Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Fighting for Subjection as if it was Rebellion: Spinoza and Servitude Today


I am illustrating this post with images of the Punisher as a symbol of authority as rebellion

As I have already indicated on this blog more than once, Spinoza's formulation of subjection remains in some sense a guiding question for me. 

"...the supreme mystery of despotism, its prop and stay, is to keep men in a state of deception, and with the specious title of religion to cloak the fear with which they must be held in check, so that they will fight for their servitude as if for salvation, and count it no shame but the highest honour, to spend their blood and lives for the glorification of one man…" --Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus 1670

So much so that I would be willing to agree with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari when they repeated it three hundred years later. 

"That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” --Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1972

However, I have begun to think that it is time to update the question, or at least change its formulation, it increasingly seems to me that in the current era it is not so much servitude that is fought for as salvation, but subjection that is fought for as rebellion, or misrecognized as rebellion. 

In reframing the problem from salvation to rebellion I am in some sense shifting the focus from the religious nature of subjection, central to the TTP, towards a more inchoate political dimension. However, I am doing so within the terms of Spinoza's problem. First, and most broadly maintaining Spinoza's most important challenge to theories of subjection; namely, that subjection has to be understood as something that is passionately pursued rather than passively endured. Second, and more generally I am maintaining what could be called Spinoza's dialectic of obedience.  On this point I am following Macherey's reading of the TTP .

What Does it Mean to Obey

In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza gives two different statements regarding obedience that constitute something of a dialectic. The first, in keeping with the idea of a social contract, differentiates between subjection and liberty by considering the motives or reason underlying one’s actions, searching for the rational core of obedience. That one obeys the rule of a sovereign is not enough to consider a particular act obedience, as Spinoza writes, “the reason must enter into account.“ There are times when our obedience to the law is nothing other than rational behavior, stopping at a stop light is as much about self-preservation as it is following an order. It is by stopping at the sign that we can see if other cars are coming. In this first definition obedience, or servitude, is reduced to those moments when we do something that is not in our interest. We only obey when we have nothing to gain. This first thesis of obedience is corrected and contradicted by a second thesis put forward in the following chapter in which Spinoza states that obedience is a matter not of inward motivation, of the reason, but of outward compliance, of the activity. It is the simple fact that one’s action corresponds with that of the sovereign, or ruler that constitutes obedience regardless of one’s motives or desires. This focus on the effect rather than the cause, the action rather than motivation, opens up the number of possible ways that people can be made 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.

In many ways Spinoza’s point here is the opposite of his contemporary Thomas Hobbes. Whereas Hobbes wanted to claim that fear and liberty were consistent, that we are still free to act even when threatened with force, Spinoza claims that obedience and hope are consistent, that we can be compelled by our desires and joys as much as our fears. The carrot is as much a part of political power as the stick. More to the point, Spinoza’s dialectic of obedience, simultaneously reducing it to the bare minimum, to only those actions which counter our self-interest, and expanding it to include every possible motivation, including self-interest, is an attempt to deal with another problem that Spinoza outlines in the same two chapters, that of the relation of right to power. While Spinoza begins with a sort of social contract, in the next chapter he adds that such a picture is only a theory, right is power and thus cannot be transferred. This inalienability of power hinges upon its material identity with body, right is our power to exist, and ultimately the irreducibility of the way one makes sense of the world. As Spinoza writes,

It would be vain to command a subject to hate one to whom he is indebted for some service, to love one who has done him harm, to refrain from taking offense at insults, from wanting to be free of fear, or from numerous similar things that necessarily follow from the laws of nature.

Interpretations are founded upon past encounters, past relations and habits, what Spinoza calls ingenium, a word that is translated as habit or character. This character, or habit, is both the irreducible ground of politics, people cannot surrender their right to feel, understand, and think, and it is the terrain of politics, it is ultimately what is acted to produce obedience.

The most effective form of control or obedience is when people obey the state, or capital, while appearing to obey only themselves. Just as desire has to be understood as an effect, a product of social relations and individual biography, obedience too is an effect of the habits and relations that shape thoughts and desires. These practices and habits attempt to shape the character of individual character (what Spinoza calls ingenium) in accordance with a collective national or religious character, creating the same associations, the same desires. Resolving the double bind so that people obey the sovereign in appearing to obey only their own desires. As Spinoza writes in describing the rule of Moses in Ancient Israel, “Therefore to men so habituated to it obedience must have appeared no longer as bondage, but freedom.” Spinoza investigated avant la lettre what Maurizio Lazzarato called “noopolitics,” the ensemble of techniques that act on ideas and desires, shaping attention and memory. Or to put it in Spinoza’s terms, if character, ingenium, is the inaliable ground of politics, unable to transformed, then politics acts on the conditions of this character, shaping the fears, desires, and associations that are the basis for thought and striving

Rebellion as Obedience 

The example that Spinoza gives, that takes up most of the analysis of the TTP, of the ingenium of individuals matching the state is one of not only obedience, but of authority--specifically religious authority. It is a picture of people whose every action, from diet to dress, is dictated. However, I do not think that exhausts the politics of the ingenium. I would suggest that in our age the most effective form of control is the one that not only disappears, concealing itself in the desires that it produces, but ultimately makes those who are most in line with its demands perceive themselves as not only independent but ultimately rebels.

