Tuesday 12 August 2008

For the love of God

Spinoza and Politics, by Etienne Balibar (Radical Thinkers III)

The Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-77), like Einstein, is known as one of those wily pantheists. Einstein coined the phrase,‘God doesn’t play dice’, playfully summing up his belief that God is immanent in the law-governed natural world. For Spinoza, He can also live in rationally-organised society. Both views are borne out of thinking in terms of interconnected totalities. Because of his identification of reason and freedom and his ethics, Spinoza is a contested philosophical precursor to many of the ideas that took root during the French Revolution (1). He’s often seen as proto-Marxist, and the interplay between the two thinkers was the subject of lively discussions during the 1970s, the decade before Balibar’s book was first published.

Today, pantheistic ideas have few high-profile spokespeople, or political associations. Apart from the World Pantheist Movement and television programmes that romance the mystical views of colourful nomads, it’s rare to hear talk about God being immanent anywhere (let alone as a living force in society), though thoughts about the interconnectedness of life live on. Popular books and films about quantum mechanics highlight the randomness and indeterminate character of underlying reality; we’re frequently reminded that our consumption has dastardly unintended effects on the complex natural processes of the planet; whilst ‘networking’ means rubbing shoulders with people you don’t like really because you have to. If there are rules that structure the places and ways we live, it seems they’re chaotic and constraining, and we’re not the ones making them up. If God really is immanent in today’s mad world, then it’s all the worse for Him.

In his slim volume, now republished as part of Verso’s Radical Thinkers III, Etienne Balibar doesn’t make a case for the reconstitution of Spinoza’s thought, so much as use it to illuminate the relationship between philosophy and politics. The clue to his answer lies in the title: Spinoza (the man) and Politics: philosophy and politics ‘imply’ each other, both are integrated not so much on an abstract level, but best as activities done by one and the same person throughout his or her life. In contrast to today’s dislocation of philosophical ideas from public discourse, Warren Montag’s Preface explains that just as Spinoza’s involvement with his society came from the perspective of a ‘freedom party still to be created’, so his philosophy made an ‘attempt to move beyond the conception of democracy as a formal system and to grasp it as an actuality’. Balibar’s point, though, firmly endorses the role of critique: he says a more dynamic relationship between politics and intellectual work is possible, but just as Spinoza was constrained by both spheres’ mutual underdevelopment, so today are we. Spinoza and Balibar chose to make an impact primarily by publishing books. In a discussion on universalism with Badiou in 2007, Balibar cut out the work of today’s philosopher not as throwing himself in the deep end, following Spinoza’s line and founding his own party, but in the more analytic task of finding the contradictions in contemporary society and bringing them to light (2).

Why chose Spinoza? His particular dialectical method (later criticised by Marx) cut through popular debates of his time: between nature and culture, passion and reason, spiritual and material. Warren Montag explains that whilst Balibar and others were suspected of ‘advancing Spinozism in the guise of Marxism’ when the book was first published in Paris in 1985, today they ‘will undoubtedly be viewed by critics and admirers alike as “advancing Marxism by other means”’. But writing about Marxist ideas is no guarantee of getting people to engage with – or critique - them. Here we have the dead Spinoza in a second translation from Balibar’s French by Peter Snowden, set off by a preface by Warren Montag, published by the left-wing Verso. It’s at least a well-travelled conspiracy, but not a particularly cunning way of springing Marxism on an unsuspecting public.

Verso’s initial aim in translating and publishing the works of French cultural theorists during the 1970s was to loosen the stranglehold of analytic philosophy on the British academy and free up the general mood. Ideas were purposefully shipped across the channel in print. Logical positivism had for years failed to ignite political fervour amongst the intellectual elite or the masses. Neither, noticeably, did the Verso catalogue.

Nevertheless, at a discussion about the legacy of 1968 organised by Verso at the Southbank Centre earlier this year, some suggested ‘radical’ was simply a code word for ‘Marxist’. But in the absence of any role for Marxism as a social force, and with ‘radical’ more readily used as a term of abuse towards the (noticeably un-Marxist) political Islamists than with any political seriousness, the comment – though it had a resonance – seems off-beam. In part, this seems an expression of today’s schizophrenic attitude towards radicalism: whilst intellectuals and activists across the board are comfortable falling into nostalgia about its past and its survival in print, increasingly there’s a knee-jerk response to any growing contemporary currents. Aside from the moral posturing led by government, the general attitude towards ‘radical views’ today looks like the self-indulgent smile given to a small puppy naughtily walking all over the new family sofa. Either you don’t realise just how good things are, or you’ve still got some growing up to do. What a more mature political position might mean today in terms of the ideas dealt with in these Verso series, is far from clear.

