Wednesday, May 08, 2024

The Concept Worker Doesn't Wear a Hardhat: Spinoza, Marx, Nesbitt and Common Notions


"They would not agree with one another any more than do the dog that is a heavenly constellation and the dog that is a barking animal." Spinoza

"The concept dog doesn't bark." Louis Althusser 

Ever since reading Margherita Pascucci’s Potentia of Poverty I have been thinking about the relation between Marx’s thought and Spinoza’s common notions. The question I am asking is not did Marx write Capital in and through common notions, as an application of Spinoza’s thought. Although I am not entirely discounting such influence. Rather, what would be at stake in reading Marx through the common notions? 

 In case we are unclear on what Spinoza means by common notions, they appear most specifically in a few passages in Part II of the Ethics, the passages dedicated to what could be considered Spinoza’s epistemology. Common notions are defined through a series of propositions. 

As Spinoza writes: EIIP37: "What is common to all things (on this see L2, above) and is equally in the part and in the whole, does not constitute the essence of any singular thing. 
And in EIIP38: "Those things which are common to all, and which are equally in the part and in the whole, can only be conceived adequately."

What is at stake in this odd formulation, equally "in the part and in the whole" can be seen in the contrast Spinoza draws between common notions, transcendentals and universals in the long scholium to Proposition 40. As Spinoza argues transcendentals and universals stem from a confusions of parts and wholes, a confusion brought about by the confusion of images in the body. The first, transcendentals, stem from an overwhelming number of images, while the second, universals retain one image, one part, that then is used to define the universal. As Spinoza writes, 

"But when the images in the body are completely confused, the mind also will imagine all the bodies confusedly, without any distinction, and comprehend them as if under one attribute, namely, under the attribute of Being, Thing, and so forth. This can also be deduced from the fact that images are not always equally vigorous and from other causes like these, which it is not necessary to explain here. For our purpose it is sufficient to consider only one. For they all reduce to this: these terms signify ideas that are confused in the highest degree. 

Those notions they call Universal, like Man, Horse, Dog, and the like, have arisen from similar causes, namely, because so many images (e.g., of men) are formed at one time in the human body that they surpass the power of imagining-not entirely, of course, but still to the point where the mind can imagine neither slight differences of the singular [men] (such as the color and size of each one, etc.) nor their determinate number, and imagines distinctly only what they all agree in, insofar as they affect the body. For the body has been affected most [NS: forcefully] by [what is common], since each singular has affected it [by this property]. And [NS: the mind] expresses this by the word man, and predicates it of infinitely many singulars. For as we have said, it cannot imagine a determinate number of singulars. "

A transcendental would then be a whole without parts and a universal would be a part without whole, or a part that takes itself for the whole, as an aspect of humanity, featherless biped, rational, or speech is taken for the entirety. A common notion then is neither the whole nor the part, neither a singular thing nor a totality, but what is common for each. What then would be at stake in reading Marx through such a concept of a concept? As I said I have been wondering about this question. It turns out that I did not have to wonder because Nick Nesbitt has answered this question in his recently published book, Reading Capital's Materialist Dialectic: Marx, Spinoza, and the Althusserians. 

Nesbitt's book joins several recent books in trying to return to what could be considered peak Althusser, or peak Althusserians, the interventions of 1965 (I am thinking here of Estop's and Matthys' books). It is also, much to my delight, a recent book reconsidering Macherey's contribution, reading Macherey's contribution through his later works on Spinoza. I am not going to do justice to the book here (and will be writing a longer review as well as discussing it at Red May tomorrow), but I want to jump in where it considers this question of common notions. As Nesbitt writes, 

"What then is the nature of such common notions? For Spinoza, the crucial distinction between the inadequate, imaginary ideas we necessarily form from sense impressions, and common notions, is that the latter are ideas not about any given, actually existing singular thing (such as coats and linen or bakers and cotton spinners, among Marx’s examples), but about certain qualities common to all things in general. In the wake of Galileo, who died in 1642, Spinoza’s privileged example in these propositions is that of physical bodies as such, universally existing in space and following the general laws that govern their relations. If it is the case that ‘all bodies agree in certain things’ –i.e., that aside from their particular existences, they possess common characteristics, which is to say their extension – then they therefore have in common that ‘they are determinations of extension, and are universally and identically subject to the same laws of movement and rest’. 

