BENEDICT DE SPINOZA AND ASIAN AMERICANS IN A REGIME OF ANTI-TERROR
One of the theories proposed as an after-the-event explanation for the 9/11 tragedy comes from Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. According to Huntington, world history has now moved to a stage where, with the collapse of the nation-state and the end of Cold War ideologies (capitalism versus socialism), the major conflict is between civilizational or tribal collectivities. The new global configuration is distinguished by the confrontation between civilizations, construed more narrowly as religious in substance—the term is used in contrast to its derivation from the classic notion of civis (citizen) and humana civilitas transcending local affiliations; and from theFrench encyclopedistes who counterposed civilization to feudalism. From the 19th century, the term “civilization” has been used as the antithesis to the primitive or savage societies of anthropological inquiry.
Huntington’s concern is not over the prospect of civilizational conflicts as much as over the danger of American national identity (equated with the heritage of Western civilization) being destroyed by the number-one enemy within, an anti-Western multiculturalism. For Huntington, the enemy within who are allied with Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists—“the axis of evil”–are the proponents of diversity: civil rights activists, educators, and intellectuals who (to quote Huntington) “promoted racial, ethnic and other subnational cultural identities and groupings” (1996, 305). In the name of the defense of Western/U.S. civilization (made up of permanent and historically particularized values such as constitutionalism, private property, etc.), Huntington wants to contain any democratic movement for the recognition of ethnic differences or plurality within the U.S., now the “homeland” whose national security is at stake.
The cult of multiculturalism and identity politics, for Huntington, should be the targets of a new official “crusade” in which a Manichean vision of “you are with us or against us” rules out any kind of dialogue, translation, or communication among locations/participants in what remains, despite claims to meritocracy, a market-based racial polity.
The cultural absolutism of Hungtington’s “creed” prescribes a geopolitical cartography of the world divided into the democratic North (West) and the barbaric South (the rest). This discourse of primordial differences in cultural norms and belief-systems functions as the key to explaining sociopolitical problems involving inequality and injustice. In this culturalist axiomatic, history is reconceptualized and articulated toward a racialized direction which arranges societies according to a hierarchical and teleological schema. It is a set-up governed by Realpolitik in which might decides what is right. Is there any alternative to this apocalyptic reading of the geopolitical text of current history?
A fresh look at the Huntington syndrome may be obtained if we recall here some ideas from the nearly forgotten philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677). Together with Descartes, Hobbes and Leibniz, Spinoza is one of the original thinkers of the European Enlightenment who, for many, established the groundwork for a thoroughly secular and scientific view of the world. The quite surprising fascination, at least in academic circles, with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s best-selling book, Empire, may have revived interest in Spinoza’s radical-democratic theory. Much maligned as a monstrous heretic and intellectual “terrorist” of his time, Spinoza’s theory of humans as finite modes in a “democracy of the multitude” may be a salutary intervention into the dynamics of contemporary race/ethnic relations.
According to Hardt and Negri, Spinoza’s critique of modern sovereignty originates from this primary goal: “the ontological development of the unity of true knowledge and the powerful body along with the absolute construction of singular and collective immanence” (2000, 186). While Spinoza repudiated all teleological speculation, he affirmed the identity of reason and virtue, virtue and blessedness, as the path to freedom. White supremacy in the U.S., however, has nothing to fear from secularism, materialism, immanence, nor from the multitude who are its chief support. Does Spinoza have anything to say to people of color besieged by the resurgence of war-mongering nationalism or by racial profiling implemented by a national-security state panicked by the now destroyed Al-Qaeda?
In his recent book Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity, Prof. Steven Smith ascribes to Spinoza the espousal of an assimilationist doctrine which rejects cultural pluralism and insists on a civic identity applicable to all. Is this plausible? While it is true that during Spinoza’s time, the believer had been transformed into a creditor, it strains credulity to imagine Spinoza insisting on rational-choice theory, or the methodological individualism of Rawls and Rorty.
One of the most scandalous propositions to have been invented by Spinoza is the the equivalence or co-extensiveness of right (jus) and power (potentia). Each individual who is “conditioned by nature, so as to live and act in a given way,” possesses natural rights as part of nature; nature’s rights “is co-extensive with her power. Spinoza writes in Ch. XVI of Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: “…every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. Now it is the sovereign law and right of nature that each individual should endeavor to preserve itself as it is….” (1951, 200-01). “Every natural thing has by nature as much right, as it has power to exist and operate.”
