BENEDICT SPINOZA, RACISM, AND THE IMPERIAL WAR ON TERRORISM
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death…. If men were born free, they would form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free. — Benedict de Spinoza
Well, my view is very prejudiced and personal, I’m afraid. I’ve no religion. I was born a Jew, but I’m an atheist. I believe we are totally responsible for ourselves.— Nadine Gordimer [Response to a question about a “clash of religions” behind the Sept. 11 attack]
Disrupting the brief multiculturalist interregnum in the North between the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11, 2001, the current war on terrorism has exposed the roots of the irreversible crisis of global capitalism. Ploughshares have been re-shaped into swords. U.S. “national security” agenda fuels a more aggressive intervention against perceived enemies, a “humanitarian” crusade legitimized by the rationale of the “clash of civilizations” and a politics of invidious cultural difference. Resurgent nationalism everywhere targets immigrants and non-western aliens who threaten free-market operations. Liberal racism, covertly if not openly based on white supremacy, has refurbished the old Manichean ideology of the benevolent “Free World” and the demonized “terrorists” reminiscent of Cold War triumphalism, a symptom of the bourgeoisie’s world-historic decline.
Let us revisit the time when the bourgeoisie as a historic class, though soaked in the blood and sweat of slaves and colonized peasants, still harbored the seeds of future progress and liberation. The seventeenth-century thinker Benedict de Spinoza easily comes to mind, universally celebrated as the prophet of free thought and reasoned dissent. In the frenzy of military irrationalism, Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom can be redeployed as an intellectual weapon for the victims of imperial power, a resource of hope against nihilism and fatalistic commodification. Spinoza’s principle of the inalienability of human rights can renew the impulse for reaffirming the ideal of radical, popular democracy and the self-determination of communities and nations. Defined by conatus, the principle which impels every organism to persevere and strive to increase its effectivity, Spinoza’s free rational subject can become the agency for social liberation. His ideas and historic example may help clarify and resolve the predicament of Asian Americans and, by extension, all exploited and oppressed peoples long ravaged by institutional racism and predatory capitalism in the metropolitan centers and in the war zones of the borderlands.
In the sedimented chronicle of past class wars, we discover the exemplary combat between critical reason and superstition. Spinoza’s thought fusing mind and nature (deus sive natura) interrupts the postmodernist narrative with its seductive deployment of contingency and difference. Why Spinoza? The quite surprising fascination, at least in academic circles, with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s treatise, Empire (2000), may have reinforced the suspicion that Spinoza is behind (to appropriate Negri’s phrase) this not-so-savage “anomaly.” Mistakenly idolized as a mystic, arch heretic and atheist of his time, Spinoza himself continues to be a provocative enigma.
The rehabilitation of this “god-drunk” mystic strikes the genteel crowd as a risky peremptory wager. Empire’s invocation of Spinoza’s philosophy for the goal of cosmopolitical liberation runs through this manifesto of post-revolutionary anarchism. Hardt and Negri ascribes to Spinoza’s intransigent naturalism, its horizon of immanence, the discovery of the omnipresent “creative and prophetic power of the multitude” (2000, 65). This power of singularity realized by “the democracy of the multitude as the absolute form of politics” requires, for Hardt and Negri, no external mediation by any organization or party; the multitude’s constituent power somehow will by itself actualize desire in action in a possible form of direct democracy as the absolute form of government. Spinoza’s critique of modern sovereignty, according to Empire, 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.
This fin-de-siecle revival of interest in Spinoza was sparked by French thinkers like Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, who in turn inspired Negri and some American academics to reappropriate this baroque response to Cartesian dualism. Consigned to oblivion is the achievement of formidable Russian scholars led by A.M. Deborin who have celebrated Spinoza as one of the precursors of dialectical materialism (Kline 1952). This “new Spinoza” deviates from the traditional pantheist of European romanticism (idealized by Goethe) and from the complaisant saintly thinker of Bertrand Russell and Lewis Feuer. Feuer’s book Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism(1958) reconfirmed the traditional prestige of Spinoza as the torchbearer of the European Enlightenment, the apostle of ego-centered liberalism, albeit a diehard materialist who formulated certain disturbing propositions about the barbaric masses. We don’t need to recapitulate this well-trodden path. My interest in Spinoza is, for this occasion, limited to what ideas about citizenship and the power of racial/ethnic difference we can extrapolate from his philosophy. Racial supremacy, it seems, has nothing to fear from secularism, monistic naturalism, immanence, nor from the multitudes who are for now its chief support. Does Spinoza have anything to say to people of color besieged by the resurgence of neoconservative, more precisely neoManichean, nationalism consonant with the rise of a racializing program of free-market civilization? Can Spinoza be counted with the party of order or with the guerillas of liberation?
