Today, I am starting a series of articles about 17th century Portuguese-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and thus dedicates to his work a ‘week’ like I did two years ago for Gilles Deleuze and last year for Michel Foucault.
This section will attempt to show how 17th-century Portugese-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza can supply a terminology, or rather a conceptology to extend the sharp analysis of capitalism made by Karl Marx in the 19th century to its neo-liberal version we have been experiencing for the last thirty years. In order to do so, I would use a particular chapter from the book Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza (Capitalism, Desire and Servitude, Marx and Spinoza) written by Frédéric Lordon and published by the always excellent La Fabrique in 2010.
In this book, Lordon depicts, among other things, two important paradigm shifts in capitalism that occurred since the publication of Das Kapital, in order for it to survive against the potentiality of a revolution prophetized by Marx when he was observing the continuous production of a discontented working class. The first paradigm shift, known as Fordism, occurred in the first part of the 20th century and consisted in a neat amplification of the production rhythm associated with the integration of the working class itself in the mass consumption of their own products. The second paradigm shift, closer to us, examined how the working class (which also shifted for part of it, from industry to the service sector) could gain in productivity by integrating itself into an ideology of “self-accomplishment” that could apparently relate to the Spinozist idea of joyful affect (for a very basic introduction to his concepts, read my 2010 text “Architectures of Joy“). For Spinoza, servitude is universal since all our acts are determined by the sum of circumstances that caused them, but we can nevertheless increase our power (potentia in Latin) by acquiring the knowledge of causes of our behavior. As we know all too well, strategies of inducing do not allow the subject to understand the context of his decisions any better than an assembly line worker understood his decisions in the beginning of the 20th century. Therefore, the subject is forced to remain within the sad affects.
So far, I was evoking the book in its entirety, but in order to be precise, I would like to examine more particularly one chapter entitled Alors le (ré)communisme! The neologism of (ré)communisme is a French play on words insisting on the idea of revisiting communism, but more importantly on opposing the res publica (the public thing) to the res communa (the common thing) as two different models of society. It is interesting to observe how Lordon is slowly introducing this new model: (the translation is mine but since the text is difficult to translate because of the multiple meanings that each important word carries, original terms are in parenthesis)
The starting point was the following: someone wants to do something that requires several people to achieve. This community of action is in its very essence a political community if we attribute political status to any situation that entails powers (puissance) of action . . . . The question is, then, the constitution of this entrepreneurial political community. This implies the genetic dimension of the mechanisms through which the community emerges, as well as the constitutionality of the formal layouts (agencements) that rule its function once it is assembled. What are the desirable relationships under which a company (entreprise) can be constituted when it is conceived as an association of powers (puissance) of action? (Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza, Paris: La Fabrique, 2010)
While condemning the relationships of servitude created by capitalism, Lordon also introduces a form of doubt in the sacred equality enforced by communism in its orthodox version (presented as the only alternative to capitalism for many years). His discourse is, of course, mostly focused on companies; however, in order to make his point clearer, he uses the example of the creative process of a theater play. Here, I translated the ambivalent term entreprise (“company” and “project”) with the English word of enterprise that needs to be understood with these two simultaneous meanings as well):
A playwright comes with an amazing text: who would deny that his contribution is not of the same nature as that of the electricians and the costume designers? Who would contest the status of his power (puissance) as authentically creative? Yet, he needs electricians and costume designers for the show to take place and so that his genius text could be transmitted to the public. The problem is never tackled this way because the immediate solution brought by the wage relationships (rapport) in the form of a supplied hired manpower made us forget that there ever was a problem. To find its original meaning, we need to perform a thought experiment that consists in imagining what kind of political arrangements would have to emerge so that the collective enterprise would be withdrawn from the structure of wage relationships (rapport).[…]If the communist idea is essentially related to the notion of equality, the question is then to wonder what can be the nature of equality in the context of a substantial, recognized inequality of contributions, and how not to deny the asymmetry of these situations in which the strength of an initial proposition makes the other contributions appear as auxiliary. Here is the communist equation: which form of equality can we realize in the context of the division of labor and its most nefarious consequence, the fundamental separation between ‘concept’ and ‘execution’? (Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza, Paris: La Fabrique, 2010)
This latter point is important as it bring back Marx’s contempt for the strict division of work as it was implemented by the mass production of goods. Lordon later insists that, even in relatively ‘democratic’ working environments, it is rare to see a person who is sometimes in charge of the lights and some other times in charge of the play-writing. There is no real redistribution of the roles depending on the desire and inspiration of each person involved in the enterprise.