 For Spinoza, this common nature is what allows for the development of a general science of bodies, one that is founded on purely mathematical principles. The essential characteristic of this scientific understanding of the physical, material world, Macherey observes, is that it does not ‘take into consideration the existence of any specific body in particular, and is thus completely abstract’. This immediately recalls Marx’s famous defence of the powers of abstraction for the analysis and critique of political economy: ‘In the analysis of economic forms neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of assistance. The power of abstraction must replace both’.Like Marx’s scientific critique of political economy (‘The ultimate aim of this work [i.e., Capital, is] to reveal the economic law of motion of modern society’), Spinoza’s ‘science’, as Macherey reads him, ‘determines figures of regularity that, despite the perpetual variations impressed on [actually existing, singular] bodies due to the fact that they exist en acte, constitute the manifestation of a permanence regarding which laws can be formulated independently of the existence of any particular body’."

One of the thing that Nesbitt stresses, as the paragraphs above indicate, is that the source of illusion, of inadequate ideas is the image, the impression on the body, an image of a specific thing. Inadequate ideas are representations and as such they are confused mixtures of the thing that affects a body and the body being affected. In contrast to this common notions are common to all things in general. There is no singular experience of motion and rest, no experience of motion or rest as such, even as motion and rest are part of all experience, of all our relations with things in the world.

What would this mean for a reading of Marx? As Nesbitt argues, Marx often stressed the abstract nature of his own concepts, replacing wealth, an empirical concept with value (and surplus value) and thinking labor as both concrete and abstract labor. Following Nesbitt, we could then read all of the concepts of Capital, especially the first part, use value, exchange value, concrete labor, and abstract labor as common notions, as common to all existence under capitalism and in the part and in the whole. Such a reading is faithful to Marx's critique of political economy, in which the critique demonstrated how much of political economy remained tied to its own universals of labor, exchange, and self-interest, universals determined by a particular empirical content. I would argue that such a reading helps us deal with a tendency, one tied to our own particular finitude, a version of "seeing the better and doing the worse" to fill these concepts in with their own empirical or even phenomenological content.

There is an entire history of readings, or misreadings of Marx, that are basically attempts to tie the concept of use value to some real use, or concrete labor to some real specific and singular labor. Is there a question more persistent or more annoying than that of who or is not a real worker? Or what real usefulness or real utility is in the face of exchange. What is funny about the latter is that Marx addresses it in the second paragraph of Capital when he writes "The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production." Yet, readers, even sophisticated readers such as Baudrillard and Derrida have insisted that Marx means use value as tied to some anthropological coordinates of utility. 

A similar thing could be said about work. Many readers of work have imbued the concept, or concepts of labor, concrete, abstract, etc., with some kind of specific and particular meaning, some idea of what work looks like or feels like. (and I should mention that Nesbitt stresses that the concepts of concrete and abstract labor only work in and through their relations that constitute a positive dialectic). Such attempts are always going to be refracted through one's own particular experience of work. As I have noted elsewhere, they are not too different from trying to make sense of hoof prints in the mud. They are an attempt to make sense of what only exists in relation, in common, through a singular experience. These universals, universals tainted by a particular empirical image of making things, or of phenomenological experiences of being exhausted, can only lead to an endless debate and discussions, debate and discussions that miss the common, which is to say structural condition, of exploitation. 

The inevitable discussion of real work: Or, never read the comments

There is more, much more, that can be said about Nesbitt's book and I am looking forward to our conversation, which I will link to here (assuming that you are reading this after it takes place on May 9th). To close, I will just cite a few more passages from Nesbitt what is at stake in thinking through common notions: 

"This political epistemology of common notions is grounded in what Macherey terms ‘a dynamic of rational knowledge’, via the perfecting and emendation of the capacity to grasp the real by means of ideas, in which the intellect is led ‘from the activity of [sensuous] perception, in which it is at its most passive, to that of conception, in which it is the most active … passing from the particular to the general through a progressive process of abstraction’. 

 The common notion as such thus possesses an inherent ethical and political dimension: ideas that express properties common to all things are as such necessarily ‘common to all humans’, Macherey comments, ‘which is to say that they compose a common knowledge that can be universally shared’. This common knowledge, accessible to all humans and necessarily identically conceived by all who follow this democratic path, thus constitutes ‘the condition for a mental community among all people …. In so far as people form common notions that are necessarily adequate, they are actually united, and constitute as such a single intellect and a single body’. Macherey insists above all on the real actuality of this intellectual commons of theoretical practice: ‘In the intellect of man, whoever he or she may be, there always exist common notions [such as, I suggested above, a minimal idea of the nature of capitalism such as Marx expresses in the first sentence of Capital] through which can be established the forms of their union with other people, which is to say, with the maximum possible others, and tendentially, with all"

The video of the entire panel can be seen here: 

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