The Politics of Spinozism – Composition and Communication (Part 2 of 2)

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Balibar: Communication

Étienne Balibar approaches Spinoza as a thinker of interaction, of the constitutive character of relations. Spinoza’s question, in Balibar’s view, is the following: ‘What is the mode of reciprocal action that characterizes the existence of a body politic?’1

In this respect, the uniqueness of Spinoza is that of taking the movement (both outer and inner, so to speak) of the masses as the object of political science, and not just the legitimacy of sovereignty or the claims of order. (Of course, we may be tempted to ask, to what extent are the masses, or rather the multitude, the subject or object of politics?)

From here derives, in Balibar’s reading, both the centrality and aporetic character of the notion of democracy. Democracy is defined as a ‘united body of men which corporately possesses sovereign right over everything within its power’, as the combination of the reciprocity of duties and the equality of rights. As both Macherey and Negri note, this is not to be understood simply as another figure in a political typology of forms of government, but is an immanent tendency of political life, inscribed in the dynamic of reason and into the vicissitudes of human nature. Or, as Balibar puts it, democracy is both a kind of political order and the truth of every political order. Democracy can also be understood as the power of the multitude coordinated, cultivated and instituted without the imaginary displacement represented by sovereignty, by the alienation of the power of human singularities into the empty and formally unified place of power (the Hobbesian option, as it were). Whence the radical novelty of Spinoza’s question: How does power originate in the multitude? And, one should add, how does it continue and persevere, how is power not just originated, but also continuously constructed, in and by the multitude?

The key notion at this juncture is that of the striving for self-preservation, of the conatus of both individual and State, which is intimately connected in Spinoza to the extremely provocative thesis of the identity of right and power (though, as ever we should understand this as potentia, power to, and not potestas, power over). Natural right is recast by Spinoza as the power to act.  How then does this equation of right and power translate into a treatment of the mass or multitude? And how does the role of the passions, or rather affects, the cornerstone of Spinoza’s theory of human nature, contribute to this treatment? What are we to do with Spinoza’s theory of the passions of the body social (Matheron)? Balibar broaches these question in his discussion of the ‘fear of the masses’. He writes: ‘It is the fundamental purpose of democracy to avoid the follies of appetite and to keep men within the bounds of reason, as far as possible, so that they may live in peace and harmony’. But, we may ask, is there a dichotomy then between the construction and the restriction of the multitude? Or could we think both in term of immanent practices of self-limitation?2 These questions are then complicated by the reciprocal fear of the masses and of political authorities, as well as by the strife and antagonism at the heart of the multitude itself. But for Balibar, the key question, even in the midst of antagonism, remains that of selfpreservation: ‘The excess of antagonistic passion is, essentially, a perversion of the desire to maintain and to safeguard the existing order’ (39).

In this framework, institutions are always ambivalent, though their first role is to stem the tide of fear arising out of our mortal awareness of chance and of violence. Behind this view lies the idea that the ‘desire of the multitude is to live in a state of civil peace.’ As to the ambivalence, the entire question is how we understand the obsessive need, voiced by Spinoza, to keep the multitude ‘within bounds’.3 The ambivalence is also ontological, since it turns out that individual and State are just two divergent modalities of the power of the multitude, ‘the decisive concept in the analysis of the State’ (69). Rulers and ruled, sovereign and citizens, all belong to the multitude. However, Balibar remains sceptical about the multitude qua multitude. He thinks it ‘a contradictory power, internally divided against itself: as such, it is unable to decide anything’, ‘an unstable aggregate of individual passions’. It is a medium for the amplification of passions and the imitation of the affects. Embedding decision in the masses is thus a strategy of stability (which monarchy is immanently led towards, for instance). But what are we to make of the seemingly un-democratic and anti-libertarian thesis that ‘the fundamental social relation is the production of obedience’ (88)? As Balibar shows, in democracy this obedience cancels itself out in the reciprocal love of men and the love of God. Not only, but obedience to the State, for Spinoza, converges with the ‘collective construction of the common interest’. So, rather than spuriously opting for either the rights of the individual or the stability of the State, in Balibar’s reading Spinoza presents us with a relational idea of right or law, rather than one founded on coercion or an autonomous domain of values and commands. This is why Balibar holds that transindividual (and not the monolithic Leviathan) is the key dimension that requires to be thought: ‘Those rights are compatible which express powers that can be added or multiplied together; those rights are incompatible which correspond to powers that will mutually destroy one another.’

