditions of production, law, the state, the police, etc. on the conditions of production. Reproduction demands thinking the intersection of different elements, different structures, the effect of which also constitutes a cause, and vice versa. It is with respect to reproduction that the extent that the immense theoretical revolution of immanent causality becomes clear.
Everything that Balibar asserts in his contribution to Lire Le Capital, reproduction as reproduction of relations, and the temporal and conceptual shift from production, (even Marx’s letter to Kugelman), is repeated in Althusser’s famous essay on Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses and the manuscript Sur la Reproduction. What Althusser stresses in this context is not the theoretical innovation of immanent causality, but the difficulty of arriving at the perspective of reproduction. Every day daily consciousness is mired in the temporal condition of production, and, we could add the causal conditions of transitive causality, seeing only serial repetition and the immediate causality of proximate causes. As Althusser writes:
"The tenaciously self-evident truths (the empiricist kind of ideological self-evident truths) of the point of view of production alone, or even of simple productive practice (which is itself abstract with respect to the process of production), are so much a part of our everyday consciousness’ that it is extremely difficult, not to say practically impossible, to rise to the standpoint of reproduction. Yet, outside this standpoint, everything remains abstract (not just one-sided, but distorted). That holds even at the level of production and, a fortiori, at the level of simple practice. "
One could argue that this is the same problem, that of immanent causality, grasped from the other side, not from the concept but from experience. Quotidian experience is defined by its limited perspective in the structure, unable to grasp the structural conditions that situate and determine it. As much as Althusser’s writing on reproduction contintues and expands the concept, and conceptual revolution, of immanent causality, it also adds, or further extends, a particular structure that reproduces the structure. In Lire le Capital, Althusser only made a brief allusion to the “objective,” which is to say structural dimension of the subjective attitude of fetishism. Now, in this latter text, ideology, of the ideological apparatus, is the proper name of the objective production of subjectivity, or, to use a less awkward term, the structural effect and condition of other structures. As Etienne Balibar sums up Althusser’s innovation as follows.
Instead of adding a theory of the “superstructure” to the existing theory of the structure, he aims at transforming the concept of the structure itself by showing that its process of “production” and “reproduction” originarily depends on unconscious ideological conditions. As a consequence a social formation is no longer representable in dualistic terms—a thesis that logically should lead us to abandon the image of the “superstructure”. Another concept of historical complexity must be elaborated, with opposite sociological, anthropological, and ontological prerequisites.
This other concept is perhaps immanent causality, but as we will see below, this is not without further problems and qualifications. In some sense the provocation exceeds its conceptualization. What immanent causality destroys, the division between cause and effect, base and superstructure, before and after, the immense theoretical revolution, exceeds the concepts constructed in its place. The partial and provisional nature of Althusser’s own solution, the manuscript on reproduction is only a partial and incomplete response to the problem.
Reproducing Marxist Spinozism
If Lire le Capital initiates a generation of Marxist-Spinozists, a list that includes not only direct descendants such as Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, but also two generations of thinkers across Europe, US, and the world, it does so precisely through the provisional and incomplete nature of its formulation. It is possible to see Althusser’s remarks on “immanent causality” and reproduction as stretched between two theses, or aspects of Spinoza’s thought: the immanent causality of nature, and what Althusser terms the opacity of the immediate, the imagination as the degree zero of thought and perception. These aspects are related, in Althusser’s thought as much as Spinoza’s, defining the poles of science and ideology. This relation, in all of its aspects, constitutes the defining problem of Althusser’s thought throughout the seventies. However, I am interested in diverging from that problem here, and trying to think through the relation between immanent causality, reproduction, and subjectivity.
As something of a belated response to Althusser’s provocation, a recent generation of Marxist-Spinozists Frédéric Lordon, and Chantal Jaquet have devoped both a Spinozist theory of reproduction and non-reproduction. Starting with Lordon it is possible to see something that is fateful to the spirit, if not the letter of Althusser’s provocation. Like Althusser, Lordon sees Spinoza as answering a question posed by Marx, as being the necessary complement rather than influence of Marx’s thought. Only this problem is not causality, but reproduction itself: why do workers work for capital rather for their own liberation? Lordon answers this question by turning to what could be roughly called Spinoza’s anthropology, the account of the affects and desire developed in Part Three of the Ethics. As much as this turn, this anthropology, can be understood as a turn away from Althusser, placing the question of the human or humanity at the center of its conceptualization of reproduction, Lordon does so in a manner that invokes the spirit if not the letter of immanent causality. As Lordon writes, “We do not merely live in a capitalist economy, but in a capitalist society” (Lordon, 86). Capital must be understood not just as an economy, a single instance of the social structure that has effects on other elements of society, but is itself the totality of society or the immanent in its effects. These two conceptions, totality or immanent cause, are not at all identical, but Lordon does not leave much on which to choose which concept is operative. His point is more fundamental. Capital, like every other social structure, can only exist if it reproduces itself not just at the level of economic structure, or even legal and political institutions but at the level of desires.
