Sunday, December 20, 2020 if it was Salvation: Dialectics of Obedience in Spinoza


Dimitris Vardoulakis' Spinoza, the Epicurean: Authority and Utility in Materialism puts forward the bold thesis that there is a dialectic of authority and utility in Spinoza. That obedience is situated between authority, between the "Potestas" of kings and God, and utility, the potentia of intellect and bodies. It is from this perspective that Vardoulakis presents a reading of Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Despite the title of the book, which suggests a more modest exegetical undertaking, the stakes of this are less a matter of tracing the epicurean dimensions of Spinoza's thought, although that is done, than using those threads to expand the stakes of Spinoza's political thought. Vardoulakis' book takes on not only other readers of Spinoza, Negri, Deleuze, Althusser, Balibar, and Sharp, but also the central question of Spinoza's thought, why do people fight for their servitude as if it was salvation?

As Vardoulakis defines it:

The dialectic of authority and utility, specifically, stages the following conflict: Authority requires obedience whereas the drive to calculate our utility presupposes that we make our own practical judgements. Thus, under certain conditions, when authority takes over and suspends our judgements the result is political submission. But, also, under different conditions, we may calculate that it is to our  utility to let someone else--for instance someone with more knowledge or expertise--calculate our utility on our behalf. We can show the same interdependence by starting with utility: it is impossible to conceive of the human in terms of the calculation of utility without admitting that obedience, and hence authority, are necessary in certain circumstances. There is no such thing as pure reason in human action. There is no human immune to obedience. 

As Vardoulakis argues throughout a very sustained reading of the TTP, a reading that follows the text closely, developing its reading from chapter to chapter, but a reading that is also engages with the way that this text is traversed by other readings and problems. As Vardoulakis argues, rather than read Spinoza as a critic of Potestas in the name of Potentia, of hierarchical power in the name of its immanent organization, as Antonio Negri has, it is more accurate to understand how authority, the authority claimed by the prophets is an erroneous mixture of authority and utility. As Spinoza argues throughout the TTP, the authority of the prophets is useful, it is the condition of community, but as authority it necessarily exceeds its utility. The condition of a community, of a common law, becomes its limit and innermost threat. 

This is not a particular situation with respect to religion. It could be argued that human society in general is caught in such a dialectic. Nothing is more useful to man than man, but that utility is not universally recognized, at least not all the time. We are never entirely rational, often seeing the better and doing the worse. Authority is then necessary and useful. However, the supplement of authority necessarily supplants the utility it was meant to support. Authority requires obedience, and obedience is something other than the calculation of utility. Authority and utility demand each other, but necessarily limit and contradict each other. That is their dialectic. 

Vardoulakis' account could be contrasted with other attempts to articulate a dialectic of obedience in Spinoza. The first, and one that Vardoulakis discusses, is Etienne Balibar's reading of the two different demonstrations of Proposition 37 of Part IV of the Ethics. These two different demonstrations of why and how the city is useful in procuring the greatest good ultimately give two different foundations for social life, one based on reason, on the rational understanding of the need for others and society, and the other based on an imaginary identification, on the idea that others are like me. I have written about this here, (as well as in The Politics of Transindividuality, and have more or less argued that it is central to Balibar's political philosophy. Balibar's assertion is dialectical in the same way, which is to say non-teleological, reason and imagination need each other, are overlapping grounds of the social. As Balibar writes, "Sociability is therefore the unity of real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects." These effects are both unity and contradiction, imaginary identifications reinforce rational agreements as well as undermine them (and vice versa). 

