Intersection of base and superstructure
One of the pressing issues of recent years has been the relationship between class struggle, or the struggle against capitalism more broadly and the struggle over identity. While this relationship has taken on ridiculous, and almost caricatured forms in the left quasi-public sphere in the US, becoming the split between Bernie Bros and the supposed identity politics of the democratic party, or between “the dirtbag” and “woke left.” It raises serious issues about the relationship between the state, as the manager of ethnic and racial identities, and the economy as the hidden abode of exploitation. What I propose here is less an entry into the fray of current debates between identity politics and class struggle, but to look at the way in which two Marxist philosophers, Etienne Balibar and André Tosel, tried to think both the interrelation and irreducibly of identity struggle and class struggle. Balibar and Tosel do so by drawing from the philosophical resources of Marx and Spinoza, but in different ways. For Balibar it is a matter of thinking of “the other scene” of economic struggle, the imaginary constitution of national identities that all economic struggles necessarily pass through. There is no class struggle that does not pass through the struggle of identities, just as there is no struggle over identities that does not pass through economic relations. In a different manner, Tosel focuses less on the relation between imaginary and real, taken as the state and the economy, than on the relation between what could be considered generic struggles over the very conditions of subjectivity, and conflicts over the very nature of identity. The first have to do with struggles over our basic capacities, to live, work, and speak, while the latter has to do with the way in which living, working, and speaking are always actualized in specific identities and communities. The two struggles cannot be separated. I argue that read together, Balibar and Tosel’s political anthropologies offer a way to not only theorize the intersection of class conflict and identity conflict, but a way to think the relation between the state and economy.
In some sense Etienne Balibar’s philosophical work, from the earliest essays on reproduction to the latest writings on universalism, are permeated with question of what could be called “political anthropology,” an examination of the intersection of identity, subjectivity, and politics. This dense intersection of different problems is carried through in political interventions on democracy and citizenship as well as philosophical investigations on Hegel, Spinoza, and Marx. However, for our purposes here it is possible to pull on one consistent thread of this political anthropology, and that has to do with the idea of politics and economics as constituting two different scenes. As Balibar writes,
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.
As much as Balibar’s schema draws its topography from Marx’s figure of base and superstructure, and, just as importantly, the work of Althusser to think the superstructure as simultaneously an effect and a condition of the base, the condition, of its necessary reproduction, it is possible to draw a second philosophical precursor to this schema and that is Spinoza. Balibar’s schema is also drawn from the two foundations of the city that Spinoza gives of the city in the Ethics. Spinoza gives us two different demonstrations to Proposition 37 of Part Four of the Ethics, two reasons as to why people form cities. The first proceeds from reason, from the idea that nothing is more useful to man than man, that we are the source of our common strength and power. It is thus rational to unite, combining our different forces into a common body and common striving. The second, passes through the affects and the imagination, from the fact that everyone strives that others should love what they love. Two different foundations to political life, one rational the other affective. This two different demonstrations do not so much define two ways of forming the city, two ways of forming a polity, but, as human beings are necessarily affective and rational, they constitute two different causalities at the work of every society. As Balibar puts it, “Sociability is…the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects.” Or another way to understand the same thing, every existing social form, every nation, is at once a real agreement, in that it is necessary defined on some level by relations of cooperation and dependence, but it is also and at the same time, a relation of imaginary identification.
It is tempting to define these two aspects, real agreement and imaginary identification, with economics and politics. The economy would be the scene of real agreement, where humanity lives out the actual relations of material dependence; while politics would be the site of imaginary identifications, the imagined communities of nation and citizen. However, such a quick one for one identification might reveal more about the limitations of Marx and Spinoza. 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, one 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).