As Lordon argues, humans beings, like everything else, a defined by a fundamental striving, the conatus, but this striving is intransitive, without a given object or a goal. The determination of the striving, the assigning of particular objects and goals, is the history of the different encounters and relations. If something is perceived to increase joy or sadness it will be either desired or shunned accordingly. Spinoza primarily considered this history as an individual history, or biography; a history of one’s encounters and relations defining a particular character or ingenium, to use a word that will become important in the pages to follow. Character, habit, or ingenium, that which we strive for and struggle against is determined in part by a history of an often forgotten and overlooked history of encounters. Lordon adds a historical and social dimension to this formation of character. The reason money, as Spinoza argues, “occupies the mind of multitude more than anything else” is that there is no object, no desire, that is not conjoined with the image or idea of money. Far from a theoretical binary which posits individual striving, or interest, opposed to social forces, Lordon argues that Spinoza’s geometry of the effects makes it possible to recognize that social forces exist on in and through individual striving and vice versa, what he terms “energetic structuralism.” As Lordon writes,
Collective human life reproduces itself, or begins to change solely as a consequence of the interplay of people’s inter-affections, or, to say this in the simplest way possible, out of the effect they have on one another, but always through the mediations of institutions and social relations. (Lordon, 138)
Society exists only in and through its individualized affects; or, to put it differently, individual striving, the joys and sadness of individual life, exist only in and through social relations.
As much as Lordon’s mention of a capitalist society mirrors without invoking a kind of immanent causality, it does so on a terrain that is ambiguously historicist. The center of Lordon’s argument is a progressive development of the colinearization of desire. At its first stage, that of primitive accumulation, all that is required for the reproduction of capital is the foreclosure of any non-capitalist alternative, the destruction of the commons or non-commodified conditions of reproduction. It is fear, the fear of starvation that compels the reproduction of capital. The increase of consumer society transforms this condition. One works no longer just to avoid starvation but to acquire objects of desire. Fordism is not just a new method of production, or a new regime of acquisition, but a new organization of desire. Finally, and this is the real object of Lordon’s critique, the third organization of desire, that of neoliberalism, organizes happiness and desire, the joyful affects, are no longer found in the consequence of work, the objects of consumption, but are found in the activity itself. This is the mantra of contemporary neoliberalism, that, in the words of Steve Jobs, “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” It is this last regime of desire that tolerates no deviation, no gap between the striving of the individual and that of the capitalist enterprise, reducing every individual to “companies of one” that work harder the more they seek their desire and satisfaction in work itself. It is at this point that capital becomes immanent with the historical field. Lordon, however, is ambiguously historicist on this point. Ambiguous first because his remarks about capital are divided between a general anthropology in which every society, every mode of production, reproduces itself through the organization of desire, and a specific critique of contemporary capitalism as demanding a specific colinearization of desire. This ambiguity can be turn back onto Althusser’s text as well. Given Althusser’s argument about the historical legacy of Spinoza’s discovery of immanent causality, its emergence and eclipse, it is possible to ask why does the concept return in the mid-sixties? Perhaps, and this can only be a provocation, the capitalist mode of production appears more “immanent” more dependent upon its effects in the emergent consumer society of France in the sixties than in Marx’s time when capital was still emerging from its pre-capitalist conditions, still dependent on the state to destroy pre-capitalist relations. Immanent causality is not explicitly theorized with respect to its historical moment, the moment of real subsumption, but it bares traces of its historical period.
Without intending to Lordon’s schema of three different regimes returns us to Althusser’s critique of historicism: it seems both necessary and obvious to argue that the three regimes of desire Lordon articulates must coexist in some sense in the same historical conjuncture, there are obviously people compelled to work out of fear of starvation working along side individuals motivated by consumer goods as well those searching for their dream job. This is not just true globally, but locally as well: you could find all three in the same coffee shop, where busing tables coexists alongside of networking. Or, more to the point, these same articulations of desire would coexist even in the same individual, in the same compulsion to return to work the same day, which would be another way of asserting the ambivalence of the affects. Which in turn raises the more difficult problem of how to think together immanent causality and the differential temporality of the historical conjuncture: the former suggests a kind of self-identity of capital producing and reproducing itself while the later posits every historical moment as torn between different temporalities, as absolutely not self-identical.
