An Earlier Draft of this paper was presented at the Libidinal Economies of Crisis Times Conference
Spinoza’s question of political thought, “why do the masses fight for their servitude as if it was salvation” has taken on a unanticipated economic and social relevance since the post-2008 economic recession.Displaced from its seventeenth century context, of taxes and bread, wars of glory, and despots, it is possible to see a struggle for servitude in the way in which the masses clamor for more jobs, more austerity, and more persecution of the disadvantaged in the name of fiscal discipline. The blog Splintering Bone Ashes has dubbed this particular struggle for servitude “Negative solidarity.” Negative solidarity is defined as “an aggressively enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits, declining pension pot, erasure of job security and increasing precarity) then everyone else must too.”
We can point to multiple instances of negative solidarity, and with them a changing trajectory of both imagination and affect as the objects and narratives shift. There is the iconic figure of the “welfare queen,” and with it the entire racialized demonization of benefit programs for the unemployed and impoverished. There is also the figure of the migrant, also chastised for dependency and laziness on the one hand, and sometimes seen as “stealing jobs” on the other. More recently, negative solidarity has been aimed at the public services worker, the teacher or government employee who still benefits, albeit to an dwindling degree, from union protection and collective bargaining and thus is seen as failing to suffer, or work adequately. That “negative solidarity” can take on so many different figures, many of which are pure fantasies, suggests that it is, at its core, an articulation of imagination and affect. Articulating and elaborating a definition of negative solidarity entails a necessary detour through the affective economy. The affective economy is understood in two senses: First, in that the economy, the relations of production and distribution, circulate and produces affects, sensibilities and desires, as much as goods and services; and, second, these affects are a necessary element of the production and reproduction of the economy.
Affective Economy: A Provisional Definition
According to Deleuze and Guattari, Spinoza did not just pose the question of negative solidarity, of why people fight for their servitude as if it was salvation, but offered the basis of an answer to it as well. In order to grasp how, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, ‘Desire of the most disadvantaged creature will invest with all its strength, irrespective of any economic understanding or lack of it, the capitalist social field as a whole’ it is necessary to think the immanence of desire to the economic. Desire must be posited as part of the infrastructure, without passing through the mediations of ideology, the family, or the state. Deleuze and Guattari’s provocation exceeds their own particular articulation in Anti-Oedipus to become a general problem of contemporary Marxist thought. There is a general turn towards understanding subjectivity to be not only directly produced by the economy, without passing through the mediations of the superstructure, but reproductive of it as well, to be a necessary condition of the reproduction of society. This insight is found not only to be in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, but in Althusser’s re-examination of ideology and reproduction as well as the work of neo-Spinozists such as Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton. The causes of this change, no doubt complex and numerous, have as much to do with the changing nature of capitalism itself as they do with the history of worker and student struggle. As capital requires work that is more intensive, cooperative, and relational, it needs a subject that is not just docile and compliant, showing up for work each day, but actively desires to be put to work, fully identifying with his or her work. Spinoza’s identity of bodies and ideas make it possible to grasp an economy that is increasingly predicated on the identity of economy and subjectivity.
How does Spinoza, a philosopher from the seventeenth century, make it possible to grasp this rather recent transformation? First, there is Spinoza’s definition of subjectivity, of the human essence, as defined by desire. As Spinoza writes, “Desire is the very essence of man in so far as his essence is conceived as determined to any action from any given affection of itself” (EIIIDI). As much as Spinoza’s definition posits a universal essence it does so in a way that is both singular, we all have different desires depending on our particular constitution, and relational in that our constitutions are the effects of our encounters and relations with others. Put differently, desire is transindividual. Desires are necessarily different and unique, determined by the affections, everyone desires according to their own unique history. As Spinoza argues, we do not desire something because it is good, rather “we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it’ (EIIIP9S). Desire is fundamentally intransitive, lacking a specific telos, object, or orientation, its object and orientations are determined by the history of relations. Everyone strives to increase their joy, their capacity to act and think, but how this joy is defined is in part determined by the history of past encounters. I desire those things that seem to me to be the cause of past joys, even if I am often ignorant of the true causes of my desires or the true effects of my attachments. Everyone equally strives, but not all striving is equal. The conatus, striving, is always caught between two determinations: there is the past history of encounters that assigns a given individual specific objects and desires without adequately grasping their relations, and the possibility of a life oriented from an adequate comprehension of its conditions and an increase of its joy. It is this ethical division between the passive and active life that animates Spinoza’s thought. It is, as André Tosel argues, an ethical materialism, a materialism oriented in terms of the division and difference of modes of individuation, considered primarily in terms of their individual, biographical relations, that takes as its terrain of inquiry affects, desire, and imagination as constitutive of subjectivity.
