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Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

The life of the passions, like that of reason, is similarly conditioned by the struggle to persevere in being; like reason, the passions express a natural (though inadequate) mode of human Desire. Does this mean that the passions, which are a constant cause of conflict between men, represent the antithesis of sociabilty? Not at all. What Spinoza demonstrates is that there is another form of the genesis (or “production”) of society, which springs from the passions themselves and which is worked out in them and through them, even if, in this case, the result is not necessarily a harmonious society (85)

- Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics

How Passions Bring Us Together

Recent discussion made me realize that there is an very significant text out there on Spinoza that is likely quite under read, and it is best to give it a boost. While much attention gets paid to Spinoza’s vast metaphysical claims, much less is directed towards his very early championing of liberal democracy freedoms (one of the first in European history). And seldom when his political views are examined does the analysis seem to fit snuggly back into his metaphysics. It often appears to be the case that there are two slightly disjoined topics, the metaphysical and then the political (we can insert “the psychological” which is also a branch of his thinking that sometimes is taken with some autonomy from the rests).

With great surpass, this cannot be said of Etienne Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics, very inexpensively available from Verso. The book is a brilliant slim volume, perhaps the best work on Spinoza from the neo-Marxists (though Negri’s The Savage Anomaly is inspiring, or at least quite inspired).

I want to post here a pdf of the book: Spinoza and Politics, Etienne Balibar [click here].

If you want to get a grasp on the lines of political argument as found in the Ethicsplease at least read the fouth chapter, “The Ethics: A Political Anthropology” (76-98), where Balibar braids together two separate descriptions of the social, one rational, one affectual, passing back and forth between the third and fourth books of the Ethics. (Warning, it does take a close reading, with page-turnings best done with the Ethics  in hand). He does such a wonderful job of drawing out the two, mutually supporting arguments that are almost in hidden dialogue with each other, that he makes much of the rest of Spinoza political thinking more clear. What comes through is that counter to a Hobbesian mythology of a natural, animal state of the war of against all, even our greatest conflicts between persons and society are alreadysocial. There is no pre-social state of conflict. This is a conclusion of the utmost theoretical consequence for it undercuts much of what is projectively assumed about the nature of goverment, and it has bearing upon the very roots of epistemology and perception. Additionally, it brings into bold relief the mistaken simplification that Spinoza viewed the affects or the imagination in solely a detrimental, or antithetical fashion.

Here I provide a copy of the excellent diagram he includes to help the reader follow his explication. It is a figure that I have returned to many times, both in the reading, but also later in thinking through Spinoza’s position. And below that is a from-text summation of part of the argument.

 

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14 responses to “Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

  1. Mikhail Emelianov April 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks for posting the PDF, it does look like a slim volume, I might be tempted to read it instead of doing work…

  2. kvond April 3, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Read it. It is very good.

  3. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Balibar’s little book on Spinoza is first rate. I would say the thesis that we’re always already social is the key axiom underlying all Marxist thought. So there’s a real sense in which Marx is a kind of Spinozist, though I’m not sure if he ever directly read Spinoza. Balibar’s other book on Marx is also very good. There’s a reason there are all these Spinozist Marxists out there such as Balibar, Negri and Hardt, the autonomia folk coming out of Italy, etc.

  4. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    I’ll also add that I find it surprising when you say that most people ignore Spinoza’s political thought and focus only on his metaphysical claims. You’re right, of course. However, it always seems to me that philosophers like Lucretius or Spinoza are political thinkers first and metaphysical thinkers second. By this I mean that the reason Lucretius and Spinoza get so worked up about metaphysical issues is that they believe we have to know the true nature of reality to form an adequate politics and ethics. This is what makes Negri’s book so terrific. Although it is often a plodding read, his careful analysis of Spinoza’s historical context reveals the set of political concerns underneath his apparently arid metaphysical speculations.

  5. kvond April 3, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    To your first point, yes, but there is a substantial difference between Marx and Spinoza, and this is where Marx wants to privilege “consciousness” as a categorical distinction between humans and animals, and from this draw a “reproduction of physical existence” versus a “mode of production,”categorical distinction which Spinoza would not abide:

    From German Ideology:

    “Man can be distinguished from animals by consciousness…[humans] begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence”

    “This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are”

    As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this nature vs. culture thinking, its categorical humanism, threatens a binary which places women potentially on the wrong side of the split.