Given Spinoza’s reputation as a radical democrat, for some even an anarchist-libertarian, I am particularly intrigued by the way he has been recast as a proponent of conformity to the “common culture” straitjacket. Was Spinoza an assimilationist in spite of himself, a model minority conformist ahead of his time? I have in mind Steven B. Smith’s book Spinoza, Liberalism and the Question of Jewish Identity (1997). Smith enrolls Spinoza into the ranks of the defenders of the status quo based on the erasure of differential particularisms. He imputes to Spinoza the ideology of a “civic ethos” premised on what a later scholar (George Lipsitz) would call “the possessive investment in whiteness”:
Spinoza’s solution to the theologico-political problem can be summarized in a single word: assimilation. The assimilation he has in mind does not mean conversion to Christianity or any of the revealed faiths but assimilation to a secular society that is, formally, neither Christian nor Jewish but liberal. The idea of the fides universalis, the common civil faith, seems to embody the liberal idea of the “melting pot,” where all the old religious and ethnic particularities of a people are refined in order to produce a new universal human identity. This new identity can trace its beginnings back to the early modern wars of religion and the need to put an end to the continual conflict between the contending sects of Christian Europe. Thus it was not uncommon to find the framers of liberal democracy arguing that allegiance to a common creed was necessary to both ensure civil peace and guarantee religious freedom. The purpose of such a creed was to find a common ground for a shared civic identity while still allowing ample room within which individual and group differences could be given free expression. Inevitably, the kind of culture that came to dominate took on a largely Protestant hue. America may not have been a Christian nation, but it was a nation composed overwhelmingly of Christians, as has been noted by the most astute observer of our civil creed. The image of the melting pot, though in principle open to all, was far from neutral. An amalgam of liberal political institutions and cultural Protestantism virtually defined the uniquely American version of this civic ethos well into this century (1997, 200).
Spinoza the “outsider” has become a zealous booster for the Establishment. Oversimplifying the record drastically, Smith recruits the excommunicated Marrano into the fold of those who condemn “identity politics” for imposing “narrow orthodoxies and conformity.” Rejecting the “tyranny of group differences,” which allegedly destroys “the values of individual freedom and intellectual independence,” Smith ascribes to Spinoza the espousal of “the universalistic norms and principles of the liberal state,” more precisely, a civic republicanism which rejects cultural pluralism. Is this plausible?
Two recent biographers—Gullan-Whur (1998) and Nadler (1999)—underscore Spinoza’s intransigent free-thinking. 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 espousing the methodological individualism of Rawls and Rorty. We need to re-establish our historical bearings. This doctrine of a late-capitalist dispensation in crisis cannot surely be ascribed to the bourgeoisie in the stage of primitive accumulation, to the rule of booty merchants whose power derived from the phenomenal harvest of profits in the slave trade. Let us review Spinoza’s fundamental principles of political philosophy to ascertain his true position on the question of identity, power, and representation.
Right Equals Power
One of the most scandalous propositions to have been invented by Spinoza is the equivalence or co-extensiveness of right (jus) and power (potentia). Spinoza conflates right with power: “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…; therefore this sovereign law and right belongs to every individual, namely, to exist and act according to its natural conditions… Whatsoever an individual does by the laws of its nature it has a sovereign right to do, inasmuch as it acts as it was conditioned by nature, and cannot act otherwise…” (Theologico-Political Treatise, afterwards TPT, 1951, 200-01). Moreover, 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.”
While each person acts according to his or her own nature, humans “are liable to emotions which far exceed human power” (Ethics IV37S2), hence conflicts occur. Under the laws of nature, only such things that no one desires and no one can attain are prohibited; otherwise, strife, hatred, anger, deceit and the other effects of passion/desire prevail. Nature is clearly not bounded by human reason which still fails to comprehend “the order and interdependence of nature as a whole.” But for the sake of preserving life, and avoiding the misery brought about by fear, hatred, enmity, anger and deceit, 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.” Hence the social covenant—not an originary or foundational myth but an a posteriori effect—whereby the force and desire of individuals are displaced by “the power and will of the whole body,” of the state, civitas, imperium. This replaces the multiplicity of desires and its anarchic operation with the dictates of reason so as to prevent “any desire which is injurious to a man’s fellows,” and insure that people “defend their neighbor’s rights as their own” (TPT XVI; 1951, 200-201).
