Reviewed by Timothy Deane-Freeman
Dan Taylor’s Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom subtly achieves apparently contradictory ends. On the one hand, this elegant and restrained monograph situates Spinoza, resisting a long-standing temptation to ‘make [him] one of us’ (254), by transposing his rigorously particular concepts neatly onto contemporary problems and vocabularies. This tendency, which has plagued Spinoza almost since his works were first published, has birthed multiple images of the seventeenth century Dutch rationalist, ranging from the ‘radically individualistic’ (119) libertarian we encounter in the work of Rice or Den Uyl, through to the collectivist thinker of the ‘multitude’ whose genealogy we might trace through Marx to Althusser, Matheron and Negri. And while this constellation of simulacra has proven immensely productive, it has also often served to obscure the actual social and political problems to which Spinoza’s thought was addressed – a problem Taylor’s work seeks to rectify.
At the same time, Taylor manages to render Spinoza as relevant as ever, methodically explicating a thinker with profound insights into the fundamental inextricability of individual and collective power, or – what amounts to the same thing – freedom. ‘Nothing is more useful to man than man’ (134), Spinoza tells us, and Taylor works consistently and convincingly, through close exegesis of Spinoza’s texts, to argue that this amounts to a claim that the ethical is always political, with individual flourishing necessarily implicated in the flourishing of the collectives which serve as its condition. Taylor’s originality lies in his shrewd linkage of this idea to contemporary themes of populism, decolonisation, and the miasma of what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’ – of which more shortly.
For now, we might summarise Taylor’s thesis thus: for Spinoza, freedom is a capacity for self-determination which results from our use of reason to find the best ways of living in harmony with our own desires, as well as the desires of others; or as Taylor explains, deploying the terms of Spinoza’s immanent metaphysics:
‘Crucially, it’s by extending the range and frequency of our bodily interactions, affecting and being affected by others as much as possible, that our minds become capable of a great many more ideas […] In other words, the rare and difficult path to blessedness necessitates living, sharing and learning with others like us’ (135).
Taylor’s Spinoza then – like that of Gilles Deleuze – is the thinker of an ‘individuation’, which is always simultaneously collective and multiple, an idea we might apply at the metaphysical, noetic and ethico-political registers.
There are obstacles, however, to this rosy picture of individual and collective striving (conatus), and the early chapters of the book are dedicated to tracing a series of these impediments, both external and internal to Spinoza’s thought. In his first chapter, for instance, Taylor treats a problem identified by Spinoza himself – that of various configurations of both power and desire which inhibit this kind of collective and individual empowerment. Here, Taylor asks the question Deleuze and Guattari take from Wilhelm Reich – ‘why did the masses desire fascism?’ (38) – why, in other words, do individuals and collectives desire, elect, fight for and defend relations of power which actively work against their interests, powers and capacities for self-determination?
For Spinoza, perhaps the primary reason is an ignorance of ‘true causes’, which sees us, in his words, ‘vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear’ (21) in a superstitious individual psychology massively amenable to simple myths and their charismatic messengers. In this context, Taylor explains, ‘minds are dominated by inadequate and harmful beliefs that they are not the cause of, and which determine them to think and act in ways harmful to their own being’ (27). And while Taylor judiciously refrains from naming any current demagogues, the contemporary import of this claim is clear – ‘neoliberal’ politics works in just this way, atomising and isolating individuals through the production of such harmful beliefs, a situation which requires a fundamental reorientation of our desires and modes of thinking.
This is certainly Spinoza’s solution, and a common theme across the Ethics, The Political Treatise and The Theological-Political Treatise – the triumvirate basis for Taylor’s exegesis – is his conviction that we might deploy our reason in a study of true causes or ‘Nature’, forging more adequate ideas in a model commensurate with the activity of the philosopher or scientist. This process leads in turn to a better understanding of our own desires, which might be recombined in such a way as to render us ‘freer’ in relation to them – a model resonant with the subsequent claims of psychoanalysis. However this ‘solution’ of Spinoza’s opens up a set of problems internal to his thought – in particular, an ambivalent relationship with the ‘ordinary people’ (vulgus) who are incapable of such difficult self-knowledge, alongside a problematic concept of ‘nature’ inherited from the European colonial imaginary.
Indeed Taylor’s second chapter historicises this latter idea, situating what is perhaps Spinoza’s most infamous concept (‘God or Nature’) in the context of a Dutch colonial presence in Latin America with which Spinoza was ‘intimately connected’ (43) through his family’s importing business. In spite of this involvement, and of his persistent concern with questions of ‘freedom’ and of ‘servitude’, Taylor observes:
‘We find in Spinoza – like we do in Locke, or the American Constitution, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man […] a blindness to transatlantic slavery, and a concern with servitudo of an epistemic and less often political sort, of a European context’ (62).
Spinoza’s ‘nature’, in other words, is still at least implicitly one in which certain forms of slavery are ‘natural’. And while for Taylor this silence constitutes one of Spinoza’s own ‘inadequate ideas’, he suggests that it need not prove fatal to a kind of pluralistic cosmopolitanism drawing on his thought – provided we are careful not to replicate its Eurocentric blindness.
