A Re-injection of Spinoza

Ed note: These were left by Wayne in a comment in yesterday’s posting, but I think they deserve a posting of their own – rwd

To elaborate on this thought-experiment, a re-injection of the Spinozist side of Marx has been vital for a whole series of thinkers attempting to revitalize Marxism. The new emphasis on Spinoza coming out of France and Italy is I think attempt to fully develop the challenge of democracy. Spinoza places the demos or the multitude as the source of power. In Spinoza power comes from below. All of this is in Marx and Marxism, but it is not theoretically into analytic categories.

What I call, following Star Trek, the prime directive, is the idea that the exploited and oppressed have to liberate themselves. Marx, said this any number of times, but it often gets rolled under Marxist economic categories. It also is usually called the dicatatorship of the proletariat and given the histories of dictatorships over the proletariat, it is wise to be careful (if I may understate the case).

The multitude, the masses in action, is the active form of democratic power. The multitude is not a sociological category it exists in the streets when people go out to reclaim their power. It is a kind of anti-theater of collective power.

Socialism is marked by the creations of institutions of mass democratic power or the democratic control over power.

When people chant “this is what democracy looks like” they are calling for a society that is egalitarian in terms of both wealth and power. In our context they are both an active critique of societies that have elections but no longer seem democratic.

I share your reservations about Cuba, so without entering into a specific discussion of Cuba, I want to go into a discussion of metaphysics and politics. Spinoza, is famous for his radical solution to the mind-body problem,for those of you who stumbled onto our discussion hoping for more politics and less theory this is essentially a political discussion. The political point is that the mind-body split is a typical division of power where the leader (the boss under capitilism or the party in socialist politics) takes the position of the mind, and the masses or the working-classes are in the position of the body. So if you start things from the body and refuse a certain conception of the mind-body split it is a way thinking about a world in which people collectively control power or actively participate in the decision process.


two links for tuesday morning reading

Monthly Review, May 2007: Healing the Rift: Metabolic Restoration in Cuban Agriculture, by Rebecca Clauso (Posted with some pre-requisite skepticism about many claims & apologetics about Cuba, which is frankly not a socialist utopia)…

Cuban agriculture over the past thirteen years has worked to reestablish the spatial relationships between nutrient cycles and material exchanges. A key principle of Cuba’s agroecology is the “optimization of local resources and promotion of within-farm synergisms through plant-animal combinations.”

The Cuban model of agriculture recognizes that the artificial divide between mental and manual labor limits the range of opportunities for productive food systems. The goals of a participatory democracy for agricultural decision making have been incorporated into the new farming model, and this is made possible by the new ownership patterns.

and from Cultural Logic,1998:Spinoza and Marx, by Eugene Holland

What follows is in the nature of a thought-experiment. It is well known that Marx was familiar with Spinoza; indeed, he hand-copied whole passages of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus into his notebooks. Less clear is the significance of this fact, and the extent of Spinoza’s influence on Marx’s thought.1 The aim of the experiment here is to deliberately exaggerate the extent of that influence: to think through some of the possible implications of placing Spinoza at the heart of Marx’s endeavor.

Wayne’s Response Re: ‘ecological struggle’

Ed note: this comment was left by Wayne on Ryan’s posting from June 8th.  I’ve moved it to the front page as a full posting.

Beginning the discussion with a critique of stage theory, surprised me, but it is a useful place to start because it is so often seen as the main point of Marxism. Part of the way ideology works is that the critique so often becomes the point it was opposed to in the first place, there is a side of Marxism that becomes the poetry of production, and this has more than one sordid result. Part of the focus of Althusser was to get rid of the narrative elements hidden in the dialectic,i.e. stage theory. However, in getting rid of economism, we have to be careful not to get rid of economics, we live in a world that is capitalist through and through.