All human beings are born ignorant and “are not naturally conditioned” to act according to the laws and rules of reason. Based on piety (doing good according to reason) and friendship, Spinoza posits the necessity of solidarity and community: “The principle of seeking what is useful to us teaches us the necessity of uniting with men” (Ethics IV37S1). Humans agree to build a commonwealth for its utility, as dictated by reason. Unlike Hobbes, who assumed that hatred and envy will make life “nasty, brutish and short” and thus we surrender our right of self-defense to a sovereign, Spinoza believed that humans retain their power but authorizes the regime or government to use them in the name of the democratic conatus—the immanent cause of any state (Matheron 1997). By uniting, humans “have jointly more power and consequently more right over nature than each of them separately.” Therefore, “the more there be that join in alliance, the more right they will collectively possess” (PT II13; afterwards PT). Mutual aid tempers narrow private egoism. Spinoza’s naturalistic concept of the socius,entails a realistic view that not all are guided by reason, so people can act deceitfully and break promises and agreements unless “restrained by the hope of some greater good, or the fear of some greater evil.” When humans authorize the sovereign to use their natural rights (right of self-defense), their powers are also ceded, but this authorization can always be revoked (in contrast to the contractarian theory of Hobbes, Grotius and Rousseau) by the multitude.
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/Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo.) The right to rebel against tyrannical and oppressive government can never be outlawed. Whether the individual’s right produces an effect or is of no consequence, depends on the balance of political forces in a condition of precarious and unstable equilibrium (Curley 1996).
In a democratic polity, Spinoza argues, the aim is to bring all under the control of reason to insure peace and harmony. Obedience to rational commands does not make individuals into slaves if the object of the action is the welfare of the whole people, the common interest; they are made into subjects. In a democratic regime, which Spinoza considers “the most natural and the most consonant with individual liberty,” “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” (1951, 206-07). An effective government exists when the state exercises absolute authority over its citizens, that is, when its right extends as far as its power. In this case, the state enjoys obedience from its subjects who seek to preserve their lives and pursue their personal advantage under the law, which is the rational thing to do; only within this law-governed space can justice or injustice make sense. But 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.”
In the Political Treatise, Spinoza elaborates on the theme that the right of every subject extends as far as his power does under the rule of reason: “Just as in the state of nature the man who is guided by reason is most powerful and most fully possessed of his own right… so also the commonwealth which is based on and directed by reason will be most powerful and most fully possessed of its own right” (III7; 1951, 303). Right is coextensive with power, both subserve the conatus of every individual who seek his/her own good. In striving to persevere and increase one’s capabilities of affecting other bodies, Spinoza observes, “No one will promise to give up the right he has to all things…” and “no one will stand by his promises unless he fears a greater evil or hopes for a greater good.” If hope and fear dominate instead of reason, the right/power of each individual is nullified. Assimilation may be one of the greater good, or lesser evil, if the state adopts a policy that everyone should give up her/his cultural particularities in order to be full-fledged citizens. But a commonwealth that relies on civic unity would not demand such a sacrifice, so long as the ethnic subject follows just and fair laws—laws that would not discriminate, or apply exclusiveness and selective bias. Spinoza considered the Netherlands Republic his “homeland” without ceasing to be identified as a “Jew” and to some extent an alien, as Yovel observes (1989, 173).
Empire of Reason
Spinoza’s teaching thus affirms the inviolable singularity of each person within the domain of a civil society ordered according to rational principles. In this setup, right translates into power and the right to self-preservation is made concrete or determinate in “an organized community” or polity. Notions of wrong and right are conceivable only within the polity. Laws need to enable the practice of justice—giving every person his/her lawful due—and charity; those administering the laws “are bound to show no respect of persons, but to account all men equal, and to defend every man’s right equally, neither envying the rich nor despising the poor.” Spinoza adds that those who follow desire, not reason, and who live by sovereign natural right outside the polity, are still enjoined to practice “love of one’s neighbor, and not do injury to anyone, since all are equally bound to the “divine” command—”divine” here being a shorthand for natural necessity.
Seven years after the anonymous publication of the Theological-Political Treatise in 1670, and the killing of Spinoza’s patron, Johan de Witt, by a politically motivated mob, Spinoza reaffirms his equation of power with right: “every natural thing has by nature as much right, as it has power to exist and operate.” What is notable at this point in Spinoza’s life is his recognition of the power of the masses, the multitude, which determines the general right called “dominion” or sovereignty. Earlier Spinoza stressed the value of mutual help to establish the conditions for the cultivation of the mind and exercise of reason. Now, in the Political Treatise, he envisages “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” (297).
A democratic society materializes, according to Spinoza, “without any violation of natural right” when individuals cede their “power of self-defence” as reason and necessity demand. Reason, that is, the imperative of preserving one’s life and enhancing one’s capabilities, dictates choosing to join others in the civitas and authorize the state to act on our behalf. The state or sovereign can compel men by force and threats, or by deploying an array of incentives and deterrents. Spinoza reminds us that based on historical experience, rulers 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.
