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"Spinoza after Politics": Dan Taylor, Gil Morejon, Marie Wuth, and Jack Stetter (Keywords: Human Nature; Affects; Anarchism; State; Law; Imagination; War)


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In recent years there has been a vibrant flourishing of interest in the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1670), best known for the Ethics and the Theologico-Political Treatise. In this forum, four emerging critical voices walk with Spinoza, bringing him into dialogue with contemporary political and philosophical challenges. Dan Taylor begins with an overview of Spinoza’s contribution to politics, drawing out its attention to our relations of interdependence. Gil Morejón explores Spinoza’s challenge to contemporary anarchism and reappraises his status in radical continental thought. Marie Wuth brings Spinoza into dialogue with Frantz Fanon on racial imaginaries, and on the power with which narratives and counter-narratives can become sources of emancipation. And finally Jack Stetter considers Spinoza’s contribution to thinking about war and international relations, particularly at a moment of interlocking crises.

 

Spinoza and Relationality Dan Taylor In this special Forum for The Philosopher, we are here to think about Spinoza after politics, but I think we should begin at Spinoza with politics, Spinoza in politics, that is, Spinoza’s contribution to politics.


There’s a good deal that has been written about Spinoza’s far-sighted and elegant contributions to philosophy, including social and political philosophy. Spinoza, as the story has so often been told, was born into the Jewish community in Amsterdam at the centre of the Dutch Golden Age, but was persecuted and ejected from that community because of his suspected atheism. This "prince of philosophers", a phrase that even Bertrand Russell and Gilles Deleuze can agree on, privately and meekly developed a brand new metaphysics which turned Cartesian dualism inside out, in which God and Nature were equivalent, there is just one substance understood through various attributes like extension and ideas, and for whom all things in nature are singular modes or expressions of the all-encompassing power of the universe, from the smallest "worm in the blood" up to the "face of the whole universe".


Over the last few decades, Spinoza is mainly taught for the Ethics, his main work on ontology, epistemology and the good life. In the usual framing, he’s usually not an end-destination but another station along the route of early modern philosophy that begins with Descartes and ends with Kant. But in his time, and for some time after his death, he was best known for the Theologico-Political Treatise (or TTP), a work which scandalised contemporaries by debunking the authority of miracles, a century before David Hume, and for setting out a rigorous, uncompromising reading of biblical scripture and prophecy in strictly naturalistic and critical terms. While some of Spinoza’s arguments against superstition and on the risks of public fear for creating the conditions of mass tyranny were guided by the Stoics, others carry the mark of his time. And this is where we get back to the first question: what is Spinoza’s contribution to politics?


For some readers, it is democracy. While Spinoza was not the first thinker to argue for democratic republicanism in his native Dutch Republic, he went further by providing a philosophical justification by appeal to our common nature and power. Democracy isn’t merely about a given distribution of roles or an electoral system. For Spinoza, it is closest to our natural condition of equality. It supports and involves individuals to contribute their ideas and judgements, and willingly participate in the operations of the state through the advantage to all that follows from common participation.


Other readers see Spinoza as a precursor to modern-day liberalism, for instance in his arguments for the freedom to philosophise, the toleration of dissent, and restrictions on ecclesiastical power. A final approach to Spinoza’s politics highlights its revolutionary and affective dimension. Although approaching Spinoza through different concepts, Antonio Negri, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and more recently Frédéric Lordon, use Spinoza’s Ethics as a basis for exploring the material conditions in which modern-day citizens dominated and degraded by capitalism might find ways to refuse and resist. What makes this reading different from those which focus on democracy is its awkwardness with, if not incompatibility with, Spinoza’s claims elsewhere that freedom and security arise through the organised state.


We’ll explore this position in more depth in a moment, but I want to set out now my approach to Spinoza’s politics. I am going to offer two positions which I’ll then defend, and we’ll use these to think through some of the challenges and new opportunities of using Spinoza, of adventuring with Spinoza.


Spinoza’s most significant contribution to politics is relationality, which is to say, the foregrounding of politics in human relations.

So for me, Spinoza’s most significant contribution to politics is relationality, which is to say, the foregrounding of politics in human relations. Relationality is our life in common; it is how different individuals are shaped and constituted by their relations with others. These relations are often the primary source of our power and weakness, our joys and hopes and our sadnesses and fears. These are relations of interdependence, not independence. George Eliot, a keen reader of Spinoza, came to view society in terms of such a "web" or "thread" of relations, one that can be stitched together to become sources of public power and collective freedom, through principles of solidarity, mutual understanding and care – and care is where I’m going. But these webs of relations can also become like a net which traps, stifles and crushes individuals, often marginalised individuals, or freedom-loving individuals in despotic societies. Relationality is double-edged.


