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Spinoza, Modernity, and Intellectual Freedom, part two.

In my previous blog post, I (following Negri) included Spinoza in an anti-modern genealogy which included Machiavelli and Marx. Rory Litwin considered my reading of Spinoza odd, especially since Spinoza (who I contrasted with Locke) “believed liberal democracy would be the best form of government”. Rory’s points are well taken, and I think my perspective on them deserves to be clarified here.

In the first place, I consider Spinoza’s “freedom” to be, paradoxically perhaps, deterministic. We are free to conform to God/nature’s place for us in nature itself. This is the freedom of someone thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean. They are indeed free to do whatever they choose, but there are only a limited number of actions (swimming, for example), they can take in order to survive. In the Ethics, Spinoza often uses the expression “power to act”, which sounds like freedom to decide or choose but, to use another analogy, I see this as the kind of power needed to lift a barbell. The more power you have, the higher you can lift the weight, but you are still weightlifting - you have increased your power to act, but the range of activities available is again limited.

Having said that, I admit that in the last couple of blog posts I have leaned very heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the idea of structure and determination, in order to contrast it with what I see as a concept of absolute freedom that comes out of liberal philosophy, and which stands as an unquestioned assumption in many current debates within librarianship, especially debates around intellectual freedom. Lenin referred to this kind of exaggeration as “bending the stick”, so I should probably clarify that “absolute determination” is just as unrealistic as “absolute freedom”; the relationship between structure and agency is more complex and complicated.

When it comes to the state, it is true that Spinoza argues that, because human beings are not free from passions, do not act according to reason and virtue, they come in conflict with each other, and therefore a state is necessary to keep the peace and ensure the rights of individuals:

In order, therefore, that men may be able to live harmoniously and be of assistance to one another, it is necessary for them to give up their natural right and to make oe aother confident they will do nothin which could harm others. […] [S]ociety can be maintained, provided it appropriates to itself the right everyone has of avenging himself, and of judging concering good and evil. (Ethics, p. 136).

This is very close Hobbes’ definition of the state, the sovereign power which takes upon itself the right to judge, condemn, and execute. But there is a very significant difference between Hobbes’ state and Spinoza’s.

Both Hobbes and Spinoza agree that reason and human nature require that individual human beings seek for their own advantage, and do everything they can to further their own interests and preserve their own wellbeing. (Spinoza is not immune from the liberal individualism of the time). However, for Hobbes this advantage leads to the “war of all against all” that requires the institution of the state in order to forcibly create a condition of peace in which individual self-interest can be pursued without concern for attack by fellow human beings. For Hobbes, the state of war follows directly from human being’s pursuit of self-interest.

For Spinoza, on the other hand, the pursuit of self-interest in accordance with reason and virtue does not lead to a state of war. It is human beings’ inability to live according to these principles (“virtue”) which requires the institution of a state. For Hobbes, sovereign power is indeed the best form of government. For Spinoza, on the other hand, the state is the best form of government unless we can live according to reason and virtue. It is the second best form of government; the best form of government is one denied by the theorists of liberal democracy (like Locke and Hobbes). Spinoza is explicit about this. The thing that most helps each individual in the pursuit of their self-interest is other people.

If, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all. (Ethics, p. 126).

Now, it could be argued that this comes closer to a Lockean conception of liberal democracy, except that in Locke, individualism remains sovereign, whereas in Spinoza, individualism is in a direct relationship with the common advantage. Indeed, this passage can be better summed up by the description in the Communist Manifesto of a communist society organized so that “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all”. How one feels about the possibility of achieving this kind of communal life is not an empirical one, it is taken in advance, and is determined by one’s view of the emotional, moral, and political capacities of human beings (in their own time, Locke, Hobbes, and Spinoza would have said that it depends on one’s view of human nature).

It is in this - communal if not communist - sense that Negri writes about Spinoza’s radical democracy, the radical democracy of the multitude in which “common advantage” is worked towards without individual identities being lost (as in the caricature of communist society). For Negri,

The passage to society is not represented by any concession of right as it is in seventeenth-century absolutist thought; rather it is presented in a leap forward that integrates being, from solitude to multitude, to sociability that, in itself and for itself puts an end to fear. (Negri, The Savage Anomaly, 204)

In this view, the multitude “does not tend to become a totality”, that is, a class, nation, people, or mass, but remains “a set of singularities, an open multiplicity” (Negri, Insurgencies, 14). It is this openness that places the constituent power (potentia) in conflict with the constituted power (potestas) of the state, and which generates the possibility of political action. The multitude constantly produces, creates, and thereby develops new social relationships, new ethical and social norms and rights. These in turn create a social power “through the logic of immediate, collective, and associative relations” which becomes an “ethics of collective passions, of the imagination and desire of the multitude” (Negri, Insurgencies, xv). It is this self-created constituent power which funs afoul of the constituted power of politics, religion, etc. In Spinoza’s radical conception of democracy, “power does not exist… except to the extent that it is a constituent power, completely and freely constituted by the power of the multitude” (Negri Insurgencies, xvi).

When Spinoza writes, against what we would now call a libertarian perspective, that

A man who is guided by reason is more free in a state, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself. (Spinoza, Ethics, p. 154).

he also undercuts the atomic, autonomous individualism of liberalism. The pure abstract individual liberty that underpins “intellectual freedom” does not - cannot - understand the idea of a “common decision”; the only poles of decision-making are the state and the individual, an oversimplified, reductionist binary.

Indeed, in class society, “common decision” is impossible; all decisions arise from the interplay of a limited individualism and the structures of class, nation, etc. In other words, all decisions are political and do not arise from what Spinoza calls reason. Human beings cannot be “guided by reason” so long as scarcity, want, competition remain the priorities of a world whose ruling-class profits on the isolation of all people from each other, profits from the prevention of the formation of the multitude Spinoza described, and from the radical - non-liberal - democracy constituted by its self-activity. Indeed, from this perspective “intellectual freedom” is a meaningless bromide which serves to obscure the structures of power and control that always-already determine our intellectual interests, curiosities, capacities, and desires. Only in the kind of society envisaged by Spinoza and Negri (and Marx) would “intellectual freedom” mean anything at all, but as Rory pointed out, Spinoza’s “freedom” may be different from what we might expect.


Antonio Negri, Insurgencies Constituent Power and the Modern State, 1999, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, 2000, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, 1996, London: Penguin Books.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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