There is nothing more miserable, sadder, than intellectual, moral and political solitude. Contrary to the ascetic image of Spinoza, but in line with the fortunes of his thought, we never think alone, the production of ‘common notions’, a necessary component of ethical knowledge, is, in principle at least, a collective, or open, activity. Or, as Balibar has it, ‘to know really is to think ever less by oneself.’ This is where Spinoza is not simply advancing another version of the negative freedom implicit in the notion of a freedom of opinion, but a far stronger thesis of the freedom of thought, which holds that it is the expansion and empowerment of citizens’ capacity for thought which strengthens the State and renders peace and security — the peace and security of a burgeoning, dynamic State and not a State of fear — more stable.

Thought contributes to the cohesion of sovereignty, understood as a ‘continuous process of collective production’. Furthermore, thought is, in the final analysis, de facto inalienable, any attempt to strip this minimum of humanity (or irreducible minimum of individuality) and autonomy can only result in the eventual explosion of antagonism and the ruin of the commonwealth. Freedom4 of thought thus lies behind the collaboration which is essential to the combination of State and society: ‘Reason counsels us to seek peace and security by pooling our individual powers, and this will in turn bestow upon us the greatest possible degree of real independence.’

Finally, via Spinoza, Balibar produces a theory of communication which, unlike those produced by the likes of Habermas and Apel is not ‘transcendental’ and which could even be said to be ahead of its time. The concept of communication allows us to move beyond the false antithesis, so prevalent in classical political theory, between natural and institutional sociability. In the construction of society as an extension, resolution and amplification of human nature men communicate affects and reason to one another. Passion and reason are ‘modes of communication between bodies and between ideas of bodies’, a political regime is in turn defined as ‘an order of communication’. What is at stake in political change is the transformation of collective temperament. Politics, in this Spinozan framework, can be redefined as the struggle over the ‘transformation of the mode of communication’, replacing mass passions with collective reason, via common notions, which allow us to find joy (the affirmation of activity as ruled by reason and aware of necessity) in the life of the multitude.5 This allows us to juxtapose the reason embodied in a communicable good and the barbarism which dominates a community of fear and of non-cooperative imitation (imitation of fear, or fascination).

In communication we thus see how conatus of self-preservation and cooperation turn out to be one and the same. Now the multitude can move beyond its fear and its ambivalence and be communicatively redefined as an exchange and free communication between irreducibly singular beings. So what we are dealing with is not just the freedom of thought but necessarily the freedom of communication. In conclusion, for Balibar:

The theory of the ‘body politic’ is neither a straightforward ‘physics’ of power, nor a psychological analysis of the submission of the masses, nor a method for formalising a juridical order, but the search for a strategy of collective liberation, whose guiding motto would be: as many as possible, thinking as much as possible.

Deleuze: Composition

Perhaps no author like the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze — in my view the contemporary philosopher whose temperament is closest to Spinoza — has emphasized the presence in Spinoza’s work of an ethics of the encounter, an ethics of joy, undermining the pernicious and debilitating influence of the sad passions. In Deleuze, we encounter most powerfully the notion that Spinoza does away with a pre-existence of Good and Evil as external standards for disembodied judgment, for the sake of an understanding of ethics as an immanent evaluation of ways of life. As he writes:

There is in Nature neither Good nor Evil, there is no moral opposition, but there is an ethical difference. This ethical difference appears in various, equivalent forms: that between the reasonable man and the foolish, the wise and the ignorant, free man and slave, strong and weak. And wisdom or reason have in fact no other content but strength, freedom. This ethical difference […] relates to the kind of affections that determine our conatus (Deleuze 1992:261).

