TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On “Left Spinozism”

This text was presented in January at the 2010 Telos Conference, “From Lifeworld to Biopolitics: Empire in the Age of Obama.”

Historians of the future will no doubt claim that the “neo-liberal era,” the era of neo-Smithean celebrations of “market naturalism,” was essentially the era of the “intellectual retreat of the political left.”[1] Although the story of this retreat is far too complex and contradictory to explore here, clearly one of the main reasons for the intellectual emaciation of “left politics” after the 1970s was the political right’s ideological appropriation of much of the left’s critical philosophical discourse. Perhaps most significant in this regard was the right’s re-articulation of Hegelian historico-political philosophical narratives into a version of nineteenth-century Whig progressivism; where the telos of western culture and society was conceived as nothing less than a new and final stage of capitalism founded on a triad of consumer culture, information technology, and finance. On the left, the loss of faith in orthodox Hegelian accounts of politics—and the loss of faith in orthodox Marxism is of course a case in point here—was to give rise to a new set of philosophical sensibilities, perhaps the most influential of which was the heterodox Hegelianism of so-called post-structuralist modes of social and cultural critique.

However, for many committed to more traditional leftist political goals and aspirations post-structuralist Hegelianism was viewed as “radically insufficient”; to the extent that for them any new radical philosophical disposition must begin with a recognition that Hegelianism is now, in whatever form, little more than a means for a philosophical legitimation of the neo-liberal universe. According to Antonio Negri in particular, Hegelian philosophies of historical becoming now displayed their falsity in their justification of the politics of Thatcher-Reagan as “the end of history.” In Negri’s radically counter-Hegelian political philosophy, the Hegelian dialectic had now not only “stalled” but, by tarrying too long with the negative, in fact now offered little more than a “miserable transcription of exploitation constantly renewed, of unhappiness constantly imposed.”[2] As such, in his view what was needed in the context of a radically new systemic conjuncture was a more stridently ontology-centered form of radical philosophical discourse that strove for a positive affirmation of the revolutionary “truth of the left” and a Machiavellian appreciation of how to build—through “positive affects”—new political movements that could function as both global and globalizing expressions of the left’s sacred and hard-won philosophical truths. Thus began a search amongst some of the most politically engaged elements of the left’s intelligentsia for a new politics of affirmation, creativity and political reconstruction centered on philosophically grounded notions of passion and desire as the means of self and collective empowerment. Hegelian critique, it seems, had left the left waiting and wanting, and in the end all that it had delivered was, to borrow some recent notable rhetoric, “more of the same.” Now the left had to act from an alternative philosophical starting point in order to build viable political “collectivities” in the wake of the Badiouian revolutionary truth events of the twentieth century.

It was out of the crisis of Hegelianism that Spinoza emerged as a central philosophical figure in new left theoretical discourse, to the extent that he now appears in many ways to have replaced Hegel as the “master thinker” in a good deal contemporary critical-theoretical thought. On first impression it may seem odd that the post-60s European left found Spinoza’s philosophy so interesting and appealing as his was a philosophy whose naturalism and individualism had led many to associate him with early modern developments in philosophical liberalism.[3] Why, indeed, did the left turn to Spinoza in particular in order to find a new radical philosophical path beyond that mapped out by Hegelian dialectics and the negative labors of the concept? This question is, of course, easy to answer and has in part already been answered. What might be termed “the new Spinozism” was in many ways the result of a growing recognition that is was Spinoza who was the first modern philosopher to attempt to construct a radical materialist ethics and politics based upon the “affective dimensions” of human life. More specifically, we can now see that the left latched on to Spinoza because he was the first radical philosopher of affect who linked questions of radical political action to questions of how to empower bodies. As is well known, for Spinoza “affect” is simply “the affectations of body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained.”[4] Radical politics by Spinozist lights is thus in the first instance a politics of bodily empowerment and with Spinoza many on the left saw the possibility for a constructive politics of embodied action and positive affective engagement with other bodies in the name of radical political ideals. According to one recent commentator, Spinoza appealed as new critical-theoretical resource because he offered the left the possibility for a new politics of affirmation, passion and affective positivity grounded in an idea of life conceived as “vitality.”[5]