What Balibar diagnoses as being Spinoza’s radical point of departure is explained in the final two chapters of the book. The first concerns Spinoza’s Ethics, which discusses the relationship between sociability, obedience and communication:

‘how are we ultimately to situate the meaning of a philosophy that declares both that society is the State, therefore that society is obedience, and that freedom can only be achieved within the limits of society?’ (p89)

Whilst Reason alone doesn’t define what it is to be a human being, it nevertheless forces people to work together, and the resulting social harmony includes within it an idea of God. In his discussion of Spinoza’s conception of democracy, Balibar points out that even once people begin consciously to exercise their collective sovereignty, and take this to be a properly social covenant rather than an outsourcing of authority to an imaginary God, there will still be the question of how to go about imposing the will of the majority on every person in society. To do this will take a further consensus between individuals, which must be understood in terms of a mutual love or ‘true religion’, where God is ‘represented nowhere but he will be everywhere…practically indistinguishable from the effort to live a virtuous life’ (p49). 

What’s most important to Spinoza is ethics, and as Balibar explains, this comes as an integral part of his political system that points towards freedom. The idea of God being immanent in social reality as a lived phenomenon is another way of talking about what it is to be a developed human being, which is explained more fully as being a part of reason itself:

‘the definition of reason itself is to conceive of God as necessary, that is, as Nature itself in its impersonal totality…the love we then feel for God is what the fifth part of the Ethics calls an “intellectual love of God”, that is, both knowledge and the desire for knowledge’ (p92)

The notion of knowledge becomes key to what Balibar finds radical about Spinoza, when he goes on to discuss politics and communication in the final chapter. Individuals, in his view, are constructions that result from a ‘striving’ that takes place with ‘given regimes of communication’, and these regimes of communication – one of which is the state – are where ‘collective effort is being worked out’. Central to this is full freedom of expression, since it’s only through sharing opinions that power is made subject to public authority rather than being in the hands of unaccountable individuals, and that people begin a process of self-liberation, and new ‘regimes of communication’ (ie different social forms or historical states) can be developed. The radical way forward is therefore the democratisation of knowledge.

But what seems radical about Balibar’s understanding of Spinoza today, outside a Marxist framework of debate, is the general thrust and optimism of the whole analysis. In a modest sense, the rise of the internet and before that the growth of the printing press facilitated more people sharing opinions than ever before, creating a space for the public contestation of knowledge and development of new authorities. But the dominant response to this trend is to damn it for its destructive tendencies, and proceed with Upmost Caution lest we all be Persuaded; rather than point out it’s not changed things nearly enough. Today, the democratisation of knowledge is resisted both by the would-be guardians of knowledge in the academy and by many working in the media and other institutions, who prefer to hold onto their own authority; any thought of the public creating and defending an alternative interest of its own seems to fill the elite – and to some extent the public itself – with dread. And all before even mentioning politics. In the face of all this, the notion of God and Love playing any role in society might seem bizarre, but it makes sense precisely because for Spinoza both ideas are used to show that a basic trust between people and willingness to work together is paramount; not least when a decision is to be made after hard-nosed reflection about collective concerns.

Discussions about the role of reason in organising society – both academically and in the mainstream – have not become discredited simply through distrust of Modernism and questioning of the ‘grand narratives’ of the Enlightenment, but also because of the politically uninspiring character of ‘reason’ as discussed today, and its dislocation from modern life. If being rational now means deferring to the Evidence, narrowing the scope of social imagination and curbing freedoms; rather than creating the grounds for freedom to be fully realised, then no wonder it seems an outmoded concept with little contemporary resonance.

(1) See in particular Jonathan Israel’s influential Radical Enlightenment
(2) On Universalism (transcript from University of California Irvine, February 2, 2007): ‘what I believe is a task for a philosopher (or a philosopher today, at the present moment) with respect to universality is precisely to understand the logic of these contradictions and, in a dialectical way, to investigate their dominant and subordinated aspects, to reveal how they work and how they can be shifted or twisted through the interaction of theory and practice or, if you prefer, discourse and politics’.

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