Rethinking Need & Affect in Revolutionary Politics

“…this production of new needs is the first historical act.”

-Marx (The Marx-Engels Reader, 156)

In this blog post, I want to engage the work of Arendt, Engels, and Laclau/Mouffe concerning how one might think need and affect in relation to revolutionary politics. I want to begin by stating a few intuitions, followed by a few questions. In turn, I would like to explore these questions in my blog post while also acknowledging that they well exceed anything beyond a provisional prodding as well as my typical area of research; for this reason, I hope that this post will allow for others to fill in gaps and offer insights that I have missed.

First, some intuitions. My first intuition is that the inclusion of the themes of affect and need in relation to politics in Arendt’s On Revolution is crucial to understanding socio-political problems, yet that her approach nevertheless does not ultimately prove satisfactory. My second intuition is that the movement between the denaturalization and renaturalization of need/affect in Engels’ “The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State” highlights a difficulty in thinking of need within a critical communist project. Finally, my third intuition is that while Lacalau/Mouffe do not significantly theorize need and affect in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, that nevertheless their conceptual toolkit might be revised to take the affective into account in regard to sociality and politics.

My general questions, probably too broad for a blog post, can be formulated as follows: Are not affects just as constitutive of the ontological antagonism that comprises the social as are practices, discursivity, and overdetermination? In other words, does not affectivity constitute another moment of the social alongside its discursive/symbolic articulation and the inscribed habitual actions that make it up? And, if so, how might a Laclau-Mouffian conception of hegemony and socialist strategy deal with the affective dimensions of sedimented capitalist practices, radically democratic revolution, and the formation of a new hegemonic ‘order’? Finally, can one think of a positive politicization of affects that eschews vanguardism and manipulation (and does not merely, as Spinoza notes, consist of a wretched fluctuation between hope and fear)?

As has been partially mentioned in class, need and affect play a central role in Arendt’s conceptualization of revolution. Early in On Revolution she notes concerning the French and American Revolutions, “Only where this pathos of novelty is present and where novelty is connected with the idea of freedom are we entitled to speak of revolution” (24). Pathos in other words constitutes one of Arendt’s conditions for identifying political revolutions. Even more, not only does pathos underlie all revolutions, but its control in many ways guides successful as opposed to failed revolutions: “…the passion of compassion has haunted and driven the best men of all revolutions, and the only revolution in which compassion played no role in the motivation of actors was the American Revolution” (61). Arendt continuously compares the compassion-become-hypocrite-hunt of la Terreur to the apparent lack of misery and dearth of inflamed affective relations of the American Revolution. The particularly strong affect of compassion, which unlike reason has no capacity for generalization (75) can devolve into a self-indulgent or enraged pity or, on the other hand, become a form of solidarity (78), as Amanda helpfully pointed out in class. This devolution into pity, which contains many resonances with the early sociological ‘crowd studies,’ forms a key for Arendt for grasping the dangerousness of resolving social questions through political revolution. In this sense, the combination of the intense affects and needs of les miserables in conjunction with explosive revolutionary pity, for Arendt, accounts for the French Revolution’s inability to establish lasting freedom.

One of the issues I have with this conception of affect and need consists in its heavy reliance on claims regarding naturalness. Poverty for Arendt is due to an inevitable scarcity in the world, and behind social revolutionary appearances, she claims, one finds a biological, not historical, reality (49). On the one hand, I appreciate Arendt’s acknowledgment of the facticity of needs and affects and their rootedness in embodiment. On the other hand, I am partial to what some philosophers of science have referred to as a ‘pessimistic meta-induction’ in regard to strong naturalist claims. That is, I am skeptical that transhistorical claims to X’s being natural can ever be true. Moreover, I do not think that poverty in the capitalist world system is inevitable or quasi-natural but socio-historically produced through practices of expropriation, accumulation, theft, generation of surplus-value, (neo)colonization, etc. So what I want to draw from Arendt’s text is a concern for need and affect in revolutionary politics that will nevertheless avoid their articulation in naturalistic terms.