In this paper I will attempt to answer a number of questions related to the emergence of this new philosophical disposition. How should we assess the wider intellectual consequences of this new philosophical “development”? Is it a basis for a much needed reinvention of the philosophical discourse of the left? Or does it, in the end, represent a retrograde re-affirmation of an early modern scientism that displays deep metaphysical affinities with modern liberalism? Clearly these are very large questions and so in what follows I will try to give them some empirical focus by focusing on how “New Spinozist” modes of conceptuality can help us to make sense of a key political moment in the development of the contemporary neo-liberal universe: the birth of Reaganism.[6] I will show that what is most interesting and relevant about New Spinozist modes of theoretical critique is that it allows for a new appreciation of the ideological significance of the political leader in an age of mediated politics. Nowhere is this now more evident that with the rise of Obama—in some ways Reagan’s “left-political twin”—whose mediated affects have already made a significant political impact (although, unlike Reagan, they have yet to be “captured” and “solidified” into anything that might be termed an “ideological formation.” There is as yet no “Obamism”). However, I will suggest that in the last analysis it seems clear that the New Spinozism is itself radically insufficient and at best only supplements existing modes of theoretical critique and at worst can easily collapse in crude post-theoretical mode of inquiry that displays strong affinities with positivism.

The New Spinozism and the Politics of Affect

Spinoza’s central position in the history of European Enlightenment is now well documented.[7] However, in was not the rationalist so much as the “the radical anti-humanist Spinoza” that appealed to the new left. In fact, the New Spinozism can be traced back to the work Althusser, Balibar, and the now largely forgotten political philosopher Pierre Macherey; all of whom famously celebrated Spinoza for his anti-humanist materialism. This tradition has be recently augmented by the ideas of Negri and Delueze, from whom there has emerged an interest in Spinoza as a radical philosopher of affect who allows us to appreciate the philosophical importance of the way in which pre-individual bodily forces augment or diminish the subject’s capacity for action; a dimension of human life that many New Spinozists view as the “implicate order” of contemporary neo-liberalism.[8] It is this aspect of his philosophy that has appealed to a new generation of critical thinkers striving to articulate a form of social and political critique beyond the strictures of “bourgeois subjectivity.” Here, Spinoza is now widely now viewed as the basis for a new mode of critique of the liberal bourgeois “subject of interest”—with its computational maximisations of personal utility—and his thought typically viewed as a philosophical condition of possibility for the development of a relational conception of the embodied subject that is both materialist and inherently social. In contradistinction to bourgeois subjectivity, Spinoza’s subject is seen as active, power-enhancing and ontologically constructive, in that each individual is viewed a striving to empower itself by assembling itself to other subjects and things.[9] In this way Spinoza is seen as having effectively collapsed the old classical political distinction between “ethics” and “politics” by conceiving of embodied affect as “power” and as such he must be conceived as the first philosopher of what has come to be known, after Foucault, as biopower.

The point of the argument presented here, however, is not to provide a synopsis of the main themes and issues covered by the New Spinozism. Here, rather, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the New Spinozism: the foregrounding of the affective and affecting “mediated body of leader” as an ideologizing instrument in the age of mediated politics. For Massumi, one of the most currently influential of the New Spinozists, it is only bodies and their affects that are, in reality, politically significant today after the waning of belief. According to Massumi, a Spinozist appreciation of the affective significance of the mediated event of the embodied leader allows us to understand the nature of political power in contemporary mediated cultures. In his view, after the demise of the old ideologies all that remains for the left is a politics of affective bodily intensities owned and recognized rather than a politics of cognition, reflection or recognition. In his view, left politics today, if it is counter the reactionary affective politics of contemporary media transmission—what might be termed the “biopolitics of the right”—requires a new understanding of the body, affect and their relationship to ideology. According to him “[i]n North America at least, the far right is far more attuned to the imagistic potential of the postmodern body than the established left and has exploited this advantage for at least two decades. Philosophies of affect…may aid in founding counter tactics.”[10]