Lordon traverses the same basic problems of Althusser, but with fundamental differences, of what could be called its philosophical anthropology and historicism. Or rather he introduces both an anthropological reading of Spinoza, focusing on conatus and the affects as the articulation of human striving, and a historicist reading of immanent causality, understood in terms of the different historical articulation of desire. It could be possible to see this as a step back of sorts. However, there is a bit at least one step forward in this step back. Lordon’s turn towards the affects expands both the immanence of immanent causality, reminding us that such a cause must be extended to its intimately lived effects, and the terrain of reproduction. Reproduction of the relations of production are as much about the reproduction of desires, as they is ideology or an imagination. The conatus has to be understood as structured and structuring, structured by the history of encounters and affects, and structuring in the sense that its desires are what animate and give rise to institutions, economy, etc. Every child knows that an institution that is not in some sense passionately lived would not last a day. What Lordon foregrounds is the intimacy of immanent causality, the extent to which the economy, capital, is not just an economic structure, or even ideology, but an organization of striving, of desire. Framed in this way it is possible to understand the connection between the step forwards and backwards. The more immanent causality is brought into the intimate space of subjectivity, the more subjectivity is seen as not just an effect but also a cause, the more it seems possible to see this causality as a closed circle, as capital endlessly reproducing itself by producing the subjects that desire it. Immanent causality risks reproducing a historicism that goes far beyond the expressive variety.
Here the later Althusser offers something as a response. While Althusser’s later writing is most often celebrated for its return to the event, to contingency, but as Althusser argues, a reconsideration of contingency of the event cannot be separated from a reconsideration of necessity. As Althusser writes, “Instead of thinking contingency as a modality of necessity, or an exception to it, we must think necessity as the becoming necessary of the encounter of contingencies.” Everything would seem to rest then, on how we understand this becoming necessary, how necessity or at least the appearance of necessity emerges in a world of contingency. The political philosophers that Althusser engages with, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx all offer different answers, and these different answers constitute the bulk of their political philosophy. For Machiavelli this necessity is identified with the figure of the prince: the contingent event, the prince seizing power, can sustain itself or maintain itself if the prince possesses sufficient virtú, is skillful enough to manage his appearance amongst the people, the affects of hatred and fear, then his power will last. For Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, puts forward the audacious thesis of the “radical absence of society as the essence of society,” the becoming necessary of society is constituted by the increased specialization and hierarchy constituted by society itself. Once instituted society becomes its own rationale: “ [A]s soon as one man needed the help of another, as soon as one man realized that it was useful for a single man to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property came into existence, labor became necessary." For Marx the becoming necessary of the contingent encounter of workers and capitalist is the transition from the force of the state to the compulsion of the economy. As Marx writes, “The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases." Commodity production and wage labor become their own reciprocal justifications. Becoming necessary, the transformation of the encounter into something necessary, is considered in terms of social dependency, political strategy, and economic compulsion. Politics, society, and economics, three figures of becoming necessary that in most accounts would be differentiated, distinguished by their relative degrees of necessity, are considered to be simply different versions of the same general problem, of the becoming necessary of the contingent encounter. They are not just the same problem, but they also come together insofar as they are subjectified, internalized.
Rousseau, Machiavelli, and Marx can also be considered three different modes and temporalities of reproduction. Rousseau underscores the fundamental fact of social relations reproducing themselves; once one lives in a society, a society defined by the division of labor and dependency, its very existence acts as a compulsion to reproduce itself. The social order, the very division between farmer and blacksmith, is its own reproduction. In contrast to this Machiavelli underscores the political dimension of reproduction, the way in which the state reproduces its own authority. An authority that is reproduced through the figure of the Prince the representation of state power with its corresponding myths and affective constitution of love and fear. Finally, Marx underscores the economic basis of reproduction, the way in which anonymous and seemingly natural institutions of the economy reproduce themselves. If this three aspects can cohere, forming a massive “society effect” in which society, politics, and economy all not only cohere, but also reinforce each other, social norms, political rule, and economic relations all “playing the same score,” constituting a massive monolith of reproduction, they do so only insofar as that score is played, individually lived and desired. Or, more accurately, the score is transindividual, constituting the basis for individual and collective experience. It is because the structure must be lived to be reproduced, and reproduced to be lived, that it can always unravel as much as sustain itself.