From this perspective it is possible to argue that, at least in this case, Marxist-Spinozism, would be a matter of reading the strengths of Marx into Spinoza and vice versa, using one to address the other's limitations. In this case it is a matter of grasping that the economy, the relations of production, are always at once a real agreement, constituted by relations of cooperation and dependency, and imaginary identification, which is to say that economic relations have their own imaginary aspect. Most notably, and to give it a contemporary spin, we could point out how difficult it is to separate economic activity from “productivist imaginations” that differentiate between real workers and fake workers. That such imaginations are not separated from divisions of race and gender, from a tendency to imagine the working class as white and male, would only further develop my point. At the same time we could argue that politics too is defined by “real agreement and imaginary identification.” In some sense this has been Balibar’s focus in recent years as he increasingly tries to differentiate the citizen, as a figure of liberation and equaliberty, from the nation, as the latter is defined by the imaginary communities of birth and belonging.
What does this mean with respect to the other scene in the passage cited above? One the one hand we could say that economic conditions only have effects when they pass through imaginary identifications, when they become not just structures but ways of living and thinking as well as ways of being perceived. And, vice versa, we could say that conflicts over identity and belonging only have effects, only become actualized, when they determine and shape not just the conflict over identities, but become inscribed in social relations. To say only, however, is a bit deceptive since this is always already taking place, as economic relations are shaping relations of identification and differences and hierarchies of race, ethnicity, and gender are always having effects on the distribution of hierarchies within the relations of production. The dialectic of the other scene is then an attempt to grasp this process without falling into the all too persistent imagination, or we perhaps say inadequate idea to retain the Spinozist distinction that there exists an economic relation of exploitation, or class struggle that is independent of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality or that there are identities or conflict over identities that do not intersect with economic relations.
Although less well known in the Anglo-American world because of the paucity of translations, André Tosel is perhaps on one Balibar’s most important interlocutors. Tosel’s work both parallels Balibar’s work in terms of figures, the importance of Marx and Spinoza, as well as problems, the question of citizenship, democracy, and religious conflict, while also deviating in some regards, most notably in terms of the importance the former attaches to Gramsci in the development of his thought. A full account of the points of similarity and opposition is beyond the confines of this paper. In the brief time here, I intend to focus on their different schemas for understanding the relation between class and identity conflict.
In a small book, titled Essai pour une culture du Future, Tosel gives a schema of two basic types of conflicts defining contemporary politics. The first, what he refers to social conflict deals with the root of human existence “seized in terms of its three dimensions, life, work, and speech.” Because “Life, work, and speech, intersect to form the basis of human subjectivity as a power to exist in all of its dimensions.” In contrast to these conflicts over the basic aspects of subjectivity Tosel argues that there are conflicts over identity. Identity refers not the basic power to exist, life, labor, and speech as activities but the specifically constituted empirical self as a particular manner of living and speaking, one that can only make sense against different ways of speaking. As Tosel argues, “Each subject is an empirical self that certainly can dispense with its capacity to live, work, and speak, but it is necessarily marked and identified by a range of differences given by couples or elements of opposition.” Two conflicts are defined less by other scenes, or by a relation of displacement, but by a constant slippage framed by the fact that each conflict already in some sense contains the other. The difference is primarily one of emphasis. As Tosel argues, “A social conflict always contains a moment of identity and inversely a conflict over identity always has its own moment of social conflict.” As Tosel asserts, in a passage that comes close to Balibar’s assertion of the unavoidability of real and imaginary as conditions of social and political life. 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, like Balibar, gets his bearings from Spinoza on this point, but it less a matter of the anthropological point that humans are both rational and affective than the more general ontological point that human beings (like everything else) are both causes, striving with their basic capacities of working, living, and speaking, and effects, situated within specific ways of living and speaking that define our cultural life. Humans are both causes and effects, subjectivity and identity, infinite and finite.