In more traditional critical theoretical accounts of the nature of contemporary mediated politics, electronic media are condemned for reducing politics to an adjunct of the culture industry: specifically to mass entertainment, the culture of celebrity and the advertisement form.[11] Here, it is recognized that the new “electronic aesthetization” of the domain of the political differs from its fascistic ancestor—famously theorized by Benjamin—in that contemporary electronic mediation of politics does not involve a founding of political mythologies as such, but rather only a profound commodification of parties and leaders as effectively the image of a political brand offered to political consumers in the political marketplace. Intimated early on by Schumpeter, the traditional left critique of aestheticized politics involves a critique of its manifest irrationalities and a theoretical exposure of the latent authoritarianism of the, now branded, “secular Charisma” of the political leader: a politics that reduces all serious political questions to managerial questions of trust or appeal (or to questions of lack of trust brought about by mediated scandals of various kinds[12]). In these accounts the alternative to a branded politics of “managerial-technocratic trust” is seen as some kind of direct democracy embedded in an enhanced and cognitively transparent public sphere.. Where the leader as an embodied actor did appear in these critical theoretical accounts, it was as the narcissist who acted out unconscious conflicts on the political stage in the form of political dramas. The archetypal political leader here was Nixon, the “secular charismatic” technocrat debilitated by an underlying malignant narcissism.[13]

Now, although these schemes possess a good deal of explanatory power in relation to a number of post-war US presidencies, they miss the importance of the role of affective dimension of the Reagan-Thatcher moment and, more generally, the significance of mediated leadership in the production of contemporary “ideological effects.” The leader’s role today is much than that of a “moralizing agent” or “devious Machiavellian” and it clear that the image of the leader and the leader’s mediated embodied performances play a centrally significant role in contemporary forms of political mobilization. What the leader says or the policies he/she actually enacts today, in fact, is often politically quite irrelevant in terms of the political attitudes and orientations of the polity: it is the way his/her body, speech and image interact to construct affectively significant, aesthetic, event that is the most important politically. Today, each appearance of the leader becomes an event pregnant with affective expectation and it is these expectations that mobilize political actors (not ideas and arguments per se). The polity expects to feel something from each leader-event and if the affective dimension is lacking then the political dimension itself does not emerge. In Massumi’s view, this shows that we must focus on Reagan as the archetypal political figure of the neo-liberal political universe—Nixon, Johnson, and even Carter represent the forms of leadership of political world long gone when politics was still tied up with ideology as traditionally conceived.

As a political leader Reagan does not fit easily into existing theoretical schemes. He was not a pragmatic technocrat neither was he a devious narcissist. In fact “personality” seems entirely irrelevant as a critical category in regard to his presidency. As Massumi points out, nobody was convinced by anything that he ever said, not even his supporters. His presidency was truly revolutionary in that it was entirely staged, affective and non-cognitive. It was the first politics that did not disguise its own status as embodied pretence and its own significance as a politics of feeling. More specifically, according to Masumi Reagan was the first contemporary leader who performed in order to present himself and the politics that he represented as a dramatic bodily affect-event: specifically as a mediated movement that captures our attention by what he terms “the jerk of the power mime”: the jerk that transmits affect effectively. Reaganism was thus in reality all about Reagan as embodied affective performance. The mass subscription to the ideology of markets and so on was premised upon a prior capture of Reagan as affect. Ideology is therefore no longer required to articulate itself as such but is rather mimed by men of power with a talent for self-affectation. The acting leader creates the political through a mimed performance, a performance of what Massumi terms “seeming being.” As such the leader becomes little more than a site of affect; a bio-mediated phenomenon, whose affectivity spills out, “bleeds,” beyond the body of the leader into the body politic as an affective intensity that it then captured by its mediated receivers. In this way the leader enters the bodies of other political subjects and his or her success depends on the ability of the leader to “resonate” with as many other bodies as possible. Of course Reagan’s “talent” as actor helped in this regard, but for Massumi his political career can be seen as a result of his failure as an actor. Political leadership and politics more generally becomes the compensation for the lack of success at acting and one of the most significant consequences of this was Reagan’s transformation of the political arena into a space where all political questions turned on the affective impact of the leader’s body.

Reagan, as we know, presented his entire personality as a new beginning. For Massumi this shows that Reagnism was not a belief-system as such but simply a feeling of incipience; the feeling that something—new—is about always about to happen. Reagan stood for the feeling of possibility. In this way “Reagan-as-affect” soothed the status anxieties of the middle classes in the US production of a confidence boosting sense of open personal horizons and American futurity. Without the “contagion of Reaganic affect” the sense of affective incipience, “glad morning,” that neo-liberalism is only now starting to lose would not have been possible.

