“…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.