Why Do People Fight for Their Servitude as If It Were Their Salvation?

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Perhaps the most puzzling and and disconcerting question in political philosophy is the one that was posed by Spinoza in his Theological-Political Treatise: why do people fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation? In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari famously traced Spinoza’s question to Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. As they put it, “the astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike.”  

Spinoza refused to answer this question at the level of consciousness. Instead, he proposed that the “sad passions” which accompany servitude should be understood in terms of the material forces which diminish our power to act. It is only by entering into composition with other bodies, by adding our powers to theirs, that we can know the joy of acting. So when the corporeal constraints imposed by tyranny make us unable to act, we are susceptible to superstition, and so our impotence appears in our imaginations as the result of our own will.

Superstition is something like what Karl Marx will much later describe as ideology, and which Louis Althusser will famously merge with the argument of the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics, in which Spinoza wrote: “men believe that they are free, precisely because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; yet concerning the causes that have determined them to desire and will they do not think, not even dream about, because they are ignorant of them.”  

Ideology, then, is the field in which the material institutions and practices of the state are represented in an imaginary form. We are led to superstition when we believe the prophets, who insist that they have perceived the truth through revelation. It takes hold in our imaginations because our bodies are limited, and cannot form knowledge of nature without the practice of reason. Tyranny, which has an interest in keeping us ignorant, is the material relation which is represented in the imagination as superstition.

However, this ignorance cannot explain the existence of tyranny and servitude. What Deleuze and Guattari found so profound in Reich’s analysis was his refusal “to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explanation of fascism.” The masses were “not innocent dupes,” but rather, “under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.”

This long lineage of political thought speaks to a wholly contemporary problem, of distinguishing between collectivities which compose themselves into emancipatory mass movements, or mobs which serve to reinforce existing powers. This is the problem that Étienne Balibar, in his Masses, Classes, Ideas, has summed up in the phrase, “fear of the masses.” The phrase is meant in two senses: “It is the fear that the masses feel. But it is also the fear that the masses inspire in whoever is placed in the position of governing or acting politically, hence in the state as such.”

However, at the same time, Spinoza seems to present us with the possibility of a multitude which can govern itself. The ethical life is one which operates according to reason and overcomes the sad passions that prevent us from acting. Superstition is the barrier to this, and it is entirely social. All people have the capacity for reason, which they are prevented from exercising because tyranny keeps them in a state of ignorance. But there is no natural basis for the belief that only the select few are capable of governing. As Deleuze proposed in his 1968 study of Spinoza, living an ethical life requires extricating oneself “from chance encounters and the concatenation of sad passions, to organize good encounters,” which combine the relations that agree with one’s nature and form a “reasonable association,” in order to be “affected with joy.”

In Trump, we are confronted with a tyrant who seeks to actively maintain his own ignorance, not just that of the multitude. But criticizing Trump is too easy and frankly, self-congratulatory. And explaining Trump in terms of the ignorance of the American voter is an unsatisfactory explanation which remains purely at the level of the imagination.

In an earlier instance of an alarming electoral swing to the right, Stuart Hall presented an attempt at explaining the rise of Margaret Thatcher. As Hall said of the “authoritarian populism” of Thatcher in his foundational esay “The Great Moving Right Show”: “Its success and effectivity do not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk but in the way it addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions – and yet is able to represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them systematically into line with policies and class strategies of the right.”

Today we too often fail to follow this insight, and instead lapse into a moral critique based on a metaphysical theory of power. The prevailing liberal analysis of the changing political landscape refuses to confront the material basis of superstition. Instead, it operates entirely on the model of revelation. There are those of us to whom the truth has been revealed. We prophets are all either located in universities or have shows on MSNBC. And unlike the multitude of the Midwest, we are fit to govern. To appeal to this multitude with reason is not simply fruitless, it is morally wrong, because the multitude is racist and backwards.  

Perhaps Hall was able to reject such false explanations because his work in cultural studies, even before the groundbreaking turn that was the theory of authoritarian populism, was based on an appreciation of ordinary life – popular culture. He saw, as Spinoza did, that in the common notions of the multitude there is greater wisdom than in prophecy.  

Today’s left has failed in a way that is even more shameful. In the place of practicing politics, of attempting to find new compositions of the multitude, we have opted for the sad passions of social media. In other words, we have accepted the philosophy of Trump. Instead of politics, we engage in chatter. And it is a sad chatter, whose prevailing form is denunciation. The practice of denunciation debases the multitude. In the place of action, it accepts hatred, which merely externalizes the sadness of passivity; in the place of agency, it accepts fear, and pleads for security; in place of the collective democratic subject, it accepts the superstitious mob.

Superstitious mobs can only serve tyrants, as Spinoza knew well. We now face a new theocracy of our own making, one which through the chatter of social media decomposes our powers and makes politics impossible. It is incumbent upon us to make politics possible again, and this requires us to abandon the position of moral and political purity that can only rely on superstition.