More problematic for Taylor, however, is Spinoza’s frequent identification of reason (and as such of freedom) with an enlightened ‘elite’, opposed to a common people (vulgus) unready or unable to practice its difficult and rarefied strictures. Taylor draws this problem out by tracing a subtle Spinozist distinction between philosophy and theology – the former the preserve of a virtuous, mature and emancipated elite, the latter a route to ‘obedience and piety’ (164) which is fit for the common people. This schism in Spinoza, observes Taylor, ‘is grounded on a political realism that philosophy for all isn’t a viable expectation’ (179), and a conviction that the myths of what we might now call ‘populism’ (what for Spinoza was prophetism) are perhaps sufficient to maintain the vulgus in a peaceful and virtuous complicity.
The problem of ‘elites’ is, of course, also a contemporary problem – not least for a present-day leftism with which they are occasionally and paradoxically conflated. And Taylor, in a move characteristic of his approach throughout the book, seeks to ‘resolve’ this fundamental disconnect between theology and philosophy in order to salvage Spinoza from an apparently reactionary position. Importantly, he does so not by shoehorning Spinoza himself, but by drawing on a more recent interlocutor, Antonio Gramsci, and his conviction that, in Taylor’s words, ‘a collective subjectivity, and with it a collective desire, can only be produced by reassembling the fragments of popular myths and forms of speech’. According to this nuanced premise – which sees hegemonic discourse itself reappropriated in the service of the ‘consciousness-raising’ projects of the disenfranchised – Taylor writes:
‘The question then becomes not merely understanding the prevailing collective imaginaries and harmful ideas that result in different kinds of social conflict and servitude, but thinking strategically and pragmatically about how such forms become hegemonic in the first place, and then, perhaps, how they might be dismantled and transformed’ (220).
In response, in other words, to Spinoza’s problematic bracketing of (elite) philosophy and (vulgar) theology, Taylor moves beyond his philosophy to evoke a more recent thinker, mapping out a way in which these epistemes might in fact be implicated in a tactical and materialist cross-pollination.
This ‘a-historical’ approach is elsewhere replicated in the inverse, with Taylor historicising apparently reactionary Spinozist ideas in such a way as reveals their latent emancipatory charge. In response, for instance, to the apparent disconnect between a Spinoza for whom ‘the more a man is led by reason […] the more steadfastly he will observe the laws of the commonwealth’ (228) and a ‘revolutionary’ Spinoza, such as we encounter in the work of Negri, Taylor turns to Spinoza’s own historical context for clarification. In late seventeenth century Holland, he reminds us, rebellion was reaction, and we must understand Spinoza’s frequent condemnations of sedition in the context of the Calvinist ‘revolutionaries’ of the Dutch Reformed Church, ‘who wished to suppress philosophy and free speech, and supported the monarchical House of Orange’ (229). Spinoza’s frequent condemnations of revolutionary activity, therefore, must be read in the context of a Dutch Republic which appeared as the very vehicle of a liberatory politics, a nuance lost in some subsequent readings.
What these textual manoeuvres share, as I have suggested, is a determination not to adapt Spinoza’s thought wholesale to ‘our’ political mores or prejudices. Rather, Taylor’s achievement is simultaneously more modest and more helpful – he identifies the strengths and limits of Spinoza’s philosophy when situated in contexts. I have used the plural here, given that Taylor simultaneously ‘situates’ Spinoza in both the seventeenth century Dutch Republic and a twenty-first century grappling with a very different set of problems.
What these contexts have in common, however, is a problematic schism between individual and collective action, the metaphysical, ethical and political reconciliation of which Taylor convincingly draws out as one of Spinoza’s central objectives. In this way, Taylor makes a convincing argument for Spinoza’s ongoing utility as a political philosopher adequate to the atomising tendencies of ‘capitalist realism’. As Taylor explains, bringing Spinoza into the so-called ‘Anthropocene’ age:
‘Whereas the radical individualist might respond to our coming ecological crisis by perhaps recycling a little more or buying more local produce, the collectivist recognises that effective political change must be more ambitious, in identifying and working with others of a common nature to figure out how we can transform the nature of work and the economy for all to live more sustainably and powerfully together, and then do everything feasible to achieve that. In that sense, something like a “reasonable republic” – a state in which the common good of one and all was the first premise of politics, and the multifaceted representation of the people in all aspects of political life its living constitution – remains eminently desirable, if not possible’ (243).
The question of this ‘possibility’ is left unresolved in Taylor’s book, a fact perhaps unsurprising given that it haunts each of us as our societies lurch toward catastrophe. Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom makes a compelling case for Spinoza’s continuing relevance at this dark juncture, and the fact that this relevance is enhanced, not diminished, by a return to the concrete (which is to say political) problems to which it was initially addressed. Given that these problems are those attendant to the emergence of colonisation, globalisation, capitalism and a clutch of necessarily attendant configurations of desire, they are still, indeed, ‘our problems’. The difference is that we are now running out of time to solve them.
2 July 2021