Frédéric Lordon argues that Spinoza mode of subjection can be expanded beyond the ethical distinction of modes of life to the history of the production and reproduction of subjectivity under capitalism. Doing so entails expanding the encounters that shape one’s desires from the biographical to the structural. Spinoza provides something of an opening of this transition from the ethical to the social when he writes that “money occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else.” Money is the universal equivalent of desire not just because of past positive experiences in one’s biography, but an institutional one, because we live in a market society, in which money is the condition of any desire. Lordon is then able to map the coordinates of the institution of desire onto two axes. The first is considered in terms of the division between production and consumption, the two separate spheres of activity in capitalist society. Production and consumption relate to the two structural conditions of capitalism, wage labor and the commodity form, but they also form the basis of different organizations of desire, of joy and sadness. The second axis, drawn from Spinoza, is that of joy or sadness, understood as an increase or decrease in one’s power and potential. From these two coordinates it is possible to chart the history of desire under capital. The first phase of this history corresponds to the initial formation of capitalism, what Marx called formal subsumption. The primary institutional basis for capitalism at this stage is the absence of any alternative to wage labor, the destruction of the commons or any sustenance economy. Activity, the necessary activity that sustains life is organized and oriented according to wage labor. The “passion to be reckoned with” at this stage of capital is “fear,” to paraphrase Hobbes who captured better than Spinoza the affective composition of primitive accumulation. Fear is the idea of future hardship or sadness. Fear is a motive, a driving force orienting the striving, the conatus, but an unstable one. People compelled by fear will work, but only as much as it is necessary to stave off the punishment they fear. Those who do not work do not eat, and it is the fear of starvation or homeless that keeps one working. Fear is not only a limited incentive it is also a fundamentally unstable one. Fear can drive one to revolt almost as much as it can compel one to obey. From this then, Lordon maps a second stage that roughly corresponds with Fordism and the rise of consumer society. For Lordon the institutional effect of Fordism is one of the destruction of the pleasures and pride of concrete labor, the pleasures of a particular skill, in favor of a general shift of desire away from labor towards consumption. Ford’s “five dollar day” establishes an affective economy, exchanging sadness and frustration at work for the pleasures of the newly emergent consumer society. The final, or at least most recent, change in this affective economy reorients pleasure towards work, but it is no longer the pleasure of a particular skill or a result, but it is the pleasure of employment itself. It is a desire that is, as much as possible, modeled on abstract labor. The modern subject of capitalist is described by terms that are stripped of reference to any particular task or activity and instead refer to employability as a general ideal. The modern individual is a professional entrepreneur of him or herself. Formal subsumption, Fordism, neoliberalism constitute the rough schema of the history of the conatus, of desire under capitalism. It is a history that moves from the negative affects to joyful, from fear to joy, and from consumption to production. A transition that is less a liberation, a becoming active, than a subjection. It culminates in the modern ideal to find one’s realization, one’s passion in the structure and activity of work itself. The new mantra is “do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but in practice this is less about the revalorization of a trade or pleasures of specific concrete labor, than finding a passion for the constant mobilization of one’s potential. As Paolo Virno has argued "professional" no longer refers to a specific profession or type of knowledge, but to a kind of impersonal engagement. A similar engaged indifference underlies the entrepreneur. It is a history in which the gap between the capitalists interest and the striving of the worker shrinks to become barely perceptible. It is a world of motivated self-starters.
