Saturday, October 10, 2020

Ideological Tendencies: Machiavelli, Spinoza, Marx

Graphic by Joelle Glidden

 It is perhaps because my first real philosophical love was Gilles Deleuze that I have been drawn to the idea that traditions and precursors in philosophy where less a matter of hallowed traditions than retroactive constructions, framed by new readings and new problems. As much as I got this idea from Deleuze, I have been drawn to different inventions of traditions, Balibar's creation of transindividual thread in Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, and Freud; Althusser's creation of a subterranean current of aleatory materialism that encompasses Machiavelli, Spinoza, Rousseau, Marx, and Darwin (to name few); or Negri's creation of a tradition of constituent power. 

In the last two we see the importance of the trajectory Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx. Of course it is worth pointing out, as Vittorio Morfino and Filippio del Lucchese have done, that Spinoza was a reader of Machiavelli. However, when you get to the relation of Marx and Spinoza there are a few citations, a scholarly residue as Morfino argues, but the real intersections as Balibar, Fischbach, Lordon and other have demonstrated, have to be created from overlapping problems and orientations. Adding Machiavelli to the list only extends the invented nature of this tradition.

I just finished teaching Machiavelli's The Prince, Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and Marx's German Ideology in a class of political philosophy focusing on ideology critique. Initially, I considered Machiavelli's Prince, with its discussion of the fox like distortions of the appearance of the ruler, and Spinoza's discussion of superstition and the rule of tyrants, were in some sense concepts of proto-ideology, functioning in its place before the name. Then, in a zoom class last week, I thought it might be also useful to think of them less as a historical progression and more of a series of different intersecting problems. For heuristic conditions I outlined three aspects of any theory of ideology.

First, and most basically, there is politics, that ideology functions in relation to political domination, subjection, or obedience.

Second, there is the fact that ideology has conditions that are structural, conditions that emerge from social relations. It would make sense to call these economic, but I prefer the broader term of structural because that makes it possible to include understandings of social divisions that are broader than the conception of the economy.

Third, ideology has a necessary condition in some aspect of thought, desire, or the imagination. In other words, it has an anthropological condition. 

Every theory of ideology has to be a combination of all three. Any attempt to reduce, or overemphasis one, risks undermining the concept altogether. A focus on political power or domination at the expense of structural conditions risks collapsing into a conspiracy theory; the centrality of structural conditions without political power or struggle becomes a kind of functionalism; and an examination of anthropological conditions of ideology without politics or structure reduces ideology to a constitutive illusion of experience. 

As much as every theory of ideology includes all three, I have mapped out the way in which Machiavelli, Spinoza and Marx can be identified by the way that they tend towards two of the three components, emphasizing two at the expense of a third.  (As much as I love Venn diagrams I must admit that mine is probably being used here incorrectly). Machiavelli does not have a concept of ideology, but his reflections on the fox like deceptions of the prince fills the conceptual space of ideology. As much as Machiavelli emphasizes the political dimension, the maintenance of political power. One must appear to be of the people, compassionate, honest, trustworthy, and most of all religious, taking your bearings from the moral and religious norms of the people, while being prepared to do the opposite. Even this directly political deception is not without its structural conditions, namely, the gap that separates the rulers from the people. "Everyone sees what you seem to be; few have direct experience of who you are." The gap that separates the ruler from the ruled is the structural condition of the prince's deceptions, of ideology. It turns out that the most important thing that one sees from the valleys is how distant and obscure the tops of mountains are; what one sees is that one does not see. As much as it might be possible to trace this condition to the material limitations of the dissemination of knowledge in the sixteenth century it would be possible to examine how it continues in the age of 24 hour news cycles, the more we see the less we know. (How else could one explain why the image of Trump amongst his follows seems to be at such odds with the reality.)

If Machiavelli puts emphasis on politics and structure then Spinoza emphasizes politics and anthropology. The reason that the multitude has no more powerful ruler than superstition is because superstition itself is founded upon our inability to control our fates and fortunes, on our finite nature that leaves us perpetually subject to hope and fear. Superstition is a spontaneous ideology founded upon the finitude of our striving. This condition is not insurmountable, but to some extent we will always be subject to at least the tendency of ideology. 

Lastly, it could be argued that Marx emphasizes the intersection of the structural and the anthropological. In The German Ideology at least the primary condition of ideology is the division of mental and manual labor, that division which is both a social structure and an alienation of experience makes it possible for consciousness to be something other than consciousness of life.  The ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class because the ruled do not have the time or the resources to formulate or disseminate their own ideas. While the definition of ideology in The German Ideology is structural in terms of its conditions, it has a political dimension as well, as each ruling class struggles to impose its particular hegemony, to pass its particular perspective and interest off as a general interests. It might be fair to say that Marx's thought after The German Ideology moves more towards structural conditions. Commodity fetishism is a direct effect of commodity production; it is imposed without it ever being intended by a ruling class, which does not mean that it does not have particular class effects. 

This is obviously a very provisional sketch, but I would like to draw two conclusions. One ideology is best understood as a concept that is situated in terms of different problems extending from politics and social relations to concepts of consciousness and experience. This maybe part of the problem with defining it, or coming up with a definitive theory of ideology. It is more a set of intersecting problems of knowledge and social relations. On this point, I am following Morfino's reading of Machiavelli and Spinoza to argue that that some concepts and problems are best understood in the relations and tensions between philosophers. I think that might be what these invented trajectories and legacies are ultimately about. Second, and more ambitiously, it might be possible to chart how contemporary theories, even post ideological theories, continue to vacillate between these dimensions, between politics, structures, and anthropology. 

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