These two accounts, authority and utility or imagination and reason, are not opposed but different ways of looking at the same problem, viewed from politics or from philosophical anthropology or from the TTP or the Ethics. They are variations on the same non-teleological dialectic, as identity and contradiction of the two terms forms less an progression that is resolved in some third than a tension that can only be worked out in specific situations. A similar dialectic informs Pierre Macherey's recent examination of obedience in Spinoza. Macherey looks at the two different formulations of obedience in Chapters 16 and Chapter 17 of the TTP. The first gives a limited definition of obedience, in which not only the action but the reason must be taken into account. Many of the things that we do that can be considered obedience can also be considered to be in our self-interest. To take one example I use when teaching, when we stop at a STOP sign we are as much obeying our self interest in looking out for possible collisions with oncoming cars as we are obeying the law. This is the minimal definition of obedience, not all obedience is subjection, sometimes it is just rational. This minimal definition contrasts with the expanded definition offered in the next chapter. In Chapter 17 obedience is expanded to include anything that can compel one to obey. As Spinoza writes,

For whether a man is urged by love or driven by a fear of threatened evil, since in both cases his action always proceeds from his own intention and decision, either there can be no such thing as sovereignty and right over subjects or else it must include all the means that contribute to men’s willingness to obey. whenever a subject acts in accordance with the commands of the sovereign power, whether he is motivated by love, or fear, or (and this is more frequently the case) a mixture of hope and fear, or by reverence—which is an emotion compounded of fear and awe—or whatever be his motive, he acts from his ruler’s right, not from his own.”

What Macherey offers is not so much a dialectic of obedience and reason, but of character or ingenium internal to obedience. As Macherey argues, following Spinoza's remarks about the inalienable nature of right and power, the individual temperament of subjects puts rulers and states into a bind of sorts. People are always going to do what they judge to be right, judge to be useful, that is unavoidable. It is also unacceptable for the constitution of authority. No state can function on the basis of a multitude of individual judgements of right and wrong, but no state can ignore it either. This compels the state, or power in all its forms (including capital) to construct the conditions for shaping people's habits and characters. To work on obedience downstream as it were, not on people's decisions but on the very conditions of the decisions, on their habits, imagination, and desires. There is a dialectic of obedience in that the subjects are the most obedient who appear to obey only themselves. Spinoza is a precursor to Foucault, as both Macherey and Vardoulakis note. 

Another Meme I can't take credit for 

This is not meant to be a thorough engagement with Vardoulakis' book, just taking it as a provocation.At this point it is worth asking how all of these various dialectics, authority and utility, imagination and reason, obedience and obedience (for lack of a better word), offer in terms of the present. Vardoulakis' book is not just an examination of Spinoza's Epicurean background it also orients this towards the present, not just in engaging with other interpretations of Spinoza, but also contemporary politics. This includes an interesting discussion of Trump as an authoritarian who lacks authority, or whose authoritarian politics are made possible by a refusal of personal authority. The clearest example of this, for me at least, is Trump mocking the idea of "being presidential" while drumming up his followers to overthrow an election. I think that this is a useful addition towards that elusive theory of Trump, but I don't want to get into that here. I am more concerned with the breakdown of both authority and utility, a kind of negative dialectic of both authority and utility.

In some sense the current COVID pandemic would seem to perfectly illustrate the relation between authority and utility. It is useful, in our own individual and collective interest, to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus. However, we see the better and do the worse, and stopping the spread gets in the way of our individual desires to see loved ones, socialize, etc., That is where authority should step in. This has happened in particular states as different governors have tried to stop the spread, albeit partly and haltingly. For most part we have seen not a dialectic in which utility enforces authority and vice versa, but the opposite an undermining of both utility and authority. I think that in part this has to do with the changing nature of what Spinoza calls ingenium. The paradox that Macherey outlines, that the only way for the state to function is to get people to obey by obeying themselves seems to have only deepened. The interesting thing, from a Spinozist perspective, is that the people demanding to return to work, to have businesses open, to go back to life as normal, are, in their rebellion, doing exactly what both the state and capital want. Of course this desire is produced materially, as long as there is no aid, nothing to help people endure without paychecks then people will demand paychecks. It is also produced ideologically through the cultural and moral attachment to work. The order and connection of ideology is the same as the order and connection of exploitation. There is much to be said about the way the a particular kind of possessive individualism is a mutation of both authority, recognizing no other authority than itself, and utility, the focus on one's individual interest ultimately undermines that same interest. For now, and by way of a conclusion, I could say that if for Spinoza the question was why do people fight for the servitude as if it was salvation then the contemporary question is why do people fight for their exploitation as if it was rebellion? 

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