If the complete solution of the communist equation consists in a restructuration of the division of desire that redistributes the concept opportunities – and consequently the execution tasks, too – nobody indicated its limits better than Etienne Balibar its horizon (Spinozist as well as Marxian): “ To be as many as possible, to think as much as possible.” (Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza, Paris: La Fabrique, 2010)
Finally, F. Lordon introduces his model of (ré)communisme as an alternative based on the principle above. He then describes an enterprise that would adopt this model as a working paradigm. His description recalls the Argentinean fábricas recuperadas, factories taken over by workers when their owners wanted to liquidate them after the 2001 economical crisis. The new system setup by the workers involves a democratic process of decision making and one salary across the board:
Since they put a part of their life in an enterprise, its members can only exit the enrollment relationship (rapport), born from a monarchical constitution (the imperium of the master-desire), by sharing, beyond the object itself, the entire control of the conditions of the collective pursuit of the object, and finally by affirming the indisputable right to be fully associated with that which affects them all. What the productive enterprise has to fabricate, in what quantity, with what rhythm, what volume, what wage structure, what reattribution of the surplus, how will it accommodate variations in its environment: none of these things can be excepted from common deliberation since they all have common consequences. The very simple recommunist (récommuniste) principle is thus: what affects everyone should be the object of everyone, i.e. constitutionally and equally debated by everyone. (Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza, Paris: La Fabrique, 2010)
To conclude, we may want to go back to where we started, the philosophy of Spinoza, by using its Deleuzian interpretation to explain the notion of freedom: there is no freedom, only forms of liberation. In other words, if we follow the writings of Spinoza absolutely (we might say, as diagrams), one is never free, since one is subjected to a form of determinism. However (and maybe in a less orthodoxic reading), one can get involved in processes of liberation by participating in a power (potentia) that is ‘bigger’ than us. This power is called God (i.e. nature or the world, to put it maybe too simply) in Spinoza’s philosophy. However, in his political project, which is in complete agreement with his philosophy but founded on more pragmatic bases, this ‘bigger’ power can be more simply the harmonious composition of a collective enterprise. In Lordon’s interpretation of the latter, it might not be the strict equality, but rather the shared association of skills and desires, the regular shifting of roles, and the systematic access to the decision process that allow this enterprise to exist and operate.
Original French version of the excerpts:
Frédéric Lordon, Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza, Paris: La Fabrique, 2010.
[…] le point de départ était ceci : quelqu’un a envie de faire quelque chose qui nécessite d’être plusieurs. Cette communauté d’action est ipso facto une communauté politique si on donne le nom de politique à toute situation de composition de puissance d’agir […]. La question est alors celle de la constitution de cette communauté politique d’entreprise, aussi bien au sens génétique des mécanismes par lesquels la communauté vient à se former qu’au sens « constitutionnel » des agencements formels qui en régissent les fonctionnements une fois assemblée. Quels sont les rapports désirables sous lesquels peut se constituer une entreprise conçue très généralement comme un concours de puissances d’agir ? P164
Un dramaturge survient porteur d’un texte inouï: qui niera que cette contribution-là n’est pas de même nature que celle des éclairagistes et des costumiers? qui lui contestera son caractère de puissance authentiquement créatrice ? Et pourtant il faut des éclairagistes et des costumiers pour que le spectacle ait lieu et que le texte génial soit porte à la connaissance du public. Le problème n’est jamais posé en ces termes car la solution « immédiate » que lui apporte le rapport salarial sous la forme d’une fourniture de main-d’œuvre employée a fini par le faire oublier comme problème. En retrouver le sens suppose l’expérience de pensée consistant à imaginer quels arrangements politiques devraient se former pour que l’entreprise collective voie le jour retirées des structures du rapport salarial. P166
Si l’idée communiste a essentiellement à voir avec l’égalité, la question se pose alors de savoir quelle peut être la nature de l’égalité accompagnant une inégalité substantielle, reconnue, des contributions, et qui ne nie pas l’asymétrie de ces situations où la force d’une proposition initiale donne objectivement aux autres contributions un caractère auxiliaire. Voilà donc l’équation communiste : quelle forme d’égalité réaliser sous le legs de la division du travail ? – et notamment du plus pesant de ses héritages, à savoir la séparation princeps de la « conception » et de l’ « exécution ». P167
Si la solution complète de l’équation communiste consiste en une restructuration de la division du désir qui repartage les chances de conception – et symétriquement redistribue les taches d’exécution […] – nul n’en a indiqué comme Etienne Balibar l’horizon (spinoziste autant que marxien) : « Etre le plus nombreux à penser le plus possible. » P168
Puisque c’est une part de leur vie qu’ils mettent en commun dans une entreprise, ses membres ne sortent du rapport d’enrôlement, dual par construction d’une constitution de type monarchique (l’imperium du désir-maitre), qu’en partageant au-delà de l’objet, l’entière maitrise des conditions de la poursuite collective de l’objet, et finalement en affirmant le droit irréfragable d’être pleinement associés à ce qui les concerne. Ce que l’entreprise (productive) doit fabriquer, en quelle quantité, à quelle cadence, avec quel volume d’emploi et quelle structure de rémunérations, sous quelle clé de réaffectation des surplus, comment elle accommodera les variations de son environnement : aucune de ces choses ne peut par principe échapper a la délibération commune puisqu’elles ont toutes des conséquences communes. Le simplissime principe récommuniste est donc que ce qui affecte tous doit être l’objet de tous – c’est le mot même de récommune qui le dit ! -, c’est-à-dire constitutionnellement et égalitairement débattu par tous. P170