Naturalism is not Materialism: Spinoza, New Materialism and the Left

Kimberly DeFazio



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Theories of being—whether the ontology of Aristotle, Descartes, Deleuze or Lukács—are always theories of social life and its material relations. Which is to say they are historical and reflect existing social arrangements, even when they deny that "being is a historical process" (Lukács, "Being and Consciousness"). In the contemporary ontological turn of which new materialism is a dominant tendency, Spinoza is deployed to invert the social and the ontological, making being itself the basis of social life. For new materialists, humans are, in their most fundamental sense, "matter," like everything else. New materialism, I argue, de-materializes the social and, through the naturalism of an early modern bourgeois thinker, places the contradictions of late capitalism in a metaphysical beyond. Its beyond, however, is the logic of exchange.

According to new materialists, ontological questions of matter and materiality were largely ignored in the textualist and culturalist frameworks dominating cultural theory of the last decades of the 20th century, the (humanist) consequence of which has been the privileging of human consciousness and meaning over nonhuman life and matter, leading to the destruction of nature we now confront. What makes Spinoza important for new materialists—who distinguish their theorization of matter not only from cultural and linguistic materialisms but the mechanical materialism of Descartes and the historical materialism of Marx—is Spinoza's substance ("God or Nature") and its posthumanist potential. Deeply influenced by Deleuze's reading, Spinoza is seen as advancing a post-dualist, post-anthropocentric way of grasping what Jane Bennett calls the "faith that everything is made of the same substance" (Vibrant Matter x) and the "lively immanence of matter" (Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, New Materialisms 9)

Central here is Spinoza's monism and his univocality. "By God," Spinoza writes, "I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e., a substance consisting of an infinity attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence" (Ethics, Part 1, Def. 6). As expressions of self-causing substance, moreover, all that exists possesses the power to persist in its existence (conatus); "so they are all equal in this regard" (Preface to Part 4). Following other neo-Spinozians, like Antonio Negri, who foregrounds the "productive force" of "being" itself (Savage Anomaly 217) and the constitutive tendency of being to produce the "common" (Hardt and Negri, Empire 179-188), assigning to Being the productive power of labor, Bennett draws on Spinoza to represent human and nonhuman matter as "conative bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies" (x). Ontology here suspends the class relations that shape human bodies and their relation to each other and nature; in an ethical gesture it endows nature with social properties while rendering the social "after nature" (Braidotti and Dolphijn, Philosophy After Nature).

New materialists propose Spinozian ontology as a means of responding to contemporary crises of climate change, deepening inequality, epidemics, and eroding democratic institutions, which are viewed as exposing human "hubris"; as defying the lingering Cartesianism that assumes mind can be used to "master" the material world; and above all as signs that what is needed now is attention to the ontology of the webs of connections in which human and nonhuman life are embedded and the "vulnerability" that necessarily derives (it is argued) from the inherent "contingency" and "unpredictability" of all existence.

But the escalating crises of the 21st century are predictable effects of the contradictions of capitalist social relations of production—the necessary outcomes, not of "human-centered" thinking but a society materially organized around profit not social need. Nor is it a coincidence that new materialism regularly deploys the most cherished tropes of the linguistic and cultural turns—"ambiguity," "contingency" and the "excessiveness" of matter beyond conceptual understanding. These were the tropes by which bourgeois theory suspended the critique of capitalism in the period of neoliberalism and normalized the precarity of daily life under deepening relations of exploitation at the point of production. Their role is to displace the materialist analytics through which capitalism is understood as a social totality in which "unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers" (Marx, Capital, 927).

The real value of new materialist interpretations, in other words, is their ability to translate into a metaphysical realm the class contradictions that cannot be materially resolved without eradicating private property. On the basis of her reading of human and non-human assemblages, Bennett, for instance, explains the failure of the electricity grid in the US and Canada in 2003 as an effect of unruly matter (Vibrant Matter 20-38). This takes the devastating cost of privatization of public utilities driven by capitalism off the hook, not by ignoring it but situating it in an irreducible web of causes ("actants"). More recently, Rosi Braidotti deploys Spinoza's conatus to insist that what the COVID-19 pandemic calls for is "posthuman caring" and "epistemological humility" ("'We' Are In This Together"), casting as "arrogant the urgently needed analysis of the root causes of the pandemic in the social relations of production. New materialists challenge the effects of capitalism but dismantle the revolutionary theory needed to transform it.

New materialist interpretations, however, are an extension of the Western Marxist and New Left readers of Spinoza. In the narratives of thinkers like Althusser, Negri, Warren Montag, and Macherey, Spinoza is championed as "introducing an unprecedented theoretical revolution in the history of philosophy" (Althusser, Reading Capital 250) and as theorizing a radical "immanence" that transcends his bourgeois contemporaries (Negri, Savage Anomaly). Left writers deployed his writings to revise historical materialism, by, for instance, jettisoning dialectics, dismantling causal determination and declaring the labor theory of value, among other foundational Marxist concepts, dead. They were even explicit in their motivation. "No doubt [Spinoza's] strategy" of undermining theology within the terms of theology, Althusser writes, "comforted me in my personal philosophical and political strategy: to take over the [French Communist] Party from inside its own positions" ("The Only Materialist Tradition, Part I: Spinoza" 10).