With the provisional structure of affective economy outlined here it is possible then try to map out a later stage beyond Lordon’s sketch of neoliberalism, something that comes after the affective economy of neoliberal motivation. Jennifer Silva mapped out some directions of the affective economy in what could be called late-neoliberalism. Silva sets out to examine precisely what happens to lives in the US caught in the post-2008 recession. These are the lives of primarily working class people caught up in debt, with dwindling job prospects, and often living with their parents. They have been denied the promised life of careers, families, and homes of their own. In some sense mourning the slow decline of the Fordist dream. What Silva finds striking is the lack of any anger or political mobilization on the part of those who are left out of the fordist version of the American dream. Being left out of the dream of a steady and linear career does not entirely exclude one from the mythology, from the ideal of work and discipline. As she describes her general findings:
At its core, this emerging working-class adult self is characterized by low expectations of work, wariness toward romantic commitment widespread of social institutions, profound isolation from others, and an overriding focus on their emotions and psychic health. Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interview crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts--whether addition childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment and forging an emancipated, transformed and adult self.
To describe this shift along the lines outlined by Lordon we can see a new affective orientation, one sustained neither by consumption, which is too reduced to basic necessities to capture desire, or even production, as work becomes stripped of not only any joys but any fantasy of mobility and accumulation. The failures of consumption or wage labor to offer any joys does not lead to their rejection, or a critical attitude to capitalism. What emerges instead is an ideal of work as discipline, self-transformation becomes the source of validation. Personal worth is found not through what one can buy, or even what one can sell of oneself, but in the sense of self-transformation or responsibility for one’s own condition. It is the responsibility that matters not the results or outcome. The focus on self-responsibility, of taking responsibility for overcoming all of one’s hardships and traumas entails a massive distrust of any collective or institutional solution, an a corresponding suspicion for those who engage in them. Pride in taking responsibility in one’s own fate is an attempt to construct a joy, a positive condition, out of a negative sad affect. It is an attempt to make the difficulty of changing or altering one’s condition into a source of pride or joy. Spinoza argues that the mind has a tendency to dwell on things that increase its joy and power (EIIIP54). Lordon argues that the effect of this is less some innate tendency towards affirmation or liberation, than an explanation of how people can put up with the most limited possibilities for joy and power. It is less a line of flight than what keeps us confined in whatever situation we find ourselves in. The tendency to affirm joy leads individuals to dwell on those tiny pleasures of the workday, the small talk and casual Fridays, or in this case, the satisfaction and sense of responsibility that stems from relying only on oneself. As the possibility for aspiring for more, for systemic change, is increasingly reduced, the tiny pleasures of daily life are elevated into objects of desire. As Lordon describes this double edged movement, “Symbolic violence consists then properly speaking in the production of a double imaginary, the imaginary fulfilment, which makes the humble joys assigned to the dominated appear sufficient, and the imaginary of powerless, which convinces them to renounce any greater ones to which they might aspire.”
If the fulfilment comes from the small pleasures of the work day, or work itself seen as a source of pride, then the imaginary of powerlessness can come not just from the contemporary labor situation, in which individuals workers are increasingly subject to surveillance and algorithmic Taylorism, subject to machines and automated schedules, but the overall sense of reduced possibility and resources. This increased sense of austerity comes from declining wages, which are in some coupled with a dwindling tax base. As Monica Potts describes the attitudes in her home town of Arkansas in a recent New York Times profile.
There’s a prevailing sense of scarcity — it’s easy for people who have lived much of their lives in a place where $25 an hour seems like a high salary to believe there just isn’t enough money to go around. The government, here and elsewhere, just can’t afford to help anyone, people told me. The attitude extends to national issues, like immigration. Where I see needless cruelty, my neighbors see necessary reality.
The prevailing sense of this austerity is one in which an individual’s own difficulty in paying their bills, their own increased debt, is projected outward into a world in which scarcity is the rule and generosity, even equity or justice, is a kind of luxury. That this scarcity is artificial, produced in a context of every increasing wealth for the wealthiest one percent, who are pocketing the product of declining wages and massive tax cuts, does not matter. What matters is the increasing perception, the image, of limited resources and limited possibilities. These limitations, this imaginary of powerlessness, is internalized as a valorization of one’s toughness, hardness, and discipline, these become the only joys left.
The sketch of a post-neoliberal subject is a highly ambivalent one. Its ambivalence stems from the ambivalence of the affects, the tendency for every positive affect, joy, hope, love, to be shadowed by its opposite and risk becoming it. In this case, joys and pleasures are not only inseparable from pains and tribulations, but a kind of transformation or revalorization of them. The pride of work is a transformation of pain into pleasure, of difficulty into responsibility. It also reveals the connection between striving and the imagination. The attachments to responsibility to a sense of worth found in work are strategies for coping with declining prospects for improved material conditions, for the pleasures of consumer society. They are remnants, often images of bygone conditions and decaying dreams. What we increasingly see in austerity is a revival of the oldest myth and legends of capital and capitalist accumulation against its material reality.
