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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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Flocks of Economic Richness

Cain Returns to Abel

As we hear, now in this time of economic shift and “crisis”, that our economy of the West is no longer a manufacture’s economy, but rather an “information” economy, or a “service” economy, it comes to the fore that the place America and its homologous European West has taken in the world economy is of one huge Affect Pool: that is the highly structured (polyvalent) and affinity-ridden potentiality of feelings and experiences, for their own sake, a veritable living dream-factory, composed of bodily possibles.

It is an interesting shift. The First World regularly had been characterized as using the Third as its industrial base, its ever expanding source of cheaper and cheaper labor, a labor extracted through the restriction of human and civil rights, organized by brutal political forms, feeding “us” what is “needed”, something to churn the maelstrom of capital growth at its periphery. Perhaps there is something to this. But the ideology of freedom runs in tensioned parallel to the freedoms of economic, capitalized growth. And in worlds other than the so-called First, the problematic of newly constructed “consumer” cogitos ever tugs at these two strands. Thus as the collapse of speculations, and complex leveragings of debt – debt spread so thin so as to become hopefully like dew to evaporate each morning, only to rise into a unexpected weather-storm of force, to ripple in so many butterfly wing flaps, at a distance – we come to see that the affect-rich West, the West that dreams for its professoin, works at the service of emerging markets. Instead of First, Second and Third worlds, there are emerging markets which feed off of the Affect Pools of the West. And China invests Westward, upon its domesticated flocks.

The study of affect and imagination is perhaps most needed.

Why Spinoza? A Historical, Sociological Argument

Why Study Spinoza? …

The question may arise when considering the work of a philosopher, why should we study him, particularly for those outside of the discipline of philosophy. In the case of Spinoza there are some who have suggested that his importance has lain in his proximity to Descartes both in time and in concept. Under this idea, at least philosophically, we have been living in a largely Cartesian age, one that descends from Descartes’ fundamental dichotomy of Substances – Mind and Body – and has been attempting to heal the respective gap between subject and object ever since. This has been reflected in two main offspring-lines passing through the intermediary bridge of Frege/Brentano, those that wrestled with the problems of reference in the Analytic School, and those that articulated philosophies of Presence in the Continental School. These differences are seen to reflect, or express, large-scale sociological facts, the manner in which we in the West conceptualized and utilized objects of industry, and conditioned ourselves in our bodies in a detached and extra-mental way. In this lineage of thought and action Spinoza can be seen to stand, conceptually, as the path not taken. If we were to allow an analogy from biology, Spinoza’s thinking, born in the generation just after Descartes, represents a species of thought which for a variety of reasons did not come to proliferate here. Spinoza’s is a continent of life unto itself whose capacities for coherence and analysis express powers that Descartes’ and his descendants do not.

Related to this conceptual importance of Spinoza is the quality of the time in which he lived. Spinoza lived at the cusp of modernity. In Amsterdam, as an ostracized member of a marginalized group of Jewish merchants and religious believers, Spinoza witnessed and debated some of the most remarkable human leaps in social growth in the history of the West. During the decades of Spinoza’s life the fledgling Dutch Republic posed experiments in early capitalism, democracy and social tolerance (attended by the shadows and dangers of each), such that the core of his thinking can be regarded as something of a stem-cell of modern capitalist and democratic logic, one that, when examined, may provide us with a grammar of analysis for our own times insofar as they have been long delayed in the development of what remarkably was given birth in mid-17th century Holland. Within this notion of Spinoza as a divergent line of conceptual branching are the hopes and possibilities for what is possible to think, and in thinking, do. While Descartes’ division between Mind and Body may have served the human West well for several centuries, Spinoza’s unification of the two, formulated radically as a correction to Descartes, may provide an even more significant capacity, given our place and time. In short, we may be ready for Spinoza.

human stem cell

human stem cell

Franciscus van den Enden: Spinoza’s Latin Teacher

A website dedicated to the life and works of Spinoza’s Amsterdam teacher of Latin, no doubt he who introduced him to the plays of Seneca and Terence and many of a political circle. Filled with notable details, primary sources and histories. A thinker whose influence on Spinoza is yet calculable:

Franciscus van den Enden