22 enero, 2015

Frédéric Lordon. Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire

Jason Read

Lordon, Frédéric. Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire, Verso, New York, 2014, 224 pp.

Readers of contemporary philosophy will not be surprised to see the name Spinoza paired with Marx in the title of a recently published book. Ever since Louis Althusser argued in the mid-1960s that he and his cowriters of Reading Capital were Spinozists and not structuralists, there has been an increased inquiry into the points of connection between Marx and Spinoza. One could even say that what the Hegel/Marx connection was to a previous generation — animating the writings of Adorno, Sartre, Lukács, etc. — the Marx/Spinoza connection is to a current collection of philosophers ranging from Althusser, and the members of his circle such as Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, to Antonio Negri, Warren Montag, and Hasana Sharp.

This shift in names also entails a fundamental change of problems. The relationship of Hegel to Marx was always one of the anxiety of influence: trying to contend with both the massive influence that Hegel had on Marx as well as Marx’s attempt to critically distance himself from Hegel in order to separate the rational kernel from the mystical shell. The Spinoza/Hegel relation, however, is less direct: less a matter of the influence of the latter on the former than of their point of contact around connected problems. These problems aren’t so much the problems that defined the Spinoza Marx knew (the debates on pantheism, Hegel’s attempt to shift the absolute from substance to subject) than they are the debates framed by Marxist theory’s attempt to keep up with the changes of capitalism.

To place it in classical Marxist terms, Spinoza’s thought has provided the tools for developing a critique of the superstructure — in other words, of ideology — and the transformations of belief and desire that constitute subjectivity. Spinoza is a response to a question Marx poses, but does not answer.

Althusser argued that Spinoza’s critique of anthropomorphism and anthropocentricism in the
Appendix to Part One of the Ethics constituted the “matrix of every possible theory of ideology.” Antonio Negri also argues that “in the postindustrial age the Spinozian critique of representation of capitalist power corresponds more to the truth than does the analysis of political economy.” For Negri, Spinoza’s thought offers a representation of power that posits a kind of self-organization: it ontologically grounds and expands notions of living labor that gesture toward a more contemporary capitalist society, in which work has expanded beyond the factory to encompass the entire production of life. This turn towards the superstructure, towards ideology and the representation of power, is perhaps not surprising: it is easier to make connections between Spinoza’s critique of superstition and theories of ideology than it is to connect his understanding of desires and striving to consumption and production. As much as Spinoza offered a trenchant critique of the religious, monarchical, and even humanist ideologies of his time, he had little to say, at least directly, about emerging capitalism. Money is only mentioned once in the Ethics, where it is defined as the universal object of desire that “occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else.” While such a statement intersects with critiques of greed and the transformation of desire under capitalism, it remains partial and incidental to developing a Spinozist critique of political economy. A Spinozist critique of ideology almost seems given; a Spinozist ontology of power seems provocative. But a Spinozist critique of political economy would seem to be an impossibility.

Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital: Marx and Spinoza (originally published as Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza) continues the first of these trends while breaking with the second. With respect to the former, Lordon is clear that the relationship between Marx and Spinoza is a profoundly anachronistic one. It is not a matter of discerning the subtle influences that stem from Spinoza to Marx but of using Spinoza to make sense of a problem Marx posed. As Lordon writes, “The temporal paradox is that, although Marx comes after Spinoza, it is Spinoza who can now help us fill the gaps in Marx.” The gaps concern a problem Marx poses, but never completely resolves: Why, and how, do workers return to work each day? If labor power drives the entire capitalist economy, then what is it that motivates individuals to continue to sell their labor power? Lordon believes the answer can be found in Spinoza’s theory of desire, of the conatus that constitutes an individual’s striving, and the affects that define it. In Lordon’s approach to the Spinoza/Marx relation there are echoes of Spinoza’s fundamental political question, “Why do the masses fight for their servitude as if it was salvation?” coupled with Marx’s basic critique of the alienation of capitalism. It is a question of knowing why people will continue to work for a system that exploits them, appropriating their productive powers while granting them less and less control.

