My Spinoza and Marx finger puppets
This is a follow up to a few previous posts, most importantly my previous post on alienation in Marxist-Spinozist Thought. It is also an effect of my continuing work translating Franck Fischbach's La Production des hommes: Marx Avec Spinoza. I have never translated a whole book before and the experience is a little like some kind of possession or mind meld, in the best possible way, where I find myself thinking in and through another person's writing. Of course this is often the case when writing on someone, but translation takes it to a different level. To update a hierarchy familiar to a lot of people, there are books that I have read, books that I have read and taught, books that I have read and written about, and now, standing above the rest, a book I have translated.
Back to the matter at hand, which is returning to the question of alienation in Spinoza. In the first post, referenced above, the question was whether or not it possible to even speak of something like alienation in Spinoza, with Matheron and Sévérac taking up different sides of that debate. Now, as something of a follow up, I would like to ask what it means to speak of alienation in Spinoza with Lordon and Fischbach coming up with different responses.
In the book translated into English as Willing Slaves of Capital (The translation of that title still bothers me) Lordon offers the quickest formulation to what it might mean to speak of alienation in Marx. As Lordon writes, "The only alienation is that of passionate servitude. But this is universal, and cannot be used to make distinctions between people." If we define alienation as an external determination of the self, as heteronomy, then from a Spinozist perspective this is universal, as every desire is to some extent determined by relations and encounters. We are not kingdoms within a kingdom, but are in some sense acted on by the entirety of nature which exceeds us. To cite Lordon again, "Alienation is thus another one of the things that do not exist, but in the paradoxical form of an excess of existence: being universal, it is everywhere, and it if does not exist, it is as the obverse of an (unreachable) state of wholeness and perfect self-coincidence of the subject." As much as Lordon categorically dismisses alienation as stemming from a different ontology and different anthropology than Spinoza's, one that posits isolated and independent subjects acting autonomously, he does attempt to salvage the term through one of its harshest critics, and that is Sévérac. Alienation must be understood not as the determination of one's desires and affects, but their limitation to specifically determined objects and objectives. As Lordon writes (one last citation), "Alienation is fixation: indigent enticements of the body, narrow confines of the things one can desire, a severely restricted repertoire of joys, obsessions, and possessions that tie one’s power to a single place and impeded its expansions." This is what capitalism does to us, in tying our activity to work and our desires to consumption, it narrows our abilities and interests, which, it is worth noting, are the condition for our activity. We must do many things, think many thoughts in order to become active, to free ourselves from what the existing social relations determine us to be to what we could become.
As much as Lordon destroys alienation ontologically he returns to it polemically, not as a statement about the human conditions, but as a way of understanding the status of our affects and desires in capitalism. Lordon does not cite it, but his position is close to Marx's statement in the 1844 Manuscripts, "Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us." Capitalism is a massive restriction of activity onto wage labor and a massive reduction of desire into consumption. It alienates us not from our own proper selves, or some essence, but from unexplored possibilities. I would raise the question here if one can separate the polemical from the ontological, is it possible to decry alienation as fixation and limitation without also referring to it as a description of existence.
The 1844 Manuscripts are an important reference, not just because they are the locus classicus of alienation, but, by way of a transition, Fischach's book on Spinoza and Marx can be framed as an attempt to connect the two philosophers by that text. In effect arguing that the Spinozist Marx is not to be found in the structure of Capital, as Althusser claimed, nor in the notebooks of the Grundrisse as Negri more or less argued, but in the Marx of species being and inorganic nature. It is more accurate to say to say that Fischbach reads the Manuscripts through Spinoza transforming both.