    Spinoza is quite specific. Human beings do not form a kingdom within a kindom.

  6. kvond April 3, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    To you second comment,

    LS: “However, it always seems to me that philosophers like Lucretius or Spinoza are political thinkers first and metaphysical thinkers second. By this I mean that the reason Lucretius and Spinoza get so worked up about metaphysical issues is that they believe we have to know the true nature of reality to form an adequate politics and ethics.”

    Kvond: I think that this is very true. It is really hard for us to conceive (or at least for me to) of just what kind of termoil was going on in the mid 1600s. Plagues everywhere, friends dying. Naval and land wars. No royality for the first time in the Dutch Republic. A huge boom in economic growth impowering a for-centuries oppressed group (Sephardic Jews), meteors appearing the sky, prophesies thought to be fullfilled regarding the end of the world, a distant living messiah in the form of Sabbatai Zevi, the discovery of any number of exploding scientific paths of inquiry. If ever there was a need to “get things straight” it was then. Spinoza’s sense-making goes right down to the smallest detail of society for him.

    LS: This is what makes Negri’s book so terrific. Although it is often a plodding read, his careful analysis of Spinoza’s historical context reveals the set of political concerns underneath his apparently arid metaphysical speculations.

    Kvond: I agree. And I too found his prose difficult, but I have to say that – and I have read it many times because I always felt that I was missing some very important aspects due to that style – once one adapts oneself to the writing, and is familiarized with what he is trying to say, I actually found the style pleasing, expressive, beautiful. I took me a very long time though to get to that place. I always feel that I want to recommend that book to people, but it carries its own impenetrability at its surface, and who wants to wish that effort upon them.

  7. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    This, I think, is a complicated issue. The Marx of the German Ideology is the early humanist Marx. He later became critical of this position by the time of Capital. I agree categorically with your critique of nature versus culture binaries. A lot of the work I’ve been doing has been to undermine this sort of dichotomy.

    I’m not sure I understand your point about women. That said, the early socialist movement had a pretty bad track record with women, tending to privilege male workers issues over gender issues. The nice thing about Marx’s philosophy (Balibar contests the idea that there is a “Marxist Philosophy), is that it is an open and evolving way of thinking. It’s more a technique for analyzing the world and conditions than a set of defined propositions (though sadly Marxists haven’t always approached it in that spirit). Along these lines, one productive project might be to form a Spinozistic Marxism to correct the sorts of problems you outline here.

  8. ai April 4, 2009 at 10:26 am

    This is great stuff. Thanks for posting it (the book) and for the insightful discussion.

  9. kvond April 4, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Great ai, I hope you enjoy the book or some portion of it.

  10. anodynelite April 4, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for putting up these excellent PDFs, K. Enjoying the discussion, too. It’s been probably 8 years since I read the Tractatus but it’s coming back to me slowly…

  11. kvond April 4, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Glad you liked it all.

    I think that the key is not so much in the Tractatus (which was designed to adress a very specific political problem: biblical authority at a time of a rising, liberal Republic of freedoms), but in the Ethics, where Balibar concentrates his focus in chapter 4 (and in the diagram).

  12. Steve September 6, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Anyone interested in Spinoza & Marx — and materialist political philosophy — ought to look at the terrific journal, ‘Rethinking Marxism’ (edited in USA but currently published in the UK, via Taylor & Francis). I also recommend highly the free online journal, ‘Borderlands’. You will see some of the same people in each journal — like Jason Read, who was writing on Negri well before ‘Empire’ appeared; and Warren Montag, whose written excellent articles, and a book, on Louis Althusser; among others. Btw, ‘Rethinking Marxism’ also hosts a conference at UMass/Amherst every 4 years — the next RM conference is Nov 2009.

  13. Pingback: immanence - kvond’s Spinoza

  14. Pingback: Richard Rorty’s Last “Spinoza” « Mitochondrial Vertigo

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