Rights thus prove their efficacy through rational collective activities. According to Deleuze, the thrust of Spinozan politics inheres in the “art of organizing encounters” leading to useful and composable relationships or assemblages (Hardt 1993, 110). These assemblages are mediated through “common notions” (Deleuze 1988). The “common notions” or general ideas that Spinoza associates with the interactions of bodies (humans as finite modes) are effective because of the historical conditions that define civil society and its articulation with the state, a pivotal linkage that gives rise to the contradictions in a market-centered system: “Now to achieve these things the powers of each man would hardly be sufficient if men did not help one another. But money has provided a convenient instrument for acquiring all these aids. That is why its image usually occupies the mind of the multitude more than anything else. For they can imagine hardly any species of joy without the accompanying idea of money as its cause (Ethics IV, Appendix 28; Spinoza 1994, 243). What an insight! Spinoza discerned the cash-nexus as the cause of reification and alienated labor long before Marx and Engels anatomized that mysterious object, the commodity, especially the individual’s labor-power.
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 networks 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 them 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 exemplified, for example, in national-liberation movements discussed in Part Two of this book.
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, racialized peoples, indigenous communities. These groups cannot simply be dissolved or liquidated in the “melting pot” of liberal pluralism, as official additive 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—while ceding its natural right (that is, power) to the state—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 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 social exchanges and contacts, the greater the power of the mind to comprehend the order of nature through adequate ideas. Since the mind’s aptitude increases in proportion to the number of ways in which the body can be disposed, the thinking body graduates to the universal plane when it becomes an active link in the endless chain of causal relations in the totality of Nature. As E.V. Ilyenkov puts it, “the specific form of the activity of a thinking body consists in universality,” the attainment of intuitive knowledge as the rational understanding of the laws of its own actions within the totality of nature (1977, 46, 61).
Politics of Recognition
How then was the dialectic of unitary commonwealth and the plurality of thinking bodies realized in Spinoza’s historical situation?
A good example of how the Jewish community—mainly, exiles and refugees from Portugal—interacted with the Dutch may be cited here. In the beginning, each group regarded each other with suspicion: the European hosts did not formally recognize the Jews as a religious community until 1615 when the States General of the United Provinces allowed residents to practice their religion. Amsterdam forbade public worship. In 1616, the municipal authorities ordered the Jews to avoid criticizing Christianity, refrain from converting Christians to Judaism, and stop having sexual relations with Christian women. Clearly the local Calvinists placed a limit on tolerance. In 1619, however, the city council officially granted the Jews the right to practice their religion, though various restrictions on economic and political rights continued (Nadler 1999, 10-12). Only in 1657, fifty-seven years after Spinoza’s family arrived in Amsterdam and two years after Spinoza himself was banished from the Jewish community, did the Dutch republic grant citizenship to the Jews. They ceased to be foreigners when the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic was finally recognized by Spain, the former colonizer, at the Treaty of Munster in 1648.
A compromise was reached, but there was no assimilation or surrender of group integrity. Though economically prosperous, they remained insecure. No doubt, the behavior of this recently “naturalized” community cannot be understood without taking into account the ascendancy of the conservative faction of the Dutch Reformed Church. The religious leaders had to constantly reassure their Dutch rulers that they were able to safeguard their community and maintain orthodoxy by internal disciplinary measures. Spinoza’s excommunication was thus meant to prove to the Dutch authorities that the Jews, in conformity with the conditions of their settlement, “tolerated no breaches in proper Jewish conduct or doctrine” (Nadler 1999, 150). They enforced voluntary segregation. The lesson Spinoza derived here was clearly not the virtues of liberalism, nor was it the evil of “groupthink” which Smith condemns without qualification.
Over and above geopolitical origin or location, religious belief and practice defined the ethnic particularity of the Jewish community. Spinoza’s family belonged to the group of marranos who fled religious persecution from Spain and Portugal and joined the Sephardim community in Amsterdam which thrived as merchants and brokers in the flourishing foreign commerce from Portugal, Spain, and Brazil. They became relatively wealthy, even though restricted from the retail trade and craft guilds; they were allowed to engage in diamond cutting and polishing, tobacco spinning, silkweaving, and clandestine refining of sugar. Although Jewish merchants could purchase non-transferrable citizenship, that did not entitle them to burgher rights. An Amsterdam ordinance of 1632 stipulated that “Jews be granted citizenship for the sake of trade…” In general, the Jewish community was not isolated or quarantined so that in less than three decades since they arrived, they succeeded in recreating on the banks of the Amstel “the rich, cosmopolitan but distinctly Jewish culture” they left 140 years earlier (Nadler 1999, 26).