Conclusion: Creativity vs. Critique

The focus on the leader in New Spinozist modes of social and cultural criticism is both important and timely. The figure of the leader had been lost in much contemporary critical discourses, with their tendency to view the leader as simply either an “effect” of wider social and cultural forces or a tabula rasa onto which the political masses project their unconscious longings. And it seems clear that today we are witnessing the emergence of a form of politics that does place the political leader in a central nodal position in a wider affective network. The inability of any leader to produce an affective sense of political “fellow feeling” in a wider political community of affect typically means political defeat for his party and followers. However, there seem to me to be a number of reasons to be suspicious of New Spinozist claims that their approach amounts to the beginnings of a new theoretical paradigm.[14]

Firstly, as the purpose of traditional forms of theoretical critique has been to expose the ideological nature of individualism and to unmask the primary reality of social relations, the New Spinozist focus on the individual leader can strike in many ways an anti or perhaps better post-theoretical move. Moreover, with its focus on the social and political significance of the empirical facticities of affect, that are typically measured by neurobiological and other bodily-focused means, the New Spinozism, also appears in many ways to be resolutely positivist. Is then the New Spinozism a form of “positivism in fancy dress? Might we have here little more than Humean affective naturalism wrapped up a radical philosophical tinsel paper, an aesthetic positivism whose positivism is disguised by a veneer of Romantic chic?

Even more important perhaps is the New Spinozists rejection of traditional notions of theoretical critique. Formerly, critical theory lived on a strict dialectical diet of “Enlightenment” that was widely conceived as the “negation of the negation” and the inarticulate hope of a utopian political promise. By these lights, the New Spinozism does not speak theoretically for and behalf of those “negated” by contemporary neo-liberalism in any way at all and clearly there is no obvious attempt in New Spinozist theoretical work to take a position outside of the neo-liberal universe of bio-political affect. In general, in the New Spinozism there is a tacit acceptance that we can no longer use theory as a means to theoretically critique the falsity of existing social reality—via an exposure of the suppressed political possibilities and latent emancipatory potentials—because in New Spinozist accounts there is simply no outside and beyond the contemporary social and cultural universe of affect to expose. Everything of political significance is already here: the revolutionary truth has already happened, the task now is the Leninst task of “what is affectively to be done” in order to preserve and evangelize it. Here, theory collapses into a means of facilitating a political movement, thought into Machiavellian strategizing, critique into the creative act of the construction of the movement. Thus the instrumentalization of thought in the New Spinozism is one of its more worrying dimensions, but so is the idea that the creation of the politically new is itself a form of political radicalism. Hegelian differentiation is now conceived as positive creation. The power of capital, which is nothing less than the power of the production of the multitude appropriated for private gain, the power of affective “worlding” itself, must be harnessed in the name of a radical political alternative. But how can we tell whether a “world” is politically progressive or not? What criteria can we deploy here? Might the left end up producing a “world” that is “inhabitable” and in this way repeat old political mistakes?

This takes us to a related concern to do with the politics of Spinozist vitalism itself. For many New Spinozists, an understanding of social and political possibility does not necessarily break affectively bound relations between people and things: critique only works at the level of concept what is needed is an intervention at the level of “life” (as this is the level at which capital now operates). Ontologically, according to the New Spinozists, we must begin with what was formerly viewed as the false—”life,” the performative, the virtual and the affective. But does this vitalism lean towards a naturalism that is in many ways “beyond the political” as traditionally conceived, a vitalism that allows us to shrug our shoulders at traditional forms of injustice as simply expressions of “life”? Furthermore, there is also the suspicion that the post-Hegelian left has used Spinozian vitalism to effectively theologize contemporary neo-liberalism: that now becomes a total quasi-omnipotent bio-political environment with no outside. In Massumi’s work, the affective dimensions of the leader become the equivalent of Spinoza’s God: his/her sacrificial “affective” blood nourishes new political realities and new psychic creations at the level of popular political culture. But the question of why the political philosophy of the left needs this kind of “theological turn” is left unaccounted for. However, can new world really be created by the affects of the multitude? How is this done? What “practice” can we appeal to here as a normative guide? The question of what lies “beyond” the neo-liberal is any many ways the most pressing political philosophical question of all and one never really articulated at the level of theory in New Spinozist discourse. There is simply a faith in the affective powers of multitude to engender what Hardt and Negri termed an “ontological transformation of the subject.”[15] The” beyond” of the neo-liberal world, for them, must be an ontological creation of the multitude, and in this way, the New Spinozism strives to take the left out of this world by acts of passion and creativity to rival those of the right.[16] But again, is ontological escapism a valid political response to the current crisis. Does this not immediately strike as a desperate measure?