Viewed broadly, this question of individual motivation and institutional reproduction can be understood as a fundamental question of the human sciences. (It is worth noting that Lordon, unlike many of the others listed above, is an economist whose interest reaches into the broader question of the very philosophical foundation of economics.) Viewed narrowly, however, this question of motivation, of what drives workers, becomes all the more timely in an era in which motivation, self-motivation, and the entrepreneurial spirit have become at least the cultural norm, if not the material reality, of contemporary capitalism. Self-motivated networking and a generalized entrepreneurial attitude have become the watchwords of our economy and culture. Lordon’s project is not just to utilize Spinoza to complete Marx but to bring both into the contemporary present, adding his text to the critical literature on homo economicus.

What aspect of Spinoza’s anthropology of desire is useful for a critique of capitalism? Answering this means isolating some of his propositions regarding desire and the affects from the general logic of the Ethics, the famous geometrical method, as well as its ethical vision.

Spinoza defines desire, the tendency to persevere in one’s existence, as that which “defines the very essence of man.” As much as desire defines the essence of man it is itself undefined, or as Lordon puts it, intransitive, lacking a universal telos or goal. Human beings strive, but what they strive for is not some idea of the good, or even some shared biological necessity of survival. Everyone strives, but what they strive for, what they desire, is different — the wise man desires knowledge and the drunk alcohol. What individuals strive for is not determined by the quality of the objects of their desires but by the history of their relations. Something that has been seen, correctly or incorrectly, to increase our joy, our power to act, is desired, while something that increases our sadness is avoided. These encounters define our relations with objects and how we value them. As Spinoza famously put it, “It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will…nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.” Desire is mankind’s essence, but this essence is less a universal, some shared quality, than it is the facticity of our relations and history.

What Spinoza’s account of desire makes possible is a turn away from the classical question of will or volition, understood as a free will. The apologist for capitalism will focus on the fact that people willingly engage in it, willingly go to work, buy consumer goods, and so on. In response to this the critic will often insist on some secret misery, some alienation at the heart of things, describing the hidden necessity underlying this freedom. One insists on freedom, the other on necessity. Lordon writes:

Against this insoluble aporia, Spinoza proposes an altogether different mechanism of alienation: the real chains are those of our affects and desires. There is no such thing as voluntary servitude. There is only passionate servitude. That, however, is universal.

We all have our desires determined by our relations, are subject to affects we neither entirely cause nor entirely comprehend. Spinoza’s anthropology of desire and affects makes it impossible to theoretically choose between volition or determination, instead making it possible to recognize the historical determination of our volition, the way our very striving is shaped by our history.

Spinoza considers the historical transformation of desire primarily in terms of the biography of an individual. The movement from bondage, from domination by the affects, to liberation, to the rational comprehension of the affects, is the trajectory of liberation that defines the Ethics. Lordon argues that the general process by which desire goes from being intransitive to transitive, transforming from an abstract capacity to a reality, can become the basis of a historical analysis of the transformation of desire. From this perspective capitalism since its inception must be understood as a transformation of desire and human striving. What Marx referred to as primitive accumulation: wage laborers with nothing but the labor power to sell — the long and bloody historical process that created the conditions for capitalism — must be understood as a particular restructuring of desire. At its initial and most basic stage this reorganization of desire only needs to eliminate other alternatives, means of satisfying one’s needs other than wage labor. Marx’s interests in the colonies, or also in primitive accumulation, were reminders of how artificial and constructed the capitalist wage relation is: of how it needs to be imposed before it can become assumed. This imposition is the work of history, of the destruction of commons, the closure of frontiers, and the destruction of subsistence farming. As Marx writes, “The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education [Erziehung], tradition, and habit [Gewohnheit] looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self evident natural laws.” Reading Spinoza through primitive accumulation (and vice versa) has two effects. First, it reveals the falsity of any justification of capitalism that rests on some anthropology of interest or competition. There is no basic greed or fundamental competitive impulse functioning as the anthropological basis of capitalism. Absolutely asocial self-interest would not drive people to work everyday, exchanging labor power for a wage, but drive them to simply grab what they wanted. Going to work every day to earn money is less an expression of some fundamental drive of competition than an effect of the political and social organization of labor. On this point Lordon could not be farther away from those who find in Spinoza’s striving some kind of philosophical foundation for the capitalist economy. Capitalism can thus be understood as a particular restructuring of desire. This statement is not only true of the historical passage from feudalism to capitalism, but it also covers the historical changes within capitalism.

