With all of the attention on Spinoza by Marxists is is surprising how little is written about Spinoza and work. Spinoza has provided theories of ideology, of alienation, and even of the relation between forces and relations of production, it is surprising that few have remarked on what Spinoza actually says about labor or work. This is perhaps due to the fact that it would appear that there is little there, Spinoza's interests were elsewhere. There are only a few references to work in Spinoza, but I would argue that they are significant.
Work, or labor, appears not just as a quotidian reality in Spinoza's writing but as an activity that is formative to knowledge. As Spinoza writes describing the interpretation of signs.
"For example, a soldier, having seen traces of a horse in the sand, will immediately pass from the thought of a horse in the sand will immediately pass from the thought of a horse to the thought of a horseman, and from that to the thought of war and so on. And so each one, according as he has been accustomed to join and connect the image of things in this or that way, will pass from one thought to another "(EIIP18S)
Spinoza’s formulation is often cited as a demonstration of the act of interpretation; that signs, traces, are necessarily interpreted by and through previous signs, past acts of interpretation, and ultimately the habits or character of the individual. However, it is less remarked that the distinction that Spinoza selects to illustrate this difference is not that of nation or language but the division of labor. Soldiers and farmers interpret the same sign differently because the history of their labors has shaped their character, or ingenium, to the point that includes not just the habits of the bodies but the relation of ideas in the mind. Consciousness determines life, including how one makes sense of and interprets something like hoof prints in the sand. Spinoza thus describes human beings as spiritual automatons, arguing that minds are determined by causal relations as much as things, to which it is possible to add that spiritual automatons are programmed, or wound up differently, according to the division of labor. Work does not just divide humanity into different tasks but it also underlies our basic vocabulary of values.
"For example, if someone sees a work (which I suppose to be not yet completed) and knows that the purpose of the author of that work is to build a house, he will say that it is imperfect. On the other hand, he will call it perfect as soon as he sees that the work has been carried through to the end which its author has decided to give it. But if someone sees a work whose like he has never seen and does not know the mind of its maker, he will, of course, not be able to know whether that work is perfect or imperfect. And this seems to have been the first meaning of these words."(EIVpref)
As Spinoza argues to the extent that terms like perfect and imperfect, good and bad, have any meaning at all it is not because of the qualities of things; the terms only have meaning relative to a particular endeavor or project. Something can only judged perfect or imperfect if I know the ideal, the model that one is aspiring to create. This is a second point of connection of Marx and Spinoza, all work, all production or operation, necessarily stems from an idea. This is what separates the worst of architects from the best of bees. It is through our projects, and only through our collective and individual projects, that terms like good and bad have any meaning.
Work, labor, is the source of both the idiosyncrasies of the imagination, the different associations of farmer and soldier, and the shared sensibility of a human endeavor. It would be easy to see the associations of the farmer or soldier as inadequate and limited form of knowledge, restricting the associations and meaning of the world to one’s immediate pragmatic concerns, and the general ideas of perfect and imperfect, as the basis for adequate ideas. This is true so long as we know the projects and intention of the operation, in which case we are capable to judge. This is Spinoza’s objective in the Preface to Part Four of the Ethics to be able to use the terms good and bad once more, terms that can only have meaning relative to “an idea of man, as a model of human nature.” As the passage from the Preface alludes to, however, we are often faced with projects, endeavors, or tasks for which we do not grasp their intended purpose. If we do not know what is intended we do not know how to judge them.
Pushed a step further, deeper in Spinoza’s theory of knowledge, we could raise the question not only of values, but of the meaning of the term “work” itself. As Spinoza argues, universals are terms which would seem to have a universal meaning, but are often determined by a particular memory or association. When people use the word “man” they often have different images in mind, rational animal, featherless biped, and so on, and these particular images inflect the general discussion. We could say the same thing about “work,” which is a term used to refer a physical act of transformation, an anthropological act of meeting needs, an ethical act, in Hegel’s sense, of shaping and forming character. These different senses do not necessarily cohere or overlap.
One could argue that in different ways Hegel and Marx struggled with the contradiction of these different senses of work. In the Philosophy of Right Hegel wrestles with the contradiction between the ethical and the economic meaning of work. This appears in the problem of the rabble, of those left unemployed by the transformation of capitalist society. One can either give them jobs, violating the rules of private property and the market that dictate work, or one can give them what they need to survive without work, violating the ethical ideal of work--you know, the stuff about responsibility and self-worth that have becoming right wing talking points ever since right Hegelians. Or, in a different way, one could argue that Marx's early works were about different senses of work, what Jacques Rancière called the amphibologies. The capitalist exploitation of work could only take place through the destruction of its anthropological sense. One has to alienate your species life to make a living.
There is nothing like this in Spinoza. No attempt to think through the contradictions between the particular sensibilities of work. By way of a conclusion I will say that some sort of answer can be found by a third appearance of work in Spinoza's thought, a more ontological assertion. As Spinoza writes,
"That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone. But a thing is called necessary, or rather compelled, which is determined by another to exits and produce an effect in a certain and determinate manner." (EID7)
It so turns out that the only free thing, the only thing determined solely by its own nature, is god or nature, the infinite causal power of the universe. Finite things, modal existence, must necessarily produce, or, as Pierre Macherey argues, the more accurate translation would be “operate” (operandum) effects in determined ways. To operate is always to operate under specific conditions determined by other things, by relations. We must necessarily begin where we are, with the confused and conflicting senses of work, and the only way out of this tangle is through, to work on these notions and ideas in a certain and determinate manner. In other words, we have to work through them.