Here Chantal Jaquet’s work on “nonreproduction” is perhaps useful. In order to clarify what is meant by nonreproduction it is necessary to clarify that Jaquet takes as her object precisely what is occluded from both sides of a certain ideological divide. On the one side there the various theorists of reproduction, from Althusser to Bourdieu, who examine the way in which social institutions from the school to the family necessarily reproduce the relations of production. Opposed to this there is a different discourse of not only a different political orientation, conservative or right rather than Marxist, but of a different epistemological register, more anecdotal than theoretical, that asserts the non-reproduction of these relations through the stories of individuals of humble beginnings who have made it rich, or have otherwise crossed the divides of the economic, racial, or gendered order. Against this division, which posits non-reproduction as unthinkable on one-side, as something which does not happen, and as the necessary truth of human agency, on the other, Jaquet argues that non-reproduction must be thought not just in its singularity but in terms of its structural conditions. The structural conditions of non-reproduction are the same as the structural conditions of reproduction, but thought in terms of their tensions and conflicts rather than their overlap and intersection.
Non-reproduction must be thought in and in through the singular and overdetermined nature of the particular strivings, the particular complexion that defines not just each individual but their relation to their class. Turning to Spinoza Jaquet borrows the term ingenium to theorize this complexion, the intersection of social relations and individual desires. As Jaquet writes,
Ingenium could be defined as a complex of sedimented affects that are constitutive of an individual, of his or her way of life, judgments, and behavior. It is rooted in the dispositions of the body and includes physical and mental ways of being. (Ted Stolze's translation)
The different factors that constitute a particular complexion carry with them the particular class relations actualized in multiple different ways of speaking, acting, feeling, etc. Class is not just something that exists as an economic relation, defined by one’s relation to the means of production, nor is it simply defined by ideology, it goes much deeper than either term suggests, becoming something felt and carried in the body. It is the effect of and the reproduction of multiple different factors, economic, ideological, But these factors are different, maintaining their distinct relations and causality: ideological, affective, and other aspects of class can cohere and not cohere in a given conjuncture, and a given individual. One finds an echo of Spinoza’s assertion that only ideas can determine ideas, and only bodies can determine bodies, and the identity and difference of minds and bodies, ideologies and affects, is central to Jaquet’s concept of ingenium. The multiple factors of the ingenium, minds and bodies, ideas and affects, cannot be the effect of a single cause because they have different causal relations. Thus, Jaquet’s work constitutes an important rejoinder to Lordon, rather than see the linear causality of the economy, and the current regime of work, on the conatus of the individual shaping and determining a particular subjectivity which is nothing other than the reproduction of a particular mode of accumulation, it is necessary to grasp the multiple factors, ideas and comportments as much as affects, that constitute a particular complexion.
Here Althusser’s writings on aleatory reproduction and Jaquet on non-reproduction intersect, albeit roughly. Whereas Althusser posits the heterogeneity of the structure, of the different modalities of becoming necessary, a heterogeneity tied to the different instances of social, economic, and political dimensions of reproduction, Jaquet asserts the heterogeneity of the individual complexion or ingenium. These two heterogeneities overlap, but are not identical. Or, to be more precise, structural causality, the causality of structures upon structures, necessitates that the ingenium of the individual must be thought in terms of its relation and nonrelation, the relation and non-relation of ideas and affects, concepts and comportments (thus we see that the reference to Spinoza, and to the different causality of ideas and things, was perhaps not so out of place in Althusser’s writing on aleatory materialism) The identity and difference of ideas and affects, social relations and political representations, relates ultimately to the identity and difference of reproduction and nonreproduction of a particular mode of production. To twist a phrase from Antonio Gramsci, we could say that the modern individual is composed of elements of the most primitive social relation, the state form, and the market, as well as elements of oppositions and tensions of all three. The historical heterogeneity of the given conjuncture is also the heterogeneity of the ingenium of individuals composing and sustaining it, and vice versa.
While Lordon’s thought can be understood as a particular logical culmination of Althusser, or more to the point, the drawing of a conclusion of the points of Marx and Spinoza that Althusser suggests but does not develop, it does so in a manner that is, to an extent uneven, revealing limits as much as insights. Lordon’s energetic structuralism can be understood as the completion of structural causality, positing that the effects of a structure must be thought down to the intimacy of desire. However, in doing so Lordon reveals the tension between structural causality, understood as reproduction, and differential temporality, understood as historical transformation. Jaquet’s work offers the necessary corrective. If it is necessary to supplement Spinozist causality with a Spinozist anthropology, that anthropology must be one of the overdetermination of both individual and collective ingenium, or of the transindividual basis of each. The differential historicity does not just encompass those grand institutions and apparatuses, the state, law, and even capital, that carry with them their bloody origins, current contradictions, and future possibilities, but the more mundane and quotidian aspects of desire, knowledge, and comportment that define a particular individual’s life as well. Against the apparent monolith that makes capital seem as inevitable as fate we must seek to see the intertwining of reproduction and nonreproduction that defines every conjuncture, every individuation, every social relation.
absolutely phenomenal essay, glad to see you and others like you keeping such a vital legacy going.
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