In other words, it relates to the effect of encounters on our affective composition, on our capacity to act with joy or our propensity to suffer in sadness (and this suffering can also qualify certain activities: domination can be a deeply sad pursuit, for Spinoza and Deleuze; as Deleuze notes, like Lucretius, ‘Spinoza assigns to philosophy the task of denouncing all that is sad, all that lives on sadness, all those who depend on sadness as the basis of their power’).

In his essential 1981 essay ‘Spinoza and Us’, Deleuze deepens the common theme of Spinozan immanence by postulating the construction of what he calls a plane of immanence, the idea of an ethical and political space without any reference to a ‘supplementary dimension’, a space where relations and encounters address one another without calling upon external sources of legitimation or meaning. The plane of immanence is juxtaposed to a plan or plane of organisation, where every relation and every production is always referred back to an independent and external principle, a principle which is itself immune from relationality and construction. The first plan of organisation, of course, would be the one that would separate the mind as a deciding principle from the body as an executive organ, a position undermined by Spinoza’s theory of parallelism. As always with Spinoza this is not simply an ontological or epistemological thesis but has profound ethico-political consequences. As Deleuze says, the ‘primary significance’ of parallelism ‘taken as a model […] is juridical and ethical. If we manage to pose the problem of rights at the level of bodies, we thereby transform the whole philosophy of rights in relation to bodies themselves’ (Deleuze 1992: 257). This juxtaposition of plane of immanence and plan of organisation is also expressed as the crucial distinction between ethics and morality. Moreover, it also implies a completely different understanding of the concept of law, whether in scientific (e.g. laws of nature) or juridical (e.g. the law of the land) terms. When Spinoza equates right and power he is not justifying a cynical doctrine of ‘might is right’, but eliminating any reference to a transcendent source or justification of power. As Deleuze comments, ‘the law of nature is never a rule of duty, but the norm of a power, the unity of right, power and its exercise’. In other words law (and sovereignty) is never separable from its execution, from its power of application. And this power of application is best understood in terms of an effort to ‘organize encounters’ such that they maximise the power and freedom of one and all (Deleuze 1992: 261). It is in this immanence of encounters and relations that we can undertake, in the absence of any transcendent moral norms, what Deleuze calls ‘the slow effort of discovering our joys’ (Deleuze 1992: 262). This is, for Deleuze, the very meaning of culture as an apprenticeship where passion and reason are commingled under the guidance of the latter.

If the common plane of immanence is one on which ‘all bodies, all minds, all individuals are situated’ (Deleuze 1988: 122), then the task of ethics — not as a system of norms, but as a way or form of life  is to allow us to learn how to compose ourselves, our capacities and our desires, with other bodies, minds and individuals in such a way as to increase our power (defined as a capacity to affect and to be affected6) and thus to persevere in our being. Ethics is a kind of lived science of connections, it is ‘a long affair of experimentation, requiring a lasting prudence, a Spinozan wisdom that implies the construction of a plane of immanence or consistency. Spinoza’s ethics has nothing to do with a morality; he conceives it as an ethology [a science of behavioural capacities, possible relations and the environment of action], that is as a composition of fast and slow speeds, of capacities for affecting and being affected’; with Spinoza ethics is ‘a question of knowing whether relations (and which ones?) can compound directly to form a new, more “extensive” relation, or whether capacities can compound directly to constitute a more “intense” capacity or power. It is no longer a matter of utilizations or captures, but of sociabilities and communities. How do individuals enter into composition with one another in order to form a higher individual, ad infinitum?’ (Deleuze 1988:125-6, my emphasis).