Overall, it seems clear that the focus on the affective dimensions of human sociality and the foregrounding of the political significance of the political leader in New Spionzist forms of theoretical engagement with the neo-liberal are real intellectual innovations. However, this amounts to little more than supplement to existing modes of theoretical engagement and it is difficult to see how New Spinozist modes of conceptuality can be deployed in order to found a new critical theoretical tradition as some have claimed.


1. The emaciation of left-leaning political thought in face of the new neo-liberal doxa of rational, competitive, self-equilibrating individualism, and the ensuing “apolitical” situation that is still a noticeable feature of today’s political landscape, came as something of a surprise to those weaned on a diet of post-1968 modes of social and political critique; largely because from the early decades of the nineteenth century until the late 1960s, the ideas of the left had presented themselves as the inevitable political futurity of a western modernity that had defined itself in terms of the utopian promise of its political futures. In fact, throughout most of the last century, it had seemed that the left had managed to cement a new, internal, conceptual relation between modernity and a largely Marxian notion of “progressive politics.” Thus, in the middle decades of the last century, even conservative political figures claimed that “we’re all socialists now.” However, after the mid-1970s something rather remarkable happened. It became commonplace to assume that that the progressive ideals of the left not only no longer mattered, but were in point of intellectual fact something of a “philosophical absurdity.” Somehow, in the 1970s, all left-political futures became dystopian and immediate political realities, at best, pragmatically significant. As a consequence the left retreated into the conceptual gossamer of “the symbolic order” and, from the 1980s onwards, sniped from the sidelines at a resurgent capitalism that now defined itself through the optics of nineteenth-century liberalism.

2. Antonio Negri, “Spinoza: Five Reasons for his Contemporaneity,” in Timothy S. Murphy, ed. Subversive Spinoza (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004), p. 2.

3. Thus according to this popular doxa, Spinoza was very much a modern liberal thinker, albeit one whose liberalism is doused with an unhealthy dose of pantheism.

4. Murphy, Subversive Spinoza, p. 70.

5. Rosi Braidotti, “The Politics of Life as Bios/Zoe,” in Anneke Smelik and Nina Lykke, eds., Bit of Life: Feminism at the Intersections of Media, Bioscience and Technology (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2008), p. 182.

6. Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual (Durham NC: Duke UP, 2002).

7. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001).

8. See Patricia Clough, “The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies,” Theory, Culture and Society 25, no. 1 (2008): 1-22. In this way, the individual is conceived as composite of discrete elements that is both affected by and affecting of a larger causal order.

9. See Warren Montag, “Imitating the Affects of the Beast: Interest and Inhumanity in Spinoza” in Differences 20, nos. 2-3 (2009): 54-71. Relatedly, Spinoza philosophically pre-eminence in the context of the contemporary political situation is due to the way he gave centrality to conatus the human striving to empower itself, a striving that for Spinoza was co-extensive with the power of God.

10. Massumi, Parables of the Virtual, p. 42.

11. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (London: Methuen, 1985); Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression (London: Sage, 1991).

12. John B. Thompson, Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2000).

13. Vamik D. Volkan, et al., Richard Nixon: A Psychobiography (New York: Columbia UP, 1997).

14. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000), p. 21.

15. Ibid., p. 384.

16. Here the boundary between the human, the artificial and technological no longer mean anything. Technologies are as much part of space of political action as any human individual or group. This requires a move beyond traditional theory in another way because it demands a rejection of the old humanist idea of technology as the expression of an inhuman instrumental rationality. The problem with orthodox modes of critical theory is that they are still wedded to old “Aristotelian” understandings of technology where technology is simply a means to an end.

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