At this first, and most basic stage, the desire to work is driven by the simple desire not to starve, to persevere in one’s biological being. This is what kept people coming back to the factory gates in those early days of capital. The history of capitalism is the history of the transformation of this basic desire, a history in which new objectives and goals replace the simple desire not to starve. Lordon offers a schematic history of this transformation primarily divided into two periods: Fordism and neoliberalism. Lordon is less interested in the institutional and specific histories of these regimes of accumulation than in sketching a history of how general changes of the labor relation alter the tenor and tone of this affective composition, offering incentives that go beyond the fear of starvation. Fordism continues and extends the devaluation of the world of work, breaking its mastery into a plurality of fragmented tasks. Where Fordism really differs at the level of affects is in its constitution of the consumer. Ford’s famous “five dollar day” made it possible for workers to buy a variety of objects of desire. For Lordon, the rise of a consumer society must be seen as a fundamental reorientation of desire, one that no longer works out of fear, the fear of starving, but out of hope — of the desires to consume. Money is no longer that which can ward off future fears, saved away for rainy days; it is the universal object of desire. When it comes to consumer society it is useful to follow Spinoza in distinguishing not just between sad and joyful affects, between fears and hope, but the distinction between passive and active affects. Passive affects can be joyful or sad, increasing or decreasing our power to act, but they are outside of us, beyond our control. Such an idea of passive joys, joys that we do not control in terms of either access or creation, would seem well suited to describe the world of consumer society. Consumer society is the joyful heteronomy of desire.

Fordism makes possible a redefinition of the worker as consumer, extending and transforming the world of work in the name of the pleasures and desires of the latter. As Lordon writes:

The justifications offered for contemporary transformations in employment practices — from longer work hours (‘it allows stores to open on Sundays’) to competition-enhancing deregulation (‘it lowers prices’) — always contrive to catch agents by ‘the joyful affects’ of consumption, appealing only to the consumer in them.

This affective devaluing of the world of work, in which its pains are inconsequential compared to the pleasures of consumption, was based on a world of relative security of work itself.

Neoliberalism can be initially understood as an assault on these securities, as union contracts and other forms of security are replaced by the demands for flexibility. This institutional change is coupled with a fundamental transformation at the level of the affects. If the subject of Fordism was the consumer, identifying his or herself with the pleasures of the market, the subject of neoliberalism is a particular kind of worker, an entrepreneur of him or herself. The elevation of terms like “entrepreneur” and “networking” to generic values, shared by all without any specification of their ends or goals, reflects a society in which the generic capacity and willingness to engage in work is seen as the source of joy. This might seem as a reversal of Fordism, a turn away from the joys of consumption and towards joy sought in the activity of work, but it is important to stress that the joy sought is not that of this or that job or activity, the rewards of a craftsman, or other satisfaction, but the joy of simply being engaged. One identifies not with concrete labor, not with the pleasures and demands of this specific task, or the craftwork ideal of a job well done but with abstract labor — with the general capacity of being put to work. It is not enough to simply show up to work or to find one’s pleasures in what the wage makes possible: contemporary workers must demonstrate a love for work. Emotional labor is no longer demanded of just the flight attendant or bartender but becomes ubiquitous, as everyone must demonstrate affective commitment to the job. As Lordon writes, “Neoliberal capital is the world of the girlfriend experience,” alluding to the figure of the sex worker who simulates love in order to describe the affective demands of the contemporary, motivated employee.

Lordon’s presentation of the economic and affective shift from Fordism to neoliberalism is schematic, overly so. It overlooks the combined and uneven development of these two regimes, not just in terms of the coexistence of factory workers and Taylorized service workers alongside temp workers, consultants, dot-com creative workers, and others subject to more neoliberal orientations, but, more importantly, in terms of the coexistence of different affective regimes within the same worker, the same individual. At the level of affect we are perhaps often caught within all three regimes: sometimes we work just to pay rent, to keep food on the table; sometimes it is to buy the coveted goods of consumer society; and sometimes it is because we identify with the ideals of the flexible entrepreneur, maximizing our human capital. It is not just at the level of society, but also subjectivity, that there is an intersection of all three regimes of affect. We are compelled as much by our fears as our desires.