As Tosel goes onto argue, and this would perhaps be the strongest point of difference with Balibar, that the two conflicts are situated differently with respect to the imaginary and the symbolic. That ideology would involve the imaginary is one of the points of overlap between Balibar and Tosel, but the symbolic perhaps demands a bit of clarification. Tosel considers the symbolic to be one of the fundamental discoveries of the intersection of psychoanalysis, anthropology, and social thought. The symbolic is structured by the fundamental alterity that defines human existence, that we are born into a world not of our own making and must, if we are going to live in, must necessarily be related to others for this to happen. The symbolic is then the third that structures every social relation. The presence of the past, of the weight of tradition, in the symbolic is why Tosel primarily identifies it with religion. Religion has been the primary form of the symbolic in human history, but capitalism fundamentally disrupts this foundation of social life. Its disruption takes two forms, first, there is the famous “all that is solid melts into air” of the manifesto, the dissolution of traditions and norms into the icy waters of calculation. However, but no less important is the way in which capital becomes its own “religion of daily life,” imposing the wage and the commodity form as the symbolic coordinates of daily life. Capital, remains a pseudo-third, limited because of its abstraction and indifference to the particularity of social relations as “the social relation between people takes the form of a relation between things.” The most important impact of this is that it is a symbolic without unity, made up entirely of individual egos, of desires, confronting an impersonal order, a totality without belonging. Capital is a fundamental transformation of the symbolic, which fundamentally alters its relation to the imaginary, to the conflict over identities. As Tosel argues, the global victory of the market, of the universal of the commodity and wage labor, has not dispensed with the conflicts over identity, but exasperated them. It is a false unity, and empty universal, whose very terms of order, namely wages and commodities, can only constitute hierarchies and conflict. Tosel’s understanding of capital as a transformation of the symbolic cuts two ways, first, it introduces a new symbolic founded less on common traditions and practices than common standards, and second, it also fundamentally changes the opposition of the two scenes, from imagination and real, to imagination and symbolic, stressing that capital’s affects the representation of our existence as much as its material conditions.
To sum up how these two dimensions, imaginary and real intersect with social conflicts and conflicts over identity, in the current era defined less by religion than by capital and the state. Social conflicts are positioned against the current symbolic of capital, which is one of isolated and separate individuals, that live, work and speak only in their isolation or separation; identity conflicts are situated against the imaginary, which passes of a particular portion of humanity as synonymous with the entirety of humanity, against the imperialism of the universal. The necessarily impure logic of these two conflicts, that we are always dealing with both the social conflict and conflict over identity, is also then also a confrontation with the constitutive aspects of human thought, in terms of both the symbolic and imaginary. As with Balibar’s other scene, Tosel’s imaginary and symbolic, can be understood to be not just an attempt to frame the anthropological conflict between universal and particular, reason and affect, but does so in such a way that both terms must be thought of in terms of their institutionalization in the defining institutions of modern existence, capital, which functions as the basis of not just are material existence, but also the symbolic, the defining symbols of modern life, the wage and commodity, and the state, as the place of imaginary conflicts and identifications.
Balibar and Tosel’s schema’s of conflict overlap in several fundamental ways, framing the imaginary of identity, against its other, understood as the economy or the symbolic. In each case the division between two aspects, imaginary and symbolic, political and economic, is subject to both division and unity, but Balibar and Tosel give different formulations for each. The differences, which I have alluded to here, are an important point to consider, but just as important is the demand for a new logic and grammar of struggle one framed less in terms of the opposition of base and superstructure, economy and identity, than their mutual implication in the rational and affective, symbolic and imaginary, aspects of human life.
Works Cited: Balibar, Etienne, 1995. The infinite contradiction. Trans. J.M, Poisson with J. Lezra in
Depositions: Althusser, Balibar, Macherey, and the labor of reading. Yale French Studies, 142-165. 88.
_____. 1998. Spinoza and politics. Trans. J. Swenson. New York: Verso.
_____ 2015, Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy, Translated by G.M. Goshgarian,
New York: Columbia.
Tosel, André, 2011. Dur Retour du Religieux: Scénarious de la Mondialisation Culturelle I, Paris: Editions
_____. 2014. Essai Pour une Culture du Futur,Paris: Éditions du Croquant.
Draft. Presented at Historical Materialism, November 2021