Despite the considerable beauty and force of Deleuze’s magisterial reading, we may nevertheless wonder about the consequences of the comparatively little attention he lavishes on the effects that political constitution has on ethical composition. Is it not the case that the political dimension introduces fresh challenges and aporias, such as the one of the collective construction of freedom, into the serenity of ethical apprenticeship? Arguably, there is a qualitative leap involved in the passage to politics, which is not at all, as Balibar and Negri amply demonstrate, a merely supplementary dimension — either providing a continuity between the individual organization of joyful encounters and its collective amplification, or, in a kind of Rortyan ‘liberal ironism’ avant la lettre, the provision of a context of public peace for a private path to the third kind of knowledge. In other words, what happens to the plane of immanence when it is fully socialized? Or again when we move from the ethical individual’s ‘private’ organization of encounters to the citizen’s commitment to ‘common collective affections’ (Deleuze 1992: 267)? When we realize that the striving of reason as the art of organizing encounters can ultimately not rest with the isolated free man, but that the formation of ‘a totality of compatible relations’ is a political task, perhaps the political task par excellence? This is, I would venture, perhaps the best point of approach into the interpretive project of Antonio Negri.

In Conclusion

Via Spinoza we are thus confronted, in this contemporary Spinozism, with a concept of the composition of behaviour, of ethical life not built upon the identity of a fixed subject (Deleuze), with a notion of communication that does not restrict it to the transmission of content or the deliberation among rational beings, but conceives as the rational and passional medium of politics (Balibar) and finally with a concept of constitution as the persistent collective construction of a common political project of the multitude, as opposed to a fixed set of norms regulating, a priori and externally, the behaviour of subjects (Negri). I hope these perspectives have begun to convey to you what might still be alive and indeed still to be explored in Spinoza’s thought today.

Works Cited

Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, London, Verso, 1976
Étienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, London, Verso, 1998
Étienne Balibar, Spinoza. Il transindividuale, Milano, Ghibli, 2002
Frederick Beiser, The Fate of Reason. German Philosophy from Kant to
Fichte, Cambridge, MA, Harvard, 1987
Gilles Deleuze, ‘Spinoza and Us’, in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, San
Francisco, City Lights, 1988
Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy, New York, Zone, 1992
Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Oxford, OUP, 2000
Pierre Macherey, ‘Spinoza’s Philosophical Actuality (Heidegger, Adorno,
Foucault)’ and ‘Spinoza, the End of History, and the Ruse of Reason’, in In a
Materialist Way, London, Verso, 1998
Antonio Negri, Spinoza, Roma, Derive Approdi, 1998
Giorgio Semerari, Introduzione a Schelling, Bari, Laterza, 1996

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Show 6 footnotes

  1. Or, in Deleuze’s inflection: ‘How can men come to meet one another in relations that are compatible, and so form a reasonable association?’ (Deleuze 1992: 265)
  2. This could be understood in terms of the passage from a ‘structure of civil obedience’ in the Theological-Political Treatise, still founded on some transference, albeit an immanent one, of rights, to the Political Treatise, in which transference and thus any remainder of classical sovereignty is left behind. However, Balibar reverses this when he sees the Theological-Political Treatise as having the role of the State being freedom, while in the Political Treatise it is ‘simply peace and security of life’.
  3. This ambivalence is also understandable in terms of Foucault’s concept of governmentality.
  4. Freedom defined as ‘the right of the individual for whom reason is stronger than passion and whose independence is greater than his dependency’ (63). The genesis of society is in any case both reasonable and passionate, for such is human nature.
  5. In his review of a recent Italian collection of Balibar’s writings, Augusto Illuminati usefully summarises this concept of communication: ‘The decisive element, as explained in the essay ‘Politics and Communication’, is precisely communication, which annihilates isolation and ignorance: the circular, mimetic-imitative communication of affects, the cognitive communication of the common notions and the political-institutional communication of a structure for advice that might favour the information and rational consensus of citizens. But the very idea of communication now loses any hint of liberalism, becoming a superior transindividual quality of the experienced cooperative power in which we become aware that we are eternal. We will then be able to experience the omnino absolutum imperium of democracy not as utopia, limit-stage or promised land, but rather in our everyday life, in an intellectual and affective activity in which we are the adequate cause of our own preservation.’ Published in the daily Il Manifesto, May 28, 2002.
  6. ‘You will define an animal, or a human being, not by its form, its organs, and its functions, and not as a subject either; you will define it by the affects of which it is capable’ (Deleuze 1988: 124).
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