This can be seen in one of his central claims concerning alienation. Fischbach argues that Marx moves from a Hegelian understanding of alienation in which alienation is the loss of the subject in an object by turning such a dialectic onto its head (or feet). Alienation is not the loss of a subject into an object, but the separation of a subject from its object, from its essential connection with objectivity. As Fischbach writes,
"Briefly, for a natural and living being, it is not the fact that it has a relation with nature that is alienating, it is the fact that it is a separate being: for an objective being it is alienating not to be in an essential relation to objects, but to be removed and restricted from its essential objects. It is therefore alienating to be reduced to a subject, distinct and separated from objects and from the totality of the objective world: it is this which makes it in the eyes of Marx of a being reduced to subjectivity and to conceive of itself as a subject, a being mutilated, and therefore an abstract, which is to say incomplete, being. Abstraction consists here in the fact of being separated from the totality of natural and objective reality and to no longer be able to conceive and understand oneself except by opposition to it. Self-consciousness not as consciousness of species, but as consciousness of Self, that is to say as position of Self, which is the position of self as subject, is the result of an abstraction: the self, thus writes Marx, is only “man as a abstract egoist, egoism raised to its pure abstraction in thought.”
This is one of the essential points where Marx and Spinoza overlap, they are both to some extent critics of the abstract subject, seeing it not as the lynchpin of freedom and autonomy but the foundation of subjection. (This was hugely influential for my Politics of Transindividuality book) The more we see ourselves as kingdom within a kingdom, as abstract individuals, the more we are subject to relations we cannot conceive. This is one of the other important insights of Fischbach's understanding of the Marx and Spinoza relation: the insistence that limitations of practice are the same as the limitations of thought. The order and connection of ideological mystification is the same as the order and connection of practical alienation. As Fischbach writes (and once again this is from the draft of my translation):
"This primary illusion is, as one knows, the foundation of all the others: ignorance of the true causes, consciousness transform the effects that it is conscious of into causes and thus towards the teleological of final causes: they take themselves for the first cause, falling then into the illusion of free will: and, finally fall into a theological illusion which, in order to compensate for their impotence, they invoke a God in their image, operating by free decrees and final causes. The critique of this triple illusion is not explicitly developed in Marx than in Spinoza, but one finds in the former we can find the critique of the first abstraction that permits the position of the subject to conceive of itself as an exception to the common and objective order of nature. To which Marx adds the connection between the metaphysical conception of the subject and a particular form of social organization, the knowledge produced by modern civil society is one in which human beings are in effect the object of a subjecting reducing them to the state of independent subjects, separate from each other, connected by the negative space of competition and not by the positive and rational relations of association and cooperation. It is only on the basis of the Spinozist thesis of the illusory and imaginary character of the self as subject that Marx adds the thesis of its ideological character, and it is thus a Spinozist such as Althusser that could add “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects.”
Ideology and alienation are not two separate concepts, two separate ways of making sense of the same thing, or, more to the point, there is an identity to their difference. They are two different ways of grasping the same thing. Fischbach's reading of the early Marx, on the passages insisting on the connection between human beings and the totality of nature suggests ultimately a whole reorientation of knowledge that cannot be summed up by even historical materialism, a materialism that goes beyond social relations to grasp our existence as part of nature. The conjunction of Spinoza and Marx is less a simple combination than the demands to go beyond Spinoza and Marx, adding a historical conception of social relations to the formers critique of the subject, and a further exploration to man as a part of nature to the latter's understanding of capitalism.
Updated 3/3/22 The Following is an excerpt from the Appendix to the second edition of La Production des Hommes: Marx avec Spinoza
It might seem that we are very far from the question of wage labor: Lordon demonstrates on the contrary that we are right in the middle of it because it is in wage labor that we find an apparatus that produces consent, therefore an apparatus that produces joyous determination. A wage laborer is essentially an individual who has been determined to be placed in the service of another, in the service of the realization of the projects and enterprise of another, but such that they live joyously this enlistment of their power to act in the service of another, which is that of patrons conatus or that of the desire master. For a longtime the conatus of the employer has produced these happy workers by managing their access to the pleasures of consumption. However, the conatus of the neoliberal employer has gone much farther, it is no longer content to produce the workers’ joy by the transitive basis of external objects to consume and the means of their payment (money): “The strength of the neoliberal form of the employment relation lies precisely in the re-internalization of the objects of desire, not merely as desire for money but as desire for other things, for new, intransitive satisfactions, satisfactions inherent in the work activities themselves.” It is therefore a matter of the desire of the employer to extend into the desire of the worker in order to produce directly in it joyous affects: it is “an attempt to exercise control in a manner so profound, so complete” that it cannot be accomplished without “the complete surrender of ‘interiority,” without the “total possession of individuals,” without “subordinating the entire life and being of employees” and “a complete capture of their power to act.” It is a question of the employees being completely invaded by the enterprise and that it arrives at this by producing directly “in them” the affects of joy which guarantee their complete participation in the enterprise, that is to say their complete alienation from it.
