Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Au Naturel: On Bohy-Bunel's Contre Lordon

It took me awhile to track down a copy but I finally found Benoît Bohy-Bunel's Contre Lordon: Anticapitalisme tronqué et Spinozisme dans l'oeuvre de Frédéric Lordon. Since I have read nearly everything by Lordon and become increasing ambivalent, torn between those elements of Lordon's thought that I completely agree with, such as the economy as an organization of desire, and those that I have issues with, such as the idea of the state and economy as insurmountable conditions for collective life. It is perhaps not accidental that this division more or less separates the earlier from the later work. I had hoped that reading a critique, even a polemic, such as Bohy-Bunel would help orient my own thinking. 

Bohy-Bunel's book eventually did provide a way to sort out a position, but it took awhile to get there. Before Bohy-Bunel even gets to Lordon he begins with a more general critique of Spinoza, or of the critical potential of Spinoza. Many of these criticisms tread familiar ground, he cites Horkheimer and Adorno's claim that Spinoza's thought embodies the ideal of self preservation that is endemic to western civilization, and some are relatively esoteric, like the claim that Spinoza's concept of substance when used to understand value, leads to a substantialization of value. A claim which is strangely convoluted since it is predicated on the assertion that Spinoza's substance is more accurate precursor to Marx's value than Hegel's spirit, a claim that Spinoza could not make and Lordon does not. Moreover, it not immediately clear that substance in Spinoza has anything to do with value (or substantialization for that matter).  The later claim comes from Fred Schrader. While Bohy-Bunel's little book is presented as a critique of Lordon and a more general criticism of Spinoza-Marxism it draws primarily from German Value theory, and more specifically, Robert Kurz to develop its criticism. It is in some sense a point of conflict between these different Marxisms, value theory and spinozist Marxism. 

Much of Bohy-Bunel's critique of Spinoza hinges on identifying a division between nature, understood as a substance, and the sage understood as a subject.  As he writes "the spinozist figure of the "sage" who is active indicates at its base the dissociation inherent to the modern subject form (the sage of Spinoza is essentially masculine, western, and white)."  While the description is arguably true of Spinoza (but also Marx) on a superficial level I do not even know where to begin with the logic underlying such a formulation, first, at a basic ontological level, the entire idea of a subject separate from nature, as a kingdom within a kingdom within a kingdom, would seem to be fundamentally misplaced. This leads to the second point that a sage separate from the people, from the multitude is equally misguided, the division between reason and affect does not pass between two different groups, sages and plebs, but is internal to each of us. This is why Spinoza describes human conduct as "seeing the better and doing the worse," a statement that includes philosophers and sages as well as anyone else. Just as the sage could be understood as part of the multitude, or a particular modification of the multitude, reason cannot be separated from the affects. As Lordon writes, "Reason has its own characteristic affects and therefore its own affective forms of self-interest." 

Enough of the worse, Bohy-Bunel's reading of Spinoza, let us move onto the better, his critique of Lordon. Fundamentally Bohy-Bunel criticizes Lordon for "naturalizing" individual interest, the state, and the economy. The opposition between naturalizing and historicizing as two ways of thinking has a long history in Marx and after, but as Hasana Sharp has argued it has a complicated relation to Spinoza for whom there is no break between nature and history: history sive natura or natura sive history. Fischbach argues that this is less a point of tension between Marx and Spinoza as a point of connection between Spinoza and Marx, a connection that can be seen if one reads the 1844 Manuscripts through Spinoza. As Fischbach writes,

."..for Marx as for Spinoza there is no possible knowledge for human beings outside of knowledge of nature: true knowledge or a science of human beings cannot be presented as anything other than a knowledge or science of nature. Hence Marx’s perspective of the unification in one science of the science of nature and science of humanity, the systematic unification of which we are only given one example, and that is in Spinoza’s Ethics."

While the term naturalization might be misplaced given that it contains a series of oppositions between nature and history, the natural world and social world that are out of place, I want to argue that there is something to Bohy-Bunel's claim that Lordon's engagement with interest, the state, and the economy are perhaps limited to an acceptance of the contours of the given historical moment, in other words that there is something truncated to Lordon's critique. 