Singularity germinated from the confluence and mixture of peoples. It was the influx of Jews from Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany, survivors of pogroms, that precipitated Spinoza’s rigorous affirmation of “common claims” against eccentric particularisms. The “racial discrimination” against these “children of Jacob” not only for their inferior lineage but more precisely for their menial occupations may have reinforced an equivocation: aliens not welcome to a hitherto foreign enclave. Margaret Gullan-Whur describes a complex realignment of collectivities that, assuming that “mind is the idea of the body,” may have registered in Spinoza’s reflection on his own “extension” or placing as a finite mode of Nature:
The work ethic of Jews was well-known: neither ‘Portuguese’ nor ‘German’ had proved criminal or wanted Dutch charity… But their strictures over ritual upset social harmony by inflaming Gentile imaginations… As early as 1616 a rabbi had warned that ‘each may freely follow his own beliefs but may not openly show that he is of a different faith from the inhabitants of the city… While Spinoza’s later writings poignantly addresses the question of racial oppression, it also sternly upholds, on grounds of logical necessity, the Dutch precept that racial and religious differences must not be paraded. Any religious or racial concept that applied only to one section of society could not, by definition, he said, be universally true… (1998, 45)
In TPT, Spinoza emphasized the historical specificity of Mosaic law and its value for defining Jewish nationality as an imaginary construct. But that level of social cohesion based on obedience to rational precept derived from Old Testament revelation should not be confused with a polity or civitas founded on philosophical reason. Reason urges tolerance where pietas or devotion is manifested through deeds rather than profession of dogmas which, if allowed to dictate government policy, only foments religious conflicts and persecution (Hampshire 1961). Hence Spinoza conceived of a rational state as one committed to fostering freedom, where “every man may think what he likes, and say what he thinks.” The purpose of the state is “to enable men to exercise their mental and physical powers in safety, and to use their reason freely, and to prevent them from fighting and quarreling through hatred, anger, bad faith, and mutual malice.” Consequently, “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” (TPT XX). We are reminded of Spinoza’s expulsion from the synagogue, his friendship with dissidents like the Collegiants, the free-thinker Van den Enden, and other liberal-republicans, well as the fate of the radical philosopher Adriaan Koerbagh, arrested by the city authorities for blasphemy at the instigation of the Calvinist consistory and executed (Nadler 1999, 170).
We now confront the problem of citizenship and historical belonging. 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 different? Is the government or state justified in using its power to make everyone conform to a monolithic standard of values, a majoritarian ideology? Den Uyl argues that Spinoza does not use the language of individual rights when he expounds on the political value of reason, for what is involved in the establishment of a free state is a desirable communal order, norms of community action, that would prove useful in promoting peace and security for everyone. Granted the norms of the communal order, can the ethnic and racialized minority exercise free speech and free rational judgment?
Judging from Spinoza’s own example, we can say that such freedoms are guaranteed within limits. Yovel (1989) has convincingly argued that Spinoza was the first secular Jew of Renaissance modernity. Spinoza was free to think and write in opposition to the traditional consensus. What is problematic are actions or deeds that destroy the precarious equilibrium of political-social forces subtending the peace and safety of citizens in the commonwealth. Right (jus) is contingent on utility (utile), but this utility depends on who is in command, who formulates and implements rational decisions for the state agencies. For Spinoza, a subject of a mercantile polity founded on capitalist principles of accumulation, private ownership of the means of production, and the sale of “free” labor-power, the disjunction between the ethical (private, personal) and the political (public) realms serves as the condition of possibility for the equivocation about natural rights and the shifting boundary between the prescriptive/normative and the descriptive modes of elucidating power relations (Den Uyl 1983). What rights the ethnic group or cultural minority may enjoy in private, they do not have as individual citizens in the public realm—liberalism mixed with totalitarian or authoritarian attitudes. This explains the enigmatic duplicity over the role of the multitude in Spinoza’s political discourse.
This enigma cannot be resolved by an anarchist reading (Hardt and Negri) or a conformist liberal interpretation (Smith). The concept of the multitude, which Negri defines as a contradictory social practice of singularities inpietas and therefore “the foundation of tolerance and universal freedom” (1997, 236), is unable to bridge the gap between private self and political identity in modern bourgeois society. The ambiguity of the person in a society of commodity-exchange can only be clarified by a historical-materialist optic that can illuminate the paradox of citizenship, assimilation, model minority myth, and pluralist democracy as the framework of white supremacy or racial polity. Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right provides the most cogent historical framework in which to situate the freedom/authority dialectic in Spinoza. But of more relevance is the short preliminary study entitled “On the Jewish Question” (composed in the same year when Marx published his critique of Hegel). We need to recall that Marx admired Spinoza, copying verbatim the TPT with his signature on it.