One might look to Engels as a guide for the denaturalization of needs and affects. For example, “The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State” in many ways denaturalizes the 19th century conception of the bourgeois family. Engels criticizes 19th century marriage in Europe as a particular historical formation that subsumes other previous historical-material formations within it. Slavery, patriarchy, the amassing of wealth for purposes of inheritance by males, the sexual division of labor, etc. all constitute historical traces within the modern bourgeois family. Engels’ text (with its use of some of Marx’s notes) can be read as an historical-material denaturalization of the history of familial formations in order to project that when relations of private property have been abolished, “Then, no other motive remains [in marriage] than mutual affection” (The Marx-Engels Reader, 750). Here, in regard to the critique of bourgeois patriarchy in conjunction with the communist project, a political-economic path is suggested for the future, genuine possibility of mutual affection. Just as past economic formations arose in which needs/affects changed (e.g., individual sex love emerges as a new desire during the age of chivalry), so too will future political-economic changes allow for new affective relations.

However, as Jeta pointed out to me the other week, there exists an interesting and possibly conservative reinstatement of ‘the natural’ in this text. After describing the morphological familial transformations from the ‘barbaric stage’ to the ‘savage,’ ‘medieval,’ and ‘modern’ stages, Engels writes, “Since sex love is by its very nature exclusive—although this exclusiveness is fully realised today only in the woman—then marriage based on sex love is by its very nature monogamy” (The Marx-Engels Reader, 750). And later, “In nature, where chance also seems to reign, we have long ago demonstrated in each particular field the inherent necessity and regularity that asserts itself in this chance. What is true of nature holds good also for society” (ibid, 756). This nature-talk provokes a number of questions: Does Engels denaturalize a particular familial formation only to reinstate a new conception of naturalness? Can this reinstatement be attributed to classical Marxism in general, or can this be explained by Engels’ specific concerns to link communism with the natural sciences? Finally, can any denaturalization of need or affect be total?

One of the most striking elements of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy might be its near-total lack of a discussion of need and affect. On the one hand, this allows Laclau/Mouffe to avoid various biologisms and what they characterize as the predominant problem of the Second International: “It is well known how ‘necessity’ was understood by the Second International: as a natural necessity, founded on a combination of Marxism and Darwinism” (14). On the other hand, I am hesitant as to whether the social—conceived as primarily discursive with concomitant and fluctuating moments of practice and overdetermination—can account for the concrete and material needs/affects that occupy certain sites (e.g., favelas, sweatshops, city squares) in comparison to other places and bodies. In other words, can one really propose a socialist strategy that does not in some way take into account needs (e.g., the need for the conquest of bread, the need for shelter, the need for the maintenance of bodily integrity, the need for rest and play, etc.) or affects (e.g., the production of new desires for objects whose obsolescence has already been planned, the patience required during revolutionary setbacks, and so forth)? As I see it, and I may be mistaken, any socialist strategy should privilege the basic needs of the many over the desires of the few. And yet, it is precisely a theorization of need and desire that is lacking in Laclau/Mouffe’s text.

Can we conceive of a socialist (or anarcho-communist) revolutionary strategy that takes this last concern into account without naturalizing need and which phronetically, tactically deals with the desires of the few? Here I think Laclau-Mouffian concepts can be of service. For instance, individuals and groups are never inherently ‘needy’ or driven by certain passions, since there is a non-fixity to all antagonistic relations that prevents such forms of permanence. Social antagonisms consist of practices, symbolic domains, and discourses that can be recodified and dis- and rearticulated. Within such a contingent conception of the social, a new understanding of ‘necessity’ emerges which need not be conceived in the terms set forth by Ardent, Engels, or the Second International: “Necessity, therefore, exists not under the form of an underlying principle, of a ground, but as an effort of literalization which fixes the differences of a relational system. The necessity of the social is the necessity proper to purely relational identities—as in the linguistic principle of value—not natural ‘necessity’ or the necessity of an analytical judgment” (100). In other words, even if certain behavioral regularities come into view in the discursive ascription of various needs and affects to revolutionary praxis, these nevertheless occur within the contingency of the social in general, and do not betray natural necessities. Contingent moments of the social can change, for example with the construction of new nodal points, but need not, as if history itself were progressive or as if socialism were more a matter of prophecy than praxis. Aside from allowing one to begin to rethink need and affect, these Laclau-Mouffian theorizations also allow one to dispose of a notion of ‘inherent necessity’ as quoted above in Engels’ text.