There’s a good tradition of foregrounding politics in relationality. Aristotle’s book Politics roots the political order not in abstract ideas but in two important principles for Spinoza, as for the Stoics: firstly, our fundamental human nature as sociable animals; and second, our private and personal relations – husband-wife, master-slave – that build a hierarchical web from private to public. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles set out the idea of circles of obligation that extend outward, from close family to the city. What’s interesting about Spinoza’s approach to relationality is that it is not foregrounded on what a later time would call the nuclear family, or on unjust relations of inequality given the veneer of natural respectability like master and slave. For Spinoza, individuals realise together their capacity to reason and act through association and fellowship. These individuals could be friends, lovers, strangers, siblings, parent and child, whatever. They are bound by two core principles for relationality.


1. Human nature and desire

An understanding of human beings as modes of power, as expressions of power in their relations with others. This is underpinned by what Spinoza called the conatus. All things in existence – not just human beings; Spinoza is opposed to anthropocentrism – all things in existence are defined by the fact they strive to persist or persevere in their being. This is their conatus, their striving, though it is not a striving in the sense of a “conscious endeavour”. A pebble strives to persist in being when it remains inert, just as when the tide picks it up on the shoreline and drags it into the sea.


But human beings experience this conatus as desire. Desire is our appetite to strive to persevere in our being accompanied with consciousness of that appetite – a layer of ideas, emotions and judgements about what is most conducive or habitual to our striving.And it is through our striving through which we act or are acted upon, through which we think for ourselves or have the ideas and judgements of others passively imprinted onto us. In other words, this core characteristic of nature, of human nature, is the measure of our power.


2. The Affects The second core principle for relationality are the affects, which is the term Spinoza uses for emotions. Nowadays we think of emotions in terms of internal, subjective feelings, but, for Spinoza, the affects are mental and physical states or dispositions, through which we are disposed to act a certain way, usually under the influence of a prior experience or reflection upon it.


So we have two principles of relationality: human nature and the affects. And Spinoza often refers to these as standards in his political thought. In the Political Treatise, his final and unfinished work, he refers in the first chapter to two authorities: to human nature as it is, not as we would like it to be, echoing Machiavelli; and to politics as a science of the affects, through which they’re understood like patterns of the weather. In the Ethics he uses similar phrasing, to understand the affects with the same rigor as if they were geometrical "lines, planes or bodies". He proposes to subject them to the same critical scrutiny to ascertain their causes. And, like the Stoics, he proposes to use a model of nature as a standard by which to theorise about the good life. Hence in the TTP he refers politics back to nature, to a quasi-Hobbesian state of nature, but one in which individuals cooperate together out for mutual security and assistance, not merely to escape a war of all against all, exchanging one form of domination for another, but in pursuit of the "common good" and advantage of all. And this can only be achieved through the organised political State (hereon capitalised to distinguish it from other uses of the term “state”).


Spinoza was aware of a tradition, perhaps going back to Diogenes the Cynic, and certainly in some Catholic thought, of viewing the organised State as itself an evil, even if a necessary evil. For this tradition, the State is a corruption or bastardisation of human nature, an alienation of human nature, as it was for Rousseau. Spinoza instead argues that it is through the State, the freedom of the State, that there becomes an organised structure for education, deliberation and executive action through which our relations with one another are strengthened and bound by a common mind towards increasing our mutual capacity to think and act as equals.


The Italian political philosopher Riccardo Caporali has an enlightening term for this. He calls the State a "factory" of powers, in that the good State, a democratic and free State, manages, harmonies and develops powers according to a naturalistic framework.


Today our relationship to the State is strained by the spectres of global war, malignant AI, a collective failure to show solidarity, hospitality and care to peoples brutalised by genocidal wars, and rampant disinformation.

But all this sounds rather idealistic and unworldly. Today our relationship to the State is strained by the spectres of global war, malignant AI, a collective failure to show solidarity, hospitality and care to peoples brutalised by genocidal wars, and rampant disinformation. As societies become more internally complex and globally interconnected, as people become more educated and live longer, the State is needed to provide more protection and support for citizens. One could understand this as a new form of mutual security, comparable to the foundation of the civil State as Spinoza and Hobbes understood it. But it also raises challenging questions about our obligations to each other, as relations through one another.


Returning to the two principles of relationality, human nature and the affects, I’m interested in a Spinozian understanding of care, a politics of care. This would involve:


  • A collective that isn’t singular;

  • A commonality that isn’t exclusive, e.g. native-defined;

  • A sense of self defined by connections, obligations and mutual aid.