We need to recall Spinoza’s major philosophical breakthrough in solving the classic dualism of mind/body by positing Substance with the twin attributes of thought and extension. Within this monistic framework, Spinoza urged us to consider the essence of the mind as consisting in the idea of an actually existing body. Marx performed an analogous diagnosis of modern alienation. In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx showed the aporia of dualistic and mechanical thinking about individual and society, minority and majority interests, the ethnic group and the nation-state. The antithesis between “political society” as a spiritual or heavenly commonwealth and “civil society” as a fragmented domain of private interests and egoistic drives warring against each other is the locus of the problem. In a free state, Marx argues, citizens live a double life: the real life of isolated, private persons in civil society, and the imaginary life of the citizen in a political sphere (state; civitas). Civil society is characterized by the pursuit of money and self-interest, the real world of everyday affairs, where humans function as means, “a plaything of alien powers”; while in the state, individuals are integrated and unified as citizens. Can these two halves be comprehended as aspects of a totality?
Bourgeois civil society and the state are dialectical opposites in unity. This bifurcation explains why political emancipation in terms of citizenship does not coincide with real, human emancipation—which is not a religious but a secular question. As Marx emphasizes: “A state can be a free state without man himself being a free man” (1975, 218). This is because freedom involves the species-life of humans (the subject as citizen) as opposed to the material, egoistic life of the bourgeois individual. In the state, however, when religion, language and other particularistic cultural properties have been confined to the sphere of private law, the individual remains “an imaginary member of a fictitious sovereignty, filled with unreal universality”—the free rational subject in Spinoza’s Ethics.
The bourgeois revolution in France (translated into jurisprudence and political principles by the American version), according to Marx, demonstrates a dialectic of opposites. The idealism of the state coincides with the materialism of civil society, with egoistic man in the latter as the foundation or presupposition of the former. In history, the bourgeois state emerged from the dissolution of feudal society into independent individuals, the world of atoms, in the theories of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Rorty, and assorted nominalists inspired by Kant and Foucault. I would like to quote this extended passage from Marx’s 1843 essay for its bearing on the topic of rights and power:
The rights of man [with the triumph of the bourgeoisie] appear as natural rights, for self-conscious activity is concentrated upon the political act. Egoistic man is the passive and merely given result of the society which has been dissolved, an object of immediate certainty, and for that reason a natural object. The political revolution dissolves civil society into its component parts without revolutionizing these parts and subjecting them to criticism. It regards civil society, the world of needs, of labour, of private interests and of civil law, as the foundation of its existence, as a presupposition which needs no further grounding, and therefore as its natural basis. Finally, man as he is a member of civil society is taken to be the real man, man as distinct from citizen, since he is man in his sensuous, individual and immediate existence, whereas political man is simply abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person. Actual man is acknowledged only in the form of the egoistic individual and true man only in the form of the abstract citizen… Political emancipation is the reduction of man on the one hand to the member of civil society, the egoistic, independent individual, and on the other to the citizen, the moral person… Only when real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen into himself and as an individual man has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships, only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed (1975, 233-34).
What divides state and civil society is the alienation of laboring bodies. Once freed from private ownership, this cooperative labor (the collective body of producers) functions as the social subject of thinking and action—in effect, Spinoza’s wise man who orders the affections of the body according to the order of the intellect. The current debate over citizenship as the site of transcendence—the point where the formal or abstract dimension of citizenship is supposedly fleshed by the social and cultural dimensions (Glenn 2000, Rosaldo 1999)—may have missed the crucial interface or reciprocity of the private and public aspects.
To recapitulate Marx’s thesis: in the world of alienated labor and commodity exchange where competing private interests dominate, the general interest embodied in the civitas or commonwealth can only be realized in a formal way, via abstraction. Thus the basis and substance of the political organism we call state, sovereignty or commonwealth remains civil society with its class divisions and internecine warfare. In fact, the unified state sanctions and legitimizes the unequal economic relations and other differences that constitute civil society. In order to overcome those actual differences, like religion, the hypostatized idealized state—the modern representative democracy with its liberal, tolerant ethos–has to acknowledge the limitations of the profane world, that is, it has to reinstate and confirm the crass materialism of bourgeois society. Estrangement and unsociability inform the very nature of the polity, the state; hence, uncritical idealism or spiritualism coexists with uncritical positivism and crude, vulgar materialism.
Citizenship in a liberal democratic order is necessarily premised on difference. The citizen is an abstraction, a formal product of a “thoroughgoing transubstantiation” of all the particular qualities, elements, and processes that are synthesized in the constitution of the modern liberal state. But this constitution is nothing else but the exaltation of private property, in short, the sanctification and legitimation of the basis of the disintegration of the state. Everything is turned upside down: the ideal of equality is praised in order to defend the cause of inequality, private property, as fundamental and absolute. From this perspective, what becomes evident is the fact that it is not the separate but consonant categories of normative and descriptive languages in Spinoza that explains the ambiguous co-presence of liberal and authoritarian tendencies; rather, it is the essence of the contradictions in the development of the capitalist mode of production and its ideological-political forms of reproduction. Spinoza’s libertarian heretical impulse concurs with his appreciation of necessity and finitude.
