I am aware, but only vaguely aware, that there is a schism of sorts between so called "class reductionists" and "identity politics," between those who claim that matters of class and economics are all that matter and those that claim that such a reductive insistence on class overlooks the reality of oppression around race, gender, and sexuality. It is hard to summarize this lines of demarcation since it is less a debate than a series of epithets and insults, and to be honest I do not listen to enough podcasts to keep up. Anyone looking for a summary should look to Asad Haider, who has been doing some of the best work on this ongoing "debate" .
Rather than deal with this debate as it exits, if it exists, I am interested in dealing with it obliquely if at all. One of the useful things of philosophical study is the ability to situate oneself in older debates and divisions, to view the present through the past and the past through the present. In this particular case two of the most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth and twenty-first century, Etienne Balibar and André Tosel repeatedly returned to a similar problem to the one we are stuck with today: how to think the intersection between politics of class, politics having to do with economic exploitation, and politics of identity, politics having to do domination of identities, symbolic and otherwise.
I have already discussed Balibar on this point, but, as is often the case, it is useful to think of the way in which Balibar approaches this problem from the angle of Marx and Spinoza. First, Balibar takes his bearings from base and superstructure, albeit one reworked by Althusser
I even think that we can describe what such a schema would ideally consist of. It would not be the sum of a ‘base’ and a ‘superstructure,’ working like complement or supplement of historicity, but rather the combination of two ‘bases’ of explanation or two determinations both incompatible and indissociable: the mode of subjection and the mode of production (or, more generally, the ideological mode and the generalized economic mode). Both are material, although in the opposite sense. To name these different senses of the materiality of subjection and production, the traditional terms imaginary and reality suggest themselves. One can adopt them, provided that one keep in mind that in any historical conjuncture, the effects of the imaginary can only appear through and by means of the real, and the effects of the real through and by means of the imaginary; in other words, the structural law of the causality of history is the detour through and by means of the other scene. Let us say, parodying Marx, that economy has no more a ‘history of its own’ than does ideology, since each has its history only through the other that is the efficient cause of its own effects. Not so much the ‘absent cause’ as the cause that absents itself, or the cause whose effectivity works through its contrary.
Balibar’s use of the terms ‘reality’ and ‘imaginary’ to describe the two overlapping individuations, of the mode of production and mode of subjection, suggests Spinoza’s dual foundations of the city in Part Four of the Ethics. Balibar has made this part of Spinoza central to his politics, and in doing so he transforms the two scenes of Marx's conflict. It is not a matter of simply transposing the distinctions of real and imaginary unto base and superstructure. Spinoza’s distinction is between an imagined identification, the imagined similarity of the other’s passions and desires, and a real utility, the understanding that ‘nothing is more useful to man than man’ (EIVP37S2). In interpreting the relation between the imaginary and rational constitution of the state, Balibar stresses the opposition between imaginary identification and real agreement, arguing that the latter is predicated on difference, on different people with different abilities and skills. “Man is more useful to man” only insofar as human beings differ from each other. We imagine others to be like us but our political and social relations, the extent to which we are useful to each other, is necessarily predicated on difference, different skills, abilities and talents. It could be argued that real agreement, with its emphasis on interest, the striving to persevere, and the utility of difference, is the economy, and that politics, with ambition and the ambiguous task of managing collective identities, is politics.
Balibar thus brings Spinoza and Marx together for their overlapping strengths, in that both understand political and social relations to have an imaginary (or ideological) and real dimension, as well as their different limitations. As Balibar writes,
It would be easy to conclude that Marx is basically unaware of the “other scene” of politics, the scene of communitarian affiliation, and therefore unaware of symbolic violence as well (although he names it or has bequeathed us with the word ideology, on of the aptest names for it); and to conclude that Spinoza, for his part, basically ignores the irreducible level of economic antagonism (doubtless because, at the economic level, where conatus can perhaps be conceived of as a “productive force,” Spinoza is basically an optimist and a utilitarian
To conclude with one more passage from Balibar:
The determining factor, the cause, is always at work on the other scene—that is, it intervenes through the mediation of its opposite. Such is the general form of the ‘ruse of reason’ (which is every bit as much the ruse of unreason): economic effects never themselves have economic causes, no more than symbolic effects have symbolic or ideological causes.
In other words, there is no discussion of class, of economic relations, that is not also a matter of identities, nor is there any engagement with politics of identities that is not also a matter of economic relations. To borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall with a Spinozist inflection, there are multiple modes in which economic struggle is lived, and it must necessarily be lived in a mode. The lonely hour of the mode of production never arrives.
This quick summary is meant as a point of contrast to André Tosel. Tosel is in some sense a longstanding interlocutor of Balibar, not just in the sense that they both worked in the intersection of Spinoza and Marx, but they also examined, in different ways, the changing overlap of politics and economics, of the citizen and the worker.
In Essais pour un culture du futur Tosel offers another way of thinking the division between what he refers to as social conflict and identity conflict. For Tosel social conflict is broader than what we might think of in terms of class or even economic exploitation. A social conflict is a conflict over the base of human subjectivity in all of its dimensions, a conflict over work, speech, and life. These are conflicts over the primary power of sujectivity, the active power of subjectivation. They are the unavoidable and fundamental basis of social existence. As Tosel writes,
Life, work and speech are the originary basis of all specific skills, all social relations, and the conditions for their emergence. They are valid for anyone, for each and for all, and it is as such that they make a world for us on earth, in the universe. This equivalence, this indeterminacy is the absolute condition of all life and of all society, of all social relations.