This would be a kind of "transindividuality", as Étienne Balibar would call it, between individual and collective, but one directed towards a politics that fights for stronger connections, stronger institutions of community power and social infrastructure, towards a culture that values connection and community over the emancipated individual.


These aren’t ideals. They’ll become brute necessities as our systems for providing and protecting social care need to change, and as more people across the world lose their homes and travel in search of shelter, for a place of hospitality. And they ask difficult questions of our relationship to the State.


But Spinoza wouldn’t accept a deflated realism or fatalism about the coercion of State structures: if freedom is arrived at through the democratic State, then that freedom also holds the promise of what Alexandre Matheron, one of the best readers of Spinoza, calls, a "communism of minds": interdependent, pluralistic, harmonised but not homogeneous.


Finally, for now, it means turning back to a phrase Spinoza uses in the Ethics, that our power is in affecting others and being affected as much as possible. That, as Proposition 38 of Part IV goes,

"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 we affect and are affected by others – our inter-affectivity – the more we can perceive and understand of the plurality of other human lives and experiences. And the more we become agents in those lives too, through which we come to live "a truly human life", as Spinoza says in the Political Treatise, rather than having mere existence imposed upon us.


***

 

Spinoza contra Anarchism Gil Morejón


Everybody seems to want a Spinoza of their own. In the 18th century he was called a pantheist; in the 19th an atheist; in the 20th a materialist; in our own century he is said to be a vitalist. Sometimes these identifications are made in the mode of claiming him as a fellow-traveler or a predecessor; sometimes, by contrast, this is done in the mode of denouncing him as heretical, dangerous, or obviously wrong. It cannot be without interest that Spinoza’s thought is somehow capable of receiving such conflicting and even contradictory interpretations, of inspiring as well as repelling such a wide variety of positions in the modern space of theoretical and practical reasons, but I will leave the question of why he invites such divergent readings aside.


In Spinoza’s case, though, it must be said that sometimes the kind of work required to make his thought commensurate with the philosophical and political sensibilities of the day goes beyond defensible hermeneutic charity, to the point of demonstrable distortion. In an article called "Charitable Interpretations and the Political Domestication of Spinoza, or, Benedict in the Land of the Secular Imagination", Yitzhak Melamed compellingly argues that we should be more skeptical about the contemporary practice of producing "charitable interpretations" of historical philosophers: perhaps instead of finding creative ways to explain away their obvious divergence from our own intuitions and beliefs, it would be better to let them retain their distance from us, which alone would make it possible for their thought to challenge those things we tend to take for granted today. Otherwise, we would be better off just saying what we think; if we are simply going to read our own intuitions into them, why bother reading them at all?


Here I would like briefly to explore one such recent appropriation of Spinoza, and voice my objection that I think it is untenable. I have in mind the radical tradition in contemporary continental political philosophy, starting sometime in the 20th century, that could be described as anarchist or antinomian. The roots of these political-philosophical tendencies go back much farther than that, of course, but I’d like to focus on this more recent trajectory. I do not have the space here to provide an adequate account of the existence and degree of influence of this tradition, so I will instead simply describe it by unpacking the two terms I’m using to characterize it and give a few examples, and hopefully you will recognize what I am talking about.


Anarchism is a political orientation characterized by its opposition to the State, or more generally its opposition to hierarchical concentrations of political power, whose imposition of certain norms of behavior is understood as being repressive, and typically as arbitrarily so. Closely related to this is antinomianism, meaning opposition to the law, or more generally opposition to normativity as such, which again is thought to be repressive or oppressive. My suggestion is that if you pick up any number of books in the continental tradition by thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Negri, Agamben or their many followers, you are likely to encounter this sort of anarchist or antinomian perspective: a generalized skepticism about or outright hostility to the State, to the law, or to the very notion of normativity.


This is what I have in mind when I talk about there being at least a significant undercurrent in contemporary political philosophy that sees normativity and the state as fundamentally repressive, authoritarian, and antithetical to human freedom; from this perspective, these are things that need to be directly opposed or, perhaps, escaped from. My claim here is that Spinoza’s thinking cannot be easily assimilated to these anarchist or antinomian modes of political thought, if it can be assimilated by them at all. But a good number of these thinkers have claimed Spinoza for themselves, as a kind of predecessor or precursor.


Spinoza seeks to develop a science of politics, which for him means determining the governmental forms, institutions, and practices best suited to establish the conditions for maximal stability for any given mode of social organization.

In my view, Spinoza seeks to develop a science of politics, which for him means determining the governmental forms, institutions, and practices best suited to establish the conditions for maximal stability for any given mode of social organization. In the Political Treatise, this means determining the optimal forms of monarchical, aristocratic, and – an effort unfortunately cut extremely short by his early death – democratic government. But this of course presupposes that something like a government or a State is necessary. This, I argue, is exactly why he cannot be an anarchist or antinomian political thinker.