In a later book, La Société des affects, Lordon augments this broad schematic approach of different regimes by turning to two of the final propositions of Part Three of the Ethics. In those final passages Spinoza argues that there are as many loves and hates “as there are species of objects by which we are affected” (EIIIP56) and “each affect of each individual differs from the affect of another as much as the essence of one from the essence of the other” (EIIIP57). The multiple objects, and multiple strivings, constitute the basis for multiple affective compositions, each shifting and ambivalent, as the same object is both the object of love and hate, and the same individual comes to hate what they once loved. Rereading these propositions back into the schematic history of different affective modes of production does not dispense with the latter, shattering it into a pure multiplicity where a thousand flowers bloom. Rather, these differences, variations of love and hate, must be understood as variations on a dominant theme. As Lordon argues, there will always be bosses who are kind and generous, work situations that engage a broader range of activity, but these differences and deviations are ultimately just different expressions of the same fundamental relation. The nicest boss in the world cannot fundamentally alter the structure of the Fordist or neoliberal labor conditions; the affective engagement at the level of individual intention does nothing to alter the basic relation with the activity and object. This affective veneer, the work of human relations, is not inconsequential: more than the role it plays in motivating individual workers, the real work it does is in producing the appearance of difference, a society of individual actions rather than of persistent structures. Much of the quotidian criticism of work, or of capitalism in general, focuses on the differences: we complain about this boss or this job, but do not address the fundamental relation of exploitation or the profit motive which exceeds the different ways in which it is instantiated. The plurality, a plurality dictated by what Spinoza would call the “order of nature,” the different ways in which things have affected us, takes precedence over the perception of common relations.

To this emphasis on plurality as a perpetual alibi, we can add another thesis from Spinoza. As Spinoza argues, we are more likely to hate or love an act that we consider to be free than one which is considered necessary. On this last point Spinoza’s affective economy intersects with one of the central points of Marx’s critique of political economy, that of fetishism, which could, in part, be summed up as perceiving the capitalist mode of production as necessary and natural, rather than the product of social relations. The naturalization of the economy, its existence as self-evident natural laws, makes it difficult for us to hate it, to become indignant. To this assertion we could add that the more complicated and distant the causes of our desire are, the more likely we are to see ourselves as free, as autonomous. We remember the encounter, the love, that made a given song desirable or the case of food poisoning that made us hate a particular dish; these desires and joys are not opaque to us. In contrast to this, we do not think about the history of wage labor, the destruction of the commons and other alternatives that are the prehistory of our day-to-day struggle to find a job. Nor do we perceive the fluctuations and transformations of capital as anything other than facts of life. We fail to grasp the history and politics of the shaping of our desire. Money appears to us as the natural object of desire, because the historical conditions of its emergence exceed our memory. Wage labor appears to be the only way to realize our striving, because the structural conditions of its determination exceed our grasp. The affective economy of capitalism is one in which it is easier to become angry and grateful at the deviations, the cruel bosses and the benevolent philanthropists, while the structure itself, the fundamental relations of exploitation, are deemed too necessary, too natural, to merit indignation.

Lordon makes a strong claim that capitalism must be considered a reorganization of desire, a claim that resonates well with neoliberal capital’s own self-presentation as a matter of motivation and desire. However, as his own remarks about the naturalization of capital make clear, it is not just desire that is reorganized by capitalism, but knowledge and the imagination as well. Our inability to imagine alternatives, to envision modes of happiness other than consumer fantasies, or “dream jobs,” as well as our inability to comprehend the current economic order as just that, an economic and political order and not a fact of life, are as much elements of our subjection as desire. Subjection must be found at the intersection of desire, knowledge, and imagination. The limits of Lordon’s focus, the focus on desire, are not, however, the limits of the intersection of Spinoza and Marx. As philosophers from Althusser to Negri have demonstrated, Spinoza develops a theory of the imagination that posits it to be both the site of our subjection to the dominant superstitions and the condition of our creation of different modes of thinking and feeling. Similarly, others have demonstrated that Spinoza’s theory of knowledge proceeds from the isolated and singular cases which make up experiences, experiences that are ungraspable in the singular mixture of the outside world and our own states, towards the common notions, the shared conditions which structure our world. Liberation, like subjection, is a matter of desire, imagination, and knowledge. Lordon has offered an important contribution to the intersection of Marx and Spinoza, the necessary incompleteness of which only underscores both the complexity of our subjection and the richness of Spinoza’s contribution to not only any critique of that subjection, but any construction of our liberation.

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