The indeterminacy of subjectivity is the basis of social relations and social conflict. Social conflict is a conflict over the very capacity to speak, live and act. It is a conflict over equality. In contrast to this identity is a conflict over particularity. As Tosel argues,
Identity is not foreign to subjectivity; it is constituted as a field, a segment of subjectivity in so far as it is defined by a belonging overdetermining the practices in which life, work and speech are actualized. Each subject is an empirical self which cannot, of course, dispense with living, working and speaking, but it is necessarily marked and identified by a range of differences by pairs or opposing elements.
Tosel's division also relates back to Spinoza, but not Spinoza's politics, not to the foundation of the state in part four but to metaphysics. The two dimensions of human existence, the generic power and the specific identity, refer back to what Tosel refers to as Spinoza's (in)finitude
. For Spinoza every human being just like every other finite thing is constrained to act in a particular manner by another finite thing which in turn is constrained and so on, making up the massive causal nexus of reality
. At the same time every human being is in its own way part of the infinite causal power of the universe. These two aspects power and finitude, determination and causation, intersect in every individual and in every social relation. There is a natura naturans of subjectivity and a natura naturata of identity: the first is the cause, and the second is the effect but of course the cause only exists in its effect. We are always dealing both with social conflict and conflict over identities, because we are always dealing with both subjectivity as cause and identity as its actualization. As Tosel writes,
The disjointed unity of subjectivity and identity is the structural condition of humanity; it is a tension of two moments, that of a generic equivalence which makes each and everyone share the same power to exist as a human being--living, working, speaking--and that of the differential play of identities, of the difference which characterizes each specific human and which qualify belonging.
Tosel is less interested in the general historical logic of this conflict than the shape it takes now, caught between the global logic of capital and the revival of the nation. As Tosel writes,
The two conflicts actualize different modalities with respect to the symbolic and the imaginary. The social conflict has for its principal adversary the acosmic logic and destruction of global capitalism: it is thought in relation to a rational symbolic third, which is such of a universal community, cosmpolis of singular individuals to come and to be constructed, founded on the equality of all in the name of which it would be possible to situate life, work, and speech....On the other side, conflict over identity recovers directly the rational symbolic third in a series of necessary concrete figures but which can be posed as exclusive imaginary figures, invested in a sentiment of the sacred and the temptation to be portrayed in figures elected by nature, history, or divinity....the entities are imaginary pseudo Thirds which can develop a sacrificial logic of global war in the name of the immanent sacredness.
A simple way to restate this is that social conflict is threatened by capital, by the market which presents itself as the abstract realization of the powers of life, labor, and speech, while conflict over identity is threatened by the nation, by various pseudo thirds that would offer a resolution of identity. The contemporary conflict between neoliberalism and various revivals of fascist identity is a truncated and disastrous version of the general disjointed unity of subjectivity and identity. The first reduces the powers of subjectivity to their market quantification obscuring them behind the fetish of the market and the second reduces identity to exclusion. Of course, a fuller explanation of Tosel's position would have to encompass his theory of the symbolic, especially in terms of the relation between capital and the symbolic. The short version of this can be summed up in perhaps one of the best Marxist-Spinozist understandings of the last forty years of history, as Tosel writes, "La mondialisation capitaliste est l’âge des passions tristes qui surdéterminent le conflit de classe en conflits identitaires réactifs," To translate, "Capitalist globalization is the age of sad passions which overdetermine class conflict into conflicts of reactive identities." The more social conflict comes under the sway of the fetish, the more inevitable and unchangeable our conditions of life, labor, and speech appear, the more conflict is left to conflict over identity.
For Tosel it is not that every conflict necessarily passes into the other scene, but that we are always dealing with two conflicts, a social conflict over the very capacity to speak, work, and live, and an identity conflict over the recognition and hierarchy over specific languages, specific conditions, and modes of living. Or, we are always dealing with causes and effects. As much as Tosel's division initially would seem to pit the social as a kind of economic conflict against political conflict over identity, it is possible to argue that economic and political conflict are both split into two. On this reading there is no identity politics which is not also a political conflict over the very powers of subjectivity, just as there is no social politics which is not expressed in terms of identity. To risk one example, Black Lives Matter is both an identity conflict over the existing hierarchies of racial identities and a social conflict over the very conditions of life, labor, and speech in a carceral state. Or, working in the alternate direction every social conflict about labor, about work, or even about life, as in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, is necessarily going to be actualized in conflicts in and through specific identities.
I do not have a strong conclusion here. In some ways this is the first attempt at an attempt to think together Balibar and Tosel. My short summary here is meant as something of a provocation. It is important and necessary to assert, as many do, that we are always dealing both with economic and political conflict, with class, race, and gender. The important next step is to begin to theorize those articulations, to begin to think how they intersect and in doing so to begin to assess the merits of different theories of the intersection of identity and economy.
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