Spinoza in Hamsterdam

I presented two papers last week on Spinoza, one in relation to pessimism, the other in relation to the war on drugs. Certainly not the common associations made, but both went down well. The abstracts are below, and I plan to put them back on the heat and extend them into something else at a later point. If you want to know more, email me.


1. The problem of mass desire and the multitude: a re-reading of Spinozan pessimism

London Conference in Critical Thought, RHUL, 6th June

Spinoza’s democratic political thought uniquely determined not how a state might rule its people, but rather how the rule – or will – of the people might be best served in a state. Yet although his endorsement of the multitude’s collective power remains consistent over his political writings, its overall objective shifts, as this paper analyses. In the Ethics, the democratic state must serve freedom, based on the common agreement of reasonable men (E4P18S); by the TTP, men’s natural right is desire alone, a more unpredictable force swayed by hope and fear, best served by a collective surrender of sovereignty to the democratic state (TTPxvi; also Letter 50). By the unfinished TP, the objective of the civic state is no longer the common advantage of free men, but civic security and stability. The will of the people becomes both the fundamental basis and gravest threat to a stable commonwealth.

Contemporary political theorists of power, particularly those within Post-Marxism, have increasingly turned to Spinoza to expound new, optimistic and revolutionary theorisations of constituent power and desire as defining political subjectivities (Negri, Balibar, Deleuze, and less explicitly Badiou). The post-Althusserian ‘Spinozan Turn’ reflects a crisis of Marxism and Anarchism to provide a new materialist democratic horizon for socialism, yet such a turn falters into ‘indignation’ and ‘discord’ if it cannot first theorise the role of the democratic state in constituting and managing mass desire, rather than its inverse. This paper uses Spinoza’s conception of the state to introduce an aporia for critical theory: the problem of shaping mass desire, and its relation to the state, either as counter-power or constituent power. This is pertinent in an era of destabilising politico-economic systems, ecological collapse, rising religious fundamentalisms, and a deterritorialised global political dissent which has yet to mount a sustained challenge to neoliberalism.

This inspired a number of questions about the danger of claiming Spinoza as a ‘utilitarian’ or pessimist, to which I stressed that there is no “correct” reading of Spinoza or any philosopher, but a usage that conforms to political and institutional norms and imperatives. And, as Balibar puts it, Spinoza is a ‘complex of contradictions’, whose unity fragments through close reading.


The paper bag compromise: applying Spinoza’s concept of the ‘state of nature’ to US drug legalisation in The Wire‘s Hamsterdam

Making a Difference: Graduate School Conference, University of Roehampton 7th June.

In season 3 of acclaimed TV crime drama The Wire, Major ‘Bunny’ Colvin experiments with a desperate solution to Baltimore’s irrepressible drug-related crime: total legalisation in an abandoned neighbourhood. Dealers and users are transported by police into the free zone of ‘Hamsterdam’, named after the Dutch city known for its liberal drug laws: as a result, major crimes decline whilst drugs users and sex-workers are able to access medical support. Drugs are consumed freely, so long as users adhere to Colvin’s social contract: no violence. Yet what also occurs is a grim vision of brutality and lawlessness, as children become ensnared in the disorder and misery of the ‘free zone’, which is ultimately shut down after violence and political scandal.

Amsterdam is also birth-place of Spinoza, 17th century philosopher and political theorist. Spinoza believed that what preceded civil society was a universal ‘state of nature’, without any moral laws, justice or rights. Like Spinoza, Colvin assumes that drug-users, like all living beings, are dominated by their addictive ‘passions’ to inevitably seek their own gain. Rather than vainly attempt to prevent this, the lesser of two evils is chosen, concealing their usage within the street-drinker’s geographical ‘paper bag’. Whilst The Wire depicts the failure of America’s ‘War on Drugs’, total legalisation without attending to its social causes also results in disaster. As Spinoza would explain, the ‘social contract’ can only manage, without improving, the collective lot of humanity. Only through understanding the social causes of our actions, and attempting to re-direct them by education, toleration and building peaceful communities, can societies move beyond hiding problems to overcoming them. Like Colvin’s Hamsterdam, this first requires facing our problems in the first place, however politically unpalatable.

I’ve been helping organising this conference for a while with a lovely hard-working group, and I hadn’t planned this paper, but seized the moment after a speaker dropped out in the morning. The paper and slides were produced in a couple of hours and it was a bit experimental, but the questions after on drugs legalisation and moral choice were great.


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