Spinoza thinks that the immanent dynamics of human sociality are such that something like a state or government, with the ability to effectively enforce certain norms of behavior, is unavoidable, indeed necessary, and even desirable when properly understood, as soon as some number of human beings live together in a community. To put the claim in a somewhat exaggerated form, but one that I think can be defended, I would say that Spinoza thinks that a State spontaneously starts to form as soon as three people live together. (Of course, we tend to live in groups rather larger than that.)


I’ll argue for this in three steps. First, human beings are for Spinoza fundamentally limited in their understanding. Most of our knowledge of things, including each other, is inadequate, partial, and confused. It’s true that the best thing in the world for us is to live with other human beings; a shared life in common with others is the condition for the possibility of our mutually increasing knowledge, power, and joy. But we mostly fail to understand this, and indeed we mostly fail to understand one another.


Thus the second point: because of the general inadequacy of our knowledge, we tend to rely not on what we understand but what we imagine about one another, and this means that it is our affects that tend to most significantly shape our desires and determine how we act in respect of one another. Human beings are subject to passions, like fear, hope, and envy, and we are spontaneously imitative, emulating the affects of those around us. It is not because we rationally understand that society would benefit us, but rather out of our common fear and our common hope, that we generally strive to live together.


And this leads me to the third point. Once we live together in a community, it does not take very long for our common hopes and fears to come to bear on the same object: the power of all of us together. That is because we quickly come to realize that this collective power is the most powerful thing with which we are familiar. This is the power of the multitude, potentia multitudinis. For Spinoza, sovereignty just is right defined by such a multitude’s power. When one of the members of a given society acts in ways that are imagined by the multitude to be contrary to the multitude’s perseverance in being, the multitude will do everything in its power to prevent that action; at the limit, it will strive to destroy that member if necessary. And this striving will be right, by definition, even if the threat posed by the member is only imaginary – for again, our knowledge is generally inadequate, and this does not in any way undermine the basis of sovereignty.


In this way, without any rational reflection on the potential benefits of social life rather than living in the state of nature as in Hobbes, without any recourse to a social contract as in Rousseau, but rather just out of the immanent dynamics of human affect and sociality, we see the emergence of sovereignty, the formation of a State, and the establishment of norms of living in common enforced with threats of violence. To back up the interpretation I am laying out here, I want to provide only a single quote, and it is this, from the 2nd scholium to Proposition 37 of Part IV of the Ethics:


Society can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concerning good and evil. In this way Society has the power to prescribe a common rule of life, to make laws, and to maintain them—not by reason, which cannot restrain the affects, but by threats. This Society, maintained by laws and the power it has of preserving itself, is called a State, and those who are defended by its law, Citizens.


Now I do not mean to suggest that all States are equally good, or that all norms or the ways that they are enforced are worth preserving. Without question, it is easy to come up with examples of both norms and modes of enforcement that we can all agree are extremely and needlessly harmful. And the modern nation-state is obviously closely tied to settler-colonial and ethno-nationalist projects that deserve nothing but total abolition. I think, however, that Spinoza is right that this much is necessary: that the stable maintenance of a social formation is possible only in and through the establishment of some minimal set of norms for a common rule of life, some minimal set of laws, which can effectively be enforced only through threats of violence and at the limit by actual violence.


For Spinoza, nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, and we can be far more powerful, understanding, and joyful together than apart.

Perhaps this is indeed repressive, as the anarchists and antinomians say. And I am not in any way celebrating such repression, especially in those unfortunate cases where the violence enacted by the sovereign multitude is based on imaginary misunderstanding. But Spinoza thinks that this minimal repression is unavoidable. In fact, within the social and institutional boundaries established by this minimal repression, the conditions for the possibility of human freedom are, for Spinoza, not negated, but fully preserved, as it is this same power of the multitude that can best maintain us in our existence and enable the common development of our powers of understanding. All of this is to say that, far from being a political thinker whose insights are neatly amenable to anarchist or antinomian projects, Spinoza in fact looks much more like a classical republican, in the mold of a Machiavelli, an orientation developed in recent times most influentially by Philip Pettit.


On this score, Spinoza is a sober realist about our nature as finite thinking beings; he takes us for what we are in our concrete determination through the affects, and on this basis is made possible a genuine science of politics and freedom. To the poets, the romantics, and the satirists, he leaves them their utopian reveries and miserable dirges; let them bewail, or laugh at, or disdain, or curse human nature, he says. For Spinoza, nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, and we can be far more powerful, understanding, and joyful together than apart.