To start with one anecdotal point. The ongoing protests against vaccinations, social distancing, masking requirements, and other precautions against Covid present themselves as not only independent thinkers, but as those who are standing up to control. They see mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and other public health measures as the state effectively overstepping its limits and boundaries, and infringing on their rights. This focus on the state, on authority acting from outside and above, overlooks the extent to which it operates from below, operating on desires and habits. The most effective form of control might not be the sign telling you to wear a mask in the store, but the one that makes you feel like if you cannot go to a store, go out to eat, and enjoy consumption then you are not really free, not really living. 

At the moment that I am writing this, when the combined effect of the Delta Variant and low vaccination numbers are driving cases up, but schools plan to reopen and, with few exceptions, there is very little talk of imposing vaccine or mask mandates let alone social distancing. In some states the plan is seems to be to just go back to normal at all costs, let the dead bury the dead and the chronically ill fend for themselves. The anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have won. While this varies from state to state, at the federal level I am fairly sure that we will not see another aid/stimulus package. The focus seems to be on the opposite, of undoing whatever damage the existing aid packages have done to this countries appetite for cheap labor.

Of course this is only one connection, one place where rebellion is nothing other than subjection. In order to move beyond the anecdote and avoid falling into a conspiracy theory it is necessary to make a deeper connection between the ingenium, the character, of a perpetual resistance to an imposed authority, and the way that actual authority rules. Of course on this point, in a capitalist society, we have a state that has as its goal and method of governing leaving people to the mercy of the market. So there is a certain way that rebellion against even the minimal procedures and protections that the state affords serves the interests of capital. Opposition to the fictions of the Affordable Care Acts death panels puts people at the mercy of private insurance companies. Rebellion to the state is in the interest of capital. Those who focus on the state's authority and control overlook the fact that the primary function of the state in capitalist society is to abandon people to the control of the market, to leave people with no other recourse than to show up to work. 

Even this statement needs to be qualified, examined in terms of the specifics of rebellion in terms of who is rebelling and what they are rebelling against. If the January 6--whatever we could call it--taught us anything is that there are rebellions that must be punished, such as Black Lives Matters, and rebellions that actually sustain the existing order. As Joshua Clover put it, sometimes the police are not police enough. This might explain the appeal of the Punisher logo, a police force that dreams that is a vigilante force is one that admits that it enforces other laws than the ones that are on the books. 

Such a structural condition is not even enough of a connection. For the past few years, on this blog and elsewhere I have tried to characterize the particular character of rule through rebellion, framing it in terms of negative solidarity, Silva's mood economy, or Castel's negative individuality, borrowed concepts for a problem I am still thinking through, and won't work out in this blogpost. It does seem to me that we are living through an era in which a kind of negative hegemony, a hegemony of rebellion, dissensus, and indignation (to use another very Spinozist term) is the dominant means of rule. The subject of obedience is not the person who dogmatically cites the ruling ideology, who is content with authority, but one whose suspicion and rebellion has been molded to serve the market. At the basis of contemporary power there is not a docile subject, following the dominant hegemony, but a rebellious subject whose rebellion, to paraphrase Foucault, is the product of a subjection deeper than themselves. 

The problem is how to replace this pseudo-rebellion, a rebellion that serves capital while opposing the state with something that can actually be revolutionary. To go full circle, to return to Spinoza, it seems that we need to read the signs and symbols of rebellion the same way that Spinoza read scripture, finding the obedience beneath the promise of rebellion but also find the true revolutionary indignation, which, in the contemporary context would be those who put the protection of individual and collective life and health above the return to normal. 


Jimmy Six said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I think negative solidarity sums it up. People becoming cohesive in incoherence. They can never accomplish anything other than disruption, the disruption keeping any social movement of value from taking place. I am amazed at our time. People cling to individuality while completely misunderstanding their total dependence on the society in which they live. A rebellion of conformists.

Ritmonaut said...

You know, Foucault also had some antivax points in his career so I wouldn't be so sure in your thesis coherence.

unemployed negativity said...

You're right that making even an oblique reference to a concept from a philosopher means subscribing to everything they have ever said or done. That is exactly how philosophy works.

Tom McGlynn said...

Hi Jason,

Insightful piece. I realize this is from 2021, but I wonder if you would apply this idea in the context of the so-called "Two-State Solution" between Palestine and Israel, that is, if the representation of "States" refers to stable, embodied concepts of order in which, "the true revolutionary indignation, which, in the contemporary context would be those who put the protection of individual and collective life and health above the return to normal." Of course one can consider the representative "state" solution as a simulated carrot concealing the world capital truncheon (an imperative to get back to work as normal). This seems ,in general, the presiding logic of certain world revolutionary emancipation narratives dealing with the "State" of Israel : that that state represents repressive world capital writ large in some respects, hence the vapors of antisemitic of hegemonic Jewish financial control haunting some recent political polemics on the subject. Within this dynamic Israel is not perceived as a "state" in the traditional sense but a symbolic cypher of world capital, an artificial, simulacra state if you will. And considering this, what then becomes of the "right of return" when there’s no there there, no “state” to return to? What logically follows is that neither Palestine nor Israel have a stake in real statehood but are simply proxy states of capitalist derangement of that “inalienability of power (that) hinges upon its material identity with body”. Faced with a polarity of “existential” crises, but given the fact that these “states” have logically risen out of abstract re-allocation of world capital (the spoils of war over millennia) how does the revolutionary spirit in this context retain contact with its embodied identity? One could posit, by extrapolating your assumptions raised in your post here, that the world outcry of existential crises on both ends of the Palestine-Israel divide has to do with a crisis for humanity, for sure, but also perhaps with anxiety over a larger crisis in the continuing possibility of embodied “states” at all.