Against the new materialist and New Left interpretations of Spinoza, I argue that Spinoza—for whom all being is an immanent (not transcendent) manifestation of a single substance—articulates one of the most advanced metaphysics of liberal capitalism: one that, in a highly abstract and geometrically precise language, affirms ontological equality (what has today come to be called a "flat ontology"—Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy 51) within profoundly unequal economic relations. It is, in other words, a metaphysics of the market. The world of matter emerges in the Ethics as a world of "singular things" endowed by a self-causing substance with an immanent principle of vitality—the translation of exchange value into metaphysical discourse—while simultaneously subject to empirical causal networks, which are themselves mediations of self-causing metaphysical substance, not social and historical relations. Spinoza of course has much to say about the social relations of his day, calling for a democratic State that would protect and foster bourgeois economic, political, religious, and cultural freedoms—the issue here is how the foundation of the social is theorized: metaphysically.

At the philosophical core of dominant interpretations of Spinoza, it is necessary to emphasize, is the mistaking of his monism for materialism. But Spinoza's monism is not materialism but naturalism. Naturalism in the seventeenth century made the world a product, not of a transcendent being or a divine will but natural processes whose laws could be discovered through reason and in turn used to advance the forces of capitalist production. Naturalism is related therefore to the natural sciences and empiricism (connecting Spinoza to the bourgeois traditions of Descartes, Bacon, Hobbes and Locke). In these latter (mechanical) materialist discourses, "matter" is not just "inert" (the main complaint of new materialists), but cut off from production and its contradictions, a Feuerbachian "defect" Spinoza's naturalism shares with all other early materialisms in which "things [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice" (Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" 6).

The contribution of Spinoza—who as Mustafa Akyol argues, was inspired by the 12th century Arabic writer Ibn Tufayl who established the complementary of religion and reason ("The Muslims Who Inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe")—is to negate God by distributing god. Spinoza's naturalism secularizes being and endows God with all the properties of nature, and develops pathways for the empirical investigation of nature, bodies, and affects. New materialism spiritualizes being and endows matter with the properties of labor—productivity. Its ontology updates Spinozian naturalism, suspending historical relations and positing an immanent power of all matter, while (contrary to Spinoza) denying humans the ability to know matter through reason.

Like all other forms of knowledge, however, naturalism is made possible by the labor of the other—not only the technical instruments of science but the free time to conduct scientific and philosophic research are made possible by the division of labor. Naturalism, in other words, is a product of social labor that effaces its own historical conditions.

Materialism in its most complex form is Marx's historical materialism, the conditions of possibility of which are necessarily bound up with the advance of industrialization and the sharpening of the conflict of capital and labor. Materialism is not naturalism nor is it matterism, which places (textual, cultural, corporeal, physical….) matter beyond conceptual knowledge. Materialism is "determination by the mode of production" (Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious 45). In contrast to the dominant forms of "materialism," which support ruling class interests by spectralizing the concrete, materialism instead begins with material practices of humans under specific material relations, unearthing the relation of the concrete to the social totality and the dialectics of its transformation. It thereby "leads to the realisation that, in consequence of the so tremendously increased productive forces of the present time, even the last pretext has vanished…for a division of mankind into…exploiters and exploited" (Engels, "Karl Marx" 193).

The celebration of the immanent agency of all things to affect each other is not a profound ethical insight but a banality covering over the defeat of the working class movements under the immense pressure of the globalizing of wage labor and the left's fatalist accommodationism.


Originally translated into German and published as "Das Mysterium der »Agency«: Der Neue Materialismus liefert die passende Philosophie für eine zunehmend orientierungslose Linke" in M&R: Magazin Für Gegenkulture, Vol. 1, Verlag 8. Mai (December 2021).


Works Cited

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Braidotti, Rosi. "'We'" Are In This Together, But We Are Not One and the Same." Bioethical Inquiry, vol. 17, 2020, pp. 465–469.

---. and Rick Dolphijin eds. Philosophy After Nature. Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

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Lukács, Georg. "Being and Consciousness." Conversations with Lukács, edited by Theo Pink, MIT Press, 1975, pp. 13-40.

Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol 3. Penguin, 1993.

---. "Theses on Feuerbach." Marx and Engels Collected Works. Vol. 5, Progress, 1976, pp. 6-8.

Negri, Antonio. Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza's Metaphysics and Politics. Translated by Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

---. and Michael Hardt. Empire. Harvard Univ. Press, 2000.

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