For the sake of preserving life, and avoiding the misery brought about by fear, hatred, enmity, anger and deceit, and other effects of passion, humans have judged it best to use reason and resort to mutual aid “if they are to enjoy as a whole the rights which naturally belong to them as individuals.” When humans transfer their natural rights to the state, their powers are also ceded—but not entirely (in contrast to Hobbes’ well-known version of the social contract, or those of Grotius and Rousseau): “No one transfers his natural right so absolutely that he has no further voice in affairs, he only hands it over to the majority of society, whereof he is a unit. Thus all men remain, as they were in a state of nature, equals” (206-07). No matter how absolute the sovereign, the individual’s natural right remains intact: “In a free state, everyone is permitted to think what he wishes and to say what he thinks.”
Experience shows that “men have never surrendered their right and transferred their power to others so completely that they ceased to be feared by the very rulers who received their right and power, and, although deprived of their natural right, became less dangerous to the state as citizens than its external enemies…” (This may explain why John Walker Lindh, as an example to citizens, is more fearsome than the hundreds of Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo.) The right to rebel against a tyrannical and oppressive government can never be outlawed.
Spinoza reminds us that as a matter of historical record, sovereigns know that if they imposed irrational commands without “consulting the public good and acting according to the dictates of reason,” their tyranny will be short-lived.
Spinoza stressed the value of mutual help to establish the conditions for the cultivation of the mind and exercise of reason. He envisaged “general rights” of the community “to defend the possession of the lands they inhabit and cultivate, to protect themselves, to repel all violence, and to live according to the general judgment of all.”
Collectivities endowed with general rights, not individuals, are the real actors in the ever mutable field of political forces envisaged by Spinoza. They are composed by the interaction and encounter of singular individuals; from this conjuncture springs associations of individuals who have been constituted by past experiences and customary dispositions. Warren Montag points to the historical concreteness of groups: “The conjunctural agreement of complex elements that defines the specific ‘character’ or complexion of an individual (Spinoza emphasizes the Latin term ingenium) is found on a larger scale in the collective forms of human existence: couples, masses, nations all have a specific ingenium that makes themn what they are and no other” (1999, 69). What defines the character of a people (ingenio gentis) are those specific historical features that distinguish them relative to others: language, religion, customs, etc. Nature comprehends this variety of embodied rights/powers, with group dynamics following predictable laws (see Ethics PIII46).
Sovereignty, or the power/right of the state to command, is measured by the power not of each individual but of the multitude in its various forms, among them, ethnic groups, communities, peoples, etc. These groups cannot be simply dissolved or liquidated in the “melting pot” of liberal pluralism, as official or Establishment multiculturalism would have it, without risks of dissension and revolt. If the chief purpose of the state is freedom—principally, freedom of thought and its expression—which enables the formulation of a common will and the definition of the common good among citizens, then every group needs to be recognized and treated as a distinct entity with its peculiar customs, rituals, traditions, aspirations, and so on. Without the heterogeneity of singular subjects in constant exchange and communication, as the Ethics urges, the ideal of freedom as the augmented power of the mind and body cannot be achieved: “Whatever so disposes the human body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the body less capable of these things is harmful” (IV, P38). The richer these exchanges and contacts, the greater the power of the mind to comprehend the order of nature via the third kind of knowledge that Spinoza calls “intellectual love of God” (deus sive natura).
For Spinoza, “the real disturbers of the peace are those who, in a free state, seek to curtail the liberty of judgment which they are unable to tyrannize over.” We are reminded of Spinoza’s expulsion from the fold of the faithful, his friendship with dissidents like the Collegiants and other nonconformists, as well as the fate of his friend Adriaan Koerbagh, arrested by the city authorities for blasphemy at the instigation of the Calvinist consistory and killed (Nadler 1999; Gullan Whur, 1998). If Spinoza upholds the rationality of the state as coinciding with its devotion to freedom, does this freedom to think and speak arise from consensus, from adherence to a “common culture”? In short, does the giving up of one’s rights—not all–preclude the recognition of one’s identity as co-equal citizen? Is the government or state justified in using its power to make everyone conform to a monolithic standard of values, a majoritarian ideology of civic unity such as “Americanism” or white supremacy?