This is what leads Lordon to complete revise the terms of in which it has been possible up to now to think, notably in the Marxist tradition, the relation between wage labor and alienation. Up to this point, I can only say that I am complete accord with Lordon on one essential point: that is that the liberal and neoliberal apparatus rests on a fiction of autonomous subjects that consent by themselves to enter into the salary relation. Thus, it cannot be a question of escaping the alienation of the wage relation by a “reaffirmation of the sovereign autonomy of the subjects who regain the free command of their lives; Lordon is entirely right to say of such a position that “there is deep intellectual kinship that binds them to the liberal thought that they imagine themselves fighting.” Lordon goes further, however, since he considers that at its base the concept of alienation becomes useless once one recognizes external constraint, the fact of being determined by another than oneself is not an accident that influences otherwise free beings, but rather the fundamental trait of our condition. What is the point of still speaking of alienation if one no longer understands to be the loss of something essential to the subject (its freedom or autonomy) but an unavoidable condition (such as passionate servitude) from which no human being can initially escape? Alienation is thus at its foundation nothing other than “another word for hetero-determination, namely for passionate servitude, the human condition itself.”
The situation of the concept of alienation would at this point be intimately interwined with the metaphysics of subjectivity to the point that it would be impossible, in making use of one to not reintroduce something of the latter. This is the point arrived at by Spinozists, and even the best of them, such as Deleuze who understands alienation as the condition of an individual being separated from its capacity to act, of being unable to become actual. This sort of escape from alienation, would still be—for an individual which still resembles something of a subject—the reappropriation of something of itself and the search to coincide with itself, of coinciding with its own capacity to act. On this point Lordon is in agreement with Pascal Sévérac who argues that in Spinoza power cannot be separated from its actualization: all power, finite or infinite, is at each moment completely actual, is always everything that it can be, without reserve and without possible diversion, therefore without being subject to a loss that would be its “alienation.” If one continues to use the concept of alienation, it can only be on the condition that one ceases to think of it under the scheme of loss or separation, and to think of it in terms of fixation or limitation; an alienated capacity to act, in this sense, is not a capacity from which the subject is separated or which it would be limited to actualizing, it is a capacity in which its effects are limited in number and restricted to one type or form. One could then say that the alienation of a worker takes place when its capacities are limited solely to the sphere of consumption: “this is what alienation is, not a loss, but closure and contraction.”
An interesting fact, not indicated by Lordon, is that Marx seems to have already had this understanding of alienation in eighteen forty-four, that is to say in the period in which his thought is most heavily marked by evidence of his Spinozism: he explains in these Paris Manuscripts that human activity is constituted by taking a grand variety of forms and its alienation consists in its limitation and fixation to one type of activity. But in later works, in conceiving of the separation of the subjective capacity to work from the objective conditions of its actualization as the condition of possibility of wage labor, he would seem to return to a conception of alienation that can be considered subjective. This would seem to be an error: like Spinoza, Marx posits in realty there is no subject but only hetero-determined individuals. He adds that alienation consists in nothing other than the fact of believing that an individual is a subject or can be thought as a subject, and he undertakes to understand and that what sort of social apparatuses produce subjectivity or something that can be taken as subject and how this engenders an indispensable condition of the production and reproduction of our social condition. Marx would say therefore that alienation is not something that happens to a subject, but it consists in the fact that one thinks of oneself as a subject, and, by this, is something mobilized as such, insofar as it is a subject, for the valorization of capital. However this process does not alienate a subject which preexists it: it produces the subjects which it needs and it is being produced as subjects that they are alienated individuals.
Beyond a few nuances that are in the details, one can only perhaps admire the way that Lordon demonstrates that Spinoza’s thought can not only continue to be productive in understanding the most pressing issues of our times after a distance of more than three centuries, but that it also continues to open horizons of liberation.
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