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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.