It is the revival of primitive accumulation, not in the sense of the violence of expropriation against the commons, but in the sense of the narrative of so-called primitive accumulation, the story of the frugal capitalist and lazy worker that provides a moral veneer to the capitalist relation. As Marx writes,
This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.
Primitive accumulation persists, not as a myth about the origins of capital, but as a lingering morality play about the present. Work, especially work that is understood as real, which is to say coded as productivist, masculine, and often white, is understood to be the source of at least symbolic value, even as its market value declines. As the Bible says, “those who do not work should not eat,” in this case not because their work is necessary for survival of the community in any immediate sense but because it is necessary to make them worthy. Moreover, all of those who are not sufficiently engage in the productivist ideal, teachers, caregivers, bureaucrats, are seen as not really working, or to use the parlance of our times, they do not have a “real job.” They are suspect as well. The narrative at the heart of primitive accumulation was always defined by temporal displacement, it was an idealized version of the present, the hard worker who saves enough to become a capitalist, projected unto the past, unto capital’s origins. Now it is projected into the future, the moral ideal of hard work outlasts its material compensation. What connects the past and the present, the fantasy of survival and the morality of work, is an increasing sense of scarcity and the virtues of difficulty. The story about the moral value of work is all that remains as work is increased subject to the logics of casualization and precarity.
It is at this point it is Spinoza’s understanding of the constitution of ideas, of the mind as a spiritual automaton, that is as important to grasping the contemporary sense of work as his understanding of the organization of desire. It is as much a matter of indaquate ideas as it is the reorganization of desire. Just as our desire is oriented by our encounters and affects our mind, our thinking, is a sort of spiritual automaton, shaped by its encounters and relations. As Spinoza argues, so called universal notions such as “man,” dog,” etc., stem as much from a confusion than comprehension. They are inadequate ideas, unable to grasp or comprehend their genesis. As Spinoza describes this process,
But it should be noted that these notions are not formed by all in the same way, but vary from one to another, in accordance with what the body has more often been affected by, and what the mind imagines or recollects more easily. For example, those who have more often regarded men's stature with wonder will understand by the word man an animal of erect stature. But those who have been accustomed to consider something else, will form another common image of men--for example, that man is animal capable of laughter, or featherless biped or rational animal. And similarly concerning the others--each will form universal images of thing according to the disposition of his body. Hence it is not surprising that so man controversies have arisen among the philosophers who have who have wished to explain natural things by mere images of things.
Work, labor, or productivity are said in many senses. There is the general physical notion of energy expended in displacement and transformation; the economic sense, of activity, any activity, done for a wage; the more diffuse sense in which any activity defined by effort and difficulty is dubbed work, homework, housework, etc.; and lastly, there is a moral idea of discipline and value that is attached to the last two meanings. These different senses do not only, as the passage from Spinoza indicates, stem from different encounters and relations, in which everyone would have their own personal and idiosyncratic definition, but there is, in every society an attempt to impose and standardize one particular definition, imposing its particular sense over all the others. There is a dominant sensibility of work as much as there is a dominant affective constitution. The dominant sense, and sense of work is a motley collection of everything that has ever been believed, made up of remnants of remnants of puritan struggle, Fordist promises, and contemporary anxiety. Its anachronisms are tailored to the current conjuncture in which more is demanded of employees and less is offered in exchange.