This post is already probably too long, and I do not want to pretend to resolve these questions that are still inchoate. However, I hope that this reflection on need and affect in rethinking revolution can open some discussion in the coming weeks.

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4 Responses to Rethinking Need & Affect in Revolutionary Politics

  1. crupert says:

    i want to discuss this more, but i want to finish Hegemony… first.

  2. crupert says:


    I’m only dealing with an aspect of what you wrote here, namely the question of need/affect under the hegemonic model described in Laclau and Mouffe. I think I might be writing my paper in this class on something along these lines and if you share a similar interest would be have for a dialogue that would help me develop it. That being the case I’ll keep my comments short. Let me address your blog first and then present some of my own questions to you.

    I don’t think Laclau and Mouffe’s tool kit necessarily needs revising. I think that affect and need can be understood through the distinction (detailed on p. 105) of “element” and “moment.” I take them here to mean that articulation is comprised of the arrangement of elements to create a differential meaning or moment. The position of elements (thus the articulation) is arbitrary and no foundational reference point can be located in those elements. In some respect, elements are facts primary to social-construction, but they have no place in “the social” until they are articulated. Any affect then will exist primarily as an element (hunger for example), the meaning applied to the affect, and all meanings that are build after that, are not linked to that affect directly but to that first “moment” of it, (the first understanding of hunger). In this way affects approach us as any other sensation, as something external that stands in need of explaining. The confusion with affect is that it seems to be part of “the self” and confronts us as internal. Need on the other-hand requires meaning, and thus exists wholly in the articulated moment (the social). To demonstrate the difference let’s return to hunger, it is a fact that if you do not consume enough calories every day you will die, but this fact is meaningless until it is articulated. To say that you need to eat implies that you should go on living, and to imply that requires a further implication as to why you should go on living, etc., etc., etc. Instantly we are looking for a foundational cause and will go on chasing our tails, looking for an external justification to a wholly internal signification, eternally. To break the cycle we must look at need as arbitrarily constructed. In short then, need is articulated and thus social, while affect is observed and thus elemental.

    Understood this way, Laclau and Mouffe come off as existentialist compared to Marx and Engles or Arendt’s humanism. But I think this is exactly what they wish, in fact (the page escapes me) I think they assert it explicitly. The idea is not to render all human need arbitrary (which potentially gives the message that “whatever is, is right”), but to address human need directly and without fictions to justify particular positions (e.g. sedimented capitalism). If the bullet of your thought has missed its target, I don’t think it’s far off. There are some things here, regarding agency and subject positions that seem to conflict. First, I think we are justified in bringing in Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning” as a sort of precondition of the social. I mean simply that without the ability and inclination to construct meaning, there would be no subject positions. This fact however, seems to leave us at the precipice of an explanatory gap, as the “will to meaning” must take the form of an element (in Laclau and Mouffe’s sense), as it is primary to the social, meaning that there is no way for the social to explain the “will to meaning.” Interestingly this does root the social in the material, but in a way the leaves it’s relationship wholly mysterious. Second, and closer, I think to what you’re getting at, is there such a thing as an empty subject position (one without any agents occupying it) and if so does it have any “concrete effects?” What are the specific mechanics between agents, subject positions, and concrete effects? Relatedly, are differential effects concrete? I sensed some ambiguity from Laclau and Mouffe on this latter question. It seemed as if they wanted to say that just because something is ideological doesn’t mean it lacks concrete effects while also maintaining that ideology is not enough to produce concrete consequences. This isn’t strictly a contradiction, but it could stand further explanation.