We are reminded here of what Jean-Paul Sartre cautioned us sometime ago, in his memorable essay, Anti-Semite and Jew. It concerns the liberal democrat, the only friend of the Jews, who tirelessly dialogues with the anti-Semite with whom he shares the penchant for resolving “all collectivities into individual elements and making an individual the incarnation of universal human nature” (1965, 55). Within the assimilationist paradigm of “model minority” thinking, the utopian kernel of Spinoza’s view of an inalienable right disappears into the “melting pot” of consumption and laissez-faire negotiation. Meanwhile, racism and ethnic exclusion acquire new life in the “New World Order” of transnational, fiercely predatory capital.
What advice can Spinoza give to Asians Americans who are today beleaguered, nay besieged, by law enforcement agencies implementing the Patriot Act in the war against the enemies of hegemonic global capital? We’ve read of the hate backlash—harassments, intimidation of whole communities, arrests, ostracism, physical violence, among others: suspected of being a Muslim terrorist, Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, an Indian-American immigrant in Mesa, Arizona, is murdered. And Saad Saad, 35, of Scottsdale, Arizona, is shot by Frank Roque who shouted as he was handcuffed: “I stand for America all the way.” In Arcadia, California, Adel Karas, 48, an Egyptian American mistaken for a Muslim, was killed pointblank at the International Market, a store he owned. The list is endless. Nameless hundreds, maybe thousands—the Justice Dept and Attorney General are keeping it secret–are now detained on mere suspicion, and others will undergo secret trials before a military tribunal.
The early incidents featuring Vincent Chin, or the killing of the postal worker Joseph Ileto by a white supremacist in 1999, pale in comparison with recent outrages. The latest is the firing of tenured professor Sami Al-Arian from the University of South Florida (Walsh 2002). We cannot speak anymore of toleration, fairness, charity nor justice; war against what the hegemonic power elite considers “terrorism”—anyone critical of the operations of the “free market”–justifies such extreme measures, some say a “just” and measured response, to defend U.S. sovereignty.
In the last two decades, the “model minority myth” has seduced most Asian Americans into believing that they have finally lived through the period when the country needed an “indispensable enemy” (to use the historian Alexander Saxton’s rubric)—everyone has made it, almost. Testimonies like Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian, or more recently, Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams (a lively vulgarization of Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore), are symptomatic of what Spinoza diagnosed as the state’s power to encroach into the psyche. The state not only rules by coercion or by fear, but employs all means “since it is not the motive for obedience which makes a man a subject, but the will to obey.” Spinoza contends that “obedience is less a matter of the outward action than of the mind’s inner activity, so that the man who wholeheartedly decides to obey all the commands of another is most completely under his rule; and in consequence he who rules in the hearts of the subjects holds sovereignty as much as possible” (TTP, Ch. 20). It is certainly not amor dei intellectualis that motivates assimilationists to extol Asian American dynamism (underwritten by the Confucian ethic and personified by successful business magnates) as the distinctive quality of this heterogeneous assemblage of “American people.” Helen Zia concludes that Asian Americans, by pulling their bootstraps, have already become fully acculturated or melted; what is lacking is their acceptance by the larger society. Why is it lacking? No answer. The pathos of this anxiety evokes the sad passions in Spinoza’s Ethics, an affect of mimicry determined by external forces, the appetite of the “model minority.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist formerly employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and recently acquitted of the charge of espionage, has just published his account of his arrest and trial, My Country Versus Me. The title ominously captures the prudential strategy Spinoza deployed in his work. Lee reflects during his 278 days of solitary confinement without benefit of trial: “I sometimes felt like I must have made a mistake and should not have come to America in 1964 for my Ph.D. I must have done something terrible to have ended up like this. As I sat in jail, I had to conclude that no matter how smart you are, no matter how hard you work, a Chinese person, an Asian person like me, will never be accepted. We always will be foreigners” (2002, 37). Too late a discovery, it seems.