Historicizing the Thinking Body
We find in Spinoza’s thought a mediating expression and symbol of “the most systematically commercialized economy” in 17th-century Europe. We discern in Spinoza’s achievement a reflection of the civic virtues, intelligence and enterprise that the bourgeoisie were “ideally capable of” together with the limitations of the social relations that sustained and reproduced those qualities (Muller 1963, 225). Deborin stressed the dialectical kernel of Spinoza’s thought in positing the reciprocal interaction of all finite things within the “absolutely positive determinations” of Nature as a whole (1952, 110). This also enabled Spinoza to craft a realistic anatomy of the multitude as vulnerable to passions, external causes, and infirmities for which the Ethics was designed, even while he assured us that bondage can be remedied and freedom gained. Amid the wars and dissensions of his time, Spinoza urged men of reason to work for humanist conviviality: “To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all” (1994, 209-10).
“Caute,” be careful or take care, was the emblem on Spinoza’s ring. Yirmihayu Yovel contends that Spinoza’s dual language was his response to the existential realities of Marrano life in seventeenth-century Netherlands: the ever-present danger of the Inquisition, Spinoza’s status as a dissenter within the Jewish community and (after his excommunication) as a freethinker and reputed atheist in Calvinist Holland. Aside from this, another factor sheds light on the ambivalence in Spinoza’s discourse: his belief that the vulgus or multitude cannot liberate itself from the bondage of the sad passions and the lure of the imagination. Inadequate ideas makes the body vulnerable to external causes whose power over the finite mode of humanity proves itself in confused passivity, hence the superstition of prejudice: “If someone has been affected with joy or sadness by someone of a class, or nation, different from his own, and this joy or sadness is accompanied by the idea of that person as its cause, under the universal name of the class or nation, he will love or hate, not only that person, but everyone of the same class or nation” (PIII46). Human beings are generally prone to envy and vengeance than compassion, Spinoza observes, so it requires “a singular power of mind to deal with each according to his own understanding.”
Spinoza’s fundamental principle inheres in the conatus or endeavor of each person, in so far as he is in himself, to preserve his rationality and persevere in living within the realm of necessity that Nature ordains (Parkinson 1975). But this standard of exercising one’s agency can not be maintained by the majority. Only a few can attain the grade of the scientia intuitiva, the third kind of knowledge, without which freedom and personal salvation are meaningless. Nonetheless, the apparatus of the liberal state and rationalized universal religion may help convert “the activity of the imagination into an external imitation of reason, using the power of authority and obedience” (Yovel 1989, 32), mobilizing the masses to cooperate in the constitutional state’s task of implementing a program of justice and charity.
Despite the psychologizing tendency of the conatus doctrine, Spinoza’s materialism (on this feature, see Curley 1988) allowed him to grasp the determining pressure of social relations on individual conduct. He certainly did not view society as an aggregate of atomized individuals calculating the varying ratios of pleasure and pain. Assessing the dialectics of substance and its attributes in Ethics, Genevieve Lloyd discerns a revealing movement: “From a dynamic physics of bodies emerges a new naturalization of collective social power” (1996, 142). Smith’s portrait of Spinoza as the consummate liberal which I noted earlier will not survive the evidence of Spinoza’s inclination for cooperative endeavor. His “democratic” state is also interventionist and paternalistic. Perhaps this is peculiar to Spinoza’s reaction to the Jewish situation and the political alignment of forces in 17th-century Netherlands, as well as to his longing for a more solid republican hegemony against the menace of an intolerant monarchist absolutism.
Let us revisit Marx’s provocative insights into the “Jewish Question” from another angle. Michael Walzer recounts how the French revolutionaries debated the issue of the emancipation of the Jews in 1790-91. One centrist deputy then declared: “One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, and give everything to the Jews as individuals… It would be repugnant to have…a nation within a nation.” And so Jews as individuals with rights were recognized; they could be regenerated by becoming citizens in political society (as Marx extrapolated from experience) while sustaining their corporate existence in civil society. Thus, “the price of emancipation was assimilation” (Walzer 2000, 192-93). Smith would go along with that process. In which case we are reminded of what Jean-Paul Sartre cautioned us sometime ago, in his memorable essay Anti-Semite and Jew, about the democrat who is 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). Here, the utopian kernel of Spinoza’s view of an inalienable right disappears into the “melting pot” of consumption and laissez-faire negotiation. Forgotten is Spinoza’s axiom that “no one has yet determined what the body can do” for the body, “simply from the laws of its own nature, can do many things which its mind wonders at” (1994, 155-56). Meanwhile, racism and ethnic exclusion acquire new life and virulence in the “New World Order” of globalized finance capital and its terrorist dispensation.