The transformation of nature by capitialism produces a lot of comfort but at a high cost. Marxists have had to learn something from the environmental movement that the effects of capitalism are not limited to the work place or to the exploitation of workers. In fairness, one might be able to find a beginning of a theory in Lukacs writings on alienation and, Adorno was, I think, quite explicit in connecting exploitation to the domination of nature, but there is more thinking that needs to be done.

On the other hand, and isn’t there always an other hand, the environmental movement also needs Marxism because capitalism is central to the devastation of the environment. This has always been the case, if we have an image of capitalism in the age of Dickens and Marx, there is a thick layer of soot, that gives that urban environment its’ opaque beauty. Contrary to the pastel pastiche of post-modernist theory, cinema, since Blade Runner, has rather obsessively given visual form to environmental degradation, proletarianization (increased explaitation) and urban decay. Right now the documentary Manufactured Landscapes provides a powerful and beautiful set of images of environmental degradation.

If I may again, just amplify your main points here, there is something in the increased competetiveness of contemporary capitalism that has made life more exploitative and will push more and more against the environment. Because the drive for profitability makes the decisions, production is moved to places with lower costs, the ‘third world’ provides ‘cheap labor’ and virtually no environmental control.

The movement has to be able to question profitability to win: people and the environment need to come before profits. This
is a slight re-write of an old slogan, but it is something that can be understood by regular people and frame the demands of the movement.

In the end, there may be a question of choice between human consumption or living standards and the environment, so there is something fundamentally political about how to think about this.
There is a side of the environmental movement that acts as though it were talking to trees and not people. I try to think like an organizer: we have to persuade people that they cannot breath without the trees. Most people, now recognize, that there is an environmental crisis, but we need to re-frame it: the environment is bigger than we are, it, the environment, will survive, we won’t.

Reforms are fine in themselves, but there questions. Do thereforms work? Who pays?

We need to “act global and think local.” Internationalism is paramount, the problems of the environment and the class struggle are international. We are for globalization, just not one that is destructive. In a capitalist society the market dictates to the state. In this era fo market dictatorship, we need to place controls over a process that is international in scope. Of course, we operate under local conditions but everything and everyone is connected and no one gets out alive.

End of time, for now.

rough thoughts on ecological struggle

1. We are against stagism; most relevantly we are against the myth of a stagist capitalism, the trendy mythos in which we go from dirty industry to green industry, from blue collar workers to squash-playing, yoga-practicing information workers. This is not happening! This is the story of post-industrialism & the so-called “third wave”, and it is not true. It is a fundamental distortion of history, an ideological smoke screen, and the reality of the “post-industrial” economy is the export of the dirtiest industries abroad (chiefly China and its neighbours, or rather, the “world’s factory“) and the reduction of the domestic economy to the service industry, finance, and resource exports, (especially in a place like Canada where the TSE is dominated by the last two).

Dirty industry today in China does not automatically translate into “clean” industry in China tomorrow. Economic progress does not proceed in stages where all countries start out like 19th century England and end in a post-industrial utopia.

Further, it is worth pointing out that many formerly-perceived-as-“green” industries (i.e. high-tech manufacture which deposits mercury and lead into ground water, or so-called “aquaculture” which causes wholesale destruction of the oceans or fills our food with PCBs and other toxins) are now pointed out as dirty, environmentally destructive industries.

Under these conditions, where all wealth is based on the combination of intensive resource extraction and export (I’m from Alberta, I know) and the exploitation of those resources via correspondingly cheap labour abroad, how can we talk about a future of “green capitalism” at all (and especially here in Canada) without descending to the most base level of cynical lies? It really sucks to say it, but in this level the right wing is right: “going green” costs jobs, and breaks the economy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it will be struggle all the way.