And so we will witness more media scandals of secret campaign contributions, espionage, human rights violations, and so on. It is probably because of the re-invention of the “indispensable enemy” to serve the ongoing US national identity formation, not so much because of the Los Angeles riots, that the genre of the initiation-cum-spy thriller novel, exemplified for example by Chang Rae-Lee’s Native Speaker, will be the most appropriate vehicle to register our current predicament. All talk of postcolonial hybridity, “double consciousness” performed by transnationals or transmigrants, globalized knowledge-production, deconstruction of binary epistemologies and essentialist discourses, and so on, becomes complicit with “cynical reason” if it does not confront the racial polity and its ideological state apparatuses operating in the international arena.
The reporter from Newsweek who interviewed Lee describes this Chinese-American intellectual as clueless, and despite Lee’s acquittal not entirely blameless for his predicament. Who is responsible for such cruel procedures? “Washington politics and government overreaching,” the Feds’ “over-the-top tactics,” say the pundits; the “unfair manner” of the executive branch, according to the Judge who acquitted Lee. Citizenship rights seem otiose, irrelevant here, even though Lee claims he was innocent. In medias res, Lee subsists in a condition of duality, suspended on that divide between naïve, obedient citizen and a suspect, recalling his life before he was “branded a spy and an enemy agent—a disloyal, lying traitor, one of the most base and awful labels imaginable.”
We can conjecture that Lee not only practiced a cunning ratio but also carefully tried, in his memoir, to devise a method of reaching the “third kind of knowledge,” the knowledge of necessity, even though mediated by a journalistic narrative. This knowledge concerns not so much the causal order of the universe but the logical operations of the government to which he has sworn loyalty, its Realpolitik, its pragmatic modus operandi in enforcing its commands. He has not surrendered his right to pursue his own advantage, to demand that the social contract be properly carried out; however, his knowledge is inadequate because it assumes that the bourgeois state apparatus plays fair and only commits minor errors. His understanding is inadequate because it does not examine the nature of the racial polity of what is now called “homeland,” its long and substantial record of inferiorizing and subordinating the historically differentiated Other, and its mode of idealizing or abstracting those differences and alterities in order to claim moral ascendancy and spiritual superiority. What cannot be elided over, despite such ruses and subtle legalisms, is the truth that exploitation and oppression thrives on those very same principles of liberal democracy, individual liberties tied to property, and market-determined civilization on which Western hegemony continues to ride roughshod over all of nature and humanity—a paradox and aporia which Spinoza tried to unravel and demystify.
Despite these reservations, it is clear that insight of acute significance has been registered by the break between Lee’s past life as Federal employee and his present effort to vindicate his honor. What Lee’s case has dramatized most poignantly is the problematic articulation of pact and law, the tension between what Balibar calls “the physics of individual conatus or powers and the metajuridical form of the social contract” (1997, 171). For Lee, unwittingly perhaps, has proved Spinoza’s thesis that “no one transfers his natural right to another so completely that he is never consulted again, but each transfers it to a majority of the entire society of which he has a member. In this way all remain equal, as they were before in the state of nature.” It is this freedom, not Huntington’s Manichean parochialism, which guarantees the strength and security of the democratic state.
So the right of the state—even what claims to be an imperium democraticum–is not identical, nor co-extensive, with its power in the case of the unruly, dissenting subaltern. So long as the power of the individual, in this case the conatus immanent in natural right, remains his own within the respublica, it subverts the “society effect,” the production of obedience which validates the effective unity or sovereignty of the imperium. For despite its pragmatic utility, and its power to command and enforce its commands, the subjects of this racial polity continue to exercise their right to protest, criticize, dissent not just out of self-interest (“self” here read as a “common notion”)—but as an expression of responsibility to ones’ self and to others on whom she/he depends. As Ethics IV, 37, proposes: “Every individual has a sovereign right to everything which is in his power.” In reminding us of this inalienable right of resistance lies, I submit, the permanent resourcefulness of Spinoza’s political teaching for Asian Americans, for people of color, in this regime of anti-terrorism.
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Lee, Wen Ho. 2002. “A Scientist’s Secrets.” Newsweek (January 21): 34-37.
—. 2001. “Hate Backlash.” Los Angeles Times, September 17.
Montag, Warren. 1999. Bodies, Masses, Power. New York: Verso.
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—-. 1951. A Theologico-Political Treatise / A Political Treatise. Tr. R.H.M. Elwes. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Walsh, Sharon. 2002. “Blaming the Victim?” The Chronicle of Higher Education XLVIII (February 8): 10-13.
Zia, Helen. 2000. Asian American Dream: The Emergence of an American People. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.