***

 

Spinoza and Racial Imaginaries Marie Wuth

Spinoza’s political treatises and his theory of affects and knowledge in the Ethics reveal the influential role of narratives in shaping communal life. Narratives, born of imagination, are crucial for orienting ourselves in the world and organizing coexistence – a fundamental political task. They structure time and space, and imbue meaning into past, present, and future, framing our experiences and shaping relationships with others, history, places, and institutions. Bringing Spinoza and Frantz Fanon into dialogue underscores the political potency of narratives, showcasing their power to include or exclude. I will focus on this power in relation to race. Fanon’s insights on racialization enhance our understanding of the significance of narratives in constructing and perpetuating oppressive societal structures. Spinoza and Fanon both illuminate the potential of narratives for both structural disempowerment and mutual, inclusive empowerment.


1. Spinoza on Imagination and Narratives

Narratives guide us through the world surrounding us. According to Spinoza in the Ethics, they are a bittersweet fruit of our imagination: the first of the three forms of knowledge that human beings can attain. In addition to our imagination, our understanding can take the form of reason and of intuition. Spinoza’s understanding of the imagination is based on the claim that the object of the human mind is the human body and that the human mind has an idea of the affections of the body. This form of bodily awareness is knowledge of the imagination.


In their book Collective Imaginings: Spinoza Past and Present, Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd aptly describe the imagination as "the coming together of mind and body in the most immediate way". Of the three kinds of knowledge, imagination is most intimately intertwined with affections and experience. In Part II, Proposition 40 of the Ethics, Spinoza explains that we gain knowledge of the first kind "from singular things which have been represented to us in a way that is confused and without order for the intellect" and "from signs, e.g., from the fact that, having heard or read certain things". The ideas of our imagination are images of our experiences and perceptions in past and present. They capture the ways in which our body responds and connects to the world around us. In other words, when we imagine, we are thinking how we feel and experience ourselves together with others.

The ideas of our imagination are images of our experiences and perceptions in past and present. They capture the ways in which our body responds and connects to the world around us.

But, as Spinoza stresses in Proposition 41, "to our imagination pertain all those ideas which are inadequate". The reason for this inadequacy is our affective relations and interactions. When we imagine, our ideas always involve more than the proper object of our mind, which is the human body. They involve who and what affects us but in a confused and indistinct way. In this regard, our imagination coincides with our affects – our desires, joys and sadness – which indicate an increase or decrease in our power. In other words, the imagination is awareness of our needs and desires. It is key to learning about our relations and our power, which is why it is an invaluable part of our coexistence despite its inadequacy.


Central to the imagination are narratives. Narratives are stories and illustrations of the past, depictions of what we believe to have taken place or remember to have experienced. Indeed, remembering, illustrating, and representing are based on experience and are all activities of the imagination for Spinoza. Narratives provide an image of the past, which can, given their imaginative roots, only be incomplete and inadequate. However, they are of vital importance for understanding ourselves, our experiences, our relations and our place within the world. Through narratives we can recollect the past and anticipate the future. The purpose of narratives, ultimately, is to guide by retelling illustrative deeds, by providing examples as encouragements or warnings; they shape the ways in which we navigate the world and the way we interact with others. Thus, narratives, as Michael Rosenthal has observed, are indispensable elements in the pursuit of both individual and collective desires and perseverance. In the TTP, Spinoza helps us understand this by demonstrating the persuasive force and socio-political impact of biblical narratives when he points to their influence on the way people organize their living together in communities. Narratives, Spinoza shows, are a means to create obedience and enforce laws.


In more general terms, narratives create affective attachments and shape our affective relations. Spinoza also portrays this in his retelling of the history of the Hebrew state in chapter 17 of the TTP. There, he elucidates that the Hebrews’ conviction of being chosen by God, the cornerstone of their national narrative, created a steadfast piety and love for God, their State and towards their fellow citizens. His discussion reveals how narratives appealing to a certain history can create affective bonds towards institutions, other beings and cultivate political-moral postures that matter in the present. Accordingly, as Susan James also aptly shows in her book Spinoza on Learning to Live Together, narratives may tell a story of the past, but these stories are central to how present politics is constructed.


Spinoza’s exploration also reveals the inherent ambiguity and ambivalence of narratives, contributing both to the stability and instability of a political body. Using the example of the Hebrew State, he illustrates how their national narrative created love and unity while also generating hatred toward outsiders and exclusionary boundaries. Narratives serve as imaginative devices shaping historical accounts, reflecting power dynamics, and supporting authority. They depict a version or account of history and the world surrounding us – but not necessarily the only possible version.


Narratives serve as imaginative devices shaping historical accounts, reflecting power dynamics, and supporting authority.