2. The warm comfortable blanket of technological determinism promises a solution (through hybrids, through bio-fuels, through nuclear energy, etc) but this is bullshit; let’s just be honest and say there will be no “new technology” which can on its own “save the environment.” In the real world, outside of the set of mystifications with which science and technology is reported in the press, technology is just technique and knowledge, and is developed in a social/cultural context, and executed/applied by industry; we must point out that only a form of social control over production, that is democratic planning of industry, can insure that the “right” activities take place with our shared resources! on a small scale this is what the mass action of the existing environment movement has already been attempting through pressure… our goal is to make this more explicit and permanent

3. Re: so-called bio-fuel; apart from being impractical, robs directly from the soil rather than from the soil of millions of years ago; steals energy which could be used for human sustenance and transfers it for profit; the reality is we have no excess land, no excess food; every farm is precious (also an argument about suburbanization); a form of hyper-exploitation… These concepts are certainly not foreign to Marx:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” — Karl Marx “Capital”, Volume I

4. We need to make explicit the link between obscene oil/energy/resource profits and the deprivation of the earth; every smog choked citizen should personally resent the luxurious estates of the rich, especially in the resource-exports intensive market of a place like Canada, Brazil, Russia, etc.

stewarding oil & gas energy becomes important; our job isn’t just to replace the usage of it but to hold onto it because as a form of energy it is an asset that should be reserved for future generations, and not wasted on the indulgences of the wealthy classes only.

5. We need to fight all “lifestylist” eco-moralism which makes us focus on what brand of toilet paper or what kind of lightbulbs we are using rather than the political-economic policy of the governments and industries which rule us; take the hypocrisy of energy policy in Ontario, for example, which simultaneously asks for the sacrifice & conservation of individual consumers while a) providing massive subsidies to manufacturing industries, which are by far the broadest users/abusers electricty b) commodifying & privatizing electricity as a commodity and selling it abroad (30% exported to the United States) while simultaneously directly poisoning and killing citizens in Ontario! 668 deaths per annum which can be directly blamed on air quality as a result of coal-fired power plants. <sarcasm>Can we use this to calculate the actual “exchange value” of a human life?</sarcasm>)

Eco-moralism is a political liability! As the political opposition, we cannot be sanctimonious lecturers on the rightness of a given lifestyle, without becoming elitist and marginal.  In contrast to the social democrats, the socialist vision of the the future is not the regulation of individuals by a singular moralistic “nanny state”, but the coordination of industry by the democratic multitude.

6. Access to green space, to clean air, to quality water, to a quiet/noiseless environment become more and more drastically important, and must become both class-based (all of these “luxuries” not just for wealth neighbourhoods or regions, but for the working class) and internationalist demands (it becomes imperative to expose the intense environmental degradation abroad, particularly in china, etc.)

There is an ongoing destructive dynamic between the rural and urban life in our capitalist society (See Engels’ “On the abolition of the antithesis between town and country“); re: the above point about green space, etc. to get all dialectical: the contradiction between rural and urban can be “superceded” only through the assertion of the right of all individuals to a) a kind of “post-urban” (as opposed to suburban) environment b) planning in agriculture, the return of mixed-crop stewardship over the land opposing mass industrial-scale monocrop agriculture

7. We should not have a knee-jerk reaction against all so-called “eco-capitalist” reforms (such as carbon trading schemes); they can be viewed from two angles; on one hand they can be seen as a propagandistic charade and are not a solution, not an end in and of themselves; but on the other hand as one possible battle won through the mass action of the environmental movement, forcing the market to valuate aspects of the commons that it formerly hid.

In the last instance capitalism will always run up against these enforced limits on exploitation and will fight them in an effort to extract greater profits, and it is here that we have points of struggle to ignite mass action. As practical measures we should advocate for short term policies such as additional taxation on fuel use, the forcing of industry into more responsible roles, compensatory frameworks for the use of air, water, and soil; however all of these measures must be initiated and backed up through mass action! We can see them as transitional reforms that can cause a (probably minor) amelioration of environmental problems and at the same time they throw the action of the capitalist economy itself into sharp relief — every time a company fails to meet a quota, an environment tax policy, or to partake in the regulated scheme, this must become a point of agitation for the mass movement.