Lordon's original engagement with interest stems from one of his earliest books L'intérêt souverain: Essai d'anthropologie économique spinoziste. In that book Lordon put forward a two pronged attack on the often repeated adage that capitalism corresponds to the fundamental individual and competitive self-interest that is natural to us as human beings. First, Lordon makes the point that a truly asocial self interest would not engage in things like selling its labor for a wage, but would immediately take what it needed or desired. Even in capitalism self-interest is modified and shaped by its institutions. Working for a living is mediate by the wage, market, and commodity. The corollary of this is that every society can be defined as driven by self-interest, since every self-interest receives its goals, objects, and orientation from the social relations that determine it. Given the right social relations even destroying one's property in massive Potlatch can be understood as an act of calculated self-interest. As a concept self-interest can define so much because it is fundamentally indeterminate. 

These two claims are framed by Spinoza's claim that "Desire is the very essence of man in so far as his essence is conceived as determined to any action from any given affection of itself." As Lordon argues desire, striving is by definition intransitive. It does not have an object or a telos. What one strives for and how one strives for it is entirely shaped by how we have been affected. Once could argue, and I have, that desire is transindividual. However, Bohy-Bunel's point is not entirely off, especially compared to someone like Balibar who stresses that Spinoza's thought is not just a matter of thinking of the transindividual conditions of individual desire's and interest, but of recognizing that what we think of as individuals, people, are themselves being composed and decomposed into different collectivities. 

This brings us to Bohy-Bunel criticism that Lordon naturalizes the state. This criticism is aimed primarily at the later works, Imperium and Vivre Sans. In those books Lordon argues that a Spinozist political anthropology must be opposed to both individualism and universalism. The former because, as we have seen the individual is the nexus of transindividual relations. There is no individual that is not already affected, modified, by its relations. For Lordon the universal, humanity as a political ideal, is no less impossible, there is no general idea of humanity that is not shaped by a particular imagination and community. If the isolated individual and the universal are both impossible where does this leave us? In what Lordon calls the general state, the fact that we are always affected by our relations with others and the institution of those relations. The choice of name, of calling this condition the state, brings up Bohy-Bunel's criticism that Lordon naturalizes the state as an institution. As Bohy-Bunel writes, 

"The Spinozist tactic is decisive in this confused ("dialectical") project of Lordon. In the context of a certain spinozism attached to the idea of a "common affect" founds the institutional condition (and its necessary "verticality"), Lordon is susceptible of a retro-projection of typically modern institutions on the premodern history (that make his project "onto-anthropological"). On this base, he injects these same modern state capitalist structures on the conception of a post-capitalist society."

The state becomes the name of general condition of the imitation of the affects that is an omni-historical reality. (I say omni-historical in order to invoke Althusser who in a different way argued that ideology is an anthropological condition). There will always be states because the state is nothing other than the name of the collective organization of the affects. Even those societies without the state that Pierre Clastres documents have, and must have collective structures of affect. Bohy-Bunel's point is not without its merit, that Lordon almost out of a sense of provocation seems to move quickly, all too quickly, from a general point, affective life is collective and organized by the imitation of affects to the idea that this collective takes the form of the state. It seems hard to overlook the fact that there are other collective organizations of the affects, one that do not take the state form. Lordon both acknowledges this in his examination of ZAD and Chiapas under the Zapatistas as other organizations and effaces this in calling these states. 

Bohy-Bunel sees a similar tactic with the economy. Of course Spinoza says little about the economy, a few remarks about money in the Ethics, and the following passage from the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, "The formation of a society is advantageous, even absolutely essential, not merely for security against enemies but for the efficient organization of an economy. If men did not afford one another mutual aid, they would lack both the skill and the time to support themselves to the greatest possible extent." It is this sense of economy, the ensemble of social relations under which are organized the reproduction of collective material life," that Lordon argues is an unescapable aspect of human life. As with the example of self-interest and the state, everything hinges on how one understands the identity and difference, the transcendental and historical aspect, of the institution in question. 

Critiques of existing society always risk being either truncated or overextended, reformist or utopian, and this is in part because the central question of all such critiques, what institutions, structures, and even psychological or affective structures are necessary, fundamental to our striving as finite beings, and which are contingent a product of history, of power and exploitation, can only be answered practically not speculatively. To paraphrase a popular phrase, we do not know what society is capable of; which is also to say that we do not know what we as human beings can do. What kind of institutions could we live within, what kind of mutual aid can we live with. To be revolutionary is to believe that it has to be more than just this, the current regime of collective affects and the division of labor. There must be other possibilities. These things can only be imagined, and, to keep in Spinozist terms, our imagination is always shaped by the way in which we have been affected. Words like the state and the economy are always going to be universals in Spinoza's sense, ideas which are defined by an excess of possible meanings, the state is always a name for both collective life and coercive hierarchy, the economy is the name for both mutual aid and generalized exploitation, and these different senses shape and distort what it means to think of them as historical or natural. 

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