It is necessary then to distinguish between those narratives that are part and parcel of dominant political agendas, hegemonic narratives, and those counter-narratives that are excluded or ignored by the former. This distinction acknowledges that narratives are intrinsically contested, and that whenever a story is told other narratives are silenced and untold. This exclusionary practice can have detrimental consequences by displacing individuals and groups within narratives. Hegemonic narratives, functioning as national self-representations, strengthen civil order, but also suppress depictions that run counter to that worldview. Thus, just as narratives can help us to find and claim a place in the world, they can also decenter and oppress people and groups, displacing them in space and time. Racial imaginaries are one configuration of this kind of mechanism of displacement inherent to hegemonic narratives.


2. Racial imaginaries

Frantz Fanon’s writings elucidate how narratives can be a political tool for the decentering and marginalization of groups. Narratives can become the locus of suppression and oppression through memories and stories as well as retellings and reconfigurations of the past which impact the present and future. According to Fanon, the process of racialization – as a historical, epistemological and social process by which races are constructed – is supported and closely associated with a collective racial imaginary, which is shared by all subjects of a community in the aftermath of colonialism.


With Fanon, we can understand the racial imaginary as the imprint of the colonial system onto the imagination or a specific colonial configuration of the imagination. Although differing in their conceptualizations of imagination, both Spinoza and Fanon invoke it as a foundational reference or form of knowledge. They utilize the terms "imaginary" and "imagination" in contrast to "clarity", identifying them as indicators of the fictitious or inadequate. Crucially, for Spinoza and Fanon, imaginary ideas play a pivotal role in organizing and orienting bodies.


Returning to the potency of narratives, Fanon unveils the extent to which racial imaginaries encompass or exclude narratives – akin to the interplay between hegemonic and counter-narratives. Fanon reveals the enduring impact of coloniality on the racial imaginary, illustrating how a white historical narrative shapes experiences and existence by marginalizing non-white subjects in time and space. This temporal and spatial displacement, inherent in racial imaginaries, involves undermining prior histories, imposing or eradicating narratives, thereby stripping groups and cultures of their past.


Fanon reveals the enduring impact of coloniality on the racial imaginary, illustrating how a white historical narrative shapes experiences and existence by marginalizing non-white subjects in time and space.

According to Fanon, the dominant racial imaginary, rooted in anti-Black racism and exclusive to white culture and history, facilitates the construction, rationalization, and naturalization of race. This imaginary not only precludes the possibility of a Black narrative but also fractures the frame of reference for non-white subjects. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon describes how the colonized peoples’ customs and the agencies to which they refer "were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own". He states that the moment he met the white man’s gaze, his corporeality was attacked, his frame of reference split and he became aware of his blackness, of his Black body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world that negates his existence. The bodily transformation Fanon experiences is inherently contradictory. On the one hand, there is no possibility of locating his own body in the spatial and temporal white world surrounding him. On the other hand, he feels the burden of his body, how it is occupying space and time. This transformation and fragmentation through the white gaze is an enduring effect, which continues to affect the thinking body by structuring past and present, here and there. The colonial duration Fanon describes weighs heavily on his body as white narratives of race, a violent future and past are imposed on him.


Fanon’s text manifests how bodies remember and feel histories, how narratives circulate on the surface of bodies, pass through skin and shape an individual’s affective disposition, that is the way a body can be affected and affect others. As Fanon describes, the persisting moment of fragmentation prevents the self from connecting to the body and to locate it in the present. He portrays a feeling of existing in a past that is not his own, but rather part of a white narrative and construction of a racialized world. Later in Black Skin, White Masks, he writes: "Too late. Everything had been predicted, discovered, proved, and exploited. My shaky hands grasped at nothing; the resources had been exhausted. Too late!".


3. Power and Politics of Narratives

Several consequences follow from Spinoza’s and Fanon’s description of the power and use of narratives in politics. Both show the political weight of narratives and that they are used as tools to organize coexistence and societal structures. Narratives serve as conduits for imaginative knowledge, molding experiences, relations, and interpersonal dynamics. Fanon and Spinoza, each in their own way, illustrate that narratives are far from innocent, objective, or neutral, but rather are inherently powerful. The proposed distinction between hegemonic and counter-narratives is useful for accentuating this reality, shedding light on the imaginative origins and political essence of narratives. The concept of counter-narratives is especially important when we consider the link between political change and narratives and ask how far narratives may not only support existing structures but can also be a means for freedom and emancipatory political change.


The power of counter-narratives resides in their possibility to navigate bodies differently through space and time and to challenge predominant hegemonic narratives.