Affective Economy/Mythic Economy
From this provisional sketch of the present it is possibly to not only bring affective economy into the present, theorizing a fourth period or a late neoliberalism, but in doing so to refine and expand an understanding of affective economy. Turning back to Lordon’s conception it is possible to see two connected limitations. First, Lordon’s schema of three periods makes the fundamental error of any periodization of history, presenting history as the displacement and transformation of self-contained epochs. Workers driven by fear of losing their wages were not totally displaced by Fordist dreams of consumption, just as working to consume has not been displaced by the neoliberal fantasy of being an entrepreneur driven by one’s own passionate investment in their work. These different organizations of desire coexist not just in the same world distributed across a global economy that combines sweatshops, modern factories, and technology entrepreneurs often within the same company or producing the same commodity but the same city, and, if we consider them in terms of their primarily affective dimension, in the same individual. Moreover, Lordon’s emphasis on a particular affect and a particular affective orientation, love or fear, aimed towards the activity or towards the wage, risks overlooking one of Spinoza’s central insights about affects, the ambivalence of affects. Spinoza argues that the human body is “composed of a great many individuals of different natures” and that when it comes to the objects of desire, “one and the same object can be the cause of many and contrary affects”(EIIIP17Schol). This complexity gives rise to the vacillation of the affects. A similar ambivalence traverses the wage relation. Sometimes one works just to pay the bills, and the fear of not being able to do so is what drives one to work, and at other times one is motivated by the possibilities of consumption, all of this is topped off, as it were, by the desire to do the work that one loves. These different affective orientations define less three separate epochs in the history of capital than different affective orientations distributed not only across the same globe, nation, or city, but across the same individual over the course of the working day.
This brings us to the second limitation, it is in failing to see the heterogeneity of the affective composition of the present that Lordon fails to recognize that any unity of the present moment, its ability to hold together in the image of capitalist society, consumer society, or neoliberal gig economy, is an effect of the assemblage and organization of ideas and the imagination as much as it is the organization of affects and the striving of bodies. There is a dominant idea, or image of work, of its reality, value and effects that organizes the disparate experiences and conditions of work. Or, more to the point, desires are structured as much by myths and ideals as they are by their material conditions. Our desire, the conatus, is oriented as much by our imagination as by the material conditions that structure labor and consumption. As Spinoza writes, "Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and its conscious of this striving it has" (EIIIP9). Which is to say that all acting, all thinking, is strategic as Laurent Bove argues, motivated by an attempt to affirm and maximize its power. As Spinoza writes,” The mind as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the body's power of acting.” (EIIIP12). As Spinoza stresses the indeterminate nature of this striving, those with inadequate ideas and ideas equally strive. Just as striving orients the imagination, compelling us to imagine those things that aid or capacity to action, the imagination conditions and limits striving, determining our sense of what is possible or desirable. Sometimes what we imagine to be the condition of an increase of power, adding or augmenting our power of acting, is actually our subjection. Desire and imagination, body and mind, are subject to the same causal relations, the same conditions that make up history. Just as our body is constrained and captured by the wage relation and the commodity that channel our desires our mind is constrained and captured by the images and narratives of the culture industry.
The labor relation cannot be separated from the narratives that we use to make sense of it, and orient ourselves, from the Horatio Alger myths of days gone by to modern day silicon valley gurus that extoll us to find our true passion and calling. Work is short circuit between the classes, not just in that it is the linchpin of the relation of exploitation in the form of labor power. As labor power it is what the ruling needs from the working class; and it is what the worker must necessarily sell to the capitalist. At the level of material conditions this exchange both links and divides the two classes; what the capitalist treats as just another commodity and cost of production, is for the worker their very life and existence., At the level of representation work does not so much divide the classes, placing them on two sides of conflict, but unites them; work is not just the universal fate of humanity in the sense of the biblical saying “whoever does not work shouldn’t eat,” but as the general condition for social belonging. "Get a job" is the universal maxim of ethics and politics. The modern capitalist increasingly presents himself or herself as a worker, will insist that he or she works as much as their workers, if not more so. As Etienne Balibar writes, ‘The capitalist is defined as a worker, as an ‘entrepreneur’; the worker, as the bearer of a capacity, of a ‘human capital.’
Thus to offer something of a conclusion. Every affective composition, every organization of desire, joys, and sadness is also an imaginary composition, an organization of ideas and images. They are but two different ways of viewing the same thing. Any attempt to grasp the economy or society solely through affects or the imagination is necessarily incomplete. However, when it comes to political practice, there are strategic reasons for favoring the imagination or the affects, or for confronting the image of work. Negative solidarity, like every affective composition, is an articulation of both desire and imagination, and like all such articulations it is finite and capable of being unravelled. There is nothing necessary about the connection between a moralizing ideal of work, and pride in one’s hardship, as intractable they may appear. Understanding the affective and mythic dimension of the reproduction of the present is the first step in beginning to transform it.
Presented in Seattle at Neoliberalism and the (Dis)Integration of the Political, October 2019
Presented in Seattle at Neoliberalism and the (Dis)Integration of the Political, October 2019