Specter of United States Nationalism
What advice then can Spinoza give to Asians Americans who are today beleaguered, nay besieged, by law enforcement agencies implementing the Patriot Act in the war against stipulated terrorism? How can the “Marrano of reason” assist the stigmatized pariahs of this moribund cosmopolitanism?
An inventory of incidents can scarcely register the pain inflicted by neoliberal fascism. We’ve read of the hate backlash after September 11, 2001, among others: Balbir Singh Sodhi, 49, an Indian-American immigrant in Mesa, Arizona, was murdered without much fanfare; Saad Saad, 35, of Scottsdale, Arizona, was 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, despite challenges by Federal Court judges; many, including those held in Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba, will undergo secret trials before a military tribunal. The early incidents featuring Vincent Chin, or the killing of the Filipino 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” justifies such extreme measures, some say a “just” and measured response, to defend U.S. sovereignty.
The “repressed” now returns in the strange mix of vigilantism and utopianism. 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 epithet)—everyone has made it, almost. In fact, testimonies like Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian, or more recently, Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams (a vulgarized rendition 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” (TPT, Ch. 20). It is certainly not amor dei intellectualis that motivates Helen Zia to extol Asian American dynamism (personified by her extended family) as the distinctive quality of this heterogenous assemblage of “American people.” 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. 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.”
Rationality now translates into the entrepreneur’s war strategy. “Turning American” for Zia means moving away from stereotypes, from tales of campaign donations and espionage, to reciting the litany of “model” successes in politics, business, mass media, and so on. 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, but without the drive for joyful wisdom. 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, in these days of Enron/WorldCom corporate orgies, 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” (not Al Qaeda but Saddam Hussein and his doubles) 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 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 that we read in anthologies like Orientations (Chuh and Shimakawa 2001), becomes complicit with “cynical reason” if it does not confront the racial polity and its ideological state apparatuses operating in the international arena. This exceeds the objective of the disciplinary Kulturkritik of Establishment Cultural Studies and the cosmopolitan populism of high-salaried “public intellectuals” (Mulhern 2000). What is needed is political recharging of both the pessimistic intellect and the optimistic will which Gramsci invoked during times of revolutionary retreat and regrouping.
Espionage becomes the theater for discriminating enemies and friends. 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” (2002, 37). Where are the impartial jurors who can countervail against the premeditated judgment of the fixed majoritarian gaze?
Let us be generous in reviewing the case. 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 national-security state plays fair and only commits minor errors. Superstition has gotten the better of the scientist’s mind. 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.
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” (TPT, Ch. 17). It is this freedom which guarantees the strength and security of the state: “Peace is not freedom from war but a virtue, which springs from strength of mind” (Jaspers 1966, 72).
The contradictions of bourgeois society sharpen as the crisis worsens. 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 which Spinoza tried to unravel and demystify. As noted earlier, Marx succeeded in casting light on the interdependency of bourgeois liberty and private property. Cultural pluralism thrives on inequity. Multiculturalism is the cultural logic of globalized neoliberal capitalism as it seeks to conceal class antagonisms behind the cover of abstract individual liberties. So it is quite possible that the terror of racism which Spinoza envisaged will continue to haunt us in this new millennium as long as the material conditions that produce and reproduce class relations, in effect the material-ideological armature of the U.S. racial polity, remain the sine qua non for the reproduction and legitimation of the dominant social structures and institutional practices of everyday life.
Social contradictions persist everywhere. Given the recalcitrance of citizens in the racial polity, 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, oppositional subaltern. Spinoza argued that such states are irrational and deserve to be overthrown. 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. One can counterpose to this proto-fascist legality and military tribunals the Enlightenment solidarity of “progressive humanism” (Palumbo Liu 2002); but such humanism, I fear, has already been thoroughly incorporated into the constitution of the racial polity.
Social justice, the recognition and validation of people’s singular identities and worth, remains the goal of popular mobilization. Not everything is foreclosed. For despite the liberal state’s pragmatic politics of incorporation, and its power to command and enforce its commands, the collective subjects of this racial polity continue to exercise their right to dissent, protest, and rebel not just out of self-interest (“self” here read as a “common notion”)—but precisely for the sake of affirming self-determination, rational autonomy, and communal dignity. What is ultimately at stake, the survival of the planet, inheres in the conatus of every living creature. 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 and value of Spinoza’s political teaching for people of color, in this period of barbaric anti-terrorism.
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E. San Juan Jr. was a Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium in the Spring of 2003. His recent books include:Beyond Postcolonial Theory (Palgrave), After Postcolonialism(Powman and Littlefield), and Racism and Cultural Studies (Duke University Press).