For example, we may consider, with reference to Fanon, Black narratives as counter-narratives to hegemonic white narratives in colonial and post-colonial societies. The power of counter-narratives resides in their possibility to navigate bodies differently through space and time and to challenge predominant hegemonic narratives: narratives cannot only be a means for structural disempowerment and one-sided empowerment but can, as an aesthetic and imaginary tool, help to change relations and structures by illustrating different pasts and worlds otherwise. This is not to say that we may change oppressive and dangerous political systems simply by telling stories. But narratives, specifically counter-narratives, can help us to understand societal tilts, encourage questions and they can help to reclaim agency.


This suggestion is precarious, particularly within a Spinozist framework, as the longing for political change connected to counter-narratives raises the need for stability: one function of the State. Nevertheless, every hegemonic order is susceptible to being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices which attempt to disarticulate it. Moreover, not every challenge presents a destructive intervention or decomposing event but might be part of a regime’s strategy to remain and flourish in power. Indeed, counter-narratives can also be a remedy against the degenerative tendencies of the political regimes Spinoza is concerned about. Today, the most pressing challenges of political communities are embedded in racial imaginaries and entangled in ongoing coloniality. Reading Fanon together with Spinoza, who helps us understand the power of narratives and the imagination in politics, might help us find narratives that illustrate how we can live together in mutual empowerment instead of structural disempowerment.


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Spinoza and War Jack Stetter

Spinoza avoided discussing current events. When we recognize the nature of those events, his cautious approach makes sense. Spinoza’s life was shaped by conflict, hostility, and war. The Netherlands was a fledgling republic at the time of Spinoza’s birth in Amsterdam in 1632; Dutch independence from the Spanish crown was the bitterly contested outcome of the Dutch-Spanish Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and the wider Thirty Years War (1618-1648). At the other end of his life, Spinoza was thirty-nine years old when in May of 1672 the Dutch Republic was beset by hostile powers on land (principally, France) and sea (the United Kingdom). 1672 became the "Rampjaar" or "disaster year". The De Witt brothers, champions of the Dutch States Party (liberal Dutch republicans opposed to the dynastic politics of the Princes of Orange), were massacred by a vengeful mob in streets not far from Spinoza’s home; one of Spinoza’s first biographers anecdotally recounts how Spinoza had to be physically restrained by his landlord from confronting the crowd with a placard reading: "Ultimi barbarorum" – "last of the barbarians").


Under De Witt governance, Dutch trade and science leaped ahead; the sudden and violent collapse of this First Stadtholderless Period (1650-1672) marked the end of a brief interlude in what was otherwise a torrential period of armed conflict and destruction. After 1672, Spinoza’s Holland reverted to princely power buttressed by religious orthodoxy; presciently, Spinoza had theorized the dangers of such a theological-political configuration in his 1670 masterwork, the Theologico-Political Treatise. What little hope there was for an enlightened and sage life was threatened on all sides.


While Spinoza only once evokes the warfare that plagued his native Holland (and only in his private correspondence), there are ample explicit discussions of conflict, hostility, and war in his published works. Nonetheless, these elements of Spinoza’s political philosophy have not received sufficient attention. Partly this may be because we have become accustomed to think of Spinoza’s political leanings as radically progressive, if not utopian. However, thinking about Spinoza’s approach to the problem of war and the State’s prerogative to wage war is important. For one thing, if we want to see how Spinoza takes his political philosophy to the international level, we need to understand what he makes of war. In fact, the problem of war also concerns Spinoza’s general conception of the State.

If we want to see how Spinoza takes his political philosophy to the international level, we need to understand what he makes of war.

Spinoza thinks that the State, the sovereign political unit, is an instrument for collective, mutually beneficial action and peaceful coexistence. Likewise, reason commands us as individuals to pursue peace and forge relations of friendship; in part, reason is simply recognizing and promoting the conditions for a life where reason itself can take root and we can flourish under our best aspect. In this way, States are not contingent productions of human history. Their genesis is a result of the way we spontaneously and necessarily come together to form social bonds. Early modern philosophers introduced the thought experiment of the social contract to account for the way that individuals come together to form mutually beneficial bonds despite the sacrifice of freedoms this involves. While in the earlier Theologico-Political Treatise Spinoza makes use of the trope, in Spinoza’s final political work, the Political Treatise (1677), Spinoza goes without talk of the social contract altogether. While reason recognizes the value of the State, and while it posits that the legislative power is binding in its demands, the State comes into being as a product of the free play of social passions, and not because of some non-coercive, consensual contract among rational individuals.


Nonetheless, State competition and conflict are, Spinoza sees, necessary features of international relations. More fundamentally still, the war powers of the State belong to the essential nature of the State. The political unit is only sovereign to the extent that it has such powers. This looks like a catch-22: the State is both a key instrument in the construction of peace and an impediment to achieving lasting peace.