    I hope this was helpful. Matt

  3. danielallenwood says:

    Hey Matt,

    Thank you for your response. I think you’ve hit on a number of key elements, and though I won’t be writing on this topic this semester, I’d love to discuss it. Though I’m not sure I can respond to each of your points fully, I want to highlight a few things.

    First, while the term ‘articulation’ would seem to be a specifically discursive function that forms elements into moments, the definition of articulation is actually much broader than this, so I’m not sure how to interpret it: “…we will call articulation any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. The structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice, we will call discourse” (91). What strikes me as intriguing here, and relevant to your response, is that articulation is not, by definition, only a linguistic form of meaning-bestowing. It is any practice that establishes a relation among elements. But what is a practice? And isn’t establishing any relation among elements through practices just as broad as naming the space in which habit and non-habitual causality meet up? Yet Laclau/Mouffe seem to use the term ‘articulation’ almost always in a discursive sense, and this meshes well with their notion of the social as primarily discursive.

    This leads to second issue that I might raise in regard to the text. Namely, doesn’t one need a hermeneutic framework or horizonal lens in order to make sense of certain socially articulated moments/totalities? The need for bodily nourishment, for example, might be socially articulated and need not be phrased with precisely those words, and is in this sense arbitrary; moreover, there were times in which human need did not exist (e.g., 5 billion years ago) or might not in the non-foreseeable future. But if we are concerned with contemporary politics, and our horizon is focused on living beings in 2014, then I’m not sure how one can argue that hunger or need are not in some significant sense mind-independent, even if one clarifies and specifies such elements in different frameworks over time. We might qualify the notion that ‘complex organic beings have needs’ by stating, ‘here-and-now, needs that are different, without such needs arising from essences, etc.’ I think the notions of elements/moments and fixity/non-fixity might be helpful here, but I’m not quite sure where to take them.



  4. crupert says:

    I see your point, and I think that any a prolonged discussion about the “needs” of the living is more than just called for; it is the very practice that establishes those needs. However, the second the move is made to settle the issue, is the second the whole thing fails. It is unarguable that people have needs, the only issue at point is that those needs are discursively constructed, thus never fixed: this seconds needs are not the needs of the next second, my “need” to consume 6300 calories of beef and cheese is just as valid as a 2000 calorie Mediterranean diet, if one is looking for “objective needs.” The point I think Laclau/Mouffe are making is that it is a step backwards to try and think in terms of “needs,” and that any attempt to do so will simply fall down the rabbit hole into wonderland. The goal of politics then is to sustain the discourse about “needs,” permanently. This is a model change for politics, which has, since the time of Cleisthenes, strove to design a self-righting buoyancy for the ship of state. The new idea is to abandon the very idea of settling the question of needs, to give the idea of “natural buoyancy” and instead follow the Wright Brothers idea, which is to assume permanent instability and maintain flight by constant course corrections by human intervention.

    That said it’s all to easy to be overwhelmed by the arbitrariness or meaninglessness or moral neutrality of this model. If all needs are discursive, then starving half-a-billion people seems defensible, and indeed, has been defended in that manner by everyone from Rev. Malthus to Ayn Rand to Dick Cheney. But this end of theory is the merely the beginning of practice. Similar to how the existentialist notion of a meaningless existence does not actually say there is no meaning, just that it is not “natural” to existence, Laclau/Mouffe’s idea of hegemony does not preclude the notion of “needs” but severs its connection to the natural world and thus it’s fixity. In this capacity, treating needs as “mind-independent” is interpretable as an attempt to find a foundation for a need, a reason why this need is real, and ultimately a fiction that will justify it. But in the chain of reasons that emerge a logic of its own develops and that is a human logic, a discursive logic, one that forebears any external justification for our decisions.

    I apologize for the brevity of this comment, and its failure to address all your points. It’s riveting though and very helpful in fleshing out Laclau/Mouffe’s concept for me.

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