Why should Spinoza think that the war powers of the State belong to its essential nature? Spinoza’s thinking here consists in an application of his theory of natural right. On Spinoza’s theory of natural right, power and right are coextensive, and thus, by nature, all things have as much right as they have power. The State’s power is a case in point. Whatever the State has the power to do, it has the right to do, including to wage war; indeed, for it to be a sovereign power means that it has retained that power and right to wage war as it sees fit.


This is not to say that Spinoza does not recognize the dangers of a warmongering polity. On the contrary: while all States aspire to defend themselves against hostile belligerent powers, Spinoza frequently observes with a touch of irony how many States sow their own ruin in looking to protect themselves from external threats by means of militarization. The latter worry animates numerous passages of Spinoza’s political works, where the focus is indeed often less on the perils of warfare as such and more on how poor oversight of the State’s war powers can lead to the State’s undoing. Spinoza shows that this is particularly the case with monarchies, as their power for war is prone to becoming a socially and politically destabilizing force and contributing to their descent into tyranny.


Notwithstanding Spinoza’s cautionary tales, the fact remains that, in Spinoza’s theory, war powers constitute a hallmark expression of State power. In Chapter 3, section 13 of the Political Treatise, Spinoza adduces a further consideration here in support of his view, namely that since States (or "commonwealths") are by nature enemies, a sovereign power always has "the rights of war":


By nature two commonwealths are enemies. For in the state of nature men are enemies. So those who retain the right of nature outside a commonwealth remain enemies. So if one commonwealth wants to make war on another, and will stop at nothing to bring it under its control, it has the right to try this. To wage war it’s enough for it to have the will to wage war. But it can’t settle anything about peace unless the other commonwealth voluntarily acquiesces. From this it follows that the rights of war belong to each commonwealth, whereas the rights of peace belong, not to one commonwealth, but to at least two commonwealths, which for that reason are called allies.


International relations are said to be analogous to the relations between human individuals in the state of nature, and thus characterized in terms of hostility. However, Spinoza thinks that human individuals in the pre-political state of nature can (and, in fact, must) assemble and unite their forces to bring each other mutual aid and secure their peace and well-being. It is this very process of unification that generates the political State in the first place. Why then wouldn’t States assemble into peaceful unities with one another like human individuals, but instead retain their right of war? This might seem unprincipled, but the elements of an answer are at hand. Human individuals are susceptible to limitations on power that require them to bind forces, while States are not, and thus States can maintain a level of autonomy which human individuals cannot. This bifurcation gives rise to the twist in the human–State analogy argument above: States are hostile to one another like human individuals in the pre-political state of nature, yet human individuals can successfully emerge out of the pre-political state of nature while States paradoxically cannot.

Human individuals are susceptible to limitations on power that require them to bind forces, while States are not, and thus States can maintain a level of autonomy which human individuals cannot.

The twists and bifurcations in Spinoza’s reasoning testify to the ways that Spinoza’s political philosophy is burdened by war. Spinoza wants to have it both ways. He wants to secure a realism about war without abandoning his view that there is an ultimate aspirational good, human flourishing, and that we should look to this summum bonum to rationally judge the value of the State and political life. Neither strand of his thought fully takes the upper hand, but it is the former strand, I suspect, that might surprise us today. Spinoza’s realism further sustains the civic republican conception of martial virtue in his political thought, where the model States designed in the Political Treatise are designed in part with an eye to success at war. They will fight well, they will fight hard, and their victory will stand for their virtue; indeed, if all States must fight, then the best States should fight the best.


When it comes to war, Spinoza has not had the same level of impact as other early modern thinkers, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Kant. Yet Spinoza’s views deserve revisiting. Far from having resolved the underlying puzzles of those views here, at least I think it might be clear that Spinoza’s recognition of the unpleasant realities of war should concern us in view of our own current events.


***


Dan Taylor is Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University. His research focuses on political theory and British politics. His books include Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), and Island Story: Journeys Through Unfamiliar Britain (shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2017).


Gil Morejón is a philosopher and historian of ideas who earned his PhD from DePaul University in 2019. He is the author of The Unconscious of Thought in Leibniz, Spinoza, and Hume (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), and has translated several books on Spinoza. He is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grinnell College. 


Marie Wuth is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on early modern philosophy, feminist philosophy, political and social philosophy. She wrote a PhD thesis on Spinoza, agency and the question of the political and is currently working on the relation between nature and politics in State theories.


Jack Stetter (Ph.D. Université Paris 8) teaches philosophy at Loyola University New Orleans. During the upcoming academic year, he will be a Solmsen Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He helps run the research seminar: Spinoza à Paris 8.

 

Forum edited by Dan Taylor and Gil Morejón.

 

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